Working Lives

Not just a telephone engineer (1954-2001)

Location: Tottenham; Norfolk

Brian reflects upon the things he learnt from the different jobs he had over the course of his working life – from working in a factory and as a groundsman before his main career with the GPO/BT. He would even get to revisit some previous skills afterwards.

I failed my 11+, which I totally opposed. You’re judging somebody’s intelligence at the age of 11, and whether you failed or passed that 11+ exam had a real bearing on what you were offered to do as a living when you left school. Having failed the 11+, I went to Rowland Hill Secondary Modern in Tottenham, North London. Nobody really expected much from you or that you would come to anything. I missed a year to 18 months of schooling anyway, which I then had to work hard to catch up on, because of a rather serious illness.

I left at age 15 at the end of the Christmas term in 1954, and started my first job in an engineering factory the day after Boxing Day. Before I left school my dad spoke to me and asked me what I wanted to do for a living. I mentioned that I wanted to be a plumber. My dad was a plumber and I thought I’d like to do that. I couldn’t think of anything else to say really. He said he wouldn’t let me be a plumber because he thought that it was hard work, it was cold in the winter, so he said ‘No, you’re not going to do that’. So he said to me ‘What else would you like to do?’ So I said ‘I’d like to work with animals. I’d like to be a vet.’ And his response to that was ‘Don’t be bloody silly. You’ve got to have brains to be a vet.’ So that was the end of that one. So he said ‘Is there anything else you want to do?’ And for the life of me, until the day I die I’ll never know why I did this, but I said I’d like to be a ladies’ hairdresser. And his response to that was ‘we’re having no bloody poofs in this family.’

Working in the engineering factory

So I ended up with two friends from school working at Medical Engineering Company, a factory in Tottenham that produced hair dryers, amongst other medical equipment. The factory was on two floors: the lower part manufactured the equipment, the top floor was where it was assembled. I was put with a fella on the top floor, assembling sun ray lamps. We had to screw a silver bowl onto a mazak metal base. Having just left school our hands were as soft as anything, and our palms were just one mass of blisters at the end of that day. We just found it was nearly impossible to do it without wrapping rags round your hands to screw these up.

I remember saying to the forewoman ‘Can you tell me where the toilet is?’ because I needed to go to the loo, and she said to me ‘You’re a workman now,’ she said, ‘You’re not at school. You don’t have to ask to go to the toilet.’ What she didn’t tell me was that they kept a strict eye on you when you went to the toilet. If you took liberties, went too often or stayed out too long, because you got bored with work, they soon picked you up about it. The only breaks we had was a 10-minute tea break in the morning, half an hour for lunch and another 10 minutes in the afternoon where a hooter would go telling you to put your tools down. In that 10 minutes you had to wash your hands, get together anything you wanted to eat and then get back to work again. For 15, suddenly leaving school and doing that, it came a bit hard.

This was from 8:00am to 5:30pm, five days a week, with the occasional Saturday. I got absolutely fed up working upstairs putting the stuff together, and I decided I’d like to give it a go and work downstairs where they did the manufacturing. It was like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire – it was even more boring. You would spend days, perhaps a week, making the same thing. You’d be working on a thing called a capstan lathe, or you’d be working on a press and it was just repetition, and I’ve never in all my life known time go so slow. You’d look at the clock every five minutes and it was like half an hour had gone by. It was just unbelievably boring.

It was one of the reasons I eventually decided to leave; I stuck with it for four years. There were lots of factories in the area: a big firm called Gestetners, they made duplicating machines, and Levis’, which was a furniture factory. They had a hooter that went five minutes before time, so you had five minutes to get to work, then two minutes grace. If you were later than two minutes, they would dock you 15 minutes pay, but were expected to work although you weren’t getting paid for it. They gave you ten minutes, and if you were later than ten minutes then you’d get stopped half an hour. So they caught you whichever way you went!

There were a lot of factories round there, and it was 1954 – nine years after the War. When I went up to work in London years later there were still loads of bomb sites around the area, because they tried to destroy the industrial area. I remember one incident from one of the other factories – you welcomed any excitement in your life with open arms. Two fellas from another factory were going to have a fight, they went onto one of these bomb sites, and they formed a circle round them. Then they set about each other. Tottenham was a rough place, but not as rough as it is now, I don’t think. One of them got knocked on the ground and the other was still punching him. I remember saying to this grown man next to me it didn’t seem right he should hit him when he’s on the ground. He said ‘boy, that’s the best time to do it.’ So you just grabbed anything that broke the monotony!

I actually had an accident. I used to go on what they called piece work. You were paid a flat wage and anything you produced over a certain number you were paid extra, so the quicker you worked, the more money you earnt. I was pressing out these bowls that made the sun ray lamps, and we used to put them in a round cardboard tub. The cardboard tub had got bent over at the top, so you couldn’t get the bowls in quick enough. So I got a knife I made out of an old hacksaw blade, and went to cut the top off to get rid of the rough bit. The knife slipped and it went across the knuckles of my left hand severing the tendons. It meant I couldn’t go to work for a few weeks until it healed up. I was actually pleased not to have to go to work; it was just that boring!

