So Long, George Cossington the Steeplejack
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.
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