Working Lives

The friendly coalman (1944 – 1996)

Location: Norwich

After leaving school at 14,  Desmond worked as a coalman delivering sacks of coal to the growing city of Norwich. After National Service he went back to selling coal and delivered coal to his loyal customers for many years.  Business declined steadily as people were using less and less coal, but he carried on selling coal until he retired in 1997.

I was fourteen when I left school and I started working almost straight away. My first job was at the Reliance Garage down Hay Hill (Norwich) – I was with them for a year and a half. I helped them move, in fact; they moved from there to a big central garage they had built on Heigham Street. I thoroughly liked the job, don’t get me wrong! But unfortunately I was called by my dad to help out with his business. He had fallen ill and couldn’t do it for a little while, so I had to take over the reins. That’s how I came into it, the coal business. I was only a lad, but I did it, and I did it all my life!

I must have been fifteen or sixteen when I started, and I started off with the hard stuff. It was a pick and a shovel, as the saying goes. You shovelled coal into sacks and carried them. I did the same work as the older men – just because I was a younger age that didn’t stop me. I did the work, I had to drive too. I soon got a licence and drove the lorries then, all around the estates. Our day would start at 8 o’clock. We were always dead on time – the customers used to say that they could set their watches by us. We were on time in the summer, in the winter, even if there was seven foot of snow on the floor we’d push our way through it. As a matter of fact, there was a big piece in the Evening News about the coalmen, about how the customers set the time by us. We got on really well with the customers; they used to think a lot of us.

From that beginning the business got bigger and bigger. New houses were being built along Earlham, North Park and South Park Avenues, all around. Customers would move into new houses and we followed them, picking up new customers along the way. The more we picked up the bigger the business got. Out we went and we’d have no trouble at all. If anything went wrong or if the customer was dissatisfied we would put it right. Oh it was nice, seeing all the customers. The way some of them used to talk to me, you’d think they were my mother and father! But this was disrupted for two years when I got called up into the forces. I was eighteen when I did my national service, in 1950 or so. All boys had to join the forces in those days and do eighteen months.


After that was over I went straight back into the coal business. It had grown even more in the

Queens Road Coal Depot 1986. Photo George Plunkett
Queens Road Coal Depot 1986. Photo George Plunkett

time I was gone, what with the new housing estates and new customers. It just mushroomed. We’d drive out with one load and come back, then out again with another load, and so on, until we said, ‘This is no good, we’ll need to get another lorry up the estate’. In the end we had four lorries on the go. I’d drive one, my father the other, and a couple of chaps in the other two. We built it up from horse and cart to four lorries going all around the city. We bought a lot of equipment in this time. In the summer we’d work nearly as hard as in the winter, putting the coal in stocks ready for the cold months. We rented a piece of land from the railway where we’d keep the coal on a heap. We’d carry the coal from the truck in baskets on our backs and take them up the heap. Well of course that became too much, so I asked my father if we could get a conveyor. Oh he ‘ummed and ‘ahhed like you wouldn’t imagine, set in his old ways, not wanting to spend the money! In the end we did get this damn great conveyor, once we’d had the electric laid to power it. Oh, that was lovely then, you’d just drop the coal off and up the heap it’d go. After that I said to my father, I said, ‘Right, we’d better get some hoppers now,’ and he gave in. Once we had hoppers we didn’t need to do so much shovelling. With that we could do far more rounds in a day.

Before that we used the horse and cart. There was one horse called Nancy who could near enough do the rounds on her own! The man would take her out on the roads and she’d stop at all the right houses. She’d wait and wouldn’t move until she knew you’d taken the bag of coal off, then she’d pull along to the next house and that was how Nancy was. She liked to stop at the bottom of Constitution Hill and have a drink in Sewell Park. They had a big fountain there, for Anna Sewell who wrote Black Beauty, and that was where Nancy would take her drink. After that she went up the hill – only with the cart empty, she’d done her day’s work then and was taking herself home. My mother would come out and fuss her, give her a pat. She was a lovely mare. We had another horse named Tinker and we’d put the two of them out to grass in the summertime. When my dad sold them he made sure to sell them to people who would look after them. Nancy went to an old farmer at Ringland. He treated her like a baby – he loved animals and horses especially, so she had a good home, and if she was ever limping or sick they’d always phone father and the vet. But we warned them, if you put Nancy to work you should put her in a cart, not a plough or roller or anything. She was used to the cart, but not those other types of work. She was so well behaved. They thought the world of her.


