The Municipal Engineer (1950-1990)

Location : Norwich

I left Grammar School in July ’50 and I didn’t have a job to go to. The careers advice that I got in those days was not very good and the only thing that the school could suggest was that I went into accountancy and worked in London. Well I had a brother and father who were working in London but I didn’t like the idea of spending an hour to an hour and a half on a train in the morning and the same at night. So I left school and started looking round at various things to do. I got a temporary job in the design office of a local factory which manufactured furniture. This gave me a tremendous amount of experience in draftsmanship which later on was very useful. I then managed to obtain work as a junior assistant in the engineer’s department of the local urban council.

I approached them, asking whether they had any openings and whilst there weren’t any immediately, after a couple of months I received an offer of position in the engineer’s department.

Engineering and surveying

One of my brothers, after he left the services went into surveying and I liked what he was involved in but it was quite clear when I started looking into it that I couldn’t get into surveying unless I went through a technical college and got a qualification – that’s actually what he did. So I went into the urban council and started working with them under the engineer and surveyor who was a qualified municipal engineer. Shortly after starting, I was told that there was a scheme which the Institution of Municipal Engineers had started allowing people to be trained for three years under one of their engineers and designated an engineering learner. The idea was that you obtained practical information and experience in the office but then you studied for the Institution’s exams on your own. I was liable for National Service when I was eighteen and it was pointed out to me that if I wanted to study, as I obviously did, then they would give me a day off a week to go to a local technical college or for private study. So when I became eighteen I got deferment from National Service for four years.

The scheme I entered into with the engineer was quite far reaching actually. It covered draftsmanship, surveying and levelling, including all the usual instruments, carrying out small surveys for housing estates and so forth. Plus all the other things an urban council did – which in those days was quite considerable. They dealt with town planning, building control (building bylaws as it was in those days), public utilities, street works, street lighting, parks, gardens, recreation grounds, cemeteries, road improvements and housing estates.

An urban council in Essex was highly involved in private street works making up unmade roads which were laid out in the early part of the twentieth century to give access to plots which were then sold off. There was an awful lot of work to be done on them which proved very interesting.

Studying was difficult because the Institute exams were set for various subjects and whilst I could get time to go to the local technical college for certain things, they didn’t actually cover those subjects specifically. I had to pick and mix and the majority of the work actually was on my own. It was mainly private study but I did manage to find an organisation to do a correspondence course with which helped on a couple of the subjects. So I started sitting for the exams but I hadn’t completed the intermediate, as they called it in those days, by the time that I decided to go for National Service, in July ’56.

It was very enjoyable although being a youngster and a junior meant I did all the basic jobs but it was mainly assisting the other people in their detailed work. One of the jobs was going out and assisting in surveying which involved holding the end of the chain and holding the levelling staff, something which I don’t think they do these days and I learned to trace plans onto linen using Indian ink.

In those days you had basic equipment, engineers’ chains, steel or linen tapes and dumpy levels. The most accurate work had to be done when we were involved in private street works because each frontager to that street had to pay a certain amount of money for the street to be made up. That involved measuring each very accurately so that the cost for each person could be calculated. The measurement was done with a steel tape in those days, not a linen one, and when it came to working out the amount that the frontager should be charged I had the job of doing all the calculations which involved multiplying a length, say thirty-five feet seven inches by three pounds two and ninepence a foot!

I didn’t have a calculator. The only thing we had were books of tables to assist you but it was a tedious business and you had to be accurate because it could be challenged in court and if you were wrong there were all sorts of problems. Fortunately we didn’t have any challenges and we did quite a few streets.

That part of Essex was on London clay and the roads had no hard material on them apart from a few ashes from domestic fires which people put on so you can imagine what it was like when people were using vehicles in the winter. It was mainly cycles, delivery vehicles and a few cars and people having coal delivered, for example, heavy vehicles like that.

I think the majority of people were quite happy to have their road made up despite having to pay. The only problems that arose that I can remember were for people who had corner plots. The council charged the full rate for the frontage to the main road and side road even though it was possible under the Private Street Works Act for the frontage on the side road to be charged at a lower rate but our council charged the full amount. That raised one or two problems at times but there weren’t any challenges that I can remember.

When I first started in 1951 the office that we occupied was in a separate building at the back of the main offices. The main offices were in an old building which was occupied by people other than the urban council staff. I think the fuel overseer was in there in those days because fuel was still rationed. Our building at the back consisted of an asbestos clad, wooden lined building which was so cold in the winter that the water in containers for the colouring prints froze! The only heating we had was gas radiators and small ones at that. So it was fairly spartan.

In those days the local government union was NALGO – it’s now called Unison – but they didn’t really get involved too much. I think everybody accepted the conditions after the war after what they’d been through.