When I went to work I used to walk down this road where the buses went down to go to Southend in Essex. I used to think to myself ‘if only I could get on one of those buses and go to Southend’ to just get away from the factory. I decided one day I just had enough. I looked around at these other people working in the factory and they were like zombies as far as I was concerned. All they could talk about first thing Monday morning was the football over the weekend, and I’m not particularly interested in football. There was one old man who worked in this corner, never spoke to anybody, never joined in with anybody. When you had your tea breaks, he sat down there and had it all on his own, and it just dawned on me one day if he died they wouldn’t even know he was dead until they locked the factory up, and I thought ‘no, this is not for me. I can’t cope with this any longer.’

Parks and bowling-green keeping

I had an uncle who played bowls in Pymmes Park in Edmonton. This was what I thought would suit me, working in the open, doing gardening. So he got me an interview with the Park Superintendent. I had a verbal interview, passed it, and started as a garden labourer. It was like dying and going to heaven! The first job they gave me was hoeing up weeds in a big cold frame. It was just as well there weren’t any flowers or plants in there, because I didn’t know the difference between a plant and a weed. They say a weed is only a plant in the wrong place, don’t they? After that I went to work with a fantastic man – he taught me so much, and gave me a lot more confidence too. He’d annoyed me because he’d tell me to do something but not how to do it, so I had to find out myself. This was a good thing as it started to build my own confidence up in what I thought I could do. So I worked for them, with him for some time.

We were working round the schools in Edmonton, looking after the playing fields, marking out the football pitches, the running tracks. Next to the school were allotments, which I believe is a great big block of flats now. I used to be able to climb over the gate, the fence, into the allotments and pick blackberries. I thought ‘I’m getting paid for doing this!’

In the wintertime, we went round the roads pruning the London planes, the trees, and my job was to go up the tree, pruning these trees. You had a pair of secateurs and a saw. This was long before health and safety was invented, and the only safety we had was a pair of gloves! There was no safety harness, no hard hat, none of this. I was up this particular tree and the foreman was at the bottom telling me to walk out the tree and to cut this branch off at the end. This was about 15 foot in the air, and I was sort of standing on one branch and holding onto another one. The branch I was standing on snapped, I was dangling with one hand from the other branch, and then that snapped and I fell down and landed right on my feet. It was all too quick to try and roll or go with it. I fractured one of the vertebrae in my back and it was a sort of hospitalisation job, so I was lying on wooden boards and it was quite painful. The last thing you wanted to do was you really did not want to sneeze, because you can’t sneeze without moving. So that was really quite painful.

The thing I regret about this is I’ve always believed in Unions, always been a very, very strong Union member and belonged to a Union then; but I never got any advice from the Union. I spoke to my dad about this and he said to me ‘Don’t cause any ripples, boy’, he says ‘You’ve got a good job. You don’t wanna lose it’. So I never put in a claim for compensation; nowadays I would probably have ended up with about £50000 or £60000. But the penny didn’t even drop when I was in hospital.

There was another man in the hospital, a road worker who had drilled through an electric cable and he was absolutely as black as the ace of spades where he’d got burnt. I said to him his accident was in the local paper, the Weekly Herald. He said ‘yes, it’s gonna be in there again when they find out how much I’m going to claim’. And even then the penny didn’t drop. I’d met I., the wife, and we were courting and were saving up to get married. Anyway it was a lost opportunity, there’s nothing you can do about it now. I went back, but I had to be very careful. When I bent I had to bend from the knees and keep the back straight. I think they call it kinetic lifting. I think that’s the way we used to teach it when I went on to another job.

Before I got married I was offered a job working in Pymmes Park on the bowling greens as an assistant bowling green keeper, and I absolutely loved that. I love lawns! I love getting the lawns looking nice. I love cutting the grass straight. You go from corner to corner, not up and down. It was really satisfying to get that straight line right up to the corner and come back. I worked shift work on a Sunday, so I’d have a day off during the week. Because I was courting my wife if I was working on a Sunday and finished late I used to go round to my girlfriend’s place and she’d cook me something to eat. She would come up to the bowling green sometimes. There were two bowling greens: a public one and a private one. The private one would always have a high tea kind of thing when they finished their game, so I always got invited to that. It was really, really good. I did really enjoy that.

I got really interested in this and I decided to go to evening classes to learn botany. I began to learn all about photosynthesis and this sort of thing. But when the bowling green closed when the season finished, they reduced me down from the rank of assistant bowling green keeper to garden labourer again. So I lost money, because I was no longer a bowling green keeper with the prestige it carried. I looked at the money and thought I’m married, the money’s not good, and I’m going to have to look for another job. I didn’t want to go back to factory work. I might as well have committed suicide if it meant going back to factory work. So I started looking in the papers.

