Working Lives

The craftsman plumber (1950-2002)

Location: Norwich

Peter learned his trade as an apprentice plumber and, after National Service in the RAF, worked in the trade for most of his working life. Post-war development opened up opportunities in the building trade – commercial, industrial, as well as domestic so there was a whole gamut of trade. ‘Norwich was being renovated then. 


My first job was in an office pro tem when I was waiting for an apprenticeship to come up in plumbing. There was a bit of nepotism going on since my brother worked in Morgan’s Brewery and that was the office in which I started. The minutes went like hours…!

Fortunately I was able to get my apprenticeship, where I spent the next five years. We were assisting a tradesman but doing some things on our own. Having gone to the Junior Tech, which was a technical school, we had the training in certain abilities to be able to do things, such as leadwork to a degree on our own. That involved going to one ‘day release’ and one night at the city college for the technical training.

That would have continued and we had to then keep what was known as a Full Tech to get our deferment from National Service until we finished our apprenticeships. That came up at twenty-one, and then it was into National Service, which was spent in the RAF. Everyone of a particular age – 18 onwards (male) – was required to do National Service. This was in 1954  and stopped about 1960 or 1962.

Really plumbing was temporary employment. It was associated within the building trade, and that was always known as temporary employment because the work starts and finishes on the project or whatever – a council estate being built, or a private estate – when that was finished, dependent on the customer coming to the firm asking for work.

So we were always aware, wondering how long we were going to be here or what was the job like. I suppose you learn to live with it but there was an underlying anxiety about permanence. I mean, if you went to the Norwich Union, you were there for life! But having come out of the forces and National Service, which was two years, there was an obligation on the firm to take the ex-apprentice back, but that was for a year.

After that I was made redundant, as were many many plumbers, and then I went up to Mackintosh’s – the confectionery factory – on nights.

Post War Development and the Building Trade

That supplied work for maybe four years and then I went back into plumbing. By that time it had grown to plumbing and heating because, I suppose, technology moved on that much that it was available to smaller properties like houses and, yes, it was a whole new ball-game. They extended the work operation so that you had to acquire different skills and a little more knowledge of what to do. Because the technology – you didn’t pick it out of the ether, you had to acquire it somehow.

At that time, there was still a lot of post-war development with new estates. You could say that the majority were finished come 1954. They call it social housing now – what’s an objectionable term to me because it was local authority housing. Social housing has a connotation. Sometimes you associate them with ne’er-do-wells, don’t you, which is a pain to me, and wrong. It’s an offensive modern idea. I was pleased to live in one initially. Very much so. Everyone had a bathroom then in those council houses.

There was still demolition going on around Chapelfield area – what would have been the back of the hospital. New flats were going up, ‘high rise’ was starting to come in rather than the ‘spread’ so there would have been that work going on.

I went onto a firm, which was an old-established firm in Norwich, and then went to work with a guy I did much of my apprenticeship with. That was a good guy and started his own business and for thirty-odd years I guess I was with that firm.

The night work at the factory was just as a factory hand. That wasn’t in a trade.

The firm was an established one and you’d go there and say ‘I want to be a plumber’. The first thing is you get indentured and you go along to the Tech. The person I worked with before worked for the same firm. There was very little self employment. People were employed fully.

So my first job was to work with a lovely guy – he was an officer in the RAF during the war, and I’m pretty certain he was Air Crew. That was interesting.

At that period Norwich was being renovated – nothing going on during the war in that area. Some of the big shops were having toilets and facilities put in so the builders, they were making hay, so we were in quite different set-ups, really. Commercial, industrial, as well as domestic, so there was a whole gamut of trade.

Work hours were eight till ‘whenever’. The starting time was eight and if you were in the country there would be travelling time, which was bookable on the timesheet – if you were working in Acle, maybe half an hour travelling on the train. We didn’t have bikes, or rather motorbikes – we had bikes but not cars. Those things came along later, which was part of the affluence, I guess.

I got around on a bike; in the firm’s van; on a bus; on a builders’ lorry – freezing in the winter on the back of one of them! They used to have a canvas shack, in effect, stuck on the back, full of smoke of course – everyone smoked. In the winter you ‘endured’ the work. There was no way out of being cold, as in agriculture.

So the working conditions could be arduous. If I was the type that only wanted to be in an office I would have found it unbearable, I expect, but because I wanted to be a tradesman that was it, part and parcel of the setup. You saw many, many different people. Counter to that, going through the same gate and through the same doors as an office worker, it would be unbearable really! As a tradesman the scene was always changing, which had its interest. We’d be working in people’s houses and meeting different people.

