Working Lives

Labour camp to municipal engineer Part Two (1946-2021)

Location: Norwich

In Part One, Frank told of his life before moving to London in 1946. In this second part of his story he talks about his later life in Britain and Canada.

Arriving in London with no English and no map

I travelled in to London by train. I was told to take the tube to St. John’s Wood which has a very long escalator, and there I was. They didn’t have the sense to write to me telling me which way I should go, or send me a map. I had a heavy case, including my mother’s typewriter. I started walking and, of course, you don’t find anybody when you look for one, and the street names are only at the end of the roads so it was difficult. However, I did find a few people, showed them the address, and they probably told me the way but, of course, I didn’t understand.

At first I went for English lessons at the Gregg School but it wasn’t a language school, it was really a secretarial school. Everybody spoke English and I remember I was asked to write the word ‘parliament’ on the blackboard and I left out the ‘i’ because you don’t pronounce the ‘i’ in parliament, but I didn’t know that. So that was no good at all!

One of the girls in the household worked as a theatre sister at the Chelsea Hospital, along with another Jewish nurse. Her mother was a language teacher and her brother went to Padua to take his degree. She was perfect in Italian, French and Spanish and she took me under her wing and taught me English as best she could. I did about 40 words a day. I had a dictionary but that’s no use, you’ve got to know how to pronounce things and how to write them. How you write them is not the way you pronounce them. She taught me colloquial English and highbrow English, I suppose you could say.

Catching up for lost time

They asked me ‘What do you want to do?’ I said ‘Well, I’ve wasted so many years, I know a little bit about tool-making, I would like to continue’, not knowing what I was letting myself in for. Behind my back they arranged for me to be taken on in a workshop in Kentish Town. The toolmaker who ran the show was an Austrian who had been in Britain since before the First World War. He was in his seventies when I knew him and he was a marvellous worker, it was a joy to watch him. At first I could speak German to him and, as his wife was Hungarian, he spoke that too. I did learn a lot. I could operate any machine. The workshop was in a mews where horses had been kept. He had a mews house, a stable and downstairs was heavy machinery which was fit for a museum. Upstairs were the lighter tools, drills and metal heating, and two large electric motors at either end, and leather belts would drive overhead shafts. If you wanted to use a drill you had to move the belt that would engage the shaft and you could start drilling. It was prehistoric.

I had to wait for six months before I got a permit, the Home Office wouldn’t budge. They kept me waiting for exactly six months in spite of pleading. I did learn English in those six months. I was about 18 when, in 1946, I started evening classes in mechanical engineering for a National Certificate. I couldn’t enter university because I was a foreigner and also I didn’t have enough O or A levels. I had A level German and O level English but it would have meant going to evening classes to take A levels which would have taken at least three years. It would probably have been better but it would have taken too long. You see, I had no life. I was either at work or evening classes, doing my homework or revising. You had to revise all the time, you had to keep up with the work.

My job in Kentish Town was not an apprenticeship. They had arranged for me to be an improver. An apprenticeship would have lasted five years with very little pay, just pocket money, and the employers couldn’t do that, they were too old for that, so they thought the improver was the next best thing, but an improver never qualified. In those days the trade unions ruled the roost and I would never have got a job in a closed shop, limiting my prospects, so I decided I had to get out, but it took me two years.

New name, new job and a look round the kitchen at Buckingham Palace

One Sunday I went along Victoria Street where all the structural engineering consultants were in those days. I noted their names from the plaques outside and wrote to all 72 of them using my typewriter but I only got two replies saying they would put me on their list. What was against me was the name Brichta, it was foreign. The fact that I had an Ordinary National Certificate, with distinction in one subject, didn’t matter. They just didn’t want to know. So then, in 1952, I decided to change my name and it coincided, more or less, with my application for naturalisation, not nationalisation as some people thought! It was soon after the Queen’s accession because her father’s name was still on the form!

However, I still couldn’t get a job. There were three of us boys at the Regent Street Polytechnic who worked together to carry out experiments. They weren’t really experiments, we had to ‘cook’ them to get the right results. One of the boys was Ron Warren who lived in digs in London but his family lived in Cambridge. He told them I was looking for a job in a drawing office. His father worked for the Ministry of Pensions and travelled the country to go through the books. He was in Glasgow and reading the Glasgow Herald he noticed the Ministry of Works was advertising for junior engineers. He sent the advertisement to me, I applied and after six weeks they called me for interview. The interviewer, the deputy chief engineer, was the only one in the department who had a degree. He was so impressed with me he offered me a grade higher than they had advertised. He asked me a trick question but I was prepared so I could answer it fluently. I started working for the Ministry of Works at Millbank in London in May 1953. I have one photo of me right on top of the Victoria Tower which is pretty unique. They took me round to show me what they did and I even went to the kitchen at Buckingham Palace which was quite interesting. One of the water tanks on the roof had burst as the riveting was pretty ancient. The Queen wasn’t there.