I’ve never considered myself stupid, but I’ve never really put myself out. If something doesn’t interest me I completely switch off from it, which is a really, really bad thing to do. If it interests me then I’ll find out as much as I can about it. I was never really that interested in Maths because the teacher we had at school was absolutely useless and boring and I can’t remember hardly anything about Maths. I find spelling difficult because there’s no logic to it. There’s no logic to spelling at all! I looked for work which wasn’t monotonous and had some variation. One of the jobs was a bus conductor, so I went along for an interview. I get very nervous at interviews and written exams. I sat down there and the fella doing the exam asked me to do some mental arithmetic – this was before decimalisation. ‘Tell me, how much are so many tickets at threepence, so many tickets at ninepence, so many tickets at sixpence?’ I made a complete mess of it.

I walked out of there so ashamed of myself. I thought ‘I’ve got to do something about this now’, so I went straight down the road and I bought a book called ‘Teach Yourself Mathematics’, and I started working my way through this book. By this time I had gone back to working as a groundsman at one of the schools. If I got to a part in the book that I couldn’t quite grasp I would go and see the Maths teacher in the school and ask him. He would explain it. I began to realise that I quite enjoyed teaching myself things. I quite enjoyed the satisfaction of mastering the different equations, the different things.

Telephone engineer in the GPO

While I was doing all this I saw a job advertised in the Evening Star, a paper for telephone engineers. I thought I could quite enjoy doing that. I’ve always been more practical and always struggled with the theory side of things. So I applied for the interview and I think someone was looking after me here, because I got the interview and there was a little practical side to it and then there was the sit down. Most of the questionnaire was on practical things, so that was pretty good. When it got to the Maths bit it actually reached the bit that I’d got in the book. If it had gone any further I’d have been snookered! One of the questions was a half multiplied by a half, a fraction, which I knew was a quarter. So I actually passed the interview, and then had to have a medical.

I was a bit concerned about the medical, because of the accident to my back. I never said anything about it, but it really wasn’t giving me any problems then. And the fact that I’d had quite a serious kidney illness when I was younger as well. So I kept quiet, had the medical, passed it and thought ‘that’s great.’ So I got a starting date to work for the GPO. The first office I reported to was Maple Place off of Tottenham Court Road. I was probably 22 at the time.

I just sort of loved the job. I think there were four of us starting on the same day, and we all had to go up to an Inspector. I expect different ranks now, but there were Level 1s, Level 2s and everything else. You went up to his office for a little interview for him to talk to you. He said to us, and I’ve never forgotten, the most important person you’ll meet on this job are the subscribers – they’re the first person you’ve got to please when you’re working. They didn’t call them customers then. When I left four hundred years later the most important person was the shareholder – nothing to do with the customer – but that’s in the future.

When you start working you have the rank of Technician 2B, or T2B, and helped a fully qualified engineer. You were his boy. He would be showing you what to do for a month or two, and then went on courses. If I’d known about the courses I was going to end up going on I probably would never have applied for the job in the first place! But we went on these courses beginning with the first installation course and then continued. I’ve got a whole list, about a three foot bit of paper with all the courses on that I ended up taking.

The courses were split into two halves: theory in the morning, practical in the afternoon. If the theory was in the afternoon you fell asleep, so they did it in the morning you were still awake – in theory!

I struggled with the theory side and had to work hard. It was what they call schematic diagrams, all relays. Nowadays it’s all printed circuits and silicon chips. I don’t think there’s a moving part now in any of the modern telephone equipment. And then the practical work was in the afternoon. And then you sat down and you had a test on the theory.

At the end your practical work was marked very strictly. You had boards and you had to run the cable to a set pattern, and the cable had to be just right. You had to have the staples inch and a half from a corner, one staple hammer’s length between staples. I found that quite enjoyable and quite easy.

At the end of the course you were tested on the theory. You’d get schematic diagrams and you would have to write down how the circuit went, what relays it went to, and when that relay operated that would operate another relay, and that would bring a light up, and all this kind of thing. It was quite good; it was okay but I struggled a little bit with it. I got to the point where I passed the first course and then there were different courses after that.

By the time you got the first course ‘under the button’, perhaps before then, if they thought you were any good they would then send you out with your own tool bag and be working on your own. I worked in London, round Holborn. One of the first jobs on my own was at Took’s Court. I had to put a phone right on the top floor and in the basement was the main frame where all the cables came in. From the main frame it would be distributed off on a big building – on some buildings it wasn’t quite like that. I looked at it and I thought the easiest way was to drop a cable out the window, staple it at the top, pull it tight, staple it at the bottom and job done. So I did.

The next morning my Inspector called me in the office, and asked if I was working at Took’s Court. Then he asked if I knew about the association with Charles Dickens, which I didn’t. He tells me people came from all over the world to look at the building and take photographs. ‘I’m bloody sure Charles Dickens never ‘ad a phone cable down the front of his …’ So I returned to do the job again, but I never forgot that, so I always made sure if I did the job, it was done properly!

