The amazing life of Britain's oldest floorlayer - Chapter Two

In August last year, CFJ learned about one Keith Shenton based in Chingford. After some research, it appeared Keith, at 85, may well be the UK’s oldest floorlayer. We held several interviews with him regarding his life story and decided to serialise it in CFJ.

Keith was born to a policeman in Nottingham on 31 July 1934. He and his younger brother, Martyn, lived a carefree life playing cricket, football and snobs, and collecting birds’ eggs in nearby Wollaton Park. Keith’s maternal grandfather was gamekeeper to Lord Middleton, to whom Wollaton Hall belonged. One perk of his job was that he could live in the little flats above the stable, where Keith’s mother was born.

When Keith was five, Britain declared war on Nazi Germany after the invasion of Poland. 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. One-hundred-and-fifty-nine people were killed and 274 injured.

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

‘All four 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 that so it was cramped but comfortable.’

By the end of the war in 1945, Nottingham had suffered 11 raids, killing 178 people and injuring 350. The number of high explosive bombs dropped is said to have been 479. But the family wasn’t untouched by tragedy as Keith’s uncle was killed in a freak accident while serving in Cairo.

In this month’s instalment, Keith leaves school early and finds himself entering the flooring industry at the age of 16.

DURING the Second World War, Keith attended Harrow School, then Cottesmore School until he was 15. The latter was demolished a few years ago and has since become the site of a housing development. Keith remembers his schooldays with fondness but says discipline was strictly enforced. One incident epitomises this.

As teens, Keith and Martyn spent a lot of their leisure time in a place called Browns Woodyard in Wollaton, just off Old Coach Road. Nearby was an enormous horse chestnut tree, where the brothers collected conkers every autumn. One Sunday, the brothers and a boy called David, the son of one of their mother’s schoolfriends, were gathering conkers after Sunday school.

‘We were supposed to have returned home after a certain time and we were late,’ says Keith. ‘Time flies when you’re enjoying yourself!’

When they got home, their mother berated them and dished out ‘a good whack’ for worrying her. But they got off lightly compared to David. His mother smacked him with a rolled-up umbrella, then continued to do so on the way home until the umbrella broke.

At school, he was one day given a rake and told to clean up the leaves on a pathway which ran between several garden allotments.

There was a pear tree with overhanging branches and pears ripe for eating. I stood inside a metal wheelbarrow in order to reach the pears and used the rake to shake the pears loose. The pears began to fall on the other side of a hedge. Tinkle, tinkle, crash, crash the pears were dropping onto a greenhouse glass roof. About two minutes later, I was whacked on the side of my head which knocked me flying. The gentleman who’d whacked me grabbed my ear and propelled me through a gate and into the greenhouse where the pears had fallen. There was broken glass on the floor. The man yelled: ‘Look what you’ve done!’

Keith wrenched himself free and defiantly told the man: ‘My dad’s a copper!’ The man let him go and said: ‘What is his name?’ ‘Syd Shenton.’ ‘Oh? I know Syd Shenton. You see, I’m also a policeman – or a ‘copper’ as you put it.’

Keith felt fear creep through him. His gamble hadn’t worked. ‘Oh! Please don’t tell my dad,’ Keith snivelled (his word). ‘He’ll kill me.’

For the next few weeks, Keith lived in ‘terrified expectation’ of his father’s wrath, but it never came. Years later, he confessed. ‘I thought you’d hear about what I did, and I was living in dread,’ Keith told his father. ‘You can be lucky I didn’t find out,’ his father said.

Although such anecdotes may offend modern-day sensitivities, Keith takes a more sanguine view. ‘Parents in our day were strict disciplinarians, if you didn’t do as you were told, you were admonished quite severely and that meant pain on various parts of your anatomy. But it taught us to walk the straight-and-narrow. The same thing applied at school – misbehave and you got the strap across the hand, at least three strikes. If you did something really bad, you were caned onstage at morning assembly by the headmaster, in front of the whole school.’

Keith was never caned but he did ‘get the strap’ a few times. ‘I never dared tell my parents,’ he said.  ‘My dad would have given me a dose of his own discipline. I found it wiser to stay schtum. My dad was a very strict disciplinarian and I got more hidings than I care to remember. But I can hold my hand up and say I asked for it and I deserved it and got it. It didn’t turn me into a bully. On the contrary, it taught me right from wrong.’

Keith joined the boys brigade, third battalion, based at Albert Hall in Nottingham, when he was 11 (in 1945). Every Monday to Friday evening the brigade held activities – Monday was sports night including billiards and table tennis; Tuesday was drill night; Wednesday was gymnastics; Thursday was First Aid; and Friday was club night where participants played table tennis, billiards and board games.

