LIFE WITH WOODALL-DUCKHAM
In the summer of 1943, following the publication of University exam.
results, I was summoned to appear before a Government Committee which would
decide my future. There were two possibilities, either I continued a
military career, or I went into Industry. As my military history had been
slightly more creditable than my academic one, I expected to go on to an
O.C.T.U. with a view to being commissioned. However, the Committee thought
otherwise and I was instructed to put my chemical engineering qualifications
to good use. The Woodall-Duckham Vertical Retort and Oven Construction
Company, then with its headquarters at Guildford, was one suggestion made,
together with one or two Companies in the Midlands.
One of the latter was favoured by my Father and he offered to 'use his
influence'. This would, of course have kept me in the Midlands and I would
have been expected to continue living at home. As one of my principal
desires by this time was to get away from home, I resisted this,
particularly as I doubted whether his 'influence' would count for as much as
he imagined it would.
It is incredible how much pressure and emotional blackmail my parents
applied to keeping me at home. From this distance in time, I wish I could
know the thinking which went on behind all this. They never seemed to
realise that the harder they tried, the harder they made it for me to
I MEET HORACE.
Eventually I was called by W-D for interview at Guildford, then their
wartime H.Q., with 'our Mr. H. Kerr, Chief Operating Engineer'. After a
journey from Stourbridge via Paddington and Waterloo, sampling the delights
of the Southern Railway en route, I was ushered into the presence of
one Horace Kerr (pron. Car), who was later to be referred to as 'Horace' -
but not to his face. Henry Read, of ever-hallowed memory and of whom more
anon, was wont to refer to him as 'Horace Horsecollar' after a Disney
cartoon character, but the resemblance was slight.
Horace was a well Brylcreemed, dapper man with rimless pince-nez and an
unbending manner. His favourite opening gambit was 'Quite candidly'
especially when expressing disapproval. This was designed to suggest that he
hated upsetting you by being quite candid, but had to do so out of a sense
of duty. Occasionally he would make a studied effort to unbend which made
him appear rather pathetic. As one Operator later said, "'When Maurice
Wadsworth tells you a dirty story, you roll on the floor laughing; when
Horace tells you the same story you want to go out and be sick!' That says
Horace, I understood, had once been on the 'Outside Staff'. This was
difficult to imagine since his sartorial and brylcreemed elegance, his
bowler hat and Crombie overcoat, and nose adorned with pince-nez did not
seem to match up with coke dust and 'Operators' Sweat' which was rumoured to
be worth a guinea a box.
It was told that one day Maurice Wadsworth, whose style and appearance
differed from Horace in subtle ways, was being hauled over the coals by
Horace for complaining about conditions. Horace was explaining that in his
time on the outside staff, things were much worse. He had to be on the job
at six in the morning, rarely finished before ten at night, had no time for
lunch, got covered with dust and sweat every long hour of the day and got a
week-end leave only every three months etc. etc.
Maurice waited for him to finish. "Did you like it, sir?' he asked.
Horace later became a director of the company, but as a junior director
had an over-zealous urge to ensure that that his department should be an
economic unit. He thought that the way to do this was to try and run his
department on a shoe-string. Consequently the spending of every penny by his
staff was subject to Horace's intense scrutiny. You were trusted with not
blowing up or melting down the plant and with the safety of operatives, but
a claim for one extra torch battery or postage stamp caused Horace 'surprise
Because of this, outside operators were often deprived of facilities
which other departments took for granted and were accordingly thought of as
the 'poor relation' Dept., being treated as such by some Construction Dept
On a later occasion when I had achieved a degree of seniority and had
suffered some ridiculous reprimand ("I am surprised and disappointed
......") I had the temerity to tell him this. He didn't like it.
I did not, of course, know about all this at the time of my first
interview to which we now return.
Having been advised by Mr. Harold R. Perks, who had preceded me in a
similar interview by twelve months, that I must convince Horace that my one
aim in life, apart perhaps, from entering heaven at a later stage, was to
enter the service of the Woodall-Duckham Company, I was offered a job as a
potential Junior Operator. I was then taken to see T.C. Finlayson the
Technical Director and sent home to await developments. My starting salary
was to be £250 per annum. I was bound by oath never, ever, to reveal this
princely sum to anyone on pain of undisclosed but terrible punishment.
At the station on my way home I ran into Willie Gardiner who had just
retired as Technical Director and by some means we got into conversation as
far as the parting of our ways at Effingham Junction. I wished that I had
known him earlier.
I START AT SALTLEY.
Soon there arrived a letter commanding me to report to 'our Mr. F. C.
Wagg at Saltley Gasworks Birmingham on Monday September 3rd. 1943 at 9.a.m.,
This was a little disappointing as I had hoped and expected to be sent to
some far flung outpost such as Penzance, Edinburgh or even Warrington as my
However, I took the train to Snow Hill, followed by a Washwood Heath tram
from Dale End and duly presented myself at the gatehouse of Saltley gasworks
as instructed. There I met the gateman, a cheerful little character in a
brown 'cow-gown' and a 'flat-at'. On enquiring for Mr. Wagg of Woodall
Duckham, I was a little non-plussed when the gateman grinned broadly and
said, "Yo' won't see 'im yet!" On my pressing to know when I would be likely
to see him, the answer came. "Wednesday if yo 'm lucky."
As there was a war on and everyone was being exhorted by authority to
work themselves to the limit, I, in my innocence, considered this to be
rather odd. I was, however directed to a small village of shacks, one of
which was the abode of the 'Carbonisers'. This title was apparently the
former name for Operating Engineers, most of whom of the older generation
had no engineering qualifications.
Operations, in Freddie Wagg's absence, were under the supervision of one
Roland Law who came from Marple in Cheshire. Adjoining this shack was a
larger and more luxurious set of shacks from which operated the Construction
Engineer, one Johnnie Downs, son of J. H. Downs, the Company's Chief
Construction Engineer. Obviously nepotism was permitted. Johnnie was capably
served by his secretary Dot Read, whose husband Henry looms large in later
narrative. There was also an assortment of foremen, including one Fred Atkin,
an 'ironfighter', whose appearance suggested that he might have been knocked
up quickly by Frankenstein as a rough prototype before hitting on the
formula for a better-looking one. Someone else once described Fred's face as
"having been roughly chiselled out of a lump of solidified porridge".
Fred's never appearing as a sartorial model in the 'Tailor and Cutter'
was something on which limitless money could safely be placed. I believe it
was Fred who, when asked in a pub in some part of the country whether he
wanted a 'can' or a 'jar' of beer, this local usage for a half or a pint
being unknown to him, replied with genteel diplomacy, "Yo' con gi'e it us in
a bucket if yo'm a-minded - we'll get it out!" Fred Atkin was one of the
industrial hazards for which a University training had left one a little
After a day or two under the tutelage of Roland Law, a form arrived for
me from Head Office, enquiring about some of my personal details. Law very
kindly volunteered to help me fill it in. Putting aside a slight resentment
at the presumption of my illiteracy, I suffered this assistance.
Towards the end was the question, "State any technical or academic
qualifications". Law looked down his nose and said, "Of course you won't
have any of those yet will you!" So it was with great glee that I was able
to say, "Well, only an honours degree as yet." As he hadn't, it was a moment
to be cherished.
On the following Wednesday morning Freddie Wagg turned up. Fred was an
elegant man, somewhat below average stature, who has been a good friend over
the years. He was in such sharp contrast to the abundance of Fred Atkin
types at Saltley that it was difficult to imagine him 'sweating his guts
out'. I later discovered that he usually avoided having to do that by
getting someone else to do it while he stood by in his white coat. This he
did with such aplomb and bonhomie that even if one felt exploited, no
offence was taken. It was a valuable lesson and example of good management,
emulated on suitable occasions in the years that followed.
It seemed to be the curious policy of the Company to put the most junior
operator on the night shift. This seemed to me to be a little odd, since the
extension of Murphy's Law dictates that if something is going to go wrong,
it will happen at some ungodly hour in the middle of the night, and most
likely a Saturday night.
To leave the least experienced man to deal with the problem at such an
hour seemed to be a policy fraught with danger. One realised later that this
policy was to enable the senior man to arrive next morning to a scene of
chaos, and to restore order within the hour - thus collecting a great deal
of kudos. Another valuable lesson!
Having been shown the three million (approx) inspection points, known as
'U', 'T' and 'V' boxes in descending order of size, at each of which I was
expected to take temperatures every hour or so to give me something to do, I
was put on night shift on the three benches of 'Lambent' retorts at Saltley.
One rapidly learnt of what Maurice Wadsworth, of hallowed memory, was
later to call 'The Graphite Method' of temperature taking. This method
provided a certain economy of effort and resulting sweat. It worked like
If the temperature of the third pass of the 'B' side of retort No. 21 was
1360°C at 12 midnight, and 1340°
at 4.a.m. it was reasonable to suppose that at 2.a.m. it would be something
between the two. It was possible by extrapolation to apply this principle to
both axes of the temperature sheet both spatially and temporally.
The term 'Lambent' was a curious one to find applied to gas retorts. The
word derives from the Latin lambere which means 'to lick'.
The heating gases 'licked' their way along horizontal flues instead of
belting their way up or down vertical flues. It seemed to be a reasonable
idea, but a dearth of classicists in the Company made one query the
provenance. I had a theory at the time that Freddie Wagg had invented the
term when he was the owner of Lambourn gas works in the hope of financial
advantages but it could not be proved.
One of the main fears on night shift was that a retort would become 'hung
up', i.e. the flow of coal which, in 'continuous vertical retorts' should
have been continuous, became gridlocked. On enquiring from Mr. Wagg what
should be done if this happened, I was told, "Get the stoker to rod it."
Since, by the time one became aware of the problem, said stoker had probably
been rodding his guts out for at least the past hour, it was both wise and
diplomatic not to take this advice too literally. There were those who,
being insensitive to this diplomacy, had been threatened with having the
"b****y rod wrapped round yer b****y neck".
One learnt that there were few emergencies which could not be left until
next morning to be summarily dealt with by one's superior who would then be
in a good mood, having taken the credit.
I do recall Freddie Wagg's being summoned away from perusal of the
Financial Times to deal with a small problem 'up on the bench'. The stoker,
a black man with the proportions of Mike Tyson, explained to Fred what the
trouble was and what he had done about it. Fred, about foot and a half
shorter, looked up at him with a grin and said, "You've been a silly bugger
haven't you!" I expected murder to be done. Instead the stoker grinned
sheepishly, revealing the biggest set of white teeth I had then encountered,
and all was well. Fifty years later, a friend said to me, "My old headmaster
used to say, "Never call a man a fool. You can call him a bloody fool, but
that's different." How true!
Being the new boy, I was naturally a little anxious about my performance
and prospects. There was, however on that 'job' another operator named Jack
Baker. It was with some satisfaction that I soon realised that Jack did very
little, and that I did more. The logic was that if the firm kept Jack on the
strength, then I must be safe. This illusion was soon shattered however when
Jack got the sack.
OFF WE GO!
After a month or two at Saltley, it was decided, quite erroneously, that
I was fit to be let out on my own and I was sent to Melton Mowbray to 'put
to work' a couple of 44" retorts which had been rebuilt The risk which the
firm took in doing this is truly amazing. Melton Mowbray bore little
similarity to Saltley and I had not yet seen any plant heated up, lit up or
'put to work'. So, armed with a 'black book' of instructions, an 'Operators
Box' containing a few tools and overalls and little else, I was let loose
upon the world. Freddie Wagg visited once a week, but otherwise I was left
to put my own interpretations on the instruction book, thereby illustrating
the axiom that it is not what you write that matters, but what the reader
understands from what you have written. There is sometimes a wide gap.
Looking back on that job, I can only say, "Had the Lord not been on my side
At Melton I was spared the trauma associated with subsequent moves in
that I did not have to 'look for digs'. The Gas Company Management had
'fixed me up ' with a family who lived in a terrace house in Charlotte
Street. It was within walking distance of the works; I had a room of my own,
three meals a day and my laundry done, all for 30/- a week. In the ' digs'
also was an R.A.F. barber which meant free haircuts. One member of the
family was the landlady's old uncle, called 'Unc' who sat by the fireplace
and talked. He was in the habit of having a large firebrick put in the range
oven after 'tea'. When it was bedtime, he would extract this, wrap it in a
blanket and take it to bed with him. I was given to understand that this
brick, a few days before my arrival, had been accidentally broken. The
gasworks, being a potential source of firebricks!
I am still unsure whether this was a strange coincidence or whether I had
been 'used'. Still, at 30 bob a week .... !
The works staff at Melton Mowbray consisted of a Manager whose name I
forget, and a works foreman named Albert whose conversation usually began
with the words, 'Ye caaan't do that!" If he meant "You shouldn't do it that
way", he was probably right, but I knew no other.
The W-D construction staff at Melton comprised a Resident Engineer, Haydn
Thomas, who in spite of his name came neither from Vienna nor Ton-y-Pandy,
but from Ilkeston. There was also a Bricklayer Foreman named Norman, a
labourer and Harry Tune. It seemed to be a rather 'top-heavy' arrangement.
Harry was a pipe fitter, but was distinguished by his up-market
lifestyle, He had a clean white overall every day, always travelled first
class, and when off duty in his wide-brimmed hat and silk handkerchief,
looked like a prosperous bookie. (Is there any other sort?)
He had his own seat in the corner at the George Hotel and his little
coterie of drinking friends who sat at his feet. Once I dropped in to the
George for a swift pint after a night inspection at the works, and as I was
looking somewhat scruffy, was acknowledged by Harry, but with a patronising
air which was wondrous to behold. His pals were probably told that I was
Melton Mowbray boasted a cattle market. The legend had it that one of our
staff, Reg. Nicklin I believe, had once been held up in an open car, of
which he was a proud owner, at the gates of the market. Unfortunately a
cattle truck had also been held up alongside him. One of the cattle sensed
an urge for evacuation, and over the side of the truck, had deposited its
load in our man's lap. He had not enjoyed the experience. It might have been
more apt had this happened to 'Pat' Grealey!
