George was a master plumber who I first met on a building site on the High Street, Waltham Cross (London). He and his brother, Harry Silverlock, were natural comedians who, effortlessly, had us youngsters in fits of laughter at the most unexpected moments. The site, a block of six shops with two storey maisonette flats above was perfectly ordinary.
As the site was in its infancy, just getting out of the grounds footings to damp proof brick level (nine inches above ground) the team of five plumbers and me, the apprentice, were all in our small site cabin taking our tea break when the General Site Foreman interrupted. He was a pompous man. He announced he was ready for the connections to be made between the High Street sewer. He was ready to take the three soil stacks that would connect the planned toilets and waste pipes servicing the dwelling and shops. George looked at him as if the man was a complete cretin but said nothing until it was announced that these three sewer connections had to be formed in four inch copper pipe – that had to be ‘ripple bent’. George asked “what’s wrong with using the traditional four inch lead pipe, as it’s easier to use?” “Can you do as the contract dictates, or do I need to get more experienced plumbers?” was the only reply. I thought George was going to explode at any moment soon, as he had years and years of experience. “I take it these ‘ripple bent’ pipes, are to be at a large radius to be sleeved into the brick sewer with what?” asked George. “Twelve inch brass sockets at the sewer end, with four inch brass thimbles at the base of each stack – both to be braised onto the copper pipe” was the reply and with that the fool quickly departed.
I’ll leave the expletives out so George just said to the other three plumbers – “have any of you any idea what a ‘ripple bent’ pipe is?” Harry suggested, “why don’t we take a length of four inch copper pipe and try to bend it?” It would be easy with lead pipe as each end is taken and usually pulled gently across the knee in strategic places and then the lead dressed from the throat of the bend towards the stretched back where the lead thinned slightly. So a twenty foot length of copper was taken to the bench vice. After wrapping it in hessian it was held securely in the pipe vice about a third of the way down its length. George, gathered two or three paving slabs, tied them together with sash cord and hung them on the end of the pipe. The two BOC bottles of oxygen and the heavier acetylene tubes were assembled and very slowly George heated the underside of the pipe until a marked but small sag at the heated semicircle was noticed. Quickly quenched with water, the process was repeated an inch or so further along the pipe. After several hours the pipe had indeed stretched into a large radius bend, albeit with marked ripples at the throat of the bend. Braising the two fittings at either end were a piece of cake, but Adolf, as he became known, was a truly pedantic unreasonable dictator.
George was justly proud of overcoming the challenge. He was further tested by the foreman as the bill of quantities expressly stated that all fixing lugs and brackets to be attached to any brickwork were constructed first by the holes in the brickwork being reamed out using an iron raw plug tool (this was before the use of portable drills or masonry drill bits). Once the hole/s were formed they were to be packed not with wood as was the usual practice but were to be filled with compacted cotton wool. I thought this was bizarre to say the least but the sites general foreman was an absolute stickler that the contract should be fulfilled to the letter. He spent his day looking over the tradesmen’s shoulders to make sure no corners were cut.
Much later, finally, it was my turn to be criticized. I was installing some of the cast iron baths in the dwellings above the shops and was not, in his opinion, taking sufficient care not to chip the rolled bath edges. He started by ordering me to place either wood or cardboard on the rough concrete floors. In retrospect I think he was probably right, but by ‘his better than thou’ attitude got right up my nose, so I told him, in the most colourful language that most plumbing apprentices learn very quickly, to leave.