Working Lives

Is work fun? The Builder’s story. (1958-2000)

Location: Norfolk/Suffolk borders

Mervyn talks about growing up in Suffolk, his first job in funerals and furniture, and how his building and carpentry skills allowed him to become self-employed.

Early days and my first job

I was born in 1942 in Rose Cottage in Yoxford, Suffolk. The Jubilee Seat is opposite, where we used to play as kids. At the age of five I went to Yoxford School, a four-roomed school in a Victorian building, with partitions dividing the rooms. There were between 30 and 35 children to each class. Unfortunately I failed the 11+ though I was told I should have passed it. I think that was because I was a boy and I didn’t want to go to Grammar School.

In 1958, at the age of 15, I left school and could have got any number of jobs. I wanted to go into the building trade but whatever job I took I had to travel by bike. I got a job at Ashford’s, a furniture shop in Saxmundham. They’re gone now, like most of them. I was told that I would have to be hands on and do everything, and I did. I went as a shop assistant and, it sounds strange now, to help with funerals, polishing coffins. They had upholstery workshops, carpentry workshops and did furniture repairs. They said if I didn’t like that sort of work I could polish and clean the hearse and go to funerals, so that’s what I did. I had to wear tails, black striped trousers and black shoes. I didn’t really like it, particularly when I was asked to pick up bodies from the morgue. I hated that. They had a big black hearse and cars and I’d get half a crown extra for polishing the hearse or a funeral car. I was only earning one pound and ten shillings a week so that was worth doing. In the workshop I made furniture and did upholstery. They made really good quality furniture and they also did a lot of repairs on antiques.

At the time the owner of Ashford’s, lived in Southwold and came to work in a big old Rover 90s, out of my league! I used to bike five miles to Saxmundham and five miles back, every day for five years. Saxmundham is near Aldeburgh, quite an expensive town. We worked there for someone who owned a cigarette company called State Express. I’d never seen a house like it, pillars and posts. You think, ‘How can somebody afford this?’ There’s me and my bicycle and my bag of tools . Ashford’s catered for that type of people, rather than your ordinary, everyday people. They sold china, glass, secondhand furniture, cloth, materials and linos. There was a big passageway with rolls of old lino standing up on end down one side. I used to help unroll it. You’d cut four yards off, roll it up and deliver it the next day.

We had to clock in and clock out and, if you didn’t, you got called before the boss and asked why you hadn’t clocked in. ‘If you’re not going to clock in, you’re not going to get paid.’ Throughout my working life I’ve been very strict about being on time. I used to leave for work at 7.35 in the morning and an old boy, Tooffy, his name was, because he had great big buck teeth, used to drive the delivery van for Horners in Yoxford. He would say to Mother ‘I know what the time is ‘cos that boy went past, and he allus goes past exactly 7.35 in the mornin’.’ I finished at five o’clock but there was always a lot of overtime and I hated that, being a boy, at 16, you don’t want to be at work. I wanted to be out with my mates. I worked with a chap in his fifties who’d got a family, and he’d hang a job out as long as he could. It would get to five, half past five, we’d be ten miles out and I’d still got to bike home. I’d say ‘Ernie, I’m going out tonight. We’ve got to get home’ and he’d say, ‘Don’t worry boy, that’s all overtime’.I used to hate that.

He was a bit of a lad. He used to go into people’s houses, we went to a lot of posh houses, laying carpets, and he liked his whisky. He’d get the bottle of whisky out of the cupboard, the house would be empty, and he put his thumb on the bottle at a certain mark, saying ‘that’s up there’, pour himself a glass, then go to the tap, fill it back up to the mark, put it back in the cupboard and drink the whisky. I’ve seen him do that quite a few times. I didn’t drink it. I’ve never been a great alcohol person. When I was 18 I bought my first beer in The Griffin in Yoxford. I think it was about 11½d for a bottle of Bullards brown ale. I was earning thirty shillings a week and had to give my mother a pound, two thirds of my wages, because she relied on that. Kids today don’t understand that. My mother needed my money. So I had ten bob a week and after a couple of jars on a Friday night, a game of darts and a packet of crisps, there wasn’t a lot left!