"HIGH HEID YINS"
(This is a Glaswegian term for those in authority)
One soon became aware that in the chain of command of the Woodall-Duckham
Company there were shining ones somewhere between Horace's sublimity and us
lesser mortals. These were known as Group Engineers. There were at the time
three of them, Percy Molland, Bert Cottrell and Ron Colles. Three more
contrasting personalities one could not hope to meet on the proverbial
Their function seemed to be to travel round the country to 'see how
things were going', but were always in the office on Monday to read your
weekly report. Woe betide you if this was not posted in time.
There was almost a standard 'form' for this report which usually started,
'I thank you for your letter of ..... (last week), and note your remarks.
Temperatures and expansions during the week have been satisfactory, and
details are attached.....
After this the object was to tell the truth, nothing but the truth, but
not necessarily the whole truth, knowing that after perusal by the relevant
Group Engineer, your report would find its way into Horace's office to be
thoroughly nit-picked. From time to time a dreaded OP/HK letter would arrive
which started with the inevitable, "I am surprised and disappointed....."
and concluded with "Quite candidly....." This was usually because you'd
charged for an extra 1½d stamp on the petty
One was issued with a duplicate book, alternate leaves having the
Company's heading, and containing one sheet of poor quality carbon paper
which lasted at least a quarter of the way through the book. In this one
wrote the weekly report, sending off the top copy and retaining the carbon
copy in case your report was misunderstood - a not infrequent occurrence.
Eric Walton was known to complain that the 'silly b*****s in head office'
should know that when he wrote 'up', he really meant 'down' and so on.
In time one scrounged, begged, borrowed or even bought second-hand, a
typewriter. Such elaborate equipment was probably frowned-on initially by
Horace since it cost money. Eventually the time saved at Head Office on
Mondays by not having to decipher a variety of illegible handwriting became
apparent and a blind eye was turned to this extravagance. Mind you, some of
the typing was almost as illegible - but not quite.
One learnt, in time, to keep all OP/HK letters. I was gratified once to
be able to reply to a 'surprised and disappointed' letter by pointing out
that I had merely been acting in accordance with letter Ref: OP/HK of two
years previously. It was one of those rare, sweet moments.
The first Group Engineer I encountered was Percy Molland (OP/PCM). He had
visited at Saltley, but apart from a desultory, "Well, how are you getting
on?'' followed by the formal reply, we had no conversation, Percy then
having other things to do than consort with juniors.
Percy had oversight too of Melton and so came to see me. He was of London
origin and had always lived there, and travel-wise was MetroCentric'. To get
from London to anywhere was no problem, but to get from, say, Bradford to
Liverpool needed some intense research and concentration. He once confessed
that he could never understand Bradshaw's Railway Guide as the only one
which was of use to him was the London A.B.C. Someone warned me that 'Percy
will arrive on the job, shut his right eye, focus his left on a point on the
horizon, and begin to talk. Fifteen minutes later.....!
Percy was a pleasant character, but sometimes a little distant. In later
years he took as his holiday a coach tour of the Black Forest. On his return
he expressed his satisfaction based on the fact that there was no need to
understand German as the courier spoke English, and that there was no
difficulty with the food as fish and chips were always available. With Percy
I first encountered the Londoner's difficulty in distinguishing between
'Law' and 'Lore'.
Bert Cottrell was a stocky man slightly resembling Bob Monkhouse but with
a small moustache and an engaging grin which was as sincere as that of Bob
Monkhouse. He was christened 'The Gold-Brick Salesman' by one Frank Norrie,
a Scot with a dour and jaundiced outlook.
Bert's solution to many a problem which you brought to him was, in
effect, "You do what you think best, old boy, but if its something I might
find difficult to explain, make sure I don't find out!" I have since met
Bishops of the Church of England who have the same simplistic attitude. He
had the happy knack of making you feel important and responsible, and it was
only after beer and lunch that you realised that he had 'done it again'.
'The Buck' tended to shy off Bert.
Ron Colles I did not encounter until later in my W-D career as he tended
to be concerned with works in the eastern counties and the east of Scotland,
both then being 'Indian Country' to me - but things were to change.
BACK TO BRUM
After managing to get away with the commissioning of Melton Mowbray
without explosion or dismissal - or both, I was given a short spell back in
the Birmingham Area. A nodding acquaintance with Nechells and Windsor Steet
was followed by some weeks at Swan Village where I made the acquaintance of
a further delightful mixture of the characters who made up the W-D staff.
Alex White was the Construction Engineer, with a slouch hat, an Austin Ten
and a pipe. Alex's contribution to my eventual welfare was a tip he gave me
to get a provisional driving licence. The war was still on, and only
provisional licences were being issued. At the end of the war, if you had
held a provisional for a certain period, you were exempted from taking a
driving test. Alex's advice in 1944 ensured that when I did eventually come
to drive, three lessons, a trip round a works in a mobile crane, and a
session on the 'dodgems' at Cleethorpes ensured my getting a permanent
licence. Unkind acquaintances have been known, on being told this, to remark
that it explains a lot.
Alex, the Construction Rep. was unusually but totally eclipsed in
personality by the formidable Senior Operator, Sid Branson. Sid was almost a
legend with the Company, having been taken on, I believe, by Sir Arthur
Duckham in the early days of the firm when it had provided a viable
alternative to the French Foreign Legion to those who had been disillusioned
by civilised life.
Among these were, also legendary, Willie Bennett, Steve Burrows and Jack
Fish. Willie and Steve I never met, but Jack turned up once at Croydon.
Sid was a stocky character with round red face and with black hair which
provided him with a permanent 'five-o'clock shadow. His alter ego was Frank
Norrie, a dour Scot, mentioned elsewhere, with whom he had a love-hate
relationship. This, if stimulated, could produce some interesting results.
Much later, Don. Gold 'innocently' interrupting Frank's holding forth on
his relationship with Sid, said, "Frank, is Mr. Branson a B.Sc.?" Without
pause for thought came the answer, "Aye, he's a B***** Stupid C***!"
Sid was interested in the Scout movement, and had once been to a Jamboree
in Holland where leaders were given noms de guerre.
The one allocated to Sid was 'The Black Bear'. This was so apt that it
stuck, and was thoroughly exploited by Frank who could work an incredible
amount of withering scorn into his pronunciation of 'The Bearrrrrr'.
Sid lived at Shirley, a suburb of Birmingham, and his telephone number in
those days of dials with letters and numbers was 'SHI 20591. Somebody,
probably Frank, discovered that on the telephone dial this was exactly the
same as 'PIG BODY'. Due capital was made out of this piece of serendipity.
Although there were no official Area Engineers at that time, it was
generally acknowledged that Sid was 'in charge' in the Birmingham Area.
Another of his minions was Pat Grealey who originated in Kidderminster and
this was betrayed by a weather-beaten countenance and vowels rather broader
than those normally encountered in 'Brum.'
I think that it was Sid who introduced me to the fact that inspection box
covers could best be removed by using a small pair of 'footprints' which
became my Operator's vade mecum thereafter, together with chalk,
notebook, torch, ruler and gloves. Horace even seemed to permit the
(infrequent) renewal of these essentials on Petty Cash. Before going out 'on
the job', Sid would ensure that the entrance of coke dust to his collar
could be restricted by pinning round his neck a triangular bandage filched
from a first aid box. This, too was a useful tip. Of course, our most used
tool was the D.F.P. (Disappearing Filament Pyrometer). These tended to vary
a little in the accuracy of the information they provided. Sid was expert in
selecting the instrument which agreed with the estimate he had already
arrived at, unaided by instruments, to prepare his weekly report.
Damper hooks were essential equipment. There seemed to be some deficiency
on the part of our drawing office in that these were rarely, like army
boots, the right size when supplied. Usually some modifications had to be
carried out by the client's blacksmith. Neither were they calibrated,
measurements being made by chalk marks checked with a ruler. In Mr.
Branson's domain, where the unit of measurement was often 'a gnat's cock',
the accuracy of chalk and ruler seemed inadequate.
Another essential tool was the 'Expansion Rod' We were expected to
measure the vertical expansion of the brickwork daily when 'warming up a
job'. This was done by measuring between the top of the brickwork and the
coal bunker joists using two lengths of wood, on one of which was nailed a
school ruler and on the other a datum mark. One would have thought that in
so large an organisation as W-D, and with the implied importance of
expansion readings, that such a simple measuring instrument would have been
sent to, or provided on, the site without question, but no, one usually had
to grovel either to the Construction Engineer or to the client's carpenter
to get one made.
The 'Black Book' of instructions said that the Operator should, during
his initial inspection. check that the 'buckstays' were vertical and
unbowed, and that during the warming-up period these should be checked
frequently. This involved putting up piano wire datum lines. Construction
engineers regarded this as a gross insult to their competence and so added
to tension between departments. As the acquisition of piano wire and the
labour involved in setting it up came under their jurisdiction and added to
their costs, we were on a loser from the beginning. Never in my own
experience was this instruction carried out and except in one or two unusual
circumstances did I ever hear of it being done. Certainly I never had a
'surprised and disappointed' letter for not having done it.
"ON CONSTRUCTION" - "'OWD'UM"
After some months in the Birmingham area, the wise ones decided that I
should be given 'further experience', and this was to take the form of the
dreaded penal servitude of 'going on construction'. This was to take place
at Oldham. It was on a miserable frosty, foggy day that I took train from
Birmingham to Manchester. Arriving at what was then London Road Station, I
staggered with my luggage to Victoria Station, truly a Victorian building,
blackened as was most of Manchester, with the smoke of countless 'dark
satanic mills' which were then active, as well as the smoke of countless
chimneys of satanic slum dwellings.
The train from Victoria was a non-corridor type typical of steam-hauled
suburban trains of the time, and smelt of soot and dirty overalls - among
At that time there were three railway stations at Oldham. 'Werneth',
according to the map, was on the Manchester side. The next was 'Central',
followed by the unlikely named 'Mumps'. The last name I had hitherto in my
innocence, associated only with a ghastly disease of childhood.
Applying a certain native logic, I assumed that a 'Central' station would
deposit me in the centre of the town. I had reckoned without Lancashire
Accordingly, one bitterly cold day - March 3rd. 1944 - I found myself
humping a full pack up a steep hill paved with large limestone cobbles,
towards the town. I had no idea of the whereabouts of the gasworks where I
had been told to report to 'our Mr. Phillips'. In the town I managed to find
the showrooms of the Oldham Corporation Gas Department, where I was told
that the works was in 'Igginsha' (Higginshaw) lane, and which bus to take.
After a journey past several "Dark Satanic Mills" and, incidentally, past
Mumps Station, I was deposited outside the gate of 'Igginsha' Gas Works.
Very near to the works was Royton Junction station at which my train would
have stopped. Nobody told you those things!
I was directed to Duckham's' cabin where I found 'our Mr. Phillips'. He
came from Buckhurst Hill in Essex. I cannot remember his first name(s).
Certainly he was never addressed by them. He was a tall, lean character with
carotty hair and a long neck. The skin of his face and neck, as is the case
with many who have his colouring, was blotchy. One was put in mind of a
somewhat over-ripe giraffe.
I shall never know the hidden agenda which led to my being sent to Oldham
'on Construction'. I was given the impression that it was to learn something
of the civil engineering and site administration side of the business. It
seems that if this was the reason it had either been inadequately
communicated to 'our Mr. Phillips', or that he chose to ignore it. On my
arrival at the Oldham site office, Phillips was 'out on the job', and I was
greeted by some minion with, "You must be the new timekeeper".
I gathered that my reason for being at Oldham was, in fact, to act as
timekeeper and wages clerk for the contract. Having been with the firm only
about seven months, I was in no position to query this, much less to
complain. The fact that the men on the job referred to me as the
'timekeeper' shows that they had been warned of my coming in those terms. I
found also to my consternation that I was expected to be on the job by
7.15.a.m. ready to 'check the men in' at 7.30.a.m.. This was done by being
at the office hut door with a box and accepting a numbered brass token from
each man as he arrived. If any were late, the matter was referred to the
appropriate foreman who would knock a quarter or half hour off the
latecomer's pay according to how late he was. The tokens were then placed on
a hooked board and collected at 'knocking-off' time.
For most of the rest of the time I was engaged in compiling a wages
sheet, a double foolscap record which had to be made out in triplicate with
carbon paper. Since computerisation, the whole thing could probably be done
in about ten minutes, but then it was done by 'long-hand', not even with an
adding machine, and took most of the week.
As the rate of pay was different for different trades and grades, close
attention and high accuracy were required. Concentration was not facilitated
by there being a diesel compressor just outside the office window. My
ability to add up long columns of figures in the presence of an intermittent
racket was certainly improved, but I began to wonder whether being shot
whilst in uniform might have been better.
I cannot remember Phillips ever offering me anything resembling tuition
in the mysteries of 'construction'. The foremen on the job were Fred Baguley
from Watchet who was the 'Navvy Ganger', Fred Garstang, the bricklayer
foreman and Ernie Lammiman who, I believe, came from the North East. Ernie
had worked for Dorman Long, had been involved in the construction of the
Tyne Bridge at Newcastle and, I believe, the Sydney Harbour bridge. 'Lammiman'
is a difficult name to write in cursive script - try it and see. What little
I picked up about 'Construction' was thanks to chats with these and to
watching what was done.
One incident which I remember was being sent out on my bike to pick up
some riveting dollies from some firm in Ashton-under-Lyne. It made a change.
One employee at Oldham was the inevitable 'tea-boy' who, as on most jobs
had passed his boyhood half a century before. Ours was a little man named
Penrose who appeared every morning with a jug of water and a broom. He would
take some water in his mouth and produce from it a fine spray which laid
some of the dust on the floor. He would then sweep up. In spite of his
precautions, some of the dust inevitably rose from the floor, to be
deposited on the desks, but some sort of equilibrium was maintained.
After a while Phillips would say to me, "Do you think you could rustle up
some Penrosian balm? This involved a trip to the mess-room and the location
of Penrose, who soon after would appear with a jug of tea.
Having been brought up with certain ideas about hygiene it took a little
effort on my part to get used to 'Penrosian Balm' and the conditions under
which it was dispensed.
