George Cossington was photographed in 1958 by Freddie Waite, perched at the very top of a 150ft jib during the construction of Paternoster Square, next to St Paul’s Cathedral. When he spoke to Spitalfields Life more than 50 years later, he was still fit and full of swagger.

"In my day, you weren’t called a steel erector, you were called a spider man. I used to run up a sixty rung ladder in less than a minute and come down in less than twenty seconds: you just put your hands and feet on the sides and slid down!"

George’s father was a steeplejack who once climbed Big Ben to fix the hands on the clock face and worked as chargehand on the construction of the Bank of England. So in 1947, when George left school at fourteen, there was no question about his future career, "All my friends were going into the Merchant Navy but when I came home with the form, my dad said, ‘No. You’re going into my trade so you get a pension.’" In fact, three out of the five boys in George’s family became steeplejacks, a significant measure of George’s father’s confidence in his own profession.

"My father, uncle and my brothers, we all loved it. There was none of this health and safety shit then, you learnt to be careful. What started coming in was the safety harness, a big belt with a hook on it attached to a rope: we hardly used them. There was no such thing as a hard hat. Me and my brothers, we used to watch each other to check we put the bolts in correctly. It was all done properly, even without today’s safeguards.

"I was apprenticed to Freddie Waite of Stratford. I started off as a tea boy. You learn as the months go by, and then someone else becomes the tea boy and you learn how to adjust swivel bolts, rigging up steel beams, and how to sling a beam for the crane to lift. It takes well over a year before you start going off the ground. You had to learn rigging, slinging, welding, acetylene burning, and rope splicing. It takes five years to become a steeplejack. We used to walk the purlins that were four inches wide, you can’t do that today. Before scaffolding, we used wooden poles held together with wire bands, like they still do in the Far East. You had to know how to tie the wire bands securely, because it wasn’t an easy job going up to 40ft.

"I enjoyed it, but not when it was wet or cold. The crane used to take us in a bucket and put us on top of the steel work. In the winter you could freeze. If it was a frosty night, we had a big fire in an oil drum and wrapped the chain around the fire to get the frost out of it, because if you didn’t it could snap like a carrot.

"The day I fell, I was cutting some steelwork at Beckton Gas Works and it lashed down with rain, so they called us down. When I went back up again later, I cut one end of a beam without realising I had already cut the other end. I was seventeen years old. I was very lucky — my dad couldn’t believe it — a corrugated iron roof broke my fall. I had a few bruises, and a scar to this day. They called an ambulance but I was standing up by the time it came. I think I was only off work for a week, but I knew a couple of fellows that fell to their deaths.

"My dad was still working up high until he was 66. When he was the family foreman, he looked the business in a bowler hat. He taught me splicing and slinging, and he knew every sort of knot there was. He wouldn’t do anything you couldn’t do. He could throw a three-quarter inch bolt forty feet up for me to catch from a beam. Our last job together was on John Lewis in Oxford St. We were a hundred feet up in the air and he walked along beams as if they were on the ground."

"I’ve never had a problem with heights. I’ve stood on the spider plate at the very top of a crane, 350ft up without a rope. I did it just for a laugh, but if my dad had seen me he’d have shot me."