Old friend of the blog Reg ‘Aer Reg’ Fullelove has been at it again – and this time, he’s written a fabulous piece on his early working days as an electricity supply engineer for the Chasetown Electricity Board, in the very earliest days of domestic supply.
This is a warm and wonderful piece of writing, and for background, I suggest reading the post Curious Electric (click here), which describes the earlier work of great engineer McClean in supplying electricity to St. Anne’s Church in Chasetown from the nearby mine, making it the first church in the UK to be lit by electric light.
Out of these seeds, the Chasetown Electricity Board grew, and supplied power to Brownhills and Walsall Wood. In these days, Reg worked out of the Council yard behind the council house in Brownhills – what is now the Parkview Centre car park.
Reg wrote this wonderful piece at the request of the Young David Evans, and I thank both gents profusely, as ever. This is a fascinating piece of social history, that might otherwise have been lost. This is why we do it.
Comments or memories? Please add them, or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Cheers.
My formal education finished at the age of 14. I found employment at the Oak Tanning Company in Hatherton Street, Walsall, just as the war was coming to an end. I spent the first year at Oak Sales – what a year it was! Walsall football team was known as ‘The Saddlers’, Walsall being a major centre for the leather industry in the Midlands. At the age of 15 I entered the world of electricity under the watchful eye of Charlie Woodhouse at the Chasetown Electricity Board sub-station in Brownhills council yard. Oliver Cowlishaw was the chief engineer, Frank Beacon was the distribution engineer, Harry Bunn was in charge of metering, Roy Caddick was the chief linesman, and George Holt was the only cable jointer. We had one van, driven by Len Davies, and a Hillman car – AUT 15. There were older male and female employees and us lads. The women were employed as meter readers and collectors as many of the men had not returned from the forces.
The electricity supply came by inserting the old penny coins into a slot meter. Often the lads were called in to move a large two-wheeled steel truck to the district where the women were working. We left it at a street end to receive the hundreds of pennies when their weight became too heavy to carry. For the more affluent consumer the house had a quarterly meter for the tariff called ‘the domestic rate’, which was 15 shillings plus a penny a unit. Some of these had a box called an E.P. box into which shillings or sixpences could be inserted. A special key was needed to open the box each quarter when bills were due to be paid. A Mr Beacon, not Frank, would call on his trusty two-wheeled steed with a large Gladstone bag to unlock the E.P. box and sort out the bill.
So that was the background of the world I was about to enter. We all worked together, whatever the task or the aim, in our own way – if sometimes crude – to give our customers a good reliable electricity supply to their homes.
I will never forget my first job. As I mentioned earlier, the war years were coming to an end. There were no more blackouts, and plans to celebrate the end of hostilities were in the air. During the war years boxes of coloured light bulbs were stored in the sub-station. The time had come to get them out to see how many had survived. So, after being told what to do and how to do it and how the telephone worked, the gang set off to perform their daily duties – let no-one in, clean up, answer the phone, test bulbs – I was important. All went well until one bulb blew up, blowing the sub-station lighting fuse. I was in a real panic – I thought I had blown out every light in Brownhills. Was I glad when Charlie came to check if all was well!
Each morning the lads were sent down to the transformer house while the men sorted out the day’s work. Afterwards you were paired up with someone, and with his tool bag on your bike you would set off to do your allotted task. Joe Downs and his work lad Bob Matthews would cover Walsall Wood and Shelfield. On their way they would call at the sub-station constructed out of corrugated sheets by Walsall Wood Colliery to see if there were any messages. In those days very few people had a telephone so they would write a note and shove it through the letter box in the door. Two common problems were no lights or a penny stuck in the meter. We knew all the painters, decorators and plumbers in the district who had ladders we could borrow, which we always did, and we knew we could get a good cuppa and a sausage cob at Nelly Clawley’s cafe in High Street, Walsall Wood. The lads would be sent by whoever they were working with, regardless of distance, to get a gourmet lunch. The cafe was a prime target for all the lorries carrying steel from Sheffield to the Black Country.
Electricity for household use was becoming popular. The gas mantles were on the way out and flat irons were being replaced by electric irons. More people wanted modem, clean electrical devices in their homes. How did we cope? We had bikes. We would move ladders and meter boards and make steel clips from scrap two-inch nails. What more did we need? Porcelain clamps were available, but for masonite-covered cable the lead type was more beneficial. My partner was Joe Deakin (ex-RAF). He was a great footballer and at weekends he played for Bacup Borough in Lancashire. He also had a great tenor singing voice and he sang as he worked for all to hear.
It was a great atmosphere. Yes, the world was changing. The prefabs were on the way. The fridge, electric kettie, and a wonderful world without the dolly tub were on the way. The penny meter was changed to take sixpences and then shillings, but all that came later for me. Meter standards were highly respected, and meters were very accurately tested and certified by standard control officers then sealed. A Mr Foster would arrive with meters suspended from the crossbar of his bike to fix new meters. Later, as more houses were built, we were often called in to assist him. I recall one incident while working with him when we were in a pantry changing a meter. As I was passing him a screwdriver it fell onto a plate on the sink top, on which was a kipper. Alas, the plate broke into two pieces. Unruffled, Mr Foster finished his job, placed the kipper over the crack, and without a word we made our departure. I often wonder what was said at tea time!
