Trade and Media Interaction: What We Learnt from Interviewing Tradespeople

How do the building trades use media today?

Thinking through The Building World

by Olivia Corley and Tierney Shave

April 2020

The Building World (1895 – 1920) was a periodical that explored the process of labour in the construction industry within a variety of occupations covering contracted work applications, budgeting and market prices, the legal procedures involving bankruptcy and law cases. It also included detailed diagrams and annotations to perform as a ‘how-to-guide’.

We wanted to explore how we could use such a periodical meaningfully today when traditional approaches to “English literature” offer us no obvious way in. We chose in the end to engage with The Building World by interviewing two representatives from today of what would have been its target readership, and then interpreting those interviews creatively by applying what we had learnt about their priorities to imagined readers in the early years of the twentieth century in two stories that run parallel to each other: “The Business” and “The Business 2“.

“Building Wolrd Patents,” Building World, vol 3, no 76, 27 March 1897, p. 396

One of the characteristics of a periodical is its interactivity, and we wanted to explore this reflexively through the interactive process of an interview. Trade periodicals especially invite discussion as well as solitary reading: they assume that what they carry will be translated into the real world in concrete ways that fiction texts or poetry do not. We wanted to mirror that by taking a magazine as the starting point to formulate questions in interviews with workers today. We devised a hypothesis in order to understand better how magazines like The Building World were once used, and if the internet acts as a reliable source in comparison to it. We thought it would be hard to deny that in the UK the internet has evolved to act as the main informative source to aid an individual within a construction-based industry rather than a paper based text.

To test our hypothesis, we decided to conduct two in-depth interviews with Person A – a thirty-nine-year-old plumber, electrician and gasman – and Person B, a fifty-four-year-old electrician, exploring their experiences in regards to their careers and how their specialist media affect them.

The Building World also explores access and information on the careers themselves – opportunities that have opened in nearby areas in relation to a specific career involved in construction. Therefore, we decided to start our interview by asking our interviewees about their careers and the skills that they had gained , afterwards turning their attention to the copy of The Building World on BLT19 and focussing on the legal cases and chosen advertisements to get them to compare how they use the internet on a day to day basis.

Finally, from their responses and the influence of specialist media like The Building World, we wrote two creative short stories that illustrate our research, amplifying the roles of The Building World and its effect on the lives of our characters, Ben and Reginald.

“Work and Wages,” “Coming Events, ” “Market Prices,” Building World, vol 3, no 76, 27 March 1897, p. 400

The opening questions we decided to ask were “how did you get into the industry? Why did this appeal to you?”

According to Person A, he never wanted to pursue a career path as a plumber, electrician and gasman. He had set his mind on a sports career. However, when he went to apply for a course in sports, there was no more space for him. His father, who owned a plumbing business, let him work with him for the summer until finding an apprenticeship, and he has been in the business ever since.

Person B’s first sentence was that an electrician was “a good trade to be in”. He was very happy to be talking about his experience in getting into the industry. His father was contracted to a holiday park in his hometown, and that was where most of the income was coming from. Person B laughed as he told us that he first started working during the Summer, when the holiday park was full of people and work to do. That there was never a dull moment working with his father out in the sunshine and relaxing by the poolside once the working day was over. That was what pulled him in. He laughs again when he says that what he didn’t know was that when the Winter months rolled in, the appeal seemed to disappear. No more was the holiday park full of people: it was now virtually empty. He still enjoyed working with his father and earning some money for himself, and he did still enjoy being an electrician, but he remarked that climbing on top of a caravan roof to fix the wiring in the Winter was an experience he’d much rather do without. We asked about whether he had any previous ambitions or goals that he had set himself, and he too mentioned the thought of a sports career. He replied that he knew there was not a high chance of him going professional so he enjoyed sport as a hobby and he still does to this day.

Our follow up question explored the skills our interviewees had acquired: what set of skills had they gained from their occupation? how had they acquired them?

