Voices of Tower Bridge: Ted Forrest

In this episode exploring the oral history of Tower Bridge, David Laird speaks to Phillip Forrest, the son of Edward ‘Ted’ Forrest. Ted worked at Tower Bridge for over 40 years as a bricklayer and foreman.


David: Thank you for joining me for another episode in this series on Tower Bridge. My name is David Laird and I work as an education officer at Tower Bridge. Over each episode, we dive deep into our oral history archive to bring you interviews by former employees and their families and explore their connection with London's defining landmark.

Today, we'll be speaking to Philip Forrest, the son of Edward Ted Forrest. Ted worked at Tower Bridge for over 40 years as a bricklayer and foreman. Join us as Philip describes their memories of Ted's time working across the Thames. If you wish to catch up or explore more of Tower Bridge's history, our podcast series can be found at www.towerbridge.org.uk/podcasts.

And so, we joined Philip as he introduces us to his father's early life and arrival at Tower Bridge.

Philip: My father was born in Depford, in south London. He was one of a fairly large family. He had four brothers and two sisters, so six children in all, and it was a very wide age spread. My father was actually born an uncle, his eldest brother had already grown up and had children before my father was born - so he was born an uncle.

My grandfather, who I never met, was a builder and his eldest son took over as a builder when my grandfather retired and my father started as a builder in that business. But I don't know quite why he decided he wasn't going to continue doing that. Maybe because he'd met my mother, maybe because the recession during the thirties had made times a bit difficult. But he decided to get a proper job and went to work on Tower Bridge.

And once he was there, that was it. I forget what his title was. He was the builder Mason person on the job. Anything to do with any of the masonry or the repairs or that stuff, that was my father's job. His work would be just looking after the general day to day maintenance of the fabric of the Bridge.

David: As a stone Mason, we asked if Ted had many repairs to do when ships collided with the Bridge.

Philip: No, not many ships did collide with the Bridge and it will probably be worse for the ship to be honest. A Fairly sort of solid piece of granite to run into and was still inside it.

David: We moved on to ask whether Ted's role had evolved during his time at Tower Bridge.

Philip: There was no, what you might call, career path. He went in to do a specific job and he did that particular job for 37 years. What he did, you know, obviously changed on a day-to-day basis, depending on the needs of the fabric of the Bridge. But there was no career path where he could work his way up to be superintendent or whatever most of those people came from the military or in the Navy or army or something like that. And that didn't bother him to be honest - He wasn't hugely ambitious and didn't want to conquer the world.

I think he was fairly happy in the slot that he'd fallen into. He'd come through things like the recession and he'd kind of seen what it can do to you. So therefore security was an important thing to him.

David: Philip went on to describe his father's work during the second world war.

Philip: Like almost everybody else he got called up. But my father was partially deaf. He did his basic training at home, I've got photographs of him sort of marching along in Carlisle, I think he was sent to.

But when it came to the next bit, they threw him out because he was deaf or partially deaf. So, he volunteered and did fire watching through the war on Tower Bridge, which I presume was done from the high level where they would have a good view down each side of the river and therefore spot if any fires were starting and could alert the necessary emergency forces.

David: We asked if Ted witnessed any dramatic incidents in the years he was employed.

Philip: Well, there were planes that flew between high level and the road, bit of a Daredevil thing. It seemed to be a bit of a caper. It was very badly looked upon because it's obviously incredibly dangerous to do that.

There was also tension on foggy days, because it was often foggy in the winter. So, you'd have ships wanting to come and ships wanting to go. And the PLA would have to manage all that very in the fog. One of the things I can remember on foggy mornings, even from where we lived in Lewisham, you could hear the horns on the ships on the river as they were blowing their things as they came along.

David: I then asked what his relationship is like with the other employees on Tower Bridge.

Philip: I think they were all a bit of a good gang actually. He talked a lot about them. There were one or two, what you might call characters.