During my time at Ashford’s I’d learned how to make mouldings for furniture, and put on veneers, upholstery and carpet laying. I didn’t find any of this difficult but I was particularly good at woodwork so when we were laying carpets I would take doors off, and ease them before putting them back. I liked making things. I’d always made models and even now I make them for the museum and for exhibitions for kids. I go into schools to talk about old toys and I take in models. I made Airfix kits out of balsa wood and would try and fly them, never very successfully. I’m a hands on person, not a brain box. I won’t do the paperwork. I repair, mend, make.

When I left Ashford’s I was getting just over £8 a week. The reason I left was down to funerals. It was the days of the Beatles and I had a Beatles haircut, with a fringe across the front, and the boss said, ‘You don’t have haircuts like that if you’re on funerals’. I had black winkle picker shoes to wear in the shop and that was a taboo. I said, ‘Well, I’m twenty and I can only afford to buy a pair of shoes that I like. If you want me to go on funerals any more, you’re going to have to supply me with shoes, and I’m not getting my hair cut’. I had an argument with the boss and, after five years there, I was out of the door come Friday. That was in 1963.

1964. Mervyn on right.

Shovelling and carpentry

I decided I didn’t want to work in a shop so I went to a building firm, Meadows Brothers, at Friston. They could offer me a labourer’s job if I had a shovel. We hadn’t got a shovel at home, we had a spade, not a shovel, so I had to borrow one from a chap down the bottom where I lived in Yoxford. So I took the shovel, on my shoulder, and biked the nine miles to work, and then on to the truck to go out on site. They had to show me how to mix cement. I hadn’t a clue! Put six shovels of sand in the mixer, one shovel of cement, bit of water, let it mix, another six, and so on. It was quite easy. I did that for six months, mixing up mostly for bricklayers, carrying bricks, washing down, washing out. In time the boss let me move on to carpentry as I had my own tools. I was able to start straight off, without doing an apprenticeship. I found carpentry easy.

In the building trade you do first and second fixing. With first fixing the brickie goes in, bricks the house and the carpenter goes in to put wooden door linings up, ready for the plasterers. I would then put skirting boards in, architraves round doorways, and hang doors. We didn’t do fitted kitchens. There wasn’t such a thing then. You would have two brick piers and an old Belfast sink sitting on it, a clip-on draining board, in steel, wood or aluminium, with brackets for the sinks, and possibly free-standing cupboards. That’s what we call second fixing. Lastly you had to cut the timbers on the roof.

If there wasn’t carpentry work to be done, I had to turn my hand to other work, otherwise you went home with no pay. Even if it was raining you’d have to turn up. If you sat in the shed till 12 o’clock, half day’s pay. People were coming and going in the building trade. It was cut throat for workers as well. If the firm up the road was busy and they wanted a brickie or a carpenter, they’d say to a chap on site, ‘Do you know anybody?’, ‘Well, so and so is working up at Meadows’, ‘Tell him I’ll give him a pound a week more’. You didn’t have to give notice so you could go in and say, ‘I’m not coming tomorrow, I’ve got another job’. There was no argument, never any bad feeling. You always found work, but not necessarily what you wanted.

And then I became a plumber!

In 1963 we moved from Yoxford to a converted school house in Thorpe Abbotts, a little village near Harleston, about five miles from Diss. I’d passed my motorbike test so I could still get to work at Friston but it was 25 miles every day. After a few weeks I decided it was too much so I finished there. I did some odd jobbing and then got a job at Kenny Read & Sons at Hoxne. He said ‘I want a plumber, and I want someone who’ll do other things as well’. I said I could do carpentry, brick laying and plastering, and that’s how I went into the plumbing trade, learning on the job. I was there for five or six years, doing plumbing, carpentry, brickwork, plastering, decorating, tiles, groundwork, you name it, we did it! In those days plumbing was just basic hot and cold water, connecting a sink up, soldering pipes, nothing like central heating.

We had to point a chimney at Ufford Hall, a big oak beamed, red brick, Elizabethan house at Fressingfield,. We had chimney boards and clamps. Two boards, about 16 foot long, two inches thick by nine inches, with holes through, and four big steel five foot rods with nuts and bolts on. We put a board each side of the chimney and the steels through opposite sides of the chimney, and clamped them to the chimney on the ridge boards. We did this off ladders up the roof. They talk about Health and Safety and scaffolding today. We were laying on boards that would clip to the chimney with no hand rails, no safety rail and you’d point the chimney. I would stand up there and shake at the thought of being 30 feet up! I’m only good at heights if there’s a parapet and a rail there.