The answer from Person A revolved around the technical skills that he had learned in college, such as writing invoices, data sheets, the basic regulations. He learned the rest from his own experience – pursuing time management skills to identify the order of what needs to be accomplished in a given job, deciding whether it’s an emergency; social skills – working with customers directly due to self-employment, and working with companies to obtain the specific parts that he needed for a certain job.

“Questions and Answers,” Building World, vol 3, no 76, 27 March 1897, p. 398

Person B mentioned that he acquired what was called a “City & Guilds” qualification. There were levels 2, 3, and 6 which had two parts, all of which he passed. This means that he is qualified to work and come into contact with anything under the electrical umbrella: he says that although there are only a few types of electrical jobs people ask him to do, it’s nice to know that he can deal with a whole variety of electrical problems and not just house wiring (apparently that takes him back to the roof of a caravan in Winter). Person B also mentioned how the qualification he gained gave an insight into the whole building world, not just the electrical. There were often classes which would allow apprentices to skim the surface of other trades.

This is where we decided we would show some pages from The Building World to find out what specialist media meant to them: did they come into contact with journals, magazines or physical texts like this? If yes, did it help? If not, would you have wanted it?

In regard to the diagrams, Person A commented that he doesn’t come into contact with diagrams specifically related to a single job, but instead, he uses Handbooks on different boilers and its parts which hold step by step instructions – similar to the pages in The Building World. This is because in the twenty-first century, he explained, there are so many different types of boilers, so many different types of pipes, that there is too much knowledge on how to handle a variety of scenarios, in comparison to what he can remember. Yet, in his gas and electricity handbooks, there are specific instructions, specific illustrations and a variety of scenarios for health and safety reasons so that they can develop and produce their work in a professional and safe manner. Similarly, to plumbing, however, not everything will have illustrations or step-by-step instructions. He describes some things you learn, and you must remember, but if unsure, a quick Google search will be sure to give you the answer. Ultimately, he concludes that these handbooks are his ‘Bible’ – they never leave his side.

In relation to our hypothesis, it is interesting discovering that in the twenty-first century, paper publications are being used just as they were through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There was barely any mention about the internet, other than the statement Person A made for the Google search for quick and easy answers.

“Written texts were all we had when I was doing my apprenticeship,” Person B began. Most of what he encountered were physical paper texts like that of the Building World. When looking over the How-To pages of the periodical he started chuckling to himself before saying that “this brings back memories”. During his college education, many of the manuals he used were simply written like rules: drawings were scarce. He said this was a way to make sure that in future they wouldn’t need a visual aid to go from – they would just know by memory. When the written texts used images within their instructions, it was very similar to how it was in The Building World: there was a little number showing what part the rule was referencing, but that was it. This sometimes made it difficult to make sure the result was how it was meant to be, seeing as the manual never used any pictures of the finished product, just the separate parts used in creating it. His nephew took the same course a few years ago, and Person B said when looking into the coursebooks he was using, they were a lot clearer now, including plenty of diagrams to make following the instructions easier. “I guess that’s what I get for being old.” He remarked. The How-To’s did help in understanding the process more, and gave more of a visual aid; however, he said that the written texts did make him feel more independent when working as he wouldn’t have to rely on looking at any How-To’s: he had it memorised. On the flip side having the manual on hand would take a lot of pressure off. He described having a manual on-hand is almost like having a safety net: he knows it’s always there to fall back on.

A significant aspect of trade is how workers obtain their employment. In order to approach this question, we decided to take the segment ‘Contracts Open’/ ‘Contracts Closed’ from The Building World. “How did you gain work?” we asked. “Has the format of advertising jobs changed? How does this affect your wages?”

“Contracts Open,” “Contracts Closed,” Building World, vol 3, no 76, 27 March 1897, p. 401.

