Norman Riley, Metalworker
If you are looking for a corner of the old East End, head over to Stepney where – just south of St Dunstan’s – you will find a few streets lined with neat terraces of brick cottages and a cluster of traditional businesses occupying the crumbling railway arches. This neglected enclave is a fragment that constitutes a reminder of how the entire territory used to be before the bombing and the slum clearances. And, at the heart of it, you will discover seventy-four year old Norman Riley, presiding over the family metal work business that he began under an arch forty years ago in a street that he has known his whole working life.
A notice in flamboyant fairground script, hanging beneath a wrought iron bracket which once suspended the pawnbroker’s sign in the Commercial Rd, announces “Riley & Sons, Metal Work,” and you step through a pillar-box-red metal door of Norman’s own construction to enter his world. “I thought I was going to be downtrodden,” Norman admitted to me later, once he had shown me round the beautiful metal works, “but I’ve come through.”
Energetic and brimming with generous sentiment, Norman occasionally had to break off his monologue whenever the intensity of emotion overcame him. From the stained glass windows that once adorned the bar at Baker St Station now gracing the kitchen, the vast collection of old tools and machines all maintained in working order and cherished, the crisp paint work in colours popular half a century ago and the overall satisfying sense of order and organisation, it was clear that Norman loves his workshop.
Yet I soon discovered that Norman is passionate about everything, eager to wring the utmost from all experiences, as revealed by his constant mantra during our conversation, “It’s part of life isn’t it?” This simple phrase, capable of infinite nuance and proposing a question that can only be answered in the affirmative, has become Norman’s philosophy and his consolation.
“I’m a Walthamstow boy and, although I was born in 1939, I was born lucky. When I go on holiday, people always ask, ‘What’s Norman been up to?’ because things happen to me. My father was a window cleaner but nobody wanted their windows cleaned during the war. I remember my mum said, ‘We’ve got to have some money for the kids,’ and she gave me and my brother an Oxo cube for dinner. The school I went to was rough and ready, but the policemen’s kids, they had lots of pocket money, and if a kind one was eating an apple, you’d say, ‘Two’s up?’ and they’d give you the core to eat. The only thing I had was football, we made a ball out of rags and bits of string. I was always filthy because we had no bath. I feel five hunded years old when I talk like this. Those were cup of sugar days.
We left and went to Nazeing to a live in a derelict cottage. We just put straw down on the floor with sacks and slept on it. I remember the first time I tasted an orange. The Italian Prisoners-of-War were allotted certain amount of fruit and big Tony, he cut his orange in half and gave it to me and my brother. When I was six, I drove up the cows up the lane to be milked and back again. I lay there feeding a lamb in the straw once and cried my eyes out at the beauty of it. I went to school at Bumble’s Green. I went back ten years ago to see the duck pond and they still had the register with me and my brothers name in it and I cried my eyes out again.
My first job, at fifteen years old, was just down the road from here at Bromley Sheet Metal in Lowell Rd. I was in a team of guys and we worked all over the East End, and lagging the gasometers down at Purfleet. We lagged asbestos with metal and we smeared asbestos on our heads to look like Geoff Chandler. I worked in six to eight different power stations in London.
We used to watch Sammy McCarthy box, he was the dockers’ boxer. The docks were going strong then and Sally who lived along the road, she decided to make a cafe in her house for the dockers. You went downstairs to the kitchen to get your food and then ate it upstairs in the living room. Only I never got to eat anything because there was all these dockers slinging it about, they made me laugh so much I couldn’t eat my lunch.
I did National Service and it changed my life. It took me out of my world and into a different arena. I’m still in touch with the guys I was in my tent with in Nicosia. I made friends with Martin Bell, he’s a smashing bloke. I’d never spoken to a kid from a posh school before and he’d never spoken to anyone like me.‘Up to those days, I’d always looked over the fence at real people,’ he said to me, ‘But when they told me to fuck off, I knew I was one of them.’ I met my wife after I came back but I had some problems staying indoors because I’d lived in a tent so long.
We got married the same day as my mother-in-law, she got married in the old church in Stoke Newington and we got married in the one opposite. We flew over to Majorca and took my bivouac with us. It was completely dark there and we were lighting matches to see, so we got over a wall and pitched the tent on the green with broom handles as poles. When we woke up, we were on a building site with four workmen looking down at us. But they let us stay, and we went down to the sea each day. And that’s how I started my married life. We lived on cornflakes we took with us because we had no spending money.
How I got this arch? It was for rent and I was here for a year and a half, and I loved it. After two years, I wanted to give the lady who owned it some flowers because I was so happy here. But they said, ‘She’s just passed away.’ I asked if it would be possible to buy it, and they said you pay seven years rent and I bought it. It touched me when I got the deeds because they were written on parchment and it was a stable with five stalls and a hayloft, 1849. There were two bombed cottages next door that were derelict because nobody wanted them so I was able to buy them and expand. My two boys came over and did welding when they were twelve years old, and now my son Chris works here with me.
I was always shy but the army opened me up, that and going to all different places. I never wanted to go out because I didn’t know what life held for me. I never thought I’d own a car, I never thought I’d own a house. I’m so lucky, I’m two pound less now than when I come out the army fifty-five years ago – I’m fit, because I’m here every day working.”
This bracket once suspended the pawnbrokers’ sign in Commercial Rd.
Norman in his office with his work book.
Norman demonstrates his pressing machine
Norman shows off his flipper and his copper hammer.
Norman demonstrates his antique jemmy.
Norman’s son Chris and his drills.
Norman with one of his creations.
The former cork factory across the road.
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