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So Long, George Cossington the Steeplejack

September 1, 2014
by the gentle author

George Cossington died last week at the age of eighty-one and and today I publish my interview with him, as a tribute to one of the last of London’s heroic steeplejacks to work without a safety harness.

This is George Cossington in the top left of this picture, photographed in the pursuit of his trade as a steeplejack & steel erector, perched at the very top of a one hundred and fifty foot jib during the construction of Paternoster Square, next to St Paul’s Cathedral in 1958.

Seeing this vertiginous image, you will no doubt be relieved to know that George survived to tell the tales of his daring aerial adventures, still fit and full of swagger at eighty-one. ” In my day, you weren’t called a steel erector, you were called a spider man. I used to run up a sixty rung ladder in less than a minute and come down in less than twenty seconds – you just put your hands and feet on the sides and slid down! ” he bragged, with a modest smile that confirmed it was the truth.

George’s father was a steeplejack who once climbed Big Ben to fix the hands on the clock face and worked as chargehand on the construction on the Bank of England. So in 1947, when George left school at fourteen, there was no question about his future career, “All my friends were going into the Merchant Navy but when I came home with the form, my dad said, ‘No. You’re going into my trade so you get a pension.’” In fact, three out of the five boys in George’s family became steeplejacks, a significant measure of George’s father’s confidence in his own profession.

“My father, uncle and my brothers, we all loved it! There was none of this Health & Safety shit then, you learnt to be careful. What started coming in was the safety harness, a big belt with a hook on it attached to a rope – we hardly used them. There was no such thing as a crash helmet. Me and my brothers, we used to watch each other to check we put the bolts in correctly. It was all done properly, even without today’s safeguards.

I was apprenticed to Freddie Waite of Stratford. I started off as a tea boy. You learn as the months by, and then someone else becomes the tea boy and you learn how to adjust swivel bolts, rigging up steel beams, and how to sling a beam for the crane to lift. It takes well over a year before you start going off the ground. You had to learn rigging, slinging, welding, acetylene burning, and rope splicing. It takes five years to become a steeplejack. We used to walk the purlins that were four inches wide, you can’t do that today. Before scaffolding, we used wooden poles held together with wire bands, like they still do in the Far East. You had to know how to tie the wire bands securely, because it wasn’t an easy job going up to forty feet.

I enjoyed it, but I didn’t enjoy it when it was wet or cold. The crane used to take us in a bucket and put us on top of the steel work. In the Winter you could freeze. If it was a frosty night, we had a big fire in an oil drum and wrapped the chain around the fire to get the frost out of it, because if you didn’t it could snap like a carrot – a fifteen ton chain.

The day I fell, I was cutting some steelwork at Beckton Gas Works and it pissed down with rain, so they called us down. When I went back up again later, I cut one end of a beam without realising I had already cut the other end. I was seventeen years old. I was very lucky – my dad couldn’t believe it – a corrugated iron roof broke my fall. I had a few bruises, and a scar to this day. They called an ambulance but I was standing up by the time it came. I think I was only off work for a week, but I knew a couple of fellows that fell to their deaths.

My dad was still working up high until he was sixty-six. When he was the family foreman, he looked the business in a bowler hat. He taught me splicing and slinging, and he knew every sort of knot there was. He wouldn’t do anything you couldn’t do. He could throw a three-quarter inch bolt forty feet up for me to catch from a beam. Our last job together was on John Lewis in Oxford St. We were a hundred feet up in the air and he walked along beams as if they were on the ground.

I’ve never had a problem with heights. I’ve stood on the spider plate at the very top of a crane, three hundred and fifty feet up without a rope. I did it just for a laugh, but if my dad had seen me he’d have shot me…”

George retired at forty-five when he was required to wear a helmet on site, because he belonged to an earlier world that put more trust in human skill than safety procedures. When he spoke of pegging his own ladder to scale a factory chimney, I recognised a continuum with those that once climbed the spires of cathedrals, trusting their lives in the application of a skill which now exists only in the strictly controlled conditions of sport. Thankfully, with the advent of modern cranes and cherry pickers, men are no longer required to risk their lives in this way, but it only serves to increase my respect for the unacknowledged heroism of George Cossington, his brothers, his father, uncle and all of those in this city who fearlessly undertook these death-defying challenges as part of their daily routine. When you meet a steeplejack at the fine age of eighty-one, his very existence confirms his skill and proficiency in his former profession.

Because Freddie Waite bought a camera in 1958 to record the construction of Paternoster House, we have the privilege to see these rare images today, photographed by those working on the site. And while Paternoster House may already be history – demolished for a subsequent development – in the meantime there are enough monumental structures still standing that George worked on, like Shell House, the Chiswick Flyover, the Edmonton Incinerator towers and the chimney at the Bryant & May Factory, to remind us of his heroic thirty year career as a steeplejack & steel erector.

