Bill Belsham and Gwendoline Horn

By Pam Schweitzer

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Bill Belsham

Can you tell us where you were born and when, please?

I was born on 4th July, 1928. If you see these cottages out through my office window there, the second one down there, Blackhorse Road, Sidcup. So I haven't really moved very far from there. My father bought this piece of land when he was working for another builder just at the bottom of the road and built this place himself while he was still working for the other chap. And then, a few years after that, he struck out on his own. The first thing he built was on a piece of land that was attached to this garden was an old toque? hut and they didn't go exactly out of business, but they ceased to use it and they were strapped for cash, of course, and money was very tight, we'd got a mortgage on this place and Captain Downs came along who ran the local Crusader. I suppose it was a bible class really and he asked if he could buy the piece of land and my father said 'yes, I'll sell it to you but I'd like the job of building the hall' , which he got and that's his first job on his own and he carried on from there.

How was he trained, how did you learn the trade?

Well his father, they lived in a little place called Castle Camps which is right in the corner where Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex meet and near ... ? His father and his father before him, I think, were thatches and he worked with his father and his brother for a short time after leaving school and his father died when my father was fourteen and, of course, he couldn't be supported then with his old mother. So, he left Castle Camps and came to Chislehurst where his brother, Harry, was a coachman to one of the local families and Harry found him a job, I think they found him a job with a firm called Bentleys? which were local coach builders in the main road, Sidcup, next to Christchurch and, I don't know, he was there for a short time and then, who he went to work with I'm not really sure, I think it was when he went directly to work for a local firm called, F & J Webbs or, I think that's what he did cos he worked with them then most of the time until he started up on his own, but for a certain period during the First World War, he worked in Woolwich Arsenal. He wasn't able to go into the First World War, probably fortunate, well it was fortunate for him, because he failed his medical. I don't know on what grounds. But he worked in Woolwich Arsenal for a period during the First World War and then he started up a window cleaning round in Chislehurst so that when his brother, Harry, came out of the army he had something to come back to. When Harry came back from the war they worked together for a while window cleaning in Chislehurst until my father fell out of the window of the Bickley Arms Hotel, he wasn't drunk or anything like that, it's just he was cleaning windows and fell out backwards. But he was off work for a few months, but he got back to work -he did quite well after that. So then he went, I know from then on he worked for this local firm and worked until he started on his own in 1936. 

That was before you were born?

No, after I was born, I was born in 1928.

So, you remember some of that, before he set out by himself?

Vaguely, vaguely.

When he started work by himself, if you can remember that well, you were about eight?

That's right.

When he started out, do you remember any sort of financial insecurity?

No, well let' s put it like this. There wasn't any spare money about but my mother was the leading, I'm not saying this in the wrong way, but she was the one that had the push. She had the drive. So she, shortly before then, the art school, which has now been demolished in Grassington Road? was built and she applied for the job as caretaker and she got the job as caretaker. So she was caretaking there and I had an invalid sister who she used to look after, and of course there was no national health service then, so money was tight from that part. My father smoked, so he got himself a paper round which he did for years, up until shortly before his death. And he used to get out early in the morning and do the paper round.

I thought he went off to do his building work?

Oh, that's only half of it, he did. Before he went off to do his building work, he did his paper round and then he as a co-partner in the caretaker shift, he used to look after all the fires at the art school, which was the main furnace which ran the central heating and that was anthracite fire. So he did that three times a day, there were one, two, three, four other central, not central heating, but combustion stoves throughout the school, he did that. He did all the window cleaning there. He, in the winter time, before he set off for work, he would clear all the snow from all the paths with snow, that was that. He also, during the war time, he did the fires and kept St. John's Church going, the fire and furnace under there. He did the fire for another little private school, just round the green, called Park House. And what else did he do ....... ?

When did he have any time to do any building?

