After joining Henry Boot Construction when he was 16 years old, Ondrie Mann is celebrating 50 years with the company.
After working across the country on a wide range of different projects, we sat down with Ondrie to reminisce on his early memories in the industry - from his days unloading wagons by hand to working on Wakefield Prison and Barnsley Town Centre (twice!) - and seeing how vastly health and safety has changed.
How did you get into the career and how did you start working for Henry Boot?
Well, I was 16. I had just left school. We used to have to go to town hall to get signed on so I went there to sign on and the woman behind the desk said does anyone want a job until Christmas and I shouted up: ‘yeah, I do!’.
She gave me a piece of paper as Henry Boot were building the Town Centre in Barnsley, I went down there and signed on and started work the following Monday.
They put me with engineers, so I was a chain man for the engineers – these days I don’t think you can get on site until you’re 18 but in those days at 16 they gave you jobs like that, helping engineers.
I did that until I was 18 and then I went onto an adult’s wage, so I had to join a gang then. I went into groundwork and mainly drain laying to start with and then I moved onto doing concrete and civil engineering – so all concreting jobs, ground laying and flag laying, kerbs etc. That’s what I’ve done.
Now I’m onto managing logistics as things move to more of a management style.
Is that the biggest change that you’ve seen?
The biggest change I’ve seen in my career has been with health and safety because when I first started you didn’t even have to a helmet or wear high vis, you didn’t even need safety boots and they didn’t provide you with gloves. If you wanted gloves, you had to get your own.
Another big change is mechanical stuff because a lot of things that came on lorries were manually offloaded by hand, so you’d get everybody there and form a chain and throw bricks off and stack them at the side. When cement came, there’d be a big lorry full of bags of cement, they were twice the size of what they are now, and you had to carry all of them off.
Work was a lot harder in those days because there’s a lot of mechanical help that we now use that wasn’t available at the time when I first started.
Is there anything you miss?
I miss working hands-on with tools, but you’ve got to appreciate when you’re getting older you aren’t as active as you used to be, and having different roles enables you to work longer and still use your expertise. I do miss working with my hands but I suppose if I was still doing that I might have retired before now.
I love coming to work, it’ll be difficult for me to stop, but I suppose I’ll have to eventually. I feel alright. My wife wants me to stop but at the minute I’m going to make sure I finish this project and go from there. I will have to see how I go – that’s provided Henry Boot want me to stay!
What is your role now?
I manage the logistics for the site. As you can see, we’ve got gates to the site so when someone brings something to the site, I’ve got to see what they’ve got, book them in, get them in and get them offloaded, and then get them out again and sign their tickets.
I’ve always worked in gangs, out on the site, apart from the past two years while we’ve been working on our Heart of the City projects. Up to then, I was always working out on site so it’s been a change of pace for me working in logistics.
You mentioned that you worked on Barnsley town Centre?
Yeah, back in 1972.
You’ve worked on it again since then?
Yes, we knocked it down and rebuilt it, so I worked on the first one and then worked on the second one.
Was it weird to be knocking your work down?
It was in a way but to be honest I thought it needed it. It was a bit dated, but I must admit the new one does look good. I live in Barnsley, so I walk through it and its excellent. People of Barnsley like it and people do use it. It has been good for the town.
Have you got any interesting stories?
When I first started, I only expected to be there while Christmas and I’d only been working two weeks. On my second week I fell down an escalator shaft. I was in hospital 7 weeks and off work 14 weeks altogether. My career could have stopped before it had even started. I fell onto concrete - that was only my second week at work. I was quite lucky but I’m still here.
What’s your favourite project you’ve done?
That’s hard because I’ve been on that many. I did enjoy the Amey schemes for general works. A lot of it was working on bridges around Sheffield – from little stone bridges to big concrete bridges. I enjoyed that - I still had tools out back then. I worked with Dave Ellis who’s only just retired. I’ve known him since he was 16, he’s a couple years older and he’d done 53 years with Henry Boot. I worked with him on the bridges, and I enjoyed that.
And you seem to enjoy working on every project?
Yeah, I like working. I’ve worked with some good people and had some decent laughs. It has been great over the years.
So, we mentioned Barnsley and Sheffield, where else have you been based for projects?
I’ve worked all over. We used to travel a lot - I used to drive the minibus with everybody in and we’d go to jobs that way.
I’ve been based largely in the North, but I’ve worked as far south as Leicester. I’ve worked on the coast in Cleethorpes and Beverley - and then I’ve worked in Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield.
We’ve done a lot of refurbishments which are usually quite interesting – doing up older buildings with lots of history. I did work at Wakefield Prison which was an excellent job. It’s a Victorian prison that we did up and we were in there for about 15 years.
I’ve worked on hospitals and schools and built a couple of police stations, so I’ve done all kinds of jobs, but Henry Boot are a big firm, they do a big cross section of projects. When I first started, they did railways and worked abroad too.
What advice would you give to somebody in the industry?
If you’re coming into the building industry, get a trade and keep going to college and get as far as you can, and get as good as you can. Find something that you enjoy and become an expert in it. Take the exams and get better and better.
If you’re going to do it, do it right, and even though it may not be as tough as when I started, make sure it is right for you because it can be hard work, and very physically demanding but very rewarding.
I am overwhelmed to share that Ondrie has reached the remarkable milestone of 50 years’ service with the company. I have known Ondrie for most of my career and I can truly say that he is a real stalwart and just the type of unsung hero that everyone needs in their business. Thank you Ondrie for your loyal service!
Tony Shaw, Managing Director