Working Lives

A man of many jobs. The sheet metal worker (1935-2016)

Location: Norwich

Eric had a long career in engineering mainly as a sheet metal worker. He says: I seem to have done many jobs, from repairing cars, to making parts for buses, making Army vehicles, precision sheet metal work, vehicle body work, refrigeration vehicle and aircraft repair, plus a little labour work.

I was 14 years old when I left school and my first job was at Boulton & Paul’s, Riverside Road, in the Fencing department, which I went for a period of time. I thought that wasn’t quite the job I was looking for and I thought I’d like to go on the railway, so I asked if I could leave but they told me I couldn’t. The war was on and I went in front of a tribunal which also turned me down. They told me I’d have to stop there ’cause Boulton & Paul said they were going to apprentice me and make me a tradesman, but after a short period of time the war finished and I was allowed to leave.

As I didn’t go on the railway, a friend of mine said ‘Why don’t you come and work at Thompson’s at Chalk Works?’ which I did, and they put me in the Iron Shop, which closed down August Week. I wanted a different holiday week to August Week as my friend and I wanted to go away with the Sea Cadets. I went to see the manager (’cause the Body Shop and the Tin Shop didn’t close for August Week, it was only the Iron Shop) and I asked if I could go in one of those shops and have my holiday later. The manager, Mr Carter, said that’d be okay and he got me into the Body Shop for a week.

While I was in the Body Shop I worked with a man called Charlie Webb after a couple of days, he say ‘Do you like it here?’ and I say ‘I like it better than the Iron Shop’ and he say ‘Why don’t you see Mr Carter and ask him if you can stop here?’. So I went to see Mr Carter and Mr Carter said ‘Yes, I don’t see why not’. I said I’d like to be an apprentice in there and he said ‘Okay’. At any rate when the Iron Shop came back on the Monday, my foreman came to see me and said ‘Eric, you got to come back to the Iron Shop’ and I said ‘No I haven’t. Mr Carter says I can stop in the Body Shop’. He say ‘I’ll see about that’ and off he went and I never see him no more so I stop in the Body Shop.

When I signed my apprenticeship papers, I got a day-release at the technical college where I had to go one day a week and one night a week and that’s how I learnt the sheet-metal side of it.

In 1950, March 24th, I got my call-up papers to go and do my National Service which I had to spend two years. I came out of National Service on March 24th 1952 and started back at Thompson’s. While I was back at Thompson’s I was in the Motor Shop, car repairing, and they got short of work so they transferred me back to the Iron Shop knocking up practicals. all day, or coal scuttles as you call them, and meat safes in the summer. [You got the body and sides and we knocked them by hand] I thought to myself ‘This is not for me, repetition work’, so I thought I’d go and get a job at Mann Egerton’s ’cause they were advertising. I went to Mann Egerton’s and got the job but when I went back to Thompson’s and I talked to my union man he say ‘Eric, you’d be better to go to Eastern Coachworks at Lowestoft: they’re advertising for sheet-metal workers’; so next day I had a day off and got the train and went to Eastern Coachworks in Lowestoft. I started there in 1952 ’til 1954. [Eastern Coachworks was making buses: single- and double-decker buses.]

While I was there I got married and my wife didn’t want to go and live at Lowestoft and I couldn’t see no point in getting up at five o’clock in the morning and the train was late and I lost a quarter of an hour getting to work and I got a letter from the old bloke I worked with at Thompson’s, Charlie Webb, who was a foreman at Reliance, and he asked me if I’d like a job there as a panel beater. So I left the Coachworks and I went to Reliance Garage in 1954. And while we was there, after a period of time, the work got short and they put us on slow time and to me slow time weren’t a lot of good to me so Mann Egerton’s was advertising for sheet-metal workers so I went up Mann Egerton’s and got started at Mann Egerton’s in 1955.

