Memoirs of Ron Bromley

3 Starting Work

I started at 9:30 on the Tuesday [1]. We had very good hours, 9:30 until 5, which fitted in very well with the trains. It was 1936 and we were still in the depression with very little work being done, so everyone had plenty of time to give to me, and I got on with everyone very well. I remember being out with one of the engineers measuring up the roads in order to obtain an inventory giving overall width at about 200-yard intervals, details of surface, verges, footpaths, etc. It was of no practical use and never used. He spent the whole of one morning practising changing gear in his car without using the clutch. No redundancies in those days, you got the sack only if you raped the Town Clerk's daughter.

It was quite a small office. A chief clerk and two male clerks who did all the typing was all the administration. Two housing inspectors who also collected the council house rents and a building inspector who checked all plans submitted by private builders, and inspected all buildings during construction to ensure they complied with the Building Bye Laws (later to become Building Regulations). On the professional side there was the Deputy Surveyor, a chief assistant, a planning officer (we were one of the few boroughs who had adopted the 1933 Planning Act), two architectural assistants and three engineering assistants. There was a large outside staff as all work, other than council house building, was carried out by direct labour. Direct labour was a good thing from a training point of view, because not only did you design a scheme, you planned the work, ordered all materials and then supervised the work.

Enderby had a rule that you could not tell a man what to do unless you could do it yourself - a good rule, which I followed up and preached all my working life. I did some time on refuse collecting and what was worse cleaning and helping to repair the stinking vehicles.

Once I had mastered the intricacies of the level and the theodolite and got used to the drawing board and drawing instruments, I was given small jobs to do outside. I got on well with the men and could give them instructions without feeling embarrassed or bossy, and with the men accepting it without any "who is this stupid boy trying to tell us what to do?" I think my time on the farm helped as Frank and I were sometimes called upon to relay instructions from Dad. There was some sort of protocol. The wagoner, the cowman, the shepherd and handyman were always addressed as "Mr", the labourers were called by their surnames and the boys that I was with at the village school were still on Christian name terms.

I do not recall whether the handyman Mr Cook was ever on the staff as a permanent member. I first remember him taking possession of the carpenter's shop in order to make a lytch gate for the entrance to the churchyard. It promised to be a wonderful structure with carvings and lettering in the wood, all done by Mr Cook. It was the idea of Mr Evanson, the self-styled squire of the village. He lived in a large house and ran a small boys preparatory boarding school. Unfortunately he fell foul of others in the village, I think the vicar was one and a churchwarden, and the result was it was never erected and sold to another church.

Mr Cook however was very useful in repairing the farm buildings and the house, and also the farm wagons, etc. He also helped out at haying and harvesting and at other times.

Ken, my fellow pupil, whose father was a schoolmaster, confessed to me the had great difficulty in giving orders to the men, so I took him on one of my highway improvement schemes. Some of the kerbs had been laid and backed up with concrete. In those days it was all hand digging - no excavators or diggers - so excavation was kept to a minimum. Kerbs were laid as early as possible as this gave you line and level and the road formation could be dug right from the start to the nearest inch. I did not like the look of the kerbs. Even in my early days it was said I had a good eye for a line of kerb. I told the foreman to take a pinch bar and a maul and directed him to move one of the kerbs then go along a little and move one back, and when it rolled over at the peak to take some of the concrete away from about four kerbs either side and tamp them down with the maul to take out the point and make a smooth curve. When this was done, I said "Now doesn't that look better?" He had to agree. I then said "You will not back up any further kerbing until I have seen it." Poor Ken thought "That's done it. How can he speak to a foreman like that?" Little did he know that he had only been "made up" that week and he would have done anything for me if it meant the difference between him keeping or losing the 3d an hour extra he received as foreman. I did not say anything to Ken. I really must confess to him sometime.

That said, all engineers must be truthful and accurate in all that we say and do. We are not doctors, we cannot bury our mistakes. I made some errors during my articles which in some ways were good and made a lasting impression and made me always mindful of a saying of our old woodwork master at school. He repeated it often: "Measure twice to cut once."