There was a chap called Johnny Wilson who came from the east end of London who always seemed to be up to some sort of caper or other. And in fact, I can remember one story when one of the engineers from the corporation of City of London was a young chap who had a small MG sports car. And he would park in the yard, which was outside the boiler room and this particular character, Johnny Wilson thought he would earn himself a drink by washing this guy's car for him. So when he'd finished his work, he came down, pick up his car and Johnny Wilson jumped up and said, 'I've washed your car for you', to which the young engineer said, 'That's very kind of you' and drove off <laugh> .

David: Philip described when he first became interested in his father's work.

Philip: There's not a moment in my life when I wasn't aware of my father and Tower Bridge and how much he liked it. He was a fairly quiet man, but he would talk to anybody who wanted to about Tower Bridge for as long as they wanted to talk about it. And it was almost a kind of a joke around the house, about Tower Bridge and his love of the place.

I didn't actually visit the Bridge until I was 21 or 22. By that time in the Royal exchange assurance, I'd become what they call an inspector, which was somebody who goes around and sees insurance brokers and all that sort of stuff. And for doing that, I got a car and part of my area was south east London. It was about four o'clock on an afternoon and I was very close to Tower Bridge. So I thought, well, I'll pop up there and see if my father's ready to go home and I'll give him a lift home, save him going on the train. And I parked in the yard, which is down by the boiler room and met my father. And he said, while you're here, do you wanna have a quick look round? And I said, you know, sure, why not?

And from that moment on, I was hooked. Every opportunity I could get to get there afterwards. I completely shared his enthusiasm for what a fantastic piece of art machinery the whole place is.

David: A dramatic scene. We asked, what was the engine room like the first time you entered it?

Philip: Well, there were, and there still are two parts of it, except that there are now two boilers in the engine room and there were three boilers and these are very large, probably, I don't know, 15 foot high cylinders. And the purpose of those was to make the steam that drove the engines. And in that part of it there was a very strong smell of burnt Coke. If you've ever been in a Coke burning room, it has a smell completely of its own, and it's quite acidy and almost unpleasant.

Immediately adjacent to that was the main engine room where these big, beautiful brass green and gold yellow lined steam engines. The smell of the oil from those was almost sweet compared with the acidity of things.

So there was this immediate contrast on your senses of the smells and these big engines were just idling, just turning over very gently. My understanding of that was that that was to maintain the water pressure in the system and to maintain some things called accumulators.

David: Philip now talks us through how his father reacted to the electrification of Tower Bridge.

Philip: I think he was quite happy about it. It was called the London hydraulic company who supplied the hydraulic power.

One of the reasons I think he was probably quite happy about it is one of his jobs was the boilers had to be inspected every year. And these boilers aligned with things called refractory bricks, which are heat resistant. And the only way you can inspect the inside of a boiler is to go inside (not when it's on, of course) and the porthole that you get in is very small. My father was quite a big man - he wasn't a fat man, but he was six foot. This was done during the summer, they would close one boiler, let it cool down while the other two were running. He would go in and check and inspect and repair anything that was inside. And if there was a lot of repointing or bricks needing replacing, all that kind of stuff, he could be in there for a long time.

And he absolutely hated that job. So when the boilers weren't running anymore, he was probably quite relieved about that.

David: We ended our interview by asking Philip how his father's time had impacted on him.

Philip: I think my father and Tower Bridge and his whole sort of engagement, just from a very early age, gave me a very stable platform. I can't remember him not being there. It was one of those foundation stones in my life. I had a very stable upbringing. I think that was part of the fact that he had a secure job and he could look forward to a pension.

It's always been a point of interest for me and therefore, maybe some people may remember me as the bloke who's father worked on Tower Bridge.

David: Well, folks, that's the end of our interview with Philip Forrest. Thank you to Philip for sharing his memories, his father Ted's time working at Tower Bridge. We will be back again soon for more tales from our archive. Until then, don't forget, you can find more podcasts like this one at www.towerbridge.org.uk/podcasts.