Old Times in Hoxton

Some years ago I was working as a plumber out of the small Stamford Hill depot (area 3) for Hackney Council. It wasn’t a cheery place to work as the Area Foreman was a self-centred egotist who had originally worked as a roofer, and he actually thought that he was the only tradesman. But his people skills were non-existent, he could not speak without swearing or without being super aggressive towards the team under his command. Yes he did know the roofing or more readily the slating trade but was completely out of his depth when it came to carpentry, decorating, plastering or plumbing. I on the other hand was semi-skilled in all trades and as a master plumber I ran rings around him, when he tried to criticise any work I had produced. My particular favourite work being in both sheet lead work and sheet zinc work and because of those skills, I had more than most in knowledge of both slating and roof tiling work that automatically labelled me as (it seemed) his implacable enemy to his fragile ego. I was also the area “plumbing bonus king”, only because I knew the time values of almost all the bonus times as written down in the Hackney bonus scheme. The amount we each earned the week before, we had to sign for as the agreed amount each week on a Wednesday in the area office in front of the Foreman. I was articulate enough to argue with both the Foreman and the building surveyors (who had the task of administering the scheme) when I thought I was being cheated. The Foreman inevitably wanted me to accept any lower amount proposed by the surveyors but I was resolute in my negotiations to get the correct amount. After months of antagonism between the Foreman and myself, at eight o’clock one Monday morning I was told that because I had reduced almost all the plumbing work in the Stamford Hill area, I was being transferred down to the other end of the Borough to the Hoxton area. I was to report back to the office by nine with all of my tools packed away in my tool chest as a van had been laid on to transport me there.

In trepidation I knocked at the office door and presented myself to the new Foreman of area 6. I could not have more pleasantly surprised as I was greeted by a large jovial man who bounded across his office to clasp my hand in a bear hug, saying his name, which I now can’t remember, but I do remember he went on to say “I’m also known to this area as ‘The Earl Of Haggerston” he said with a broad grin. He explained – that his three other plumbers were for one reason or another, not able to cope with the volume of day to day plumbing work coming into the office as work tickets. I was hugely impressed when he said “I’ve heard you are a good fast worker and I want you to enjoy working here – go and get used to the area over the next few days – here is a map that shows where the big estates can be found and here are a few tickets to start on”. About fifty work tickets were put in my hand. Over the next days and weeks, I learnt he was an absolutely natural comedian – he could reduce me to tears of laughter in a matter of seconds as he was not only mentally sharp, he could mimic most famous people and politicians of the time. He also did a very fair impression of my ex-Foreman back in area 3, as the bigoted idiot he was. I think all eight area Foremen used to meet up from time to time under the Borough’s Housing Maintenance Manager.

I loved working in Hoxton, the people mostly ‘cockney’ then, were friendly, open and welcoming. Some of the dwellings were little more than slums, such as Britannia and Victoria Dwellings, five or six storey blocks high with one toilet per landing housing eight or nine families. Time and time again I returned to the office to request more work tickets and in anticipation of being suspected of not clearing the past work on the old tickets I used to ask the tenant to sign the work docket that sent me to their flat. That idea went down very well with ‘The Earl of Haggerston’ and had the added advantage of convincing the bonus surveyors that I had indeed completed such a large work load so consistently.


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