More on my Working Life.

This is a follow-up to my previous blog linked below entitled “My First Job in England

English: Fleur de Lys, Market Street, Hailsham...

Built in 1540. Located in Hailsham

I knew that Thomas Rich was getting short of work so I started looking around. One of the jobs that caught my eye was to go to work for the Post Office delivering the mail. Everyone that I talked to told me that it was a good job because it had stability and benefits.  I applied and did well on a couple of interviews and was offered a job. The start time was 5:30 am every morning for six days a week and I would receive a pay check every two weeks. For the first couple of weeks, I struggled to get up early enough to make it to work on time which also meant that I had to go to bed early, definitely not my style. Then I received my first pay check and I couldn’t believe just how little I was earning compared to the job I had just left. So, with the impetuosity of youth, I handed in my notice and walked out the door. To hell with stability. I gotta say that is the shortest time that I ever worked for anyone in my entire life.

I was about 18 at the time and following the Post Office fiasco, I went to work in my old profession at the only large factory in Hailsham. This company was also the largest employer for Hailsham and the surrounding area and was named Geebro from the original owners, the Green Brothers. They actually had two plants one North and one South. With Hailsham not a very large town, they were only a couple of miles apart. The North branch had diversified and made furniture along with a whole range of other products. The South branch which was the oldest of the factories specialized in making rope of all types. The process started with bales of hemp and jute that were converted into long lengths of the finished product. it was interesting to follow the production as it went through machine after machine. The factory was very old but Geebro were in the process of updating much of the building space and equipment.

I did not hire on into the rope making part of the organization as I was employed on a large construction/maintenance staff and although my title was bricklayer, we were involved in all types of building maintenance. Titles were for the people in the Main Office to know how much to pay me and was definately not a true reflection of everything we got up to. Geebro was in the middle of a pretty big expansion and modernization and there had been several new building erected by contractors that we would retrofit for the different processes they would house. It was interesting work as it was so varied and the guys I worked with ranged in age from a crusty old foreman who was close to retirement to a couple of guys a bit younger than me.

What helped to made the job interesting was the many personalities that worked for the company, most of whom worked on the big machinery that made the rope but there were many other jobs that provided the back up to the rope machines. There were many young girls about my age so for me, this was a job made in heaven. Whenever I could, I would slip off just to chat them up. Oh, the joys of youth…

There were a couple of attractive girls both about 19 that we shall call Pam and Jill, who were totally inseparable friends. They were always seen together and worked side by side on one of the machines or walking around during their breaks. As was somewhat typical of those working class girls, some of them had mouths like drunken sailors and some of the most disgusting things would be a normal part of their conversation. So the “F” word and even worse was heard routinely as were their various exploits about their latest boy friends. Nothing was sacred to them and if one of the boys they had been with whose sexual performance was not up to par at least by their “high” standards, the whole world knew about it. I learned very quickly that they were fun to be around but you would surely pay the price if you took it any further. Not wanting the world to know how well I might perform or even if I could perform at all as the sexual side of life was something I had not yet experienced so I didn’t even try to date them.

Then one day, they were no longer together.No one ever really knew why or what happened that destroyed their friendship but rumour had it that one girl had slept with the other ones boyfriend and just as they had been inseparable so too did they totally ignore each other from that point on out. Odd the way human nature can play those sort of tricks.

One of the guys who worked with me and who was a couple of years older was named John and had a bit of a drinking problem. He was a good worker but come the evening, he would spend all of his time and money at the local pub. Needless to say, many’s the day that he would come to work  with an enormous hangover and I would carry a part of his workload until he straightened out.

We used to eat lunch together and spend it with an old-time ropemaker named Jack in his building. He had worked for Geebro most of his life excluding the 1914-18 war and had made ropes all that time. He specialized in bell ropes, the sort that hang down from the church bells and they were made entirely by hand. There was no machinery involved in his process. The ropes were made of a softer form of yarn and had fluffy “pulls” on them both for decoration and to give the bell ringers purchase on pulling the ropes. His was an extremely skilled job and I would surmise that he was probably one of the last of his kind and that machines would eventually take over his work.

English: Rope shed at the Parrett Works Long e...

