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A Fitter on the Tyne

I built the fastest engine ever


Photograph of Ted Davey

Ted Davey

I was in the shipyards from the age of 15, that was 1955, until 1986. I served my time at Smiths Docks as a fitter and turner. Part of my apprenticeship was in the main yards, but the final years were in the Haddock Shop, or Shields Engineering as anybody else might know that. I asked for the transfer. Following my five years apprenticeship, I left to work on a fishing boat but then I came back to Smiths.

I was in Greenock when the yards closed, the final years of the yards. Three engines that we were supposed to build were transferred up there and I went up with some other members of staff to supervise the testing of the engines and see what happened there.

When you first went into the yards you bought your own boilersuits and equipment, your tools and everything.   At Smiths, if there was heavier gear you needed, that’s what they supplied, but other than that, you had to supply them yourself.

My first wage, as an apprentice, was £2.1s.4d for 40 hours. When I was 18, I remember working three half shifts, all night Friday and all-day Sunday and I just got short of £20

Health and safety didn’t come in until, it must have been the late 60s.  A relation of mine who had been in the RAF got a job at Smiths as one of the health and safety officers but before that, I had never seen anybody. There were several injuries in that time and a number of people got killed, but as far as any investigation went, I don’t know what happened.

There were shop stewards, but there was very little that they applied. They generally talked to the managers and foremen and tried to work things out, but I think in all my time working in the shipyards, there was two half day protests, that was about it. These people who say we went out on strike for the least thing, were totally wrong.  People wanted the money, they had families to support and the likes of that, so they were not prepared to go out on strike unless it was absolutely necessary.  That is the way we got around it, talk.

If you clocked in say three minutes late, you were penalised, you got a quarter of an hour knocked off your hours and did not get paid for that quarter of an hour.

When I was an apprentice, I was coming back from the fish quay carrying the fitter’s tools and the fitters were ahead of me. There were some East German fishing boats tied alongside the quay and when I walked up to this group of Germans, they started to push me around.  Fortunately, there was a labourer watching what was going on and he ran back into the fitting shop and got a 14-pound hammer. He came running out swinging it and they all scattered. The senior manager had seen what was going on and came across to investigate. The labourer told him what had happened. Then he turned to the skipper of the first boat tied alongside; there were about six, but they were all tied to each other going out into the river and he said to the skipper, “When are the rest going to pay their fees for being tied up alongside?” He said, “Oh, they’ve paid,” and the manager said “No, you’ve paid they haven’t.” An argument took place, and he turned to the labourer “You know where the fire axe is in the fitting shop?” and he went into the fitting shop and came back with the fire axe.  Another argument took place.  The next thing we knew, the manager swung the axe, cut through the ropes that was tying the ship alongside and it started to drift out, bow-wise. They jumped aboard and then the manager slashed the ropes on the other side, so they drifted out all together into the river – engines start, ropes cast aside, everything, before they got out into the middle.

Another time, I had to go and look for some equipment, it was wintertime, it was a dark night.  On the fishing boats then it was gas lights, and I didn’t bother trying to light the gas light, I just went down, went around the corner and there was a man sitting there, sound asleep with his eyes wide open, but I didn’t realise that.  I thought he was dead, and I screamed and ran up to get the fitter.  When the fitter came down, this bloke was just starting to stir. It frightened the life out of me, I tell you, but he was okay.

Other times, working at Smiths itself, I was working on one ship and they were opening up the holds. They were taking the wood off one hold and a big black cloud of bugs came out and they were quite big. And immediately they yelled to block them back in again and they called the health and safety people in who gassed them or did something to kill them off.  The next time they opened it up they had to put a big bowl and they filled the bowl with all these dead creatures and got them out and took them away. The plumbers went down and did their job then put the woods back on. Then they had to open them up for an inspection and another black cloud came out, so they had to baton it down and do exactly the same. Obviously, these creatures had laid eggs. That answered a question because when we first went on the ship, the bulkheads looked like pebbledash, then when I seen the bugs, I realised they had just painted over the bugs. You got some experiences, some frightening ones.

