The amazing life of Britain's oldest floorlayer - Chaper I

Sixty-nine years after beginning his first job in the flooring sector, Keith Shenton is still working on his knees.
His astonishing life story will be serialised by CFJ over the next few months.

IN August last year, I was emailed by John Butler, founder of JBC Flooring and treasurer of the CFA, who’s widely regarded as one of the nicest people in the industry. He wrote that he’d recently spoken to a fellow floorlayer whose life story was so interesting that he thought CFJ should interview him. John also pointed out he’d worked with this man in the ‘60s and thought that he must now be the UK’s oldest floorlayer.

‘In 1963, I started labouring and helping to lay floors for two floorlayers named Derick Rideout and Keith Shenton,’ wrote John.

‘Derick specialised mostly in carpets and Keith was a hard floorlayer, mainly the old crunchy vinyl/asbestos tiles on black-jack adhesive and of course lino including battleship lino. We used to do a lot of work for Marley such as tower blocks, houses etc and were paid 2/6d per square yard.

We made good money because Keith was so fast. We called him The Bear because he was built like a brick s---house.’

John says Keith was and probably still is the best hard floorlayer he knows. ‘He taught me so much floorlaying knowledge, especially installing lino.’ 

In 1967, John started his own company in Nottingham and lost contact with Keith when he moved to London. Then, in the early ‘80s, John’s company started dealing with Chingford-based Euro Floor Design. EFD does most of Jbc’s water-jet cutting and is owned by Steve Soulsby and his daughter, Louisa.

One day, Steve asked John if he knew Keith Shenton. ‘I do,’ said John. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘I’ve been doing work with Keith from Regent Flooring for years,’ he said. ‘And today, 31 July, is incidentally his birthday. He’s 84 and is still working on his knees. It must be a record!’

John passed on Steve’s contact details and signed off his email with the words: ‘I actually think Keith Shenton deserves a medal.’

I rang Steve and – with much anticipation about what this apparently larger-than-life character was going to be like - set up an interview with Keith in Chingford for Thursday 23 August.

After finding a space in the Chingford Industrial Estate (which would challenge anybody’s parking skills), I asked some of the guys working in a garage next to the EFD office if they knew Keith Shenton. Of course, they said – everybody knows Keith! ‘In fact, there he is right behind you,’ said one guy.

I turned around to see the man himself walking up to me with an outstretched hand and a wide grin. To say Keith is difficult to miss would be an understatement. It’s not that he’s unusually tall but he does have presence. There’s the shock of silver hair which reminded me of an unruly mane, the hearty greeting, the mischievous twinkle in his eye. Bursting to tell me his stories, he made cups of tea and took me up to his tiny, jam-packed office on the top floor of the EFD offices.

I started by asking Keith what he’d been up to over the past seven days. ‘On Monday, I helped raise £700 at an annual memorial golf tournament for the Heart Foundation. It was started because of the death earlier this year of my friend Hopeton Marriott, who originally came over on the Windrush. He was a lovely guy, one of seven operations managers at London Transport, where he’d worked since 1974. I remember the big party he threw at our golf club when he retired.’

Keith went to Hopeton’s funeral which he says was so well-attended there wasn’t room for the number of mourners, upstairs or downstairs.

On Tuesday he worked on the staircases at five properties in London. ‘We were going to do all the common areas and they’re all exactly the same. We tried to renew or retain the existing stair-nosings but the previous floorlayers had glued them so when we removed the noses, we couldn’t refit them. We therefore had to put new ones down.’

But things got complicated when a surveyor came around and said: ‘No, you can’t refit those.
Put new noses down!’ So, new noses were duly
put down.

Keith says he works seven days a week, and when he’s not on his knees, he’s in his office, writing about his life or dealing with work emails. But, despite a project he’s involved with at Brighton University, he says the past few weeks have been relatively quiet by normal standards.

Nonetheless, his friend Sandi St Paul isn’t impressed by the hours he keeps. When he visited her on Saturday evening after work, she said: ‘‘Why are you working these long hours?’

‘Don’t start!’ he said. ‘You’re a workaholic as well so it’s like the pot calling the kettle black. Anyway, I like what I do. I like the camaraderie and the people I meet. It keeps me fit and active and I won’t stop as long as I’m able.’

