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A Journeyman

I spent 15 months of my apprenticeship on board that ship.


Photograph of Allan McKever

Allan McKever

My name is Allan McKever, I am 66 years of age and I worked at the Swan Hunter ship repair yard in North Shields.  I started my apprentice training in 1968 and I served my time right through to the end when I was a journeyman in 1975.  The first year I was involved in attending an apprentice training school.  This gave you a wide experience of all the trades, not just the trades you were involved in.  That was a year of pre on-the-job training before we moved to our yards that we had been employed by.  We had a training officer who designated training in certain tasks within your own trade.

We had what you called Industrial Training Board books which had to illustrate the type of work you had been training in and these were handed to the training officer every couple of weeks to make sure you understood exactly what you were doing.  It was like an assessment really, much like an NVQ is today.  Apart from that you went for day release at South Shields Marine Technical College where you were given a course in ship building mainly and you could take the Advanced Craft Certificate, City and Guilds and in addition you would take a full Technological Certificate at the end of your term.  That’s what I did, and I passed both.  That was mainly the basis of your training.  It changed in the shipyards in as much as you were given a lot more responsibility by the foreman.

Once you were a journeyman you were left to your own devices because I think they expected you to be up to scratch and to know the job just like everybody else who was a journeyman.

There were quite a few nicknames.  I remember one foreman was called the Haversack because he would never get off your back and he was quite a pest.  Another guy was nicknamed Green Bus because he used to come into the shed every ten minutes just like the regularity of the green bus that used to leave North Shields to go to Croft Street in Newcastle.

I suffer from hearing loss in my right ear.  I did get exposure to a lot of noise in my time with riveters and caulkers, especially where the noise vibrated all over the place in metal surroundings, so it was problematic.  As for the long-term effects I don’t really know whether the hearing loss has been caused by that.

I don’t remember many safety protocols.  In fact, I remember starting my first day having to go out with a journeyman on to the ship where there was heavy metal being lifted about and I just had ordinary shoes on, no steel toe caps or anything like that.  I didn’t even have a pair of overalls on at the time.  They put me on the ship without any protection, but it was the norm in those days.  A week into my job I was up 40ft masts but by this time I had bought a pair of overalls and steel toe caps but people in the shipyard wouldn’t think of it as an issue like they would today.

I saw many accidents including one I had myself where I got hit on the thumb by a falling piece of metal.  It wasn’t very large, but it fell from such a height that it broke my thumb.  To this day I’ve still got a scar, so I suppose that has had a long-term effect.

I did work indoors because I worked on a mould loft, but I did go on a ship in all sorts of weather conditions, rain, snow and slippery surfaces.  Health and Safety wasn’t an issue you just got on with it.  I remember one hot day somebody actually fried an egg on top of the metal hatch and put it in his sandwich, so it just shows how extreme the hot weather was as well.  I used to eat in the yard but sometimes I used to walk out into the town centre and get a bite to eat there.  But Fridays was fish and chip day and as an apprentice you had to go out and get the fish and chips for the rest of the men.  I remember one particular day I got 42 orders for the fish and chip shop and I didn’t get back until dinner time was over.  Everyone had to go back over their dinner break which the foreman wasn’t too happy about.  Practically everybody had fish and chips on a Friday.

I used the Riverside line quite a lot.  It wasn’t a very heavily used line but morning, noon and night it was used specifically for the shipyard workers.  I would get the train home at Carville station which took the bulk of the workers home to North Tyneside and Newcastle.

I can’t recall working shift patterns except when there was a strike on by the journeymen and the foreman made the apprentices work night shift. The journeymen weren’t too happy as I recall. The shift patterns were mainly day shift from 7.30 to 3.30.

I remember one particular issue in the shipyards, and it came to the fore when I started my apprenticeship.  It was a thing called interchangeability where different trades had to learn other trades.  The idea was that if a welder wasn’t available then you could do the welding yourself or if the caulker wasn’t available then you would just carry on doing it.  This caused quite an uproar with the journeymen.  They did not like it one little bit.  I seem to think it died a death because of the protest by the workforce.  That was the main dispute but there were pay disputes and things like overtime disputes which were quite common.

With us being a ship repair yard, we didn’t actually build ships so there were no actual launches performed.  But we did have experience of the launch of the Esso Northumbria at the training school, which was happening when we were there, and all the apprentices got a ring side seat at the Wallsend yard.

I always remember the apprentices were asked if we could have a volunteer to present a bouquet to Princess Anne and nobody wanted to do it.  Everyone had long hair in those days, so nobody wanted to get their hair cut which was one of the requirements.  Anyway, they decided to pick a name out of a hat and a poor young lad with hair down to his shoulders got picked and had to get his hair cut.

That event was there for the world to see on television the first quarter of a million-tonne super tanker was a big event.  The ship going out of the river was another massive event with a quarter of a million people watching.  Traffic jams from Whitley Bay to North Shields with people watching the ship going out.  That’s my main memory of a launch that I wasn’t involved in apart from getting a ringside seat.

The people I worked with didn’t have jobs outside, but we did do little ‘govy’ jobs inside the yard.  Things like fence panels and things like that that we would get a few bob for.  I wasn’t involved but it did happen.  I think I find it harder now than I did at the time, but every foreman and manager had a hard hat for safety reasons whereas the workers who actually did the work and were under the ship most of the time didn’t get any protection.  That’s my main issue but that’s what I think now rather than when I was there.

I have one particular memory of my time at Smiths Docks.  There was a ship called the Oregis and I spent 15 months of my apprenticeship on board that ship.  It was the only ship I worked on with a journeyman as an apprentice.  It was a bulk carrier that came into the yard to get converted into some sort of oil exploration ship that had diving bells so that divers could go down the middle of the ship in a diving chamber and explore things down below.  I think it was all oil related.

The ship went off on its voyage after this massive repair and refurbishment, but it ran aground on the Black Middens on a Sunday night in the dark.  I heard about that on Radio 2 and I couldn’t believe it, I had just been working on the ship the previous day.  I had said goodbye to it for good and once it got off the rocks it ended up back into the dry dock and I spent another 6-9 months on it.  The state of the ship underneath was absolutely incredible with all the damage.  It’s not a fond memory but a significant memory of my time in the ship repair yard.

I left the shipyard in 1975 and decided to take on a job as a trainee computer operator at the Ministry in Longbenton.  I then moved to British Aerospace and I spent the rest of my career working with computers which was totally different.  I found the culture totally different as well.  I just couldn’t believe the slightest bit things people complained about in an office whereas the shipyard workers would just get on with it.  When you had people complaining about a draft from a window and you had been working in all those conditions in the shipyard it was a bit eye popping.

Allan McKever was interviewed for the Shipyard Memories Project on 2nd March 2020.


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