Person A had a straight answer for this – “we never needed to advertise”. He explained that he got work, even before he was self-employed, always through word-of-mouth. This went back to his development of social skills with his customers. Yet, having completed and registered in Gas and Electrics, he has a lot of job advertisements sent to him by companies via email. He went on to say that he had been lucky that he hadn’t had to follow up those advertisements, but it felt a safeguard knowing that these offers were there in case he was cut short of work. As Person A is self-employed, he sharply stated that he had to put the work in to gain his wages, and he had to ensure that he did his job well and that it was affordable so that his customers would keep coming back, and for them to recommend him to their friends and family. This linked to another segment of The Building World where ‘Market Prices’ are advertised by brands, the best possible equipment for the best available prices. This swiftly leads on to the process of budgeting, which Person A explains is a new skill that he had to acquire when he entered self-employment. He describes that these types of marketing techniques are very persuasive and it helps keep customers to an extent, clarifying that a variety of companies will purposefully make their products less durable than others, resulting in the market price to be cheaper, ensuring that you continue to buy products from there. However, this would then result in unhappy customers with broken products, but he directly states that there needs to be a balance so that the customer service is positive, as well as durable products to enable continuous work. We suspect that this is a continuation of practices from the nineteenth century when branding (fundamentally a cost-quality trust issue) first arose.

page of adverts for items useful to various building trades, including “Sale and Exchange,” Building World, vol 3, no 76, 27 March 1897, p. 402

As previously mentioned, when Person B first started working, he was contracted to a holiday park. That meant that the work was regular and steady. In the Summer it would skyrocket, as his hometown was a popular seaside holiday destination for many families in the 1980’s. So, he knew he was going to be guaranteed work during the Summer months. He said that work didn’t “shrivel up” during the Winter period, but it did become less frequent, meaning that they would have to save up what money they came into. Person B said when he was working on the holiday site, he was on £33 a week but his father told him to go ask for more, seeing as he had been working there for quite some time. In the 1990’s £33 would be equivalent to around £65 in today’s money. But when he asked for a raise the holiday park said that they couldn’t do it, so Person B set out on his own. The way he got work was, like his younger counterpart, mainly by word-of-mouth rather than advertising. His hometown was quite small back then: everyone knew everyone, so getting work was a bit easier than it would be today. He said it was better to work for himself rather than the holiday park, because he could dictate the prices he was charging and know that he was in charge. When it came to job advertising, he said that from his perspective it has changed quite a bit, but it doesn’t really affect him. He said that newer companies now are probably more likely to use the internet to gain contracts, yet his work is mostly gained through the reputation of his company as many people have used them and then by word-of-mouth others have gotten in touch as well.

When asked about the aspect of gaining work, Person B was surprised to see the Contracts section of The Building World. Person B said that he hadn’t come into contact with anything such as “open contracts”, as within his experience it was always the business who reached out to him requesting his work, he never had to get in touch with a business to enquire about working for them. Person B was also slightly fazed when the word “periodical” was used as he too could not differentiate the periodical to a how-to manual. This caused the age-old debate as to “what really is a periodical?”

For both our interviewees did not recognise a distinction between the date-stamped serial (Building World) and a timeless book (manual, handbook). Whilst the two publishing formats contain similar information, and whilst the magazine acts as a ‘how-to-guide’ much like a handbook or a manual, they occupy different positions in society, and of course in the printing and publishing industry. A periodical or serial will keep the reader up to date with the latest developments in knowledge while a book suggests knowledge that lasts longer, or is perhaps fixed. Yet when we presented The Building World to Person A as a “periodical”, he was astonished, claiming never to have heard of such a thing. Relating back to our hypothesis, although the internet tends to be regarded as unreliable by our interviewees and they prefer paper, there is still an evolution in the dominant form of a text’s format even though they have many of the same functions: manuals have superseded serials.

“Bankruptcies,” Building World, vol 3, no 76, 27 March 1897, p. 402

Being in self-employment involves understanding and regulating the legal procedures, especially in gas and electric work, as failure to comply can result in a serious fine and even a prison sentence. “How aware are you of the legal procedures regarding your occupation? Have you always known and been aware of these?” we asked. The Building World explores many factors, such as an example of a ‘Law Case’, as well as a section on ‘Bankruptcies’.