When I first went there you could either do bodywork or you could do engineering work. I finally finished on engineering work as a precision and sheet-metal worker doing work for EMI, Ferranti, English Electric. I made 12 cabinets while I was there – six foot high, two foot square, and all the ductwork to cool it – for Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft at Coventry and I had to go up there and fix it all up. Through being on precision sheet-metal working, about four of us we got tuppence an hour above the others ’cause we was on precision sheet-metal working for Ferranti/EMI. After a while they closed the engineering side and made us all redundant – they was only going to keep six sheet-metal workers – so the others all went and then two weeks later they said ‘We ain’t going to keep you six now. You can go’ and course all the sheet-metal work was gone so I went and got a job with Heyhoe, Woodside Road, in 1966 on the back of a concrete mixer as a labourer for a while ’til I could find another job.

I went home one night and looked in the Evening News and Boshier Garage were advertising for a panel beater so I said to my wife ‘Boshier want a panel beater. I’ll go there in the morning’ but when I got up in the morning I sort-of half changed my mind ’cause I thought to myself ‘I’m working outside, which is a nice change’ and – you know what women are – my wife said ‘You wait ’til the winter come, Eric, and they’ll stand you off and you won’t be very happy!’ So I went to Boshier and had an interview and I spoke to the manager, Reg Haylett, and he said to me ‘We’ve got some other interviews but we’ll let you know if you get the job’ and about two days after they knocked on my door and told the wife – ’cause I wasn’t there – ‘Tell Eric he got the job’.

When I said I left Heyhoe’s, I went to Boshier Garage at Chapelfield which was in 1966. I was there until 1968. When I first started there, I can always remember the first job they gave me – it was an Alvis with a dent in the wing. I knocked it out and the manager come and he said ‘You ain’t put no filler in’ and I said ‘That doesn’t need no filler’ and I think that made a good first impression from the first. I was at Boshier’s Garage until 1968. After a period of time they moved out of Chapelfield and they closed the paint shop and they got rid of the painter – I had a young chap working with me, and they got rid of him – and they said ‘We will keep you, Eric. We will keep you to do the welding, the door locks, the window mechanisms, the windscreens and any other thing like that’. So I said ‘Thank you very much’ so I stopped there and we moved out of Chapelfield to Aylsham Way, [Aylsham Road, Norwich] ’til they had a garage built up at the airport. Then when we moved up there they also had caravans so they got me doing caravans: if someone bought a caravan and they wanted a fridge put in I’d get to work and put a fridge in, or a bunk bed and so on … I was sort-of general handyman really.

While I was there, the foreman who was there then – Colin Bishop – he started up on his own with another chap and he offered me a job and I said ‘No, I’m not going to leave’, I said. ‘I’m stopping here.’ So he rung me up a couple of times and I said no, and he rung me up one Friday and he said ‘Could you call in on the way home?’, ’cause they was down Rowntree Way. I said ‘I’m not coming to work for you’ and he said ‘We just want to see you’ and when I got there they had a [Morris] 1100 and they’d tested it and they’d smashed the front in and they said ‘Eric, would you put a new front on it for us ’cause we’re in trouble’. So I thought to myself ‘Well, shall I? I’m soon going on holiday and could do with some spare cash’ so I put two new front wings and a front valance and grille and bumpers on and I said ‘I’m not painting it, but I’ll do that’ and while I was there they said to me ‘Why don’t you come and work for us?’

I thought ‘This is a lot better job than what I was doing’ – ’cause that was only a handyman when all’s said and done – so I left and went to work for B & A Autos at Rowntree Way which was a big mistake ’cause that didn’t last very long. After a while they paid me one week with half money and half cheque and I went in and I said to them ‘This ain’t good enough for me; the best thing I can do is leave ’cause this don’t look very good’ and they said ‘Everything is all right, Eric’ until a fortnight later and they closed the place down!

I knew John Panks, who ran AJ Autos on Whiffler Road and I talked to him and he said ‘Well I’ll give you a job, Eric’ and I wasn’t too keen but I thought ‘Well, it’s a job …’ so I went to work for AJ Autos for a while. I wasn’t too keen on it and I was going to leave but his partner gave me two days off to think about it so I stopped there a bit longer.

