The 1970s

What an interesting time it was for me. Working as a jobbing plumber in Hackney, I really enjoyed the freedom of working with and for the hugely diverse population that were Hackney tenants. I made many good friends both in the council and many of the tenants that I came to know. I was about 28 when I got involved in Trade Union and in 1972 was elected as the steward, representing the plumbers in the north of the borough, (about fifteen men). In truth I had little idea of what to do but guidance was received from the PTU (Plumbers Trade Union).

One particular man, whom I won’t name, became very important in my life. He was an extremely knowledgeable builder, adept in almost all the building trades, but especially in roofing. He started working on quite large contracts outside of our day to day contracts at the council; as a result I would often work with him both in the week for Hackney as well as for privately at weekends. Yes the workload was at times intolerable, along with the stress of giving up on home life with the wife and kids. As a result, we both began cutting corners within the council work. I was known as the “bonus king” simply because I’d taken the opportunity to study every single task in the written objectives identified in the bonus scheme. I could argue in depth and forcefully over the minutest detail of disputes that arose between our members and the managements building surveyors who were tasked to manage the bonus scheme.

Soon, I was working more or less full time in the steward’s role with less time out on the tools. Clearly, the management in the shape of their surveyors hated losing to me in those confrontations, and despite changing the bonus scheme time and time again to address the fundamental flaws I pointed out, they failed to make it water tight.

I think it might have been as a result of my needling them, that in 1974 they offered me a position as one of the two foremen plumbers. That’s great I thought and although nervous at the prospect of becoming a white collar worker, I was not unhappy to leave my ‘blue collar’ status behind. As the foreman the work was by its nature more complicated and diverse.  Asked to remedy persistent problems that had previously, just been bodged or persistently botched, I’d look for a comprehensive solution.

My finest example of a comprehensive resolution was to remedy a leaking troublesome flat zinc roof that had rotted the supporting rafters. My old and trusted friend offered his knowledge and experience. With pencilled sketches of how to renew the rafters as well as tie them into supporting walls, I even insisted my new rafters must be covered with substantial ‘marine plywood’ before a top layer of roofing felt doubly waterproofed the building. I then produced drawings of my new proposed 18 gauge zinc replacement roof, with all the detailed baton roles, cleats and rainwater outlets that were to discharge the rain through the parapet walls to the guttering. The Council were deeply unhappy about the proposed cost that I estimated at about £1.400 to £2.000 pounds. I pointed out that they were being ‘penny wise and pound foolish’. They would have to spend at least that amount and more to plaster all the rooms below to make them habitable. It was agreed. I wonder if that roof is still watertight after 40 odd years.


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