Person A explained that he had to learn these procedures very fast and very quickly when his father (who he had worked with before) retired. This helped him to budget money and go through the marketing procedures that we had explored before appropriately, as well as obtaining his gas and electrical handbooks. He states that, “Being Gas Safe registered means that you’re entitled to complete a job correctly. If it is done incorrectly, it can cost someone’s life. If we are under the impression that there is something wrong, the handbook provides a how-to-guide on what to do in these situations. We are entitled to call the police and force entry to fix the problem. If we don’t, and we fail, someone could potentially die, leaving us with a prison sentence and a £25,000 fine.” He also mentions an application where all the same information is available, and he uses both depending on which he has immediate access to. If he is on a site, he uses the handbook, anywhere else he uses his phone to access the vital information needed.

Person B said when he first decided to set off on his own that was when he started encountering legal regulations. He needed to know the ins and outs of the legal side of his chosen trade. He said information about this kind of topic back when he first went out on his own was very sparse: seeing as they didn’t have the internet this kind of information had to be found through written texts. When he looked over the legal procedures section within Building World, he said that this was like what he was reading about when trying to understand all the legalities regarding opening his own company. Luckily, he has never had to face any bankruptcy or debt related court cases; however, he is very aware of what electricians under his company can and can’t do. The company is a member of a governing body known as NICEIC which regulates the legalities of the electrician profession and dictates what companies are qualified and what companies are not.

It has only existed since 1956. The Victorians had no such regulating body for trades, though those for professions such as medicine were starting to arise.

To conclude our interview, we asked an overall opinion solely from experience: would you prefer using a periodical like this one or would you rather use the internet? Why?

With no hesitation, Person A stated, ‘Not a chance’ (referring to the internet). He states that whilst technology is always at our fingertips, it isn’t always reliable. He describes that the handbooks are very technical and specific, and whilst there are PDF documents that have the exact same information, he cannot always access them due to the signal on his phone, or if there is no internet connection. He also states that it isn’t just himself that needs to keep a physical copy of a handbook, but his customers do, too. This can ensure that he does his job correctly, quickly and efficiently and can result in a much easier day in the life of a labour-worker. He claims, as we finished this interview, that he ‘would not be without these handbooks.’

When Person B first started venturing into the electrical trade, the internet wasn’t available. He didn’t have a choice when learning and studying the trade as there was no access to what people would call the “easier option” (that’s what he calls the internet). He sees the benefit of using the internet, because it’s visual and easier to understand the way in which things are meant to work and it makes the whole process a lot quicker, rather than flicking through a manual: it’s all there at your fingertips. However, he said that by using a manual such as the periodical in question, you would be more likely to remember the instructions they’re giving you and you know that the information is always going to be there, but with the internet there’s always going to be an uncertainty over whether what tutorial you’re following is the right one. He also brings to light the unreliability of the internet, “You never know when you’re going to be in a spot that doesn’t have internet connection, what will you do then?”. He finishes off by saying that the use of the internet is alright if you’re just doing a quick DIY job, but a manual is a more reliable option when working with electricals.

What we can draw from the answers given by Persons A and B, is that in a world in which internet access is available the building trades continue to rely on paper technology. Whilst internet resources are helpful, being a click away, there still are some aspects of unreliability regarding signal and whether a source is trustworthy. Therefore, whilst there has been some evolution between the format of these ‘how-to-guides’ from periodical, to handbook/manual, to PDF documents online, there is still the recognition of whether electronic developments will work and are sustainable. Whilst both Person A and B use online resources to some extent, both concluded that they would rather go by a handbook or manual, trusting its reliability over the years that they have been in the industry. Curiously, therefore, in this case at least, the paper technology of The Building World, if not the exact form, has proven to persist into the twenty-first century, and in so doing has suggested our initial hypothesis was wrong.