George (on the left) with the team, Kenny the master electrician, Ron the crane driver, then two slewmen and the foreman standing at the end, with Freddie (the master steeplejack that George was apprenticed to) standing at the back.

George is to be seen at top of the lower jib in the centre of the picture, between the steel structure and St Paul’s

George & Freddie at the end of the jib, as viewed from the boom.

George Cossington

The Cossington boys, George (back left) pictured with his brothers Brian, Sid and Bob (front row, left to right) and Joey (back right) outside the family home in Rochester Avenue, Upton Park, E13. George, Brian and Joey all became steeplejacks like their father, while Sid and Bob became master bricklayers.

Portrait copyright © Jeremy Freedman

14 Responses leave one →
  1. September 1, 2014

    Vale George.
    The world is diminished with his passing.

  2. jeannette permalink
    September 1, 2014

    salve and vale. a wonderful life, wonderful photographs. thank you, mr. cossington.

  3. September 1, 2014

    My dad was a blacksmith at the Beckton Gasworks, he left there 1951 when George was 17 and had his fall, my dad left in ’51 to bring us all to Australia.

    I’m wondering now if he was there when George had his fall and did he know and forget to tell the rest of us when he came home from work. My dad was like that.

  4. Mark W permalink
    September 1, 2014

    Great article, a skill long gone!

  5. September 1, 2014

    He was a brave man! My stepfather did the same job, and also thought nothing of climbing about on narrow steel girders. Wonderful photos today! Valerie

  6. Ali permalink
    September 1, 2014

    imagine if the world was teeming with characters like him, quietly inspiring

  7. September 1, 2014

    *** R.I.P. MR GEORGE COSSINGTON ***

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  8. Peter Holford permalink
    September 1, 2014

    £1 million would not have got me to do that job. I once worked at a power station and the maintenance team went up to see to the top of the chimneys – over 300 feet high. I couldn’t look! Did they have courage or did they just treat it as normal because of their upbringing?

  9. Roger Carr permalink
    September 1, 2014

    When I left Chelsea School of Art ,at nineteen, in the late 1960′s with a Dip AD in sculpture, the only real marketable skill I had was as a welder, so I worked for the Peabody Trust for a while and then on many building sites in the East End. I met lots of old timers like George who got me out of s..t when I screwed up, showed me the ropes, and took me home to Hackney or Whitechapel for a proper family dinner when they realized I lived alone. It was a good time and I heard wonderful stories. They were great people and I doubt that hospitable community exists much any more. Thanks for another really interesting story Gentle Author.

  10. Anne permalink
    September 1, 2014

    A sterling tribute to an accomplished man whose skill now belongs (in our culture of Health and Safety) to another era; thank you. But, Gentle Author, I was very much struck by your phrase, “…I recognised a continuum with those that once climbed the spires of cathedrals, trusting their lives in the application of a skill which now exists only in the strictly controlled conditions of sport” – in particular, your choice of words: “the application of a skill.” In so many of your posts you give us a glimpse of so many people who conscientiously meet day to day life in constructive ways, applying their varied skills unstintingly, with grace, determination or courage, as here, to their craft, trade or vocation – always uplifting. These lives, your writing, much appreciated.

  11. Claudia permalink
    September 5, 2014

    Very sad news.
    I have know George for 25 years. He was a brilliant neighbour and friend. Will miss his jokes. The street won’t be the same without him.
    Claudia

  12. Ian Silverton permalink
    November 16, 2014

    RIP George, we used too drink in the Westminster Arms,in Bethnal Green,many years ago,we had many laughs and good times. Ian Silverton

  13. January 21, 2015

    My condolences to Mr. Cossington family.
    I’m a crane operator from California.
    When breaking in I was fortunate to have a few fine gentlemen from UK and Ireland,show me the ropes of rigging in and running a guy derrick.
    I was one of tge last to run a guy derrick in SF and enjoyed the men who worked around those types if jobsites.
    i can see Gearge climbing the rig and the iron in the sunrise, a gloriuos site.
    Thank you for bringing back some memories and for tbe writing of a great article.
    many blessings to you all.
    Ernie DeTrinidad
    Operating Engineer Local 3

  14. Michael Sassen permalink
    April 13, 2016

    I just googled George’s name to see what he was up to these days and found this republished article as an obituary to him. Anyone who knew George in his later years would describe him as a proper London ‘character’ of a type that without intending a pun, could be described as a dying breed. I knew George through Camden Passage antiques market in the early 2000′s and he never failed to raise a smile on a freezing cold morning when I really just wanted to be back in bed. I’m sorry to have missed the chance to say hello and goodbye to George one last time. I’m sure he is still greatly missed by his family and close friends and I’m glad that this article stands as testimony to someone who had a LOT of stories to tell! He’ll be up there still polishing his knobs (Camden Passage reference) and laughing at and with us all down here.

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