Then I left there in 1970 and went and got a job at Norwich Coachworks at Burton Road, 1970 to 1974. Loved the job, everything was going all right, then my friend Cyril Dunt come round: ‘Mervyn Williams would like you and me to run St Clements’ Garage. You can do the bodywork, I’ll do the mechanicals, you can have a share in the profit’. I got a bit greedy, okay, and I left. Biggest mistake of my life. I walked in the first Monday morning and if I’d had the nerve I’d have went and asked for my job back at the Coachworks ’cause I didn’t like it from the first day, but Mervyn Williams, who owned it, was a damn nice chap and I knew him for a long while and I stuck that ’til 1976.

Then I went to Alcan. They were advertising for an argon welder. Now I wasn’t an argon welder but I could argon weld so I went up to see the manager and he said ‘Give us a demonstration’ and I give a demonstration of argon welding and I got home and two days later I got a letter saying sorry we ain’t going to offer you a job as an argon welder but we’d like to offer you a job as a sheet-metal worker – but if we want any argon welding, you’ll do it. So I made a start at Bonallack, Fifer’s Lane, in 1976 ’til they closed down in 1987. [Note: Freight Bonallack acquired by British Alcan in 1985, hence Mr Cork’s later use of both names for the same company.]

Bonallack: 1970s Eric Cork changing acetylene cylinder

While I was there they made me foreman – the other foreman he asked me ‘We want a foreman. Are you going to put your name down?’ I said ‘No. I ain’t got long to go and I don’t want none of that rubbish at my time of life’ and he kept on and on and on and I thought well I’ll put my name down ’cause there must be people who’ve been here a lot longer than me and my chance is a bit remote. So I put my name down and I got the job! I couldn’t believe it! Anyway I was there until 1987.

I never thought at the time, but two chaps who worked at Bonallack’s – Arthur Braithwaite and another chap [his name is Michael Dipper]– and they said ‘Eric, we’re going to start on our own and we’re 99% certain there’s a job for you’. So I said ‘Okay’, and they said ‘If something come along, you better take it,’ they say, ‘but we’re really sure we’ll have a job – 99% sure we’re going to get it’. Anyway I never thought about Air UK – course they was in the next hangar to Alcan – there’s one or two did and I was very fortunate here: a friend of mine, who was working in the office at Alcan, had got a job at Air UK and he was in the workshop and Chris Burr, the manager, said ‘I’m looking for two sheet-metal workers’ and he said ‘I know the two’ and he reckoned me and a bloke named Derek Simpson, and Chris Burr rung me up and he said ‘You’ve been recommended for a job here and could you come up for interview?’ and me and Simpson went up and we got the start up there. I stopped there till my retirement. I got on very well up there, actually …

Well as I say, I went into the Motor Shop, that was the Body Shop. We used to repair cars ’cause, in that day, the war was on and you couldn’t buy new cars. Everything had to be repaired – you cut parts out of the wing that was rusted and welded new parts in, put new wheel arches in, make new running boards … all that sort of thing. Put new door panels on, wheel them up – they had a wheeling machine that put the shape in them – that was very interesting. The sheet-metal side I learnt at the technical college – like square-to-rounds, elbow bends and other duct work – because I had to go one day a week and one night a week and that’s how I learnt it, at the college, so I was a panel-beater and a sheet-metal worker.

Whe think my money was £6 a week. I got one week’s money, then I had to pack up work the Friday to go in the army! So I had five years’ crap money and I was then going into the army for another two years’ crap money! When I went in the army, I didn’t want to go in as my trade – I wanted to do something entirely different. I didn’t want to go in the REME like a lot of ’em I was a bit adventurous …

Thompson’s used to take a lot of boys on. At the Tin Shop there was George Mountain, Philip Jolly, Ronnie Tye, Frank Watson, Derrick Vergerson, Alan Seaman, John Lawler. There was me down the Motor Shop, there was Bailey down the Iron Shop – there must have been about seven or eight on us all started. They used to start a lot of apprentices on and when they finished their apprenticeships they used to get rid of them and start some more on. Labour was cheap. Well, I suppose the only thing about us, we could get a job. I could jack a job in and get a job the next day. I didn’t have to worry. We didn’t get all the luxuries. If you didn’t go the day before Easter holiday or the day after, you didn’t get paid at all – you lost your holiday pay. You got your August one, but if you didn’t go in the day before Easter or the day after – same as Whitsun – you lost your holiday pay. Just like that. So if you were thinking ‘I’ll just have an extra day’, that was very expensive.

