13a - "Owdum" 1944
 
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13a - "Owdum" 1944
 

 

 

“Owdum” 1944

by W. John Green

In September of 1943, after combining three years of military training with a University course in Chemical Engineering, I was ordered unexpectedly by a government committee to join the “Woodall-Duckham Vertical Retort and Oven Construction Company” as was then its lengthy title. In their judgement, my degree in Chemical Engineering had a greater potential for the war effort than had my experience as an Officer Cadet. They may have been right!

The firm to which I was directed specialised in the construction, commissioning and maintenance of retort plant for gasworks, and of coke ovens for smelting and steel-making plant. It was probably at that time the largest in that business, having on-going contracts in this country and abroad, including, before the war, Tokio, Shanghai, Dunedin, and Copenhagen, and a few in Australia.. In those days, practically every town of any size had its own gasworks and the majority of the larger works had been installed by “Woodall-Duckham”.

Having started work with the firm on their contract at Saltley gasworks Birmingham as a Junior Operating Engineer, some details of which are given elsewhere, after a (very) brief ‘apprenticeship’ of a few months, I was sent off to Melton Mowbray to put to work a couple of retorts which had been rebuilt during the previous summer. Having never witnessed the commissioning of any similar plant, I was left with a book of instructions and a periodic visit from Freddie Wagg, then the senior Operating Engineer in Birmingham.

Looking back on that ‘job’ I wonder how I managed without blowing up the plant and/or killing myself and other people. But it was war-time.

On completion of the Melton Mowbray job, I returned to Birmingham for a short time, ostensibly to acquire more learning, but mainly because the firm did not quite know what to do with me.

So on March 1st. 1944 I set off for Oldham. The firm had decided that my ‘training’ should be broadened and that I was to have a time ‘on construction’. A large new plant was being installed at Higginshaw Lane Gasworks at Oldham, and there I would gain some experience of the civil and mechanical engineering involved in large - scale construction – at least that was what I was told – but it wasn’t quite like that.

Leaving Birmingham by train – no cars in those days! – I arrived at London Road Station, Manchester. Humping all my worldly goods, I trudged to Victoria Station, whence, I was told, I could get a train to Oldham. Those were days before the Clean Air Act, and Victoria Station was a pile of soot-blackened limestone, the outside being so from the effluent of multitudinous chimneys of Manchester and Salford, and the inside from that of multitudinous tank engines waiting to haul dirty non-corridor trains to various parts of South Lancashire, meanwhile belching smoke and steam. I found one which was going, I believe, to Rochdale via Oldham and Royston Junction. Whether the compartments had ever been cleaned was a matter for speculation. The kindest construction one could put on the dominant aura of dirt, fag-ends and stale sweat - and other possibilities - was that ‘there was a war on’ and labour could not be spared for any niceties.

It was a bitterly cold day, and this meant that one’s breath rapidly condensed on the inside of windows already almost opaque from the outside dirt, making it it difficult to discover where the train was at any time.

We chuffed on, stopping at every station, which seemed to be every few yards. Miles Platting, Failsworth, Hollinwood, and then the first of the three Oldham Stations, Werneth, then Central and, believe it or not, “Mumps”. I had already made what seemed to me to be a reasonable assumption that “Central” would be the station nearest to the centre of the town where I could enquire the whereabouts of Higginshaw lane and obtain transport thereto. I was wrong, later discovering that I should have continued to “Mumps”. The reason for the naming of a central thoroughfare and its associated railway station after a disease of the young has never been explained to me.

I alighted at “Central” and found myself at the bottom of a long, steep hill paved with limestone setts and hemmed in by dark satanic mills. The bitter wind from the north was in my face, and I realised also that Oldham was more feet above sea level than I would have preferred.

Having arrived in the town centre without succumbing to hypothermia, I found the showrooms of the Oldham Corporation Gas Department, where someone directed me as to the location of the gasworks and which bus to take.

So I reported to Mr. Phillips, who was the firm’s Resident Construction Engineer and whose office was one of the several sheds which served as the construction ‘camp’ on the works site. Phillips came from Buckhurst Hill in Essex, had red hair, a supercilious manner and a long neck with an oscillating Adam’s apple. The long neck increased his height above his already lengthy frame to a degree which forced him to look down his nose when speaking to most people. This was not the only reason for his supercilious manner.

If I had expected to be treated as a fellow engineering colleague, albeit a junior one, and to be given some tuition in the civil and mechanical engineering which went with such an operation, I was quickly disillusioned. My principal function, Phillips made clear, was to act as wages clerk. This involved my “checking the men in” at 07.30 hrs. and checking them out at whatever knocking-off time had been decided. This meant that I had to be ‘on the job’ at 7.15.a.m. Also I was to do the Wages Sheet.

