The Plumbing Apprentice Part 2
Part 2 of life in 50s UK
1957, I began work for a firm with the impressive title of R.H.Moss & Co (Plumbers) in the town of Long Eaton. England. This company like most others, did not indenture their apprentices. This didn’t worry me too much, it meant I could leave if I wished. I was to be earning the magnificent sum of 17/6d a week (75p) $2.
The interview for this job was similar to my previous interview in part 1. There was no questions at all about educational qualifications, like there is today. It was just a matter of if you were willing to learn and do as you were told. I was probably the only applicant anyway, as sixteen year olds could earn twice to three times this wage in local factories.
I wanted a job where work would be different every day. To spend your life doing the same thing repeatedly and watching the clock, was not for me.
Cyril Reedman, the owner of R.H.Moss & Co, was a small worried looking man. He owned a big Humber Hawk car and he was what was then termed ‘white collar’. This meant I wouldn’t be working with him, but his employees and this suited me fine. After the ‘Reg’ experience
in part one of this story, anything was good.
Being the youngest employee, I was totally ignored by the boss.
I was put to work with Bill, a tall ponderous man in his fifties, flat cap and bicycle clips that seemed to be fixed permanently to the bottom of his overall trousers. Bill had a good opinion of himself, He was the number one of the four plumbers, who all seemed to resent him.
They consisted of Ernie, a middle aged quiet man who never said much at all, George, a noisy Irishman who always had a lot to say and Dave, a nineteen year old apprentice.We would all gather at the workshop/yard at eight a.m. Bill would stride majestically down to the little office to consult with Mr Reedman for the assigning the different jobs for the day.
Bill always got the best jobs being the senior plumber. Not for Bill the outside ladder work on a cold rainy day or roof repairs. Not surprisingly, this seemed to be a cause of resentment by the others.
We all travelled on bicycles, none of us owned a vehicle of any sort. I cycled three miles to get to work and many miles during the day, as I was a gofer.
Ninety per cent of houses were landlord owned and many streets had terraced houses in blocks of five or six or more, with their front doors directly on to the pavement (sidewalk). The only plumbing in these houses, was a sink in the kitchen with just cold water and a row of toilets outside on the back yard.No designer kitchens or bathrooms in those days.
Most of our work was roof leaks, replacing rainwater guttering, blocked drains and toilet repairs.
Bill would tell me to knock on five house doors to tell people we were going to turn their water off. As the houses were in blocks of five or more, it meant to repair a leaking pipe in an outside toilet we had to turn the water off to all five houses.
“Tell ‘em it’ll be off for three 'ours” Bill would say.
“But you’re not going to be that long are you?” I asked innocently.
“Nah, but if you tell ‘em three ‘ours and we get it back on in one, we look good” replied Bill. “But if you tell ‘em one ‘our and it takes longer they’ll all be moaning.”
First plumbing lesson learnt: ‘Always say the water will be off longer than you expect it to be’
My working life with Bill was a lot easier than my previous employer. Bill was a plodder and he found time to answer my questions, I handed him tools and fetched stuff from the yard for him. In those days plumbers replaced broken windows, so I learnt how to cut glass and ride one-handed on a bike with a piece of glass under my arm. If I had fallen off my bike it would have been disastrous. (armless!)
After a few months, Mum & I persuaded my Dad to sign a Hire Purchase form for me to buy my first bike! It would cost me £27:7:6d ($43) to be paid over two years.
This bike was my dream come true. Bright yellow and black with drop handlebars, toe clips and even a water bottle in a holder clipped on to the frame, I was king of the road. Head down,with flat cap jammed on it, booted feet in toe clips, I could make the daily journey from Sandiacre to Long Eaton in half the time.
I was also sent out with Dave or Ernie when roof or gutter ladder work was required .I would push the noisy two wheeled handcart through the streets, the plumber would walk at the side, one hand wheeling the shop bike, the other on the cart. Depending on which plumber it was would determine how hard I had to push. Dave would be pushing, but the others just walked importantly through the streets.
Many hours were spent by me standing on the bottom rung of the ladder whilst the plumber worked at the top. The work was hard, guttering was in six foot lengths made of cast iron and was heavy.Carrying a length of gutter up the ladder and bolting it together with paint and putty joints was a skill indeed.
Dragging a twenty foot long wooden roof ladder, called a ‘crawler’ up on to a roof and hooking it on to the roof ridge was not a job for a weak man. Stepping off the top of a ladder on to the crawler in the drizzling rain with an armful of slates (heavy shingles or tiles) was not for the faint hearted.But I stuck it out, hiding my fear as I climbed thirty plus feet up on the houses of Long Eaton.
R.H.Moss had the contract to clean out the gutters of the bank on the corner of Oxford Street near The Green. A three-storey high building, it meant loading up the treble extension aluminum ladder.This ladder took three men to lift and was a planned operation to get it out of the workshop and on to the cart. This job was so tricky that Bill (top plumber) was actually involved in it. Arriving at the bank, the difficult task of raising up this ladder had to be performed. I, as the youngest and weakest would be directed to stand on the bottom rungs of the ladder as it lay in the road, stopping traffic on Oxford Street.
Two men would pick up the top end of the ladder and would walk towards me, pushing as I hauled with all my strength on the ropes attached.As it became vertical, we would spin it and lower the top to rest on wall of the bank. After celebrating this achievement with a bacca (smoke) break, we would begin the task of raising it up fifty plus feet high.
I’m not sure if there were any safety regulations in existence then, but if there was, we were probably breaking a few of them.
The two men pushed the top of the ladder off the wall as I hauled on the ropes to extend it. Up, up it went higher and higher till it reached the guttering that needed to be cleaned.
Long Eaton had a lot of pigeons in those days and their favorite roosting place was the roof of this bank.
Now came the decision of who would be the man to climb the ladder with bucket and trowel to do this exceedingly smelly job. Since I was considered to young and inexperienced, I was not involved in this decision, although in later years I would be that man many times.
Bill being the senior man would delegate Dave as the climber, with the promise that he, Bill would take his turn when we moved the ladder along. Dave began the long climb and I stood in my usual position of the bottom rung, watching the girls go by. I was supposed to warn people not to walk under the ladder, but many of them ignored me. It was considered by some people bad luck to walk under a ladder, so most stepped out in to the road anyway. Plastic road cones had yet to be invented so we hadn’t sealed of area. Quite a number of people stayed on the pavement after looking up and stubbornly walking on. If they had first looked down to see the pigeon crap Dave was dropping as he missed the bucket, they would maybe have listened to me.
To be continued…………...