Before the Age of Health&Safety

By Arthur Woodgate.

There was Only One Long Ladder in Town.

“I have a ventilation pipe to renew on East Guldeford Church” said
the Boss.

There was only on ladder in Rye to reach the eaves of the mighty building.
The ladder, belonging to a small decorator and jobbing builder based
at the bottom of Mermaid Lane, had 51 rungs. My boss asked the owner
if we could borrow it for a few days. So off went a plumber, labourer
and me to get the ladder from a very long shed, onto a cart. We got
it on and after roping it to the hand-cart tied warning flags at each
end and set off, three man-power, to transport the the long ladder
and a shorter 30 rung ladder to East Guldeford.

On arrival at the Church, it took all our combined strength to get
the ladder up. It being a very old building I thought it best to uncover
a couple of rafter feet whether or not there was a facia or soffit
or only an eave lath, with no thought of using screw eyes. It all
seemed sound enough, but I renewed it all before tying the big ladder
to it. I then pulled the smaller ladder up and pushed it up the roof
and tied the two ladders securely together. Having secured everything
we decided to call it a day and start out fresh in the morning.

The new day brought good weather and I got up on the roof and working
from the top ladder, started to prepare some fixing places for the
plumber. As the plumber stepped onto the top ladder the whole lot
started sliding down the roof. It only slipped for a couple of inches
but to me it seemed like yards! The weight of the plumber and the
pipe he was carrying stretched the hemp rope that tied the ladders.
The rope stretched and tightened and the movement down was halted.
It was a moment of fear that still lives with me. I thought we were
going down all sixty feet to the ground. When my heart started beating
again and I stopped shaking, the pipe was fixed and the roof made
good. All three of us felt a lot happier when we were lowering the
ladders and all of us felt better when we were pushing them back up
the New Road to Rye. Like most Romney Marsh Churches, East Guldeford
was far too big for the small village it served. The reason for this
is that the Bubonic Plague (Black Death as it was commonly known)
decimated the population of the Marsh villages, in some cases as
many as 80% of their inhabitants died. Some villages were deserted
completely, some were moved away from the church where so many plague
victims were buried and the remainder wire left with far bigger churches
than there was population to support them.

It was not long before we were called to high action again. This time
on the Wright Farm Oast. Ladders could be shorter and fixed to the
inside of the Oast. Our boss, who was in the team, climbed up inside
the cowl and threw a rope to each of us three on the ground outside.
We each pulled on our rope and the Cowl lifted out of its housing
and cleared the building before being lowered to the ground for repair.

There were no Health & Safety laws when my Father was re-fixing a
coping on the top of the Landgate. He decided to do most of the work
from the flat roof in order to keep the road free of traffic for the
very little work there was to do. Dad had a big, strong mate who could
hold him for just the furthest piece down, but its a good view of
The Salts from up there and Rye were playing at home. Father felt
the hold on him going away which caused him to shout in alarm. His
mate pulled him in and said he had clapped a goal! Father was so angry
he demanded the mate should be replaced and as he was the only mason
in Rye such a change took place. He was found a decent mate who was
not a follower of the God of Football.

My next experience makes me hope that all architects consider the
ease of repairs to all the buildings that they design. Here we were,
faced with a ‘not too old’ big house in the Hillyfields at a time
when we still had only heavy wooden ladders. We were faced with three
roofs above each other, the bottom ones covered in glass. The top
roof was in tile with one tile broken right in the middle. There was
no way to get to it from the ground without great risk to the glass
and to us! Fortunately there was a flat roof above the tile roof with
posts and rails to form a veranda. We decided the posts were strong
enough to hold a man, so we used plenty of rope to make a ‘spiders
web’. My mate was lighter than me so it was he who became the spider.
I lowered him down to get the broken tile up. Then I pulled him up
to have a rest while I prepared a new tile so he could push it up
in the space the other had come from. It all worked well and we went
on our way satisfied that we had done a good job.

Main Street Winchelsea

A house in the High Street Winchelsea, next but one to the Court Hall,
had a leaking roof. I took a ladder round from my then employer. Turner
of Winchelsea and put it up to the lead gutter. The owner heard me
and came out to tell me that it “Only leeks when it rains!”

However, whilst still laughing I investigated and found it was a job
for a plumber, and cleared off before I shook off the roof with merriment.

Sharvells Peasmarsh

Now back to my running maintenance job at Sharvell’s Farm Peasmarsh.
Water had been coming in the middle of a downstairs ceiling. Several
people had looked for the leak without success. I put our biggest
ladder against a tall chimney and found a hole in the top of the chimney
head. This I stopped up. I had traced the water’s passage back from
the downstairs ceiling and found it made its way from the chimney,
behind a first floor fire-back, under the hearth and along the top
of a beam. Down the beam and through the ground floor ceiling. The
next day my Boss (the owner) arrived when it was raining. He had someone
with him and stood under the spot where I knew the leak had been.
In order to look big and important he said to me.

“You haven’t done anything about that roof leak yet then”.

I burst out laughing.

“What’s the weather like?”

He had to admit it was raining and there was no water coming in. He
left with a grunt.


Mr. Turner took a carpenter and I to the top of Winchelsea Church.
Ladders had already been fixed to look at the job. The Boss developed
vertigo and could not move a muscle. The problem was, how were we
to get him down?

We tied him to a board, then let a long rope down to the ground. The
rope was fixed to the board. Then with what little help he could give
we got him and his board onto the top side of the ladder. I went below
him, guiding the board down the ladder as my mate Bob gradually let
the rope out to lower the load down. He was shaking badly but he and
I managed to keep his hands safe and slowly got him to the ground.
A small crowd had gathered at the foot of the ladder. They helped
get him off the board and lie him on the softest seat in the Church.
Bob had by now reached the ground, so it was a question of treating
all three of us for shock. Someone found some coffee, which made us
all feel better.

Storm Damage at The Ypres Castle Inn

A storm with high winds (not the storm that took our Lifeboat) but
strong enough to strip many roofs and lots of tiles resulted in a
call going out to all jobs to go to the Ypres Pub as a man was in
danger on a roof. He had been trying to cover the damaged roof with
a sail cloth but the wind had snatched it and rolled him up inside
it. There was nothing but the roll of sail to hold him. If the wind
had changed or slackened he would be shot out and crash on the pavement

Before that could happen we had ladders touching each other at that
side of the roof with a man on top of each. We were able to get Jack
Homard, for that is who it was, down safely and the pub roof secure

“Rye’s Own” February 2013

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