In days long before the calculator, much less the computer, the latter task took up a good deal of the week. The sheet was roughly what we should now call “A3” size, of suitably thin paper interleaved with blue carbon paper which allowed the details to be made in triplicate. There were various trades and rates of pay. Retort Setters – specialised bricklayers – got 2/- an hour, and steel erectors 1/10d. Then there were charge hands, labourers, tea boys etc. whose rates varied. Overtime rates also varied with trade or status. “What I am entitled to” had already been calculated to the last farthing by each man by the time you came to pay out the wages, and woe betide the wages clerk who had made the smallest error – unless you had paid out too much! It is still a mystery to me how men who otherwise appeared illiterate and innumerate to the extent of having difficulty in calculating the price of two four-penny tram tickets, had two remarkable talents. If they had worked 40 hours at 1/10 1/2d and a further twelve hours at time-and-a third and time-and–a-half on Sunday, or if a horse came third at 15 to 2, they could instantly calculate what was owing to them.

The foremen on the contract were Fred Baguley, the “Ganger” who hailed from Watchet in Somerset, Fred Garstang, the Retort Setter, and Ernie Lammiman, in charge of Steel Erectors. Ernie had worked for Dorman Long and claimed to have worked on both the Tyne Bridge at Newcastle and on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The principal problem with Ernie was the difficulty one had in writing his name quickly and in cursive writing – well you try it!

At that time too that I learnt that my study of economics at University had been incomplete. Somewhere in London, at the headquarters of the firm, was a large vault, stuffed with banknotes and coins, which rightly belonged to “the workers”. They were not allowed access to this until they had done some “work”, and there were various barriers between them and the golden hoard. I as wages clerk was the final barrier. I am not sure what I was expected to do about this, and the fact that my take-home pay at the time was about half that of a labourer on overtime did not prevent my being one of the reviled “bosses” .

I was also introduced to the “sub” system. Wages were paid on a Thursday, but since the previous Thursday, the cash resources of some had dried up. It was allowed for a man to draw from Monday onward, some of the cash which he had already earned, this amount being deducted from the wages which he would otherwise receive the following Thursday. In some cases the amount remaining was very small, necessitating another “sub” being demanded at the first moment that it was available. This vicious circle became even more pernicious when a man got his wages on a Thursday, paid a moneylender what was owing, and “subbed” first thing on Monday in order to live.

My first couple of nights at Oldham were spent in a somewhat tatty hotel, I believe in Glodwick Road. Oldham not being a tourist resort, the demand for accommodation was not excessive, particularly in war-time, so three star hotels were conspicuous by their absence. The “boss” at that time was the Chief Operating Engineer, one Horace Kerr, whose main job seemed to be sitting in his London office being ‘surprised and disappointed’ that some member of his staff had spent 3d. too much on a sandwich. Many years later I had the temerity to tell him that the Operating Dept. had the reputation of being the poor relation of the firm. He didn’t like it much! We were therefore expected to look for ‘digs’ and get them as soon as possible, thereby relieving the department of financial burdens. I could never understand how one was supposed, with no local contacts, to get ‘digs’ in an unknown locality within twenty four hours and at the same time get on with the job as quickly as possible.

In another town, much later, I saw in a shop window a card which read : “Young person wanted to sleep-in with soldier’s wife – husband abroad.” (No, I didn’t!)

Returning to Oldham; because of a certain contact which my father had had, I was able to contact Will Coller and his wife Clare, who lived at 331, Park Road, then a rather up-market part of Oldham. They agreed to take me in. Will was the head of one of the local schools.

Whereas the ‘up-market’ status of Park Road was marked by each of the terrace houses having a miniscule front garden, the back premises consisted of a paved yard from which a door led into the ‘ginnal’ – a back lane. Having been accustomed in our Southern affluence to most houses having back gardens on which flowers and vegetables could be cultivated, I wondered what was so up-market about Park Road. Next door to 331 was a similar house occupied by a Miss Sharples, a spinster lady of some sixty-odd years, and her companion, lodger or whatever, a Miss Berry, who was ‘Provision Of Meals Officer’ for the local education authority, and was thus known as “POM” Berry. There was a party wall dividing the entrance halls of the two houses, and if the ladies-next-door required male assistance or male strength, there would be a knock on the party wall, usually answered by Will Coller. After a time, it was noticed that should Miss Sharples get knowledge that the Collers would be out for the evening, and that I would therefore be alone in the house, this would be used as a fitting time to seek my advice about the faulty electric iron or other gadget. Consultation was followed by tea and cake.