We had a week’s holiday. We got a day at Whitsun, two days at Easter, a week at August, and we got Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

We worked 47 hours.

There weren’t no such thing as health and safety. Well … not when we were right young … The only difference I noticed when I was at Alcan – or Freight Bonallack’s, whichever you like to call it – when them boys come and they was a bit eager they’d always put a pair of goggles on when they was on the drill and they would always put gloves on. Now when I worked at Mann Egerton they used to have gloves, but everyone used the same pair of gloves. There used to be two pair of gloves on the car but if they was greasy – ah, they were horrible when you put them on, they was greasy. Everyone used the same pair of gloves, and what they used to do – there used to be a lady come round and she used to inspect the guards [on the machinery and tidy the shop up], and when they knew she was coming they’d put all the guards on and when she was gone they’d take them all off again! Well you got to remember we was after bonus, you see – everything counted …

When I worked at Mann Egerton’s, without a doubt you’d earn the money there. You got overtime when they had the work and you could earn a little bonus so that was good – that was as good as money you got – but the only trouble is when I worked in the Panel Shop the foreman he was a nasty sort of a chap … if you didn’t work an hour and a half every night and an hour on Friday, there used to be a list go up of Saturday work and you wouldn’t be on that list. You used to have to work all them [hours] and he’d put you on the list; if you had a week when you thought ‘Oh I ain’t going to work this week’, you wouldn’t get a Saturday. He wouldn’t put you on the list for Saturday …  You got paid time-and-a-half on Saturday, double-time on a Sunday and some weeks I worked seven days.

Health and safety came in later on.  When I went to Alcan you could always go and get a pair of gloves, new goggles and everything – but, like I say, in Mann Egerton days there were no gloves. It was all part of life in them days.]

Some of the biggest changes were in machinery and working conditions. You know the cutters were a lot better … the guides on the back, when we first started, you used to undo a bolt and push it back, then you got the latest ones you turned a handle. When you had a measurement you looked through a spyglass and that took you to a size, you didn’t need to eye on it and you had to get one side right and then the other side right, and in the safety aspect everything was there … when you was at Mann Egerton’s everyone used the same pair of gloves and at Alcan – or Freight Bonallack’s, whichever you like to call it – you’d have a pair of gloves every five minutes and there was no argument about it. Things were kept more cleaner – everything was a lot better at Freight Bonallack’s, or then it was Alcan – after you’d been there five years you got an extra day’s holiday! And after ten years you got an extra week and that was as much as you could get. And you could have six months’ full pay being sick! When I went to Thompson you didn’t get paid for the first three days sick and that was rubbish money anyway, when I first started work – but you got your sick pay and all things like that [at Alcan]. But when we were young we used to crawl to work with a cold ’cause you couldn’t afford to take the time off – it makes people laugh, but you did. If your shoulder was out, you’d go ’cause you just couldn’t afford to take the time.

It was mainly a male environment. There were women when I went to Thompson’s because the war was on. When I went to Thompson’s there was ladies worked there – [of] course they was on the spot-welders and things like that. They didn’t do the coal scuttles and things but they spot-welded the lugs on and things like that and little things. Some was acetylene welders but at that time, see, the war was on and they had to take them, didn’t they? All the young men were still going in the army. But when I worked at Mann Egerton’s there weren’t no women working in there then … I suppose there is now, of course. When I was up Air UK, they started getting young girls come in on the apprentice scheme an’ all …

See, the difference between now and then – you didn’t have to be particular bright. A lot of young people – men and women – can use their hands but they ain’t got nothing up top. Now today – I got through life working and I did work, but I’d have a job today ’cause I didn’t have it up top. I wouldn’t be educated. So when I went in to see one of these fly-by-night blokes who’s got it all up top and you show him your CV or whatever you show him and you look at mine and he wouldn’t give me a chance. And yet I could work and I could do the job – but I wouldn’t even have got in the door! It’s as simple as that.

