Home life: House Doctor

LET'S FACE it, we can all have an off-day. Sometimes you just don't feel like it. You've been working all week and it's 4.40pm on the Friday and all you're thinking about is that first beer hitting the back of your throat. Unexpected emergencies on the work front are not on my list of Favourite-Things. So, when a problem crops up, what do you do? Why, cover it up, of course.

That is what happened in August 1869 in South Hackney, an up-and-coming dormitory area that was only two miles from the City of London. At the time, the second railway boom was creating a demand for middle-class housing, and the farmland between the villages was being filled up, first with ribbon developments along the existing roads, and then with an infill gridwork of streets in all the remaining spaces.

On one particular Friday afternoon, two groundworkers, whose names were probably Bill and Charlie (I'm guessing here, but most people were named after the royal family then), had the task of fitting a salt-glazed yard gulley to drain the surface water away from the front of a new four-storey terraced house. The drainage pipe was already in place, sloping nicely down towards the manhole under the path, and Bill had the gulley - a huge brown speckled thing with an unwieldy "S" trap (a U-bend with a downward outflow) - sticking out of one side. The only thing missing was the elbow - the right-angle bend to connect the gulley to the drain. So what did they do? They stuck the gulley straight into the ground and covered it over with earth and went down the pub. And, if the truth be told, who could blame them?

Bill and Charlie's conspiracy remained undetected until 1999 when I decided to investigate why that front yard gulley never seemed to drain away. I'd tried all the usual things : up-to-my-armpit digging out of leaves and silt, poking it crossly with a stick, pouring industrial-sized bags of Draino down. No result. Blocked solid.

Eventually I decided drastic action was the only option. I prised up the York stone slabs, shovelled away the soil and found that, yes, Victorian builders were not always the bunch of conscientious artisans we've come to revere, but sometimes took a few liberties. Bill and Charlie had never connected the yard gulley up to the drain, so for 130 years the surface water had all been soaking into the ground right next to the front wall of the house, saturating the soil and seeping into the footings.

But surely a trained surveyor would be able to spot that sort of thing? Well, no, as it happens. There have been seven mortgage valuation surveys done on that house since 1968, and none of the surveyors involved ever thought to check checked to see if the yard gulleys were draining away.

Instead, they all said the front wall might have rising damp, and recommended further investigation by damp-proofing companies. So, did the damp-proofers ever check to see if the yard gulley was draining away?

Well, no, funnily enough they didn't. What they said was that the damp- proof course had failed, and that the solution was to squirt some chemicals into the wall.

I don't bear any grudge against Bill and Charlie; I really don't. But, since I discovered their little secret, I can't help wondering what they would have thought of their modern counterparts - the damp-proofers Darren and Jason. Because, whatever the similarities, these boys were definitely not named after royalty.

`Struck Off - The First Year of Doctor on the House' by Jeff Howell is available from Nosecone Publications, PO Box 24650, London E9 7XQ, price pounds 9 inc postage.

Jeff@doctoronthehouse.demon.co.uk

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

    Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

    £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

    Day In a Page

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor