Sea-Change:  Wivenhoe Remembered   

Tradesmen –Building

One of the changes in Wivenhoe life most regretted is the sharp decline in the numberof shops, especially in the High Street, where there were twenty shops active in the 1930s, providing for all regular needs. However, then as now, there were also shops at the Cross and scattered elsewhere. And tradesmen, most notably in building, are as active as ever in the town.

He said he’d had enough, and did I want it? – Leslie Kemble

I came here at 14, yes – 1928 I came here to work. Building and funeral directing. I was out on building, on sites in the building trade.  

I was encouraged to come here.  We used to go to church quite a lot, and my old chief was the organist and Sunday School superintendent down at the Congregational Church in Wivenhoe, of which I was a member – where we were both Christened – and we were both married there as well. My old governor was Mr. R.H. Barrell, until he retired, and then I worked for his son, Mr. Lewis Barrell.  Kept with him until he said to me one day, “I think I’m going to retire, would you like this lot?”  And he gave it to me! He was the only son.  He said that he’d had enough, and did I want it?  And I said “Yes”.

Well, I ran it, for years, for him.  He was only interested in going to church and playing the organ and going to Sunday School.  He was a wonderful man. I wouldn’t hear a word said against him…

Mrs Kemble: He was my father’s cousin, you see, and Leslie was like a son to them.  He went everywhere with them.

Getting on for a thousandLeslie Kemble

Forty-eight years of age when I took the building on, the firm on, myself. I changed it to my name, because I always wondered if I was going to make a success, and I wasn’t going to drag his name down to the bottom, so I started on my own, as L.W. Kemble Ltd., until I retired.

I built most of them, in total, at Frinton-on-Sea, in the latter stages, I built 540 houses in Frinton.  As you go down to Frinton, the gates are on your right-hand side, turn left, and just down there, I built 540 down there. Bungalows mostly, yes. Yeah, I was building two a week. 

And then I had a small estate in Wivenhoe, called “ Parkwood Avenue ”, I built 45.  Carrying on from Parkwood Avenue , I bought a piece of land off Ted Palmer – Dr. Palmer – and I built 20 or so down there.  Carried on from Dr. Palmer’s down to another piece of land, and I built another 20 or so down there.  And then my chief building operation was single houses for various people who had a plot of land and got me to build a house on it. People ordered a house from me.  They’d got their own ground, and asked me if I would build them a property on it.  So I didn’t have to lay out any money.

Oh, and Council houses, yeah.  Oh, we built, that was in the old chief’s time, but I was responsible, I built 60 Council houses in Wivenhoe as well. [So altogether,] getting on for a thousand. The firm that I went to work for in 1928 was established in 1850, and most of the property in Wivenhoe was built by the old firm, before my time of course!  I increased it when I came.

Never ever borrowed a penny –Leslie Kemble

[I was one year President of] the local Federation of Building Trade Employers. [I remember the other members.] Oh yes, quite a lot of them.  All friends of mine.  I’ll tell you what – I buried them all!  (LAUGHS)  Yeah.

I had a lovely staff of blokes, all local, chaps about my own age, and they were just as interested in my business as I was myself.  Yeah, we used to start work at half past seven till five, Saturday mornings till 12.  Come home and sit at the drawing board in the evening! The only education I had was leaving school at Wivenhoe, at 14, and then going to night school for about two or three winters.  That’s the only education I ever had.  Mmm.  All the rest was – which wasn’t very much – was self-taught.  I done most of the designs for the houses.  Yeah, used to sit up at midnight and do my own drawings. Hardly any [social life].  Sitting at home, drawing plans for the next house I was going to build!  My whole young life consisted of work.

I never had any help apart from David, all the years I was in work.  I always felt that I would be guilty if things went wrong when I was in business.  And I never ever borrowed a penny.  I built one, sold one, used the money from that one to build the next one.  And so it went on. No, I wouldn’t borrow any money.  The people you borrow money from are people who get the interest.  I worked, and I only wanted to work for myself, I didn’t want to work for them.  Never, never ever borrowed a penny all the time I was in business.  I started with nothing.  £2000.

Boy plumber – Gilbert Whaley

When I was 13/14, before I left school I was a plumber with my father. I’ve worked with him down at Clacton , St Osyth, Point Clear, Mersea, Layer, all the way round, and we used to have to go by bicycle and carrying your bag of tools with you. It was the days before vans and all that sort of thing! It wasn’t till later on that we got more mobile. I remember my first week’s wages was 15/3d., and that was for five and a half days. I had to work Saturday morning in those days. I had about 2/3d. out of that, the rest went into the family coffers. I did work with him for some years but it was in the days of heavy lead piping, and I didn’t like carrying it so much! I thought, ‘No, I think I can find a better job than this!’ So, much to his disgust I went into an engineering works in Colchester and I was there for a couple of years and then the War broke out. And then began my six years abroad.

Canny country craftsmen – Gilbert Whaley

When I came home I went back to engineering for about six months. I found working inside very oppressive. So I came out. The first job I got when I left the engineering I went back working with my father, and that was when these Council houses started to be built. I got a job with Masons, a Wivenhoe building firm who were building them, one that my father was doing a lot of work for. My hobby had always been woodwork so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try it.’ The firm took me on as a labourer and I learnt my trade with them. Masons were at the end of Belle Vue Road , there’s the Mill House, right at the end, and at the back was where the old mill was, and we had the buildings there, where the workshops were.

The boss, Walter Mason, ran the building business. He actually was the father of Mason’s electrical and radio and TV firm in Colchester , who had in those days a shop down where the radio shop is now, and Roy, his son, ran the electrical business. And Percy Blanche, he was the other carpenter. They were quite characters, actually! Typical country craftsmen who had been in the trade all their lives, and probably their fathers before them. They were very very keen on pigs – this is just after the War – there was quite a lot of people who kept pigs. Percy and Walter thought they’d go in for it and they had a long long garden, or Percy did, and he built a sty in the garden and he kept a couple of pigs! I think they raised pigs for about a couple or three years. And, of course, in those days you had all the Ministry of Food Rules and Regulations, you had to register it, and they had to be butchered by a competent butcher.

One thing I do remember about Walter, he smoked a pipe, but it was a pipe without a bowl! The bowl had filled up so that the tobacco was more or less just perched on the top – a pinch – and he just, a few puffs, and that was gone! And I never saw him clean that pipe out! It was absolutely coked up solid – just a little hole down in the middle enough to take a little pinch of tobacco.

But he was a canny old craftsman. He made some wonderful oak settles, like they used to have in the old pubs, with the carved beads on the ends. He used to spend all his spare time, after work, in the workshop, making these settles and little coal boxes, out of oak. Wonderfully carved linen-fold panels. He was a real old country craftsman. He was in his mid-sixties, when I when I went to work for him.

Depending on how much work there was about if there was any rush on we’d take casual workers on. We’d just ring up the Labour Exchange, ‘Have you got a carpenter on the books?’ Or a bricklayer, or whatever and they’d come along and say, ‘Right. Fair enough. Start.’ But the thing is, you never knew their surnames. I called one of them ‘Mr,’ and he looked, he said, ‘Boy,’ he says, ‘If you want to get on with me, you call me by my Christian name,’ which was totally different to what we’d always been brought up! You never speak to one of your seniors by calling him by his Christian name.

Building after the War – Gilbert Whaley

After the War there was an awful lot of house building went on, the first seven or eight years. So it’s going on now, all this building. Mind you, not quite the quality that it used to be. Those houses on the opposite side of the road there, they will be standing in a hundred years’ time. Some of the ones that are being built now won’t last that long, because there isn’t the workmanship in there. Ours was handwork, as opposed to now it mostly is done by machinery. When we put a roof on, each of the rafters I was cutting individually. Every rafter had to be cut, the top, bottom, and the foot, with a hand-saw, in those days, on site. When they build a house now they just get the firm who make roof trusses, and they come on the back of a lorry, already made up in big trusses, and the whole lot is put up there.

I was with Masons about seven years and when they finally folded up I went to work for Denney, up Ipswich Road in Colchester , painting, decorating, joinery. I was with them 31 years. But that was a progression that took me out from the building trade, into the cabinet making. By that time I was mobile. I’d got four wheels as well, so I was able to get about a lot easier.

We were making all built-in furniture – kitchens and bedrooms, and all sorts of that sort of fittings. Well, now, you go to MFI and those big firms, and you get all your bedroom and kitchen fittings already made for you. We used to make our own, and do a lot of work for a big firm of interior decorators. I was lucky inasmuch as I was able to design the fittings. There again, that was the craft side of things, as well as the drawing and the planning, that I’d learnt at school. That all came into play. It was a job that had interest, and I liked doing it. So I had a very satisfying working life. I loved working with wood. I mean, there’s something about a piece of wood. I know this piece has been here for quite a long time but it’s still lovely to be able to touch it, and to look at that and think that, ‘I made that.’

