Chapter 6

Chapter 6



Eventually the work for which I had been engaged was completed and my Contract was coming to its end. The Director of Irrigation asked me to come and see him, and when I did, suggested that I stay on on the permanent establishment at the same salary,but with seniority according to my age. As I was younger than most of the engineers this would have meant pretty low seniority, and in any case I did not relish the idea of spending the rest of my working life reading water gauges and doing maintenance and truth be told rather despised people who worked in pensionable jobs, young and foolish as I was, so I politely declined the offer and started making preparations to go home. So very shortly I was on my way home by Blue Funnel line from Port Sudan, firstly to have the 4 months leave due to me , and then to start looking for another job.


After a few weeks in London living with my mother in her flat, and with my savings running out, I decided it was time once more to start work.


First I applied to my old employers, Pauling & Co. but they had no contracts needing engineers at the time, but they gave me an introduction to Edmund Nuttall & Son who had been awarded a very big contract to build 51 Tunnels for the storage of Naval ammunition in a narrow valley near Fishguard in South Wales. After the usual interview I was taken on as an assistant engineer for this work, although I had no previous experience in tunnelling. I had in the Sudan passed the final exams to qualify for membership of the Institution of Civil Engineers and had become an Associate Member, which carried a lot of weight when applying for a job so that my lack of experience in tunnelling did not matter too much. One of my reasons for finding a job in England had been to gain a wider experience of other techniques of Civil Engineering than was possible abroad,so that I was quite pleased to take the job offered although it meant a drop in salary. To begin with I was to work in the London office of Nuttalls in Grosvenor Gardens so I presented myself there.


At this time, when I had been only a day or two in the office, the Munich crisis blew up, and the British Government decided that there was a real risk of war, and that London would be bombed, and in a panic ordered that trenches should be dug in all London squares and parks as air raid shelters for the populace. They therefore collected every available large contractor, and gave each an area in London,to get the work organised and done . Nuttalls were given the job in central London, and I was told to be in charge of several squares in the Islington area. It was complete chaos, with no central organisation, and we were just given duplicate order books with which to order materials, and to get on with it as fast as possible. I therefore went to the squares that I had been allotted, and very shortly the labour exchange started to send men along to be taken on and start digging. Meanwhile Nuttalls sent along a lorry load or two of picks and shovels etc to each site. My first job was to appoint foremen, which was more or less a matter of guessing which of the men taken on had the authority, and qualities necessary for this, but I could not be too fussy as there was a sense of panic in the air. The men presenting themselves for work came from every conceivable occupation and it was obvious that many of them had never handled a shovel in their lives or indeed done any kind of manual labour. As time went on I weeded out the obviously unsuitable,and appointed a clerk and storekeeper for each site, and the work proceeded surprisingly well. I myself did not get to bed for the first two nights, snatching short kips in my car, and lived on sandwiches from the stalls that magically appeared. I cannot imagine what it all cost, and what swindling and thievery went on with the tools and materials that we ordered from whoever had them, but in very few days we had trenches dug round several squares, properly timbered and covered over. Then one day Chamberlain flew back from Munich with his piece of paper, and the panic was over, and work stopped as suddenly as it had begun. I do not know who cleared up all the sites, but we in Nuttalls just returned to the office leaving everything as it was. Before I went to work I treated my self to a dozen oysters, and an enormous steak, a meal I remember to this day, and I also had a good nights sleep.


Shortly after life returned to normal I was sent down to South Wales, taking my car and took a room at the Fishguard Hotel, which I occupied for over a month while I looked for somewhere to live. I was dead against lodgings with a landlady, and eventually found a small semi detached house near Newport on the coast N,E. of Fishguard, which the small farmer, who lived next door was willing to let to me, and his wife agreed to cook breakfast, and dinner for me. It had two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a sitting room,and dining room, running water from a well,hand pumped by the farmer, and was lit by gas. Needless to say there was no heating.


