Labour of Love

Celebrating the working lives of East Londoners and Park visitors

Bar Draggers and Heaver-overs

Yesterday I collected the 100th Labour of Love recording.

The recording was made by a gentleman whose first job had been working with his father in a tinplate works in South Wales in the 1940s.  It reminded me of the really tough manual labour that heavy industry required then, that would undoubtedly have taken place on the docks and factories in the East End.

My father was a Bar Dragger and that was the hardest job in the steelworks, apart from perhaps the Heaver-over, who was constantly passing the metal bar back and forth until it got sometimes as long as 8ft long and thinner and thinner. They were changing it from an oblong of white-hot steel to a flat sheet.

My father would place the steel ingot in the furnace and when they were ready he would bring them out. He would do it with one hand; he had arms like Popeye. 

He would have a long pair of tongs, obviously couldn’t get too close and just by balancing the tongs on the edge of the furnace he could lever the ingot, he had a knack obviously because he could lift up to 100lbs like that and bring it out. Just one hand. It would be very, very hot, no sides to the works, just a roof, and he would wear what you call dravers, a pair of long john underpants made of thick blue Welsh wool to absorb the sweat and a crys fach, a small shirt, open at the neck and cut away at the arms. He was half-naked when he was working. His boots were made of special green leather that didn’t burn and studded with metal studs underneath. They would wear out fairly rapidly, he would often have to have his boots resoled. He worked 72 hours a week, 16-hour shifts and move 20 tons on a shift.  On his way to work he would have six pints in the pub and six pints on the way home – that was nothing in those days.

The steel was made of overlapping sheets that were glowing red because of the heat. He would drag it part of the way and then throw it on its edge, sparks going everywhere, and the Heaver-over would catch it with an even bigger pair of tongs and heave it up on to these huge rolls, rolling in opposite directions. There would be a huge BANG when the first one went in and you could hear it where we lived 3 miles away. It would go through the rollers and then there would be another Heaver-over who would catch it and pass it back. The Roller-man would gradually adjust the thickness of the rolls until it was done to the required thickness.

My hometown of Llanelli was the tinplate capital of the world. Towards the end of the war they built a mill at Trostre and that could turn out more finished tinplate in 24 hours than all the dozen tin works could turn out in a year.  That killed off all the tin shops over night in about 1948. But my mother worked in the social club in Trostre and she was a clever, good-looking lady, so it didn’t take long to get my father a job there.

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Work Collectives

Several people have told me about their experiences of different ways of organising labour – in the form of collectives.  Most recently a young woman talked enthusiastically to me about a women’s collective in London, that acted as a skills sharing network. Their organisation was about to set up an educational enterprise – again run with a collective structure.  One of the good things she liked about the collective was an acknowledgement for the need for child care for working mums – this organisation provided free on-site creche facilities – something unheard of in many work environments.

Kibbutz

Others recorded their experiences of working on a kibbutz.

“So we got a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv and just turned up at this kibbutz unannounced.  Did loads of things there – from the polystyrene factory, the dining hall, working the cotton field, the nursery – a bit of everything. Absolutely loved it. Got up early in the morning, worked really hard, afternoons on the beach and got drunk in the evenings – brilliant. You’d get pocket money and coupons to buy stuff in the shop – I always bought chocolate – And you got given a ration of cigarettes. Yes, cigarettes! That was 1985.” 

I came across an interesting story in The Newham Story, an online archive, about a local Plaistow collective, the Triangle Camp.  In 1906 a local councillor tried to set up a scheme for unemployed men in the Queens Road area by taking over a piece of disused land for growing food.  The press described them as ‘land grabbers’ and they were evicted from the land – happily, community growing schemes are more encouraged now.  For more information and photo of the Triangle Camp – http://www.newhamstory.com/node/403

I would love to hear from anyone who has had experience of more recent work collectives in the East End.

Docker & Copper Story

My poster featuring a young girl with a barrow load of straw caught a passerby’s eye today.  It had jogged a memory and he told me this story:

My dad used to tell me this story from when he worked at the Tate & Lyle docks in Liverpool – Tate & Lyle had three factories then, one here in the East End, one in Greenock and another in Liverpool. The factory in Liverpool had policemen on the gates to stop stuff being nicked. One night a docker came through the gate with a wheelbarrow of straw. Of course the policeman had to search the straw, suspecting he was up to no good. But he didn’t find anything and had to let the docker pass. This went on for a couple of weeks, each night the docker came through with a wheelbarrow full of of straw and the copper searched through it. Never found a thing.

