Working Lives

Three generations of woodworkers (1969-2019)

Location: Attleborough

Although considering himself a Norwich man, Bob was born in a converted railway carriage in Ashwellthorpe, Norfolk. His family has had three generations of woodworkers and carpenters in it. He learned his trade through an apprenticeship and worked in building and for South Norfolk Council. In retirement he does a little joinery and cabinet work.

Early days and family life in Norfolk

My Dad was in the Army in the War, he was in the Royal Corps of Signals, and never spoke about it, I remember my mum telling me that he went away with jet black hair and the first time he came back his hair was white.

Dad came home in December 1944 for Christmas and needless to say I was born in September ’45. For 70 odd years I always thought that I was born in Norwich but talking to my sister a couple of weeks ago I found out that I was born in a converted railway carriage in Ashwellthorpe. The bombing in Norwich was bad so my mum had been evacuated out to Ashwellthorpe.

We moved back to Norwich after the war and I went to Horns Lane School, off King Street. There was a massive wooden climbing frame and I can remember climbing up there at break times or lunchtime and Mum would be at the window waving at me.

From there we moved to Carleton Rode and I went to primary school there. I had to do the eleven plus twice because the headmistress Mrs Kerrison said that I was brainy enough to go to Diss Grammar, but all my friends were going to Old Buckenham so apparently I made sure that I failed my eleven plus.

We all cycled to Old Buckenham School, boys and girls. I stayed there until I left school Christmas 1960 and I started work on 1st January 1961.

My father was Norfolk bred and born, his father owned the wheelwright and blacksmith shop at Ashwellthorpe, as well as being the local undertaker. My other grandparents were much more working class and I can recollect staying with them in the railway carriage in Ashwellthorpe. My mum’s Dad worked for Rushmore’s, the tomato growers, digging the massive garden by hand, and during the autumn winter nights he had a Tilley lamp hanging on the washing line. Grandma would have a job to get him in. Sometimes in the growing season he would leave early in the morning to go and stoke the coke boilers which heated the greenhouses.

My nanny on my dad’s side was a business man’s wife dressed accordingly and my nanny on my mum’s side was the sweetest person you would ever know and I spent a lot of time with her as a little boy.

My grandfather Garwood, the wheelwright, had a workshop and employed two others apart from himself and Mr Goodrum. Grandfather and Mr Goodrum owned the pair of houses opposite on the New Buckenham/Norwich Road. Next door to Grandad’s workshop was Mr Howe, the blacksmith. I can remember Grandad having big four wheel carts in the workshop for refurbishment and then taking them round to the blacksmith where they put the steel rim on them.

Grandad repaired all sorts of wagons, tumblers, seed drills, all sorts of implements. He had this lovely back yard where he kept all the trees, cut into planks. Bearing in mind I’m talking about the 1950s so there was no machinery, no circular saw, everything was cut by hand. On the wall you would see loads and loads of thin timber patterns for segments of the wheels, all various shapes and sizes. All the wood would have been locally sourced, elm, ash, and chestnut.

There is a picture of Grandad at Gressenhall Rural Life Museum, hanging up in the mock wheelwright’s shop.

I used to spend a lot of time with him. In those days they had no water and we went on a flat cart and collected milk churns full of water back to the house from Fundenhall.

I remember as a little boy one day going with him and he and Mr Goodrum put this coffin on the back of the flat trolley. They popped me in between them and Grandad said, ‘You hold the reins, boy, while we do what we got to do’ and they brought the coffin back to this whitewashed barn and there on a pair of trestles they used to stand the coffin. I can’t remember who it was who actually helped him carry it in but as Grandad shut the doors the chap said, ‘Aren’t you going to lock them Willy?’ and he said, ‘No’ he said ‘I’ve been doing it twenty five years I ha’n’t had one nicked yet’.