The courses progressed, but I was working under a man who was a bully and dishonest – he would take advantage of any weakness. He was the worst lecturer I’ve ever known; I’ve never known a course with so many failures. I only failed one theory side of a course I ever took, and it was switchboards. He went through the circuitry on the board and asked did everyone understand. I didn’t so I put my hand up and said he’d lost me a bit. He gave a big sigh, looked at me as though I was a complete idiot. I was at the point of telling him where he could stick his course when he turned round and asked if anybody else didn’t understand. I think a third of the class put their hand up, which probably saved me from losing my job!

At the end of this course, I sat the exam. When it was all finished, this man would come in and he’d call out a student’s name and they’d go out and come back. If you got a certain percentage of questions right you got a credit. So this fella’d come back and say ‘I got a credit!’ Brilliant! Next fella’d go, come back ‘got a credit!’ The first one that went out and came back and said ‘I failed’ you knew. This was in front of everybody. How embarrassing was that? It was a pretty awful thing to do to people.

When my name was called out I thought I had failed. I went in his room, and found I was a border line case between failing and passing. He asked me a few questions and by this time I’d totally lost heart. I think I said if I’d failed just tell me and we’ll forget about it. He failed me. I retook the course under a different lecturer and was within a hair’s breadth of getting a credit. So he was just a bad lecturer – he knew what he was doing but he didn’t know how to explain it. People would go sick if they were in trouble on these courses. If you missed one day you couldn’t catch up, so you had to re-sit the course. You didn’t lose face. I was a bit slow on the uptake, it never occurred to me to do this but I don’t like backing away from things.

When I went back to the office and said to this man I failed the theory. He said ‘never mind’ and he patted me on the back. I’m walking round the office and he later came up to me and said ‘you’d better not leave this on yer back’. He actually put a bit of paper on my back that said ‘I failed’. I was mortified! It was embarrassing enough to go back and say you’d failed. I didn’t know how to handle it, so I wrote a memo out asking to speak to his boss.

It’s not in my nature to want to rat on him. He was absolutely terrified then, because he knew it was the worst thing he could’ve done, because it shows he didn’t know how to deal with people, with men, and the chances are his chance of promotion would be ‘up the bucket’ because of this. He asks if I’m sure and I say yes. I asked to be removed from this man’s group and join another. I had to give him the bit of paper and tell him what happened. The outcome was they transferred me from Holborn to King’s Cross. It was probably one of the best things he could have done to me.

Installation work at King’s Cross

There was a much greater variety of work. I liked it much better there. I took the course again and passed it. As you went through the different courses you were qualified in it. You were qualified to install switchboards after the switchboard course. Some switchboards were quite big; there was a call connect system where there would be a room, about 15 foot by 15 foot, full of equipment. The Technical Officer would install the equipment, but I would have to wire up all the main frame, wire off to all the points where the extensions were going, and wire off to the call connect system, the switchboard. It was quite involved; there were a few thousand wires involved which worked to a colour code.

It sounds complicated but the most useless bit of knowledge in my brain is the colour code used: blue, orange, green, brown, slate; blue-white, blue-orange, blue-green, blue-brown, blue-slate; orange-white, orange-green, orange-brown and so on. It’s like learning your times table. We were in Norwich the other day and there was an engineer working on a box, and I said ‘Do you still use blue, orange, green, brown, slate?’ and he looked at me and he says ‘Yes, we do!’ I walked away and left him wondering!

You were qualified to install private circuits after the private circuit course. There were house exchange systems. My technology is now out of the Ark. When promotion eventually came along you had all those courses as a back-up. When new equipment came out new courses would be set up and you’d go on those. So at King’s Cross it was still installation work: telephones, house exchange systems – a house exchange system wasn’t connected to the exchange to the outside line. It was like an intercom system.

So many things happened. I’m not one of the luckiest people in the world. We left for the Christmas holidays and went to some friends in France. When I came back in the New Year to go back to work my tools were used to break into every room in the office. So my tools were actually at King’s Cross police station, so I had to go and collect them from there.

I installed a new call connect system in an empty office belonging to a property developer. He asked me to put the burglar alarm on when I left and I refused. He said it meant he had to travel across London to set the alarm if I didn’t do it. So I agreed to put this burglar alarm on for him and save him the journey. There were only a few antique pieces of furniture in the building and somebody actually got into the office.

On a Friday we would collect our wages; I shut the door on the Yale lock, and when I went back the furniture was missing. I didn’t realise it had been stolen until the Monday when the boss came over and said ‘Where’s the furniture gone?’ BT was then sued for the price of the furniture that had gone, and as they lost the case they had to pay the price of the furniture. The legalities of it was that I’d accepted the keys so therefore I’d accepted responsibility for the security of the building and I didn’t secure it completely. Then I got a letter saying that this time BT would pay the money, but in future it would be the engineer’s responsibility to pay a claim for whatever was stolen.

This happened at another job when we worked on a Sunday doing a changeover. After that I would never accept keys. I would never take keys. They asked us to come in at the weekends. I said ‘no, I’m sorry. Unless you come in and open up and lock up’. I worked with a Technical Officer, who did all the testing, and they said they’d take the keys. Over that weekend two valuable typewriters were stolen. So I never, ever accepted responsibility for keys for locking up buildings.