On Sunday, he woke up at about 7.30am, but he was still very tired from the day before. ‘I made a cup of tea, completed the Sudoku puzzle then slept again until 3.20pm because I was so knackered. It’s not the floorlaying but
the driving that tires me – two hours to Brighton and back. You can’t relax
when you’re behind the wheel.’

At that point, I stopped Keith, telling him I wanted him to start at the beginning of his story – from his birth onwards – so I could get some context about the world in which he’d grown up.

Over several interviews with Keith, his life story began to take shape. It was arresting. He remembered incidents from his youth with such detail and vividness that I felt like I was transported with him back in time. Unfortunately, not all Keith’s stories can be recounted in CFJ, for space reasons as well as the fact that they may be a tad too colourful for our readership. But I’ve endeavoured to preserve as many of them as possible with as much detail as I can get away with.

His is a story that will thrill floorlayers and non-floorlayers alike. And it’s a story that deserves to be told.

 

1934-1939

 

KEITH’s father was a long-serving policeman who was born to a building labourer in Walsall in 1902. He served in the army (Staffordshire regiment) between 1918-1928 before joining the police where he earned about £2.10 shillings a week. By the time Keith was born on 31 July 1934, the family lived in Lenton Sands, Nottingham. When he was two, they moved into a semi-detached house valued at £700 in Wollaton.

He would have been one of three siblings but his sister died during childbirth so it was just him and his brother Martyn, who was four years younger.

‘Our neighbours were mostly other policemen as well as miners because Nottingham had as many as 11 collieries in those days,’ Keith says. ‘My father was a great gardener as were all the menfolk in those days. He built a greenhouse full of tomatoes with beds of lettuces on either side. At the back of the greenhouse were eight rows of potatoes and a row of runner beans. On the other side of the garden, he planted four Bramley apple trees.’

Keith’s early interest in horticulture is illustrated by his memories of that garden. ‘A plum tree at the bottom of our lawn didn’t bear fruit for years,’ he recalls. ‘Then one morning, our neighbour shouted to my mother: ‘Win, there’s a plum on your tree!’ We went down to marvel at this miracle of horticulture.’

The following year, the tree bore two plums and in the third year, it was inundated with them. Thereafter, the tree burst with plums every year.

‘The same thing happened with an almond blossom that never bloomed. After a few years, Keith’s father uprooted the tree and replanted it in the front garden. The following year and every year thereafter, it blossomed. ‘Nature is truly strange and wonderful,’ he says.

The Shenton’s backyard also contained five poplar trees, planted by Keith’s dad at the bottom of the lawn. ‘Tree climbing got Martyn and I into trouble,’ said Keith. ‘We’d rip our trousers and get a good hiding from my parents.’

In fact, his earliest memories include climbing the 50ft poplars with Martyn. ‘One Sunday mum came outside to tell us dinner was served when she saw us swaying on the treetops. Poplars are very willowy and therefore sway easily. Mum was livid and made dad cut all five trees down to about 15ft.’ Undeterred, the brothers made dens out of the piles of cut-off branches. There was plenty of opportunity for mischief beyond the garden, too.

‘About 35 to 40 yards from the fence at the back of our garden was a stream,’ says Keith. ‘However, because parents who had the stream running at the bottom of their gardens were worried about their kids drowning in it, they got the council to dam it up at its source and use concrete pipes 1m in diameter from where the water was released.’

Keith took several trips along the canal on his bicycle, to which he’d tied poplar branches, up to Wollaton where there were several woodland areas. There, he built a treehouse, about 20ft off the ground. ‘A few weeks after I’d built it, I went to add some finishing touches to my treehouse but when I got there, I discovered someone had dismantled it and left everything strewn on the ground.’

As the canal ran at the back of the Shentons’ house, Keith and Martyn could easily scale the fence at the bottom of the garden, cross over something called Cooke’s dump-heap (so-called because it was used to store surplus aircraft parts and engines), and clamber over a steel fence to the canal. In summer, the children swam in the canal, which was quite deep, jumping or diving off the loch gates. Keith said he’d never heard of drownings because all the children were strong swimmers. They fished for tiddlers, sticklebacks and newts, and collected frog spawn. Other fish in the canal included roach, gudgeon and perch.