I didn’t have to work throughout the night, but it has become more complex now – inasmuch as this heating and these electric showers. It didn’t exist, it was fairly fundamental – the basics – so that could wait until tomorrow. Obviously if there was a ball-valve broke or there was a flood of water then you would be called out.

Different skills – Leadwork and Boilers

There were firms in the city which did heating and plumbing, and that was then divided up between heating and hot water. You could be a hot water fitter, or a heating fitter, or you could have been a plumber. Plumbing mainly would have involved leadwork on roofs – church roofs, weathering of chimneys, all leadwork, and at one time the sewer pipe (what the bathroom was connected with) would have been lead. (Plumbo – lead. That’s where it comes from.) There would have been lead services, which would have required joint working as a skill.

The skill of being a plumber was somewhat different from what it is today. If there’s leadwork to be done that’s now a specialised job, would you believe! Well, it is, but we had to do all that as well. All the other bits and pieces got bolted on in the end, so that we were doing heating and everything pertaining to water – domestic or commercial.

When heating developed, we had to learn on the job, basically. No formal training. But some of the younger guys coming up through the apprenticeships might have gone on and got some of that stuff from the Tech.

It was quite basic. We got the theory of it in the last year, basically when we were doing three nights a week at the Tech. You’d get the calculations out to suss out pipe size and radiator size, and heat requirements – there was that aspect of it – but, being four years out of it, I missed the inception of it. So yeah, you picked it up. Which was quite interesting.

Also the technology improved and changed from innovations – especially the size of the boilers! You can get a biscuit tin now for your heating, can’t you? At that time, there was a shovel-through boiler, which was around the size of a chest of drawers, in which you shovelled coal and then that would do it; or the gas boilers, if they were floor-standing, they were still huge, quite frankly – some of them required two to lift them. Then it all became scaled down because of the efficiency in manufacture. The controls were then changing from what would have been, in some ways, a bit quaint – because in the gas-operated boiler there would have been gas lines going through a particular gas control which required gas going out to a permanent flame.

The boilers were inside, certainly for domestic – and if it was going to be a commercial premises or industrial they would be outside. Huge outfits, they were! But it was mostly inside for us – from my experience.

Working Conditions and Unions

I didn’t work with all the time with the guy I knew. Whoever required a hand got a hand. Sometimes you’d work on your own and sometimes with one person. Doing an apprenticeship, you had to take responsibility for doing the work and you had to make money, which wasn’t always easy.

The anxiety existed about knowing whether you were going to have a job next week – if they’d got to ‘let you go’ was the term. If you’re talking about guarantee of work, I just wonder whether that existed in those days. You’d give a year’s warranty on anything today, and there must have been some cover like that, which wasn’t my area to know about. Those sort of things went into the office.

There was one incident of me being paid the wrong money. As an apprentice there was a scale of wages, set by the unions and the other bodies of employers. And I had a twin brother, Paul. This would have been at least two years into our apprenticeship because we started basically at the same time. I saw his wage packet on the mantelpiece one day and said ‘What, have you been doing a lot of overtime, Paul?’

He said ‘No’.

‘So how did you get that?’

He said ‘Well, look at it’.

And I was getting paid the wrong money. So I saw the foreman (I’m telling you this because that’s of interest) and that got me thinking about certain aspects of life.

I saw the foreman who was also the union rep, can you believe (talk about running with the hare and hunting with the hounds)! He was the union rep and he coerced us all to be in the union. Bearing in mind that he’d put himself forward to be elected as area representative to go down to wherever they had these big meetings – Eastbourne, or something like that – so he was keen, in that area.

So I said ‘I think I’m getting the wrong money’, and I told him how I’d came to that knowledge.

‘I’ll see about it.’

So it went by. A fortnight went by; a month went by – ‘blast I forgot’, ‘blast I forgot’ – and so this went on for, what, two months at least. ‘Blast I forgot!’ So I thought ‘well, I’ll go and see the area rep’, who was in charge of all the little branches.

‘Billy, I’m getting the wrong money.’

‘Okay, leave it with me.’

A week went by, a month went by. In the end I went ‘I still ‘ent…’ and he said, ‘No, we’ve never had any trouble in this area and we have good relationships with them.’ But I thought ‘Well, of course you’re going to have good relationships if you ‘ent shaking any cages, you know.’

In the end he said he would give me the rulebook, so I could go and see my employer. I thought “B… me!”