People were more formal in the office in those days so we had to be reasonably well clad. I wore a sports jacket, tie and grey trousers, even outside on the job.

The engineering department was men only, the women tended to be in the other offices, I think the administrative side had a few women but engineering was a closed door to women in those days.

National Service then back to the urban authority

When I was called up to do my National Service in June of ’56 and I went into the RAF as a Ground Wireless Fitter and spent about twenty weeks being trained. I was sent afterwards on various work and finished up at the Radio Engineering Unit, Henlow in Bedfordshire. I didn’t realise it at the time but radio opened my eyes and I used some of that knowledge in later work. The RAF was very helpful and gave me a day off a week to attend technical college.

The urban district council kept job for me – they had to take me back. So at the end of my service I returned to the urban council. By then I had passed the intermediate exam of the Institution of Municipal Engineers so I had a step up in the organization which involved me in a little bit more responsible work and a slight increase in pay. I did my own surveys and I was involved in the design of a stylish sports pavilion in one of the recreation grounds which stood until a few years ago. I did surveying for housing sites and I was also involved in the town planning aspect of the work.

When people wanted to develop land in the area, we had to keep a register and also maintain a large book of Ordnance Survey maps indicating where these applications were and the relevant reference numbers. The Public Utilities and Street Works Acts were important and the electricity, gas and water people, if they wanted to dig up a road, had to make applications to the council to do so. I was involved with the building bylaws. People who wanted to build properties also had to apply to the council for permission. The plans were scrutinised and if okay were approved, then people had to go out and inspect the work at certain stages to make sure it complied.

There were few complaints; I think it was a question of the easiest route to get the job done. If you complained too much and started being awkward then you could find yourself with problems and people respected local government in those days. Party politics was not much to the fore in those days. It tended to be more the person doing a job for the constituents rather than for the party. Yes there was a bit of it, more so in the urban council than later in the rural authority.

During my time with the urban council, we moved from our fairly spartan accommodation to a converted, mainly Georgian building at the top of the high-street. It was a very pleasant building to work in. When I came out of the RAF I was involved in an extension to it for a new council chamber and extra offices.

I don’t think listed buildings were regarded in the same way as they are today. I think the majority of people were happy to see old buildings disappear and something new put in their place. I can remember a line of old Essex wooden houses which were very close to a main road along with the smithy. They had painted shiplap boarding painted and were rather pleasant looking places. They were all demolished to make way for road widening. There wasn’t any tremendous objection to it. I think people were only too pleased to see something new – there wasn’t too much actually because of the restrictions on materials after the war. It would not happen now!

After the war we had problems with timber. In house building you were limited to a certain amount of timber you could use and in fact I think that went on until the mid ‘50s. There wasn’t so much a problem with bricks or cement.

Rural authority work in Sussex

When I got the intermediate examination I started looking for a step up in work and experience and I managed to find a position with a rural authority in Sussex.

I obtained work as a technical assistant and very luckily found that something which I developed an interest in while I was with the urban council, which was sewerage, was something that they were doing in a big way and I helped finish off a scheme which had been started by one of the other assistants. I was put on to the surveying and design works and the supervision of the sewerage scheme for a couple of villages and the sewage treatment plant.

The majority of properties in that area either had septic tanks, cesspools or a night soil collection (the bucket at the end of the garden). The two villages in the scheme were separated by a river, so it was quite an interesting job to sewer one and then pump the sewage across to the other side of the river to another pumping station and finally down to the other village and then down to the sewage works.

Water was the only other thing we were involved with as the Council provided piped water supplies. There wasn’t any design work as such, except for one little village up in the South Downs area where we put a small tank, like a small reservoir, to supply the village. Water was pumped up from another smaller reservoir. It was quite interesting because how on earth do you make sure that you’re not overfilling the tank. The tank could have overflowed and run down into the village. In the end the engineer I was working with came up with the idea of employing the local civil defence people and they had a lovely time laying out a landline between the pumping station and the little reservoir so that we could make sure that our pumping station didn’t pump too much water and stopped pumping when the tank was full. We spent a whole day on it – we pumped water out to the small tank and when they told us it had reached a certain level we could calibrate the equipment at the pumping station. Quite a lot of the work was out of doors.

People tended to be a bit sceptical about the work being done because they had experience, I think, in the past of the council saying they were going to do something and it probably never happened. But as it happened I was involved in the survey work for the scheme from the start and I did the design and all the contract documents. We chose the contractor to do the work – an Irish contractor – who was extremely hard working, but unfortunately he had to pull off the site before he finished the work because he wasn’t, I think, capable of carrying it out with the money he had. So it had to be given to another contractor to finish the work. When that contractor came in, he experienced the worst winter snow that we’d had down there. It was the 1962/63 winter. It was a terrible winter and most contractors had to stop work but this particular contractor managed to keep working, laying sewers, by taking the snow off the line of the sewer for a short distance and then digging out the soil which hadn’t frozen at that time and laying the pipes. Refilling the trench he had to use a compressor to break up the soil, it was that bad. And I was out the whole winter!