One winter afternoon I was working at Ufford Hall on my own, doing plumbing work in an upstairs bathroom. The house is all beams and ladders and stairs and dark corners, and I heard somebody come up the stairs. I called out ‘Is that you?’ Not a thing. I know I heard somebody come up the stairs and I heard some more footsteps. I looked out of the door, down the passageway, nobody. I went outside, the firm’s van wasn’t there, and to this day I don’t know what it was, but it put the wind up me, I tell you! A few months later a friend of the owner’s visited with her mother, who was blind. They walked through the door and her mother said, ‘Get me out of here! Get me out of here! I’m not stopping in here. There’s something in here I don’t like. It’s not a nice house.’ Next time I went back there were two of us!

One time I went, with ‘Spuddy’, to a farmer’s cottage in Wilby, near Stradbroke, to dig a septic tank. We had to dig a hole seven foot deep, seven foot long and five foot wide, in clay. It took us four days and we had to barrow the stuff to an old pit at the bottom of the garden. All dug by hand, no diggers, nothing like that. We did a lot of work like that. Working for a small builder you had to do everything. We put glass in windows, decorated schools during the summer holidays, all sorts. The bigger firms, like Carters and Blackburns, employed a number of people with specialist trades, who’d done apprenticeships. I’m old-fashioned. I do think there’s too much book learning, paperwork, but it’s not good if you can’t put it into practice. I have a thing about council inspectors and architects. I understand building drawings quite well but they’ll come in with a drawing which I’ve followed, but their measurements have been wrong and they blame me. One time we dug a footing out for a big, internal, chimney, in the lounge. A lady inspector looked at it and said. ‘That doesn’t look good’. I said, ‘Well, that’s the depth on the drawing’. She jumped in the hole, poked her stick into the ground and said, ‘That’s soft, that’s all sand, you’ve got to do something about it’. I said, ‘But your council drawing says so and so ’. That rankled with me.

Self employment

In 1968 I left Kenny’s on good terms because the building trade was really booming. I was earning about £28 a week and I knew I could earn another £5 or £6 a week if I went self-employed, and that’s a lot of money. I went down to the builders’ merchants to start an account. I didn’t need any bank references, nothing. You couldn’t do that today! I started odd-jobbing, bit of guttering, or mending a broken window, and I always found something to do but, as it got busier, it became too much for me on my own. So by late 1969 B, my brother in law, who was a plumbing engineer, and I started Mouncer & Hickford Plumbing and Heating. That’s really when I became self-employed. We specialised in plumbing and heating and I would to the carpentry work.

Our first job was to put in a full central heating system for a client, in a small guest house at Tivetshall. We ordered the boilers and radiators though we’d only got £50 in the bank, not enough to pay the bills, but we took the risk. We asked him for a sub, really brilliant chap, and he came up with £200 in advance, which really set us up in business. We never had a bank loan. We were quite naive really. When he paid us at the end of the job we’d made a profit which set us up for the next job.

My wife and I moved into the old school house in Thorpe Abbotts as my mother had decided to move out and go to Harleston. When my brother-in-law and my sister got married they moved into a bungalow in the village, two hundred yards away from us. We had offices in each other’s houses. When I say office, that was just a pile of paper in the back bedroom. We bought an old Bedford J4, a second hand Post Office van with a sliding door, for about £100. We got a job at The White Horse, Stoke Ash, on the A140. It was a big job as the pub was run down and needed a full central heating system, new bars, and so on. I don’t know how we did it! A local electrician in the village helped us do the electrics. We all worked together, using our contacts to pick up work for each other. I was making about £32 a week when I was first self-employed but you’ve got to remember, we could take off allowances for the van, car, petrol and tools, so we did a lot better really. We were building up stock and bought our own scaffolding.

