Category Archives: Work

How I became a Building Inspector and why I left

Note: many of the UK public still refer to a ‘building inspector’ though since the 1970s their formal title has been ‘building control officer’.

After leaving university I joined Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames (RBK) as a maintenance surveyor. Initially I joined a team responsible for school building maintenance, then moved on to maintenance of social services buildings. I worked alongside some great people who nearly fifty years on I still fondly remember. But our overall boss was quite the worst person I have ever worked under. Being torn to shreds (usually with no justification) in front of your workmates was a regular occurrence. And yet – Stockholm syndrome at work? – when he called me in and told me that to broaden my experience I was to be seconded to Building Control for three months I was apprehensive about moving into the unknown.

How wrong I was! The atmosphere was so different. After my first day over dinner – I was still living with my parents – my mum observed: “I’ve never heard you talk about work with such enthusiasm; I think you’ll end up staying there”. How right she was! At the end of my secondment my temporary boss, Ken Beer, Borough Planning Officer, offered me a permanent position, along with a salary increment. I said that I would be more than happy to take the job with no increment but he insisted. When I told my old boss about the offer he exploded with rage, accusing me of ingratitude, underhand behaviour, disloyalty and the rest, adding that he would be going to see the Borough Engineer (my ultimate boss) to have my move stopped.

Back from his meeting he called me in and told me that despite his efforts my transfer could not be prevented: to his chagrin there was apparently a provision in the ‘Purple Book’ (local authority employment terms and conditions) that stated that your existing manager could block an intra-LA transfer BUT only if it didn’t involve a salary increase. That was why Ken Beer had insisted on me having the increment.

With my month’s notice served I went back to Building Control where I was to stay for eight years. RBK had been formed in 1965 as a merger of three local councils: Kingston, Surbiton and Malden and Coombe (M&C). Building Control might now occupy one office, but worked as three largely autonomous teams, as if amalgamation had never happened. Each had a District BCO, Assistant BCO and a trainee. Overseeing these was Peter Fuller, Principal Building Control Officer, who exercised a benevolent oversight over the office, largely leaving each District BCO to run their section as they thought fit. I started as M&C assistant, moving up to District BCO a year or two later. Each of us three had a very different approach: Paul went by the book, insisting on plans being correct in every detail; Peter, older than us, relied on his ability to get things right on site (which he invariably managed) and my approach was somewhere in between.

Several happy years passed during which I decided that I could see myself being M&C District BCO for the rest of my working life. I got to know my patch intimately and took a great interest in its history. Then the time came for Peter Fuller to retire. His replacement had a very different, hands on, approach to management. Before too long he said that things could not continue as before, observing (with some justification) that when someone submitted a plan, they were submitting it to RBK and for the response to be quite different depending on where within the borough the site was, was unacceptable. He produced a document setting out exactly how we were to do our jobs.

Us three District BCOs were self starters, each used to running our own shows, and under this new regime the job satisfaction disappeared. Within a relatively short period we all left. In my case it was to embark on nearly forty years of self employment. I joined RBK with the expectation that I’d spend my working life in public service. Instead, my ten years there were just the warm-up act!

On Maths Teachers

Last Saturday saw the annual City Bible Forum ‘Life at Work’ conference. With the uncertainties of Covid-19 this year’s conference had to be a virtual one over Zoom. Whilst some of us in Melbourne missed the excellent food served up by our usual hosts, CQ Functions, many others away from capital cities were able to participate. One speaker was Eddie Woo, committed Christian and maths teacher extraordinaire. His YouTube channel, WooTube, started with him filming class lessons for a sick student in 2012, and it now has over 1.1 million subscribers. For his work he was made Australian Local Hero of the Year 2018 – a well deserved honour.

As for my own school maths teachers, they may never got to be known outside their local circles, but thanks to them I’ve spent 30+ years writing engineering software with more than a little maths. I owe them all a great debt.

Extract from Hampton Grammar School report

The facts do indeed justify the conclusion!

Two from Hampton Grammar School stand out. It’s an institution I carry less than fond memories of and yet I remember many individual teachers with affection.

Maths was my strong subject as this report extract shows (I’m not sure why this term’s class ranking was so low). Unfortunately I didn’t apply myself to most other subjects.