I’ll give you this instance. When we were up Air UK they had all these boys and girls apprentice, and there was one young kid he come in the workshop and he was good with his hands. But what they used to do up there then, I thought that was too much. They used to have to build each a bit of electrical and a bit of mechanical and a bit of sheet metal, and they used to have to pass each. If they didn’t pass it, they were out. And yet that boy was ever so good with his hands and he could have done anything, but you see … you have to have …

There’s a lot of difference today and when I was there – if you could use your hands, like I could, you was okay but today you have to go in front of that bloke who’s been in a school and an office and he don’t know the first thing about a hammer and you go in and you say to him and he look at you and he say you ain’t no good ’cause of your CV or whatever it is, I don’t know what it is, and it ain’t no good so you ain’t got a chance!

I worked with a bloke up Mann Egerton’s, years ago: Smithy. He’s on that photo. He went on a couple of theory things. You couldn’t touch him theoretically – he could tell you everything – but he couldn’t use a hammer! He used to put his hand at the top of the shaft next to the hammer head as if he was strangling it. ‘I’ll hammer that top’ and you never seen anything like it! He couldn’t use a hammer and yet if he started talking theory none of us couldn’t argue with him ’cause he knew every damn thing! I’d never say I was any better sheet-metalling or panel-beating than anyone else, but I didn’t need no-one behind me. I could get a job and do it.

Then I went to Rowntree Way. I didn’t really want to go there, like I say, but I went up that day and they say to me ‘Will you put the front on the car for us?’, and I said ‘Yes’. I thought ‘Well, there’s holidays coming on, a little extra money …’ As I say, I thought ‘This is what I should be doing … I shouldn’t be doing a bit of welding here, a door fitting and a windscreen in here’, so I went with them. That’d have been all right but that didn’t matter: I didn’t last.

I never even thought about the airport! As I say, I was a very lucky man to go to the airport.

When Alcan finished, Air UK was in the next hangar to Alcan and two young men I worked with went and put their name down if they needed metal workers. But a friend, David Jermy who worked in the office at Alcan had got a job in the office at Air UK. He was in the workshop at Air UK and the manager Chris Burr said to David he was looking for two metal workers and David recommended me and Derek Simpson. Chris Burr phoned me and asked the two of us for an interview for a job at Air UK, We were both accepted and started work the next Monday morning, which was very pleasing.

The two men who had promised me a job when they opened up, Arthur Braithwaite and Michael Diper, phoned me and offered me a job with them but I decided to stay at Air UK as I thought I was more permanent.

Air UK: 1990s Eric Cork working on airplane wing

I found working on aircraft something different I’d never done before, and I found it interesting. Sometimes crawling in them wings wasn’t very good at my time of life, but you can’t have everything, can you?

You have to go by the book. Find a repair like that and that’d tell you what the rivet-pitch was, what sort of rivets and everything and how to do it, and you used to have to do it more-or-less to that. I don’t mean to say exactly like that, but near enough. Well later on, when we done the 146, they used to send a drawing – you used to have to have a drawing – but he knew a lot about that and he’d say ‘Well, we got to do it like that’ and he saved us a lot of time. But we used to do a lot of weekends. I’d say ‘But we worked last weekend’ and he’d say ‘No matter, we’re working this weekend’. I worked weekends even when he retired – he retired before me – they used to come up and say, ‘There’s a job over there at the weekend, Eric and will you come and do it?

Eric Cork (b. 1929) talking to WISEArchive on 26th April 2016 in Norwich.

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