The Plumbing Apprentice
The Plumbing Apprentice
I finished my schooling, (what little I’d had) at Sandiacre Friesland School, aged fifteen in 1956 and began work for an engraver. This job entailed engraving small steel dies with lettering or logos for printing. The company was in a small dark wooden workshop on Cavendish Road, Long Eaton, a town a couple of miles from where I lived. The ‘company’ named Goodhall & Sons (I never saw any sons!), consisted of Mr. Goodhall, a small dark man in a dirty brown work coat and his apprentice Errol, a tall, effeminate looking, ginger haired eighteen year old, who looked down his nose at me in a sneering fashion.
I thought this job would involve drawing, as liked art when I was at school. I wanted to be an architect, but failure of the dreaded eleven plus exam, put paid to that dream. I discovered after working there for two days, that it would take a couple of years before I would be allowed to do anything that resembled drawing. My work consisted of cutting off pieces of quarter inch thick steel bar, milling the surface on a machine that took off a millimeter of metal. I would then spend hours filing this surface to get rid of every scratch or imperfection that would show up on the finished print.
By the second day I was ready for chucking (leaving) this boring job. Errol and I worked in the same small dingy room and Mr. Goodhall was in the room next to us. The workshop was an old building above a couple of lock up garages. The few small windows in it were dirty, to limit any daylight shining through, and to stop a bored young man from looking out. There was no conversation at all between any of us all day. Although the year was 1956 it was like being in a Charles Dickens’s novel.
Errol began to play childish tricks on me whenever I left the room, such as hiding my tools or loosening the vice that held the metal I was working on. I put up with it for a couple of days then on the third day, after he had once more hidden my file, I grabbed him by his tie (can you believe, we had to wear a white shirt, collar and tie under our dirty grey overall jackets) and pinned him up against the wall.
“You’d better pack this game in mate, or you’ll get some of this.” I threatened, waving my fist in his face.
Errol backed away nervously “What do you mean” he whined haughtily.
“You know what I mean,” I threatened as I tightened my grip on his tie. Unfortunately the door swung open and the boss walked in to the room.“Come in to my office Alan” he said, turning and leaving the room. I followed leaving a triumphantly smirkingErrol.
Mr Goodhall was a greasy looking man with a sallow complexion and talked in a husky whispery voice. His back was stooped from years of crouching over, making metal templates and possibly he was in his fifties.“I could end up like him if I stay here.” I thought.
His office was another dingy, dirty room identical to ours except for a scruffy desk covered with invoices and other bits of paper. He slid his way behind it, took a seat to give himself some authority and looked at me through heavy lidded eyes. He reminded me of a lizard.
“I don’t think you are happy here?” he whispered.
I didn’t answer..but I thought."You’re definitely right there, mate", , .
“Why were you fighting?” he asked. He sat in silence waiting for my reply.
One of the few things I had learned in my fifteen years of life was, if someone’s giving you trouble, you don’t go crying to the teacher/boss/parent. It only makes things worse, so I kept quiet.
“I don’t think you are suitable for this work” he said. I had to agree with him.
Thus ended my short career of being an engraver. I had to work a weeks notice and it seemed like seven weeks not seven days. Brian no longer played his childish tricks as now I was leaving anyway and he knew I would give him a good hiding if he did.
“Now, what are you going to do?” asked Mum of me as we sat in the kitchen. Dad had gone to the pub as usual, so there was just Mum and my elder brother John, who sat in a corner reading a newspaper.
“I’d like to go in the building trade.” I replied, “I want to be an electrician.”
I wanted a job where you didn’t have to go to the same place every day and do the same thing.
There was silence in the room.
“The plumber where I work needs a lad” suddenly said John. Mum & I looked at him in surprise, my brother didn’t speak all that often! John at nineteen, was an apprentice bricklayer for a local building firm and even now at the age of seventy-six he still doesn’t say much.
“There y’are” said Mum “you can be a plumber with this bloke.(guy) What’s ‘is name?” she asked John.
