The first two years of my seven year apprenticeship was done at Sir Philip Magnus trade and academic school. Looking back at those two years I’m amazed at how much was covered. Our plumbing teacher was called Tom Freeman and he was a first class tradesman. He taught us problem solving, and, most importantly, taking pride in our jobs.
Right from day one, he introduced us boys to both sheet lead and lead pipe working. Sadly these days, all lead pipe work is banned, under Health & Safety at work legislation. Fortunately, with so many church, cathedral, Town hall, and library roofs covered in that versatile and long lasting material, those skilled in the art of ‘dressing lead’ will earn a good living. We began by being taught how to boss internal corners so that, from a flat sheet of lead, we could fashion it into a water tank.
In my early twenties I was employed by Hackney Council. There I had ample experience of lead work. Lead pipes were abundant throughout the Borough’s flat and houses. Also, I was used on many projects where roofs needed repair or replacing. Many of the men I worked alongside then were more experienced in sheet copper and zinc work, but I seemed to have been the more skilled in fitting sheet lead, or lead burning, if only a patch repairs were needed.
There was a time that one of Hackney’s older buildings had a serious roof leak. The building was a “grade 1 listed property” and all repairs had to be carried out in the original materials and method of construction. On visiting the site, I quickly raised the three piece extension ladder that I took from my roof rack. As the top of the ladder was resting against the cast iron gutter, I put a screw eye into the soffit board that held the gutter on half round brackets to make sure it didn’t slip. The slate roof was in a fairly good shape considering its age but the lead work around the large ornate brick chimney wasn’t. Back at the yard I phoned the Foreman Plumber and told him what the problem was. He wasn’t at all shocked when I told him that I needed enough twelve pound sheet lead to renew the soakers and flashings as well as fifteen pound sheet lead for the back reverse and front apron. He asked if I needed a roofer to remove and put the slates back, when finished, but I said no thanks.
Within a few days the Foreman turned up with the lead, a portable bench, and various pieces of marine ply some copper nails a couple of rolls of roofing felt and a tarpaulin. After briefly looking at the worn and weathered lead around the chimney, I was given two days to complete the task. First I chalk-numbered the slates at the back, front and down each side of the chimney, then removed them and stored them safely on another flat part of the roof. Then after carefully cutting out the brick work mortar holding the old lead in place, I stripped the lead away. I threw the lead down at the foot of the ladder. Using the bench, I quickly turned up the new individual soakers to either side of the chimney. I used the new ply to form a flat surface where the back of the chimney met with the camber of the roof. This I covered with the felt. With a good deal of careful measuring, the back gutter was formed and bossed where the back lead had to turn down and around the sides of the brickwork. Then, again with precise measuring, I formed the front apron. After covering the work with the tarpaulin, I left for the night.
Next day, I began replacing the slates in their correct order with new soakers under each one. Satisfied that my work should last for at least another fifty or sixty years, I raked out the mortar where my flashings would go and began to cut and turn the left and right step flashings. That completed I re-slated the top gutter and under the bottom apron. I wedged the flashing in with rolled pieces of scrat lead that I wedged in between the flashing and brickwork. That afternoon, I returned to the yard to get some sand and cement. Knocked up the mortar and returned to the job and pointed in my new flashings.
I was mightily pleased with the job that had gone so well.