Rope Making Shed

Jack was a very interesting guy to talk to and to watch at his work. which is why John and I spent so much time with him. He used a knife a lot as a part of the work and his hands were covered in small scars where he had nicked himself. It was from Jack that I learned that if you cut your finger downwards away from the nail, that part would not grow back and the skin would just drop off whereas if you cut the finger upwards, that piece of skin would grow back. Or maybe it was the other way around but you get my drift. Nobody told Jack that. He had just cut himself so many times that he worked it out for himself.

One day as I was working in one of the new buildings, Ben the foreman, told me to take a bunch of trash outside and burn it. So being the good employee that I was, I duly wheeled out the trash and put a match to it and nearly burned the whole bloody factory down.

Luckily for me, the building was the last one and all that was beyond was an open field. The grass caught alight and in 20 seconds the entire field had burned up. I have never seen anything burn so fast in my life. I was lucky that as soon as it hit the fencing, it went out.

Of course, it created a bit of excitement and there were a couple of fire trucks that pulled up in a few minutes but nothing became of it.

One  day, tractor trailers came in one by one with new yarning machines for one of the new buildings. There was a special crew of Riggers who maneuvered the equipment into place and it was interesting to watch them work. First, they had the trailers backed into the loading dock from where they had to raise the machines up to floor level before winching them off the trailers and into the building. They did this by taking the rear axles and wheels away from the trailer and then raising the entire trailer up to floor level.The machines were about 25 feet square and about 8 feet tall and probably weighed a couple of tons or more apiece and there was just one on each trailer. The Riggers took their sweet time and slowly winched them across the floor into position. The furthermost machines were placed probably 200 yards from the loading dock and then spaced out in two lines in an ever decreasing area.  The building was tee shaped and they filled both parts of the tee and in all, there were probably 20 of these huge monsters in place. The electricians on our crew piped and wired up these machines and tested them and within a couple of months, that part of the factory had a new working building that was turning out baling twine and such at remarkable speed.

Then tragedy struck. As with the rest of the factory, most of the machine operators were women and as I stated earlier, some of them were quite young. Back then, sixteen was the legal age for sex to smoking and many people left school at age fifteen. I happened to be in that building at the time when all of a sudden, even above the roar of all of that machinery that was working, I heard these terrible screams and rushed towards the sound. One of the girls had stuck her hand in the machine to clear a jam and had not turned it off properly. The machine had grabbed her hand and pulled it into the machine all the way to her shoulder before someone could get to the cut-off. It took a while to extricate her but to her credit, although she was hurting, she put on a brave face. She was one tough cookie, that girl.They rushed her off and although she made a recovery, I never saw her again. Hopefully Geebro did the right thing by her.

One of the other bricklayers was a Welshman named Leslie who used to be a bit of an amateur boxer in his day. He was still only a young guy probably about thirty. His wife also worked at the same plant. One day I came into work and the older foreman, Ben was carrying a black eye. The buzz was that Ben had made a pass at Leslie’s wife or maybe it had gone further than that. Anyway, Leslie, the young man took it out on Ben who was probably closer to 65 and beat him in the lane that ran parallel to the factory outside of Ben’s house. He was arrested but Ben refused to press charges so Leslie got off with disturbing the peace or something similar and came back to work on the following Monday. I guess Ben and Leslie must have worked out some sort of deal but it was a bit awkward for a while.

I spent a couple of years working for Geebro and gained a lot more knowledge of other aspects of construction. I didn’t realize it, but I also added to my understanding of the human race and girls in particular. Most of the work was of the general construction type, bricklaying and concrete work but I also learned a lot about  working around and with machinery in cramped and confined areas. It was not our job to maintain the heavy machinery. There was another crew that specialized in that.

My personal life had taken a turn for the better and I had met Ann who would later become my first wife. I was head over heels in love with her but as life later showed, more with her beautiful body than her as a person. What the hell did I know. I was still a kid in a man’s body and was just beginning to “feel my oats”.

After leaving Geebro, I went to work for a small contractor that worked out of Horsebridge close to where I was living and as before, I was titled as a bricklayer but expected to shovel dirt and do whatever needed to be done. My boss, Frank was a bit of a hustler and was always coming up with work that kept myself and another bricklayer busy. Like me, the other guy was also good at everything so between us we made a good team. I was gifted that I could learn most aspects of construction and was not afraid to use my skills. On top of that, I was never too proud to perform any task that I was asked to do. In return, I was acquiring a vast knowledge of different skills so would never be restricted in any job that I tackled.

