In 1975 I had already worked for Hackney Council for 12 years first as a plumber then as the foreman plumber. Based in the depths of Shoreditch down Bowling Green Walk off of Pitfield Street. One lunch time I got a note from John Milton the South Area Manager that he wanted to see me that afternoon at 3 pm in the office. I wasn’t particularly concern at this event as I had a good team under me who, although all were ducking and diving to some extent as Council workers did at the time our work rate was better than the carpenters, roofers, scaffolders’ and wet trades all put together. At the appointed time I knocked on the door and was ushered inside.
Sitting behind the Managers desk was an elegant, well spoken /educated woman that I guessed was in her mid-40s who introduced herself saying “Hello Mike, my name is Anne Blabber and I’ve been given a special responsibility by the Government to identify the very worst areas of deprivation, poverty, and housing need in the country. This I have now done and my research shows there are two particular areas – one is Bolton in Lancashire and the other is right here in Hackney at the Wenlock Barn Estate”. I replied that I knew the area well and indeed I had two of my men currently working on that estate refurbishing bathroom fittings – baths, basins etc.. “Good” she said “the thing is, Government has authorised me to address both these areas and their associated housing needs and your Manager (she looked briefly over at Tom Lacey standing by the window) has recommended that you should head up a new team that I and leader of Hackney Council are going to establish”. Wow I thought, but said “ I can’t go all the way to Bolton! “no, she assured me I just want you to head up the team in Hackney. It will be a challenge for you in that we will create a new office and stores for you, where you will manage an on site team consisting of plumbers, carpenters, roofers, glazers, bricklayers, painters and tillers. You will be working alongside a housing manager who will issue you with specific targets and work dockets and we will expect you to liaise closely with the Chairman and committee members of the tenants association. For the extra responsibilities I was given an upgrade from SO1 to SO2 and at that point I was optimistic about my future.
The reality however, was somewhat different. My new office and store room turned out to be a porta-cabin with metal grills over the windows and door. A week or so later the team I was promised turned out to be just two carpenters, a glazier, a female painter and decorator and 1 bricklayer who, did a bit of tiling. Both the old Area foreman Joe Terry and my old plumbing supervisor Alec Dymock refused to let me have any more staff members and basically I was told ‘if you can’t cope with the work given you, then ring Bowling Green Walk and if we can spare any of your old plumbing team, or extra tradesmen we will send them over to you’. Although I had worked closely with both of these senior managers for the past 3 years, I guess they both saw me as a threat to their empires and certainly were not in agreement that tenants should have any influence over how and when work would be organised.
I did manage to improve or at least cut down the time from when a repair was requested to the time it was completed but it was a daily struggle made worse by the Area Foreman who refused any replacement operatives if one of my team went on holiday or was out sick.
Anne Blabber came to see me at least once a month and was concerned about the apparent lack of interest from senior officers to her project and suggested I keep a daily diary of what I did each day and the problems I was experiencing. This I agreed to do but was embarrassed with my lack of grammar and spelling skills but was assured she just wanted an accurate word picture of what was happening with her project. So now working three times harder than I did as a foreman plumber, often sorting out plumbing jobs myself rather than asking for a plumber from the pool life dragged on for over a year. I got to the point where I was actually enjoying my drive home each afternoon (well five-ish) back from Hackney to Harold Hill but stopping off each night at the Bear pub in Noak Hill Road for a relaxing pint or two to pen my diary entries. This I did religiously and every three months Anne asked to take my diary away with her. What she did with them was never revealed to me. but night after, night week after week I kept scribbling in those diaries that were A4 size with a week on each open page. Before long, I had filled one book and was better than half way through the second book.
In that time I had learned some pretty amazing skills. My glazier had shown me how to cut a sheet of glass (I used to order them in 4ft x 8ft sheets) either plain, wire-cast or Georgian wired, I even had a few sheets of hammered and pebble glass for toilet windows. I had set up a bench made out of 2×2 wood with a plywood top and I covered it with a lump of old carpet I took from a void property. With Bobby Beavis, who was once a joinery carpenter I learned how to set out and make a complete window frame. He also showed me how to hang a new front door as well as the easiest way to break into a door with just a Yale lock on it. Bob was a nice guy and a very skilled tradesman. My other carpenter was a man called Eugene who was also skilled in his trade but had no time to be nice to our customers.
I remember late one day receiving a telephone call from a tenant saying she had a broken window which needed seeing too straight away as she was afraid to leave it overnight would simply invite a burglary. I had issued a standing order that all staff were to report back to me by 4 pm each day for any urgent work to be picked up, but of course it was sods law that Josh, my glazier, failed to report in that afternoon. I left it until 5 pm and went to visit the tenant and see the window. My option being to just board it up until the next day, but she was so adamant it had to be fixed that day, I was basically bullied into agreeing and measured the size of the glass in order to replace it from my stock back in the office. Now well gone 5 pm when I should have been on my way home I determined to give Josh such a roasting the next day. Hacking out the old putty and broken glass I got clumsy and in less than a split second my left hand middle finger was pouring with blood over her kitchen floor. A flap of skin hanging next to the nail. Luckily, the tenant had a box of elastoplast and despite layer after layer of plasters the blood continued to ooze through. The tenant to be fair was more concerned than I was and insisting I should go to the hospital. Needless to say I left her window unfixed with just a board over it, and quickly locked up my office with a bulging throbbing finger to my journey home. My journal expressed in no uncertain terms that night what I thought of Josh.
More about Hackney to follow…