In those days the customers would leave us the keys to get into their houses, if we were delivering coal while they were at work. We’d find them under the mat or wherever they told us to look – sometimes they wouldn’t even lock the door and we’d just walk right it. Not many people had coal bunkers so we would deliver the coal to stores inside their houses. Tall containers, under the stairs or in the cellar, perhaps a little coal house in the kitchen. Yes, they trusted us to walk in. Nothing was ever stolen, nothing like that. Back then you trusted the delivery men, the milkman, the breadman, and so on. They’d deliver to your door free of charge, not like nowadays. We got to know our customers quite well. I have some stories about them. We used to go up the lanes behind Willis Street, near Cowgate, and sometimes they would hang the linen out across the road! And I’d say “Well, they shouldn’t have put ‘em up until they knew we’d been through,” because they knew damn well we’d be there by 8 o’clock! Oh that was funny.

We had some interesting old customers. There was a couple who lived up near Magdalen Street way in a three-storey house – an old lady who was, well, a bit silly, and her husband. They had three or four girls lodging there too, and I knew for a fact these girls were prostitutes. The Americans loved visiting there; they’d say ‘Good night”’to the old mother, give her a fiver or whatever the cost. But she didn’t know what the girls were doing! She was clueless! Once a month we’d go there on our round. When she’d had a good night, when the yanks had given her a good tip as they were going out, she’d buy her coal and say ‘I’ll have ten, no, fifteen – I’ll have a ton!’ and we’d say, ‘You can have what you like, by the lorry load if you want it, if you’ve got the money!’

On one sad day, when we visited her and knocked on the door, she came out with such a look on her face. I said ‘What’s the matter?’ and she said ‘My poor Alfie, he’s dead.’ So I went inside to see – oh it was funny what she’d done! She’d laid him on the bed but his, his parts were stood up from the rigor mortis, and she’d put a flower over ‘em!  I said, ‘You can’t do anything now, you’d better call the undertaker or the police.’   I don’t know what the girls were doing but they must have smelled it.

I actually have another story like this. A nice old lady and her husband lived in this house with a coal bunker outside. They were regular customers of ours, so we knew when their coal bunker would be empty by, and they’d leave their gates open so we could get through. On this one particular day we visited and the gate wasn’t open. That was unusual. The coal bunker lid wasn’t off either.  I went and knocked on the door and the lady came and said, ‘I think my husband’s had a stroke. He’s upstairs in bed.’ I asked if she wanted me to go and have a look and she said, ‘Please, if you will, I don’t want to go up’. So I did, and the poor old devil is dead, laying there with his hand on the floor – looked like he’d been reading a book as he went. So I went back to her and said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but your husband is dead. I think you should call the police, or any family who can help.’ She had a nephew further down the road so I said I’d pop in and tell him. I asked if she wanted to see her husband and she did, so we went back upstairs. That was when I realised the man had swallowed his false teeth! I pulled them out and she put them in the glass right beside the bed. Yes, there were times like that, surprising things. So the customers got to know you and they trusted you.


The job did change a lot over the years. Things deteriorated fast after the miners’ strikes in the 70s and 80s. When they had the big strike in 1984 we knew full well that it would be bad for business, which it was. The miners were off for months. This was when Maggie Thatcher was prime minister, and she knew full well that they wouldn’t get away with it, silly boys. We were getting more coal then than ever, from America, from everywhere! There was more coal laying around than you’d ever seen. The poor devils didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell – we were still getting coal, no-one was suffering. But Arthur Scargill kept them on strike, sons were fighting their fathers, it was terrible for them in the coal mines. The miners were silly for letting themselves be ruled by that man, because he’d never have won.

People were using less and less coal as the years went by. The council didn’t really help. In the Heartsease area, for one, where we used to do a terrific round, they were pulling out the old fires and replacing them with back boilers. Then it was gas fires and central heating. That’s what really killed the industry; there wasn’t a use for our coal rounds anymore. So when I was 65 years old – that must have been in 1997 or so – I decided I’d had enough. I sold the business and retired.

Desmond  (b. 1931) talking to WISEArchive on 5th April 2016 in Norwich.

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