The Dizzying Heights of the Steeplejack!

We are really lucky to have such a rich and varied group of tradespeople in our groups. Our ‘Meet the Member’ spotlight falls on Pete Garwell, who tells us all about how he got started in the ancient art of the Steeplejack….

I get asked a lot how I chose my trade or ended up being a steeplejack.

So here goes!

I’ve been a ‘jack of all trades.’ Spent 17 years away for work Monday to Friday doing all and any job. High-level access and lightning conductor protection. Like anyone who’s been in their trade for a while I’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry, some good and some bad. This is how I started…..

I’m 16yrs old, been working for a gardening company for a year and am laid off. I live by myself and have bills to pay so I’m looking through the job section in the paper.

call Brian  01924 466 866

I pick up the phone and make the call. Job done, interview time arranged, I’m told to wear old clothes and steel toecap boots if possible.

Day of the interview and I’ve spent the last 6 hours shitting myself about my first climb.

First off I have 5 minutes talking to Brian and then I’m told to go and sit in a van. I’m taken to Halifax to have a height test on a chimney – 9 of us in the mini bus that day.

We’re rigged up and told a few scary truths;

‘The fire brigade won’t rescue you.’

‘You’re relying on the guys who ladder the chimney to have done it right.’

‘There’s no shame not making it the top. No shame in calling it a day.’

So I sit and smoke and watch the ones before go up. Some make it a few ladders, some make it half way. Some don’t even try. Then it’s my turn. By this point Brian’s done 6 trips up. So he gets Jack (my boss now) to take me. I’m clipped on and told to go.

My hands grip the rungs so tightly my fingers are white, knees trembling, as one after the other I go up, 16′ to the first ladder top. An old Lancashire ladder, it creaks and moves ever so slightly under my weight.

“Ere lad” Jack yells, “Hold the styles, move your feet to the edge of the rings.”

I keep climbing staring straight ahead. I’m at the top of the next ladder and have to step off and onto the next. The ledge is carved stone black with age.

I make the move to the next ladder and look around. I can see the workers in the factory next to the chimney. I take a breath and push on up. Looking up, the chimney looks so high, at the top a small bit of smoke. As I’m climbing I’m starting to relax. Listening to the ladders. Looking around I’m on the fifth story of the mill and can see its roofline next. I look down and see Jack behind me watching. I just keep climbing. I’m so near the top – the next ladder is ‘spliced’ and leans back to get over the ornate stone cills at the top. I’m breathing hard I’m so scared.

Jack comes up behind “You’re nearly there lad. Keep on going, take your time, a hand a foot and just keep going, the top’s curved – reach over the cap and grab the wire and step off. Turn round and sit down.”

I hold my breath count the rungs and do as I’ve been told. And then I’m sat on a cap 12″ wide the sun on my face with the smell of the exhaust from the oil-fired boilers, looking out on a view not many have seen of Halifax town centre. Jack joined me sat on that cap. Grabbed his flask and poured us each a brew. The words we shared sat at the top that day. Well what can I say…….

Brian retired two years ago and Jack is now my boss, he wasn’t my jack when I was an apprentice, but he got me through the interview. My first days on the job and my jack (a guy called John) are the reason I am what I am and a whole other story! (maybe I’ll share that with you next time.)

When you’re not sure if you locked the van or not!!
Me and my newly qualified mate. Sitting his final exam with the help of me carrying his ladders.

17 years later I’m teaching the next generations of steeplejacks. You’ll have to read my next blog for that though!

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