A plumbing lesson at Sir Philip Magnus School in 1960

I attended this school from the age of eleven until sixteen (1955–1960). It was a very good school with its students split into two streams: a) for academics and b) for building trades). I was in the ‘b’ stream. My final two years at school served as the first two years of a seven year plumbing apprenticeship. Other courses offered to students were carpentry, bricklaying or graphic design. Although I liked the ten week introductory bricklaying course I knew that I’d be out in all weathers on building sites. As a result I chose plumbing, which was a better bet.

All the course workshops were housed in two large port-a-cabins a short distance from the main school. They were of equal size being about thirty feet long by twenty feet wide. The plumbing shop had a display of past students work displayed on the walls. It was well equipped with a blacksmiths gas forge, a sand casting bed and a number of molten solder pots that ran the length of the shop. It also had four huge blue black workbenches  down the middle of the shop.

On the benches we learned to dress sheet lead into a myriad of roof parts. This included top hats for where soil pipes protruded through roof slates; bossed corners where we were shown how to turn a flat lead sheet into a functioning lead water tank. It was a truly amazing experience taught to us by an equally amazing teacher: Tom Freeman.

One Wednesday the class, seven boys, were given a length of four inch diameter lead pipe and we were told to bend the pipe in the middle by ninety degrees. This involved the meticulous dressing of the pipe in the middle section by the use of the bending stick. This gradually moved the molecules of lead from the front of the pipe to the back. After bend the pipe slightly long handled dummies were used to restore a roughly round shape to the pipe. Finally, and triumphantly, the four inch wood bobbins were pulled through on a rope with a slightly smaller lead weight pounding the lead bobbin through.

Another activity saw us using a lead pot full of molten lead (this would definitely NOT be legal nowadays!). We were shown how to tamp down the sand and use oblong pieces of wood like a panel. The wood was pushed firmly into the sand bed. With great care the board was lifted and we saw a perfect imprint. Next  the large four inch angle iron with each end blanked off, at the head of the sand box was taken off and placed on top of the forge coals. The gas was turned on and lit and soon that angle iron was glowing red hot. With metal tongs we boys were told to take the iron back to the head of the sand box and return it to the cradle. Mr Freeman filled the angle iron with molten lead. When he was sure the angle iron was full loaded, he lifted the handle on the cradle that held the angle iron and the lead flowed over the sand. A few minutes later he took the casting and dropped it in the sink. Cold water was poured on the casting and soon we were admiring a sheet of lead with a fancy design in the middle and the date 1960 underneath. This we were told is how plumbers made the face of box gutter at the top of rain water pipes that can still be seen on some mansions today.

Next the oxygen and acetylene bottles were brought out and the special lead-burning gun was attached to the hoses. Three more sheets of plain lead we then assembled round the face piece and held in place with large metal G- clamps. Mr Freeman showed us how he carefully tack welded the four pieces of lead sheet together at the top and bottom of the lead box. After removing the G-clamps we were each told to take the lead burning gun in hand and slowly burn up two or three inches of the seam. Some of us burnt holes right through the seams, but we succeeded in the end making a rain box. Then with a two foot piece of three inch lead pipe we were asked to weld it onto the lead sheet we’d just made. Finally we welded our pipe sheet to the bottom of the box.

I thought this was a great lesson in working with lead. I can’t imagine, any school boys today being allowed to handle such dangerous materials. The Health and Safety at work Act was enacted fourteen years later.


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