In those days, when you were doing work in villages, it was mainly hand digging. You couldn’t use machines through back gardens because of the disturbance caused. They were smallish villages and they had small gardens. So it was mainly hand dig. Anyway, the contractor managed to keep going and he completed the contract and the scheme started working.

Later on I was involved in a design of a very large car park, at the end of the main town. The subsoil was mainly peat. There was a causeway through the centre of it which went to some ruins and at the town end of this causeway was a large stone set of pillars with wrought iron entrance gates. These had to be moved closer to the ruins so the whole lot could be cleared for the car park to be built. We were very lucky in that the county council was doing a big road improvement some miles out of the town and were worried about getting rid of the material which was mainly sand, so we used it as fill on the whole of the car park. It was an interesting job to do.

I was then studying for my final exams and I managed to complete them in the autumn of 1961. I passed the final and joined the Associate Membership of the Institution in 1962 and was also allowed to join the Institution of Public Health Engineers; that was important to me because the work I had been doing was mainly of a public health nature. After passing the final the Council gave me an improved salary and I was promoted to Chief Assistant Engineer in that authority. At that time we had an engineer and surveyor, a deputy engineer and surveyor and six assistants of which I was one.

It would be interesting to know how much autonomy local authorities had. Were they very much bound by national planning guidelines in what they approved and what they didn’t approve and what works they undertook, or was it basically their own discretion?

As far as public health work was concerned, sewerage and sewage treatment, it was under the government’s control from a technical point of view. You had to submit the scheme to them and their engineers scrutinised it and came down and talked it over with you. You also had to make an application to the government for a loan to pay for the works. It didn’t appear to have the control it has now. Planning, of course, had its guidelines. You worked under the local building bylaws rather than the building regulations that there are these days. There was certainly more scope in those days for authorities to do their own work.

You were still in the world before the computer era?

Yes very much so. I think mechanical calculators had come in, the one where you wound the handle, but we didn’t have any. It was all work with paper, brain, and occasionally, a slide rule.

Rural council – Norfolk

I started looking for a step up again and I noticed in 1965 that there were deputy engineer jobs going in Norfolk. I applied for one with a rural council based in Norfolk and started with them in March 1965. The job was mainly to carry out their sewerage work. They were keen to have an in-house organization to carry out the design and supervision of sewerage schemes. The majority of the area was served by night soil collection and cesspool emptying and I remember that night soil at one time was sent to people growing certain crops and was spread on land. It wouldn’t be allowed these days. But I think the crops were very good afterwards!

I completed the work on a scheme for three villages which makes up an area scheme. Then I started work on the design of another area scheme for a further three villages, including a sewage treatment works. Dealing with scattered villages meant that you had to pump, and Norfolk being a relatively flat area meant you pumped from one village to the next or in combination with other villages to the treatment works. It raised a big problem, and this is where my experience in the RAF came to the fore, because I had been introduced to radio and it occurred to me that what we needed was some sort of alarm system at pumping stations which would trigger someone to go there very quickly and see what the problem was. You can imagine if a pumping station fails you can have real troubles, overflowing sewage and so forth.

So I was involved in trying to find a system which we could install in the pumping stations to provide an alarm service, and radio was the ideal medium. We managed to find two manufacturers who were interested in doing it and I think it was a Danish based company in this country who built the system for us. It consisted of a VHF system with cassette recordings. The idea was that if the sewage in the pumping station reached higher than the normal levels, the little cassette would start working and would broadcast a message to say which pumping station it was and there was an alarm situation. It worked very well.

It was cutting edge technology in those days and I think we were the third authority in the country to have an alarm system of some sort and certainly the first to use radio systems in Norfolk, not only for alarms in pumping stations but for communications. Not even the county council had that for their Highways Department. I’m sure they have gone on to very, elaborate systems now which are much more reliable, but it worked very well. And of course we extended this system to include workmen who had responsibility and particularly the electricians, the foreman and the sewage works manager. We installed the system in pretty well all the main pumping stations that we built in the three area schemes I was involved with.

We were starting to get the hand-cranked calculators but surveying techniques remained the same and were still fairly basic. Change only happened towards the end of my time in that office when things started to change dramatically.

There were moves on the public utility side. I remember that the Women’s Institute started objecting vigorously to trenches being left un-tarmacked in the villages. At that time we used to provide a temporary reinstatement which would be allowed to settle properly but because the Women’s Institute were a little bit upset about it, we had to start putting tarmac on which raised new problems because when the tarmac settled you had to go out and do it again – a fairly costly job actually. I carried on with that type of work until the reorganisation of the local government in 1974.