I remember that one of the jobs we had was to paint all of the metal street light posts in Heathfield. There was a hell of a lot of them and my boss and I worked this project together. I did most of the high work and had to clean them, prime them and then give them all two coats of some special paint. We figured how to work on the posts without using ladders so as to speed things up. We built a platform on the top of his van and then pulled the van up close to the lamp-post. I would take the top and my boss would take the bottom. With this system, we were able to cover a lot of posts in a day. Occasionally, we would have to use ladders if for some reason we could not get the van close to the pole. I was always the one who climbed tha ladder as he pulled rank on me every time.

At the intersection of High Street and Station Road in Heathfield, there stands this very tall lamp-post and I mean tall. The only way we could get to the top was to extend a forty feet ladder and then stand it on top of the van. As usual I was the one who climbed the ladder to tie it off so that it would not slip while I was working on it. Once it was tied, it was relatively safe. Relative can mean a lot of things but even though I was scared out of my pants, when I went up to tie it and conversely to untie it, I lived to tell the tale and to boast about my exploits. Luckily for us, there was no such thing as OSHA in England especially almost sixty years ago. If there had been, we would both still be in jail for working in such unsafe conditions. Remember that we had to give this lamp-post the same treatment as the rest which meant that I painted that thing three times after cleaning it. The hardest part was painting the arm that held the lamp as it extended out probably 15 feet away from the pole and was made of two-inch diameter pipe, not the sturdiest of things to rest the ladder against..The beauty of being young is that you don’t see or understand the danger and your also full of bravado and feel totally invincible. I couldn’t do it now even if someone paid me a million bucks or some beautiful woman offered me anything I wanted. What am I saying, nowadays I’m too old for the woman no matter what she had to offer and would settle for the money.

We also had a similar job only this time in Hailsham. My boss contracted for us to paint the flagpole outside of the local VFW. This wasn’t quite so tall probably only about 30 feet and the only way I could get up it was for us to tie a ladder to the pole in a perfectly upright position. What made it difficult was that the ladder kept getting in the way for me to paint the pole and it was tough standing on a perfectly vertical ladder, hold on with one hand and paint with the other. To get over the problem, we painted one side first, moved the ladder and then painted the other side. We got the job done and had quite a crowd that gathered to watch.

By now, I had married Ann and was living with her parents in one of the council houses in Horesbridge. It was not a bit unusual for newly weds to live with one set of their parents as finding a house to rent in England back then, was almost an impossibility. You had to know someone who knew someone just to get on a list, it was that difficult. Unless you lived in a city or large town, apartments were almost unheard of so most rentals were usually small cottages or semi-detached cottages. Council housing, which is housing provided by the local city council, was also a very popular means of getting a house but you had to put your name on a list and then wait quite literally years to reach the top of the list and be considered. You could always buy a house but most working class people found that out of their reach.

One of the guys that lived across the road was the President of the football team that I was playing for at that time. His name was Jim Pratt. I got friendly with him and one of the things that we did apart from the football was to build Parakeet show cages and sell them to raise extra money. Parakeets in England are known as Budgerigars. I was breeding Budgies and had built a pretty fancy aviary at my in-laws house along with a shed and a greenhouse. I also took an interest in gardening as my father-in-law had no such interests.I have to say that was the first bit of stability that I had in my life for several years after making several moves in my younger days as I was growing up. This is probably another reason that I married Ann although I didn’t know it at the time.

It turns out that Jim and I were related. He was my cousin from Elsie and Ernie Pratt that I had spent a couple of years living with when I was thirteen or fourteen. I can’t recall them ever mentioning him but again, it was so long ago and for me, such a troubling time that I can’t remember too much of that period. He was the black sheep of their family and had some falling out with them over who knows what. Knowing my Aunt Elsie, it could have been anything and probably was.

One of the civic-minded things we did was to help build a large pavilion for the Hellingly Sports Club all by volunteer labor. It is a pretty fancy place built of brick with a tile roof and had showers in the dressing rooms besides a kitchen for the ever-present sandwiches for the Sunday afternoon tea times at the cricket matches. One of the guys who was helping and leading on this volunteer project was a guy by the name of Jim Croft whose day time job was as a road foreman for the County of Sussex.

