William H. Rogers

My grandfather, William H. Rogers, passed away on the morning of Saturday 26 July 2008, aged 94. My father has discovered some of his reminiscences recorded in a notebook, which are reproduced below.

REMINISCENCES OF MY EARLY LIFE

BILL ROGERS

I studied at the Regent Street Polytechnic where I took the RIBA Intermediate examination. It was there that I met Roy Fleming, who became a lifelong friend. The 1930s depression was still in force at the time that I left the Poly and finding work was very difficult. I eventually found a position with Farmer and Dark, colouring working drawings; but after three months this work was finished and I was dismissed.

My father met up with the secretary of Henry Tanner – a large firm of architects – and they engaged me. My first job was to alter all the bathrooms on a set of linen drawings, which took about three months, using a shield and an ink eraser – very boring work. But I finished this and was then allowed to prepare drawings for the Mary Batchelor Girls’ School at Camberwell.

The first working drawings that I had to prepare were for a new laundry block; and here I made my only mistake on the plan of the laundry floor indicating a fall in the floor of one in ten instead of one inch in ten feet. I was not allowed to visit the site and according to the partner who did the site visits, the builder formed the floor to this greater slope so that all the equipment when delivered slid down to the bottom of the slope!  I could not believe that the builder was so stupid as to build the floor in this way and I thought that I would lose my job.

However this did not happen and I was then allowed to design and prepare the working drawings for the Selecting Trust Building at 15-16 Basinghall Street, where I was also allowed to take site meetings. I had a pretty uncomfortable time at these meetings as the foreman in charge of the builders was a real “toughie” and took me apart on many occasions over the details that I had prepared concerning the construction. I learnt an awful lot from this “toughie”, which helped me a lot in later life.

I left Henry Tanner for more money and joined Mudrell and Pigott in Bedford Square, but after a year I was invited to rejoin Henry Tanner and take charge of a new office they proposed setting up in Fenchurch Street in the City of London. My friend Roy joined me there, together with two surveyors, two draughtsmen and an office boy. We carried out a number of jobs – two in Mincing Lane, one of which went through to Mark Lane called Market Building. We then developed a very large site bounded by Lime Street, Fenchurch Avenue and Fen Court.

There were three incidents I can recall around this time. After the existing buildings had been cleared, there was a boundary brick wall exposed adjoining a graveyard in Fen Court. This graveyard was known to be a plague pit. I had to find out the wall’s thickness to see what extra support it might need, so I arranged for the builders to cut a two foot slot in it. I then asked Bingley, one of our surveyors, to go and measure it. He returned to office white as a sheet and shaking, and showed us lots of minute red insects on his legs. Fortunately one of the buildings in Mincing Lane included two bathrooms so Bingley was dispatched to the bathroom where he spent a happy hour getting rid of all his bugs!

One of our two juniors was named Harty. He was bequeathed to us as the nephew of Sir Hamilton Harty, a friend of Henry Tanner. He was a bit dim and I had to find him odd jobs to do, one of which was to help survey the Clothworkers’ Hall in Mincing Lane. Our other surveyor, Russ-Turner, was sent to carry out the measuring up of the building and he took Harty to assist him. There was dome over the Hall – rather like the dome of St Pauls only much smaller. There was a ladder fixed to the outside of the dome and a small hole at the dome’s apex. Russ-Turner told Harty to climb up the dome so that he could get its height from ground level. Eventually Harty’s head appeared at the hole in the top. Russ-Turner called out “Drop the tape” – meaning one end – but Harty thought he meant drop the whole tape, which he did; so the procedure had to be repeated.

My friend Roy and I both had motorbikes and Russ-Turner, who was the proud owner of a vintage open Bentley and lived in Surrey, invited us to lunch one Sunday. When we arrived the Bentley was parked in the front garden while Russ-Turner and his wife were rushing about like mad things and surrounding the Bentley was every available receptacle you could imagine – pots, pans, buckets and potties. Apparently they had just had a spare petrol tank fitted to the car and when they got home found it was leaking – some 20 gallons of petrol which they were desperately trying to collect! I can’t remember how the day finished, but I don’t think we got any lunch.

I had just about finished the Lime Street – Fenchurch Avenue building when the war came along and the City office was closed. Henry Tanner thanked me before I left and gave me a fiver. That final building – and indeed the first one I did in the City at 15-16 Basinghall Street – are both still there, but both the buildings in Mincing Lane have been demolished: the end of an era in my life.

On 10th February 1940 I married Marion and soon after that joined the armed forces and became Gunner Rogers 1656058. We were billeted at Flordon, a village near Norwich, in an army camp. The training was quite strenuous, but as I had engaged in many sports – at the Polytechnic sports days I won a quarter-mile race in 54 seconds and achieved a long jump of twenty feet – the training was no hardship.

The food though left much to be desired, breakfasts mainly of pilchards and midday meals of beef stew; with in the evening very often the remains of the pilchards and the beef stew being dished up by the cooks as what they called “fish stew”. It was quite horrible. One day on an early route march we saw a field full of mushrooms and asked the cooks if we collected them could we have them for breakfast. So we went out very early the next morning and collected a large quantity, but the following day still only pilchards! On asking the cooks we were told that there had only been enough for the officers and sergeants.

Towards the end of our training we spent whole days out on manoeuvres and I well remember one occasion when I was stationed in a pill box in charge of our only Lewis machine gun from the first world war. While there the cook arrived with a large package of tea and a large tin containing a sponge cake. On opening the tin we found it to be alive with ants, but the cook said not to worry, he’d take it back, dump it in a pail of water, scoop out the ants, and prepare a trifle to have with our supper! Needless to say, I refused the pudding at suppertime.

At the end of training course we all took part in a five mile cross country race with a prize for the winner. Near the end I was lying third, when we came to a ten foot wide stream. The first man turned to the right and the second to the left, but when I reached it I decided that as I had jumped twenty feet in the Polytechnic sports I could leap over it – quite forgetting that I had just run almost five miles. My leap landed in the middle of the brook and I came up covered in duckweed. Still I won the race and was given a packet of cigarettes as a prize, with the CO commenting that this man would go far, little knowing that I would never have tried to leap the brook with its slime and weed if I hadn’t thought that I would easily make the other side.

At the end of my training I was selected to go on a radiolocation course for four weeks, following which I was attached to an anti-aircraft battery, guarding the Rolls Royce factory. Radiolocation [later radar] at this time was in its infancy. It consisted of a wire mat about 100 feet square some six feet above the ground. In the centre and above the wire mat was a sealed box containing all the electrical equipment and room for four men as operators. Wires from the box were connected to the gun operators, giving the height, speed and direction of enemy aircraft.

I was moved to various places to operate this equipment – Mousehold Aerodrome near Norwich, and Coventry at the time that it was blitzed. The one snag with the equipment was that the sealed box had no ventilation, which had a great effect on the health of the operators. I finished up in hospital and underwent an operation. I went into the army A1 and finished C3, after which I was discharged with a pension that stopped after 12 months.

The army having rejected me, I joined the Home Guard as a despatch rider. This was in the winter of 1942-43. Architectural practices were non-existent at that time, so I joined the City of London Real Property Company – for which I had been designing buildings before the war.

The Company had lost many of its buildings, with whole areas bombed or fire-bombed, and I was engaged to design new buildings to be erected when the war finished.