At 11am every Sunday, Keith took part in a church parade where he and his peers marched through the streets in uniform with drums, bugles and a macebearer.

‘We competed for badges in all forms of activity,’ he says. ‘By the time I was 13 I had a bugle and was in the band, and I represented my company at billiards, both junior and senior, and the boys brigades competed against one another.’

Every summer the brigades were sent to camp in the small village of Saltfleet near Mablethorpe on the east coast. There, they lived under canvas and held sport competitions. ‘The only setback of camp was that to get to the sea from Sandhills at the rear of our camp, we had to walk on the beach for about a mile,’ says Keith. ‘The tide only reached the Sandhills twice a year.’

During his time at Cottesmore, every class in his school went for lessons to Radford swimming baths near Denman Street. The hour-long lessons were held twice a week in the afternoon.

Keith’s school badge consisted of the four houses into which all the pupils were divided. Each house was denoted a colour, and pupils had to wear a ribbon representing the colour of their house on their shoulder. Keith was in Faraday house.

One morning I was sent for by Mr Leaning, the headmaster. My first thought was ‘Oh hell, what have I done?’ I knocked on his door and entered. Mr Leaning gave me a navy-blue blazer to put on, with the new school badge on the left breast side. I was then taken to each and every classroom with my right hand over the badge. Mr Leaning told each class that this was the new school uniform blazer, at which point I lowered my right-hand to expose the badge. Afterwards, I returned to class and wore that blazer with its badge until I left school in 1949. So, my claim to fame was that I was the first pupil to wear the school badge.

When he was 14, Keith started smoking on the sly, but his father soon found out. ‘I know you’re smoking,’ he said. ‘It’ll end up costing you a lot of money.’ Keith says he didn’t want to waste money so he took his father’s advice and stopped the habit. ‘There are 475 chemicals inside a cigarette besides tobacco – and they include cyanide, carbon monoxide and arsenic,’ says Keith.

It was about this time that Keith had a memorable experience with homing pigeons.

Last month, we detailed how fond he was of collecting birds’ eggs, but he didn’t always have the Midas touch when it came to his feathered friends. As ever, his childhood memories are related with such vivid detail that it is as if they’d happened only recently.

I was walking in Wollaton village, Bramcote Lane. Just off the main road was a building that housed white fantail pigeons. A gentleman saw me looking, came over and expressed an interest as I liked ornithology. He invited me in and showed me the loft of all the pigeons, explaining that they were carrier pigeons which, during the war, had conveyed messages from the warfront to London. I told the gentleman my father was a policeman and he asked after his name as he was also one. He said he knew my father and asked if I’d like a pair of pigeons. My eyes lit up with gratitude. The pigeons were placed in a cardboard box with air holes. The gentleman told me not to free them for at least three weeks so they could get accustomed to their surroundings, and to strew seed on the lawn at the same time as freeing them. I couldn’t wait to show my parents. I placed the pigeons in a cage with water and seed. Unfortunately, my father opened the cage after only one week. They perched on our rooftop before flying around our house for a couple of weeks. Then they disappeared, never to be seen again.

If Keith had been born a few years earlier, he may have spent the war in full-time employment, as many children between 14 and 17 did, working in agriculture, engineering, aircraft production and shipbuilding. In addition, those aged between 16 and 18 from 1941 (when Keith was seven) had to register for some form of national service. Boys aged 18 received their army call-up papers and girls had to participate in essential war work.

The post-war Britain in which Keith completed his education was slowly recovering from the war, and it was several years before it could cancel food and fuel rationing. In 1945 the prime minister, Winston Churchill, had been turfed out of office by the resurgent Labour party and three years later, the National Health Service (NHS) was founded in an attempt to provide free healthcare for all.

Meanwhile education minister, Rab Butler had introduced the Education Act of 1944, which intended to raise the mandatory school leaving age to 15. This was supposed to have been done in 1939 but was delayed owing to the outbreak of war.

The leaving age became law in April 1947, when Keith was 13, it meant he was destined to leave school a year later than planned (the age was increased again to 16 in 1964).   

 In 1949, Keith left school but wasn’t sure what to do. Little did he know, a lifetime involvement with the flooring industry was about to begin.

IN August 1949, Keith learned to be an electrician working on building sites. ‘I enjoyed being on the electrical side of things but the company got in too deep financially and went bust in April 1950.’