The County was building a big road project up near Crawley. He offered me a job so I bid my old boss Frank goodbye and started work for the County of Sussex as, yes you guessed it, a bricklayer and pipe jointer. The only drawback to that job was the two-hour bus trip each way to and from Crawley. We had a special bus that was solely for our use that picked me up at 6:00 am each morning and dropped me off at 6:00 pm each evening, five days a week. This didn’t leave much time to do much else except work although I did manage to train with my team a couple of nights a week and tend to the garden and the aviary. The Crawley job was a big job for the County Council to be building as usually, jobs of this size are contracted out. There was a new bridge as a part of the project and that was indeed built by a contractor. Other than that, we did everything else including the dirt moving and the building of a dual carriageway for a 5 mile stretch of road. It was another very interesting project and again, I got to learn new and different aspects of construction including working with black top and all that goes along with it. We used to meet at the yard after our long bus trip, in the mornings and depart to our various parts of the job from there. We also came back for lunch to eat in the big building that was specifically set up for our use. My main job was to build manholes and lay and joint together clay pipe which was the type we used for all of the surface water. This pipe was tested after it was jointed so I had to be very careful with my work otherwise, if the joints leaked, they had to be torn out and done over.

I had an older guy that was acting as my helper and this one day we were building a man-hole on someones property. The owner stopped by to chat with us and offered us a glass of rough cider better known as scrumpy cider. My helper buddy didn’t want his after he tasted it and gave it to me who like a bloody fool, drank the best part of two pints of the stuff. It had a kick like a mule and for about three hours of my life, I completely lost all memory of what I did, where I was, and who I was. According to my helper, I acted perfectly rationally and performed my work and even went back to the shed to eat lunch along with everyone else and no one noticed that I was completely spaced out. Frightening to think that I could lose a part of the day and not know anything about it. Then, all of a sudden, it wore off and I was back among the living again.

Another time, we had all piled into the back of a dump truck to be taken to another part of the job. I happened to be standing at the back facing forward and in the front of the truck, was another row of guys. All of a sudden, one of them lost his cap as it flew off his head in the wind and without thinking, my hand shot up and I caught it. I didn’t realize just how fast my reflexes were until then. Everyone gave a big cheer and patted me on the back as though I had just scored the winning goal. It helped that I played as goalkeeper and relied a lot on reaction. Oh to be young again with reflexes that fast…

By this time, I had two sons, Phillip and Peter. Phillip was born in 1957 and Peter a year later and life was good. It’s interesting to think that I didn’t need much and thought that I already had my own little piece of heaven which I suppose that I did. But I was not counting on the unpredictability of the human mind.

I left the Council job after a couple of years as I was tired of the travel and went to work for a big pipeline Company, William Press and Son’s based out of London. Little did I know that this job would not only involve a lot more travel but would also include extended stays away from home. They also had a big plant in Eastbourne and had this huge project of laying new water and gas mains throughout East Sussex. I was hired on as a bricklayer (of course) and my first job was in a small town of Alfriston. As usual, my job was to help wherever I could as there were not that many manholes to build. My foreman, Fred, was a big ole boy who gave directions to different parts of the project by associating them  to different pubs he would say things like, “Drive 2 miles down this road until you come to such and such pub and then turn right. Go 2 more miles until you get to a different pub”  until finally, you reached your destination. He was a typical pipeline foreman who actually knew his stuff and could handle men but he sure did like to drink as did most of my workmates. We were chatting one day after work in one of the local establishments and he told me that he was on top of a gas tank, which looks very similar to a huge oil storage tank, looking at a project and stepped backwards and fell forty odd feet and landed on his head and neck and broke it. He survived both paralysis and death by plain old-fashioned luck as he was unconscious and didn’t try to move. Those that reached him knew enough not to move him until he was stabilized. He was one lucky man.

I brought a whole new standard to the work that I did. I guess that those before had either never had the proper training or just didn’t give a damn what sort of work they turned out. True, most of it was hidden underground and not too may people would be seeing it but that didn’t stop me from doing it right. I took a real pride in my work and even though Fred tried to get me to leave it rough, I never listened to him and always finished off the joints and used a level. In the end, I won his respect for my thoroughness. Again though, it was a lesson I had learned in my different jobs and to this day, I am still fussy to the extreme in almost everything I do.