So I took the rulebook with me up to see my employer and at the time the foreman was there. The old system’s scale was age of the employee – no, the term served of the apprentice. The new system was age of apprentice. And so my employer said ‘Well, whad’a’you think if I employ someone at nineteen I’ve got to pay them this money and it’s their first time on work?’

I said, ‘Well, it’s something you’d probably have to sort out yourself and come to some amicable arrangement.’ But it was obvious in the rulebook. And he handed it to his man – he must have been the union man – well, it must have been his Bible, this rulebook. And, he looked at it and looked at me then said to the rep, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I can’t see daylight in it’. And I thought. there he was, my rep. I was a fully paid-up member of the Union.

That was an interesting situation I came across, and that taught me many things. So much so that I’m probably a militant by nature anyway, but there was a reason for me to get the union involved in Mackintosh’s. Because they brought in a machine that went half as fast again. And I said, ‘The bonus figures are going to be changed, aren’t they?’

‘Oh, I’ll see about it,’ said the charge hand, so I saw the foreman – and then nothing done.

So I saw the union man and he said ‘I can’t do anything because you’re not represented, on nights.’ So I told him to give me the forms, and got 98% of people to join (on nights)! Got the union installed and involved, and there was a works consultative committee came out of that. Their bonuses were changed. Everyone in the factory benefited, but I was put on what was called ‘the dock’, on basic hours and basic bonus! So, victimised again! But that was to my benefit in the end.

Of course there was a culture of that sort of friction – that’s why unions came about. If the b… s were good employers in those days there wouldn’t have been the need for unions, would there? You know, we live in a horrible right-wing area of Norfolk and it’s unfair. I didn’t want to be stuck by Mackintosh’s making more money. That’s right that they should make money, and I applaud people making profits. That’s what they’re there for, and I need them for a job, but let’s be fair about it. But there, maybe you’ve found that out in your short working life?

I don’t think I’ve had a job where something hasn’t arisen with the company being unwilling to be fair or give what you’re entitled to. They always seem to be trying to squeeze the very last drop out of their employees.

Yes, I was prepared to give blood. At the start of my apprenticeship they wanted some chimneys flashed – the lead that made them watertight, the chimney rising out of the tiled roof. Now, we learnt how to do that at junior school! ‘Cause in our last year we did what trade we chose to go in for, and so you would have bossed up, using sheet lead, what was a back gutter, an apron and side cheeks – all these sort of technical terms, but they allude to what the actual shape of the lead forms were needed from the sheet – and we knew how to do it.

So I said ‘Well, I’ll go and do that.’ I was keen to do that. I was working with street lights – that was how keen I was. I used to go back to work after work for no money to do things – welding, brazing stuff in the workshop – because I was keen.

I was Conservative because of my parents and I grew out of it, but let’s be fair: there is strife in the world and the tension is there because they want as much as they can get out of you and you want as much as you can get out of them, so in the middle there’s a requirement of dialogue.

I remember the biggest problem when I worked at a restaurant was that our manager would have her area manager shouting at her to get the labour hours down. She’d therefore have to be shouting at us, and then sent people home – but then it’s a restaurant and you would get customers in and not enough people to cope with the rush. It was all about the company and that hierarchy trying to get onto the person below them to squeeze every last drop out.

Everyone has their ass kicked, but at the same time if they do a correct analysis – and they must have been running for several months, if not years – with an assessment of business that you can build into your charges to accommodate that labour being a bit idle now and then. Years of understanding of the game, but unless they are going to work their profitability over a short term, well then nothing is feasible at that level, as I see it. But there you go!

Changes since the war in plumbing

It was a time of great change in materials. Indeed, I suppose plastic came in from the ‘50s onwards, because it was only five years after the war. I think there was plastics being produced to a degree before the war finished. The war was a significant signpost in our lives.

It spurred a lot of change in every aspect of life – medical and everything. So lead was replaced in some degree by plastic pipes, and what had been done with iron pipe would have been replaced with copper, as would lead pipes. But now copper is replaced by plastic within the heating systems; there is mini-bore or micro-bore. So there’s all that. But technology is forever developing – and at a faster rate. So it gets accelerated, doesn’t it, as it evolves.

Of course it became a bit easier, with probably less requirement of craft skills, which in some ways I would have to say that’s a pity – you know, because it’s a pity to see craftsmanship go.