For O-level maths our teacher was the elderly (to us schoolboys) Frank Steffens. He was an old boy of the school having been Head Boy c.1924-5. He went off to university, then returned to HGS to spend the rest of his working life as a maths teacher. His apparent sternness disguised a kindly nature. He wanted every boy in his class to succeed and we did. I’m not sure whether today’s teachers would be allowed to make the weakest pupils of the week sit in the front row on the following week, but it was a tactic that worked!

I was in the ‘Latin A’ [express] stream which meant that we took our O-levels after four years instead of five; for maths we took the ordinary exam in January followed by Additional Maths in June. There were 32 of us in the class (not streamed for maths); 28 of us got a grade A in the O-level, 4 got B’s and 4 C’s (when pass grades were A-E), an extraordinary achievement. Later, in the sixth form Mr Steffens took us for a general studies class. Us boys were amazed that someone so ancient (he would have been in his early 60s!) could understand and explain to us the science behind Dolby stereo!

We started our A-level studies under Stan Barton, who was also Deputy Head. With an interregnum between heads, he was often called away and so would set work for us to get on with in his absence. Not too much work was being done when Alan Waltham, head of maths, happened to walk by the classroom and hearing our chatter decided to investigate. He decided that it would be best if our group could sit in his classroom and get on with our work while he taught his main class, breaking off occasionally to check on our progress. Finding that four of us were well ahead of the others he offered to coach us to sit pure and applied maths as two subjects rather than sit the combined paper, an offer which we accepted. And so this left him teaching three different groups at the same time! And we all passed!

Then to Reading University: No specific maths classes but in my last year those of us in the Building Surveying stream had a weekly structural engineering class. It was the high spot of my week, not so for most of my fellow students. Our lecturer, Mike Hewitt, owned a calculator which could calculate sines and cosines! We were in awe of this device which had cost him a couple of months salary. We did our calculations with slide rules! He understood that some were not mathematically inclined: “In the exam there will be seven questions and you have to do five. 4½ will be mathematical questions and 2½ essay questions [i.e. one half-and-half]. That’s so those of you who can’t add up 2+2 can at least pass on the essay questions and the clever buggers among you [looking at me] can’t get 100%”. He’d be pleased, I hope, to see what this ‘clever bugger’ has been doing for most of his working life.

2019 – Good memories

Another year ends and the 20s are about to begin. I can look back on 2019 with almost unalloyed satisfaction. High spots of the year:

  • A two-night mini break by rail to Warrnambool.
  • Seeing our church continue to grow, with the opening of a new service in Docklands.
  • Being headhunted to help with our church ‘mums and bubs’ midweek meeting creche. For some reason this old single guy seems to be quite good at looking after little people!
  • A four-night cruise, Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane, on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth, made even more special by being upgraded to a suite. No upgrade for my 2020 cruise though!
  • Visiting Brisbane for the first time.
  • Through the year working as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, building homes in Yea.
  • Visiting friends and family in the UK – when I emigrated I promised to go back and visit them each year, a promise I had to break in 2018 following surgery, and taking a first-time stopover in Singapore on the way home, something I will do again
  • Through the year working as a volunteer guide at the Newport Railway Museum, also joining the works team.
  • Taking a winter holiday in Port Hedland – seeing big boys toys close up.
  • I only got to see one musical but it was a superb one, ‘Come from away’, the remarkable true story of thousands passengers and the small town in Newfoundland that welcomed them in the aftermath of 9/11
  • And continuing to run my software business, which celebrated its 30th birthday in April and once again reached my annual sales target (just).

School holiday jobs remembered

Fifty years ago I got my first real job, a real step towards being an adult. Several more followed which I still remember.

Hounslow Co-op

My first paid job (1968-69) was as a Saturday boy at the Hounslow (SW London) Co-op department store. I was sent to work in the men’s shoe department, perhaps not the department I would have chosen if I’d been given a chance. But what a great first job. My boss, the inappropriately named Harold Sainsbury, was perhaps the finest boss I ever worked for. He’d served in the navy in WW2, lost a leg and afterwards found employment repairing shoes, then moving to retail.