“Reg” answered John, with a smirk on his face. He knew something I didn’t and quite likely knew what I was letting myself in for.
So came Monday morning, I cycled down Longmoor Lane, the lane I’d walked for so many years to school, to Sandiacre. My brother had bought a brand new bike and like most of the clothes I wore, I was given his old one. The tyres (tires) were so bald, a puncture outfit and tyre levers were a necessity with this bike. It was a ‘sit-up and beg’ bicycle as they were called then, no gears of any sort, so hard work when hill climbing. His new gleaming green Raleigh Roadster bike, with Sturmey Archer gears,[older people know what I mean), chain case cover and leather saddle bag, shamed the old decrepit steed I rode when they both leaned against the sofa in our front room where we kept our bikes at night.But one day if I got this job, I would have enough money to buy a new bike of my own.
I approached the little shop on Station Road with it’s window full of knick knacks, ornaments and trivial household items. The sign over the door said; ‘Bosworth’s Household Goods’ and in small lettering at the end ‘Registered Plumber’. I entered the shop and a bell rang. A severe looking middle aged woman, who looked as if she hadn’t smiled for years, appeared like a witch from nowhere through a door behind the counter.
“Yes?” she snarled, looking at me as if I was something the cat dragged in.
“Err, I’ve come about the plumbing job” I mumbled.
“REG!” she shouted through the door.
Reg appeared, muttering under his breath. He wasn’t a tall man but he looked tough, Straight grey hair and a thin grey Clark Gable moustache along his top lip. numerous wrinkles in his face and hard eyes, not a happy man. A handsome man he may have been when younger and I pondered why he had married the fierce dragon who stood at his side with arms folded glaring at me.He barked a few questions at me and seemed satisfied with my responses.
“Be ‘ere in morning at 8 o-clock” he ordered “and don’t be late. Don’t cum to shop, cum round back.”With that, he disappeared through the door. I hurriedly made my exit to get away from the dragon, who watched my every move as I left. I’m certain this was to make sure I didn’t steal any of the household novelties on display in the shop.No mention had been made of the amount of my weekly pay and I was too nervous to ask.
Not having a clue where ‘round back’ was, I thought I’d better find it before the next morning. Four or five shops away from Reg’s I discovered an eight foot wide entryway down the side street. I quietly rode my bike up it trying to work out which ‘back’ was Reg’s. They all had high wooden fences or solid brick walls. So after returning to the main street and counting the shops, I worked out which was the right one. I carefully stood on my bike pedal to see over the gate, to my horror I saw the dragon in the back yard! She was standing at the house door luckily facing the in house, nagging at Reg. I carefully and quietly lowered myself down and hurried of home.
The next morning I was there fifteen minutes early, to find the gate still securely shut. I stood wondering what to do. Should I go round the front to the shop and risk meeting the fury of the dragon? As I stood there pondering, up the entry came a lanky figure riding an old bike. He was dressed in blue overalls, flat ratting cap and his knees stuck out at forty- five degrees as the bike slowly came towards me.
“Ey up” he said, “you must be new lad, I’m Pete.”
Before I could answer, there was a rattling of chains and bolts being withdrawn like castle drawbridge and the gate opened & Reg stood there scowling at us both.‘Morning” said Pete. Reg grunted and turned and walked back in to the house.
”Is he always like this?” I asked Pete. “Fraid so,” grinned Pete ‘He gets worse as the day goes on.”
The workshop was on a second level with a flight of wooden steps. Beneath this was a store place that housed a motorbike with a sidecar made of wood shaped like a coffin. As I stared at this Reg appeared from the house and handed Pete some pieces of paper.
“Get these done today and take ‘im with you.” Reg glared at both of us.