On Thursday mornings, Phillips would go to the bank with one of the
foremen as escort to collect the wages. On his return we made up the pay
packets ready for distribution later in the day. From this ritual I made
some interesting discoveries. Men who in other respects appeared to be
innumerate to the extent of not knowing whether 2+2 made 4 or 3½,
knew exactly how much they should receive for 56¼
hours at 2/1 d. They could also calculate instantly how much they should
receive when a horse they had backed at 11-4 came in third. As I was lacking
in these skills and made the odd mistake on the wages list, I came in for
some 'flak' from time to time. I also discovered that the working man's idea
of economics was that somewhere in London, presided over by 'Head Office',
was a large vault full of money which rightly belonged to 'the workers'.
Between them and their rights was a chain of protective measures culminating
in Mr. Phillips and ultimately, myself. Since that experience, I'm afraid
that my understanding of socialism and 'workers rights' has been, shall we
say, a little 'coloured'. Much later, at Edinburgh, I was chatting to one of
the 'men' who asked about the cost of the work we were doing. He expressed
surprise when I told him that it would be something of the order of £70,000
- a lot of money in those days. "Who pays for it then, Mr. Green?' he asked.
"You do - every time you put a shilling in the gas meter" I replied. His
astonishment showed that until then he had had no idea of the connection.
My first couple of nights at Oldham were spent in some dingy hotel near
Mumps Bridge. Oldham was not the sort of town to attract much in the way of
a tourist trade, especially with a war on, so accommodation was limited and
used mostly by commercial travellers. Horace's economic policy limited hotel
living to an absolute minimum required to avoid sleeping rough. Furthermore,
few hotels, even in Oldham, could be expected to cater with breakfast for
those who had to be on the job at 7.15.a.m. so I could not start as
'timekeeper' until I had obtained some digs.
Fortunately, some remote connection had given me an introduction to Will
and Claire Coller who lived at 331 Park Road. Park Road was, for Oldham,
rather 'up-market'. It was still terraced housing, interspersed with 'ginnals'
and each house had its miniscule back yard, but Park Road houses also had
miniature front gardens, about six feet by four on which a few miserable
plants sometimes were allowed to struggle for existence, and by which the
house was separated from the pavement. The inevitable brush-grained front
door was topped by a small window of stained glass.
It was the custom in Lancashire towns for the women to be inordinately
proud of their front doorsteps, which if not cleaned and raddled, betrayed
idleness and called for censure. In Oldham this tradition extended also to
pavement corresponding with the house's frontage. It was said in other parts
that the Oldham women would black-lead the tramlines, given a chance.
Will Coller was headmaster of a local school and was well known in the
town. The Collers were childless and, I think, welcomed the opportunity of
doing a bit of parenting with a young man who had got beyond the nappy
changing stage. Next door lived an elderly Miss Sharples with whom lodged a
Miss Berry who was 'Provision of Meals' Officer for the local education
I think that these two spinster ladies also welcomed my advent. Almost
inevitably when the Collers were out and I was in, there would come a knock
at the door and there would be Miss Sharples with a problem involving some
domestic appliance. "Would you come round and have a look at it ...?"
Later, having satisfied themselves of my credentials, the Collers took to
inviting me to accompany them to various functions in the town. I once went
with them to a Mayor's reception! I also got to know several of their
personal friends, including the Harrisons, Marjorie being a 'character' who
would have made a hit in Coronation Street, and her husband a wholesale
jeweller who got me an engagement ring at trade price.
This association with the 'upper echelons' of the town was such a
complete contrast to life on the works. I think it saved my sanity.
The main problem at Park Road was the wartime shortage of fuel, which
meant that the kitchen range was the only source of heat, except on Sunday
evenings when a fire was put in the front sitting room. Meals were
consequently eaten in the kitchen. which was the only habitable room.
Privacy was rather lacking. My bedroom was quite large and was above the
normally unheated sitting room. Oldham is nearly 1000 ft. above sea level at
'Bottom o't Moor' (That was the actual name of the main road in the Mumps
area!) and March 1944 was very cold. Whereas there was the rare luxury
of a wash-basin in my room, removing enough clothing to facilitate a degree
of cleanliness called for a tremendous effort of will, but essential when
you had had a day at 'Igginsha'. A hot bath was only available once a week,
and for the same reasons.
From Park Road to the works involved using a 'Circular' Bus, which I soon
discovered was the same shape as the others, and changing at Mumps. I soon
managed to get my bike to Oldham and thereafter used it for transport. As
most of Lancashire then had cobbled streets, the bike took some hammering
and the tramlines were a great hazard in wet weather, but I, and the bike,
Characteristic of Oldham, and indeed of much of Lancs, but which I found
strange, were some of the 'catering establishments' in the town. Tripe was a
favourite local dish, together with chitterlings and 'cow-heel pie'. These
delicacies could be obtained from tripe shops, some of which had been
upgraded to restaurants under the name of 'U.C.P.' Consumption could be on
or off the premises, and if the former, you sat on a bench at a marble slab
table. If you wanted a 'take-away', you had it in the basin you had brought
with you. Packaging was not over-done in war-time.
'U.C.P.' seemed fairly innocuous until you found out that 'U.C.P' meant
'United Cattle Products'. Somehow the thrills of the abattoir seemed
uncomfortably close to the cuisine.
Other establishments were the 'temperance bars', places of minimal
comfort in which could be purchased 'Dandelion and Burdock', 'Sarsparilla'
and other exotic drinks of doubtful provenance, by the bottle or the glass.
One suspected that 'Deadly Nightshade' was kept under the counter for
Higher on the luxury scale were 'Yates' Wine Lodges' where a hot
blackcurrant laced with rum could be appreciated when it was ten below
outside, which it often seemed to be.
After I had been at Oldham for a few months Arthur Newton, the
Construction Rep. at Stockport went off sick. In view of the 'vast
experience' which I had then obtained both in civil engineering and in site
administration, I was despatched to Stockport to 'take over' - temporarily
of course, under the supervision of one W. C. Higgs (Billy) who was a senior
Rep. stationed at Bradford Road Manchester. His supervision seemed to be
limited to a weekly visit to ensure that beer was consumed, chaos was not
rampant, and that embezzlement was not carried out on too big a scale. My
move was an early example of the opportunism which pervaded the contracting
industry and of which one learnt to take fullest advantage.
I accordingly took train from Oldham, and arrived at Portwood Road
Gasworks Stockport. This lay in the shadow of the cooling tower of the
adjoining Power Station and the condensation from this tower helped to lay
the gasworks dust and to keep the tramlines permanently wet.
At that time, each town of any size had its gasworks, and the proud
borough councils of the north-west boasted their own transport, police and
gas departments. The heads of these were very proud of themselves, usually
being 'self-made' men. The head of the gasworks was the manager, Tommy
Reynolds, whose office was the best and largest in the characteristically
ornate Victorian office block. I was introduced to him, but obviously he
considered me to be of 'minion' status so I was thereafter ignored.
The emergence of Tommy from this office was treated by all as a sort of 'G.O.C's
inspection'. He would emerge wearing a de rigeur bowler hat and white
dust coat. The distinctive uniforms at Stockport enabled one at least to
know the 'rank' of the person you were dealing with. The Assistant Manager
named Holland wore a brown dust coat and a trilby hat. Laboratory staff wore
white dust coats, usually stained with gunge but with no hat, or else a cap.
Foremen wore brown dust coats and caps. Stokers wore blue overalls,
carpenters brown overalls - and so on. I must have caused endless confusion
by wearing practically all of these outfits except the bowler hat -
according to which job I was doing.
A "MONSTROUS REGIMENT OF WOMEN"? HARDLY!
I found that my ignorance of construction details was no problem since
construction work was in the capable hands of one or two senior foremen. The
bricklayer foreman was one Stan Horton, a small cheerful character who lived
locally at Hazelgrove and who had a nubile daughter, Nadine. She was known
universally as 'Duckie Horton' and worked as Billy Higgs' clerk at Bradford
Road. I discovered also that I had inherited from Arthur Newton a female
clerk whose name I forget. This was the first time with W-D that I had
encountered female staff. In fact any female on a gasworks was usually
strictly confined to office premises or the canteen.
CASH IN TRANSIT.
My principal function appeared to be to ensure that wages were paid to
men on the Stockport contract and also those at Rochdale, Hyde and Whaley
Bridge which was just over the border in Derbyshire.
This meant that each week there was a considerable 'pay roll'. After
collecting the money, I would distribute it to the various works, and having
no car, had to carry it in an attaché case on
buses or trams, or even in the saddle bag of my bike!
The tramway system which passed the works was used by the red and white
Stockport Corporation trams, but also by some green ones which bore the
legend 'S.H.M.D. Joint Board'. Enquiry revealed that these belonged to the
'Stalybridge, Hyde, Mossley and Dukinfield Joint Transport Board' The
vehicles were not long enough to get all that on! None of the four
municipalities mentioned could justify their own tram system so they pooled
resources - one of the rare cases of municipal cooperation in that part of
The vehicles were of the open fronted type, giving little or no
protection to the driver. Communication between him and the conductor was by
way of a cord which passed through various eye-bolts before triggering a
bell above the driver's head. This cord had, inevitably, either frayed or
had been gnawed through several times and mended with bits of string, old
shoelaces, or whatever came to hand. Their only merit in my eyes was that
they could take me to Hyde works when it was too wet for the bike - it often
At that time the thought of a possible 'mugging' did not occur. On one
occasion I had reason to collect the money the 'day before' and took it back
to my digs at Oldham, putting it under the bed overnight. Mrs. Coller later
found out about this and made me promise never to do such a thing again. "I
wouldn't have slept a wink all night etc."
At Oldham, and more particularly at Stockport, I encountered the 'sub'
system for the first time. Having received his wages on a Thursday, a man
could end up 'broke' by the following Monday and therefore needed a 'sub' -
a loan on his expectations. Wages were paid in arrear so he could have an
amount up to what he had already earned. One poor soul did this every week.
Having been brought up in rather different circles I had to adjust to the
fact that there were those whose financial acumen was limited if not
One success I had whilst on construction at Stockport concerned our squad
of steel erectors - 'iron-fighters'. There were twelve of them, six of whom
were Irish and therefore not constrained by the threat of military service.
Their leader was Jeremiah O'Mahoney - a tough baby if ever there was one. I
rather suspect that they had come over to try and cash in on the war effort
without making much effort. Costs for steel erection were soaring, so in
collusion with the foreman, I applied to the National Service Officer for
their 'release'. This was granted. The next week the steel erection costs
went down, since more was done by the remaining half of the gang who were
constrained by the threat of military service.
"ERIC" - OR LITTLE BY LITTLE.
After some weeks at Stockport, Arthur must have returned to work as I was
sent to Liverpool to relieve Eric Walton, the Operating Engineer at Garston,
Liverpool, while he took a holiday. I was greeted on the platform of Lime
Street station by Eric, wearing, as was his wont, an overcoat with a velvet
collar and a velour hat. Eric's home was at Cleveleys and his seniority
enabled him to be kept as much as possible in the West Lancashire area. He
was one of the Sid Branson/ Maurice Wadsworth/ Willie Bennet/ vintage. My
reception at the station gave me to suppose that I had 'arrived' as hitherto
I had had to find my own way to the works. I was, however, disillusioned,
since Eric had used my arrival to justify buying a lunch on petty cash. Eric
was what is called in these days, 'laid back', with something of a mañana
complex, but the term had yet to be invented.
At Garston was a younger colleague named Peter Littlehales whom Eric
called 'Shandy', No comment!
I don't know exactly how long I stayed at Liverpool, and do not remember
much about the Garston works, except that the Chief Chemist's name was
Gidlow and whom I was to meet again later in unexpected circumstances. I
lodged with an elderly parental couple, Mr. & Mrs. Ince, who lived in
Garston Old Road.
One day I spent with a Mr. & Mrs. Mace who lived at Blundellsands, and
who had some connection with my father. Mr Mace offered me a run through the
Mersey tunnel in his car. The tunnel was still something of a nine-day
wonder. When we returned to his house, it was announced on the radio that
the "D-Day" invasion had begun. I recall feeling terrible about it, for less
than a year before I had expected to continue a military career and if that
had happened I would almost certainly have been on that operation.
During the Garston spell I did manage to cycle through the Mersey tunnel
on a push-bike - twice. I do not suppose that many can make the same claim.
The Construction Rep. at Garston was Arthur (Johnnie) Kent, a small man
who was deaf in one ear and very deaf in the other. It was difficult to
remember which - causing problems at times.
I soon returned to Stockport where I lodged with a Mrs. Lewis, an elderly
widow who lived at Offerton on the south side of the town. This was useful
as I had become thoroughly fed up with the depressing conurbation between
Oldham, Manchester and Stockport. Offerton gave easy access to the Cheshire
countryside which I explored on the bike at week-ends. I was then occupied
with 'putting to work' the bench of retorts in which I had previously had a
'construction' interest and was now back on stream with the Operating Dept.
Whilst still there, I had an S.O.S. from Head Office to get to Bradford
Road Manchester A.S.A.P. Apparently the labour force there had gone on
strike for more pay. This was at the beginning of the Normandy invasion when
everyone was supposed to be on a patriotic high and in solidarity with 'our
boys'. I don't suppose this strike will be recorded in war-time records and
I don't suppose many people know about it.
I found myself in command of a company of troops which had been drafted
in to keep the gas supply going. My military training came in useful. After
working almost continuously for three days, snatching sleep on the office
floor, the strike finished and I went back to Stockport with a heightened
cynicism about the 'rights of the working man'.
We heard that during the strike, a coal man was delivering in the
Bradford Road area and was hailed by one of the strikers demanding coal. He
was told to 'go back to work and make some gas, then we'll see about
delivering you some coal'. At least that was the gist of his remarks! It was
here that I encountered again Mr. Gidlow from Garston who had also been
One character at Stockport who deserves mention is Billy Canavan, the
'tea boy' who, during the light up - and it was a big bench - kept me
supplied with tea almost continuously, and a sandwich for lunch. This
probably saved my life - Bless you Billy- wherever you are!