So I stayed at King’s Cross, did all the courses I could take, and made a T1 myself. The same rank as this horrible man. Having got this rank in my early 30s I had to wait for a post to become vacant, which could be anywhere. Most people wanted to get a post where they were. I got offered a post back in the Holborn area again. So I got the T1 job in Holborn at Drury Lane. I worked there until I was 39 and I got promotion to a Senior Technician. There are two Senior Technician’s jobs you can do: sit behind a desk issuing work out to engineers and taking customers’ moans, groans and worries; or working with your tools, supervising people in the field. The only post they could offer me was working behind a desk as a Senior Technician. You had to think about this because it was quite a bit more money.

I didn’t want to do it and I saw a job advertised as an Instructor in one of the Technical Training Colleges. So I swotted up, went through all the schematic diagrams, and learnt as much as I could. One of the most useless bits of knowledge was a thing called Ohm’s Law. They used to drum this into you, and 34 years or so I worked for BT and in all that time never once was I called upon to use Ohm’s Law. Crazy, it was! But I applied for this job as an Instructor, had the interview and passed. I started as an Instructor at Paul Street Regional Engineering Training Course in London, near Liverpool Street Station. Going there was one of the best moves I ever made.

You spent three months learning how to be an Instructor. You had to learn how to explain things, about the pieces of equipment. The first lecture you had to do was on a subject you could choose yourself. I chose folding a napkin up in the shape of a water lily! Then after that you had a ‘grandparent’ who would be your adviser. They were experienced instructors and would show you and help you out during your three months training. You had different technical subjects then to demonstrate. I think one of the proudest moments of my life was when I did my three months and the person who was in charge of my department, wrote down that he thought I would be a great asset to the Training School.

From student to instructor

So I went from going on these courses and absolutely dreading them to actually supervising my students doing their examinations. I thought ‘that’s pretty good. I’m quite pleased about that!’ I got sent all over the country. I used to set up courses when a new piece of equipment would come along. I worked all the way from Cornwall up to Scotland on courses. Nobody in their right mind would go to Preston unless they had to, would they?

As a fully qualified Instructor I was instrumental in setting up the course on the new telephones when they first came out. They got rid of the old black A and B one when introducing the new telephone kiosks. I went round the country training students how to install them as a piece of equipment and into the phone boxes.

Not many people know this, but I’ll tell you now. The old black A and B telephone boxes, where you put your money in and pressed Button A, or pressed Button B to get your money back, worked on pulses. ‘It would go tkk, tkk, tkk, tkk. And nine tkk, tkk, tkk dials nine; four dials four.’ It’s making and breaking the circuit. So if you could do that manually without putting money in the phone, you could actually dial without paying. So if you worked overtime on a Saturday, didn’t have change, couldn’t get an operator to get you a service call, or if you were in a rush, then you could get hold of what they called the cradle at the top and you could go ‘Tkk, tkk, tkk, tkk’ and you could dial without actually putting any money in it, so you got a service call for nothing. If this had been general knowledge the GPO would have lost a lot of money because nobody would be paying.

When you did your training as an Instructor, you had to sit the course as a student. You had to pass, and the theory you had to pass with a credit. It wasn’t obligatory but it was embarrassing if you didn’t get a credit. I ended up getting credits on every course I had already sat. So once you did this you assisted on that course, and then on the third course you were running it as a fully-fledged Instructor.

Sometimes we would set these courses up and then go all over the country. It might be a mobile course. We might go to an area, be there three days before the actual course to set it up and get it ready. So you’d go there Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, come home Friday evening, then you go back Sunday afternoon. It might be a two or three week course, and you’d come home at the weekends as well.

There were only two occasions I never came home at the weekend. One time was because it was snowing when we were down in Sussex, Horsham. Two of us were lodging at the side of Horsham Gold Course. The person who ran it was an elderly ex-RAF pilot, who had been a pilot in the Second World War. The roads were so bad, so we went out on the Saturday evening and had a drink. When we came back the man suggested we go sledging. It’s pitch black at night – it wasn’t that black because of the reflection from the snow – and there was a very, very steep hill. So he got this sleigh or sledge, sat on this thing and ‘he’s gone belting off down this slope on this.’ He dragged it back up and tells us to have a go, so I kicked off. He said ‘Oh, and mind the bench half way down.’ I asked about how to steer it and apparently you lift it and bump it over to steer.

The other occasion was when I was in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Festival. I decided I’d stay up there because it was so interesting. I didn’t go into the Castle to the Tattoo, but the street entertainers were absolutely amazing! So I stayed up there for that weekend as well. Otherwise when I was working in Scotland they flew me up there. I would fly from Stansted, when it was a pokey little airport, not like it is now. It was a proper little wooden shed kind of place.