They no longer required joint working, for a start. Joint working is where you join lead pipe to lead pipe. It’s like a coupling. That was where it would have been used. It was also used to repair cracks in lead that had cracked and expanded. Yes, the bending of copper tube – which was done manually with a guide and a former, which wouldn’t have existed. To bend iron pipe you would have had to have heated it up and to bend four-inch lead pipe you would have used what were known as ‘bobbins’ and ‘followers’. It was a skill which you needed to develop.

With a plastic soil pipe, all the fittings would have been moulded – but if I went into a really well stocked supplier of materials I wouldn’t have a clue with some of the stuff today. Simple things – like the siphon on a toilet, or even the ball valve of a toilet, which is somewhat different now. I mean, once you’ve got the gist of it, you would know how it worked. It’s not a craft that you would have had to develop, or a skill. I suppose it’s like electricity. The big change was materials and working practices in that field.

The craftsmanship was part of what I enjoyed about the work. There was still the desire to be the best plumber in the city – and I mean that! It was never achieved, but the aspirations were there for anyone who went in as a craftsman. I don’t care what field it is – any one of them – and the building trade provided many areas of craftsmanship. You could go on from being a joiner and going into the workshop to make up joinery. But when I see some of the stuff down at the Cathedral at Bury St Edmunds, the stonemasons and the carpenters who worked on that, and what they developed. It could still be done if the money was there – because the leadwork had to be repeated the same as it was centuries ago – so the leadworkers, who aren’t called plumbers now, are doing what we were doing even now.

But yes, I wanted to do that work. You end up with a piece of board like this and you’d make a box out of it. And you have internal and external angles, and you had to box these all up, using wooden tools, and when first that happened with the instructor, I thought ‘that looks interesting’ and then just to do that… And it became better the more you did, so that was the development of my skills, wasn’t it? There was a knowledge of things. Today, what’s a hydraulic ram?

Interviewer: Something that is powered by air pressure?

No – that’s not hydraulics is it? Hydro – water. You see – there’s none of that about today! We had to have those things. There’s a big air bottle at the bottom of a drive pipe, with a reservoir up there, and the water would come down there by gravity and pressurise this air bottle. Then there’d be a clack valve which allows the delivery of water up another length so the delivery was greater than the drive. I’m not really explaining it well but it was those things that we had to do, and have an understanding about. You just put a switch on now, but that was incredibly interesting!

I know it sounds almost silly, but it would have mattered, the work you were doing. If it wasn’t done right, it would have had consequences, for people’s lives, so you had to make sure it was done properly.

Well, within the apprenticeship at the Tech, you had to learn certain mathematics – you know, to find out the size of the drain required, with the discharge and its requirement. You needed to know the wet perimeter, so you had a formula for working out these sorts of things. Someone had to do it – if it wasn’t prescribed, it was down to you. So going to Tech was quite interesting and it fed the involvement of your work. It was more complex, obviously, learning about the theory of everything. You didn’t get everything within your working engagement, so yes, it was interesting.

The Putty Gun

Having a twin brother, we used to talk about things. A little amusing incident: my brother was working down at Oulton Broad, and he came back and tell me some tales about how they were having a putty gun fight (a piece of half-inch tube full of putty, and they were lethal). They were doing this on the site and one of them went ‘duck’ and he went ‘quack, quack’ and got the putty.

So I knew about these things, so I went into the pub one night and a guy said ‘Hello Paul, come and sit down.’ So I spent the night talking about Oulton Broad with that bloke, and he didn’t know that I wasn’t Paul! That was in the Romany Rye. I’ll never forget it! They were interesting times.

Paul worked for R G Carter Builders, which was a different set-up really, in a way. You know, they had plumbers basically to look after the maintenance side of some of the big customers they had, like the Maids Head Hotel and stuff like that. They did do new work of installation but not as much as I would have done, which was a plumbing firm available to all and everyone who required work done. Carter’s laid out the work they wanted to do and if that was the requirement, that they needed a plumber or plumbers.

My job had more variation, and Paul knew that, or understood that. I’m not saying that he was dumb, or dim, that he couldn’t understand. What I’m saying is that he realised, and could see the point of it – or the difference.

It Could Only Happen To a Plumber

Another amusing incident – I’ve got to tell you this one. I was working at the Bell Hotel – you know, a pub. Well, it used to be a hotel, and there’d be chambermaids and chamber pots under the bed – but there was also a urinal downstairs for the pub. Originally you went into a little corridor from outside that sitting area, which is still open to the road, and they had a drain blockage there. It required me to lift the manhole cover up, which was just about before you went into the opening up of the urinal having come in from the passageway, and I put my tool bag in front of the open manhole, to make sure that people could see.