‘One hot summer day when I was about seven or eight, my father, who occasionally fished the canal, took me with him. He was on my left-hand-side, had his rod in his hands and was concentrating on the float. After about half-an-hour, the float dipped and a fish was hooked.

‘Look, Keith!’ his father shouted. ‘I’ve caught one!’ He turned to his right because he thought that was where his son was standing, but he caught Keith off balance and the boy fell into the canal.

‘To this day, I remember sinking to the bottom of the canal and looking up. I saw the sky through the water.’

Keith’s father placed his rod on the bank of the canal and saw him rising from the bottom. ‘At that point, the canal was only about 4ft deep, so it was easy for my father to reach down and pull me out. Our house was about two miles away and my father carried me home.’

Once there, Keith’s mother drew a bath, towelled him down and put him to bed. ‘I was fine,’ he said. ‘But that is one incident that stands out clearly from my childhood.’

The Shentons lived half-a-mile from one of the UK’s finest Grade I listed Elizabethan mansions, Wollaton Hall, which is set within 500 acres of rolling parkland, and was built between 1580-88. The park, which contains herds of fallow and red deer in habitats that include wetlands, grasslands, woodlands and ancient avenues of trees, has a personal connection to the Shentons.

‘My maternal grandfather George Parnell, gamekeeper to Lord Middleton, to whom Wollaton Hall belonged,’ says Keith. ‘A perk of his job, which he did between 1890-1910, was that he could live in the little flats situated above the stable, along with the stablemen or ostlers as they were called.’

Then with gales of laughter, Keith adds: ‘My mother was born in those stables in 1906, so I tell everyone: ‘Mum was born in a stable!’

In the early ‘40s the stables were turned into police stables.

As a boy, Keith liked to climb into a hollow tree in the park and observe the skittish squirrels. He says he never spotted badgers or foxes, which he finds strange (‘I see more foxes in London now than I ever did as a kid in the countryside,’ he notes). But it was birds that interested him most.

‘I collected bird eggs and regularly visited the museum in the middle of the park which had a primate in a glass case and birds and their eggs from all over the world. I decided I wanted to study ornithology when I left school.’

Martyn recalls Keith tending religiously to the eggs, which he placed in self-storage units, sectioned off and cocooned in cotton wool. (In those days, egg collecting was a popular hobby among many – it was only later that it became an offence.)

The stark difference in the way children are brought up today compared to the ‘30s and ‘40s is illustrated by Martyn’s recollections. ‘In summer, local dads took their kids to areas of open ground where they played football and French cricket against the lampposts until dark. In those days kids couldn’t get out of their houses fast enough to play on the streets.

‘We played games such as snobs which entailed throwing little square pieces of wood in the air and catching them on the back of our hands, or we skipped on the pavements, fished for tiddlers in the canal near our house, made bows-and-arrows, collected and played marbles, and if we spotted any courting couples in Wollaton Park, we’d follow them to see what they got up to. And if we had nothing else to occupy us, there was always trainspotting.’

As brothers, Keith and Martyn fought like cat-and-dog but, says Martyn, their age difference meant it was never serious. ‘We’d mostly wrestle,’ says Martyn. ‘No punches were thrown.’

Close contact was maintained with all their relatives. ‘Every Saturday or Sunday, my two aunts and uncles and my parents and brother would walk to my grandparents’ house in Aspley and have tea,’ says Keith. ‘And each Christmas, my aunts took turns doing the Christmas lunch.’

In those days, there was no sliced bread so the custom was to slice the crusts off a loaf of bread and throw them into the yard for the birds. ‘My mum told me one story about those days,’ says Keith. She said: ‘You were a bugger, our Keith. You’d sit in the yard on bricks and munch on crusts that had been lying about for days.’

If that had happened today, Keith says with a grin, a neighbour would have phoned social services who would’ve ‘swooped down on my mother and charged her as an unfit parent’.