Soon after that I received a letter from Head Office directing me to go
to Grimsby. This enclosed a copy of a letter which had been sent to Colonel
Kennington who was the Manager of the 'Great Grimsby Gas Company Ltd.' By
this he was told of the firm's regret that he was having some technical
problems and that in accordance with his request for assistance, they were
sending Mr. W. J. Green, 'one of our senior and most experienced operating
engineers' to try and sort things out.
Nobody had told me that I was now a Senior Operating Engineer, and my
experience then was just about one year. Certainly I had not noticed the
great increase in pay that one might expect to be concomitant with such
preferment! Still, there WAS a war on.
After a week-end leave I found myself changing trains at Sheffield and
then on a train chuffing past the multitude of small stations which then lay
between Sheffield and Grimsby. I noted that Gainsborough was not
characterised by the same aesthetic beauty as were the works of the artist
of the same name, neither was Brigg very 'fair'. Finding my way from Grimsby
station past Tickler's Jam Factory to the works was comparatively easy, the
main railway line to London running through the works on a viaduct. You
could see the W-D chimney from the station. I came to the works, enquired
for the Manager, was ushered into the Colonel's presence, given into the
hands of Fred, the Chief Chemist and conducted to Woodall-Duckham's site
office. There I met Laurence Hislop, 'Our Rep.' who hailed from Dunfermline.
Later in my career I had the pleasure of meeting many Scots and with most
I met I was able to establish some rapport, indeed some became my good
friends. With Hislop however, I could hardly establish communication, never
mind rapport. He was everything that the words 'dour' and 'po-faced'
conveyed; a grey, humourless man with about as much charisma as 'Herr Flick
of the Gestapo'. He even looked a bit like Herr Flick without the glasses.
My arrival on 'his' site was plainly not a cause for rejoicing and my
introducing myself to him in his office hut was plainly an intrusion on his
precious time and floor space.
He had had my 'Operator's Box' dumped in a corner of the client's
laboratory, making it quite plain that the less he had to do with me the
better. I was told later that Hislop, on one of his contracts, had labelled
various huts 'Staff', 'Foremen', 'Charge Hands' and 'Carbonisers' in that
This attitude to the Operating Dept. which I frequently encountered, but
not quite so brazenly may, I think, have had three causes. First, the
previous generation of 'Carbonisers' had been rough and tough and the nature
of their work caused them to get dirty and sweaty. This lay uneasily with
the Construction Engineer's white collar status and appearance so that there
was a built in class distinction. Secondly, on a fixed price contract, the
commissioning charges were included in the price, and thus in the cost.
Having for many months carefully monitored the costing, the Construction
Rep. was faced in the closing weeks with this liability who might ruin his
carefully fiddled figures. 'Carbonisers' even went to the extent of wanting
desk space and washing facilities!
The third reason was the idea, at least sub-consciously held, that the
building of a retort plant was the creation of something of aesthetic and
architectural merit, which at its climax the Operating Engineer was going to
ruin by putting a fire in it and heating it up!
Later I went back to Grimsby to commission the plant that Hislop had been
engaged on during my first visit. He had thawed very slightly by then and
showed me his finished edifice, pointing out that instead of the usual dull
black graphite finish on the inspection boxes he had painted them with black
bitumastic paint which was glossy and looked much better. I though that he
would explode when at one point in the warming-up process the bitumastic
paint started to melt and ran down his beautiful brickwork. What does one
Comment on such problems at various times to our own Group Engineers
brought little satisfaction. "We get on very well with our own opposite
numbers in Construction" was the reply of at least one of them, implying
that the fault was on our side. Well, of course they did! Another factor was
Horace's 'shoe string' policy which gave us no support.
Being by this lack of cooperation forced to use such table, changing and
washing space as was available in Client's Lab. I wrote to Head Office
pointing out that I was there to do an investigation and to 'tune up' the
plant. This involved writing reports, preferably not under the eye of a
works chemist who might be under criticism, and I had various drawings and
instructions which were confidential. Furthermore I needed access to
facilities at all times, not just when the Lab was open.
I do not know what was said and by whom, but I was soon offered the key
to, and exclusive use of, a brick-built yard foreman's 'bothy' with desk,
washbasin - with hot water - and gas ring whereon to boil water for tea.
Another lesson learnt - don't be a doormat for idiots!
In fact, the Works Chemist was a cheerful soul - Fred somebody - whose
scathing wit about his own company's management enlightened many a dull day.
There too was his assistant, John Longdon, a lad with a sardonic outlook on
life in general who later joined W-D when the industry was nationalised.
John one day came into the lab in a foul mood informing Fred that "That
b***** exhauster's on the blink again." Fred replied, "John, that exhauster
is not a b***** exhauster, it's just an ordinary one." Until then I had
assumed from hearsay that every exhauster on every works was a b***** one.
It was nice to meet the exception.
MESSRS MANAGER AND CHAIRMAN.
The manager, Colonel Kennington, actually a Lt-Col. Retd., was rarely
seen on the works, but I was asked to see him in his office from time to
time. He did appear on the works when the Chairman of the Company made his
inspection. The Chairman was Mr. Tom. Wintringham of the Wintringham family
well known in Grimsby history, who had made their fortune from fish.
Wintringham would arrive in his chauffeured car wearing a heavy Ulster, a
scarf and tweed cap, and supported by a stick. He would be escorted to the
Manager's office where the Colonel would be waiting for him in an
unaccustomed dust coat and trilby. Throughout the visit they addressed each
other as 'Mr. Manager' and 'Mr. Chairman' - no I'm not kidding! Arriving at
the retort house they would take the lift to the rodding platform and then
wend their way down the stairs. I don't think either of them knew much about
the gas making process so that explanation of what I was doing had to be on
a rather elementary level.
On my first encounter, I was introduced by 'Mr. Manager' to 'Mr.
Chairman' as 'Mr. Green, who has come all the way from London to help us out
over one or two technical problems.' Mr. Chairman then shook me warmly by
the hand and thanked me very much. I don't think he knew I was there on
'cost-plus'! It was a nice contrast to Hislop's bonhomie!
At the end of the Chairman's inspection, the two of them would retire to
the Colonel's office. A Doulton tea set was taken out of the cupboard where
it had lain since the last time, and they would spend the rest of the
afternoon partaking of Earl Grey and scones conjured up by a lady clerk.
This routine was the object of vicious and withering scorn from Fred the
Chemist whilst supping his own Co-op Tips out of a grubby mug.
The 'Heat Attendant' at Grimsby was Frank. I do not recall his surname.
Frank was about 6ft.6ins tall, which made his temperature taking of some
'passes' easy, and some impossible. His size made him a useful ally and an
insurance against having 'the b***** rod wrapped round your b***** neck' -
an ever-present hazard on gasworks. Frank used the stoker's mess room and
there hung his donkey jacket whilst he took temperatures. One day he found
his packet of Woodbines had been pinched from the jacket pocket. It happened
Frank expressed his intention to 'fix the ******' and waited until a
horse and cart came into the works for coke. He extracted a hair or two from
the horse's tail and with a sewing needle, inserted a horsehair into each
fag in a new packet, snipping it off neatly so that it would not show. He
left the packet in his jacket as usual. He then waited for somebody to throw
up! Somebody did. I don't know what happened after that and did not enquire.
My other memory of Frank was of him chasing and killing rats which were
inclined to come into the works yard.
1 was fortunate in obtaining lodgings in Grimsby within walking distance
of the works, and at the same time in a reasonable area of the town. In
Welholme Road was a corner shop where confectionery was sold and which also
housed a bake house. This was run by the 'Bee' family, consisting of an
almost blind old lady, and her unmarried son and daughter, both in their
forties. Albert ran the bakery and Faith the shop. There was also a cat
named, unimaginatively, 'Tigger'.
I was welcomed to the household, in fact they were quite used to 'putting
up' various characters, some from the Navy who happened to be temporarily
stationed at the port. The immediate snag was that for my first few days I
had to share a twin-bedded room with some young male relative who was, shall
we say, 'rather backward' and also suffered from that condition which leaves
one completely hairless. Not knowing anything about either of these
deficiencies I feared that together they constituted a form of 'lunacy' and
I slept uneasily. However this lad departed after a day or two and I had the
room to myself.
There was one great advantage in living with the Bees. Being a catering
establishment, we were able to supplement meagre war-time rations, and this,
coupled with supplies of fish straight from the dock meant that we lived
Having been brought up in the Birmingham area, about as far from the sea
as one could get, fish had not appealed to me hitherto. Most of the fish
which reached Stourbridge in days before adequate refrigeration one imagined
had spent three days in transit from some port or other and a day or two
hanging around New Street Station (like most of the rest of us in our time!)
before arriving at the shop and on the table. Grimsby fish was another thing
altogether. I even liked the skate.
This was all, of course in war time and we were surrounded by the
Lincolnshire airfields from which night bombing raids were increasingly
made. In the middle of one night we were awakened by a louder roar than
usual of aero engines. Thinking that this was the lads returning from a
'1000 Bomber" raid, we got up and cheered what we thought were landing
lights. Next day we were told on the radio that sixty German 'doodle-bugs'
had passed over Grimsby during the night. Those were what we had been
cheering! We later learnt that most of them had exploded harmlessly over the
Pennines, but that some had reached Lancashire. One had dropped at the end
of Park Road Oldham, not far from where I had lodged.
The Bee family had many friends in the area and we were never short of
company. One of these was Doris Thompson whose husband Norman was far away
overseas in the R.A.F. and she was obviously missing him. Doris played the
piano and used to come round on Sunday evenings when we would have a good
old-fashioned sing-song round the piano. ('Fishermen of England' and that
sort of thing.) Her departure she always delayed until dark by which time it
was not advisable for her to walk home alone. As I was by then engaged to be
married to Mavis, I am not sure whether my keeping Doris at arm's length -
well, almost - when escorting her was caused entirely by loyalty to Mavis or
by fear of her husband's coming home on leave before I left Grimsby.
Other regulars were two naval types, John, a 'bunce' (signalman) who came
from Lanchester, and the other a Sub-Lieut who collected M.T.B's and M.G.B's
in America and brought them across the Atlantic. He would turn up regularly
with large quantities of contraband cigarettes and nylon articles of
apparel. I benefited from some of the former.
A further adventure whilst at Grimsby was a summons to "go to Hessle and
get them out of a bit of a mess". This involved getting a train to New
Holland, taking a ferry across the Humber, and dashing up a slipway to the
bus stop from which it was about a half-hour journey to Hessle, a small port
further up the Humber.
Arriving at Hessle I did indeed find them in 'a bit of a mess'. They had
an exhauster, the function of which was to pump gas from the retort house
through the purification plant into the holder. Unfortunately this was
driven by a gas engine. With insufficient gas in the holder to supply the
gas engine, you were in a vicious circle. I found the Manager, assisted by
the works foreman, trying to turn the exhauster by means of a large
crank-handle. No, I wouldn't have believed it either!
The problem was exacerbated by the fact that unless I caught the
4.30.p.m. bus back to Hull, connecting with the last ferry of the day, I
would be stranded. The next day, having made the trip again I looked in the
window of a small shop where there were cards offering, amongst other
things, accommodation. One said 'Young person wanted to sleep with soldier's
wife - husband abroad.' I wouldn't have believed that either!
However, my advice had resulted in signs of improvement and I continued
to travel every other day for a week or so when we were able to put gas back
'on the town'. On one of my visits I enjoyed witnessing the launch of a
small ship from the slipway opposite the works. It wasn't the Q.E.2. but
Much later I was to read a report put in by Percy Molland on some small
works he had visited. It read, "During the visit to this scrap-heap of a
works, more gas was probably inhaled by the writer than went into the
holder". He may have been referring to Hessle, but that was after my time.
BACK TO OWD'UM
The foregoing account of early days with the Woodall-Duckham Company
covers the relatively short period from September 1943 until Christmas 1944.
After that, memories become less precise, probably because the novelty of
frequent moves began to wear off. I am reasonably sure that my leaving
Grimsby was followed by a return to Oldham and to the Coller residence.
Again I was there for some time and the Construction regime had changed.
Phillips had gone and Bill Baker, a more jovial character from Cornwall had
taken over. Bill had been an Operator at one time, and had an obsession with
fishing, making his own lance-wood sea rods on site. Assisting him was a
rotund lad named Don Browning who tried manfully to join in that ready wit
which was a characteristic of some W-D staff, but in which he never quite
made the grade.
Somewhere in the vicinity, on another contract, was Sammy Ellison who
dropped in frequently, and there I eventually met Henry Read, significantly
in the pub opposite the works. Henry, who lived at Ashton-under-Lyne was in
fact on leave, and just visiting.
Sammy had the advantage of having a car - a Riley - and so was persuaded
to provide transport to such places as Belle Vue, Manchester, where on
Friday evenings the 'gang' would go to watch the wrestling under the benign
refereeing of 'Dick the Dormouse' who had been a naval P.T.I. at Plymouth.
This excursion was usually accompanied by the consumption of a good deal of
beer, and we were often joined by Stan Horton, his wife, and his daughter 'Duckie'
(q.v.). These ladies were wont to get a little excited by the brawn and were
inclined to exhort one or other of the combatants to 'tear his arm off!'.
One contestant was Mario de Caprio of the U.S. Navy. Any connection I
One week-end Bill Baker roped me in to go on a fishing expedition to the
Menai Strait. We set off in Sammy Ellison's car after the pubs shut on a
Friday night and made our way overnight to Snowdonia. Neither Sammy nor I
knew much about fishing, but Sam did the driving and as I could read a map,
I became the navigator.
After having some trouble with Sammy's headlights, we arrived on the
shore at Beaumaris at first light. The first necessity was to dig some
lugworms for bait.
We halted near a bus stop which was being approached by an obvious
'local' hurrying to catch the first bus into Bangor. Bill wound own the car
window and enquired about the best place to dig. He was expecting a
knowledgeable reply with a Welsh accent, and so was dumbfounded to get the
reply in a marked cockney accent, "Dunno mate - no' a lover of it meself!"
So we took a chance and unearthed a full box of worms from the foreshore.