Thus began my life as an apprentice plumber. I enjoyed being with Pete, as we pedaled our bikes leisurely for miles to do jobs. The sight of Pete on his bike in front of me with his tool bag hooked on his handlebars, and his long legs with his knees sticking out, is one I can still remember fifty years later. I later found out that Pete’s spare time hobby was cycling, would you believe! He was to be seen most Sundays on his racing bike. It was difficult to believe it was the same man. Dressed in shorts and tee shirt he would shoot down the street in a blur of speed. But at work he never cycled much faster than walking pace. I followed behind on the shop bike with the front box so loaded if I let the bike get too far out of vertical I would never have held it up. We were out in all weathers, if you got wet first thing in the morning, then you stayed wet all day. I came to know every street in Sandiacre and Stapleford.
Not many people owned their own houses in those days, they were landlord owned. Many houses had no plumbing in them apart for a cold water tap over a kitchen sink. Most toilets were outside in the back yard, with numbers on the doors for ownership. I hated working down Osmaston Street, where the toilets were not clean but at least they didn’t smell as bad as the inside of the houses
We had no power tools of any sort. Holes for pipes through solid brick walls had to be smashed through with hammer and chisel. One of the main tools of a plumber in those days, was the blow-lamp. This was extremely complicated to light and for a nervous fifteen year old, I dreaded it. It had to be lit outside and the well beneath the nozzle had to be filled with paraffin and a lighted match applied. A foot high flame would vertically shoot up and burn merrily until it heated the nozzle and caused the paraffin to vapourise. This could take five minutes or more as I would watch it nervously, standing shivering with cold usually in an outside toilet. When the flame eventually died down a little, with trepidation I would pump the nozzle. If I had got it right, a blue flame would roar out of the nozzle, if I got it wrong and pumped too soon, a three foot stream of flaming paraffin would shoot out and I would hastily have to release the pressure and the lighting procedure had to begin again.
Pete taught me a lot about plumbing. He gave me things to do. Almost all pipes were lead in those days and they were joined with wiped solder joints. The correct way of doing this I realised could take years to accomplish. There was a certain pride taken in the work in those days, this seems to be lacking now, as the materials in plumbing are so much simpler to use. After all, water will travel through a boss-eyed [crooked] pipe just as well as a straight one. So it seems today to ‘get it done and let’s get to the next job’ is accepted as the norm [old man talk]
I came to dread the days I worked with Reg. He was an awful man to work for. He didn’t talk to me at all unless it was to order me to do something. I was interested in the work, but too scared to ask him questions. He didn’t have time to teach me anything, every job had to be rushed and he always had to be somewhere else.
I would arrive at the shop at eight a.m. but he was never ready to go out before nine. I would chop firewood for the house boiler, sweep the workshop, sweep the yard, tidy the workshop, anything rather than stand around. I had then, what now is an old fashioned idea, that when you were at work you worked! If you didn’t, then you were stealing from your boss!
Reg would come stomping out of his house, yelling at me, “Urry up, lad!” He didn’t use my name in the nine months I worked there A quick check of the ‘coffin’ attached to his motorbike to see if we had everything. Check the cushion I had tied on with hairy string to the back mudguard, as there wasn’t a pillion seat for me to sit on and then wheel it out of the gate. After a lot of cursing and swinging on kick-start, the engine would explode in to life. He would mount up. pulling down the peak of his flat cap and his goggles. I would then climb on, balancing myself precariously on the cushion. We would roar up the street through the freezing cold air, I would crouch down as low as I could behind Reg to avoid a frostbitten face. I knew my fingers would be so frozen, by the time we got wherever we were going, despite the woolen gloves Mum had knitted me. Reg wore black leather gauntlet type gloves the nearly reached his elbows and they were fur lined.
As the months went by, I grew increasingly detest this man more. He would ridicule me in front of customers. I asked Pete why Reg was like this and how he could work for him all these years?Pete, whom I had never heard say a bad word about anyone or ever lose his temper said“Well, if I had a missus like he’s got, I would probably be a miserable git.” ( Brit:unpleasant person)
The whole thing came to a finish one morning just before Christmas. I arrived at eight a.m to find several lengths of cast iron rain water guttering lying on yard. Presuming they had been delivered that morning, I began to carry them down the cellar steps to place them in the storage rack. Now we’re not talking plastic stuff here, this was cast iron guttering and just one six foot length of the stuff took me all my strength to carry.