I was working in number eight dock at Smiths there was me and another lad were told to go to the centre castle and take some pipes out.  I said to the chargehand, “Have they been cleaned?” and he said, “Oh yeh, they’ve been cleaned, washed at sea.”  We couldn’t get the nuts and bolts off so we started chiselling and the chargehand decided to go and get a burner and we burned them off. We had to rig chain blocks up to turn them out so that we could get them away ashore and this liquid with a very strong smell suddenly started running out.  It went through a little hole in the centre castle, out over the side of the ship, just as a welder went to weld.  The next thing we knew there was a flame coming up the side of the ship. We got out quick and that was sealed off for quite some time until they sorted it out.

There was another incident where one of the officers on a ship in number eight dock was checking out the lifeboats. He went round on the outside and held on, checking the boat and he slipped and broke both his legs. It was about seventy feet, how he survived I do not know. Yeh, there was quite a number of things went on like that, but I never seen anybody from health and safety walking around checking things out. You got your laughs, but you also had some bad experiences

I had another experience in the Haddock Shop, working one Sunday I think it was. They had a brand-new tractor with a compressor on the back and there was a boilermaker doing a job in the dry dock.  I had to stand by, looking after the compressor.  I thought to myself I wonder how easy it is to drive this tractor, so I got up, just put it into first gear, and chugged around. I got to the main gate and this gatekeeper came out and said, “What are you doing Ted?”  Now, this gatekeeper was a character, every new pair of shoes he got he painted and I’ll never forget this ‘cos they were emerald green.  I said, “I’m just going to put it into the fitting shop.”  I thought I had put it into reverse; I hadn’t, because I hadn’t a clue. I revved up, let out the clutch, and the next thing I knew was the tractor lifted up onto the two back wheels.  He dived out of the road, the tractor rolled forward hit the gates and the gates collapsed into the street. I drove out and parked it outside the Prince of Wales then went inside, saw the fitter there and said, “Can you shift the tractor?”  When he came outside, he saw that the tractor was okay, but the road was blocked.  He managed to get it back into the yard.  So they went and got the manager, told him what had happened and I was sent for and he says, “If there’s a bloody mark on that tractor, you’re in trouble.”  There wasn’t, the tyres had saved my day.  But they had to put new posts up, new gates up, everything.  I went down in history for that.

We had good times bad times and some cold times. I remember working on the bow of a ship during the winter that the Tyne froze, and we had to get a burner to try and heat these bearings up on the windlass.  It took some time to warm it up and we were really cold, especially when you see blocks of ice floating down the Tyne, which wasn’t a normal thing.

There was a canteen, or you could go to the seamen’s mission at the bottom of Borough Bank.  On a Sunday they would go to a pub and have pigs’ feet, roasted, while you had your pint.

You got into some really crazy conditions. Somebody put a water hose in and started to run the water whilst I was inside the boiler. They hadn’t looked at the cable with the electric lamp on so they could not have been very careful of what they were doing. Another time when I was working on a super-heated boiler, and this engineer started dropping steel ball bearings down to check that it was clear.  Yes, I got out of there quick.

Another yard I was working in, the Mercantile Marine, I worked on a boiler they had heated up to its full temperature and they had a super-heated system at the back of the boiler.  You had to go through to where the burner was up the back of the boiler, you couldn’t see anything, you couldn’t take a light in and tighten up all the connections.  If they weren’t you were in serious danger, but you had to do it.  It was one of those cases where you just had to get on with it.

It didn’t matter where I go, I enjoyed my job.  There was good camaraderie, you had some really good laughs. We had chargemen who wore boiler suits and there was never ever a dirty mark on them whereas we would be covered in muck.  We worked with asbestos and god knows what but just got on with it. The dust clouds of asbestos, something you just had to accept, we didn’t know any other.

I eventually left Smiths and went to work for the Boston Deep Sea Fishery Company as an engineer. Then I came back and went to Wallsend Slipway for a while. That was interesting because I was working on the Leda while it was tied alongside.  They wanted me to take an electric motor out off the crane and I asked the chargehand, “Are they going to lower the boom?” and he says, “No it’ll be OK.”  So me and this other fitter pulled the electric motor out and the next thing we seen the boom coming down, straight onto the bridge because it had a curved edge and it caught that coming down. We had experiences.

From Wallsend Slipway I was back to Smiths for a while, then to North East Marine for a short time.  I quite enjoyed it because the fitters were good, got on with the job and you were in control of everything.  From there I went back to Smiths Dock then I got paid off there again.