Then, in May 1950, he found a job with Metalifacture (which means the production and manufacture of metals) and started working on drills and lathes. ‘The problem was that oil from the lathes got into my skin on my arms,’ says Keith. ‘I loved the work but I was forced to bath for ages every night just to get the oil out of my arms. So, I got talking to a lad I went to school with and he described to me how he was working on building sites as a joiner woodworker, making roofs for houses on the ground.

‘Once completed, the rooves would be craned up and placed on the shell of the house being built and affixed from a scaffold.’

That sort of life appealed to Keith so he told his father he wanted to be a joiner. He got an interview with flooring company, Fitchett & Woollacott in Popham Street, and remembers it like it was yesterday. He walked through the oak door and into a room with parquet flooring. In front of him was a staircase covered in green carpet.

He was interviewed by the managing director of the flooring division, Geoffrey Shelbourne, whose brother, Cyril, was in charge of the timber division. ‘They took me on and my first job, along with two others, was to work in stores upstairs where all the old woodblocks from schools were brought.’

So, at 16, Keith had placed his first foot into the world of flooring.

It wasn’t an apprenticeship though. As Keith explains, apprenticeships didn’t exist in the sector in those days. ‘I was placed in the upstairs workshop, cleaning woodblocks that had been removed from the floors of schools. The point was to scrape off the mastic or tar that had been used to stick them to the concrete underneath.’

The woodblock edges were then smoothed over by a sanding roller mounted on the workbench.

The team had a target of 200 woodblocks a day which, says Keith, required really hard work. Once they were in a reasonable condition, they were returned to the schools from which they’d come.
There, they were reinstalled by woodblock floorlayers (of which Fitchett & Woollacott had six along with five thermoplastic tile-layers). They were then re-sanded and had three coats of seal applied. Afterwards, they were polished with wax so when the children returned from school holidays, their floors looked like new.

Keith worked there for about seven months before boredom set in. ‘I wanted to do more than just clean woodblocks,’ he said. ‘I found myself in a rut and needed to do something totally different, maybe joinery work. So, I started looking for a new job.’

A floorlayer at Fitchett & Woollacott, Sid Tidmarsh, told Keith there was a vacancy at a company in Aspley for which he’d previously worked. Keith applied for the job but before he was offered a position, his foreman, John Nix, caught wind of his intentions and called Keith in.

‘Why do you want to leave?’ he asked.

‘I’m bored,’ said Keith. ‘I don’t want to clean woodblocks for the rest of my life. I want to do something different.’

‘Then I have a plan,’ said John Nix. ‘How about I send you out on jobs with an experienced floorlayer?’

That appealed to Keith and he ended up not going for the interview at Sid Tidmarsh’s previous firm. Instead, he started working with floorlayer George Shaw, laying Armstrong Accotile and Accoflex in the Midlands. This, said Keith, was the first vinyl tile. Accotile was available in several different colours, from a plain brown for hallways in houses to a mottled brown tile for use in rooms.

Once onsite, the concrete floor had to be swept clean, then primed. ‘George was a bit of a pain as he used to make me sweep the floor up to three times prior to priming,’ explained Keith. ‘He had to be completely satisfied with its condition.’

Bitumen adhesive was then applied with a toothed trowel, an implement that Keith still uses today. ‘We nailed a cork pin in the floor where we’d chalked down our string line. We hooked the line on the cork pin, and it was hung on the switch. When the adhesive was touch-dry, we took the line off the switch, put it down, pulled it tight, and placed another pin in the floor. We then wound the other end of the line around it so it was tight, then we started to lay Accotile and Accoflex flooring on the line and that’s how you started.’

Before use, Accotile tiles had to be placed on a lit primer stove to warm up and were turned like steaks on a barbeque grill until they were pliable. The warmth of the tile ensured it adhered to the mastic on the floor.

Keith then progressed to tongue-and-groove, the traditional method of fitting flooring, where he used the so-called ‘secret nail process’. For a succinct description of tongue-and-groove, Ambience Hardwood Flooring has the following on its website:

The planks of flooring have one long side and one short side with a tongue (machined protruding edge) and one long side and one short side with a groove (machined rebated edge). When fitted together the tongue should fit into the groove perfectly creating smooth, gapless flooring. The floor can be secret nailed, secret screwed or glued directly down to the subfloor, or can be floated over an underlay by gluing along the length and width of the plank and pushing them together. Tongue-and-groove flooring is available in solid wood and engineered wood, so can be fitted on any subfloor that’s been well prepared. The downside of tongue-and-groove flooring is it can be quite challenging to install and may need a professional wooden floor-fitter to ensure the floor is correctly installed and to obtain minimum wastage.
Direct Wood Flooring has on its website a description of the ‘secret nail process’ which Keith used:

In the early days of wood flooring, the planks were fitted using nails through the top surface. As flooring technology has developed, so has the method of fixing your flooring with nails or screws. As tongue-and-groove systems were brought in, secret nailing became more popular than the traditional top-nailing fixing method. Solid wood and parquet are the two flooring types most commonly used with secret nailing. Flooring permanently fixed to its subfloor means it’s much sturdier – and also more permanent.

