In the winter of 1969, I and five other tradesmen were directed to work in a derelict house in Rushmore Road Hackney. Two stories high it had two bedrooms, a large living room and a brick back edition. There was a kitchen at ground floor with a bathroom above – it was a dump of a property.
Whilst standing empty for several months, it had been vandalised by thieves looking for scrap metal. All of the pipework, the metal taps, roof lead work and even the cast iron bath and soil stack were stolen. They even took grates out of the fire places. Many of the floorboards and joists had signs of rot, due to the slates on the back edition roof being removed.
My first task was to take up the floorboards just inside the front door to locate the lead main supply. This had been hacked off just outside of the stopcock. It was easy, with a few fittings, which I carried in the my boot of my car and copper pipe from my roof rack, to reinstate. First things first it was essential to restore the water supply so we could have a brew of tea. The previous occupier had left an old kettle and a few cups and jam jars, in their kitchen. I smashed some rotten floor boards and stacked them in the front room fire place. The kettle soon boiled.
I sent Billy, my apprentice, to buy tea sugar and milk and while we waited we warmed ourselves by the fire. Billy was a nice lad, very keen to please and grateful for the chance to learn the plumbing trade. Old Lloyd the black carpenter, was a bit put out that I had smashed up some of his floorboards, for fire but soon quietened down when I asked, “would you rather be cold?” His Jamaican Windrush bones agreed with what I’d done but the carpenter in him was reluctant. Jack Dwyer, the brickie come plasterer, was a bolshie piece of work. Busted nose as well as cauliflower ears, he looked as if every fight he’d had, he’d lost. I had been with him before. He always recalled the story of when he was a fair ground bare-knuckle boxer. He’d take on anyone for a five shilling purse*. I think he was definitely punch drunk, as he never seemed quite in control of his temper. Jim Scott on the other hand was an intelligent electrician. In just the first few days on the job, he’d several room rewired, all tagged and ready for their eventual fittings. He spent hours though, in placing a new fuse board, in the hallway.
All went well and we soon had deliveries of timber, slates and iron work. I’d ordered a new pot belled stove for the kitchen along with the galvanised pipe and fittings needed to supply hot water. We made good progress until Bill Shuttler, the Council’s General Foreman turned up. He was known throughout the council workforce as ‘The Undertaker’. A tall skinny man in his late fifties, with a long dour face, a beak for a nose, little piggy eyes, set a bit too close to each other. Thick bushy eyebrows and deep jowl lines from each side of his beak down to his chin. He was as sour in his attitude as he was in his looks. I don’t think he ever smiled and certainly never made a light hearted comment. In winter he always wore a black full length Crombie overcoat and fedora hat. Hence his nickname.
I don’t know what caused the ruckus but the first I knew was Jack bellowing at Shuttler. By the time I got into the back room where they were I was just in time to block a punch, which Jack had aimed at Shuttler’s jaw. I became a small barrier between the two of them. Both Jack and Bill were bigger than me. I remember thinking that Jack was the most likely to lose his rag, so I faced him, with Shuttler screaming “you’re sacked, for gross misconduct!”
Later, after Shuttler had returned to the Town Hall, he must have thought more about the incident. He sent a message saying if he received an apology he’d rescind the sacking.
*in 2018 that is about £4 correcting for inflation