When the ship sailed you could say “I helped build that.”
My name is Derek Amess and I was born on the 29th March 1940, a war baby. I attended Percy Main School and then I went on to Ralph Gardner’s School. I left there in 1954/5 and I got a job where I was an armature winder electric fitter, that is rewinding electric motors and assembling them and testing them. Then I moved on from there and I went to sea.
My first job was on the Empress of Britain and I had the esteemed position of ninth electrician. I used to go around the ship changing light bulbs. They put me in the galley where it was nice and hot, and I had to change the elements on the cookers.
We used to travel between Greenock, Liverpool, Montreal, Quebec, Three Rivers in Canada, and in the summertime we used to do a bit of cruising in the Caribbean. These days they have entertainment, but in my day the worst thing I done was to tell the maids that I could dance. So, immediately there was a knock on my cabin door, “Get your uniform on there’s dancing tonight and your duty is to come to the dance and get the young ladies up that haven’t got any partners.” You didn’t get paid for it and the dance went on until maybe midnight or after and I had to be turned to at half past six the next morning for my job. But I enjoyed it, it was good.
The thing I remember most about those trips is that we used to get a lot of posh people. Once I was called to a sheik’s cabin to change a light bulb, and in 1961 your wages were very small, and I got a £5 tip when I left the room. I thought five quid, crikey, that was amazing!
Another job I had to do, and didn’t get paid for, was to show films and the very first film I showed was called Whistle Down the Wind with Haley Mills. In them days the projectors weren’t automatic as they are now, you had to adjust the rods, so you got the exact frame and you had to watch for the little dot coming at the top of the film, to changeover to the next reel, I enjoyed that.
I left the Canadian Pacific and I got a good job with a company called Watts, Watts in London and they chartered a ship out called Wimbledon to Port Line, so it was called the Port Wimbledon and I went on quite a few trips on that ship.
I remember my claim to fame on that ship was we had to drop off some machinery in West Africa and we brought the barge out and we were all loading the stuff and I heard the chief engineer, the 2nd engineer and the mate and skipper talking. We were working on the electric pump and the electric pump broke down. I heard them talking and I butted in, “Excuse me Sir, I just overheard you talking, and I might be able to help you out on that pump.” The 2nd engineer said, “Howway, we’ll go and have a go at it.” So, we went down to the engine room and I told him what I’d done and he said, “Do you reckon you can get it going?” and I said, “Aye, we’ll have a go at it!”
So, he got his engineers to take it out, they stripped it and then to rewind it you’ve got to make sure you get the right size and the turns. So I made the template to make the coils and I wound it all and then the hard part of the whole job really is that to stop the windings from flying out with the centrifugal force it must be stoved at a high temperature. I said to him, “How are you going to stove it? It’s got to be done,” and he said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Yes it’s got to be done or the windings will just blow out and the armatures will just damage it.” “Oh dear,” he said.
He spoke to the chief engineer and he said, “We’ve got a galley haven’t we, call the cook,” he said. “You cannot put that in my oven, what about the meals?” said the cook. “Never mind your flaming meals we can get a new oven,” he said. So, they put it in the oven and it came out to what I wanted and the cook had a bit of a job cleaning it down. We boxed it all up and put it back together again and I had all my fingers crossed when the 2nd engineer said, “Do you want to press the button Derek?” I said, “No, no you press the button.” So the 2nd pressed the button and to my delight you just heard a whirring sound and then the pressure came up and I thought thank God for that and then it was all back slapping and great stuff. My reward was 1 case of ale and a bottle of gin.
I came home from that trip, and I was engaged at the time and we were keen to get married and I said to my future wife, “Well the next trip’s only 6 month, I will be home for Christmas and we’ll decide then and start planning.” But in them days you signed 2 year articles and I was away for 18 months. We used to have a laugh on the ship because we’d been away such a long time and many a lad would get what we called a Dear John letter, “I’m sorry but I’m breaking up our relationship you’ve been away too long.” There was me and the third engineer, we never, ever got a Dear John. I got home and I walked up Norham Road to where the bus stop was on the Coast Road. I could see Joyce walking up and it wasn’t one of these things you see on the films where they run together with their arms outstretched. When we got close it was a finger and it was, “I’m never waiting again for you, you’re finished!” And that was the end of my sea life I’m afraid. We’ve been married now fifty odd years and she is still me princess, after all that time.