Bill had packed his sea rods in the car, which restricted the
accommodation a little, and we made our way to a likely looking site near
the Menai Bridge. Bill, being accustomed to angling for sea bass off the
Cornish rocks, had failed to realise that there were four tides a day on the
Menai narrows, so that for most of the time there was a full tide race
flowing. Furthermore, the most prolific fish were skate. It was no problem
getting a skate on the hook, but the fish only had to spread its 'wings' in
the tide race to take any tackle we offered. We had a notable lack of
success and only a tin of worms to show for it. Late in the afternoon we
retired to Bangor.
The war was drawing to its close, but food was still tightly rationed.
However, we managed to find a butcher in Bangor who was willing to sell us
sausages (appropriately!) and a large dollop of dripping to cook them in. We
went on to buy a large loaf of bread, and a Woolworth's baking tin. A few
miles out of Bangor we pulled the car off the road and took our gear behind
a hedge where we found enough brushwood to make a fire. The sausages were
then cooked in the dripping and served on thick slices of bread. We washed
it down with the odd bottle of beer.
I have considered it strange ever since that some people's idea of a
picnic involves table cloths, baskets of cutlery and china, and even
We went on to Caernarfon and spent the rest of the evening in a pub. We
had nowhere arranged to spend the night, but were quite happy - well needs
must - to sleep in the car which we parked in an alcove under the walls of
Having slept fitfully we roused early and I recall having some sort of
wash using a cold water tap tap which protruded from the castle wall and
supplied a drinking fountain. The next thought was breakfast, and having
hitherto spent very little on sustenance, we decided to splash out, in the
hope that a hearty breakfast would last us for the rest of the day. It was a
Sunday morning and it was 7.a.m., not the best of days or times to get a
meal in Caernarfon! We pushed on up to Llanberis where we found the
Llanberis Hotel. This was a rather up-market establishment, and the staff
were inclined to look down their noses at three unshaven characters in
oilskins and gum boots at 8.o'clock on a Sunday morning demanding breakfast.
The explanation that we had been fishing seemd to mollify them, but the
speed at which we were served suggested that our departure prior to the
arrival in the dining room of the 'regulars' would be appreciated.
On we went and I recall our going over a gated road to Bala, and having
to open and shut gates whilst Sammy drove through. On some remote high
moorland he had trouble with his dynamo, but it proved to be non-terminal.
Sammy himself was a cockney and sometimes demonstrated that delightful
ignorance of other-than-metropolitan things which caused amusement. As we
approached Bala Lake he enquired whether it was where Balalaikas were made.
In time we reached Manchester where at the Horton's residence where Bill
Baker lodged, I managed to restore my appearance to that degree of
respectability which my return to Collers at Oldham required.
As a fishing expedition it was of course an utter failure, our 'net
catch' being a box of worms which went into the Horton's dustbin as they had
started to decompose, but it was good fun.
During my Operating days I was almost exclusively on Gasworks. At
University we had had something to do with Coke Ovens in that our tutor had
some connection with Simon Carves, a competitor of W-D in this field. I had
also worked for a couple of weeks on the W-D variety at Workington in 1941.
The Coke Oven section of the Operating Dept., whilst nominally, I
presume, under the command of Horace, seemed to function as a separate
entity. There were coke-oven operators such as Jimmy Mein, H. Daley and R.
Shields whom one rarely encountered on gasworks and only then when they had
nothing else to do. On rare occasions of overlap one was made to realise the
superiority of coke ovens and all who 'sailed in them'. The unlikely Chief
Coke Oven Operator was Eric Turner, who, whilst living at Surbiton, still
retained his 'Somewhere North of the Trent' accent. This, coupled with the
fact that most of the coke oven men came from northern regions, resulted in
my always thinking of their specialist line as 'Cork Oov'ns'.
THE BIG BANG.
During my second spell at Oldham I was asked on one occasion to go over
to the Coke Oven plant at Irlam, where an explosion in a coal bunker had
caused considerable damage and some injury. I was required to investigate
and report. My arrival there was given a curious reception. The Plant
Manager, knowing that I came from W-D, assumed that I knew everything there
was to know about Coke Ovens. For inspection of the plant I was handed over
to a junior to whom I confided that I was from the Gasworks division. He
then assumed that I knew nothing about Coke Ovens and that I needed some
instruction. "These holes are where the coal is put in....." I managed to
flannel my way out of all this, and as I was concerned only with a coal
bunker, it didn't matter much.
I found that some spontaneous combustion had occurred in the bunker when
it was almost full. This had resulted in a arched crust being formed. They
had continued to take coal out of the bottom of the bunker. This act of
folly had left a void into which the the crust had dropped, causing the
Having left an authoritative instruction that they should fit a water
system whereby the bunker could be flooded in such cases and that in no
circumstances should coal be taken out before the crust was broken up. I
left feeling rather proud of my excursion into unaccustomed country.
This success may have had something to do with the fact that never again
was I invited to go on Cork Oov'ns! One learns that there are two sorts of
people who don't get 'invited back', the idiot and the smart-arse!
It must have been at the very end of 1944 or the beginning of 1945 that
someone decided that my term in the 'far' north must end. (Why is it that
it is always the north which is 'far'? one never hears of the 'far'
south-east.) I was summoned to London. Head office had moved back to its
former offices in Ebury Street near Victoria station. This was convenient
for Board and senior staff, many of whom lived somewhere on the Brighton
I was at Head Office for a week or two. Conrad Kuttner, a coke oven man,
had been out in South Africa and had now returned. There was some idea of
his re-starting a Research Dept. with me as 'an' if not 'the' assistant. One
meets people from time to time for whom, and for no specific reason, one has
an instinctive aversion. Kuttner was one of the few such that I have
encountered. Where he originated I do not know, but he had brought or
brought back with him from South Africa a 'big white baas' manner which I
found, to say the least, irritating. He probably took a similar dislike to
me, so the scheme did not work out and I soon found myself at Southall works
getting experience on 'I.V.C's' with Walter Norris.
Walter was a sallow dark-haired man whose white teeth were a little
distorted, so that when he smiled you found yourself fascinated by his teeth
rather than by what he was smiling about. This caused Frank Norrie (q.v) to
name him 'The Odol Smile' after a tooth paste advert of the time. Harold
Perks and I were invited to his flat in Twickenham one evening and we played
'Monopoly', then in its infancy. During refreshment time I managed to drop a
china plate which broke. I was acutely embarrassed and Walter's wife was
obviously annoyed. It may have been her 'best Royal Doulton'. I was never
asked back! Walter later became my 'visitor' for the West of Scotland. We
got on pretty well, in spite of the plate, but Walter never had much empathy
with the Scots.
'Intermittent Vertical Chambers' were so called because instead of the
coal trickling through as in a C.V.R. the chamber was filled with coal which
was left to carbonise for several hours. All the resulting coke was then
emptied out and we were back at square one. They were, in fact small coke
ovens, the coke being allowed to drop out at the bottom rather than being
pushed out at the side. We had several installations of these in London, at
Wandsworth, Croydon, Tottenham and Ponders' End among them. They were more
suitable than were C.V.R's for carbonising Durham Coal which arrived in
London by ship. Walter Norris was the acknowledged specialist with this type
London was then under fire from German rockets but there was nothing
anyone could do about that, so we carried on working. One did drop on
Woolworth's at New Cross whilst I was at Southall and it killed a lot of
My memories of that period are scant. I lived in Hitherbroom Lane, Hayes,
with a Mr. & Mrs. Baillie. He was a dark-suit-umbrella-and-briefcase man who
worked for E.M.I.
Soon I found myself working on plant at Wandsworth, Croydon and
Tottenham. It seems odd to think that in those days it was possible to cycle
from Southall to Wandsworth and back with no sense of danger or of being
crowded by traffic.
One advantage of being in London was that my school friend and colleague,
Harold Perks was also working somewhere in London and we were able to meet
up from time to time. We were together in Croydon for a while when I lodged
in the Purley Way. There we were joined for a time by Reg. Nicklin, a rather
naïve character, and by Jack Fish, one
of the 'old brigade' who was approaching retirement.
Whilst at Croydon I was able to see and hear Vera Lynn at the Croydon
Empire. The bill included the cockney comedian who called himself 'Leon
Cortez' and who defined 'ballet' as 'a lo' a tarts prarncin' abaht.' I am
never quite sure whether there is more to ballet than that.
Wandsworth works was blessed by having Young's Brewery within walking
distance and its products were sold at a pub which was actually within the
works. Youngs' Bitter is probably one of the best of ales. Wandsworth was
also within reasonable distance of Streatham Common where lived my uncle and
aunt whom I was able to visit occasionally and regain a modicum of
After some months I moved to Tottenham about which works I can remember
very little except for the 'Heat Attendant', Albert Hammond, who insisted on
taking all the temperatures, thereby saving me a lot of sweat.
My first 'digs' at Tottenham were a failure. In the house was a small
baby who bawled from 4.a.m. onward with unfailing regularity. In order to
avoid hurt feelings I invented a sudden posting to distant parts and
departed - for Edmonton - where I had found alternative accommodation in
Silver Street next to the 'Bull'. It was a bit noisy on Saturday and Sunday
nights, but very comfortable. My hostesses were two elderly spinster
sisters, one of whom, Lilian, was the breadwinner and the other the
housekeeper. Lilian worked as a secretary with 'British Abrasives' who made
emery and sandpaper - odd!
Both of these ladies were vegetarians but their principles did not extend
to denying me meat. I fared pretty well. They were, however, a little odd
and had friends who were just a little more odd. They might have been an
early manifestation of the 'hippy' culture but it had not then developed.
Silver Street was on bus routes; 259 ran to Muswell Hill where I had
friends, and 144 to Turnpike lane where I could get the underground to
Paddington when going on leave. One of these routes continued in the other
direction, terminating at the Royal Forest Hotel at Chingford where, on a
small lake, outrigger skiffs could be hired. An evening's rowing was a
pleasant change from gasworks on a summer evening.
There was also a 'Lido' at Walthamstow, and Epping Forest was not far
away, especially after I got my bike.
THE WAR ENDS.
Whilst I was on that spell in London there came the end of the war and I
was able to be in Whitehall when Winston Churchill made his well publicised
appearance on the Home Office balcony.
Later that day I found myself doing a 'knees-up' round Thornton Heath
pond, but how I got there and what had happened in between I shall never
know! Well, there was no longer 'a war on'.
DOWN TO DORSET.
It was a fine summer that year in spite of a few odd bombs at the
beginning, so a transfer to Poole was welcome.
Poole was the site of the original Woodall-Duckham plant, invented by Sir
Arthur Duckham and reputedly financed by Col. WoodalL At the name of 'Sir
Arthur' all knees did bow amongst those who had known him. These included
Maurice Wadsworth whom I met for the first time, Maurice being to Poole what
Sid Branson was to Birmingham.
Maurice came from Penistone and was married to Alice who, for most of the
time, travelled with him. We took to each other from the beginning. Alice
was inclined to be tearful when she saw me as she said that I was the
'spitting image' of their son Doug. who had been killed whilst serving in
the R.A.F. I put up for a night or two at the 'Antelope' in the main street
and during my first night came news of Japan's surrender.
I was awakened at some ungodly hour by a terrific racket going on in the
street. In my room was an oriel window overhanging the pavement. Down the
street was coming a joyful procession headed by a man who had mounted a
klaxon horn on an old pram, and making for the quay. There a large bonfire
was lit. I got dressed and followed, getting back to the hotel for
breakfast. Within a day or two Maurice had put out feelers and found me some
digs with a Mrs. Graham at Parkstone - nice change from having to scour a
strange neighbourhood on one's own.
I forget what we were doing at Poole, but I remember the Heat Attendant
who always read the temperatures twenty degrees too low. One of Maurice's
weekly problems was to correct these readings for the weekly report without
him finding out and taking offence.
Maurice was a shortish, stocky man with greying hair. He had an alarming
cast in one eye, so you never knew which one was looking at you. You never
knew either which one he was using when he was driving his Rover, a car of
which he was very proud and in which he delighted to show you the Dorset
countryside. It was plain which one he used to scan the temperature sheet -
it was the one six inches from which he held the paper and which was also
six inches from his left - or was it right ? - ear. Each Saturday Maurice
met Alice for lunch, together with any privileged colleague whom he had
invited. Maurice would pick up the menu, scan it in fine detail for some
time whilst you contained your hunger, and then announce triumphantly, "Ah'll
'ave steak an' chips'. I never knew him order anything else! Maurice was
thought to be the inventor of the 'Graphite Method' of temperature
One of his tales was of the time when he and Alice moved into some digs.
Alice was a dear soul but rather broad in the beam. In the middle of the
night Alice had to use the 'pot', and sitting thereon, it collapsed under
her weight. Maurice nearly choked laughing as he finished the story: "Ah
were sittin' oop the rest o' t' night getting bits o' pot out of her
backside wi'l tweezers". Well, it doesn't happen every day!
Maurice was well read and off the 'job' was the perfect gentleman. On the
job he could 'cuss and blind' better than most. On a later occasion he was
asked by an up-market junior in my presence about this apparent
schizophrenia. He replied, "Well, lad, with all the racket going on in a
retort house, and you see old Harry about to open a valve which will blow
the place sky-high, it's no good going up to him quietly and saying, 'Harry,
please don't do that'. Nay, lad, you 'ave to make tl bugger jump!" There was
no more to be said!
Having been at Poole for a while, were visited by Bert Cottrell. I don't
think that Bert had then taken Horace's place, but he was one of the Group
Engineers. Bert had been aptly christened 'The Gold-Brick Salesman' by Frank
Norrie. He could probably have persuaded King Kong that he was Queen of the
Fairies but the opportunity never, so far as I am aware, arose.
Bert took me aside and told me that he wanted me to go to Edinburgh where
production was not up to scratch and we had been asked to 'tune up' the
plant. I had never at that stage been north of Carlisle so was pleased to be
asked. He went through possibilities in some detail, telling me to get up
there as soon as possible. "Right!", I said, "Edinburgh, here we come !"
"Did I say Edinburgh?" said Bert. "Yes", I replied. "Oh, sorry", said Bert,
"I meant Aberdeen". So began another long, long story.