Pine Tree Cottage (Old School) Thorpe Abbotts 1977

Working on the Ellingham Hall Estate

In the middle of the 1970s we got a big contract from the Colonel at Ellingham Hall Estate, near Bungay. It’s a huge estate and he wanted every house on the Estate done up, every farm done up and concrete roads put in. It was a massive contract and my son is still working there, on and off, to this day, forty years later. The Colonel’s father had let the Estate run down, nice old boy, but he was the sort of person, if you put a nail or a screw in, well that would do, but it wouldn’t do for his son. He wanted it new. We worked there for a long time. We worked on one of the Estate cottages right by the Bungay-Beccles road. The whole roof needed to come off and the cottage had to be renovated. We needed help and, in those days, if you knew someone up the road who wasn’t working you could easily give them a couple of days’ work, so we got a nice chap but a bit gormless. He didn’t always think. We were taking the roof off, took all the tiles off and stacked them in the garden, took the wood off and pushed it down the other side. There were three of us up there and I said to S ‘we’ve got these big beams all round the chimney. We’ll get them off but, whatever you do, when we get them on the scaffolding, don’t just pitch them off onto the ground, make sure they go up the other end’. I passed the big beam down, stood it on end and said to him ‘Right, hang on to that. Don’t let it go’. Next thing we know, whoa! The beam went down the wrong way, right onto the roof tiles, smashing about 200 of them. I said ‘Why did you let go?’. ‘I thought I could hold it, but I couldn’t.’

We replaced all the roof timbers and every night you had to till in, because you’re doing the roof. We tilled up every night. One night it absolutely bucketed down and there were people living in it at the time. The till sagged in the middle and was holding about a couple of hundred gallons of water. It was tied down with ropes to the scaffold so the water was   weighted in a bucket shape in the till. I told S to go inside and push the water up so it would come down on the outside. He went inside, I heard an almighty shout, the till went in and the water flooded the house out. I said ‘What the hell are you doing? Why didn’t you push the water outwards?’ ‘I had to undo some ropes to get out’ he said. It cost the insurance company several thousand pounds, ruined the furniture and soaked the walls. Lovely chap but he cost us a lot of money!

They had an early 19th century ice house on the Estate, in the woods and, unfortunately, a great big tree was growing through the middle of it, and had cracked it all to pieces. The Council agreed that it was a very important building so the Colonel got a large grant for the renovation. We had to take the front arch off completely, numbering every brick, and all the doors. The bricks on the Gothic style arch were all slightly shaped to fit. It was a superb job. Every brick came off and they all went back to Thorpe Abbotts where they laid in my garage for months. In our spare time we chipped the old lime mortar off each brick, thousands of them, every one of them numbered.

People would go down to the River Waveney, get the ice, take it up to the Estate and put it in the ice house. Inside there was a well, about thirty feet deep, and they would go down a ladder to get the ice. We had to rebuild the whole thing, using a special lime mix putty from France. The needle thin joints in the brickwork are notoriously difficult to put together. If you get the slightest bit of stone in it they don’t push tight. We spent weeks on that job. When we’d finished it looked new, with white lime joints, clean bricks, but now it looks as if it’s been there a hundred years. There’s also an ice house in front of the shops at Long Stratton, on the main road.

Working on churches

We did a lot of work on churches and church houses for the Diocese in Norfolk. We used to do a lot of church walls and flint walls. My son still does the work at Ellingham Church. The Colonel was a great church person so would get him to do it. We had to put some big perspex windows in the tower there, to stop the pigeons going in and out and sitting on the bells.

On my birthday, 15th October, in 1987, the end of the church at Thorpe Abbotts came down in the storm and we got the contract to do the renovation, using stainless steel pins. That was another of these architect’s things where that’s been there for five, six hundred years, with lime mortar, no pins, no nothing. As soon as the end falls out you have to drill holes in the blocks, put stainless steel pins in and pin it all in. It gets me because I think you can put it back with the proper stuff and it’ll still be there in three hundred years’ time.

The storms of 1987 gave us a massive amount of work! Months and months.

Mervyn positioning revamped cockerel wind vane on Thorpe Abbotts church tower. Early 1990s.

It’s amazing what you find under the floorboards!