Years later, both the policeman and the docker had retired and they bumped into each other by chance. The policeman, curious, asked “What were you up to with all that straw?!” The docker confessed. “It were the wheelbarrows I was nicking!”

Christmas Workers

The park was gearing up for Christmas today.  I broke my ‘no decorations before December’ rule and installed fairy lights in the shed.

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I have just started giving out ‘Loved your Labour’ limited edition appreciation cards to park workers, volunteers and visitors – the chaps decorating the park Christmas trees included.

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Sunday Papers & Breakfast Herrings

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Many Labour of Love participants started their working lives as a Paperboy or Papergirl.  Some recall the weather, the people on their rounds, the weight of the Sunday Papers and other more secretive activities.

‘My first job was a Papergirl, just on foot, for the local shop. I did the evening papers after school but I used to love doing the morning papers. I must be a morning person. I have really strong memories of lovely sunny mornings doing the papers. The evening papers must have been when I was thirteen or fourteen because I remember doing a bit of courting on the side. I used to deliver to these flats and there were stairs in the flats and I can remember doing a bit of illicit courting at the same time as doing the papers. I wasn’t happy with the Sunday round because around 1965 they were just starting to put magazines in and they were so heavy. I used to get paid about five shillings for doing the Sunday papers.’

One chap, who popped into the shed yesterday, told me about his companion on the paper round.

‘I did the evening round, so it was far more pleasing than the 6 o’ clock morning round – pretty good really.  The cat, Ziggy, used to come with me.  She’d trot along after me or go in the paper bag.  Most of my round included an elderly people’s home, really easy, it was warm and the cat would come in with me.  Very strange cat.’

I was going to write about the Pure-Finders of the 1850s but instead, as it’s Sunday, here is a great description of the Sunday Morning Markets in Mayhews London Labour & the London Poor. 

Of all these Sunday-morning markets, the Brill, perhaps, furnishes the busiest scene; so that it may be taken as a type of the whole.

The streets in the neighbourhood are quiet and empty. The shops are closed with their different-coloured shutters, and the people round about are dressed in the shiny cloth of the holiday suit. There are no ‘cabs,’ and but few omnibuses to disturb the rest, and men walk in the road as safely as on the footpath.

 As you enter the Brill the market sounds are scarcely heard. But at each step the low hum grows gradually into the noisy shouting, until at last the different cries become distinct, and the hubbub, din, and confusion of a thousand voices bellowing at once again fill the air. The road and footpath are crowded, as on the over-night; the men are standing in groups, smoking and talking; whilst the women run to and fro, some with the white round turnips showing out of their filled aprons, others with cabbages under their arms, and a piece of red meat dangling from their hands. Only a few of the shops arc closed; but the butcher’s and the coal-shed are filled with customers, and from the door of the shut-up baker’s, the women come streaming forth with bags of flour in their hands, while men sally from the halfpenny barber’s smoothing their clean-shaven chins. Walnuts, blacking, apples, onions, braces, combs, turnips, herrings, pons, and corn-plaster, are all bellowed out at the same time. Labourers and mechanics, still unshorn and undressed, hang about with their hands in their pockets, some with their pet terriers under their arms. The pavement is green with the refuse leaves of vegetables, and round a cabbage-barrow the women stand turning over the bunches, as the man shouts, ‘Where you like, only a penny.’ Boys are running home with the breakfast herring held in a piece of paper, and the side-pocket of the appleman’s stuff coat hangs down with the weight of the halfpence stored within it.

Presently the tolling of the neighbouring church bells breaks forth. Then the bustle doubles itself, the cries grow louder, the confusion greater. Women run about and push their way through the throng, scolding the saunterers, for in half an hour the market will close. In a little time the butcher puts up his shutters, and leaves the door still open; the policemen in their clean gloves come round and drive the street-sellers before them, and as the clock strikes eleven the market finishes, and the Sunday’s rest begins.