Because my work was specialized, I was only busy with it some of the time. I spent the rest of the day working on anything that I could find or with anybody that needed help. It was great as I got to learn how to do so many different things. I took a special interest in learning how to operate the heavy equipment, bulldozers, backhoes, front end loaders and even the cranes used to lower the pipe. The typical kid with his Tonka Toys. All of this experience was going to pay big dividends down the road.

The job covered a huge area and it was not long before the work was all over South East Sussex County. I travelled from job to job building man holes and sump pits and even worked in a couple of Gas Works. Didn’t like that part as much. Dirty, smelly places…I went to Storrington in West Sussex to work on a project and stayed there almost six months getting home very occasionally to see the boys.

There was this girl that I was trying real hard to impress and back then, I was well muscled up. The hard work really suited me and gave me all the exercise I needed. Anyway, back to the girl. When I wasn’t actually working, I was standing watching her with my shirt off to get a tan as she worked in the grocery store across the street. What I didn’t realize until one of the guys pointed it out was that I was subconsciously flexing all of those muscles trying to impress her. What a bloody show off. I can’t believe now what I was like when I was young. Jeez…

I had digs in a house where I rented a room from a family which was a very common thing to do back then. This was a young family with a couple of kids and they sort of adopted me and treated me very nicely. The wife had a younger sister who made no bones about the fact that she was attracted to me and before long, we were dating but only occasionally.  I had made friends with the local young men and women and would meet them at one of the pubs after work and on weekends, we would all pile into one of their vehicles and dash off to a dance that someone had heard about and raise a little hell. At one of these dances, I drank too much (as usual) and went outside to get some air. The side of the building had a stucco finish which is like a rough finish a bit like a sprayed on ceiling. As I stood outside, I passed out and slowly slid down the wall with my face scraping the stucco all the way to the ground.

My buddies found me and threw me in the back of a pickup truck and we drove home. They got out my keys and unlocked the door for me, put the keys in my hand and pushed me through the door. I had enough sense to get to my room which incidentally, was up one flight of stairs and then I guess I managed to get into bed at least that is where I was in the morning.

The next morning, my landlady came to wake me as I had not made a  move to get up and found me still in bed with the sheets covered in blood from my badly scraped up face. She let out a scream that woke me through my liquor stoked brain and when I moved, it gave her the reassurance that I was indeed very much alive. She saw the blood, saw I wasn’t moving and thought I was dead.  It must have been a bit of a shock to her to find her lodger laying in bed like this. We shared a good laugh about it later.

Meanwhile, on the home front, my marriage was deteriorating with no one to blame really. We were both way too young when we married and even the beautiful boys that we had couldn’t keep us together. I began to drink more not in the alcoholic way but as a means to be acting out the life that I was convinced I had missed out on. My job carried me further afield to where I was away for weeks at a time working on various projects and my Mother-in-law took on the role of surrogate mother to the boys. She could be a bit of a tyrant and made no bones in telling me what she thought of me and her daughter but she was good to the boys and became their Mum. Her husband Alec, was a hard-working man who lived a simple life but he doted on the boys. I am forever grateful for the care and the love and affection they both gave them. In 1961, my wife moved out signalling the end of the marriage. My In-Laws continued to look after the boys.

Life continued on with the William Press Company and I was beginning to advance in the company. My role had changed and although I still built the manholes, I was also employed as a jointer. That was the guy in the trenches who actually connected the pipes together. Work was still back around in East Sussex although beginning to slacken off. We had a big project in Eastbourne a couple of blocks from the sea front where we were laying six feet in diameter concrete pipes for a sewer project. Working in a town or city presents a whole new and different set of challenges. For one thing, there would be the need to barricade off the street to give us sufficient space to work in and house the heavy equipment. Then there was the problem of traffic and how to keep it moving. During the actual digging of the trench, there would be a continuous need to repair the water and gas pipes that connected to the houses and shops as the chances of locating them was always remote. We could find the big mains that were there prior to the machines digging them up but those small pipes were a real bear.

The special problem we had on that project was the trenches filled with water every time the tides came in. We were close enough to the sea for that to happen. Our trench was about fifteen feet deep and we had to use shoring to hold up the walls, another problem as it meant that we were working within a very enclosed space. The actual pipe only took minutes to install but the preparation work took hours. I think we averaged one to two pipes a day with each pipe only 6 feet long. We had to plan the work accordingly knowing that we only had eight hours to install pipe and do all of the other things we needed to do. Just as quickly as the trenches filled, so they emptied as the tides receded but it was still eight hours later before we could hit the trench again.