The first four or five years in the 70s were pretty good, but we made really good money later on, hundreds of pounds a week. If you were willing to work you could make money because there weren’t enough builders then. We worked in an old thatched cottage, where two chaps lived. They were gay and that wasn’t the sort of thing you talked about then. They were the nicest couple I ever worked for. They made tea, coffee, sandwiches, and cakes for you. They even provided us with a soiree on a Saturday night occasionally. The bedroom furniture and bedspreads were all white with pink flowers. They were a lovely couple and I really enjoyed working there. We had to take all their floors up and lower the depth by 18 inches because there was very little headroom, and then replace the pamments. There were exposed beams and inglenook fireplaces and the things you found! In my time I’ve collected tins of coins and all sorts, but one of the weirdest things at that cottage was, when we took up the slabs in the lounge, we found a patch of sand, right in the middle of the clay floor, and the skeleton of a cat. It had been laid under the floor in the sand and the pamments put down over it, probably about two to three hundred years ago. My brother-in-law and I agreed to leave it there so we scooped up the sand, put it in a box with the skeleton which was falling to bits, and after we’d lowered the floor we dug another hole for the box, and covered it up. I didn’t want to take it out because, having worked in museums, I knew that it was put there as a talisman to keep evil spirits away.

I found several things buried in chimneys, such as bottles and cigarette packets with messages like, ‘Fred So-and-so dropped this in here’, but I never found a shoe, another thing people used to put in chimneys to ward off the evil spirits. Some things were quite old. In our museum we’ve got two floorboards which were found in Harleston with ‘This board was laid by Martha Foulsham in 1841’. They just cut bits of floorboard off, put their names on and put them under the boards. Every house I’ve worked on, I’ve either left a message somewhere or scraped my name and a date on a lead chimney. If I do a house roof I invariably drop some coins in with a piece of paper with my name on it. I’ve got a lot of coins, including a couple of pennies from the 1770s, lots of Victorian coins, little bits of silver, but it’s usually coins, not very high denomination, loads of farthings and pennies behind chimneys and down in floorboards, and behind mantelpieces.

My collections

In the 1990s we bought Windsor cottage at Starston, a 16th century oak beamed cottage which I totally renovated just before I retired. My sister gave me a statue of a gnome and I wrapped it up and put it under the floorboards. I didn’t really do it to keep the evil spirits away, just to put things in for somebody else to find. At the bottom of the garden at Thorpe Abbotts I put a concrete base in and put in a plastic dinner tin, Dinky toys, cars and newspaper, and some coins, all buried ten feet under the ground. I don’t know if they’ll ever be found but I’ll always do it. I have a collection of cigarette packets I’ve found, and matchboxes which I picked up on the road when I was about seven or eight, in the 1950s. The old road cleaner at Yoxford knew I collected matchboxes and gave me all the ones that he had found from 1910 until he retired. I’ve also collected bottles over the years. There’s a Shipham’s meat pot and cough medicine bottles. I’ve dug dozens of bottles out of the ground, digging trenches and footings. Most of them haven’t got labels or names on, but some have. Morgan’s Brewers from Norwich, Doubledays, horse linaments, and Ipswich Co-op, they’re from all over the place.

Working with flint

We mainly worked on old buildings but in the latter years of my working life I began to work on new housing, but I never liked it. I much preferred renovating old places. We worked a lot with flint. At Ellingham, along the Yarmouth Road, the Colonel. had a flint wall about four or five hundred yards long, about four foot high, and every year, for fifteen, twenty years, we spent a week pointing the walls on both sides. Then we’d go round the loke, a big dry wall down his house, hundreds of yards of flint wall, and spent a week each year pointing up the walls of the loke. They’re lime walls where some flints would fall out over the winter, so during the summer, when it’s dry, you would put them back in lime mix, pushing the flints in, and point it up. The Colonel was adamant that the wall was not going to fall down, and that’s still being done now.

Looking back

There’s been ups and downs over the years. In the 70s there weren’t enough builders to satisfy the demand, but after the crash in the 90s house prices went down a lot so things weren’t so good for the trade.

My wife says I didn’t make enough of my life. She says I should have classed myself as a specialist in oak beams, timbers and woodwork, but as it came easy to me, I didn’t have a problem. I look at people when they’re trying to cut a bit of wood and think ‘what the heck are you doing?’ You can tell I’m an anorak. Look out of the window and you’ll see all those stones hanging there. I retired ten years ago and whenever we go to the beach I look for lucky stones with holes in. They’re what you call hag stones. I’ve got about two thousand stones hanging round my garden!

Mervyn (b. 1942) talking to WISEArchive on 8th July 2010 in Harleston.

© 2020 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.