My great grandfather Freeman, Nanny Gibson’s dad, was a model yacht maker and the first treasurer of Norwich model yacht club, which is now based at Eaton Park. So as you can see woodworking has come from all sides of the family.

My dad was also a carpenter and joiner and did his apprenticeship, although I’m not sure where he did it. After the War he went to, I think, Mann Egerton’s where they made school furniture. I remember him coming home with his dinner bag full of wood. He would sit in the kitchen and split it into kindling and I was then allowed to put it in the stick box. When we moved to Carleton Rode he then went to work for a big building company Walter Lawrence which was based in Swaffham.

My mother used to clean for a lady Mrs Harcourt. Nanny worked for her and my mother went to help her. When my mum had a nervous breakdown and received treatment at hospital in Norwich as we had no car we relied on the number 27 bus.

Every year we had two weeks holiday in Gorleston, where Mrs Harcourt had two houses, one of which she used and if the other wasn’t let out, you were invited to stay. So we went there with Nanny and Grandad Gibson. The beach was lovely and I remember it being sun from morning until night. I can visualise Grandad Gibson playing cricket with me, with his shoes and socks off and trousers rolled up.

As a boy I had a Saturday job at the farm, going with a horse and tumbler pulling up the fodder beet for it to go back to be chipped for the cattle, knocking and topping the sugar beet and putting them in little piles. They were then forked onto a tumbler and taken to a big pile where they were collected, nowadays machinery does the whole thing.

My dad died in 1960 when I was 14. He was general foreman at the new library in Ipswich and was killed in a motor accident coming home from work. It stands so vividly in my mind, the knock on the door and two policemen standing at the door.

In those days children weren’t allowed to go to funerals. Apparently, because Dad had done a lot of work at Marham he had an escort at the church. The RAF had sent officers in uniform to give him a guard of honour, he was that well liked.

Apprenticeship at EH Macro and working for myself

When I left school, I spent my apprenticeship at E H Macro and then I worked for myself for a couple of years. During this time I got married, in 1966 the year England won the World Cup.

One of the biggest influences on me I think was Mr Churchill who I was apprenticed with. He was very strict and not having a Dad he was nearly like a Dad to me. I must have been 18 or 19 before I was allowed to call him John. I remember one day turning round and saying, ‘John how do I do this?’ He took his cap off and clipped me inside the ear hole he said, ‘I will tell you when you call me John. I’m Mr Churchill to you’. His philosophy was ‘what you don’t get done ‘afore dinner you won’t make up after’. So we started at half past seven and got on with things until they were done.

John taught me things like repairing sash windows, and even last year I had a young man come round and he’d taken a job on in Norwich and he’d got some sash windows to repair and he offered me money to go and do them because he said, ‘I don’t really know how to tackle it’.

John could re-cord a sash window without cutting the cord. There was never any waste, I could never get the hang of it, but he would do it.

I did some very interesting work at Macro, we did repair work as well as new build. We built the bakery at the Carmelite monastery in Quidenham, because they used to bake their unleavened bread. Whilst working there my son died and I had about a week off. The Carmelite monastery was a totally closed order so the nuns were not supposed to know what was going on. But I can vividly remember when I went back the Monday morning instead of the two little nuns letting us in who always had their faces covered there was the Reverend Mother, and she said, ‘Welcome back Robert, we’ve been praying for you and your wife all week’. So they did know what was going on outside.

Bush Builders and then running the Ellingham Council depot

In 1974 I packed up working for myself and went to work for Bush builders as a trainee general foreman. After three months there they threw me in the deep end and I did the massive cantilever car cover for Burtons in Norwich and then I built the Esso garage which is still on Mile Cross Lane.

Mr Macro who I was apprenticed to came round to me one night and told me that there was a job going at the Council it was around the time of the local government reorganisation so it could have been either Wayland or Breckland. The job was for foreman at the Ellingham depot, and I applied for it and got it. Some of the archaic things that they were dong were really funny, so I stopped all that, we moved with the times and I enjoyed my time there.

