Monday, September 15, 2014

My life as a Steeplejack

Steeple-jacking a Beginning

When I left School, the British band UB40 was singing about being one in ten, three million unemployed and rising.

I remember things being that bad there were queues outside bread shops, like some depressed eastern block country, yet they were not queuing for bread, but work - one position - fifty applied.

After leaving basford hall college Nottingham, I went against my father's wishes, and applied for a job at the firm he worked, which just happened to be advertising for three Steeplejack mates.

As a teenager, the experience was exiting, walking into the company's yard on a Monday with your suitcase in hand, not knowing where you would be going, and which part of the country, and how high you would be working. This was kept a secrete and chalked on a large blackboard along with who you would be working with, another important factor I later learned.

Whittington Hospital Islington London

Image Shearart Two of us ‘Sprogs’ as we were called, were sent down the inside of the chimney in bosun’s chairs, armed with sweeping brushes, and told to sweep the sulpha/soot off the full length of the barrel, so it could be inspected for potential repairs.

The joke was that, we were told that the chimney had only just been turned off, and was still hot inside, so take all our clothes off and wear only boiler suits (refusal would have been met with hostility).

After hours of choking, sweat and burns, we emerged at the bottom, black as soot. The showers removed most of it except around our: necks, arm pits, nipples, lower region cracks. They were burned black and took months to fade, at that point I realised I didn’t know everything as a teenager.

Steeple-jacking seemed natural to me as my grandfather was a steeplejack, my uncles and my father too, but he wanted me to be a chef. I think he was a little anxious that I would embarrass him, which made me all the more determined to succeed. I just had to overcome the fear of falling to my death and landing on some ornate wrought iron railings.

To add an extra flavour to the difficulty level, My father was a senior Foreman, and those steeplejacks who he had trained and traditionally worked hard, ridiculed, and I’m going to use Steeplejack parlance of the day – Slagged off. I was assigned to them, payback was tough, quitting wasn’t an option, they tried, and eventually I earned their respect and they became friends.

Day To Day

Image Shearart Working on power stations, mills, concrete and steel chimneys, cooling towers, and installing lightning conductor systems. To restoring Churches in the middle of a verdant country side on the edge of a small village, were all, week to week stuff and sometimes we would be given some unusual work.

The miners’ strike was on and next to a lot of pits in Yorkshire, loomed Coalite sites, churning out smokeless fuel, piles of it, some striking miners (allegedly) would appropriate some smokeless coal for their home fires.

The boss being an entrepreneur volunteered our services; the job was to enclose the whole place with 10ft steel roofing sheets, which seemed miles. Now and again an angry mob would stand there attempting to intimidate us, and things got worse when they found out we were from Nottingham, adding insult to injury, as Nottingham was considered scab pit country.

Our foreman had a word with them, and we were surprisingly left alone after that. I found out years later that a couple of the sheets weren’t fixed as well as they should have been — fancy that.

Meanwhile, every time we exited the motorway to enter Nottingham, the police pulled us over and
 asked us if we were flying-pickets, we nodded our black soot covered faces no — this was cutting into our pub time — the police didn’t believe us.

Don't look now

Don't look now

India Mills Ornate Chimney One of my fondest memories, and again, still a teenager, was working on a famous chimney in Darwin Lancashire, the rumours were that it had a huge stone overhang that forced the weight onto your arms as you climbed over, and some firms had backed out and ran scared, but this is an industry full of untruths, generated in the pub, at least in those days.

Nevertheless, it does put weight on your arms, and it is the moment of truth climbing over the top, especially when the top of the ladder hasn’t been tied yet. For me, the excitement factor was driving from Bolton coming down the hill and seeing it for the first time.

The boiler man was a tablet of touristic information, and apparently the chimney was designed on the tower in St Marks Square Venice; mill owners would compete by building the most ornate chimneys, this one costing 14,000 pounds.

We worked on the chimney for a few months, scaffolding the top and rigged cradles on it. I was impressed so much with Lancashire and the friendliness of the people, I moved there.

The mill and chimney are steeped in history and can be found by clicking the link arrow below.

Image Source

Looking west from India Mills Chimney One day whilst working on the chimney a fella dressed in a suit approached and asked if we would take some aerial shots of his auto sales garage and surrounding area, at the end of the shift we did. His wife had a shock when she went to collect the photos as we had including three naked backsides. Luckily they had a sense of humour.

Image Source

Steeplejack's names carved into the stone below one of the urns including mine.

Don't look down

Don't look down

Climbing over the overhang

Climbing onto the slippy stone plinth usually covered in Pigeon excrement

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Image Shearart Bob-a-job week was the week cub-scouts would knock on your door and sell you a ticket that would entitle you to have some work down: Wash the car, sweep the yard and my personal favourite, weed the garden.

My uncle was in the paper for giving a cub- scout a sweeping job at the top of a high tower on bob-a-job week, in the late 70′s. Steeplejacks were often in the paper, on this occasion we were invited to sit in front of the film camera.

Several of us, from different firms, were filmed by the college working on various chimneys, and invited to a lunch at a county pub to help produce a recruitment video – OMG how embarrassing.

Don’t give a steeplejack your camera or interview him after a couple of pints.

Gaz top ‘a children’s TV presenter’ was interviewing us all and the brief was simple, relax and be honest.

Some anecdotes from the older steeplejacks, started out pleasant until ‘cut we can’t print that’ and then asking us questions about wages and working conditions, whilst drinking pints of beer down, before the wasps landed in them, in the mid-day sun – what did they think they were going to get?

Not all of us gave a bad account of ourselves, but if they had briefed us on what they wanted, and said keep the language down, and don’t mention lodging away stories, they might have had a chance, on a personal note I had an extra cringe as the sound man was my neighbour.

To be fair, they were honest and relaxed.


Considering a career in the Steeplejack industry?

Years later, I entered the world of building site management, contract management and construction project management, and in the earlier years was faced with employing site managers to supervise safety critical works in the rail sector, the majority of labour had rail experience, not construction.

I pulled in some steeplejack foreman, and they aced it, yes they were trained and did the subsequent courses, but hands on they had a natural risk assessment ability built in and that is the essence of leaders. If you as a youngster are looking to enter the steeplejack industry, I have put together some links below from the UK, United States and Australia.

Considering a career in the Steeplejack industry?

Modern Day Steeplejacks

Back in my day we worked without fall arrest systems or safety harnesses 'free climbing' things have moved on, placing safety as number one using structure, risk assessment and clear communication.

High Rise Maintenance

Refurbishing Victoria centre flats in Nottingham, considered an eyesore for years, we used cradles and bosun’s chairs to completely clad and stone dash the outside, including installation of window sills, concrete repairs and sealant works.

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