I had purchased a motorcycle, the one and only time that I had that form of transportation. It was an Ambassador twin and was pretty fast. We were working a small project out in the country with our inevitable crew of Irish peace-workers who travelled to the project via one of the dump trucks assigned to our job. They had a removable box like cover with seats that they would throw onto the bed of the truck morning and evening to transport the guys around. We were coming home after work and I had left before them on my motor cycle. I got too close to the edge of the road going down a hill and my front wheel slid on the wet, dead leaves throwing me off. I landed on my knee and the bike sustained some damage and as I was standing there surveying the scene, along comes the truck with the Irish boys on board. They pulled up, tossed both me and the motorbike into the truck and dropped me off at the door of my house along with the damaged cycle. The knee had swollen up and it was two weeks before I could get back to work. I spent that time watching cricket on the small black and white TV that my in-laws had just purchased. Interesting to note that I have had that knee replaced probably because of the damage it sustained from that accident, but not for another fifty years later.

When I returned to work, I was sent to Eastbourne to work on a large project that involved building a 12 foot by 12 foot manhole that was easily 20 feet deep. It was all brick with 9 inch walls meaning that it had two layers of brick thick, so for once, my expertise came back into play as I worked on this large project as I was so used to the small 2 feet by 4 feet manholes.

There was this girl of about my age that would stop by and talk to me as i was working. She must have had a thing for young men that did physical labor, or maybe it was all of the muscles that rippled as I worked or then again, the lure of the motorcycle. I shall never know because it was obvious that she was out of my league coming from a different class than me. She kept persevering so I asked her out and she obliged. We went out for the duration of that job, maybe a couple of months and maybe it may have been longer if I hadn’t crashed the motorcycle. I had already had one run in with her Mother as we drove too far one evening and it was real late when I got her home. Her Mother called me all of the names under the sun but it didn’t stop the daughter from still seeing me. Maybe she was challenging her Mother’s authority as she didn’t have a Father and still continued to go out with me. One Saturday, we took a drive out to Arundel to look at the castle. On the way home, a car got too close to me and caught my right leg resulting in both of us coming off the bike and sprawling onto the road.  Neither of us were hurt nor was the bike but the Policeman that investigated determined that I didn’t have a motorcycle licence that allowed me to carry a passenger and gave me a ticket. Of course, as soon as he was gone, we got on the bike and drove back to Eastbourne. Go figure. That was the straw that broke her mother’s back and she forbade her daughter ever to see me again which didn’t stop her one bit but it was not as much fun when we had to sneak around. My project was coming to an end and I would be moving to another one in a couple of weeks. I never saw her again but she did send me a postcard wishing me well and pointing out that she had already found herself yet another construction worker.

By now, I had been with the company for a few years and had been promoted to foreman with my own crew. England was going through a building boom, so we started off working on the housing estates putting in both gas and water mains. A lot of the projects were a challenge as we were often the last group in and the telephone and electricity had already been in ahead of us and had buried their cables leaving us in many cases, a very restricted space to lay our pipe. We had the aforementioned Irish piece-workers to excavate our trenches working in areas that were not much bigger than 3-4 feet of space with the already buried items taking up some of that. For such small pipe, the work had its own special challenges.

Lowering PipeOur work was very diversified with projects ranging from the 4 inch pipe to as large as 15 inch in both ductile which is a mix of steel and iron to asbestos and even plastic. Some joints were bolted flange joints, other were a special rubber gasket that sealed when the pipes were pushed together. Others in the plastic pipe were glued together while still others were formed by melting lead, preparing the joint, pouring the lead in the joint and then taking special chisels named sets and literally working the way around the joint, hammering with a 4 pound hammer the different sized sets untill the joint was deemed tight. The last method was used a lot on large gas pipes and in the gasworks themselves. We also worked on much larger pipes but these were usually steel and welded together and were mostly on cross-country runs where there generally not too much in the way. These projects were the most fun to work on. With nothing but open country and nothing in the way, we would use very large trenching machines that could dig a lot of trench in a day. The pipe would be strung out ahead of the trencher and the welders and insulators would join it together and prepare it to be lowered into the trench. It’s hard to think that a steel pipe of 24 inch diameter would be flexible but it was as long as it had enough length. Incidentally, every joint was x-rayed for flaws which had to be repaired if any were discovered. There is something about working in the countryside especially early in the morning as the sun was rising. For me it was very special so I had not only the benefits of a good job but felt closer to nature.