So I would be flown up to Glasgow or to Edinburgh. The plane would stop at Glasgow and offload people, and then fly on to Edinburgh. This was the first time I’d ever flown and I was absolutely terrified of flying. I wouldn’t fly, but I had to do it. I’m sitting on the plane kind of looking out the window, watching the luggage being unloaded, and there’s a fella sitting opposite me and I said to him ‘Wouldn’t it be a so-and-so if you saw your luggage being unloaded ‘ere and you’re going on to Edinburgh’ and we sort of laughed. When we got to Edinburgh and the carousel went round with everybody’s luggage on it mine wasn’t on it. They’d actually unloaded it at Glasgow! But that was ever so good, because they got a taxi and brought the luggage. It had all my notes for the course and everything, so I needed it for Monday morning.

My students were working for the GPO Occasionally you would get a private student come up. Each area had its own computer system; they couldn’t talk to other areas, so they wanted a massive computer system where it was all linked together. So they were joining up this Customer Service Systems all over the country. Introducing this CSS really sent me everywhere. This was broken down into small groups. There’d be an external group, exchange group, maintenance. I was doing the training on the exchange course, and there was another fella I didn’t get on well. He was doing the maintenance side, and he wasn’t a very nice person. There was a bit of tension between us when we were on these courses, so I used to try to avoid working or lodging with him if I could.

When this system got running we had to train people in these areas to be trainers. We had had three months intensive training, and the people we trained did theirs in two weeks. They were then qualified as an Instructor or Trainer, which meant they could train on any subject. Through this CSS we kind of shot ourselves in the foot, because we set up the courses, they would come down to train, and when they’re qualified they set up the course in their own area. We never saw any more students from that area. Slowly the Training School started to die, and BT was seriously trying to change their image.

Changes in BT

In their cleverness BT introduced ‘National Averages’ which estimates how long a job would take. Sometimes it could take two hours, half an hour, or six hours, but if you could justify the six hours nothing was ever said. But everybody thought it’s got to be done in four because that’s the national average. It got silly with this national average lark, and I just got to the point where I got told off. Blokes told me off because I was putting the job in under time. One job was about 130 hours to install a call connect system. I could put it in in half that time, and I had the rest of the time to waste. I used to give my governor half the time and then I’d go and have a look round the British Museum or go shopping. It was just crazy!

The Instructors I knew – and I like to think that I was part of that as well – were very conscious of getting the students to produce good work. We would fail students. The practical side of a job was marked A, B and C. If a student got, I think it was three Cs, they were automatically failed for the practical work. Some students you knew were capable of doing better work than they were doing. They couldn’t be bothered, no interest. So I’d give them two Cs, and say ‘one more C and you’ve failed’. They’d pull their socks up and start doing a better standard of work.

We had staples you put into the wall when you were stapling to the skirting board at a hammer’s length. Then they bought these staple guns and you’d go bonk, bonk, bonk and just staple these staples all along, and it never looked as neat and tidy. So everything was just right, and you had to allow so much slack on the cable. If you have a bend in the cable, and the wire had to come off and be put back on again, you still had a spare bit of cable to go round it if it had a break. These were the things we used to teach, and some of the students were fantastic. In fact, if they turned out a really, really good bit of work we used to tell them to keep it. We would keep it and use it as an example on a board to show.

We had the students in the afternoons. We had a really big, old-fashioned 1930s big box radio going in the workshop. One lecturer we had used to walk in, switch it off and walk out. As soon as he walked out we switched it back on again. He’d walk back in, turn it off! We got a little portable radio and we put it in the cabinet drawer underneath the big radio, turned the portable radio on. He walked in, turned the switch and the radio kept going because it was the one in the cabinet that was working! And he looked at us with a big smile and he thought we’d by-passed the switch. So he walks over to the wall, threw the switch up and the radio’s still going. All the students knew what we’d done, so everybody just burst out laughing. We opened the drawer and he said ‘You win!’ and he walked out! There was a lot of leg pulling and you had to really be sharp and on your toes, because you were having your leg pulled all the while.

In between running the courses away, you were still running courses in the School. With the CSS we’d train Trainers, they trained students in their own districts, so they weren’t coming up to the School. The School was slowly dying on its feet. There were rumours the School was going to shut and you knew it; it couldn’t go on for much longer.

I was coming up to 55 and BT thought anyone over 50 couldn’t be trained in their new image. They thought you were too set in your ways so they offered loads of severance packages. Some, if you were younger, in your 30s, were pretty good. In lots of cases people left, came back as consultants and were paid more than when they actually worked for them. But it really got quite tense in the end. Every year we would have an appraisement and I’ve got my appraisements upstairs because I always kept a copy of them; every appraisement was always good. I was very conscientious. I know self-praise is no recommendation, but whatever I did I tried to do properly. I’ve got letters upstairs from customers before I went in the Training School thanking me for what I’d done. If I finished a job and they used to go to give you beer money I would refuse it. I would say if they’re pleased then they could let the office know, because it would help my promotion prospects more than a drink.

But it was so stupid, and they’d badger you and badger you. I had these really good appraisements every year. I was working under a man I detested. He was all manager-speak and buzz words. My mate and I sat down in our staffroom and made our own management speak up. The best one was ‘a jumbo stall on the runway’ and we went round the office using it. Nobody took any notice of it.

