The tragic death of Martin Walker: a Hackney Dustman

I first met Martin in 1977 when I was foreman plumber at the Defoe Road depot in Stoke Newington, Hackney. He was a plumbers mate on my team. He wasn’t a skilled man but he was essential to us plumbers and ‘he was willing to learn,’ as the saying goes.

My small team of five plumbers worked from the Gilpin Road depot in Clapton Park and I placed him with Harry ‘Agee’ Gee who the best man to be his workmate and mentor. Martin was a bit immature but knew the area well as he’d lived there all his life. Once when we were in the car I said “You must be pleased to have got this job as there were a lot of candidates for it.” He replied that “To be honest, this is only a job to keep me off the dole.” I was totally shocked because this was a highly sought after job.

He went on to say, “My granddad and dad were both dustmen and I want to be a dustman as well. The only way to get the job is to have your name put forward when your are still at school! The ‘ganger’ will only take you on if your dad and/or granddad were good grafters. In other words jobs are inherited.”

I couldn’t believe that anyone would ‘fight’ to be a dustman. Martin explained exactly why being a dustman was sought after. He said, “Well you can usually finish your round just after midday. On top of that there are trinkets and knick-knacks that we get to see first. Sometimes there can be valuable stuff, which we sell as a sort of bonus!” Up to then I’d only ever thought of being a dustman as a dirty hard, smelly job that no-one would want to do.

Martin had settled in working alongside Agee, and after a couple of years he told me he’d got a job as a dustman. Since he was only transferring from one team of Hackney workers to another, I said “I don’t think you need to give any notice.” There were no objections and Martin transferred the following week.

Two years later I was told Martin had suffered a heart attack and dropped dead on his round. He was only 24 years old but the constant brutally hard physical work had killed him. In those days dustmen had bins full of ash from the coal fires as well as thrown away food. The bin itself was metal and very heavy. Martin was a strong lad but probably didn’t know how to pace himself over a working week and a hidden defect in his heart was triggered. I sometimes wondered if he’d have had a longer life if he’d continued as a plumbers mate with me but who’s to know?

Martin’s funeral was packed with family and friends as well as my team of plumbers and his fellow dustmen from his round who remembered him as such a nice lad.

Mike

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