I worked for the Ministry of Works for three years. They weren’t training me though. It was interesting to go to the War Ministry, Victoria Tower and the Tower of London, and all over the place, but it didn’t teach me anything because it was maintenance, strengthening a floor, removing a wall, something like that. Not what you should be doing at the beginning of your career so I said ‘Could I please go somewhere else?’ Well, you should never do that in the Civil Service, you should just keep your mouth shut and serve.

At the top of Victoria Tower, Houses of Parliament 1950

Marriage and moving to Canada

I went to Christiani and Nielsen, Danish consultants who had a job in Australia building an offloading bay way out in the ocean where it was very shallow, enabling large ships to discharge oil. Supports for large pipes at intervals were needed. It had all been designed and now they wanted a detailer. When I walked in they thought I had replied to the advert but I hadn’t and after six weeks I left. Somebody, a Cypriot actually, suggested that I go to Norman and Dawbarn, architects and consulting engineers for their own work, in Malet Street, near the university, known as the Tombstone. The rooms were far too small and drawings had to be sent out to be printed. One of the chiefs always used to say ‘One day my prints will come!’ The prints were lifted on a rope to the upper floor. I did some war damage work there, for the Borough Polytechnic. It was a bit difficult but I stayed there and I married the book-keeper in 1954.

We got married in church in her home village. It’s the church of St. Ethelburga who was a queen who established a nunnery there. Some parts of the building are still there. They’re very low doors because people were smaller then. The vicar had been in the Middle East during the First World War and he had shell cases all over the place in his office. After we married we couldn’t find anywhere to live. We did find an upstairs flat and it was absolutely awful, just a large living-room you couldn’t heat and a very small kitchen which we had to clean. You couldn’t make the beds properly in the bedroom. Accommodation was still difficult post-war, absolutely terrible. At least a third of all buildings had been damaged during the war, Britain had been bombed all over the place.

We thought that Australia was too far and you’re five weeks on a boat and we saw Ontario was nearer so we went to the Ontario Department of Works in London and asked if they could accommodate us and what the conditions were. The aim of the clerks was to get as many immigrants as possible there because Canada was empty.

When we arrived we stayed with a fellow I knew from Norman and Dawbarn who had worked for the contractors Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons. They had established themselves in Toronto simply because they wanted dollars. They shipped all the equipment and machinery out from England because they had an office there and were independent of restrictions.

He arranged a job there for me. I had done the technical part at evening classes but I had to have site experience for the Institution of Civil Engineers. I had done three months in England in Erith for British Insulated Callender’s Cables who erected a very large workshop to produce underwater cables to connect Britain with America. Normally the Canadian engineering authorities insist on you having a degree which I hadn’t got but, because I was a graduate of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the oldest existing engineering institution, they accepted it as equivalent to a degree and made me a member. Without it I could only have been a draughtsman. I had nine months with McAlpine’s and then moved on to work for Lever Brothers.

They were on the Lakeside in Toronto. They wanted me to design a building that would be fully automated for packing soap. The soap pieces would arrive and be put into boxes which would then be shut, all on a conveyor belt with no human being in sight. They were mechanical and electrical engineers and unsure themselves about the building. They offered me a six-month contract as their structural engineer. I had two draughtsmen who were supposed to work out the details of my design. After a time I said ‘Can I have a drawing board, I’m so used to doing this sort of work myself?’ ‘No, we’re not paying you to work on a drawing-board, that’s why you’ve got the draughtsmen’. I left at the end of the six months and they looked after the erection of the structure.

Eventually I got a job detailing reinforcement. The system is completely different in Canada. Contractors would get a job with the reinforcement indicated and they would hand it over to a detailer to finish it, to make bar schedules. That’s what I did. It was so hot and humid I had an air-conditioner about six inches from me and you couldn’t touch the car because it was so hot. You had to have gloves on. It was the same in winter, the moisture on your fingers would make you stick to it. At first we lived in a sort of underground flat. Because of the frost penetration they dig out the lot rather than just footings and convert it into a flat with narrow windows on top.

We enjoyed some aspects of life in Canada. We bought a bungalow – most places were bungalows, but you had to have a permanent job at the age of 40 and Canada was exposed to the United States in trade. That is why, when I worked for a firm of architects most of their work was warehouses. The Americans could fill a warehouse with one day’s output and the Canadians would distribute. They didn’t create any work really. The Canadians were very dependent on the Americans in other ways as well. We arrived as the Korean War came to an end and the Americans stopped buying raw materials which caused a downturn in the Canadian economy. So it wasn’t a very good time to arrive.

