“Teas Up” – a leader remembers his early apprenticeship training

written by John Middlemiss

It is a great honour and privilege to be asked to write one of the first blogs on this site.

The problem is where to start – this year will be my 49th year in the industry and I have been lucky to work in just about every department within our industry and cover a large geographical area.

I started back in 1970 as a very raw 16-year-old apprentice.

And have managed to work throughout the UK and Ireland as well as in Germany / France / Italy / Spain / Hong Kong / Taiwan / China / Philippines / Malaysia / North America and Brazil (to name a few).

Well maybe not quite the Elvis look-a-like, but worth a shot.

So as someone once said “you have a bit of experience”- yeah just a bit!

Experience on everything from a two stop dumb waiter (that’s a service lift for those not familiar with the term) to 80+ floor installations in Asia.  From a 1kg letter lift to a 20,000kg goods lift as well as escalators and moving walks. Using all forms of power from oil to electricity – as well as water in those very early days.

I was born and brought up in Glasgow, which like London had a very high water pressure system running throughout the city centre – those Victorians were pretty smart people – and although there were very few of the Water Hydraulic units left by the time I commenced 1970 it was still a great thrill to work on the system.

Although changing the seal was a nightmare as you had to shut the water off within the building.

So where to start …

Probably one of my first valuable lessons was learned when I was 18.

Like I said I started at 16 and during the first two years, I spent time with various engineers on servicing, call outs and major repairs throughout Glasgow and the West of Scotland.

As well I attended one of the local colleges – where 32 of us (all apprentices and all from the lift industry) commenced that first year. I don’t think similar numbers existed across the entire UK nowadays.

During those couple of years, I became familiar with how to read electrical drawings and identify components. The ace up my sleeve was that I was doing “Norbit technology” within my college course which had just come into the lift industry.

This meant I was in demand from the call out guys who worked on this new-fangled technology, because if I could trace the fault quicker they could finish earlier and go for an ale or head to the “bookies” (the original place where people went to bet on the horse races).

The company I served my time with is no longer in existence, bought out by some Finnish organisation, but suffice to say that they were a very large organisation, who not only had lifts & escalators, but also HVAC/ Electrical and Plumbing Divisions.

Anyway, during the first two years I became popular with all of the local fitters and the other apprentices within the company. I didn’t have a problem working late and was always in early each morning, so life was good and although I wasn’t “Jack the Lad”, I had a pretty good and easy time of it.

That was until the third year of my apprenticeship

At the age of 18, I was sent to work on a local construction site where we had been successful in winning all of the services work. It was a local hospital site, around 13 floors in height, with a quadruplex, duplex and several goods lifts to be installed.

The supervisor in the office told me to report to the site on the Monday morning and ask for the chargehand with the lift engineers – let’s call him Freddy.

So, on the Monday morning I stroll up with my overalls under my arm and safety boots on my feet. You didn’t get issued with PPE in those days, you had to buy your own so most of us bought our overalls at the local Army / Navy store and being younger than the rest; all of us apprentices bought pilot overalls with zips everywhere and coloured grey because we thought we looked trendy???

Upon reaching the site I went to what I thought was the builders hut and asked where the lift engineers hut was – no communal dining in those days!

I had actually gone to one of the other companies hut – the electricians, where there were around 25 guys all getting ready for their Monday morning start.

One of the lads pointed over to a white hut with huge toolboxes outside and said “The nutters are in there”

Manning up, I headed over and knocked on the door which was opened by Freddy. “Ah the new tea boy” he said with a smile. He introduced me to some of the other guys on site, several of whom I had seen in and around the stores at various times.

Every one of them had huge hands and when they shook your hand you broke a small piece of the bone in your finger – well that’s how it felt anyway.

I was sent to work with Willie and Alex who were doing machine and diverter installations on the quadruplex.

There must have been 12-14 guys in the hut that morning and it wasn’t for a toolbox talk. They were planning what was to be completed that week – teams making wiring looms for all the installations, a couple of guys doing shaft trunking, a couple of teams doing landing entrances and us, positioning machines/ diverter pulleys and their steels.

We are at the top of the shaft and this is before they had builders’ hoists on the external parts of the building – so a long way up to the motor room.

Each day at least four times, excluding those times I had to go and fetch something from a toolbox in the basement or head out to buy cigarettes or making tea – “bloody tea”.

As I was the youngest on the site one of my tasks was to make sure every morning that our urn (no kettles then) – was filled with water and tea was on the hut table by 10:00 am. When I say the hut table I really mean upturned tea chests with a piece of hardwood around 1.5m square on top.

After two weeks of this and not being treated anymore as the “go to guy”, I was getting pretty wound up. Every morning around 9:30 you would hear somebody shout up the shaft “John get that ……. urn on and make sure the tea is ready”.

So down the stairs I would go fill the urn and set out the table with the fitters and mates billy cans -no luxury of cups or mugs then-pour out the water and add the teabag or two depending on whose tea you were making (because everyone sat in the same seat every day in the hut) and leave the milk and sugar on the table. Go around to the bottom of the shafts and shout “Teas Up”.

After two weeks of doing this 3 times a day (10:00, 12:30 and 15:00), I was jack of it. As well as doing the tea, I had to wash out the billy cans, clear out the hut and restock the milk, sugar and tea.

Thankfully nobody drank coffee on site in those days.

Hatching my escape plan…

It was a Friday morning and as usual around 9:30 I got that now familiar call of “ John get that ……. urn on and make sure the tea is ready”

So down I went, got the urn on went into the hut and nailed all of their billy cans to the table, waited for the water to boil put in their hot water and tea bags went around to the shafts and shouted “Teas Up”.

As they all trooped into the hut I scarpered (fled) although where to I didn’t know as I hadn’t worked that part of the plan out yet. I could hear them yelling as I headed for the stairs “Get that big skinny ……… back here”. In those day I was 6’2” with a 26” waist and could run – how times have changed.

Obviously, they caught up with me …

They took me to the top of the lift shaft and tied me to the scaffolding with a chain block and sling. I was left there, stripped naked with my private parts liberally smeared in green gooey hand cleaner and left to reflect on my actions for the next 4 hours.

Despite my initial screaming and protests, I eventually gave up and accepted the humiliation of having almost every construction site employee make the effort to ascend the 13 floors to see me.

I’m just glad there were no mobile phones with a camera around then.

Following that I became a little bit quieter on site and after buying new billy cans for the team, I did manage to learn a thing or two on how to complete an installation – all the while still making some great tea.

They were my family at work and socially. Sadly, most of those fitters and mates have passed away now. Over the years I have made many great friends and comrades from within the industry, but like every tribe it is mixed with those playing their own agendas and making it less enjoyable. This is a fact of life and just the way of things.

AND so back to the beginning …

Looking forward to speaking to you all again soon. John

Great story John, hope everyone enjoyed and I’m sure more than just a couple of us can relate to those times. Happy to hear of related stories – good or bad. Leave your comments below.