The first concerned the Little Barton Estate, a large private estate (2 to 3 hundred houses) on the trunk road A2 leading out of Canterbury to Dover. To avoid lots of openings into the trunk road, the council built a service road about 1/2 mile long. I don't know if the estate owners contributed. I was given the job and after designing it, in accordance with Mr Enderby's edict I got to work with pick and shovel, laid some pipes, and built a manhole. The road was to be surfaced with 6-inch concrete slab. The concrete was to be consolidated (tamped into shape) using a large heavy beam of wood spanning from kerb to kerb. I was to be at one end and the 6-foot plus labourer at the other side had a very funny sense of humour and worked like fury the whole day. Oh, my muscles. I went home completely exhausted. This was not all, what suddenly came to me was the level of foul sewer. The surveyors for the building firm were in London so to avoid them coming down I did all the levelling and setting out for them. The foul sewer terminated in the trunk road to connect to a new main sewer which was being laid from the town centre. For my level I had used an ordnance datum bench mark. What if the main sewer, which had probably used another ordnance datum, was found to be too high when it reached my outfall? I had not co-ordinated with Jack Catigan who was in charge of the new truck sewer. Jack being a typical Irishman just said "No bother." I frantically levelled between my outfall and Jack's sewer as far as he had reached, and everything was just right, only a very slight adjustment in Jack's last length. It was sometime afterwards I had the thought that the very experienced engineer had himself checked up and said nothing to me. A typical Jack trick.

From what I can remember my second faux pas occurred when I was working for the electricity dept, which the City Council owned.

We were pulling down a small street of about 12 houses under slum clearance procedure. The City Surveyor had been asked to provide a large store and workshop on the site. In his usual cheese-paring way he said it would be a good thing if the two back walls on either side of the street were left standing to form the two long sides of the new building. Preformed steel trusses would then span from what were the two rear walls of the houses where they would rest on piers built into the walls, which were flint. The roof would be clad in asbestos big six sheets so positioned that a big six roll on the sheet would lap over at the gable ends thus avoiding the use of a special gable end capping. I think I spaced the piers at 13'-3" centres, and the purlins were being delivered cut to length and drilled. Before we started building the piers, the foreman asked me what I was going to do on the North wall. When I asked what was different North to South, he said that the North wall was some six inches shorter than the South wall (which I had measured and put the dimensions on the plan). Was the plan to put the difference ie six inches in say the end bay or divide it up over the whole length. In measuring up the building before demolition I had assumed the site was a regular quadrilateral and had drawn it thus on my drawing board. Oh dear, oh dear. It meant that the big six sheets at one end would have to be cut on the skew which meant they would not close the gaps and special end capping would be required. Thus went some of Mr Enderby's saving and the contingency sum had to be eaten into. "Not a very clever thing to do Bromley, omitting to measure up all round a very old building." I thought it looked much better with the purpose-built capping. The Electrical Engineer was very pleased with the result as by using the existing walls he obtained a much larger building than he had anticipated.

In my second year I was made responsible for repairs and alterations at the mental hospital. Canterbury being a County Borough, we had a duty to provide one. It had a rather pleasant and domestic name "Stone House", but it was far from being pleasant or domestic in character. There was no obvious occupational therapy. It seemed to me that the inmates just walked around an exercise yard, one for men and one for women. The staff were more like prison warders than nurses and walked around with keys hanging from their belts, opening all doors before you walked through and closing them again once you were through. Some of the male patients were quite amusing. One marched constantly up and down another always removed his shoes and socks however many different knots the staff tied in his laces. Another claimed to be Jesus Christ and frequently tried to get me to be one of his disciples. Charlie, who would help me by holding the tape when I was measuring up, claimed to be an architect who had been incarcerated by Alderman Askington who was a prominent architect in the town and wanted to exclude competition. Charlie would show me very crude, child like drawings of houses he had drawn. Unfortunately the only material which he could get freely was toilet paper. Another, George, tended the gardens of the Chief Medical Officer and the Matron. They were both always a picture. One day I noticed that gardens looking rather shabby and no George. A few months later I saw him again and he was getting the gardens back into shape. I asked him what happened. He told me that a new Medical Officer had said that people like him who could do a job should not be in the place and he discharged many to the community. Few people could afford or wanted a jobbing gardener, and there were already many unemployed, so George finished up in the Workhouse, which he did not like at all. So how did he get back to Stone House? "I just fooled them" he said. I had difficulty imagining how someone would act the fool to get himself incarcerated in a lunatic asylum. I hated working in the women's quarters as they were really pathetic. They all wore long black dresses. They seemed to have long black greasy hair, and walked around looking miserable.