We had the kite mark come into the Training School where they could be inspected. You had to be able to produce all your documentation for the courses you were running. B.W. decided to take early retirement. He got every bit of information he could for the ‘devilment of it’. His boss came in our staffroom and said there’ll be an inspection, then asked if he has his stuff ready. He asks to look at it so B.W. shows him and he said ‘oh, this is wonderful, wonderful. How will I know how to find it?’ I swear this is true, B.W. replies ‘I’ll leave a note in the book’. He says okay and walks out. So he’s going to leave a note in the notes for him to know where to find it!

Anyway, things were slowly going downhill now. The appraisement from this man was so awful I couldn’t recognise myself. I’m sure they were told ‘anybody over 50’… If you spoke to other people made redundant from other big companies there was a set pattern to demoralise you with no certainty of your future, so you think you can’t go on like this any longer. This bad appraisement was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I just couldn’t cope with it any more. I refused to sign the appraisement saying I thought it was unfair and untrue. I showed it to other bosses in the School, other lecturers, and they couldn’t believe it. So I wrote down on this bit of paper ‘I refuse to sign this appraisement and if Mr So-and So thinks I’ve got problems he should have approached me about them before it got to this stage’. I sent it off, and he got worried. So he lied and said he did tell me about it to get himself off the hook.

By this time I was coming home. I had a brother who worked for BT as well and he’d left as well. He was phoning me up with problems and things that were going on. I had enough, so I signed the bit of paper saying that I would take early, voluntary retirement. And the day before I left I drove up to that College, and I was actually crying while stopped at the traffic lights. It was a job I loved doing, and I thought I was a fool. I should have made them force me out rather than letting them off lightly. I didn’t know what the future held. Who’s going to employ me? I’m 55 years old. ‘I’m going to have a helluva job to find another job.’ But I came home. Poor old I., her hair started to fall out with worry. The package deal they gave me was ludicrous. I got six months money for about 34 years work for my redundancy pay. They enhanced my pension by five years and paid the pension straight off instead of me having to wait until I was 60. One of the things I got was £20 worth of vouchers.

We were presented with framed certificates offering us the best wishes for the future, thanking us for our contribution to the company. We were instructed to just collect our worthless piece of paper, smile, say thank you and walk away. As I was handed this puerile piece of rubbish I told my boss if I had not felt that I’d been forced to take early, voluntary retirement I would have accepted it pride. I would have hung it in a place of honour in my home, but as it was now I didn’t even consider it was worth hanging in the toilet. Before I could finish the sentence I think nearly everyone in the room finished it for me!

Some years later I read of the monetary benefits the Chairman of BT, and another gentleman who was generally believed to be responsible for BT’s fortunes at the time. He received a payment of nearly £1 million plus a yearly pension of £335,535 as well as £321,000 for his post as Honorary President Emeritus. Mind you, I think he may have lost out on the vouchers!

Signing the Official Secrets Act

When I joined we were all classified as Civil Servants, and I think every Civil Servant was obliged to sign the Official Secrets Act. It was when BT, the Post Office, the telephone communications side broke away from the postal side that we lost our Civil Service status, so anybody joining after that wasn’t required to sign the Official Secrets Act. I did quite a lot of work in the Air Ministry Offices and worked in Ministry buildings. Other engineers worked in the Houses of Parliament and other Ministry buildings, obviously 10 Downing Street and places like that. So it was more relevant to them than to me.

We thought we were going to lose a lot of our advantages of being Civil Servants. We just lost the title of Civil Servant. We managed to keep the Civil Service Motoring Association, which I’m still a member of, and the Civil Service Sanatorium Society. I think this was formed years ago, when tuberculosis was rife, and it was for people to recover. It’s since been renamed Benedon, but when I actually left BT I was able to carry on paying a subscription to that, so it’s like a private health service that I’ve still kept going.

Anyway, eventually I left BT, much to my annoyance, and I still feel bitter about it even now, because I always thought I’d stay with BT to the day I retired. 60 was the official retirement age, but everybody I knew could have worked to 65. It was a lovely little bonus, because you got your pension when you were 60 and still getting your wages. A lot of people did it and managed to amass a nice little bit of savings for when they finally did retire at 65. But towards the end they made anybody who was 60 leave, irrespective of what their chances of getting another job. When I left at 55 about 15 people left at the same time, which is about 300 years of experience. Absolutely ludicrous! Some were really clever.

Self-praise is no recommendation. I wasn’t the cleverest or the most qualified Instructor, but I think I was a good Instructor. I enjoyed what I did and the students appreciated it. I always got on well with the students and if we had to break up into groups, a lot of them would rather have gone with me. Because I’d struggled in the past to learn things I could appreciate their struggling, so if they didn’t get it one way I would try another way. I got a great kick at the end of the course when the student was telling me what to do. That was a great thing for me to do that. When it got to the point where I had to leave I had a four drawer filing cabinet full of all my notes and everything, and wasn’t going to let anybody use them, so I shredded them all and threw them in the waste bin. I’ve kept two of my notebooks upstairs, for keepsakes.