The work for which I had been engaged was in a valley south west of Fishguard called Trecwm, and would consist of 51 very large and capacious tunnels dug into each side of the valley and served by a railway that ran round the valley. There were also numerous buildings to be built to serve as offices, labs ,etc. Each tunnel consisted of an approach tunnel of about 4 meters diameter, which widened out into very much larger tunnels in which the Naval ammunition was to be stored. The whole area was very thickly wooded, and the minimum tree clearance was to be allowed. I was put in charge of 7 tunnels with a gang of Irish and Cumbrian iron miners supervised by a proper public works foreman called Gipsy Woods. Public works then attracted very rough and tough men, who spent their lives going from job to job,with seemingly no home ties, and who spent every penny of their earnings as soon as they received them,. The Cumbrians were not this kind, being mostly unemployed miners, but they were nothing like as good workers, and seemed unable to work to accurate lines, an important point as we, the contractors, only got paid for the material excavated according to the drawings. The local or indeed any Welsh were notable for their absence on the work, but most of the few clerks and draughtsmen were Welsh, as were the tree fellers. My fellow engineers were a mixed lot, one or two being men with whom one could talk sensibly, and who had worked on Public Works before,the others in general being very parochial with narrow outlooks. This had nothing to do with social class,but everything to do with whether they had travelled and seen a bit of the world outside of their own home environment.


In London I had bought a small Opel car which the Germans were dumping in England at very low prices, so I was able to get to work without having to rely on the company, and most week ends I would go to London, usually by train from Cardigan which was about an hours drive from my house. The main reason for my London trips was to see my current heart throb, whom I had met on the boat coming home, and kept in constant touch with. I even managed to persuade her to come down to Wales and spend a month with me, pretending to all and sundry that she was my sister as Welsh morals then were extremely strait laced at least on the surface. We did however have separate bedrooms, and the landlord and his wife got on very well with her.


The work was interesting enough, and I was learning tunnelling, and how to control rather rough and aggressive men, but in general life was dull, and the pay was not very good,and I was living, although modestly, beyond it. In addition, the climate was pretty dreadful, and the rain dripping off the rhododendrons depressed me terribly, so that I began to study the advertisements in the Daily Telegraph,and other journals, with a view to obtaining another job, preferably abroad. I had been about four months in South Wales and decided that that was enough. In time I noticed an advert from a firm called William Jacks in London advertising for a Chartered Civil Engineer with some experience overseas to join a Civil Engineering Contractor for work in Malaya and the Far East. This seemed to suit me exactly so I wrote, and applied for the position, and in due course was asked to go to London for an interview, which I did as soon as I could get away. At this interview I met the Chief Engineer of the firm in question, who was home on leave, and whom I immediately liked. He described the firm, which I learned was Gammon ( Malaya), and the kind of work they were engaged on, and the kind of living conditions that I could expect.Then after a few pleasantries he said that the decision as to whom they would engage would be taken by the Managing Director after he had made a report on his return to Malaya,which was imminent. I very much liked the sound of the job , and was keen to get it so that I had a week or two of anxious waiting, when one morning in the post the offer of it arrived with exactly double the salary I was getting, plus bonuses on profits,and a three year contract,with 4 months home leave at the end and also the prospect of further contracts when that was completed. Naturally I immediately accepted, and hurried along to the Agent in charge of the Wales contract to give in my months notice, which I may say was accepted only with great regret !


I left Wales when my notice was completed, and went to London to equip myself for Malaya,and to say goodbye to my mother and my friends,and had about two weeks to do this before I was due to sail. One thing that I had to do was to buy a car as my Opel was not really suitable, and I had been advised that it was better to buy one in England,and ship it out than buy in Malaya. I spent a lot of time looking at new,and second hand cars, and then after a convivial evening with friends made the big mistake of agreeing to buy a Bentley off an acquaintance called Orlik who wanted to change it for a smaller car. It was a pretty gigantic car,with a wooden framed body covered with leather, made by famous body builders called Weymann, and totally unsuitable for the climate in Malaya ; in addition it had a very difficult gearbox, and an immensely powerful engine that simply drank petrol, and gave out great waves of heat. I think that when I got it to Singapore it was the only Bentley there. Eventually I sold it to an Australian pig farmer for $100 Straits, and bought a tiny Morris 8, but by this time I was married, and Budge had had her own larger Morris sent out from England.


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