One of the features of Oldham life was the fanaticism with which housewives kept their front doorsteps not only clean, but ‘holy-stoned’ by scrubbing them with blocks of limestone. Not to do so gave the offender a reputation for idleness. This could lead to ostracism and suitable comments in the shopping queue.

A report in the Manchester Evening News in my time said that given the chance, Oldham housewives would blacklead the tramlines outside their houses!

Being with the Collers gave me a standing in the social life of Oldham which made a nice change from my lowly status as wages clerk. I became to some extent part of the family, and even accompanied them on one occasion to a Mayor’s reception.

The cold weather had not eased on my first evening with the Collers. Just before bed-time, Mrs. Coller offered me a cup of cocoa. This is not one of my favourite drinks, but on a bitter night it had its attractions, so I thanked her gratefully. This registered with her as “John likes cocoa”, so I got cocoa every night thereafter. What is more, she decided that ordinary “Bournville” was not in accord with her standard of hospitality nor with my refined taste, so “Van Houten’s” I got. So much for wartime austerity!

A couple named Harrison were great friends of the Collers, and dropped in frequently, particularly Margery, who, unlike the Collers, swore like a trooper and that frequently. Her husband was in the wholesale jewellery business which came in handy when, in April of that year, Mavis and I decided to get engaged.

Oldham then was a mill town, and with all that implies. It was dirty, cold, damp and depressing especially in March. Going to and from the works, I frequently saw the effects of rickets in the bowed legs of mill workers and would have to brush off the cotton from my clothes after sitting with them on the bus.

Other features recalled are the U.C.P. café’s whose specialties were tripe, chitterlings and cow-heel pie. Discovering that U.C.P stood for ‘United Cattle Products’ did nothing to improve my appetite. Later, whilst in Stockport, I had to pass each morning a shop which seemed to sell nothing but tripe, this being unloaded into the shop window which was lined with white marble slabs. In this receptacle the tripe was usually seething like an angry sea when I passed.

Oldham was not unique in having its Yate’s Wine Lodge which seemed to be somewhat out of place, and the “Temperance Bar” which consisted of a sort of shop counter and a bare wooden floor, with various bottles on shelves. These held Sarsaparilla or Dandelion and Burdock. There were perhaps other concoctions which I have forgotten.

A feature of Lancashire towns in those days was that they were mostly rated as ‘County Boroughs’, which gave each its right to its own education authority, its police force and its transport system. The police had slightly differing uniforms and the trams and buses considerably differing ones. Manchester transport was red and cream, Stockport red and white, Oldham chocolate and ‘sour milk’ and Rochdale a rather splendid blue. Some of the surrounding smaller towns were too small for this finery and some combined to form a joint transport authority. It took me some time to identify the ramshackle trams which bore the logo “S.H.M.D. Joint Board” and to translate this into “Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley and Dukinfield”.

On the SHMD trams, the driver’s platform was open to the elements. Communication between conductor and driver was by way of a long leather thong which, when pulled, operated a bell in the driver’s vicinity. On the S.H.M.D these thongs had rotted in places and had been repaired variously with bits of string and bootlaces.

Oldham trams were not much better. I was passing one at Mumps one day and it was refusing to start. The conductor emerged carrying the crow-bar with which points were adjusted. He knocked off some of the paint at a strategic point, leant the crow bar against the bare patch and stuck the other end on the rails. A shout to the driver produced a blinding flash and the tram lurched forward the necessary few inches for it to make a proper earth connection. No, I wouldn’t have believed it either unless I had actually seen it happen!

The Collers had given me a bedroom immediately over the large front sitting room. There was a war on, however, which meant that fuel was in very short supply. The house, like so many others of the time, had no central heating, the only source of warmth being the kitchen range. Fortunately the kitchen was large enough to function as a dining/living room. This meant, however, that I either shared the kitchen with the Collers or if I needed privacy, had to retire to my over-commodious room which was as remote from the fire as it could be. Going to bed in this room was an ordeal. One got undressed and then put on about twice as much clothing, hoping that one’s nose would remain free of frostbite overnight. The pub had its attractions in that it was always reasonably warm.

However, the March weather improved into April and May when I managed to get out and about on the bike which I had taken to Oldham following one of my trips home. I recall cycling one evening on to Saddleworth Moor, almost to Holmfirth, not realising of course what reputations each would later acquire. At other times I would tour the district, including cycling to Manchester, often cursing the cobbles and tramlines which were not the ideal roadway for a push-bike. I remember wondering why bikes could not be fitted with shock-absorbers. It was very many years later that the cycle industry discovered that they could – by which time the cobbles and tramlines had, like me, disappeared.

