Halfway Point Reached: ‘Topping Out’ the New Girl, 23rd February 2016

Wates Construction: 'Topping Out' on Tankerville Terrace.
Wates Construction: ‘Topping Out’ on Tankerville Terrace.

Wikipedia really is a mine of information, isn’t it?  If you haven’t already looked the title phrase up, let me save you the bother: ‘In building construction ‘Topping Out’ (sometimes referred to as ‘Topping Off’) is a builder’s rite traditionally held when the last beam (or its equivalent) is placed atop a structure during its construction.  Nowadays the ceremony is often parlayed into a media event for public relations purposes.  After topping out, numerous elements of construction remain, including interior finish and most mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems.’  So there you go!  And, of course, this was the exact stage of construction  reached at Tankerville by February 23rd.  A Tuesday.

The small 'Topping Out' ceremony within the new-build.
The simple ‘Topping Out’ ceremony inside the new-build.

I love the history behind the simple ceremony we joined with Wates Construction to perform that day within the ‘New Girl.’  The practice of ‘topping out’ can apparently be traced to an ancient Scandinavian religious rite of placing a tree atop a new building to appease the tree-dwelling spirits displaced in its construction.  A tree or leafy branch was placed on the topmost wood or iron beam, often with flags and streamers tied to it.  We didn’t do this, but I would have liked to have seen it.  Very, very fitting for ever green Tankerville.

'Topping Out' ceremony in Norway, 1959.
‘Topping Out’ ceremony in Norway, Kranselag 1959.

Wikipedia also tells us that a toast is usually drunk and sometimes workers are even treated to a meal. In masonry construction, the rite celebrates the bedding of the last block or brick.  Obviously, this isn’t possible with a modern steel structure like ours.  But it was back in 1889 when the beautiful red-brick ‘Old Girl’ was being built.

Newcastle High School building dedication stone.
The 1889 Newcastle High School building dedication stone.

Back then, of course, there were no blogs for posting site pictures or to record a date for each stage of the building process, as the NCHS Jubilee book makes clear (p 17-18) : ‘The progress of the building does not seem to have been recorded: we all know that the stone in the side door was laid by the Venerable Archdeacon Emery on May 23rd (there’s serendipity for you), 1889, and it is known from the Church Schools Company’s records that in July, 1889, a grant of £3 was made “to provide a treat for the workmen.” …. I am indebted to Mr Leeson [Messers Oliver & Leeson were the architects] for the information that this was the usual custom when the first roof couple was placed into position.’

Unlikely to be the very first one, but original exposed roof couples in the north wing attic
Unlikely to be the very first ones, nonetheless original roof couples in the north wing attic.  This space at the very top of the north stairs was used for storage and, latterly, by Steven Farrell, IT Manager, as the safest location for the IT servers.
Exposed king post trusses adjoining the hipped roof to the right.
King post trusses & hipped roofing to the right.

Luckily for us, not only was there my camera to record events for posterity that day, there was also a lady reporter from The Evening Chronicle and photographers from the Chronicle and Wates too.  For our ‘Topping Out’ ceremony, as per Wikipedia’s definition, was also partly planned as a media event for public relations purposes.

Wates' press photograph of the 'Topping Out' ceremony in the new-build.
Publicity images of the ‘Topping Out’ ceremony: it seems that I’m the only person not yet wearing my glasses (above)- oops!

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The initial idea for our metal structure was to have a pupil screwing in the very last bolt, but, in the end, something much more creative involving the whole school was decided upon.  Janice Graves, NHSG Marketing Manager, dreamed up the novel idea of every year group from Year 6 upwards choosing a quotation or saying which their Forum Rep would write for them on a steel beam painted white especially for the occasion.  As Head of Year 9, I was really proud of my year group for the message they voted for which was written on the beam for us by Cara Blight: ‘Many hands build a house; many hearts build a school.’  This same honour was also bestowed on Jim Heaton, our retiring caretaker, representing the support staff and on two members of the teaching staff who are also ‘Old Girls’ (Helen Harrison, Church High, and Julie Bowman, Central High) representing the Alumnae.  Wates were of course represented by Nick White, Project Manager.  Our ‘Topping Out’ party, plus Evening Chronicle reporter Hannah Graham and two photographers, all met up in the Wates’ Site Office Meeting Room in Westward House to put on our PPE kit.

Church High 'Old Girl' Helen Harrison signs the beam on behalf of all Church High Alumnae.
Church High ‘Old Girl’, Helen Harrison, signs on behalf of all the Church High Alumnae.
I don't think there was any doubt what she would write.
Was there ever any doubt what she’d write?

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So how did I end up being there, do I hear you say?  Because I asked if I could.  I learned well from ex-colleague, Helen McLean, whose favourite saying I always remember being ‘Shy bairns get nowt!’  Seriously, it was a kindness on Hilary French’s part for which I was very, very grateful – both personally and also because of this blog.  Just being there on such an historic occasion was a thrill in itself, but the offer extended to me by Christine Sills, one of the architects, to write a message on the beam myself was just the cherry on the cake.

I was honoured to be asked by the architect to write on the beam too.
I felt so honoured to be asked by the architect to write on the beam too.

I had to think on my feet as to what to write, but after so long editing the school magazine, there really was only one thing I wanted to say.

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The beam will eventually be enclosed within the wall cladding but it is intended that a plaque will mark the site of it for posterity.  For both partner schools, I know it now feels that a little bit of our respective histories are etched forever into the new school structure.  And as memories go, this one ‘topped off’ the day just beautifully.

The commemorative steel beam in situ.
Commemorative messages now in situ forever.

Ours was a small party, as Wates’ PPE kit supply is not limitless. But, hopefully, everyone watching this video can now feel part of it too.

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