Christine Wall, reader in architectural history at the University of Westminster, told the most recent oral history research seminar that she wanted to let her interviewees “speak for themselves”
Wall, whose seminar focused on her Leverhulme Trust-funded research on five post-war construction schemes, said that she resisted the urge to interpret her interviews as she was aware of the distance between herself, an academic researcher, and her interviewees, construction workers.
Instead, she wanted to capture the voices of the men who laboured on the sites, voices which have remained largely silent in previous historical accounts.
Wall’s study focused on the building of five flagship projects: the M1 motorway; the Southbank Centre in south London; the Barbican arts centre in the City of London; Stevenage new town; and Sizewell A nuclear power station.
She began her talk by describing the apparent contradiction between the aims of those who planned the post-war regeneration of Britain and the employers contracted to realise this vision.
“Because the building industry was not nationalised after World War Two all these schemes were built by private contractors, and in many cases the conditions of their workers were at odds with the aims of the welfare state,” she said.
Wall’s seminar focused on the 10 interviews she carried out with men working at Sizewell A, a nuclear power station on the coast of rural Suffolk. The Sizewell workers were a mixture of locals, getting their first taste of a large industrial workplace, and more experienced, skilled workers from all over Britain and Ireland. One of Wall’s interviewees told her that there were police informers working on the site.
At its height there were more than 2000 workers on the site, many of whom lived in camps and saw little of their families. Because of the large amount of Irish labourers working at Sizewell a Catholic church was built there.
“This construction site upset the existing order of the rural community and drew together many different groups: the Catholic church; police informers; Irish navvies, trade union activists, skilled workers and local boatmen,” said Wall.
The interviews highlighted the dangers of working on a 1960s building site. One worker knew of at least four people who died. Patrick O’Kane, a tunneller, told how he was forced to spend time in hospital after burning his hand.
A scaffolder, George Garnham, remembered not wearing any clips, harnesses or safety gear and spoke about workers “freezing” as they climbed the scaffold, putting themselves and their fellow workers at risk, and how once this happened they never returned to working at heights.
One area of health and safety that he did welcome was the banning of asbestos and he was angry that employers had continued to use the substance, despite knowing how toxic it was.
Dick Nettlingham, a local man and part of the off-shore gang, described the effects of painting in an enclosed space: “You’d get an electric hand-lamp, and you were painting with this epoxy resin paint and you’d come out in the sunshine and all the skin dropped off.” He was grudgingly given barrier cream to protect his skin.
At the end of the seminar Wall was asked what the workers felt of the aesthetics of their buildings, particularly the South Bank Centre and the Barbican.
She said they were proud of the “feats of endurance” and skill that had gone into the build, as well as of the quality of the finished product, particularly the concrete on the South Bank, but aesthetics did not come into it.
The next oral history research seminar takes place on May 28th and will be led by Dr Fiona Cosson from Manchester Metropolitan University. Her talk is titled: In the time between then and now: memory, social change and everyday life.
The seminar starts at 6pm and takes place in room Wolfson Room II, Senate House, Malet St, London WC1E 7HU. Afterwards there is chance for discussion over a glass of wine.
Podcasts from previous seminars are available here.