From the workplace · Word of the week

Word of the week: Formwork

“What does your dad do?” That’s a question I was asked many times at primary school.

The answer was easy enough: he worked on building sites. At least half of the other kids were of Irish background, like me, and many of their fathers were involved in construction one way or another. My father spent some time working on the same sites as the father of one of my classmates. They even talked about setting up a business together but it never worked out.

There was at least one wealthy builder, whose kids were at school with me, who moved back to Ireland in a hurry by the time I was at university in the 1980s. The story was that he owed Customs & Excise £2m in unpaid VAT. He offered to pay back £1m if they would drop their investigation and allow him to return to London but his offer was rejected and he would have to face charges if he returned. As far as I know he has not set foot in the UK for 40 years.

My father had no such financial problems. His earnings never reached the threshold where VAT registration would have been compulsory. He made a decent daily wage but there were no paid holidays, there would have been no sick pay if he got ill, and the Christmas break was a mixed blessing, as it was for most men like him. Sites were closed for a fortnight: there was never any money coming in at the end of December and the first week of January. But the work my father did was always in demand: he was a shuttering carpenter. If that phrase doesn’t mean anything to you, you’ll have an explanation before the end of this piece.

I changed schools just before my 9th birthday and there was nobody else of Irish background in my class at the fee-paying Prep where I spent the next two years. And the question about my father’s work would be slightly different: “What does your father do for a living?” Nobody’s father, as far as I could tell, worked on building sites. Two of my classmates had fathers who appeared on television fairly regularly. One was a BBC news correspondent, the other was an actor who would become much more famous in the late 1970s than he was at the start of the decade.

Without checking my school journal I can recall, more or less in alphabetical order, the surnames of 19 of the other 23 boys in my class. Apart from the two fathers who appeared on TV there are maybe half a dozen whose jobs I knew anything about: telephone engineer, journalist, theatre director, something to do with British Wool, or whatever the British Wool Marketing Board was called at the time. None of them was involved in construction. Before I changed schools I had already learnt that there was a straightforward answer to questions about my father’s job. He was a carpenter. It might have given the impression that he was some kind of specialist turning out quality furniture in a workshop but I rarely went into detail about the kind of work he did. His working environment was the “shuck and mite” (his Spoonerism) of large construction projects.

Throughout secondary school any questions about my father’s employment involved small variations on my earlier answers (“a carpenter … working on building sites”). It wasn’t until I was at university that any of my fellow students understood what “shuttering carpenter” meant without me having to explain it. This page defines it more succinctly than I was able to: “A shuttering carpenter is a professional who specializes in creating formwork or shuttering, which are temporary structures used in the concrete pouring process.”

My definition of shuttering, or formwork, usually involved the tools and materials of my father’s trade: big sheets of plywood, lengths of timber (“four-by-two”), well-sharpened saw, hammer, 4” nails, tape measure, rectangular pencil that would be lodged behind his ear when not in use. He would use these basic materials to create the structures into which concrete could be poured. He had the two attributes that everyone who works with their hands needs to get things done: he was quick and he was good at his job.

There were major building projects here in London that my father worked on for a year or more at a time, like Charing Cross Hospital in the 1960s (built on the site of the old Fulham Hospital, on Fulham Palace Road). The Nat West Tower was another, in the 1970s. By the late 1970s many of the people he had worked with at sites such as Charing Cross Hospital had progressed through the ranks at large firms like Wimpey and Taylor Woodrow. As a result of his contacts at these companies he worked on major projects overseas for a few years up to the mid-1980s, in places like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Jordan and Oman.

I can’t think of any of my contemporaries for whom the question “What does your dad do?” is still appropriate. Most of our fathers have died. The few who are still alive have long since retired. But these days if anyone asks me what my father used to do I give a one-word answer: Formwork. And if I have to explain what that means, I do so. In future, I could direct people to this piece, the only place online where you can find out what my father did for a living.


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