People talk a lot nowadays about red tape. Do you think that was one of the delaying factors in the 70s?

Not really because very rightly the government is lending you money and wants to be sure that the engineering side is right – that’s why they sent engineers to look at what we had done and what we were going to do. It seemed to work very well. I didn’t have any real trouble with the engineering side at all. I can only remember one case where one of the engineers asked me why I was doing a particular thing? It was about the result of having to pump sewage from one village to another for a fairly long distance. Sewage in the pumping main for that length of time meant it started to go off so what I was doing was to try and offset the problem. He hadn’t an answer to my question, “Well, what better way is there of doing it?”

And were you getting round to fairly outlying farms as well as villages?

We tended to be limited to village areas and not too many outlying houses. Occasionally it was sensible to do it but in the main we dealt with the envelope in which the existing properties were based. So the farmers lost one of their sources of fertiliser without getting the benefit but I think as time went on they would have had to lose it in any case because these days they wouldn’t be allowed to do anything like that.

I was a chief officer working under an Engineer and Surveyor at that time and I enjoyed the job. Public health was something I had developed a real interest in and it was where I could use my expertise.

When we were reorganised after 1974 everything collapsed as far as staff were concerned. As far as sewerage schemes were concerned everything came to a grinding halt because Anglian Water came on the scene and took over responsibility for water and sewerage, and didn’t want local authorities telling them what to do. Looking back now to the 1974 change, I think it was a good thing, because it brought a central control to the design of things which ordinary district councils weren’t capable of and certainly couldn’t handle these days. They took over sewerage and water and we lost everything.

I no longer had any responsibility public health and my work became more of a managerial role. We still had a direct labour force of something over two hundred people and they were involved in parks and gardens maintenance and refuse collection. I looked at the refuse collection side to see if there were any improvements we could make. One thing I found was that we were having a tremendous amount of fly tipping, particularly of garden waste. We’d gone on to the black sack system of collection, as distinct from the old collection from a dustbin. One of the big problems it raised was danger to the personnel collecting those bags. People would put in things like broken glass and knives and when the black sack was picked up and was reasonably heavy, it could hit the leg and cause a nasty injury.

I had no additional training and it was a question of getting on with it and I proposed a new system which was accepted. It was the first wheeled bin system in Norfolk, purely to try and limit the amount of fly tipping we had to collect from the side of the road and to try to prevent accidents to the collectors. It was a tremendous improvement.

One of the huge improvements from the council’s point of view was that they didn’t have to pay staff for unloading huge quantities of black bags at the depots every month and the staff hadn’t the worry of taking black sacks out with them when they were collecting. Yes it raised some fresh problems and people didn’t like it because it was a change. And we had the usual thing, an awful lot of complaints beforehand about things not going to be right, but when it was brought in, it all went quiet! It could be fairly stressful at times.

They authority saw that it was an improvement and were quite pleased with it. Of course things have developed further since then with councils extending the wheeled bin service quite substantially and making recycling possible.

My job included attendance at committee meetings. I was on the public health committee for example and if the Surveyor was away I would chair it on his behalf. But things were gradually winding down so far as I was concerned and by 1990 I managed to get early retirement because the whole of the surveying role had been virtually demolished, so really it wasn’t worth staying there. I couldn’t do the work I wanted to do and it wasn’t possible to move from working for the council to Anglia Water at the time.

In 1974 it was decided to appoint a Surveyor, instead of an Engineer and Surveyor, and the person appointed came from outside the authority which upset one or two people quite a lot and so they left. The only thing that he had which I didn’t was a diploma from a university. He was a very pleasant person and I thought I could get on with him. Unfortunately three months later he came in to my office to say he had been offered a position with the water authority and asked where I saw my future – with the water authority or with local authority?’ I decided to stay with the local authority and not to go down the water authority route. Perhaps with the reorganisations within the water authority since then I may have been out after a year or two in any case.

After I retired I spent five years doing a university degree in environmental studies with the Open University but I can’t use it.

What strikes you most about how things have changed in your working life?

I think there has been a tremendous change in how a local authority employs contractors – government pressure of course. What remains in local government are fairly large organisations working in large open-plan offices with computers in one large space – theoretically to reduce costs – and causing problems with ventilation and working conditions which you didn’t have in the smaller offices.

Computers were coming in as I left, but if we still had responsibility for sewerage and design there would have been considerable changes because all design is done now on computers. Surveying is also completely different. They now use electronic devices in the field and all information is fed into the device. Back at the office it is plugged it into a plotter which plots out the survey – amazing really. I couldn’t do it. It’s really a young person’s job now and you need to be trained as things progress.

Len (b. 1934) was interviewed for WISEArchive in Taverham Norfolk  on 27th May 2015.

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He says: It enabled me to relive my past experiences, problems and successes. Most interesting.


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