‘While hammering in the nail, I occasionally hit my thumb with the two-pound hammer, and it hurt like hell,’ says Keith.

‘In one incident, we were doing the maple flooring at The Victory Club in Long Eaton. The joists were about three feet above the ground. So, I was kneeling down on the floor doing the secret nailing, punching it in, and I hit my thumb and split it open. The pain made me topple forward and I fell straight between the joists, three feet below the floor we were working on. I just shouted: ‘Arggghhh.’

His experience sanding woodblocks in the Fitchett & Woollacott workshop soon came in handy. ‘I became a skilled operator using a sanding machine with a 12in roller,’ he says. ‘I used three sanding papers – rough, medium and fine – then buffed the floor. When it was smooth, we applied a stain for the colour, then two or three coats of sealing and wax to make it shine.’

He also became adept at cork flooring which consisted of glued sawdust compressed into tiles, then glued and pinned with cork pins.

Something that bemuses Keith about his work with Accotile is the fuss made by people who think all asbestos is lethal. Accotile contained asbestos but, says Keith, it was the ‘white’ sort. ‘Not many people know there are two types of asbestos, and that one of them – the most commonly used – isn’t lethal.

‘I’ve laid thousands of Accotile products and uplifted thousands of metres of Accotile flooring, then latex-screeded the floor, then put down new flooring after it’s been prepared. So, it’s a fallacy that all asbestos will kill. The asbestos used in building and construction is bad. If you breathe in the dust, it affects your lungs. With Accotile, even when I was cutting them and little bits fell off and I breathed in the residue, I knew I’d be fine.

‘The only time my lungs were buggered up was when I worked in a pub at the Peach Tree in Nottingham in my twenties, breathing in all the smoke that everyone was exhaling. It’s the most harmful thing a human can take in.’

It would be remiss of CFJ not to point out that the perception of white asbestos has changed since Keith was young. The Mesothelioma Center in the US now says:

(NOTE: It would be remiss of CFJ not to point out that the perception of white asbestos has changed since Keith was young. The Mesothelioma Center in the US now says: ‘Chrysotile, commonly referred to as ‘white asbestos’, was used in the vast majority of the myriad asbestos containing products manufactured in the US during the 20th century. The US and Canada were once major producers of the toxic mineral.

Naturally occurring deposits of chrysotile are often accompanied by trace amounts of amphibole types of asbestos, which increase its toxicity. However, exposure to chrysotile asbestos fibres alone still creates a serious risk of developing a life-threatening illness. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has concluded people should treat chrysotile asbestos with the same level of concern as other forms of asbestos.’)

During his two or three years laying Accotile and Accoflex flooring, Keith often volunteered for weekend jobs. He had an appetite for extra money to go with his insatiable work ethic.

‘Occasionally, the company had a job that needed doing over the weekend. John Nix would alert us on Saturday morning. ‘We need someone to work on Saturday and Sunday,’ he’d announce. ‘You’ll get time-and-a-half on Saturday and ‘double bubble’ on Sunday.’

Keith was always first in the queue. One weekend he worked right through Saturday evening, then overnighted onsite and continued on Sunday. ‘Because there were no mobile phones in those days,’ he says, ‘I couldn’t ring my parents to let them know I wouldn’t be back, so my dad panicked and went to the local hospital to see if I’d been hurt.’

On Sunday evening when Keith finally returned home, his father was furious. ‘Where were you?’ he shouted.

‘I’ve been working,’ said Keith. ‘I volunteered to do overtime.’

On 6 February 1952, aged only 17, Keith was laying Accotile flooring at a bungalow in Watnall, an area of settlement in Nottinghamshire, when he heard King George VI’s death announced on the radio. He’d been found dead from a coronary thrombosis at Sandringham House in Norfolk.

Britain’s new monarch was the king’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth.

Nine months later, Keith’s fledgling flooring career was brought to a halt when he was drafted into the army. He was sent to South Korea after it had been invaded by North Korea on 25 June 1950, starting the Korean War. From carefree youth to floorlayer, Keith was now destined to fight for his country on the Korean peninsula.