Mr Sainsbury (never Harold!) set us juniors high standards – no dust, all shoes straight etc – and made it clear to us that he’d rather we sent a customer away empty-handed than sell them a pair of shoes that didn’t fit properly. The Co-op held the local contract for welfare-assisted parents: they’d come in with a voucher asking us to supply a pair of school shoes. He stressed to us that such parents were to be treated no differently than anyone else, an injunction that shouldn’t have been necessary, but the previous warrant holder had lost the contract through treating such clients poorly. He looked after us staff too: on one occasion I used my tea break to go to a local electronics shop. When I returned rather breathless, he told me to go to the staff canteen and get my break. A really great place to work.

[Edit March 2023] A YouTube live chat reminded me that I was working at the Co-op when a key change was made. When I joined, Coop members got a dividend of sixpence in the pound (2½%) on all purchases. When buying something, you gave the assistant your ‘divi number’ which was set on the till by a series of levers. When the sale was rung up the till punched a card with the date, amount and divi number. At the end of the day these cards were collected (across the store there must have been thousands) and sent to the Coop data processing centre so that every member’s account could be credited accordingly.

While I was working there, this system was replaced with Co-op trading stamps, modelled on Green Shield stamps, from memory one small stamp for each 6d spent, one large stamp for each pound. These were stuck in a book, 40 pages, each page taking 40 small or one large stamp. When the book was full it could be used in part payment (£1) for purchases.

Dixons, Richmond

Being interested in photography, working in a camera shop appealed to me. So for one summer holiday I got a job at Dixons. Quite different to the Coop. The aim was to sell, with little regard to what was right for the customer. Discontinued and high profit items (e.g. own brand cameras from Macau) carried ‘spiff’ payments – sell one and you got (say) a five-shilling bonus. There was a strict dress code (I was told off for wearing a dark jacket and dark non-matching trousers rather than a suit) and on Thursdays we weren’t allowed to go to lunch until the delivery truck had come, 4.00p.m. one day! On this plus side I did enjoy handling all the camera equipment and the fact that I did know something about it didn’t go unnoticed. And I made good use of the staff discount. But after one summer holiday I had no desire to go back.

AA Teddington

Not so much a holiday job, rather filling time between leaving school after resitting A-levels in January and starting university in October. I worked in Revenue Analysis, one of team that handed all the payments coming in from shops and patrolmen. All done with the aid of a hand operated adding machine. Added challenges came from a lengthy postal strike and the introduction of decimal currency. This was a really happy place to work. Frank Hackman and Tony Fanning, both probably in their 50s, exercised a benevolent oversight of us young people (John, Graham, Jill, Pam, I can still picture you) and I was sorry when it was time to leave. And working here paid for my first car!

Roskill Information Services

This was my first university summer holiday job. RIS did an annual survey of new homes – a small team recruited from my fellow students went round the country inspecting three houses a day. I sat in the 14 Great College Street office opposite the Houses of Parliament checking their survey forms before passing them on to our data processing bureau. Building materials manufacturers, suppliers and other firms would buy the consolidated report. For a payment they could have their own questions added to the survey form (e.g. ‘what make is the CH thermostat?’). After this I continued to work for RIS during my university holidays compiling metal trade statistics. This was long before the internet so had to be done the hard way – I remember being sent to Westminster library one Christmas to note daily copper prices from the last year’s FT. It was freezing and I ventured to asked whether the windows could be closed. “No,” came the reply, “if we shut them, the vagrants will come in.” So I sat there all day wearing my coat!

The firm was founded and at that time run by Oliver Wentworth Roskill (1906-1994), the third of the four sons of John Roskill KC, all of whom achieved eminence. His two elder brothers were Sir Ashton Roskill QC (1902-91), chairman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, and Stephen Roskill (1903-82), a distinguished naval historian. The youngest, Eustace (1911-96), was a Law Lord who chaired the Roskill Commission on the third London airport. Quite extraordinary! Judith Chegwidden, my immediate boss, was then a young recruit who stayed with the firm for her entire working life, becoming its MD. Interestingly, after leaving Roskill, Piers Nicholson, the partner to whom Judith reported, went on to a new career as an expert in sundials. At the end of one project he took Judith and me to lunch, the first time I’d eaten in a ‘posh’ (as it seemed to me) restaurant.

That was the end of casual work – next chapter of my life, working for RB Kingston upon Thames.