There was a problem with the constant locking and unlocking of doors, as there was a constant stream of people wanting to return from the exercise yard to the wards to visit the toilet, so I was instructed to build toilets in the two yards, one male, one female. Needless to say they had to be as cheap as possible, so I designed them with 4½" walls and a flat concrete roof. WCs for mental patients are made as complete units with a pipe connecting the overhead flushing tank to the pan. I obtained details of height, etc, and made the height of the building just sufficient to slide the unit in. Just before he put them in and after he had put the concrete roof on, the foreman pointed out to me that there was not sufficient head room to change a ball valve. What was to be done? The concrete was too "green" (new) to jack up and insert a couple of courses. The foreman's solution was to take the units down to his yard and cut out 6" of the pipes and weld them up again. The units were made in that fashion to avoid having chains exposed so that the patients would not get ideas about stringing themselves up. The problem was solved but again the contingency sum allowed was swallowed up.

It was sometime in the last half of 1938 that I got very despondent with life and it all came about because of an event that I should have been very pleased and proud about. Both Ken (my fellow pupil) and I were placed on the staff of the Council, something that no pupils had gained before. Pupils were articled privately to the City Surveyor (Mr Enderby), and rather than receive payment, fathers had to pay a premium of £50 per annum for the privilege. Possibly as expensive as University. It came about in this way. When a new Kent and Canterbury Hospital was built the Council bought the old building and planned in conjunction with Kent County Council to provide a Technical Institute for the city and surrounding area. Canterbury was to alter and extend the building and Kent were to equip the classrooms, laboratories and workshops. It was hoped to get a "temporary architect", one that would probably come from the unemployed and return there once the job was completed. In 1938 things were looking up. In spite of Chamberlain's remarks about "peace in out time" the country was preparing for war and there were few professional people in the construction industry out of work. No one suitable was found, so Enderby decided to give the job to Ken and I jointly.

The salary was the princely sum of £108 per annum. "We won't pay any more as it would then mean you would be liable for income tax, Bromley". I replied that I would be pleased to contribute something to help the country , and not for the first time I was accused of being a very cheeky pupil. At that time, I was doing very nicely moneywise. Dad gave me £1 per week and with my private work, drawing plans for local builders, I was as well off as the junior engineers, as they had their "digs" to pay for. I did not mind Dad ceasing to pay the £1 per week although Mother started to make noises about buying some of my own clothes. £1 down and £2 up seemed OK, but when the deputy surveyor said that no more private work was to be done it was an entirely different story. I had so many commitments that it was impossible to manage. I was heavily involved with the cricket club. I had been Secretary since I was 16 which meant I did practically everything except act as Captain, and in 1939 I was elected to that job as well. Everything came my way: fixtures, teas, equipment (a big job as the local lads could not afford pads, etc). I used to deal with Hubble, Ames and Freeman from Maidstone ... handled all money. Our treasurer was the village blacksmith and all he did was to hold any surplus money we held. I kept accounts and went to him from time to time to give or get money from him. Each time he would retrieve a little black book from behind the clock on the mantelpiece and after a check up he would tell me how much he was holding, never more that £50. Every year I reported to the President (the self-styled squire). Once satisfied he would give me his donation of £1. I then wrote to our MP the Hon JJ Astor asking if he would be Vice President and his secretary would sent me half a guinea. To boost our funds I would run whist drives and socials in the winter. Other activities for me included darts in the local pub, motor cycling - we once tried our hand at grass track racing. We gave this up when one sidecar passenger who was practising on the farm had a track marking stave through his bottom.

I also for a time had two girl friends (as well as flirting with the waitress where I had my lunch), one known and welcome at home, and another - a bar maid - not known until she sent me a Christmas card with love from Margaret. Mother thought it was either for Mary or Ella, but Mary had to blow the gaffe instead of pleading ignorance. One less card to decorate the wall. Life was getting me down, I was weighing only nine stone something, much too light for rugby, one could so easily get injured.

What I wanted to do was to get away from everything for a while and start again, Little did I know my prayers would be answered. With the threat of war, the government introduced conscription for the first time in peacetime. Leslie Hore-Belisha gave up putting orange beacons on all our roads and became Minister for War - or something like that. He decreed that every male reaching the age of 21 would do 6 months military service, and the first batch to be called up was those born in the first half of 1918, which included me. I fondly imagined that I would be posted miles away in the North of England or Scotland, away from it all.

[1] 14th April 1936.

©2003 Ron Bromley