A E Sparrow and Son – William Sparrow

The business was actually set up in 1922, by what would be my great-grandfather, who was the A E Sparrow, the business is still called A E Sparrow and Son. That was Albert Edward. And he took his son into the business, who was my grandfather, I never worked with him – I knew him, but he was not as keen on building, so he took a pub, you know, and he had the Rose and Crown on the front, and he was much more interested in being a landlord. But we had our builders’ yard in the back of the Rose and Crown, in the outbuildings there, and my father, as soon as he was able, really, took over the firm and ran it, even though it was still owned by his father, he spent much more time in the pub!  

I think it was quite common practice to do something else when you were a builder. I mean, being a pub landlord actually wasn’t that unusual a thing to do as well as building. People had a different attitude, I think, you wouldn’t hear of it now! It’s a job to explain to you really, but it wasn’t abnormal to have more than one business. When you had a business through the war years, there was no building work to do, so you needed something else to earn money, and something like a pub, people would be a builder and have a shop. It was very popular to be a funeral director, because you could make the two jobs work together. Because you had your own joinery shop in those days, so you’d be looking to make use of bad weather, you could make coffins. Mr Kemble, in the village, he done that. We had a yard there which when you look at it now, you think, ‘Well, how did we all fit in?’ But, of course, we didn’t have vehicles, so they would have barrows to take things around on, and people didn’t have quite such high expectations.

[The company built] most of the bungalows in Keelar’s Lane, and the house just at the end of the bungalows, so there must have been four or five there that spring to mind, that we done. Quite a lot of the houses along St Andrew’s Avenue in Colchester , they were built by us, and then just odd ones dotted around really. I think, in, like Ernest Road , what they used to call the Spion Kop, that part of Wivenhoe. It was called the Spion Kop, and it was just open, what would be waste ground, and there was a chap actually, he just fenced it off and claimed it, you know, nobody owned it. That’s where all of Ernest Road and from the old houses of Manor Road , downwards, all the bungalows there, they were all built on there – my father and grandfather worked on building some of them.

Apprentice – William Sparrow

I did know, like, from quite an early age that that was what I was going to do, so I don’t know when, exactly, probably about 14 I’d made my mind up that I would do an apprenticeship. My father would have liked me to have worked harder at school and not come into building, so I reached that age and I used to do quite well at school until that time, and then I stopped – used to go to the Youth Centre instead of doing homework! Yes, that was basically it. My father gave me the job, I would have been, well, 16. And I went off to college. I worked with him, I used to work with him sometimes in the summer holidays, and then I went off to college and done day release, and then I was away for block release, Sheepen Road . And that was over four years then, to do an advanced craft. I think they do it in about six weeks now! But then, it was quite a drawn out process.

People just tormented you really, I suppose, as the boy! People weren’t soft on you, and it’s difficult for me to say, but because I was the boss’s son at the time, they knew him very well, so it wasn’t like they were worried that if they were horrible to me, they’d be in trouble!Yes, it was more the other way round, you know, I think I did take quite a bit of flack really, because of who I was. He didn’t stick up for me, I had to learn to do that for myself. Yes.

Early work – William Sparrow

Well, when I started, we were doing mainly refurbishment work I would say, myself. My father liked to buy old houses – he would go to auction and buy properties or, you know, he just sourced them, and we’d do them up, so that was our main work during the winter, and then, you know, summer time, we’d maybe do a couple of extensions, and we used to do quite a lot of decorating, and whatever else came along really, just general repairs. Worked on loads of houses all in the village. Don’t seem to do quite so much of that now. I’ve tried to move away from doing some of that! I didn’t want to just keep doing odd jobs so much, so mainly I like to do, like, large extensions, really, if I can. That’s what I think I’m best at. And I’ve built a couple of houses, which are for sale now, I’ve got a couple at the top of the village. And, you know, it’s very easy to build new, so if you’re building for somebody else new, it’s very competitive, whereas if the building spec is all right, as long as you can sell them, but otherwise, extensions for customers, that’s good.

