Oslen Kelman celebrates his 40 year anniversary working for Lambeth this year on the 13th of October
Oslen walked into the job in 1980 expecting to be a grounds gardener, but his position as grave-digger and groundskeeper has become a life-long commitment, invaluable to the people of Lambeth.
“Had the interview on Friday, he gave him the job and I started on Monday,” Oslen’s interpreter, Alfie tells us. As punctuation, Oslen snaps his fingers.
Oslen has been completely deaf his whole life and though this has had absolutely no effect on the quality of his work, he was certainly presented with some challenges at the beginning of his time at Bereavement Services.
For his first 10 years, nobody was able to interpret for him on the team. “He wrote it down,” Alfie says, laughing, “He had to write it down, he had to read it when they tried to communicate.”
“He could lip read,” he continues, “But, if there weren’t anything he had to write his job down on the paper… Write his job down on his paper in the morning, show him what to do, give him the paper, send him on his way.”
Oslen learned everything about the job on the job. Having previously worked as a gardener, this was all he expected to do when he arrived on-site in October 1980; he explains, “I didn’t know anything about grave-digging when I started.” Still, on his first job, he tells us he was given the responsibility of 7 plots of land with 1 week to do it. The work-rate doesn’t seem to have slowed at all in the 40 years since.
Oslen obviously takes great pride in the position he has at Lambeth. He talks about how beautiful and flat he likes to keep the grass, and the colours of the flowers which they used to grow in on-site greenhouse nurseries. It would take 10 people 8 days of “non-stop” work to cut all the Cemetery’s grass, and as for the digging, it would mostly be done by hand in groups.
The mechanical digger, Alfie and Oslen explain, is an earned position; they joke, “They try to get other people in, but he’s the number one digger!”
“When you used to work here… if the old digger left, whoever was next used to become, like, number one digger… you used to have to go up the hierarchy to be the guy in the digger… He’s that guy.”
Oslen’s strong commitment to the quality of the grounds is apparent throughout the interview. He says that in 1990 the council shifted internal responsibilities in terms of on-ground duties, which lead to contractors - instead of council staff - being given exclusive grass-cutting responsibilities.
When he felt standards weren’t met, Alfie says, “He used to come in with a strimmer… and muck in with the contractors… He’s like the ringleader getting them to work.”
The sense of camaraderie, family and shared responsibility between the old team is something Oslen speaks about passionately. “One thing,” Oslen says, “They worked hard, everybody worked hard, and at lunch time, everybody to the pub… Everyday, five days a week, they worked really hard.”
Only 3 people from that era remain. Between Oslen, Freddie Young and ‘JR’, they’ve put in 130 years of dedicated work into the 3 Lambeth Cemeteries.
For 40 years, Oslen says, he’s been very happy. “I love the job, I love it. If not,” he laughs, “I’d get fat.”
Oslen has been stalwart, and isn’t looking for retirement any time soon. His work at Bereavement Services has been tireless, consistent and deeply valued within the community. We celebrate these 40 years, and look forward to many more.