Not a name that jumps out at you but in the sixties I was a snotty nosed plumbers apprentice sent to work on a building site at “The Barbican” in the centre of London. Apparently Haden’s (the company I was indentured to) had contracted to lay both the four inch water mains and most of the six inch drain pipes that served to take the effluent away from a huge concrete tower block being constructed on the site. The site was enormous – but basically just a deep hole dug into the mud close to what was called “the old London Wall”.
The building stands resplendent to this day in the area known as Moorfields, but then it was known to me as “that freezing cold shit hole” that I had to report to every morning by 8 am. The plumbers hut was a metal container up against the wooden perimeter fence, where we all donned our wellingtons, donkey jackets, and grabbed the tools that had been stored overnight.
The first few days were tough, not least was the thick clay that clung to my boots that took some getting used to. Within the first few days I was taken to a huge heap of cast iron pipes, perhaps fifteen to twenty feet long, clearly marked in bright yellow lettering, I was directed to one end of the towering pile of pipes whilst my boss (the plumber) grabbed the slightly heavier socket end and hoisted it to his shoulder. I could not believe how heavy just a water pipe could be. It had a 4 inch internal diameter and was made from (something I had never heard of before) “Spun Iron”.
In mud across, a length of the site and looking at the tatty architects drawings he had earlier stuffed into his back pocket, Tony indicated that here was the place to put the pipe down. I immediately noticed that two wooden pieces of 2″x 2″ had been driven into the mud next to each end where our pipe was now laid. Tony, consulted with the site foreman in gibberish (from what I heard) and returned to our metal hut to retrieve a huge length of red flimsy hosepipe with open ended glass vial tubes stuffed in the hose at either end.
It was both interesting and instructive to learn how when filled with water one end of the glass vile with its marked red line could be transferred to another point on the site many metres away on a similar stake where it could be marked with a simple pencil line. Then measured more up or down gave a true marker on each wooden stump of where our pipe, and at what levels it should lay.
Again with tape measurers between the posts, Tony calculated that the pipe we had transported across the site had to be shortened.
I was amazed however, when Tony took two or three shovel full of clay to make a bed to lay the pipe on and with an old sheet of paper and a piece of French Chalk Drew a perfect line around the pipe. I was then “gob smacked” when he handed me a hammer and cold chisel and told me to bang the chisel systematically around his chalk line.
Given the toughness of the iron and the thought that perhaps this was just another “ go to the shop and ask for a skirting board ladder or ask for a long weight” I was also sceptical of the public viewing me and the site in general from the glass viewing points the building contractor had thoughtfully let into the site surrounding hoarding.
After about fifteen minutes, and the smell of Acetylene given off by every hammer blow, the pipe did indeed break precisely on Tony’s chalk line. After that I felt like a plumbing stone mason and was happy to chisel away to not only the four inch but the six inch pipes as well.
That site was also interesting in the fact that much of the trench work where the mains pipes were laid, had to be dug out with (what we referred to as) “grafting spades”. It was whilst digging on one trench I noticed something white showing distinctly in the surrounding blue black clay. With Tony’s small trowel I teased the fragile object very gently out from where the 18 inch tobacco pipe had lain probable for the best part of 200 years. It was all in one piece except for a small chip in the slender bowl end. Tony was clearly not pleased with the amount of time I had wasted on extracting the “Effing useless pipe” and I should work twice as hard in laying the iron pipes we were there to work on. Where we had to join one pipe onto the pipe already set into the concrete I had bucketed in small mounds every four or five feet apart the day before it would take the two of us to man handle the spigot of the new pipe into the socket of the previous piece. Once levels were checked I was shown how to ‘yarn the joint’ by punching in the caulking rope with Tony’s yarning irons and hammer then when he was satisfied that the joint was strong I was shown how to fit the “running rope” tightly round the joint, ready for the molten lead to be poured in a small cup was formed over the running rope out of a putty called “plumbers mate” but Tony said I could use clay in the trench walls that was just as good as the putty and the clay was more durable in terms of taking the molten lead. With the joint then capped with lead I was set the back breaking task of caulking the joint again with his hammer and caulking irons.
We laid many, many yards of pipes on that site in the cold and wet when employed there to work in conditions that (in these days) the ‘Health and Safety’ commissar’s would take legal action against my employers. However, I did wonder if (in some distant year) some archaeologist, or perhaps some spotty faced youth like me, would – stand on this very site and marvel at my workmanship. For surely these “spun Iron Pipes” would last through this and the next thousand years. Sadly, now with a little more wisdom and wrinkled age showing beneath the white thatch on my head, I feel I was then optimistic and perhaps naïve in my judgement.