Subcontractors – William Sparrow

They’re all subcontractors now, so I’ve not go no employees at all. It has changed several times. Traditionally, for years, people used to get their holiday stamps in the building trade, because somebody would have work now, and then when that contract finished, they didn’t have any, and somebody else had got the work, and people would move on. And so what they done is, they used to keep a holiday book, buy the stamps, and that way they’d get their holiday pay, but they were always self-employed. And then the government decided that we should all be employed, which doesn’t really work, because we just can’t guarantee people work, basically, and so after a while, people drifted away, went self-employed again. But now they’re trying to get everybody to go back employed again, so we’re getting hassle now, but subcontractors all come on the cards. National Insurance contributions, they’re much less if you’re self-employed. So that’s what they’re after, the employer’s contribution towards the employee’s National Insurance, which I don’t have to pay. But they’re changing all the rules continuously.

Revolutions in tools – William Sparrow

Mainly it’s been tools which have sort of revolutionised things, and the amount of work which people do. I still use the same traditional sort of methods of construction if I can. If I’m building a new house, I like to do it much the same as has always been done, you know, with a brick and block cavity wall. New things, insulation has absolutely gone over the top now! You can’t get air into the houses now, so you have to put vents in, built in, so people don’t suffocate! Which always seems a bit pointless! But we’ve put in massive foundations for everything, for even the slightest thing – that always seems a shame to me.

People used to build on good ground, that’s one of the big differences. So if it’s a bit of rubbishy old ground, you didn’t build there, there’s no point, you might as well build on the good bit, so somewhere like Keelar’s Lane, those foundations up there were all hand-dug – bungalows, you know, four or five people would do it in a day, just dig it out with a wheelbarrow, and then they’d hand mix all the concrete and put it in, whereas now, the foundations are so huge that you couldn’t contemplate it! So it’s still dug in a day, but now it’s done with a big excavator, and the concrete’s still poured in a day. We just have loads of lorries coming in, and instead of having four or five people do it, we’ve just got one chap on the dumper and one on the digger, and the two people there for the concrete pour.

We’re filling the gaps, because land’s so valuable now. But we can pile anything with the little mini pilers, they can get them in anywhere, so there’s nowhere you can’t build. But it’s meant the methods have had to change, you know, to get suitable foundations and stuff in.

The Local Authority are good really, and they help us with all the regulations. We work to drawings most of the time, so it’s the job of the surveyor or the engineers – he will put all of the current Building Regulations on there, so we’ll get the drawing, we’ll look, we’ll have a list, and it will tell you on there how deep and wide the foundations need to be. They’ve just steadily got bigger and we have to employ different techniques to get them in, but we all learn from each other.

The workshop like at the back was just very basic. There is nothing much in my memory there, really. It was just somewhere to store a few tools and bits of materials, but we didn’t have anything like as much equipment to take to jobs. We had so much more time to do a job! Comparatively, wages were so much lower than what the materials – the materials were the expensive part of the job, and the labour was cheap, whereas now, it’s the other way round. You know, we just waste and throw away, you know, it makes you sad to see how much you throw away really, but it’s not worth picking it up and salvaging it and storing it. But labour – you can’t let anybody sit still for a minute. So it’s completely the opposite, really, to how it was.

Time and rush – William Sparrow

The main difference is the rush. You know, every day is a hurry. We didn’t used to worry about that when I first started work. It wasn’t just because I was younger, we’d knock off when it was dark, and if it was raining, we’d, you know, paint scaffold tubes, or we’d just do odd jobs in the yard, and now, there’s nothing to do in the yard like that now. You’d have to send people home and not pay them, you can’t afford to say, ‘Well, you know, the weather’s a bit inclement, we’ll stay in and we’ll sort out the workshop.’ None of the maintenance jobs get done, basically. I’m sure it applies throughout really. People don’t get time to do things. I mean, everything we throw away – we don’t sharpen saw blades, nothing like that, we just throw them away and buy a new one, because I can’t pay a carpenter to set and sharpen his saw, because he can spend an hour doing that, and, at £15 an hour, I can buy a saw, brand new, which will be sharper than he’ll ever get his one that he’ll sharpen, for about £4 or £5. So I just bring a new one back and he throws the old one away. Which, as I say, is a shame, but that is how it’s all set up.

I don’t regret it – William Sparrow

I couldn’t sit here and say, I really enjoy it. My father enjoyed it more than I do. But I don’t regret it, because I feel quite lucky, with the place that I’m able to live in. I like where I am, I’ve got no desire to move. I do please myself. I like the sort of people – probably just because I’ve been brought up with them – who are in the building trade. I know we’re getting more and more rules, but we’ve not had rules and regulations, and that’s where it’s been quite nice – a way to live and to work, in that sort of environment, we make them up as we go along, your own rules! We don’t clock in, we don’t clock out, we go to different places, see different people a lot of the time, and in the summer it’s nice when the weather is nice.