 

 

Strange Job Titles

Over the last few days I have had encounters with park visitors who have had some unusual jobs. The titles alone say so much:

Felt-tip Pen Injector

Cloud Behaviourist

Popular Dining Hall Assistant

Covert Camera Designer

Bathroom Showroom Cleaner

Piston Picker Packer

Sheep Station Cook

Brother-Sitter

Fire Eater’s Assistant

The Popular Dining Hall Assistant was not boasting of her popularity – it’s the Peruvian name for a soup kitchen where she volunteered. I confess I gave the Cloud Behaviourist his title, actually he was an Amateur Storm Meteorologist, who talked about the architecture of the Olympic Park in terms of the structure of clouds.

Today was a cold damp November day, not many people in the park to talk to, so I dipped into Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor tome – and came across the Pure-Finder. Again, a wonderful poetic job title, but slightly misleading as I will reveal tomorrow.

The Broom and the Comptometer

Every morning I sweep out the shed. A daily ritual. It helps me get ready for Labour of Love activities. Today I was thinking about how brooms have been used for centuries, their form and function hardly changed. A beautiful simple work tool.

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Other tools and machines become obsolete a little quicker. One visitor to the shed mentioned using a machine, the comptometer, which I confess I’d never heard of.

I went up to Blackfriars for an interview at Carmelite House and when I was there a job had just come in that morning for John Silvers at Smithfield. So I worked there. They sent my to school in Aldwych to learn the comptometer. The comptometer worked out calculations and I went one day a week to be taught how to do it. It wasn’t very difficult to use, but it made my hand ache. Silvers was a bacon wholesalers and you had to work out the calculations of what they sold.

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Other women have recalled starting their working life as Junior Shorthand Typists and using the manual typewriter, with all its associated paraphernalia, carbon copies, typing erasers, Tippex. The machine demanded considerable skill in typing accuracy, spelling and grammar. The physicality of the old manual typewriter is still sought after by some writers, Paul Auster famously using an old 1970s Olympia typewriter to write his novels to this day.

Labour of Love Hats

Improvised workwear was mentioned twice in the shed last week.

One visitor was born a few doors down from the Bryant and May factory. In the 50s and 60s she remembers watching all the Bryant & May workers walking past her house, all made up immaculately, with huge turbans on their head on their way to work. She discovered the turbans were made bigger by stuffing newspaper into them – not sure whether this was a way to keep warm or competition amongst the workforce for the most majestic turban.

A retired roof tiler resting after walking down the Orbit, told me about his fitter days when he would balance piles of tiles on his flat cap to take up onto the roof. This was a commonplace method of transporting.  But he had found a little trick to help. A pair of his wife’s stockings were rolled into a bagel shape and slipped underneath his cap – helped protect his head and gave the the tiles extra support.

Keeping Warm

Now the weather has turned, I have become a little obsessed with keeping warm in the shed: flasks of hot drinks, soup in the East20 cafe opposite, thermal undies, star jumps… got to sort out some form of heating soon.

I am reminded of the cold work mentioned by some of my interviewees. The very first gentleman through my shed door had worked as an Apprentice Engineer in the East End many years ago.

In the cold weather that was a bad ol’ job. It was in a massive warehouse, all steel, and I used to work with a Plater, I was his apprentice, and they used to have a big steel desk with all the tools on and that was my job in the morning to light the brazier up and warm all the tools up like. Phwoar! That was cold. That was your job as an apprentice.

A brazier! That’s what I need!

I was amazed to hear, from a gentleman who worked at Metropolitan-Vickers in Trafford Park, that the warehouse was so high in order to fit the huge cranes in, that when winter came the fog would roll into the warehouse too, to the extent you couldn’t see the top of the cranes.

Another visitor to the shed who was a Sign Writer in the East End for twenty years mentions the cold as being a factor in moving on.

There is more signwriting about now. People want a hand-painted facure. But I am not tempted. It’s not the lettering. It’s the fact you had to do it in middle of winter on the scaffold, while it was snowing – not so glamorous as it sounds. Working in the workshop – fantastic, you can control the temperature and rate that the paint dried. But working outdoors was never great ­­– you had three layers on, fingerless mittens and four hats. I got to the age of 40 and I thought not another winter and made my escape.

Park Worker

An unexpected and beautiful meeting today with an Olympic Park worker – Theo, a Harris Hawk.

The Falconer was handling Theo near the Labour of Love shed and explained that he flew him regularly in the park to keep the pigeons away.  It all started as a hobby before it became his work a few years ago. Hoping to interview him at a later date.

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