After a six-month contract at Lever Bros. to design a fully automated soap packing building, really just a shell with a roof, I did some reinforcing bar schedules for a sub-contractor to a main contractor. I then had a phone call from a Mr. G. Wilson, OBE(Mil), partner of Wilson & Newton, Architects, of Toronto, asking me whether I would like to become their Structural Engineer. Just like that. Sight unseen, no interview, nothing. He had heard about me on the grapevine via a steel frame manufacturer. I stayed with them for three years working on factories with attached offices, schools, public open swimming pools, warehouses, anything that came along. After three years Canada experienced another economic downturn. Our firm’s books of works in the pipeline were becoming empty. Prospects were becoming insecure. It was time to leave. We did. Wilson & Newton did something unusual. They agreed with a firm of Consulting Engineers for them to become the beneficiaries of any structural work which would come the architects’ way if the consultant would take me on. I gratefully declined this very generous proposal. We burnt our bridges and returned on the last day of December 1960. March 1961 would see us in the New Town of Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. We flew back to London in 1960 on the last day of December, on a British Airways plane. It was a turbo-prop, and I tried to work out when New Year’s Day was because, obviously, the time changes as you fly. It was a lovely day. We went to Victoria by train and flowers were out, it was fantastic. We stayed with my in-laws and, of course, I had to look for a job. Pfizer was advertising for specialists in chemical structures but I didn’t have the experience, though I could have done it, there’s nothing to it!

Roads and pipes in Hemel Hempstead but no sea at Weston-Super-Mare

In the end I found a job in Hemel Hempstead. I went to see my old pals at the Ministry of Works. Then you could just walk in, and a fellow said ‘I’ve got a brother who works in Hemel Hempstead, a new town, and if you get a job there they will provide you with rented accommodation. I said ‘Well, that sounds good’, so I wrote to the manager of the Hemel Hempstead Development Corporation saying ‘Here I am. I’ve just come back from Canada. Have you any use for me?’ He sent me a paid reply telegram, I’ve still got it, saying ‘Come for interview’. He was interested in keeping his staff rates high because he was paid according to the number he employed. So, in a way, I was a godsend. I gave up structural engineering completely at that time and did roads, sewers and pipes because that’s what a new town needs. When I arrived the work was almost completed and people were leaving and the Corporation was restoring the old town so there was no future for me.

I spent about a year and a half in Hemel Hempstead and then we moved to Weston-Super-Mare. Sounds alright. My wife likes the sea, swimming. Must be alright. It wasn’t because the tide comes in only so far and goes out again immediately. So you had a huge expanse of sand, you had donkeys there for the children but very little swimming. My wife would take my first daughter, who was born in Canada, to the seaside but there was no sea! I worked for local government which was awful, it was nothing. All they did was convert private streets which were not being maintained by the local government. The local government was keen to change the status of private streets to make people pay their rates and have proper roads built. It was interesting inasmuch as it had been built very poorly. The gas pipes were just under the surface of the road so when they ripped up the road they ripped up the pipes so nobody had any gas. We stayed for a year and a half and then we went to Scarborough.

Very cold sea in Scarborough

Scarborough is by the sea and very cold. So cold, in fact, that my wife never went in and somebody had drowned there when she got her feet entrapped in seaweed. But it had little rock pools and the little one could watch the creatures in the pools. We had a new office right on top of a steep outcrop and you could look down on the seashore. You knew it was raining when the people, like ants, would all merge to get under cover. One of my jobs was to convert an old exhibition hall into an underground car park. It had been left as it was in Victorian times. There was still one display called ‘What the Butler Saw’ as well as fish tanks along the wall with the glass still there which had to be ripped out. The chief engineer wanted something on the east side of the town so I designed a circular ramp and various other things. He also wanted a sea wall but that was no good because the sea has a tremendous power. The workmen put up the formwork and, after they had put the reinforcement in I said ‘Don’t you paint the formwork to stop the concrete adhering otherwise you can’t get the timbers off?’ ‘Ah, we’ve never done that’. They tried to do it but it was no good. The chief engineer had wanted to increase the area of use for tourists but despite all the concrete, despite everything, the waves just pushed the sea walls aside.

We were in Scarborough for about two years or so and then we moved to a new town near Birmingham because the Scarborough people wanted their house back. I had been offered a house there but they ran out of houses for their staff and what they offered me was not good at all. The houses had very narrow gardens with six foot fences. You felt hemmed in and it wasn’t by the sea, the wife didn’t want it and I didn’t want it.