I was the foreman on one such project where we were laying 15 inch asbestos push joint pipes for several miles through open land. These pipes were different in as much as they had a flexible joint and a separate collar with rubber gaskets. We made pretty good progress and would test every mile or so before moving on. The testing method was to cap off both ends, brace the caps to take the weight which could be several tons of pressure and then fill the pipes with water. We would bring it up to the desired pressure by adding additional water by the use of a small hand pump. The pipe had to hold up for twenty-four hours before passing. One day, as we were testing and I was hand pumping in the final few pounds, water and pipe erupted out of the ground not more than fifty yards from where we were standing. One of the asbestos pipes was cracked and had not been noticed in the visual inspection which is not unusual as you can’t tap on them and listen for a dull ring as you can with the steel and cast-iron pipe. We made the repair by replacing and relaying that small section and then re-tested with a positive result. One time we had a cap blow off. Luckily, no one was in the way or they could have been seriously hurt.

On that same project, we were heading downhill and had to cross a very small stream and then go back up the other side. When I say small stream, that is exactly what I meant. This one was probably no more than 3 feet wide with just a trickle of water. On water mains, at all of the low points there would be a washout valve placed so that debris and dirt could be washed out of the pipe at regular intervals. On the opposite end at the top of the hill would be blow off valves that would allow air to escape without letting out the water.

We reached the crossing and successfully placed the pipe and the tee but not the washout valve. We laid the pipe up the hill and went forward with that part of the project. In the meantime, the crew that was going to place the valve and the manhole moved into place but before they could start the actual work, it came on to rain and our little stream turned into a torrent. I should mention that this project was using concrete circular manhole rings which are placed on a concrete base that is poured prior to placing the ring. This particular manhole would be four feet deep when it was placed or at least that was the original plan. We backed off from doing any more work on that manhole until the water receded a little but as we were getting into the rainy season, or should I say rainier season for England, we knew that we would have to find a way to finish this part of the project or we couldn’t test and move on.

I moved in a track driven backhoe to dig a trench and divert the stream around the area of work and then we installed a couple of temporary 4 inch pumps to keep the water out of the work area but nature fought us all the way and it rained continuously. The site was turning into a quagmire and was difficult for the track equipment to get around as it was on the side of the hill. I had a couple of ex-army trucks that had winches on them. I stationed one at the top of the hill and when the heavy equipment had to move around, they would attach to the winch and get assisted by it. I should mention that the winch truck had to be anchored to a large tree to stop it from sliding down the hill. The track crane we were using twice lost its tracks in the mud. It’s a bad enough job replacing tracks but even tougher when you are deep in mud. it took us 5 weeks of constant effort to finally place a small 4 inch valve and tee and then lay the floor of the manhole and place the rings. By the time we had finished, so much of the hill had come down to the stream that we ended up with a manhole twice the depth of the original four-foot ring. The rest of that huge project was a piece of cake compared with the problems that the little 4 inch washout had caused us.

A lot of that project was laid along the side of a hill in open grassland. That winter was exceptionally wet and although we had laid the pipe during the drier part of the season we ended up with yet another natural catastrophe that we could not have possibly seen coming.

I came in one morning as we were working on the 4 inch valve and walked the pipe-line back along the areas we had already tested and completed. I had been drawn to this walk by the strange angle of some of the trees on the hillside and wanted to see for myself what had caused this. Imagine my surprise when I got to the area to see that the entire side of the hill had slid downwards taking both trees and our newly laid pipeline with it. The end result was that we had to re-lay about a mile of pipeline much higher up the hill, closer to the top over a different route than the one we took before and then tie both ends into our new line at what our engineers considered an area safe from the mudslides. All of this was additional work. We left the old pipe in the ground not knowing if it had been damaged in the original slide and besides that, it was cheaper to abandon the old pipe and buy new rather than spend time and money getting the old pipe out of the ground. You can never under-estimate the forces and fickleness of Mother Nature.

Some of our connections had to be done at night when the least use of water and it’s availability was not so much of a problem. This would entail lots of preparation and attention to detail to try to eliminate any surprises as we did the actual tie-ins. We had one such night time tie-in on this project and as we were close to a rail line, used one of the rail carts to get our pipe to the tie-in site.