The superintendent left and I then ran the depot, so not only the building but all the public works, septic tanks, old refuse, grass cutting all that sort of thing.

South Norfolk District Council

In 1978 there was a job advertised for ‘area maintenance officer’ at South Norfolk Council, again I applied for the job, interviewed for it and got it. The area that I was working in was the old Depwade area and believe it or not our offices were at the old workhouse at Pulham, before moving down to the new South Norfolk building in Swan Lane Long Stratton.

Things progressed there and after a couple of years the housing manager, Mr Finch, called me into his office and told me that the Land and Planning Act was being introduced. This meant that we had to have a schedule of rates in place, and because of my previous experience of working for myself management felt that I could probably do this, and they asked me to take the task on.

I had to create this schedule from all the bonus books we had, thousands of items, of course technology was only in its infancy in those days. The deputy housing manager was very keen on the technology side of things so together we formulated a database which is absolutely archaic by today’s standards. We converted every one of the items that was in the bonus book, if for example you talk about plumbing that is everything from putting a tap washer on to putting a new boiler in. We looked at the past history working out what the average materials was used, what the average time was, transport involved, all this sort of thing, we came up with a schedule of rates which worked very well.

After completing that I changed my title again and became an estimator, in the first year we did £20,000 of work that we priced for. During this period I moved on from estimator to estimator contracts manager and I loved that job. I really loved it, I was pricing the work, I was supervising the work, I was making sure we made a profit. And I was happy. By the time I left in 1996 some of the contracts were worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

There was then a reorganisation and everything including the building department was all slapped together and it became the works department. They appointed a works manager who decided that my job would go, and that I would become building manager. And that meant that really I had Hobson’s choice either that or nothing so I took it. But being a nervous person, I found it difficult to delegate and I finished up having a nervous breakdown. And after being off for six months they come along and the works manager’s words to me were, the old man said, ‘If you aren’t going to get better you might as well go.’ So I thought well if that’s the case I’ll go. And I retired when I was 50 in 1996.

Early retirement and into cabinet work

After retiring I had a time where I did nothing and then a very good friend of mine died. He was an absolutely fantastic cabinet maker and French polisher and worked with his son in their own workshop making amongst other things bureau cabinets for the American market. I went to see his son to help cheer him up and ended up making the little drawers for the bureaus. Cabinet work is different to joinery work, miles apart.

I then decided to make my daughter a little miniature chest of drawers and then as time went on I equipped my own workshop and called myself ‘Bob’s miniatures’. I still make some now and do craft fairs. As long as I am fit and healthy I shall carry on.

Changes in Norfolk ways

There have been changes in Norfolk and the way we go about our business. Technology has moved on so much in my lifetime, my generation has seen so many changes. As a boy in Carleton Rode you would maybe see only half a dozen, a dozen cars.

When we built properties the labourer used to have a push mower and cut the grass under the scaffold. Now if you go onto a site you need thigh boats because they churn everything up with the machinery and they ruin the structure of the soil before anybody has even moved in. Bring a load of top soil in, scrape it over the top and leave everything there. Well, that just wasn’t done before because things like all the half bricks and damaged bricks would all be used for soakaways and all this sort of thing. That’s just not done nowadays.

There are some good young tradesmen about who have pride but I suppose it’s because of the pace of life and everything everybody want to get there, get it done, get the money and get away. You know we’d never finish off at the end of the night without you sweeping up. As apprentice boy that was your last job, to make sure everything was swept up and cleaned up.

One of the other main changes which is down to people moving in to the county from places such as London and Essex is the loss of the Norfolk dialect. Things like ‘Goin’ to Swaffham to dew a day’s troshin’ for nothing.’ Well if you said that somebody a lot of people now they won’t understand what you’re talking about.


Bob Garwood (b. 1945) talking to WISEArchive on 17th October 2019 in Attleborough.

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