Well, he used to get up early and, of course, lunchtime he'd be back and, of course, in the evening he would do this. And then of course, he'd be district then? Early on he worked just on his own. Just a hand cart, but he used to work quite a lot of the local estate agents, he'd work on their properties. He'd turn his hand to most things, a bit of plumbing, a bit of bricklaying, whatever came along he'd do. And he used to travel around on this old bike, an old maroon coloured bike which he bought second hand and his tools would be just be hanging on the handle bar. I can still see him now trying to ...? And of course he had the hand cart which had the ladders on it or anything like that to do. In actual fact we still had the hand cart when I first joined him in 1953.

You were working with him in '53?

That's when I came with him. My start, I went to the local secondary modern school and failed the 11 plus. And at 13 you got another chance in those days and, I was then sent on to Dartford Technical college, where I went for, I was there for two years. I didn't really make any effort to study at all, as I say, I then decided I'd be a pattern maker and I got a job, Sir William Lark was the father of my old cub mistress, and he was very influential in the engineering business during and between the wars, and prior to the first world war, I think. Thats where he got his knighthood, and he got a job with a firm called Sandfords of Gravesend who were shipwrights and they had a pattern foundry, a pattern shop foundry and I was to be apprenticed with them. But, I was then fifteen and they wouldn't give me a job with the pattern shop until I was sixteen and that was when the apprenticeship was starting. So, I spent, I was there for about two months, I think and I was working down on their wharf called Old Sun Wharf and this was during the, yes the latter part of the war, I suppose and we were converting old Thames lighters into invasion barges. So, quite an interesting job and we used to be there and watch the convoys come up and the state of them, all rents in their sides and all the rest, and the Atlantic convoys. But I, of course, really wanted to get on with the pattern making side of it, I was more interested in that and somebody, through the art school, one of the masters there said that he knew of somebody who had got an engineering works in London and they had a vacancy for a pattern maker's apprentice there. What was the name, R W Wales & Son, and that was a very interesting firm to work for because, Rex Wales, who was the son, he was running the firm then, was the country's authority on windmills and the old chap I was to be apprenticed with, a chap called, Bob Durdy, he was a very clever man and he used to make models of these windmills for Rex Wales. He'd go round and take photographs and measurements and he'd got a whole selection of models, I think they're in various museums now. And also, he used to, they used to have these wheels brought in from various windmills round the country cos they were people who could do it and they .... ? wheels with the wooden cogs. So that was interesting. But I was there for nine months and I was due to sign my articles when for some reason I decided I didn't want to be a pattern maker and I left the job without looking for another job. I came home on Friday night and said to my mother, I said 'I've given my job up'. Of course, all hell broke loose as although jobs weren't difficult to find then, they thought they'd got me settled.

Why did you give it up?

I don't know. I think I was a bit depressed at the time and I was travelling up and down to London. I don't know, I just didn't see much future in it, I didn't see much future in anything. I was just at a funny sort of stage and I decided that I didn't want to do that but I hadn't thought about what else I wanted to do. As I said, my mother was quite a forceful lady and she said, 'Well what are you going to do?', so I thought I better think of something a bit quick here. So I said, 'I might as well go into the building trade like my father'. So she said, 'right', and she picked up the local paper and she went through the jobs that were advertised. She said, 'there's a firm in Orpington looking for apprentices', so she picked up and said 'oh, no', that was on a Friday night so I phoned on the Saturday morning first thing and got through to them and they said, 'yes, can you come over?' so I was over there with my father on a Saturday morning and I was taken on as a carpenter's apprentice. And they were a firm that had, they were both Liverpool Irish, the two brothers, and they'd done a lot of development at Whiteley, Camberley?, over in Surrey and they came to Orpington between the wars and bought up quite attractive land from the Darerum's family and they developed quite an area close to Petswood, the Marlings Park Estate, they were big, quite nice houses, a good class of development. And, er, in the land that they bought, they owned both sides of Sevenoaks Way which was the main road that ran through from the Railway Station but the Railway line at St Mary Cray, through almost to Orpington Pond there, pretty well all the land on both sides, so after the war of course, there was all the development factories and all that that went on there and they'd also got quite a lot of land which the GLC or the LCC as it was then bought off them to develop the St Paul's Cray Estate and we got the job of putting the roads and sewers through there and built quite a few houses on that estate. So they were quite a good, big firm to work for. 

This page was added by Pam Schweitzer on 31/03/2014.