Working Methods


Working Conditions

The job of my grandfather and his gang of labourers was to dig trenches in the roadway and lay power cables in them with appropriate protection. The manual labourers employed in this kind of work were often referred to as 'Navvies'. The term was coined during the canal-building frenzy of the 18th century - the canals being referred to as 'navigations'. The term continued in use for workmen involved in railway construction in the 19th century, was generalised to mean anyone working in excavation and is still occasionally used today.

The roads they dug up had various other services installed under them already: sewers, gas mains, water mains, existing electrical cables, and in some places the high-pressure water mains of the London Hydraulic Company. It seems unlikely that there would be adequate mapping of the existing services, so work would have had to proceed cautiously. Given the extent of the work, there must have been more than a few instances where the existing services were fractured. This would have caused delays and the damage would have to be made good.

Each drum held just 182 yards of high-voltage cable (see the entry about hoists below). The drums were extremely heavy, and a huge effort was required to load, unload, and position cables ready for installation. The page about Pimlico gives an example of where one of the drums had rolled on its side during unloading. Anyone in its way would have been seriously injured or killed. There would be regular delays while joiners joined lengths of cables together and tests would be carried out periodically to ensure cables were operating as required as it would be very costly to dig them up again once the road surface had been restored.

Work would have proceeded in all but the worst of weather. I have only found one photo in the collection that shows any kind of shelter for the workers, so I don't know how often these were provided. There must have been times when excavations became flooded and work had to be postponed; whether the men got paid when work halted I don't know.

Hut - presumably for workmen to shelter and have lunch breaks [1]

The next photo shows a gang of workmen starting to dig a wide trench. It looks like the road surface had previously been prepared with pneumatic drills. The helpful sign halfway down the road says 'ROAD UP' for the benefit of anyone that hadn't noticed. The photo must have been taken in Spring or early Summer based on the appearance of the trees.

Starting A Trench
Starting a trench at an unknown location [1]

The next photo was taken at the same location after the trench had been completed and cables were being laid. You can see rollers in the bottom of trenches to make it easier to pull cables and to prevent chafing or other damage. The workmen stood at intervals along the length of a cable being installed with someone synchronising the pulling.

Pulling Cables
Pulling cables at an unknown location [1]


Picks and Shovels

Most of the work in laying cables involved digging trenches and filling them in again. A great deal of the work was done with picks and shovels.

Pneumatic Drills

My grandfather often spoke of the use of 'Ingersolls'. These were air compressors used to power pneumatic drills. Like most inventions, when you start looking at the history of these devices, you find that it involved a long period of development and improvements. I can only provide a brief overview here as the story is far too involved and complex but, if you are are interested you will find a lot of information by Googling Ingersoll and jackhammer. There were two separate inventions and developments - that of the air compressor and of the jackhammer drill.

The Ingersoll-Rand company was founded in 1905 by the merger of the rival companies Ingersoll-Sergeant Drill Company and Rand Drill Company. Simon Ingersoll had founded the Ingersoll Rock Drill Company in New York in 1871 and combined with the Sergeant Drill Company in 1888. Addison and Jasper Rand had founded the Rand Drill Company in 1871 and manufactured drills in Tarrytown New York. Rand drills were used on major construction projects in the USA. Ingersoll-Sergeant steam drills were used in mining and on the construction of the Panama Canal. The drills were called jackhammers in the USA but are largely known as pneumatic drills elsewhere. Ingersoll-Rand's website claims that the jackhammer drill was invented in 1912 and tells us that their jackhammers and compressors were used in the creation of the Mount Rushmore memorial [21].

The next photo is a posed Callender's publicity shot. A workman holding a pneumatic drill stands in front of a compressor and a very visible Callender's sign. The shop behind the workmen bears the name 'Halley' and the one to the right of it 'Dining' - presumably 'Dining room'. I traced these names in a 1930 London Directory to Charlwood Street, Pimlico - just around the corner from Lupus Street that features on the Pimlico page. The Directory shows the occupant of No. 91 as Daniel Halley, Chemist and No. 89 as Samuel Knight Jnr. Coffee Rooms.

The compressor, probably an Ingersoll-Rand Type 20, has solid tyres and was presumably transported to the site on a truck or trailer.

Ingersoll Rand air compressor in use at Charlwood Street, Pimlico [1]

The next photo is another posed publicity shot. Presumably the little chap between the two men with drills shovelled the debris out of the way as the drillers broke up the road service. The large, riveted cylinder on the compressor was the high pressure air reservoir. If you have been near to one of these old compressors operating, you will know that they are very noisy and include a mechanism that senses the pressure in the reservoir and speeds up the engine to raise the pressure automatically as the pressure drops with use.

Modern compressors and drills are still noisy but make much less noise than these old machines. Nobody wears any kind of ear protectors in these photographs, and it is likely that workmen using pneumatic drills suffered from hearing loss in later life.

Ingersoll Rand air compressor at an unknown location [1]

The following, unfortunately badly deteriorated, photo shows a workman standing next to a compressor holding an oil can. It is clearly an Ingersoll-Rand machine which is why I have included it. This machine has studs on the rims of the wheels.

Ingersoll Rand air compressor at an unknown location [1]

This photo shows workmen posing with pneumatic drills in an unknown street.

Ingersoll Rand air compressor at an unknown location [1]

Hoisting Cable Drums

I am not sure what is going on in this next group of photos. A large drum of cable is being manoeuvred but it is not clear why. Maybe it is a compound on a large construction site such as a power station or substation, or possibly even at Callender's works at Erith? Another possibility is that the baulks of timber are covering a pit or lower level of a building and that the cable, or even the cable drum is to be lowered into it.

The cable drum is being hoisted or lowered using a steam crane, the jib of which can be seen on the right. Whatever is going on must have reached an important stage given the number of onlookers.

Drum of cable being moved with a crane [1]

This photo taken at the same site gives information about the cable but not much about what is going on. Two of the men are holding club hammers. It is possible that the cable is being unreeled from the bottom left of the drum, but I can't be sure. The cable is rated at 25,000 volts and is described on the label as having 3 cores and a length of 182 yards. The length is particularly interesting as it gives an idea of just how many cable joints must have been necessary.

Workmen with a Drum of cable supported by a crane [1]

Another at the same site. It looks like the workmen are removing the protective wooden battens around the cable drum ready for installation. The large cylinder on the machine at the rear is part of a steam crane.

Workmen with a Drum of cable supported by a crane [1]

The next image shows a drawing of a crane similar to those shown in the photos - though this is a smaller version.

Steam Crane
Drawing of steam crane [22]

The final photo in this series shows the whole team of workmen posing in front of the equipment. The range of storage sheds or huts and barrels of presumably fuel or oil of some kind make me wonder whether this is a storage depot.

Workmen in front of hoisting equipment seen in previous photos [1]

The remaining pages show work at specific locations on both the North and South banks of the Thames and the links at the bottom of the pages will lead to them in turn. The next page covers cable-laying at Pimlico.