The height of bravery or just work

IF you are like me and have a fear of heights, please avert your gaze to avoid becoming giddy by looking at some photographs illustrating today's column.

IF you are like me and have a fear of heights, please avert your gaze to avoid becoming giddy by looking at some photographs illustrating today's column. And if you belong to the so-called “elf and safety” brigade and are reading this over breakfast, I suggest you prepare a detailed risk assessment before you study some of the pictures so as not to choke on your Wheatybangs or whatever cereal you are eating.

A magnificent shot of the Great Yarmouth Town Hall clock tower, and one of the top of the 144ft Nelson's Monument on South Denes, emphasise the then-and-now contrast of working practices at height.

Some show the “then”, while the “now” is depicted by our Town Hall today, largely encased in scaffolding, guard rails and protective screening for workmen as well as the passing public while roof repairs are being undertaken.

I trust that the Mercury is not exposing itself to possible litigation for wilfully publicising such a flagrantly dangerous contempt for even basic safety procedures…

In the archive shots, the employees have no fear of heights because it is probably their natural working environment, far above the ground.

The magnificent old pictures of the Town Hall clock tower and Nelson's Column were passed to me by an old friend of this column, Clive Manson, formerly of Arundel Road in Yarmouth but now resident in central Norfolk. So razor sharp in definition is the Town Hall one that I am confident it was taken on a glass plate negative with a heavy and cumbersome camera, and I cannot but help wonder from which vantage point the anonymous photographer took it.

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As he appears to have been about level with the height of the Town Hall clock nearly 100ft up and only a few feet in front of it, what was he standing on? And who was he?

According to Clive, he came across the two photographs among a pile of old prints that probably included some by the late Les Gould, the long-serving Mercury staff photographer who was not averse to getting into prime spots - however awkward or inaccessible - to ensure he secured the best shot.

If Clive's opinion is correct that the Town Hall picture dates back half a century to 1957 or thereabouts, the cameraman could well have been Les who was using a plate camera at that time.

I am not convinced about that mid-Fifties possibility. The men's clothing and features lead me to think that the picture dates back to earlier last century, perhaps around 1920 (a quarter of a century before Les Gould arrived in Yarmouth).

All joking aside about the current zealousness of health and safety officials and risk assessments, the picture does underline how even the most basic precautions were ignored in those far distant days. Let me rephrase that: even the most basic precautions were not taken because they were considered unnecessary, or were never in anybody's mind.

Hard hats? “Whatever for?” they might have asked.

Each Town Hall man appears to be seated on a board suspended from two ropes passed through a pulley, like a child's basic swing, and are unharnessed while they work unconcerned about potential danger, perhaps re-pointing brickwork.

Two heavy galvanised iron buckets are attached to another rope passed round one of the fancy adornments on the civic building. Some basic scaffolding is round the side of the clock tower, perhaps there for workers to be able to reach its frontage.

The pair look so comfortable and nonchalant, for it was all in a day's work, as it was for the Nelson's Monument steeplejacks or whatever their job title was when the camera snapped them, possibly in 1955.

Better them than me...

Another building presently undergoing remedial work is St George's, the former church erected in 1715 that has been a theatre and arts centre since the 1970s, more than a decade after it closed for worship. The Yarmouth Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society's pantomime Sleeping Beauty had to be switched last year from St George's to the Town Hall assembly room at late notice because a health-and-safety scare over falling debris forced its closure.

In the same way that the clock is the salient feature of the facade of the Town Hall, a clock is also prominent on St George's. Down the decades Yarmouthians have checked their wrist watches (and in the early years, their pocket watches) by these two clocks, although the St George's one is out of both sight and action, for the building is encased in scaffolding while a bid for a National Lottery grant is pursued to help restore it.

David McDermott, chairman of the St George's Trust, says the clock's motor is still in place but the face has been moved inside to protect it until restoration is finished. St George's also boasts another timepiece, a traditional sundial, he reminds me.

I am grateful to one of my predecessors, a prewar Peggotty , for some information about the clock. That early Peggotty, writing when this column appeared nightly in the Mercury's sister newspaper, the Eastern Evening News, mused: “As I paused in King Street to correct my watch by the new electric clock put in by the Corporation at St George's Church (in 1935), I wondered how many of my readers knew that it was specially designed in order to retain the old dials, and for the striking apparatus to be silenced during the night, by that giant in the electro-horological world, Mr F Hope-Jones.

“So far back as 1895 Mr Hope-Jones forecast the synchronous motor clock as the ultimate means of time distribution, and his researches into the sphere of applying electricity to horology has caused it to be written of him: 'That by no man living or dead have electric clocks been brought to such perfection.'

“Practically everyone has heard over the wireless the six-dot time signal from transmitting stations of the BBC, of which Mr Hope-Jones was the originator. This is the signal by which engineers at the various generating stations connected with the grid system check their clocks and regulate their frequency or flow of current.

“The timekeeping of all electric clocks depends entirely upon the flow of current being kept at an even rate, and by constantly checking their clocks against Greenwich Mean Time as given via wireless, and regulating their frequency every half-hour, the station engineers in charge of the national grid system have literally become the timekeepers of the nation.

“An extraordinary advance has been made of recent years in pure timekeeping, and now by the use of electricity time can be measured with the accuracy of one second in a year. The mechanism of Yarmouth's new clock takes up the space of an ordinary size suitcase and, apart from occasional oiling, requires no attention whatever.

“Its accuracy can be relied upon, and the Corporation have obtained a first-class installation at a very nominal cost.”