I laboured away happily, as nine months of working had built my muscles up a bit. Mrs Dragon came out to tell me to stop whistling, as it ‘got on her nerves’. I then persevered at my task quietly and had just carried the last length of gutter down the steps, when Reg appeared.
“Where’s the bloody guttering?” he roared.
“I’ve just put it away” I answered with pride.
As I watched, his face turn purple with anger, I realised my mistake.
“You bloody twit” he foamed “I got that out for the job today. You’ll never make a plumber, you’re too stupid!”
That was it! I’d had enough! “OK, I’m wasting my time here then. I’m off” I proclaimed with satisfaction as I headed for the gate.“You should give me a weeks notice” he spluttered.
“Stuff it!” I answered “I’ve had enough of you.” and I left. As I rode the couple of miles back home I had a feeling of relief. I wouldn’t have to work for that man again, but I had to break the news to Mum!
Mum as always, took the news of my walk out quite calmly.
“Well. you’ll ‘ave to look for another job after Christmas.” she said “I never liked that man, anyway.”For Mum to say she didn’t like a person was rare indeed.
“He says he aint gonna pay the weeks wages he owes.” I told her.
“We’ll see about that” she answered “We’ll go and see him after Christmas.”
We?..Uh oh, I was not looking forward to this.
MUM SORTS IT
Christmas holiday in those days consisted of two days only, Christmas Day and the following day called Boxing Day. So the day after saw me reluctantly entering Reg’s shop behind Mum. The dragon appeared from the rear smiling icily, until she saw me hovering behind Mum. “Yes?” she frowned.
“I’ve come for my son’s wages” said Mum quietly.
“He didn’t work a weeks notice” the dragon folded her arms stubbornly across sagging bust.
“You owe him for the week in hand he worked” Mum said calmly.
We were talking all of ten shillings here ($0.75) or 50p.
“REG” shouted the dragon through the back door.
He, with understandable reluctance poked his head round the door.“Mrs Gamble’s here for his wages” the dragon sneered, looking distastefully at me.
“Not gonna pay it.” mumbled Reg, “he cleared off without working a weeks notice.” he turned to leave.
“I’m not asking for the two days he worked before Christmas.” said Mum “or his Christmas holiday money that you would have had to pay him, just the week in hand you owe him.”
“No, he didn’t work a weeks notice” spluttered Reg”.
“As you told him he was too stupid to be a plumber, why should he continue to work for you?” Mum quietly stated. Reg turned stormed off back into the house slamming the door behind him.
The dragon stood and stared at Mum triumphantly.
“I’ll just sit here for a while” sighed Mum placing herself in a dining chair at the side of the counter normally reserved for gossiping customers.
“I shall call the police” snarled the dragon.
“You do that” said Mum calmly,”I’m sure they and the people that gather outside, will be very interested in why I’m ere.” Before the dragon could reply the street door opened and a female customer walked in.
“Good morning Mrs Jarvis” the dragon said smarmily, watching Mum out the corner of her eye.
“Good morning” replied Mrs Jarvis, then turning to Mum she said, “Hello Lil, what are you doin ‘ere?”
“We’re here to”………. began Mum.
“She’s waiting to see my husband” interrupted the dragon hastily and once again disappeared through the door for Reg. I just stood there in rapt admiration of how Mum was working this scenario.
After a whispered conversation just inside the door, Reg scowling appeared and slammed some money on the counter. Mum calmly placed the coins in her purse and we left the shop saying a friendly goodbye to Mrs Jarvis. My Mum was a very wise woman, she knew what was the most important thing in the dragon’s life;
‘What the neighbours think.'
To be continued