I came back from sea and I joined ‘Clens’ shipyard March 1965 and I was there until the day they closed in 1983. ‘Clens’ opened as Cleland’s in 1867 but until 1934 they just done repair work and then they started to build ships in 1934. The biggest ship we ever built was a ship called the Ashington for Stevenson Clark run between Blyth and London and it was only 6,570 tonnes. And the last ship we built was one called the Steyning. That was built in 1983, launched on August 9th and was completed on 20th October 1983 and the yard closed at the end of October.
But in the intervening years I had some really happy times. It was a small shipyard and obviously we built small ships and we used to get guys coming from the bigger shipyards with an attitude of, “Ah, little ships, there’s nowt in these little ships.” I used to say, “Hey bonny lad, there’s everything on a little ship that there is on a big ship, but you haven’t got the room just to point and say, oh we’ll go through here and do this and do that.”
We used to have regular meetings. All the trades were involved, and we used to make sure the plans were done right. At the big yards the run of the mill guys, if I may say that, just done the donkey work, putting the trade plate up, clipping up, putting the cables in and then they just used to leave them and then the Royals came along. Not so at ‘Clens’, we were just a little group of men and the guy that done the job. I used to go and mark all the positions off the trade plate, starters and everything else and it was up to the lad in that particular compartment to do everything. When it came to testing time, he used to call me in and I used to check it out with him.
Everything had to be nipping and I used to say, “If you have any bother then just come and see me,” and I found the majority of the guys from the big yards couldn’t do that because they had never connected up. Most of them when they left used to say, “Thank you very much Derek, I’ve learnt a hell of a lot here.” They could do it because they’d seen it being done.
A few years later, Mr Craggs, who owned the company sold out to Swan’s. Swan’s top man came down to see what we done and how we done it, with the idea of taking over. I was told that he went back to Swan’s, to a meeting of the directors and he said, “If you took ‘Clens’ over you would be mad.” He says, “They do a better job than us.” He says, “They do it with about a quarter of the men, one foreman, one manager, one chargehand.” He says, “You could never do it for the price.” So, Swan’s never took over, we were there until the death in 1983. I was offered jobs all over the place, but I loved my job and I loved the freedom of it. It was good when you went on trials and the ship sailed and you looked at it and you went, “I helped build that.” Some of them ran for years without any bother.
The trials were a bit of a thing. There used to be what they called a measured mile up near Newbiggin. There was a set of lights at the south end and a set of lights at the north end and I mean it was about 5 or 6 lengths. The lights were off-set so when the ship approached it used to get up to full speed and as soon as them lights lined up you were on the measured mile and they used to take all the records and then when they got to the north end the lights used to come together and that was the end of the mile.
They had a particular thing called shake down and by gum was that shake down. They used to set the ship full ahead and wait until it really got up to full steam ahead and then they used to put it in reverse and the vibration was horrendous. Our job was to go around all of the ship to see what damage had been done because the shake down was tremendous.
We built a lot of fishing boats for Mars Fishing Company of Hull and Edinburgh and they were good trials because I used to take a big carrier bag full of fish back for the Mrs to cook. They were good days, happy days.
We had some characters, all shipyards had them and funny people and eccentric people. Some of the nicknames were laughable. One manager used to go around and talk to the men and his favourite saying was, “Now you’ll get this job done won’t you, you’ll not let us down will you, you’ll not let us down?” And he got the nickname of ‘balloon’ because of him saying, “You’ll not let us down?” and how the men think these things up I don’t know. Another guy, he had a nickname of ‘haversack’, because he had an awful habit of saying, “I wish that flamin‘ manager would get off my back.”
The lads called me ‘Mr Nipping’ because when I used to go around testing the jobs and checking everything, I had a habit of saying, “Now is all your connections tight now?” And I used to repeat myself, so I got the nickname ‘Mr Nipping’ ‘cos everything had to be nipping tight.
On ships there is no square corners they are all round because with vibration and the ship’s rolling and one thing and another the weakest point of a hole is a square corner. So you notice how the windows and doors might look square but the actual orifice that the door fits into is always rounded. There are no square corners and yet there was always a rule that if you got a hole through a bulkhead, you had to put back what you took out meaning, if I wanted cables to go through that bulkhead I had to go through what they used to call a compensator. We used to make these compensators at the blacksmiths and then we used to burn a hole in the bulkhead and put these compensators in and weld them, so we were putting back the amount of metal that we took out except there was a hole through it to pass cables through.