And I’m up the other end looking after what had happened with the urinal and I heard this sort of grunt and ‘oh bloody hell’ sort of thing and I’m looking at a man holding onto a bit of conduit pipe, and his feet had just disappeared in the manhole!

I said ‘Sorry about that – didn’t you see it?’

Well, he turned round and he had one of his glasses blacked out and he only had the one eye! And he said he was an Inspector of Accidents. I couldn’t believe it! That was really really funny. You couldn’t make it up!

It was wonderful. That could only happen being a plumber, couldn’t it? Oh dear! These incidents come up in life!

Health and Safety: A Good Thing

So, all in all, the life was interesting. Arduous, certainly in the end – the work we were doing – because now, sometimes for solid fuel, you’d have to take the fireplace out – clear it right out. We were using a hundredweight bag of cement, being plumbers, bricking up the fireplaces and plastering.

The skills you had to adapt to or adopt would require certain other aspects – like plastering, and I don’t mean just patches, I mean nearly a whole wall – and stuff like that. You would acquire these skills because you wanted to. Some guys wouldn’t do it, but the employer knew we were keen enough to do anything with our hands. And some of the work was dangerous. People would say ‘well, don’t take too many risks’ but I said ‘how many are too many risks?’ Too many is when you land, dead, isn’t it!

So you go up to line a chimney, with the ladder sloping onto the top of it, but that’s also leaning that way as well – and you’re fearful of your life, you know!

People say about ‘health and safety’ and I say ‘good’. Because of that. I think it has now got a reputation as something negative, but it is important, surely.

The people who moan mostly are the ones who have never been in a situation of jeopardy. I’ve been frightened: having to get off the roof onto the ladder because the ladder has been out of sight below the roof. Getting up is one thing, but just hoping my foot was on it…!

The whole field changed. We had to line the flues because of the products of coal fires and the cost of the flue lining was £1 an inch, and that was when a quid was worth something. It was a metal flexible flue liner. Heavy.  We had to hump it up to the roof and stand on top of the chimney and let it down, even if that was a snow storm! I’ve done it in a snow storm. Yes, it’s hard to earn money sometimes.

Working Hours and Pay

The former years of our apprenticeship were in some ways a bit more interesting – the craft aspect. But also, latterly, everyone wants the jobs done ‘yesterday’.

There was a time when we did put a heating system in a house in a day. We went in in the morning and came out and that was centrally heated. That’s the fireplace out, new cylinders, radiators, everything – in a day. Five of us went in. We gave them a price what we thought we could do it for, and I think we undersold ourselves, because the first one we did was a council house over at Cromer and we’d finished by three o’clock. But we had to hold it back because the guv’nor was coming round. It wasn’t like that every job, but we amazed ourselves that we had the heating on at three o’clock. That was seven hours.

Hourly pay, but we did do price work in the end, because at one time the firm that I worked for had the contract for all the council houses in the city what wanted gas central heating, and the other installers heard about it and they kicked up a shindig, so it had to be spread about a bit. But that work we could have done on a price, and so I used to do flats, or whatever, and if you did them in four days I’d have a day off. I didn’t want to go in for extra money. That was wonderful.

Five and a half days a week was the – what would you call it – the statutory. Yes, we used to work Saturday mornings as a matter of course – a 44 hour working week, that was the minimum. Then it came down to 40, didn’t it. Now it’s probably 37 or 37 and a half I think. But in the main to get a decent wage packet you needed to get 50 hours in, even towards the end.

Some – the people I’ve worked in their houses – wouldn’t get out of bed for that money, and people think they’re poorly paid. Well I must be, can you believe it! I’m glad to be retired, I really am, yeah.

It’s funny to think about Lakenham Council School (and [the interviewer’s] Dad being there),  because when the school got bombed down Horns Lane, we were put up there, and the first day there I remember playing at catching one another, and running along the verandas and wanting to dodge into the playground and grabbing onto this rainwater downpipe and pulling it off the wall! That was the first bad mistake in my life I made with Lakenham Council!

I also remember the girls doing their gym outside – they were in PT kit, weren’t they – but I wasn’t looking at them from a lecherous view. I was interested because I enjoyed PT – running and exercise and stuff – but  the teacher, she said, ‘You go out and tell the teacher that was there that you’ve got to stand and watch them.’ She thought I was spending too much time. That was most embarrassing.

Oh dear! Things have changed, haven’t they? Well, maybe!

Peter (b. 1933) talking to WISEArchive on 11th April 2011 in Poringland.

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