Being the sort of person who had a reputation for always wanting to see
what was over the next hill, I looked forward to going to Scotland for the
first time, even more so that I was being sent to a remote part of the 'Land
of the Mountain and the Flood'. Geography having been a favourite interest
of mine from an early age, I don't remember ever thinking, as many English
people still do, that Scotland was a little bit perched on the top of
England and that once you had reached Gretna Green there wasn't a lot
between you and the North Pole.
The war had just ended, leaving things still a little bit chaotic, and
there was no possibility of getting a 'sleeper' on the over-night 'Aberdonian'
unless you ranked as Colonel or above. So I set off from King's Cross ready
to sit up all night in an ordinary third class compartment. The train left
at about 7.p.m. and was due in Aberdeen at 9.a.m. the next morning -
The main problem was that there were no refreshment facilities on board,
and whereas I had brought a sandwich and a bun with me, I had nothing to
drink. The train made its first stop at York, by which time I would have
given a good deal for a cup of tea. The refreshment room was open and the
train waited for enough time to get a 'cuppa', but they had run out of cups.
I didn't like that very much! However, I found a used cup which someone had
left behind a pillar on the platform and a convenient tap under which it
could be washed. I was quite prepared to murder any railway official who
tried to stop me. The cup was triumphantly presented at the buffet and my
life was saved!
We rattled on through the night. I was probably asleep as we crossed the
border and so missed that thrill, but awoke at Edinburgh where there was a
lengthy halt to load assorted luggage and milk churns and to change crew.
There the station buffet was more productive than that at York. It was still
dark, so my first passage over the Forth Bridge was marked more by a louder
rattle than by the view, which was limited to the lights of Rosyth. At first
light we drew into Dundee Tay Bridge Station. The view from the carriage
window of the soot-blackened walls of this magnificent piece of the renowned
Scottish scenery was my first view of Scotland. After being on the train
since 7.p.m. the previous evening I wondered, not for the first time with
Duckhams, whether a swift death from a German bullet would have been better.
Earlier in the century there had been much competition between rival
railways, the Caledonian and the North British, as to which could reach
Aberdeen more quickly. The story is well known, and in my time these
railways had become part of the L.M.S and L.N.E.R. systems respectively. The
two lines met at Laurencekirk, whence there was a jointly owned line
extending to Aberdeen. On account of this, the imposing railway station at
Aberdeen was still referred to as the 'Joint Station'. The term was even
used as a destination label on buses which terminated there.
A little before journey's end we had stopped at a smaller town where a
porter was calling 'St'nheev'n, which I interpreted as 'Stonehaven' - my
first realisation that most things in Scotland were 'different'.
Miraculously we had arrived at Aberdeen on time, but such miracles were
taken for granted in those days, unlike the present railway situation. My
state of sleep-deprived depression was, however, turned into joy when I
presented myself at the station restaurant. There, in spite of the war, the
standards had been maintained. Tables were set out with linen cloths and
plated cutlery, and I was greeted by a waitress in black dress, cap and
white apron with, "Good morning sir! I expect you're not feeling too good
after that long journey, so what about a good breakfast?"
I accordingly made my first acquaintance with a Scottish breakfast which,
in spite of war-time rationing, was considerably better than I had expected.
I began to like Aberdeen.
Someone had booked me in to the Gloucester Hotel on Union Street for a
couple of nights so I emerged on to that grand thoroughfare and checked in
at the hotel. I had also been informed in writing that the works was at
'Foot-Dee' and so fell into the trap into which every Englishman falls in
similar circumstances by enquiring the way to that locality. "Och! ye mean 'Fiddy"'
was the standard and gleeful reply to such an enquiry. Having learnt this,
one proceeded to take advantage of this esotericism when encountering other
After I had been in Aberdeen for a couple of weeks or so, my initial
promising euphoria had given way to bouts of mild depression. For the first
time that I can remember, I began to feel slightly homesick. Aberdeen felt
One of the problems was the language. The speech, in what I came to know
as the Buchan country was not just a 'Scottish accent'. There is, in fact,
no such thing, any more than there is an 'English accent'. In Aberdeen it
was the 'Doric' which was spoken and they were rightly very proud of it. (Doric
- so called in comparison to the Attic, or standard English.)
My initial difficulty was that every vowel, to my untrained ear, seemed
to be an indeterminate 'u', so that milk became 'mulk'. I encountered also
the Scottish use of 'wee' as an adjective, the primary use of which is to
signify little', but which can be applied to mean almost anything. Often
used to imply endearment, it was commonly applied to the youngest member of
a family, even though he might be a 7ft. 20 stone wrestler! Such references
as, 'Thon muckle greet wee elephant' would not have raised an eyebrow in
An Aberdeen characteristic was the appending of a diminutive to many
nouns. 'Ma mither's in the gravy' did not mean that Ma had been converted to
sauce, but that she was in her grave.
On one occasion at the works I had to do a quick mental translation when
questioned by the assistant manager regarding the purpose of some air ports.
"Whit fur are they wee holies, Mr. Green?" was the question. Hitherto, to
me, 'Holies' had had ritual connotation - 'Holy of Holies' - and 'wee' was a
nursery term for urination. The connection with a gasmaking plant was
There was also the difference between a 'Loonie' (boy) and a 'Quinie'
(girl) to be learnt. My landlady, Mrs. Wood, once greeted her seven-year-old
grandson, born in, and newly arrived from Surrey with, "Ach, ma wee loonie!"
She was not to know that an acceptable if unusual use of the same words in
Southern England could have described a mentally disturbed person relieving
My first 'digs' in Aberdeen were with a Mrs. Tough. After the initial
embarrassment of calling her Mrs 'Tuff', and being told that it was 'Tooch'
- as in 'Loch' - she showed me to my room and said that I probably wouldn't
sleep very well at first, it being a 'strange bed'. As during the previous
ten days I had slept in at least six 'strange beds' and fitfully on a train,
I did not think that this would be a major problem.
For reasons I cannot recall, my stay at this lodging was very short,
probably because someone had introduced me to the Wood family of 106
Cornhill Drive, just behind the Royal Infirmary. This was on the Rosehill
bus route, there being a stop just outside the house - very convenient!
The ample Mrs. Wood was the widow of the former butler at Keith Hall,
Inverurie. I think that she may have been the housekeeper. Mrs. Wood
therefore kept as good a table as was possible in view of war-time rationing
which in any case had not bitten very deeply in Aberdeen.
There were three daughters, all living at home in their large
semi-bungalow. The 'girls' were all of the 30-40 vintage. Lily worked as a
seamstress at one of the city's fashion houses ("alterations made on the
premises") so I got my sewing done. Hilda was secretary/ receptionist
with a firm of agricultural engineers. Farmers bringing in machinery for
attention were known to speed up the process by leaving eggs, cream,
chickens etc. in Hilda's office so our rations were nicely supplemented.
Jean, the youngest had made an early marriage which had not 'worked out'
and she was divorced, but with a son, Hendry, aged about 14 who was at
Robert Gordon's College. Jean was a conductress on the buses, often on the
route that passed the house, so that a convenient 'tea break' could be made
whilst passengers waited. Should I find myself on Jean's bus, I was excused
the obligation of paying my fare. (If the inspector gets on, tell him I
haven't collected it yet!) Altogether there were advantages in living at
Mrs. Wood also had three sons, George who was married and lived elsewhere
in Aberdeen, Jim who was in the army and out in Palestine, and Charles who
was a pharmacist in Great Bookham in Surrey, and married with a small son,
Stewart. It was a curious assortment of names, two Jacobite and one
Hanoverian. As her sons were all away from home I provided a useful
substitute so that they had a man about the house.
DOON AT FIDDY.
To get to the works involved taking a bus into town, and, if it was wet,
a tram to the Town House. There another bus would take me to St. Clement's
Church near the works. In good weather a walk from Rosemount Terrace where
one alighted from the first bus, was not too long, but as the bus-tram-bus
journey could be undertaken for a total of 2½d.
by purchasing a 'double transfer ticket' there was no reason for parsimony.
At the works I met the Engineer and Manager, Harold Milne. Milne's father
had held a similar position before the war when the City Gas Manager was
held in respect, fear and esteem only second to the Lord Provost. It was
said that Harold had obtained his elevation more by nepotism than
qualification and that Jimmy Cordiner, then his Assistant, had been hard
done by not to get the job.
Harold was not the easiest man to get on with. He was rather short in
stature and he was by nature Manager and Engineer in that order. My work at
the beginning was to improve production and 'tune up' a large plant divided
into several sections. I spent the following six months or more at Aberdeen,
any suggestion of my earlier departure being quashed by Milne. He would give
the impression that I could 'do still better', but I suspected that he
wanted me to remain as a check on his own staff 's abilities. Later, when I
had become Area Engineer for Scotland, I got on very well with Harold as he
preferred to deal with the local man rather than with a London Office. He
once agreed with me to sign a large contract without first consulting
London. I don't think they liked it very much, but as it was then in the bag
there was no point in their getting worked up. (Lesson: It is easier to
say 'Yes' to a fait accompli when saying 'No' will cause a lot of
hassle. This lesson can be applied on many occasions.)
The works staff included of Jimmy Cordiner, Harold's Assistant. Jimmy was
a lean, spare man with a cadaverous face, who made no concessions to my
linguistic inabilities, forcing me to pick up 'the Doric' A.S.A.P. Also on
the staff were Alexander Watt Stephen, a humorous character who had been in
the R.A.F. and had caused much confusion by having 'Watt' as his second
name. (What's your second name? Yes, sir! and so on.)
Sandy Stephen had an old grandmother who lived in Shetland and who came
to Aberdeen each month to do her shopping. She flew down on the D.H. Rapide
eight-seater bi-planes which were then used on that route, but Granny had
never even seen a railway train. This I found amazing.
The Chief Chemist was one Guyan who later transferred to Hamilton. He was
was a pretty useless type. He may have known a lot of chemistry, but his
engineering was a bit short. He tried to counter his uselessness by being
awkward on every available occasion. Then there was Derek Ferguson, a
Technical Assistant who later joined W.D and who hailed from Crosby near
Liverpool. How and why he was in Aberdeen I never discovered.
The works foremen were a pleasant lot. There was Jack Binnie the Yard
Foreman, 'Jock' the Foreman Mason, and MacDonald the Foreman Fitter. A
Tannoy system in the yard would frequently hail these worthies. It could be
heard over most of Aberdeen's dockland. When I eventually came to leave
Aberdeen, 'Mac' (Donald) came to me, interested that I was going to
Portsmouth because he had a cousin in Brighton. This shows that
misconceptions of distance apply in both directions. Mac had a fine head of
hair for his age and attributed this to his using a metal dog-comb. I bought
one on his recommendation and have used one ever since. Well, something
seems to have worked!
In the yard, built into the office block was a small toilet with wash
basin which was normally reserved for foremen only, but which W-D staff were
allowed to use. The paper in this room was usually an old copy of Bradshaw's
Railway Guide, the pages of which were the right size. Someone emerging from
the privy would be asked, "Where have we got to today" answered by "Heckmondwyke,
Todmorden and all stations to Preston", or something equally exotic.
W-D had a site office in the works as one section of the retorts was
under reconstruction. The site rep. was Bobby Taylor who came from Broxburn
near Edinburgh. The bricklayer foreman was David Jack and the Steel erector
Johnnie McGregor. The latter had a pronounced stammer which was prominent
when he became 'upset'. Some men on the job made sure that he was upset from
time to time so that they could hear him trying to enunciate one of his
My relationship with Bobby was better than it had been with other
Construction Reps. He was a pleasant character with a finely polished dome
of a head which caused him to pour scorn on hairdressers who, after they had
trimmed his fringe, sometimes asked automatically whether he wanted anything
on it. His request to 'just polish it with a dry duster' brought them back
to reality. We lunched together almost daily at Mitchell & Muil's small
restaurant almost next door to the Atheneum. The Atheneum was the scene of
the occasional half-pint at lunchtime and the more frequent several pints in
It was at Mitchell & Muil's that we met Stella Simpson and Caroline
Cockburn who are mentioned elsewhere.
I have previously mentioned that in my very early days at Aberdeen I
became a little depressed. It was too far from home for me to take the
occasional weekend leave, and I became a bit maudlin about my native heath.
Moving to the Wood's at '106' and meeting Stella made all the difference.
Soon I became involved in a social whirl which made it difficult to find a
free night in the week.
Aberdeen was even then a metropolis in itself, providing a centre for a
large hinterland which stretched to Braemar and the Grampians and all of the
Buchan peninsular. Consequently entertainment was available in plenty. At
His Majesty's Theatre we had many of the pre West-End productions. I recall.
seeing 'Faust' and 'Tales of Hoffman' there in Stella's company and am
reminded of the latter each time I hear the Barcarolle, perhaps because
Hoffman's first 'enamorata' was Stella.
The Scottish National Orchestra gave a monthly performance at the Music
Hall. I have fond memories of Reggie Whitehouse as leader and of a variety
of famous conductors and soloists including Malcolm Sargent, Solomon and
The Wood family were members of Beechgrove Church where I was included in
the family. One of the elders was a Mr. Arthur whose daughter Jean was a
contemporary and friend of Stella's. Stella was in the choir at St. Andrew's
West, and I recall going to a performance of Messiah in which she sang. By
way of contrast we heard and saw Harry Lauder at H.M.
Another regular at Mitchell & Muil's was a Mrs. Bell, a teller at the
bank where Bobby Taylor collected the wages and who was a contemporary of
his so that we had the occasional foursome.
Jean Wood, when off duty, was always game for a night out as were some of
the works staff. I recall going to what today would be called a disco at
Bucksburn which was beyond Kittybrewster. How many we managed to get into
somebody's Austin Seven I do not recall but in those days road restrictions
were easy and it was good fun. We had a relatively high old time and spent
more money than we could afford, but then, the war was at last over!
At times I had to be on the works until late at night. I recall one
frosty, still night when having checked the works, I went for a walk along
the beach in the moonlight to the Brig of Don. Having hitherto associated
beaches with hot summer days, this was a new experience, as was my visiting
a rural Nigg Bay in a howling gale with crashing waves. The oil industry had
not erupted then.