At this time also I made contact with some distant relations-by-marriage at Rochdale, named Barlow. They had a daughter, Freda, of about my own age who also liked cycling, so I was able occasionally to get away from the work atmosphere. I discovered, under Freda’s guidance on some of our trips into the country, that Lancashire was not all mills and muck. What, I wonder, happened to Freda ?

About once in six weeks, we were allowed to have a week-end at home and were given a rail voucher to get there. On one of these occasions I decided that I could travel home overnight on a Friday and thus save a day’s travelling. From Oldham I got as far as Crewe without trouble, except that we were a little late in arriving. I alighted in time to see the tail-light of my ‘connection’ to Birmingham heading rapidly in a southerly direction. There was no alternative but to wait for the 5.30 the next morning. I found a seat, and spent about seven hours in an unheated waiting room, lit by a black-out specification bulb, my sole company being a pile of American army coffins. It was not the happiest night of my life!

The days went by and soon we were in June. This was June 1944, a time of great significance during the war. We did not know it at the time, but “D-Day” was in the offing. Just at this time however, the employees of Manchester City Gas Department decided to show their patriotism by going on strike. Not a lot of people know that, and so much for the myth of war-time solidarity amongst the British people! During the war, the gas industry not only supplied the domestic and industrial gas requirements of the country, but was also producing benzole for motor-spirit and the raw materials for explosives, fertilisers and medicines. It was for that reason that as a qualified chemical engineer, I had been drafted to industry rather than infantry in the first place.

However, someone in Head Office had recalled that I had done three years’ military training. I therefore received an order to report to Bradford Road Gasworks at Manchester immediately. There I was to share the “command” on shift work, of a company of Royal Engineers and between us, run the works. I like to think that we did it rather better than the permanent personnel.

On my return to Oldham, I discovered that some other ‘mug’ had taken my place as Phillips’ lackey, and that I was wanted at Stockport, where our Construction engineer, Arthur Newton, had become ill. He had charge of the work we were doing at Stockport (Portwood) gasworks, and also of similar work at Hyde, Rochdale and Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire. I did not have much to do with the construction work this being mostly in the hands of capable staff foremen who had an occasional visit from the Manchester Area Engineer, one Billy Higgs. It was there that I first made acquaintance with Stan Horton, a senior retort-setter foreman and his daughter Nadine, always known as “Duckie” who was Billy Higgs’ clerk at Manchester. That is another story.

Nevertheless I had to handle all the ‘admin’ and had a girl wages clerk to help with the paper work. On Wednesdays I would go to the bank and draw cash to pay out on all four contracts, going on bus, tram, or even on the bike, to pay out on Thursdays. The thought that I might be bashed over the head never occurred to me.

For a short time I stayed on with the Collers at Oldham, but the daily commuting seemed to be a waste of time, and I eventually moved to Offerton, just south of Stockport where I lodged with a Mrs Lewis. This change of location meant an easy access to the Cheshire countryside for the spare moments.

We had a squad of twelve steel erectors on the Stockport contract. Six of these were Irishmen who of course were not liable for military service. I discovered that output was well below what it should have been, and after consulting with the foremen, I gathered that the six were the problem, led by a certain Jeremiah O’Mahoney. As was necessary under war-time regulations, I applied to the local Employment Officer for permission to discharge them, and which permission he gave. After some minor dispute led by Jeremiah, I had the satisfaction of telling him that we no longer required his services nor that of his mates. I was not popular, except with the remaining six erectors who, the following week, produced more than the twelve had. During my time at Stockport, the retort plant which we were re-building was completed, and with the return of Arthur Newton, I changed roles and took charge of its re-commissioning.

During the Stockport period I was directed to “get over to Glossop where they are having some trouble”. I got on my bike and trekked over to Glossop, to find that the type of plant that they had was of a kind I had never met before. I was doubtful of my ability to convince the manager that I was indeed the ‘expert’ which the company had promised to send, but somehow I got away with it.

Towards the end of that period, late in 1944, I received a copy of a letter from Head Office to the manager of the works at Grimsby, a Colonel Kennington, informing him that subsequent to his request for assistance they were sending Mr. Green, “one of our senior operating engineers” who would report to Grimsby as soon as possible. Nobody had told me that I was a “senior engineer ”, and after only a year with the firm, it took some believing.

And so I said farewell to the Manchester area. I was to return at odd times after that, but that is yet another story. 1944 was quite a year!

© The Estate of William John Green, 2004