I nearly caused a strike once. I asked for a welder, what they used to call a ‘tacker’ and the foreman says, “Yes I’ll get you a tacker down.” But I think he went off work for a few days so I asked the chargehand but the chargehand didn’t think it was important so it was over three days I was waiting for this. So, on the Sunday when the ship was quiet I said, “Here, give me that welding iron,” and I put the hat on and I welded this trade plate up. This was in the days when the unions ruled and of course the welding shop steward for the union came and said, “Who put that up?” and I said, “I did,” and so he called a big meeting. I had to apologise profusely otherwise there would have been a strike.
In them days, right or wrongly, you could finish people just on the spot. Our company couldn’t afford to carry people who wouldn’t work because we were just little unlike Swan’s who had hundreds of men. The early 70s was a bad time for Cleland’s. They only employed the maximum of about 700 men and in the likes of Swan’s 700 men would work in just one corner of a ship.
In the time I was there 1965-83 we only had 1 fatality. There was a young boy he was only 16, an apprentice carpenter. When the ship’s in the dry dock it’s not on a level plane and this particular ship had McGregor hatches fitted. They didn’t open like normal hatches, one part of the hatch cover would turn up left to right the next part would turn up right to left so in other words they were like a concertina. They were working on the hatches and the hatches moved and they started to roll back and started to concertina. Obviously, the journeyman knew what to do and he ran off to the port side and jumped off but the young boy didn’t know what to do and he fell between and they squashed him. That was a very sad day. The shipyard stopped for the day and a lot of people went to his funeral, he was a nice boy, always smiling.
It was a tradition to do repairs. We had a dry dock that didn’t have gates. The ships used to come in and they used to take a rope from the bow and tie it to what they called a donkey. This guy used to work the steam pump and it was a plinth that the ship sat on and when they pulled the donkey up, they used to pull the ship up by the nose and as it got further and further up the ship used to settle onto this donkey and they’d pull it up onto dry land. It was ancient, 1890s and it was forever going wrong.
We used to have some spectacular sideways launches. Sometimes when they went off, they used to slide down the ways into the water and sometimes when you watched them, you used to say, “That ship is not going to come back!” it used to go that far over then the momentum would make it swing. They were the only company on the Tyne that done sideways launches and they were noted for them. We used to let so many of the public in to watch it and everybody used to be impressed by the sideways launches it was spectacular.
But even the normal type launches were spectacular, and a lot of people that never worked in shipyards and knew nothing about ships used to think that the lady that broke the bottle launched the ship. She didn’t launch the ship! There was two men underneath and the head foreman used to be under the bow of the ship where the podium was and when that woman threw the bottle the head foreman used to shout, “Let her go,” and these two men used to bang. Amazingly there were only two catches that kept the ship on the ways, these guys had to coordinate because if one knocked out before the other the ship would tilt and it wouldn’t launch, so these were expert guys at it.
They used to drop these out and then they used to drop the hammer and run like hell in case they got caught on the drag chains. When the ship went in the water, we had one or two stuck and they had to rejig it.
After the ship was launched the tradition at ‘Clens’, was the head foreman used to take his hat off and say, “Ship launched Sir,” and there was an envelope or something put in his hat and he’d say, “Thank you very much Sir.” And then we used to go to the “Morgue”, the club in Willington Quay and have a great night with a sing song. That’s a tradition that went on from 1934 when they started building ships, they kept the same tradition.
I don’t think there is any shipbuilding here now on the Tyne; like the pits, it all went, but I was very sad when I left.
When it come to redundancy the people that worked for the shipyard itself even the young boys that had just served their time, they were getting eight to nine thousand pounds redundancy because it was a company redundancy. But being a contractor, we got government redundancy; I worked there for 18 years as a foreman and I got the large amount of £2,500 and that included 13 weeks in lieu of working. I got a quarter of what the young boys in the shipyard got but that’s the way it was, at least that paid the mortgage off.
Derek Amess was interviewed for the Shipyard Memories Project, 24th January 2020