At Brig of Don was the tram terminus whence trams ran through the city to
Brig of Dee. Some Aberdeen trams were quite luxurious with enclosed central
staircases and a communication system over which the driver announced the
various stops. So at the end of the beach walk I was able to get back to
town and to the bus to Cornhill Drive. I was not aware at that time that my
Uncle Fred had served with the Gordon Highlanders and had been stationed at
Brig of Don Barracks.
At Easter in 1946 I took the opportunity to go to Shetland, flying up in
one of the D.H. Rapides. This was my first experience of flying. The plane
had about eight canvas seats and a 'driver'. We set off from Dyce, landing
at Wick and Kirkwall before going on to Sumburgh. There a large Packard
station wagon was waiting to carry us on to Lerwick.
I did not spend much time in Shetland as time and money did not allow. I
had booked a passage on the night boat which left Lerwick somewhere about
5.p.m. on the Saturday and should have arrived in Aberdeen about 7.a.m. next
morning. I did have time to wander round the town.
I embarked and sat down in the saloon for a high tea as we set sail.
Unfortunately a gale arose and on leaving the lee of the island, it met
us full force. The 'Roost' was at its worst.
There was only one thing to do and that was to retire to one's bunk and
pray. Next morning dawned bright and clear, but the delay meant that at
10.a.m. we were off Peterhead, finally docking at Aberdeen about twelve
noon. It was an interesting trip which I never regretted. The fact that
Lerwick is somewhat nearer to Bergen in Norway than it is to Aberdeen is not
generally appreciated by the Sassenach.
For my last month or two I had to leave the Woods' establishment as they
heard that their son, Jim, was coming home on leave and my room was needed.
I moved to some rooms at Duthie Park near the Brig of Dee and was very
comfortable there. I continued to visit the Woods, and when Jim came home, I
became involved in an evening with him celebrating his home coming. On that
event I prefer not to elaborate. Suffice it to say that a surfeit of ale
followed by a lurching tram is not a good idea.
It was at the Douglas Hotel in Market Street prior to having dinner with
Stella that my education was enlarged when I was served with a tot of Glen
Grant whisky. This was not one of the older versions with their amber
colour, but the five-year-old which is almost colourless. Glen Grant is one
of the better single malts. Later on, when I settled in Scotland I was glad
of this knowledge, and further research into other malts enabled me to get
conversation with my 'dram' on many occasions. Knowledge of the malts became
something of an occupational necessity in such places as Elgin and Inverness
which came under my surveillance in years following. Very much later, in the
1970's whilst on holiday I found myself outside a 'Licenced Grocers" in
Grantown-on-Spey pointing out the characteristics of such delights as
Smiths' Glenlivet and Laphroaig to some Canadian Tourists. Little did they
Not then having a car, other movements outside the city were hardly
possible. I did, however, one spring day, take the bus to Braemar via
Banchory and Balmoral. The trip was about sixty miles each way.
From Braemar I walked a mile or two out of the village and realised that
I had walked beyond any sign of civilisation. Since then I have always
wanted to walk the Larig Ghru to Aviemore, but circumstances made it
impossible and now it is too late. The highlands remain always in my heart.
By the beginning of May 1946 I had spent over seven months in Aberdeen,
almost a record for an Operator, and the firm decided that enough was
enough. It was a standing joke about staff movements that 'if you are in
Inverness, your next move will be to Penzance!' Apparently an extra week on
a contract waiting for the adjoining one to be ready cost more than did a
long haul. I never made it to Penzance but was asked to report to
I well remember the Saturday morning when I left. It was the day that the
'Dons' beat Rangers and won the Scottish Cup. I had followed the Dons
regularly in the company of George Wood. When they were playing at home we
would take a tram to Pittodrie and cheer them on. I had booked a berth on
the sleeper from Glasgow to Birmingham and had to kill time in Glasgow
during the afternoon. I could have obtained a ticket for the match had I
known of my move earlier. Heigh Ho!
On the Friday night before, I had had a final dinner with Stella at the
Northern Hotel and had escorted her home to the apartment she shared with
her widowed mother. Saying good-bye was not easy, but it was inevitable. Had
things been different ..........
Much later I read Betjeman's 'On Pershore Station'. It so mirrored my
feelings as I left Aberdeen that elsewhere in my papers will be found my own
version of that poem.
So I left Aberdeen and after a weekend at home, made my way to
Portsmouth, to the Hilsea Gasworks at the North End of the Island. I had
been to Portsmouth before when we had two holidays at Southsea in the 30's.
but Hilsea was far removed from Southsea sea front. Someone had found me
lodgings in Laburnum Grove, North End. I had had better but not many worse.
I can remember hardly any details of the works. I think the plant was
I.V.C.'S, but what, if anything, I did with them I do not know. Neither can
I recall much about the works or W-D Staff except that the Works
Superintendent was Fernie Smart who had originated in Dunfermline - as had
Fernie had worked for W-D as an Operator and was one of the previous
generation which had been noted for its high breeding, delicacy and finesse.
I was to meet him again later when he had become Works Manager at East Cowes
on the Isle of Wight.
Having a former W-D Operator as Client's Representative made a degree of
diplomacy necessary. One was conscious of being under an eagle eye which was
comparing one's doings with 'what we did in my time'. One also wondered why
one's presence was necessary with such superior skill already available. On
the whole Fernie wasn't so bad, and I was in his good books having spent so
long already in his native country. An added advantage was that I was about
the only man in Portsmouth, apart from the odd sailor, who could understand
This was in September 1946 and my stay in Pompey was not prolonged. A
month or so later I found myself on the way to Cheltenham which was a nice
change, being within easy 'week-end' distance of home. I made a point of
going to Cheltenham on the 'Cheltenham Flyer' which was then running under
steam from Paddington. Its days were drawing to a close.
Cheltenham, according to the posters on the stations, was an up-market
town renowned for its tree-lined avenues and Regency architecture, its pump
room and its parks.
'AA' PAAST FOIVE!
The Tewkesbury Road end of Cheltenham was nothing like that. Most of that
end was slum property in mean streets, rather like parts of Stambermill in
the old days. I lodged in one of these streets, principally because it was
within a few hundred yards of the works. The toilet arrangements were a bit
primitive, the only washing facility being a sink in the back premises with
no hot water except what a kettle on a gas ring could provide. Fortunately
the works was better equipped. The landlady's old uncle lived with the
family and at 5.30.p.m. we all sat down to a high tea. One evening I recall
someone asking the old man what time it was. He produced a large turnip
watch, studied it myopically and announced with a flourish that it was 'laa'
paast foive'. This was an early introduction to Gloucestershire dialect with
which I was to become very familiar.
FOREST OF DEAN COAL.
I had been sent to Cheltenham to investigate and rectify a marked falling
off of gas production, the cause of which the local staff could not
diagnose. Frank Metcalfe, the Retort House Supt. had, for a time I believe,
worked for W-D, or possibly on one of the works where we had contracts.
There was the usual lack of diligence when it came to flue cleaning, but
I noticed that the producers seemed to be giving the stokers a little
trouble. That isn't how they put it to me, but that was the gist of their
I discovered that some months previously the Manager had decided that
instead of importing the excellent coking coals for which the plant had been
designed, coal from the Prince of Wales Colliery in the Forest of Dean was
much cheaper. I immediately requested a coal analysis, to find that this
stuff had a 25% ash content. Heaven knows what the ash content of the coke
There are times when one is a little unsure of one's diagnosis. This was
not one of them. I declared confidently that until the coal was changed, I
could do no more. It was. Nevertheless the consequent re-tuning lasted until
I was able to get home most week-ends, even when a plant inspection had
to be done on Saturday mornings. A Midland Red bus stopped near the works
about mid-day, bound for Birmingham, and by changing at Bromsgrove I was
able to be home for tea. How public transport has changed! Getting back on a
Monday morning was also no problem.
The job conveniently finished in time for me to get a break at Christmas.
Probably due to my success at Cheltenham, which was then under the Severn
Valley Gas Corporation, I was next sent to Gloucester, also under their
flag. I was told that Charles Ingham, their Chief Engineer had given us more
or less carte blanche to improve production which had suffered from
war-time problems not properly rectified.
So, on January 3rd. 1947 1 collected my bike from the guard's van and
emerged from Gloucester station. As I did so, the first flakes of snow began
Beginning on that day, that winter was quite appalling. I stayed in
Gloucester until the beginning of March when I left to get married, and for
all that time there was snow on the ground and the temperature hardly ever
rose above freezing. It continued like that until a week or two after we
were married. We even had some problems on the works with the overflow water
from the coke quenching chambers. Icicles tended to form overnight. One
morning on my way to work I saw the girl from the office being carried into
a house to await an ambulance. She had fainted with the cold. On arrival at
the works I found that a temperature of 0°F had
been recorded that morning. (minus 18°C.)
War-time restrictions had eased but not too much, and domestic fuel was
short. Every morning saw a queue of people with carts, prams, pushchairs and
bicycles collecting sacks of coke from the works. I had the usual couple of
nights in the Bell Hotel in Gloucester, causing Horace the usual anxiety,
before someone advised me to go and see Mrs. Wixey who lived at Quedgeley.
The Wixey family, I discovered later, was fairly extensive in Quedgely, and
'my' Mrs. Wixey's husband worked at the local R.A.F. Maintenance Unit as a
It was a pleasant billet, but the weather imposed a routine. At
lunch-time I would cycle into Gloucester, have some lunch at Boots Cafe in
Northgate, change my library book at Boots Library and return to the works.
I Would cycle back to Quedgeley in the evening where a meal awaited and a
large fire had been lit in the dining/sitting room which for most of the
time I had on my own. I would eat, read, listen to the radio news and go to
bed. Unfortunately, as at Oldham in 1944, my bedroom was at the front, over
the unheated front room. Sleep was only possible by putting on as many
layers as were available including my thick overcoat on the bed.
The Works Manager was a Mr. Parnell whom I saw infrequently. His
Assistant's name I cannot recall, but I seem to remember a man who was
perpetually muffled to the eyes against the weather and who wore thick
concave glasses. This all meant that you couldn't see much of him. He lived
in the house next to the works, curiously named 'Loch Ryan'. It had at one
time been the Manager's residence. What if any connection it had with the
Larne ferry I never discovered. I was invited to supper with him one
evening. In my latter days in Gloucestershire it was sad to see 'Loch Ryan'
becoming overgrown and falling into ruin.
On the works at that time was another W-D man, Steve, who was the son of
one of our 'old brigade' Operators, Steve Burrows. 'Young Steve' was a
retort welder, and reputedly was capable of two things, one of which was
retort welding. He, like the other welders, came under the supervision of
Sid Branson who turned up from time to time and was usually good for a 'pie
and a pint'.
Having been given a free hand by the Chief Engineer I felt more at
liberty than usual to say and do what I really thought necessary and was not
so inhibited by 'client good-will'. It became apparent that anything I did
or suggested was resented by a certain retort house foreman and two of his
cronies who had constituted themselves as a mini-mafia. I went to the
Manager and suggested that this opposition was cramping my style and that I
could do little whilst the opposition held sway. To my great astonishment
they were sacked, after which we made progress.
During my second career during which I spent twenty five years in
Gloucestershire, I never shook off the possibility of being tapped on the
shoulder one dark night!
At this time, preparations were being made for Mavis and I to get
married. The provenance of our wedding cake is another story, but Mavis
enquired about two square boards on which the cake would be mounted. My
connection with R.A.F Quedgeley came in useful as Mr. Wixey the carpenter
managed to make two boards out of mahogany instrument panels with no
questions asked. The larger one remained as our bread board for many years
I also bought our wedding ring in Gloucester, at a jewellers on the
Cross, next to the Midland Bank. I still have the receipt which also
includes a watch, on which I obtained a discount, having bought the ring!
I left Gloucester about the beginning of March in 1947, the firm having
graciously moved me to the Birmingham area to facilitate my making
arrangements for our wedding. Mavis and I had decided to get married in
spite of the unpromising life for a married couple when one was working for
Woodall-Duckham. We had been encouraged by the example of Maurice and Alice
Wadsworth who travelled around together. I have learnt since, and many years
later, that senior members of the staff did not expect our marriage to last
It had been my intention when joining the Company, to obtain eventually a
less 'mobile' job, perhaps within the Gas Industry proper, but the more I
saw of that industry after the war - and I saw a lot of it - the less
attractive it became. There seemed to be no alternative to sticking with
Duckhams and waiting for something to turn up.
I cannot recall anything about the week or two I spent in Birmingham
prior to our wedding; I was probably running round doing a few chores for
Sid Branson. I have a vague idea that I was at Cradley and Swan Village,
'keeping an eye on things'.
THE WEDDING CAKE.
During that time, our wedding cake had to be 'arranged'. Rationing was
still fairly rigid, and ingredients had been saved up for some months. The
Bee family with whom I had lodged in Grimsby had promised that if they were
provided with a certain minimum of goodies, then they would supplement these
from their catering supplies and make us a two-tier cake. The time came when
the cake had to be fetched from Grimsby.
I set off from Stourbridge and arrived at Grimsby with no trouble other
than that which could be expected from a tortuous train journey involving
changes at Birmingham and Sheffield. An overnight stay was necessary, and
over that night we had one of the heaviest snow falls of what had already
been a long and freezing winter.
Next day I boarded a train bound for Sheffield at 12 noon. which was
supposed to get me to Birmingham at about 5.p.m. However, owing to
snowdrifts we had reached Walsall at 12.midnight. Walsall was well off the
route, but the direct one was blocked. Somewhere about 1.a.m. we crawled
into Birmingham New Street station. I grabbed my cake, which was in two
cardboard boxes, and struggled through the snow to, appropriately, Snow Hill
station, expecting to spend the rest of the night in a waiting room as the
last train to Stourbridge was officially 10.p.m.
I enquired of the ticket collector what hope there was. "Well, sir", he
said, "There's a train with steam up in No.3 platform. I don't know when or
if it'll be going, but I should get in it and hope for the best."
Fortunately it was heated and I settled down to sleep. By some miracle it
did set off after about ten minutes, and I arrived in Stourbridge at 2.a.m.
Fourteen hours from Grimsby ! That was exactly the time it had taken me
to go from London to Aberdeen in 1945!