One winter, the weather was extremely cold with a lot of continuous frost. What this did was to freeze the ground down a couple of feet to where the it started to move under the pressure of the expansion causing all kinds of breaks in the gas pipes in both Eastbourne and Hailsham. Our company rapidly put together mobile crews each with the inevitable Irish piece-workers and all of the necessary equipment to locate and repair these leaks. This was a massive job especially in Eastbourne as the gas pipes had been installed a long time ago and the chalky soil had weakened the pipe by eating into the old cast iron pipes. In some places, entire stretches of pipe had to be replaced. In others, just the leaky joints were cut out replaced by special collars. In yet other places, the pipe had moved an inch or more enough to break it. There were so many leaks and the situation was so dangerous with the smell of gas everywhere that the repair crews worked continuously and would only stop for food breaks and by general consensus when they were getting really tired. It was nothing to work for 36 hours straight out in the bitterly cold weather and then be back 12 hours later to do it all again. I know by experience that nerves got very frayed and jangled towards the end and it was really easy to fall out with your workmates. I saw the most mild-mannered of some of our crews go looking for trouble where their nerves were stretched so thin. I myself picked a fight with a guy twice my size who luckily for me was not as stretched as I was and just blew it off. Thank goodness he did as he would have killed me.This went on for almost a month and if nothing else gave the Gas Company an idea of how much work they were going to have to do in the future replacing all of those rotting gas lines. It also gave the guys that worked all of these long hours some huge paychecks for a month.

We had another project laying a small 4 inch water main alongside the road that led to a small village named Herstmonceux. What made this project so interesting is that we were following the underground cable that led from the Herstmonceux Observatory to the Greenwich Observatory that maintained time around the world. This was one of those projects that we used the Irish piece-workers and they were charged with being extra careful on the one hand that competed with their need for speed on their excavation in order to earn money. Well, needless to say, their jack hammer nicked the Greenwich cable and all hell broke loose. Within minutes there were probably twenty repair vehicles, men in suits and even the British Secret Service as well as the local police force all gathered around as their crews repaired the break. It was interesting to say the least and we had to be extra careful with the excavation for the rest of that project.

One Christmas Eve which also happened to be a Saturday, all of the pipe-laying crews from around the area gathered together at one of the country pubs to celebrate. Part of the group were Irish navvies who earned their living by digging trenches in areas where it was impossible to get in any heavy equipment. They were paid piecework meaning that they were paid by the amount of trenches they dug out and backfilled in a week.There were usually 3-4 men in a crew and man, could they work. I would sometimes help them by backfilling the trenches if I had nothing else to do. Anyway, these guys were with us at the party and there were several of their crews gathered together. In their spare time they would frequent the bars close to where they were lodging and were no strangers to hard-drinking which they proceeded to do at the party. A few of us tried to keep up with them which was a stupid thing to do and we were all getting more than a little drunk especially as how the Irish boys were paying for most of the drinks.

I was very active as a soccer player while I was in my home area and even when I was working out-of-town, would sign on for the local team. My local team had a game that afternoon and I was not too drunk to remember that I had a game to go to and left the party. On that particular day, I was the goalkeeper and will never forget running out to cut out a high cross only for the ball to sail twenty yards behind me. That’s how drunk I was. I chose the wrong ball to catch which can be difficult when you can see more than one of them.My team mates thought it funny but in retrospect I should not have played as I could quite easily have got hurt not counting the fact that I probably played like crap although I imagine that I was totally fearless.

If I had of got hurt, I surely wouldn’t have felt any pain as the alcohol would have kicked in as an instant painkiller…

I was getting involved with woman who had recently left her husband. He was some Phys Ed officer in the Army. A real tough nut who caught up with me as I was preparing to play a soccer game. My team mates hung around before taking the field as they suspected trouble and sure enough. he hit me a sucker punch that drove my head into the door jamb. I woke up in hospital a full ten miles from the field after an ambulance took me there and he ended up in jail. I had 18 stitches in a cut over my right eye but other than my pride being hurt and a couple of day’s rest in hospital, I came out just fine. His attacking me was the worst thing he could have done as he drove his ex-wife away from him and she turned to me for help.

This episode signalled the start of another passage in my life story.

Leave a Reply