The electricity supply to properties came from overhead lines on wooden poles, on top of which was a wooden pinion with an earth wire attached. This went down to the base of the pole where a piece of sheet metal surround~ it. We called it the dog guard because it prevented wood rot caused by desperate doggies! Monday morning was inspection time. You were given a form and an area to check and a log to report any problems such as slack wires, loose insulations, etc. The remedy for slightly slack service wires was borrow a line prop and put in a few kinks- and hey presto, job done!
The lads played pranks on the unwary. It might be called bullying today but to us it was good, clean fun. Lads were told to go to Wembley on their bike tor a long wait and a glass ‘ommer’. They were new and green and didn’t know that Wembley was the massive workshop at Chasetown, the headquarters of the parent company Cannock Chase Colliery. Need I say more about long waits, glass ommers and double-headed nails! One mate whose name I will not mention was a smashing, inoffensive chap who was often a victim of pranks. One night just before knocking off his bike tyres were let down and two dud street lamps were smashed on the ground. In consequence, the poor lad thought he had two punctures and pushed his bike all the way home, which was quite a walk. Another incident I will never forget happened when Brownhills Council decided to update the mortuary, which was at the rear ofthe ambulance station in the council yard. Our men had the job of rewiring it. A new slab had been installed, above which an angle-poise lamp had been placed. In those days that was a posh light. On the day of the final inspection the medical officer arrived. With the angle-poise lamp under scrutiny, he quickly turned to the young lad and said: ‘Come on, lad, jump up and lie down so I can try it.’ Need I say more? The look on the lad’s face! He got off like a shot. We had plenty of fun but we were a team.
We take our electrical world for granted nowadays – plug in the TV, the Hoover, the washer, the iron and special lighting – but in the beginning few houses had a socket installed. The wireless, and yes sometimes the iron, was connected to the kitchen light by a two-way adaptor. There were very few irons, kettles and cookers, and they were rented from the company per quarter. I think the coming of the prefab bungalows took the working families into a new world. A Hoover. fridge, washer and toaster were not found in the everyday house. I remember standing with a brown Swan kettle in my hand trying to convince one dear old lady that it would boil without putting it on the hob. No, she was not senile – she was just puzzled in the new world of electricity. A firm called Grafton made irons in Sheffield – very sturdy units with a low-wattage plug in the back, the modem version of the flat iron.
One day I was given a very special task. I was to go to Chasetown stores and pick up a cardboard box. I was sternly told to walk back as its contents were of some considerable value. I did as I was told, and as I walked back I pondered the contents of the box. It wasn’t heavy – in fact, it was quite light. I got it back safely. When it was unpacked, a glass bowl was revealed together with its fixing chains. You may ask: “What was so special about that?” Well, it would be an antique today. In those days most houses did not have lamp shades, just a naked bulb perhaps in the front room. By the way, in the older properties not every room in the house had an electric light. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but to get a supply and a meter, in the beginning you only had two lights, the cost of energy being ten pennies a unit, and a 60-watt bulb was a good penny worth.
As we went about our daily tasks people got to know us as the ‘lectric men’. We knew where to get a cuppa and, of course, the odd chat. Gardening days would bring the words: ‘Would yer mutha like a few beans?’ One dear old lady comes to mind. In End Cottage in Bridge Street, Clayhanger, lived Mrs Wood – a loaner of a ladder and the keeper of a pig, quite common in those days. Coming up to Christmas was the time for the pigs to provide pork and bacon. Mrs Wood would enquire if you would like a bit of bacon. At the answer yes, a piece off the bottom of last year’s flitch would be given with a thin red line running through the centre of the bacon.
Talking of Clayhanger, I remember the Spot Common flood when the water rose and the houses sank. The street lights were so low we didn’t need a ladder. The bedrooms of the houses reached road level, and at one point travellers put their ponies in them. The only access to the power lines was by boat should anything have gone wrong. I think only the villa survived. An island at Clayhanger Island.
Gradually, things got going again. The war was over. New ideas, new products were available. The household electrical products were in abundance and new manufacturers fought for the new markets. Morphy Richards, Hoover, G.E.C, Hotpoint, Servis, Goblin, Bush and many others soon had a wide range of offerings gracing the shops. The nine-inch TV soon became an essential part of life. More special equipment and sub-stations were built. It was an electric world. I was older and National Service beckoned at the age of 18. I entered a different world in the RAF as an electrician. I returned to civilian life expecting to carry on where I had left off, but it had all gone. The Chasetown Electricity Company was in the hands of Lichfield District. The Midlands Electricity Board was created, where, in my funny old way, I was to spend my future working life.
A post script
What a changing world it was! We had lorries, vans and ladders. No longer did everyone muck in regardless of special skills. I was taught to drive at Kennings School of Motoring at one guinea a lesson. I could examine my street lights at night. We had linesmen, jointers, first and second engineers and sub-station fitters, to which group of personnel I was seconded, each group performing our own special tasks. We reminisced about our old Chasetown days. A workshop was formed at the old school in Church Street, Chasetown. In the workshop was kept a tool chest with picks, shovels, pinch bars, rammers, etc., which were tended with loving care by Jimmy Littler, an old-timer from our Chasetown days. One day a young engineer came in commenting about Lichfield this and Lichfield that and how primitive our old ways were. Jimmy listened silently then said: ‘You might be posh and we’m old-fashioned, but if you were to cum for an ommer, they ay got any’