Then, when Keith was five, he was sent to Middleton School. ‘In those days, every pupil would get a daily dose of half-a-pint of milk, a tablespoon of emulsion and a teaspoon of malt extract. This was given to all kids from the time they started school at five until they were 10.’

While he was at Middleton School, Britain declared war on Nazi Germany after the invasion of Poland. The Second World War had begun.

 

1939-1945

IT would be nearly two years after the start of the war before the Luftwaffe turned its attention on Nottingham. On the night of 8 May 1941 in what would become known as The Nottingham Blitz, more than 100 bombers attacked the city. Ninety-seven fires broke out, 12 of which were regarded as serious.

The fires destroyed St John the Baptist’s Church in Leenside, St Christopher’s Church in Sneinton and Stadium Hotel in Parliament Street, and damaged several other buildings including St Mary’s Church, Nottingham Masonic Hall and the University College.

One-hundred-and-fifty-nine people were killed and 274 injured. At the Co-op bakery, 49 employees and members of the Home Guard were killed, and 20 others injured. At University College, 45 people were killed.

Fortunately, Nottingham had been preparing itself and several public shelters had been built. The John Player & Sons tobacco company, meanwhile, had built a network of tunnels at its factory and under local streets sufficient to house about 5,000 of its workers.

But the protection used by Keith’s family was the Anderson shelter, small prefabricated air-raid shelter of a type built in the UK during the war.

‘When Germany tried to bomb the gun factory in Nottingham, they missed, and that’s where all the armaments were made, just off Castle Boulevard,’ says Keith. ‘They bombed everywhere else in the city.’

Keith’s dad dug a hole four feet down at the back of their house and placed the shelter inside so the only thing visible above ground was the circular top section of the corrugated sheet. ‘When the air siren in Broxtowe, went off we had to leave the house and go into the shelter.’

The shelters, which were 6ft high, 4.5ft wide, and 6.5ft long, were designed to accommodate up to six people and the main principle of protection was based on curved and straight galvanised corrugated steel panels.

‘All of us had to sleep in the shelter several times,’ says Keith. ‘My dad had built play steps down into it and there were benches on the side where my brother and I slept. My parents slept underneath so it was cramped but comfortable.’

Inside the shelter, Keith and his family could hear as the spitfires engaged the Luftwaffe in the skies above. ‘The dog fights between the aircraft were audible,’ says Keith.

When the siren, which could be heard for miles, gave the all-clear, the family returned to the house.

The closest the Luftwaffe came to the Shenton house was about half-a-mile away in a straight line. ‘Two houses were hit in Charlbury Road,’ says Martyn, who remembers his dad bringing home shrapnel from a raid.

(On a side-note, Frank Bennett of the Nottingham City Fire Brigade escaped the Charlbury Road attack with minor injuries when a bomb exploded opposite his house, only to die tragically in a freak accident in 1948 while responding to a false alarm.)

When he was eight, Keith became a Wolf Cub and proudly wore his uniform. ‘You can be a cub only up to the age of 10-and-a-half,’ he recalls. But something that made even more of an impression on him during the war was the evacuation from London to the countryside of all children aged between five and 12 in what was known as Operation Pied Piper.

The Shentons took in an evacuee called Pamela, aged 10, from Ealing, who kept Keith company when his mother was singing in the Nottingham Harmonic Society and his father was on night shifts.

In 1943, while visiting his paternal grandparents for the first and only time, Keith woke to hear a droning noise overhead. He later discovered it was a doodle bug, a small flying bomb powered by a simple jet engine, used by the Germans. It later crashed and exploded.

By the end of the war, Nottingham had suffered 11 raids, killing 178 and injuring 350. The number of high explosive bombs dropped is said to have been 479. But the family wasn’t untouched by tragedy.

‘My uncle George, mum’s brother, was killed while serving in Cairo,’ says Keith. ‘A lorry hit a tank and he went through the windscreen and was killed. One day I want to visit his grave in the forces’ cemetery in Cairo.’

 

Next month... After the end of the Second World War, Keith leaves school to establish himself in the flooring industry at Fitchett & Woollacott. This is his first step into the world of flooring, but
it isn’t long before he’s drafted into the Korean War. His adventures there will shape the rest of his life.