I was really, really chuffed about my career, because I’ve got a younger brother and an elder brother. Both passed the 11+ and yet I ended up with the best job, which kind of like pleased me a little bit. I’m a bit smug about that! I’ve enjoyed learning things myself and I’ve enjoyed teaching people. I think I had a technique and a way of doing it which worked for me.

Gardening and maintenance, and into retirement

So I now found myself out of work, and I wasn’t happy because I’d never been out of work all my working life. I did a little bit of gardening for people just to try and get a few extra shillings. I found it demeaning to go to the Job Centre and have to sign on. I’d look at people there that obviously didn’t want to work and were quite happy to go and get their benefits. We were living in Loughton in Essex and I saw a job advertised at a residential home for adults with learning difficulties. It must have been about two months I’d been out of work, because of my redundancy pay I could only get benefits for so many months and then it would stop. I wanted to get a job before that happened. The job was for a gardener and maintenance man, so I phoned up and got an interview, went up there and I got the job. It meant I could use some of the old skills I learnt. Over the years of being married you learn how to stick a bit of paper on the wall, how to paint, and do a bit of plumbing work, so I had a general knowledge. I went from quite good wages to, I think, £5 an hour. But it supplemented the pension. I worked there for about four years I think, and I actually found it very interesting.

When I first went up there I was very nervous because you were a little bit nervous about people like that, adults with learning difficulties, you know. You think to yourself whether they are safe? Are they going to suddenly start ranting and raving at me? But they didn’t. They were people with Down’s Syndrome. There were some who had had a nervous breakdown and never fully recovered. I think most were Down’s Syndrome, and it always made me wonder whether it was a good idea. Some had lived with their parents all their life and then put into the home when their parents had died, and they just couldn’t settle down. Others had been put there from childhood and knew no other way of life, and they were happier.

I know it sounds a bit of a funny old way to put it, but there was one I really liked. He was a twin at a time when they never did scans, so I don’t think they knew twins were coming along. He got air starvation as a child and I think that affected his mental ability. We got on ever so well and he loved to play trad jazz. This place was right in the middle of Epping Forest and you’d hear this music belting out over the fields, and we used to sit outside together when we had a cup of tea. He was something special, but unfortunately he got cancer and died. I went to his funeral. His brother used to come and visit him, his eldest brother would come and visit him once a week. At the funeral in the crematorium, they played ‘He’s not Heavy, He’s my Brother’ and there wasn’t a dry eye. It was really lovely.

I took them out in the minibus to Southend. One of my fondest memories was walking along with the residents at Southend and one of the girls was holding my hand, because they did that, as we were walking along. Coming towards me was my brother and sister-in-law with their husbands and wives. The look on their faces when they saw me walking along holding a lady’s hand, it was a treasure it was! ‘We’ve caught him out!’ Then they saw the other people there.

I worked up there for four years, and I felt I wasn’t being appreciated. I decided I was going to set up and work for myself. So I thought I could do it properly with tax returns and everything. I got my son-in-law to print some flyers which I put through letterboxes. I did a few jobs which led to other jobs and other jobs. In the end I was so busy that I. would sometimes come out and help me. I was working six days a week doing this.

The hardest part for me was the paperwork. When I finished work I would come home and do the paperwork straight away otherwise it would build up. I was very lucky because we were going to Loughton Union Church there, and one of the ladies there was an accountant. I said I’ve got my first self-employed tax thing coming up and in an absolute mess over it. She tells me not to worry and we’ll do it between us. So she came and helped me do the first one, and so I knew what needed to be done. I knew the format so the following years I just altered the figures for that year.

I kept that right up until 2001, and then I came up to Suffolk on an art course, because I do a little bit of paint work. The course was only half a day, the other half you could please yourself what you did. I. came with me and we started looking in estate agents. She was coming up to 60 to retire, I was 62 and we looked around and realised what a nice place Suffolk. Then we moved further and further north and we realised what a nice place Norfolk was. To be honest, we also realised what value for money we could get if we sold our home in Loughton and moved up to Norfolk. So in 2001 we retired and moved up to Norfolk.

Although I hated working in that factory right it taught me to be persistent, because when you’re making thousands of the same thing you can’t just say to the foreman ‘Oh, I’m fed up with that now. Can I have another job?’ The more boring something gets the fussier I get about it. It’s a really, really strange thing.

The Council work was good because it gave me a completely different aspect on life. You weren’t being watched every five minutes. You weren’t being told you’re paid to work and not to talk, as I was on one occasion working in the factory. When I worked round the schools we would walk up to the kitchen in the morning and they’d give us a cup of tea. There was nobody chasing you all the while. As long as the job was done and there were no complaints when the boss of the Parks came round to see you weren’t being told. So that was good.

Starting off with the GPO was a good confidence booster going in different places. The biggest boost was when I went in the Training School. It was a bit like acting because never mind how fed up you might be and how many times you did that course you still had to be full of enthusiasm showing the students what to do. I’ve never really thought about it before, but each of those jobs has given me something.

Brian (b. 1939) talking to WISEArchive on 2nd November 2011 in Gressenhall.

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