Designing a very large roundabout in East Kilbride

It so happened that all the chief engineers of new towns had their annual meetings in the locality. The local engineer asked the engineer from East Kilbride if he had any use for me and he said ‘Yes’. So we went to East Kilbride near Glasgow in Lanarkshire. We arrived with our gas oven but there was no gas. In order to have electricity cables they made an arrangement with the electricity suppliers that they would stop having gas so we had to rush out and buy an electric cooker. We spent two years in East Kilbride. It was interesting inasmuch as the people were very keen on golf and there was a public golf course. You passed through gardens with water gushing down and freezing into long icicles in winter but very little snow.

I had to design a roundabout for the town but they didn’t know what it would be serving. They didn’t have a traffic department and they didn’t go to the University of Glasgow for advice. They said ‘Well, have a spur. There might be a bridge there’. Instructions were very vague. I didn’t know how many cars or heavy vehicles would use it so it was a bit difficult. I made it very large. It had three underground passages for pedestrians which, I think, were too narrow. People don’t like going through narrow underground passages. I did the best I could. It was a huge drawing, three or four drawing-boards wide and I had to kneel on it to draw. I saw the beginning of the construction but then we left because house prices in England rose. I said ‘I’ll never catch up if I stay here. I’ve got to buy a house’.

Buying our first house, in Preston

We went to the North-West Road Construction Unit in Preston, Lancashire and we bought a small house in St. Anne’s which is known as ‘a cemetery with bus stops’ because people from Manchester retired there. Our children went to school there and our youngest daughter, now 59, happened to go to the only primary school that offered the 11-plus and she was the only one to pass. Our eldest went to a private school where the county bought places because they didn’t have their own grammar school. She had been to the equivalent of a grammar school in East Kilbride but the teaching approach and syllabus are different in Scotland so she had to repeat a year. This school was terribly old-fashioned. The microscopes were so old it wasn’t real, and the language lab didn’t work. They used telephones but it didn’t really work. It was awful! Nevertheless, they had an arrangement with Oxford University to send four pupils each year, irrespective of whether they were any good or not. Had she stayed she could have gone to Oxford but she didn’t. She wanted to study politics, philosophy and economics, PPE. She went to a university which had been an agricultural college  (Keele) and they didn’t know the first thing about PPE. They gave her the syllabus for all three subjects, each of which would have taken three years to do. After a year they said ‘It’s no good, go away for a year and then come back’ – she had started a year early, so she went to Switzerland to improve her German. She got a job there and we had said, ‘Don’t take your Star of David because many Germans have crossed the border to escape the de-Nazification’. My wife had found the job through The Lady and, as it happened, it was with a rabbi from Newcastle.

Keeping busy in retirement in Martlesham

Having worked in many places around the country I retired here to Martlesham. Initially we couldn’t find a property as British Telecom had taken all the available houses. However, we found this one because the owners had already found a house elsewhere and were keen to move. In my retirement I developed a connection with every school in Suffolk, giving talks and I also gave talks at the college here, before it became a university, and subsequently I was given an honorary doctorate for my work.

I keep in touch with Northgate School. I used to talk to the sixth-formers and I remember telling them about David and Goliath. They didn’t know that David was a shepherd-boy who became king and established Jerusalem, and they only knew that Goliath was an enormous crane! They know my story but not the history of Israel or anything connected with it, so I’m trying to change that. Only the other day they asked for my help, teaching foreign children to learn English because I’m supposed to be an expert! Nowadays I do it over the internet, but I used to go there. I do enjoy talking to the children but it’s not easy because they can’t understand each other. They come from Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Romania, India and they have to learn English to enable them to take exams and take part in school life. I give them advice, emphasising that you can’t rely on the way things are spelt or sound. You’ve got to learn at least 20 words a day as well as basic grammar.

Having lived in so many places I think Canada was my favourite. The people I worked with at the firm of architects were very nice, very interesting. I could talk for hours about them. The unusual thing was that normally architects don’t talk to engineers because they’re beneath them. It’s quite true. Architects must be able to think and draw three-dimensionally. I can’t. I got on very well with my chief and when he died he left me a thousand Canadian dollars, less than American dollars, but nevertheless, the thought was fantastic.

Frank Bright 2021

Frank Bright MBE (b. 1928) talking to WISEArchive on 25th and 27th May 2021 at Martlesham, Suffolk

Frank was awarded an MBE for services to Holocaust education in the New Year Honours list 2022. He tells of his early life in Labour camp to municipal engineer. Part one (1928-1945) Part One

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