Carpentry and decorating – Colin Andrews

After I finished at the Station pub I moved back here and started decorating. I suffered a long illness, as a boy, and I couldn’t go to school, and so used to get bored and my dad used to give me various tasks to do, such as decorating – that’s where it first started, I think. I do a bit of carpentry from time to time, and associated works, a bit of glazing and whatever requires doing really. Carpentry is just kind of instilled. My brother is a very skilled craftsman in timber and maybe it’s something in the blood, I don’t know. I’ve had no formal training, I have to say. I wouldn’t say I earn a high living exactly! It’s quite good. I always identified it as a good place because there are many academics live here, and academics and the practical side of life just don’t mix, do they, so there’s an opening for a practical man.

But we’ve got quite an elderly element in our community, and people like to just have somebody they can call on. I’ve got a lady, I did a towel rail, fixed a new towel rail for her yesterday- mine’s the only name that comes to mind! Then there’s an old gentleman around the corner, somebody had felled a small tree across his back gate and left it there, and they’ve moved from Brentwood fairly recently so they don’t know anybody, but through Faye I knew them so I just popped along and sorted it out for them and chucked it away and disposed of it. And they just need the assurance that they can call on somebody. That means a lot to them, and means something to me!

I’m currently working with two women that live in Wivenhoe and they also do fabrics and blinds, curtains and soft furnishings, but they like decorating most of all. They are motivating me at the moment. I’d probably have retired fully if it wasn’t for them! I like contact with people as much as anything. But it’s also somewhat creative and it’s the satisfaction of completing a job after. Mind you, you don’t get much time to sit and admire it, as soon as it’s complete you leave, don’t you! But we renovated a place a few weeks ago and the lady’s given us the key to go back and have a look now the carpets and the furnishings are in, which is quite rewarding.

I’m not doing jobs for the younger people so much. No, the general consensus is the older group, probably because they’re less mobile, and probably more affluent. Youngsters have different priorities, and I think they are probably influenced by television and all these D-I-Y programmes, that they will do it themselves. Some might become a little bit wiser! The influence of television today, is pretty bad, in the DIY market. I mean, how many programmes do you get on there now saying, ‘Buy a house and do it up and make loads of money’? But they’re not qualified to do it and the work they do is less than second rate. And some poor innocent person comes along and inherits it with all the consequent problems. We might deplore the old Nanny State but we do need some kind of control over it, because standards deteriorate.

Signwriters – Charles Scofield

I was born in May, 1930, at Border House, Anglesea Road , Wivenhoe, where I lived with my sister, my parents, and my grandfather – C G Scofield. My grandfather and father ran a painting and decorating business, traded as C G Scofield and Son. In addition, they bought property and land. Mr Goodwin, of Gas Road , owned a builders and undertaking business. On his death the property was willed to my father, Mr A G Scofield, but he did not continue to operate the undertaker’s side of the business.

When I got demobbed I took on the signwriting, and I done the Lifeboat Institution for 28 years – put the names and the flags on the lifeboats. That worked out roughly about one a month. There was 12 boats but there was two reserve boats, and we always used to say a lifeboat once a month. And my father used to come and give me a hand sometimes, and then I took over doing those. I enjoyed the lifeboat crew people – they used to tell me some stories. And then I took on several estate agents – Reeman and Dansies, Boydens, Lesters – and I had a couple of signwriters who were part-time. Of course, we used to do the transport at various garages. I packed up in 1958. I wrote and told everybody trade wasn’t continuing, and that was it.

Chimney sweep – Ray Hall

I went to work for the Lathe Company and I was there for about two years until they had their clear out, and then I went to Paxmans. A friend of mine, George Hoy, was a chimney sweep. He’d bought a business and he had it for about six years, I think, but he was getting bad in arthritis. And lunchtimes I used to come home and I have a half a pint in the Flag, go home to dinner. And he’d been on to me for some months, ‘This little business would suit you,’ he said! And he used to keep on like this. But one Wednesday he came in and he said, ‘You know,’ he says, ‘look at my arthritis…’ ‘That’s all right, George,’ I said, ‘I’ll buy it.’ And he looked amazed! He said, ‘You mean that?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’ll buy it.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ I said, ‘I’ll buy your business from you.’

And for a few years I did chimney sweeping. I started off with about 400 customers, and I finished up with about 2,100, I think it was. I used to range from, well, anywhere, from Clacton, all round to Sudbury and most of the villages in the Colchester area.

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