My home was at Wollaston and the snow was deep. I had no intention of
humping a bag and two parcels of cake all that way, but Mavis was, of
course, the daughter of the Police Superintendent. At 2.15.am. I tottered
into the police station and asked the duty officer to take charge of the
cake. When I told him who I was he accepted it without question. The I.R.A.
was not active at that time! So I managed to get through the snow to
Wollaston where I was probably told off for being late
THE GREAT DAY.
Soon after that, on March 15th. 1947 we were married at Stourbridge
Congregational Church by Revd. Dafydd Arafflah Thomas. Yes it was in Lent, a
season in which marriages were discouraged by the Church of England, but
this was a Non-Conformist Church which had probably never heard of Lent. The
more pertinent reason for our choosing this time was that if you got married
before the end of the tax year, you could claim married allowance for the
best part of the previous year. Thoughts of the reception at a café
in Stourbridge High Street make me cringe to this day. Some details may be
found elsewhere if I haven't destroyed them!
We set off on our honeymoon in freezing temperature. My father-in-law's
car with police driver had been called into service and in it we were driven
to the station.
The previous year Mavis and I had had a holiday in Ilfracombe, staying
with a Mrs. Merriott. How we managed that in those times without causing a
major scandal I shall never know. Mrs. Merriott, learning that we were to be
married the following March had suggested that we returned to Ilfracombe for
our honeymoon. And it was so. We spent our first night in comparative luxury
at a hotel in the close of Exeter Cathedral and went on to Ilfracombe the
following day. The weather remained cold until time came for our return to
TO ELLESMERE PORT.
My first job after marriage was at Ellesmere Port. Having made
acquaintance with the Ince's at Garston, we arranged to stay with them as I
felt that they would 'look after' Mavis on her first trip away from home.
The Inces, like many others in the North, were great 'Co-Operators'.
Everything was bought at the Co-op and the 'divi' conscientiously claimed.
'From the cradle to the grave' the Co-Op co-operated.
Living at Garston meant that I had to commute to Ellesmere Port daily,
not an easy journey, as it involved a tram to the Landing Stage, a ferry
across the Mersey and a bus to Ellesmere. At the Ince's Mavis made her first
cake in an old gas stove with no thermostat. As 'carbonisation' was my
business I immediately felt at home! Her baking improved thereafter!
Ellesmere Port, even then, was the home of a Shell oil refinery. One
process involved the use of Fuller's Earth, the spent product containing
much heavy oil and bitumen. The works manager found that he could obtain
this material very cheaply and had tried to 'carbonise' it and make gas from
it in his vertical retorts with somewhat disastrous consequences. I had been
sent in 'Investigate and Report'. The outcome is forgotten, perhaps best so.
I had had my 'Operator's Box' sent in advance by rail. On going to the
station to claim this I was attended by a porter in B.R. uniform. He
expressed interest on discovering that I was working at the gas works and
then went on to tell me that he was, in fact, Chairman of the Corporation
Gas Committee and implied that I should liaise with him if I had any trouble
with the Manager! As a political office tends to be evanescent and a
managerial one less so, prudence dictated that I ignore this kind offer!
About this time the firm decided to do an investigation at Lincoln. Its
purpose I forget, but it was to be carried out principally by Harold Perks
and/or myself under the eagle eye of Ron Colles. Some other Operators came
and went. Do I recall Dennis Whiteley and Peter Littlehales? Ron I had met
previously but not often. There seemed to be a suggestion that whoever got
to Lincoln first would be nominally in charge. I beat Harold to it by a few
hours, but we managed a comfortable agreement.
Lincoln was something of a show-piece gasworks, the aim of the management
seeming to be to demonstrate to the world that coal could be handled and
carbonised and gas produced therefrom without dirt. Dust extraction plant
had been installed together with vacuum cleaning plant for landings and
platforms and everything possible had been painted with aluminium paint. It
was most impressive. Visitors were warned by Tom Enwright, the Retort House
Superintendent not to leave dirty finger marks on the coal boxes. In
addition, in the works curtilage was an area set aside as a rose garden in
which locals were welcome to stroll on a summer evening. After the delights
of places like Saltley and 'Igginsha', this was almost unbelievable.
The plan then was that I went first myself to a new 'job' and when I had
found lodgings, either sent for Mavis or went home for a week-end and
collected her. On my arrival therefore, I put up at the White Hart, near the
Stonebow. We obtained lodgings on the St. Giles estate with a very pleasant
lady who was a nurse at Bracebridge Mental Hospital. Perhaps she regarded us
as suitable material to practice on!
Lincoln was a pleasant place and the long winter soon changed into a
glorious summer when boating on the river was possible. At one stage we
found it advisable to work a two shift system, Harold and I taking alternate
shifts. This offered a certain amount of time off during the day.
Another small advantage was that almost next to the works was a factory
making Smith's Crisps. From a side entrance one could buy bags of small
crisps, 'screenings', which had been rejected for regular sale. For one
penny a bag it was possible to supplement one's lunch very adequately.
Interspersed by visits of varying length by Ron Colles the summer at
Lincoln wore on. I think we may have been been kept there more by lack of
work elsewhere than by the urgency of our investigation.
Whilst we were there the Royal Show was held at Lincoln and King George
VI arrived by train with Queen Elizabeth to open the show. We were at the
station when they arrived and received a regal wave.
It became plain at Lincoln that Mavis and I could not go on for ever
travelling everywhere by train in spite of Horace's "autophobia".
Harold Perks had recently acquired an Ex-Army motor bike, but for a
married couple with luggage, such would not have been of much use. I bought
therefore a second-hand 1932 Austin 7 car for £120 which was a lot of money
in those days. It was already 15 years old and was not in very good shape.
Yes, I was 'done', but first-time buyers with urgent need often are. Someone
once asked me how fast it would go and I told him that if the needle reached
30.m.p.h. then we were airborne!
Traffic then was negligible compared with today's, and regulations about
road-worthiness did not amount to much. The starter motor was non-effective
so it had to be started by 'winding the handle'. Nor was there a choke, so
that starting had to be preceded by the insertion of a bored laboratory cork
into the carburettor air inlet. A selection of bores enabled one to cater
for changes in air temperature. I soon discovered that one tyre needed
renewal, but in the days following the war they were difficult to obtain.
Fortunately the Austin took the same diameter tyre as many motor-bikes, and
I was able to get one of these. The circumstances were noteworthy.
I went to a tyre depot and asked the manager about a tyre, telling him
that I was engaged on important work at the gasworks. Possibly inferring
that his facilities for tea-making were under threat, he turned to his
foreman and said, "Let Mr. Green have that one we're keeping for the police.
If they ask about it tell them the fire brigade have had it." That was the
only time that I have been given priority over Police and Fire Brigade and
so it is worth cherishing. Of course I strongly resisted this lack of
business ethics - and if you believe that...!
The car was undoubtedly an old (very old) banger and should have been
written off, but new cars were neither available nor affordable at that
Being limited to 30.mp.h. was a disadvantage compared with Harold's
motorbike, but on the day we both came to leave Lincoln it poured with rain.
At least we had a roof of sorts over our heads.
Having acquired a car it was desirable to learn how to drive it! I had
already acquired a licence, having taken out a provisional in 1944. At the
end of the war, if you had held a war-time provisional licence for three
years you were automatically given a full licence, so I had no test to take.
I had already 'had a go' with such things as mobile cranes on some works,
and this, combined with some experience on the 'dodgems' at Cleethorpes,
left only the final polish to be applied. Unkind critics of my driving were
sometimes rude enough to suggest that the polish was never applied, but in
fact this I did by taking a short course of lessons with a driving
instructor in his large Vauxhall. During the second lesson he put me through
the Stonebow with inches to spare, and during the third, told me not to go
so fast. He did give me a few tips.
- Brake into a bend and accelerate out of it.
- Never run over a crumpled newspaper in the road - it might have brick
- Give a cyclist as much space as you would a large lorry - the cyclist
might be drunk.
- Never swerve to avoid an animal, you might hit a child.
My father-in-law was later to add, "Always drive on the assumptionion
that every other driver is a lunatic bent on murder, suicide or both." This
was probably the most useful tip of all.
Unfortunately the Vauxhall had synchromesh gears and my Austin had not,
so the skill of double de-clutching had to be learnt the hard way.
By the time we had to leave Lincoln I was able to drive the car with wife
and luggage from Lincoln to Stourbridge. The nature of my job ensured that I
got a larger petrol allowance than most.
The Austin (WJ 3758) lasted us for two or three years during which we
constantly diced with breakdown and death although we were not aware of this
at the time. I think I learnt more about motor engineering from that car
than ever before or since. It was sheer necessity! Any journey was
accompanied not by fear of breakdown, but by wondering what would break down
and whether road-side repairs would be possible.
The same year we had a camping holiday at Portholland in Cornwall and the
Austin coped manfully. The brakes left something to be desired, and I recall
coming to a thankful halt about six inches from the water's edge at Fowey
"OFF WE GO TO LONDON".
After Lincoln the firm decided that they wanted me in Head Office, which
had then moved back to London. Whether for consultation, commendation or
castigation I do not recall. I do remember driving the Austin round the
North Circular Road from Uxbridge to Wanstead where through some connection,
we had rooms at the house of a Miss Edwina Dyer and in a rather pleasant
road. From Wanstead I commuted to town daily by bus from the 'Green Man'
then by underground from Leytonstone.
BACK TO GRIMSBY.
London did not keep us for very long and later that year I was sent back
to Grimsby to commission a repair, but before we went, we bought a rather
swish tandem to give us some local mobility without using the meagre petrol
ration. The tandem must have been sent to Grimsby by rail as by no means
would it have fitted in the Austin! It was nice to hear comments such as
"What a smashin' bike!" instead of "What a tatty old banger!"
The Bee family could not accommodate us, but found us rooms with a Mr. &
Mrs Shardlow who lived further down Welholme Road.
After Grimsby I was told to go to Gorleston. I think it was a small job
of repair, so after a week-end at Stourbridge, I set off on the long trek to
Yarmouth. After a night or two at a Gorleston Hotel, I managed to find some
rooms right on the sea front at Yarmouth. These were in a council house just
opposite the fun fair. It was not the best place in Yarmouth, but the fun
fair had closed for the season. Mrs. Bonney our landlady told me when I
first went to see her, that in about a week's time she was going to stay
with her daughter in Lowestoft, the daughter being in the last week or so of
her pregnancy and 'would we mind being left to our own devices ?' I tried to
show a tinge of regret that we would not have the pleasure of her company.
It was to be our first experience of having a house to ourselves.
Mavis then took a train from Birmingham to Yarmouth, the journey taking
nearly all day, and the train stopping at every village en route. I
remember meeting her at Yarmouth Beach station, not in a state of euphoria
about the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway, and wondering if the
next station was Vladivostok.
Mrs. Bonney's house was on that peninsular which divides the south end of
Yarmouth beach from the harbour. To the works by road involved a bus ride
into Yarmouth town, and then another bus from the town to Gorleston works, a
total distance of three to four miles. There was, however, a ferry across
the river, the Gorleston side of which was within a few yards of the works.
This ferry was a rowing boat manned by an old sea-dog named Jumbo, and his
relief whose name never emerged. The fare was 2d each way. That is the only
time that I have commuted regularly to work by rowing boat.
The weather sometimes caused problems. One very stormy Sunday morning I
went down to the ferry. The boat was over the other side, but the ferryman
saw me and came over with difficulty. He had to make three attempts to tie
up. By this time I was known. "How long are you going to be?" he asked. I
told him that half an hour should be enough. "Right", he said, "I'll hang on
until you come back, but after that I'm packing it in." The crossing was
very rough but of insufficient duration to make mal-de-mer a real
Access to the ferry on the Yarmouth side was across a large quayside
where herring barrels were allowed to 'weather' until required. In time one
became used to the pervading smell of fish.
When Mavis arrived we had a night at the Gorleston Hotel before taking
over our 'rooms with a view'. Petrol was at that time very strictly
allocated and one was liable to trouble if found using it for purposes other
than that for which it was issued. The car was therefore laid up at
Gorleston works until we came to move elsewhere. We had the problem of
moving our luggage from the Hotel to Yarmouth. This was done after dark by
ferry boat. How we managed to get it all to the ferry I do not remember. The
Gorleston slipway was lit by solitary gas lamp on an iron arch and I recall
humping our trunk down this slipway. The landing place on the Yarmouth side
was a set of stone steps. This made landing more difficult than embarkation.
Somehow we managed. The scenario might have made an interesting setting for
the start of a horror film.
After a few days Mrs. Bonnie left, returning about a week later to tell
us that she was staying away longer than she had originally thought, and
would we mind paying the rent to the council offices, taking the money from
the amount we had agreed to pay her. The arrangement suited us very well. It
was the only time that I have had charge of a council rent book.
We had the tandem at Yarmouth and got about on it considerably until the
winter set in. Yarmouth sea front is not a good place to be in winter being
nearer to Siberia than many places in England. Both sand and snow used to
blow in under the front door.
The Gorleston job was to be completed in two sections, leaving a gap of
two or three weeks between the two. I was told to go to Burton-on-Trent for
the interim period, but was, unusually, given a guarantee that I would
return to Gorleston. We accordingly went back to Stourbridge and stayed with
Mavis's people for that period. I commuted from Stourbridge to
Burton-on-Trent, not without difficulty.
We had arranged with Mrs. Bonney that we would keep our rooms on at
Yarmouth and would continue to pay the rent whilst we were away. I recall
going to the council offices and offering to pay three weeks' rent in
advance. They eventually accepted this, but it seemed to be the first time
that anyone had ever paid a council house rent in advance. It seemed to
throw the system a little!
'GONE FOR A BURTON'
The time at Burton was insufficient for many memorable 'incidents' to
happen. There was one involving a a 'tea boy' who, for once, was a rather
callow youth. There were no facilities for making tea when I arrived, but I
had a small electric immersion heater designed to be put into a jug of
I offered to lend this to the commissariat pro tem. On my return to the
contractor's hut which was our office, I found that the 'boy' had obtained
two bricks on which a kettle had been placed with the immersion heater
underneath it It wasn't much use after that. Some mothers do 'ave 'em!
BACK TO YARMOUTH.
© The Estate of William John Green, 2004