We nicknamed the huge treble extension ladder “Big Bertha” as it really was a beast with thirty rungs
in each in each of its three sections, the bottom and middle section fitted with ropes and pulley wheels. In 1972 I and my then labourer Chris Gold were given the job of clearing the moss and leaf litter from the large six inch cast iron gutters around a block of flats called Duncan House in east Hackney. We loaded the open backed lorry from Defoe Road depot with Bertha, three sets of spring rods called ferret’s and with just a minimal tool kit. The foreman drove the lorry to the job and we were offloaded by 11 am that chilly early spring day. The gutters were at the fifth story eaves level topped with a pitched slate roof. In those days we worked under a bonus scheme which dictated we should get the maximum allowance of 30 minutes per linier foot run – taking into account the plumbers need to go up the ladder, clear what could be reached – come down the ladder and move it to the next position, and so on. I was also instructed to clear any of the six Rainwater stacks that may have gotten blocked over the years. At that height each blockage was worth 1 ½ hours. However, I was extremely fit in those days and Chris Gold was a very large 19 year old who was as strong as a horse. So once up the ladder – I cleared about three foot, by just chucking the mould to the ground and then bounced the top of the quite flexible aluminium ladder over on a quite alarming angle. Then shouted down to Chris to lift the bottom of the ladder over with me still on it to an upright position. This exercise we repeated time and time again on each of the four elevations. As and when Chris had moved both me and the ladder I made him clear up the dirt I had slung from the gutter. When I reported back to the depot at 4 pm the next day that the job was completed, the foreman did not believe me and insisted that Chris and I should return to Duncan House and erect Big Bertha again so that he could inspect the gutters. This we did, and of course he insisted he saw all four elevations. I expect he guessed how we had managed to complete the clearance of 180 feet of gutters which should have taken a week and half in just 13 hours. but he couldn’t fault the work or the site cleanliness.
Two years later, in 1974, just after I had been made up to be the Forman, I had to again deal with Big Bertha. An order came in for a roof leak and defective guttering job in one of the large houses in Evering Road. Although only four stories high I knew the work would require a slater as well as a plumber to fix the guttering. As I had the responsibility to organise the guttering repair I commandeered the open backed lorry, and directed that Brian Brignal and his mate Tony should go with me – while the roofer Bert Lees, would follow in his car. We dropped Bertha off of the lorry and told the lads to give me a ring when I can return the ladder. At 3 pm that day they phoned to say the job was completed. Being that it was a boiling hot day I ordered that Les Hepeard should drive the open back lorry back to the Evering Road job to collect our ladder and because I was the boss both Joe Blanchflower and I would travel on the back of the lorry from our depot in Defoe Road Stoke Newington. It was nice to have the breeze in our face. When we arrived at the address 74 Evering Road – I put my hand on the bargeboard at the back of the cab and jumped over the side. In a split second my face had slammed into the drivers door and a split second after that I was laying in the road. Dazed, I felt my nose, as I was sure it was broken, but then saw that the third finger on my left hand was for the best part missing with just a stump of bone sticking out.
I looked around and laying in the gutter was what was left of my finger – with a very mangled wedding ring up from the finger nail. The stump was bleeding but not hugely, but I was sure at any minute all my blood would gush out in gallons – so I shouted to Joe to use his pocket knife to cut a short piece of the sash cord we kept on the lorry to secure big bertha, and ordered him to slip a knot over the stump left on my hand and pull it as tight as he could.
It is funny now to think of that day as I was shaking but not as bad as Joe. Eventually, he/we did manage to get that dirty bit of sash cord over my stump and with the severed finger in my right hand I told Les Hepeard to get me to The Hackney Hospital NOW! Joe was left to walk back to the depot. I got into the front passenger seat of the lorry and Les – gunned the engine at full throttle the remaining length of Evering Road, swerved right into Lower Clapton Road without even looking for oncoming vehicles and flew like a demented lunatic through the roundabout being constructed at the end of Lea Bridge Road. I think the whole journey must have taken less than eight minutes but I do remember Les saying – just as a pensioner had jumped for his life out of our way (he was on a pedestrian crossing) “I’m going to be sick – don’t let me see your hand”.
At our arrival – I jumped out of the lorry, ran across the road – into A & E and with my stump held up with its sash cord necklace and my other hand clutching my dead finger – I lined up and waited to be seen.
With a snake formation of chairs where the front person was called to see the Doctor and every one moved up a seat I had some peculiar looks from the patents each side of me but fortunately, a nurse noticed my hand held at shoulder height and took me straight to the front desk. Within seconds I was through the double doors with round windows in them and sat in front of a female Doctor.
She was clearly not impressed with my sash cord tourniquet but the nurses kept asking me question after question – what did I do fore a living, have I got children, what are their names, etc etc, I now know of course that they were stopping me from going into shock. In a short while I was bandaged and taken upstairs to a ward, stripped of my clothes and put into one of those grey backless body aprons and put to bed with my hand in a sling held up from a metal pole that you sometimes see on films where blood bags are dangled.
Eventually a nice middle aged doctor came to see me and said he was sorry but the trauma to my (de-gloved) finger was so extensive that it would not be possible to sew it back on. I tried to make a joke by saying OK but I want the finger back. He looked at me as if to say why? And I said, well you know how high the price of beef is today. He didn’t even smile – well I thought it was funny.
By now I suppose, Joe had got back to the depot and Bob Patmore had rung my wife Anne to say there had been an accident as she turned up with pyjamas, tooth brush and even a magazine for me to read until they took me down to the theatre to have the protruding bone chopped off and the remaining skin pulled over the stump and sewed closed.
It was about nine pm that evening before I woke up from the anaesthetic and Anne was there again by the bedside. I can’t really remember what we said that visit but I do clearly remember looking at my bandaged hand and the obvious gap between my middle and little finger – and I thought ‘I’m going to live the rest of my life with that deformity’.
As I was only a week into my promotion to foreman when the accident happened I thought I would show a good commitment to the job by signing myself off from the sick and returning to work. Bob Patmore the Supervisor did say are you sure your ready to come back to work and I was adamant I was.
I had a big yellow Council transit van as the foreman and for quite a while I had to get Joe or whoever I was transporting to a job to change gear for me as I depressed the clutch. That was OK it was the journey back that took it toll on my sore hand.
I was getting used to looking forward to the pub at the end of each day and as there was the three of us Me, Bob Patmore and Joe Blanchflower, we only had three pints before I would drive Joe home.
It was around that time that Bob introduced me to a bunch of blokes he knew who worked for a furniture factory by the river lee at Lee Bridge Road. Barney was the Manager of the factory (nice – lovely guy) than there was Frank the upholsterer, (a dourer miserable man who was henpecked by his wife) Simon the spindle hand – who only had three fingers on each hand as he had lost the rest to accidents over the years with the spindle cutter. The shifters and delivery men also all used to meet up with us in the George Pub every Friday night. We got to know each other really well.
By this time a couple of things were happening. One I was suing the Council through the Union for my accident, as it turned out it was a protruding bolt that had caught my wedding ring, when I had jumped off the back of the lorry. It eventually turned out that Hackney Council were willing to settle at £3000 for my pain and loss, and secondly Frank the upholsterer had agreed to custom build me a huge leather corner settee to go in our living room in the flat at Bakers Hill. How proud I was the day that Frank delivered that massive seven seat settee.