From there I went to Blyth Docks. I didn’t have a car so we had to get up at 5.30 to catch the first bus to Blyth, and it only just got me to the yard for 7.30. Everything was okay for a while then I was told I was going to work on a ship that was in dry dock and I made the mistake of having a cup of coffee while I was doing the job.  The manager came down, he said, “You’re drinking while you’re marking up?”  I says, “Well it is winter and it’s freezing cold.  He went away and the next thing, the shop steward came and said, “I’ve had a word from the manager, you’re suspended as from tomorrow.”  I says, “No I’m not, have my cards and my money ready tonight I’m away.”  I says, “Have you talked it over with the other fitters, are they going to do something about it?”  He says, “No, you’re from the Tyne.”

From there I went back to Smiths, worked there for a while, found out they want fitters at the Mercantile, so I got moved off there.  At that time, I lived in New York village, Felton Lane. If you walked out the front door it was into a field and to get work for half past seven, I had to walk through the fields towards Wallsend, go through the Tyne Tunnel and walk to the Mercantile. I was pretty fit then. I enjoyed that, they were a good set of lads there.

We had some funny experiences with the “ladies of the night”.  The boats getting raided, time after time.  There was one experience where the police had raided and the said, “It’s OK to get back on board, there’s nobody else there.”  I went back on board and I went into the stores to do a job. I could see this sack, it was like a cleaning stuff that was in there and it was all tied up.  “Oh, I must have been imagining things,” and then I just turned round and I seen it move again.  So I went over, opened it up and a young girl got out.  I says, “The police have been here get yourself ashore, get away,” and she did.  I just couldn’t believe it ‘cos she couldn’t have been very old, at the most 16 or 17, something like that.

The funniest experience thinking about that was when there was something going on in a cabin, and we had the aft end of one ship to the bow of another ship.  And two labourers had a big ladder up, looking in through a port hole, and he’s giving a description of what was going on and he was laughing away.  All of a sudden, a ship came up the river, big swell and the next thing was this ladder was sliding down and he hit the deck.  They heard the noise, and the crew came out with knives and we ran off the boat and we had to call the police.  The police came and warned them if anyone was caught with knives they’re going to prison. It was a while before we were allowed back on the ship.

Another case, working at the Mercantile, we were tied up at the buoy, so once you were on board, you didn’t get off until the boat came for you in the morning. When we had finished the job, the cook had just made fresh bread, and he made us a sandwich, oh it was beautiful. We just sat there just enjoying every bite.  It was things like that you really enjoyed.

(Interviewer – When you were paid off, were you out of work long?)  If you knew people from other yards they passed on word. Then you had to take your tools with you and be there for half past seven in the morning for the market, which meant you stood in a row and the foreman would come down and pick the men he wanted. They would go in and you would go home but you had to be there for half past seven sharp otherwise you would not get started at all. There was one lad at the Slipway, when I was working with him, it was his first job in a year, because he had been blacklisted on the Tyne, but the Slipway were eventually persuaded to take him back in.  He was very, very careful. I don’t know what he had done but I know he had been involved in the unions, maybe it was that. Yeh, things like that did happen.

We had a brilliant social life at North East Marine. We had a sports day and everybody was involved from the directors right down.  We had a football match; it was men verses women.  Girls from the office got dressed up as St. Trinians with their hockey sticks as well. I was dressed as a monk and was in goal.  All the other members of staff had different clothes on.  It was really, really hilarious, but I do not think you would ever see that now.

I held the record for bonus because we were on piece work building the engines.  I built the fasted engine ever.  I had £1000 bonus, that was late 1970.  We did really well but it wasn’t only them jobs we did.  We could build anything.  I remember we built torpedo testing equipment for the Royal Navy.  We also built machines for paper pulp. We could have ships lying off where we would go to work. I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It broke my heart when North East Marine closed because everybody got on, everybody spoke to everybody, and there were no disputes within trades.  We had a really good time.

I had two really good apprentices.  One of them became a chief engineer and I seen him on television being interviewed. He worked for a council then as senior engineer.  Another one emigrated to the United States, retrained as an electrician and started up his own business.  Him and his partner are now doing exceptionally well. In 1986, we went out and spent a month with him at his house in Florida.  A good trip for me and my kids.

Ted Davey was interviewed for the Shipyard Memories Project, 28th January 2020.

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