“No toilet and what if I got pregnant ?”

You never know quite how the outside world sees you. Local opinion suddenly changed to us at PIC when we put a painted sign in the window of our main communal house advertising that we were a Building Co-operative and were looking for work. Talking to neighbours later they told me that the sign explained why our front room looked like an office and why we seemed to be running a playgroup. It also helped no-end in dispelling the view that we were dirty hippy DHSS scroungers.

Building work sort of grew on us; a natural progression in many ways from squatting through DIY renovation, doing up our own houses on improvement grants to more official work on a job creation scheme. Pete & Laura went on TOPS training courses to learn carpentry and plastering. And when no local building company would employ Laura afterwards – “We don’t have toilet facilities for a woman!” – they didn’t have any for men either, but….. We decided to give it a go at setting up our own building firm.

Barbara & Maria Building Kirkgate Kitchen extension

So we started’Altham Workers Co-op and set off on something of an adventure in running our own business.The builder that Pete had been working for offered us a couple of contracts to get us going; one on Bailey St for a guy called Bob Lord who seemed to be a bit of a dodgy landlord and another house on Clifton St. There was definitely an element of making it up as we went along.

At first we weren’t very good at estimating jobs. I do remember sitting on the roof of the Bailey St job with a copy of the Squatters Handbook in one hand working out how to replace slates, having said I would only risk my life on a roof if you paid me £100 to do it – the job took one hour – best hourly rate we ever earnt! (We also did jobs where we got the pricing wrong the other way and got just 50p an hour.). Other notable memories of those early days of winging it as builders; Derek half way up a scaffold tower pointing stonework with a hot water bottle strapped to him, Kate climbing up and down the scaffold tower to try and get over her fear of heights, cutting wholemeal loaves with a carpenters saw to make sandwiches for lunch…

We taught each other whatever skills we had picked up. Derek became ‘the plumber’ because he seemed to understand things like that. I did general labouring and then became the carpenter when the real carpenter left.

Plastering at The Mill

Plastering became a woman’s job – due to Laura having done the training and passing it on to Barbara and then Jackie. We nearly always had a couple of women working on site at any one time. This caused quite a stir not only among the people we worked for, but also at builder merchants and with delivery men (I think they were all men, though I have a memory of a huge concrete delivery truck arriving one day driven by a women. Much to our pleasant surprise.)

It wasn’t long before the local paper got wind of a good story.

Laura in dungarees and steel reinforced boots at work in the former corn mill, Altham.

Girls in a man’s world, and they will tackle anything

When Laura Lupin, a former lab. technician, left London to become a plasterer she met quite a bit of opposition. “The plastering firms all said they hadn’t got a toilet for me and what if I got pregnant”, but 31 year-old Laura was not put off, having completed a six month plastering course, and joined up with People in Common Housing Co-operative, who have been restoring houses in the Burnley Wood area. Now some of the members have formed Altham Workers’ Co-operative and bought the old corn mill at Altham for £7,000 and Laura, Barbara Sanders and nine or ten others are busy restoring the mill into six flats.

Burnley Express 12/2/1980

As a co-op we were part of the Women in Manual Trades Network – well the women were – and every Christmas we did our little bit to undermine the rampant sexism in the building industry by sending all our suppliers a calendar with pictures of real women actually doing manual work – as opposed to posing scantily clad with power tools between their legs.

Not that we men were actually new-man-anti-sexist paragons ourselves.

” The men in the group only realise how we women are treated when we tell them in detail… It is undermining to women when the men in the group continually justify the behaviour of customers and officials… if we are being radical we must find ways of  confronting it, whether by friendly jocular ways, by serious talking, by showing upset or anger, or by ‘showing them’.”  Tess McMahon March 91

The early 1980’s seemed to be a bit of a heyday for Building Co-operatives, We were members of a federation of Building Co-ops and attended a couple of gatherings of co-operative builders. We also attracted a few visitors and new members with building skills. Tess came from the Leeds Building Collective and we had a few visiting carpenters who had done training courses and were looking for some site experience. We did a combination of small jobs and whole house renovations. Fitting work for other people in around doing up our own houses and starting to work on The Mill.

Tess McMahon
Undercurrents 41 1980

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