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Last Man at Swan Hunter’s

I literally had to lock the doors and hand in the keys



I started on the 10th November 1969 at Wallsend Shipyard and I spent the rest of my working life there, that was 36 years in the shipyard. It was Swan Hunter’s until December 1995 and then it was taken over by the Dutch company in January 1996. I was there until 2006.

On day one, walking down the bank to where I was going to work in the office, I got the biggest fright of my life, when I saw one of the supertankers on the berth, it actually blocked the light out in the yard. Prior to that, I had worked at the Tyne Improvement Commission where they repaired the ferries. Obviously, I saw large ships on the river, but nothing prepared me for the size of that tanker, it was unbelievable. I think it was called the World Unicorn. I didn’t know at that time, but part of my job was to walk to the Neptune Yard, which was next door, and you had to walk under the vessel while above you there was welders, caulkers, burners, drillers etc. working, and as you walked underneath there were bits flying off.  It must have been horrendous for the poor guys working on the sides of the ship.

My first job was as a cross code clerk and first thing in the morning I had to go into the big fabrication shed, others had other parts of the yard. You would look at the big plan on the wall in the office and draw a plan in your notebook of where various sections were being built, but I already knew where those sections were code wise. You then would go down into the shed and climb onto the sections where the workforce was welding, drilling, chipping, burning.  There were no hard hats, overalls, or steel toe caps boots, you just had whatever you had on that day. The men would carry their timecard in their pocket. They couldn’t see behind them so you would tap each one, he would turn and you would take the card out of his pocket, note what section it was for, stick it back in his pocket and move on to the next one and then the next one. The sheds themselves must have been four or five football pitches big, the noise was horrendous. You had overhead cranes, hammers, drilling, welding. By the time you did that and came back it was probably about 11 o’clock and time for a cuppa, then you would be sent to another section to do a bit more coding.

I got promoted to timekeeper, which then meant that I had to look after the fitters and the millwrights, my first group of people probably 350 or 400 of them. Unfortunately for me they were all based in the machine shop in Neptune so each day I had to go up to the Neptune Yard to rack the cards so that they were ready for the men coming in the next morning.

When I went to work in those days I didn’t have a car, so I used to have to be up for half past five in the morning to get the 308 bus along the Coast Road, get off at the top of Station Road, then run down the road to clock in before 7 o’clock.  Then I had to go through to the Neptune Yard. Sometimes I was lucky because in the yard they had trains pulling the plate to the job and you could hop on to the footplate as it went through the yard.

I did the timekeeping job for a few years then I went into the cashier’s office. When the cashier, who had started as a boy of 15, retired, I got his job. Then I became the wages supervisor of the Wallsend office.  We used to have one in each yard, Neptune, Walker, South Shields, Hebburn, Hebburn Dock and Haverton Hill. We used to administer as well so there was a lot of supervisors and a company payroll manager. Things changed when technology came in and some staff were made redundant.  We formed the Payroll Control Centre for running the payroll and I became the payroll centre manager with two other guys who I worked with in there.  We sent the payroll weekly, but then “priority-based budgeting” came in, so we went from weekly to two-weekly and then four-weekly. The men got an enhancement to go from being weekly paid to four-weekly. That was technology. My boss, who was company payroll manager, retired through ill health and I became the payroll manager.

That was going along swimmingly until 1.31pm on the 13th May 1993 when Roger Vaughan announced that we were going into receivership. The sad thing about that was, we were in for the helicopter ship, and Neville Trotter, MP for Tynemouth, indicated that we had won the order.  On that morning, there was quite a lot of excitement because it was literally saving the yard and I think on that day, the Evening Chronicle had a headline, ‘Victory’, saying that we had won the ship.  But when it was announced in the Commons that day, I think it went to Rosyth, or somewhere else, and I think they literally took the papers off the stand. From then, the receivers, Price Waterhouse Cooper came in. As we were running payroll and administering redundancies, they asked me to stay until the end, which I did.  I suppose my claim to fame is being the last person to be employed by Swan Hunter’s after 135 years.  An honour in a way, but very, very sad.

It should have never happened.  They were remarkable people, absolutely remarkable. The good thing about working at Swan’s was the camaraderie, almost everyone had a nickname, there were some real characters. I think when I was a timekeeper, I was called Poison Pen because when the buzzer sounded for half past seven the roller shutter door would come down.  I have seen the men run down the bank and roll under the door to get in, so they don’t lose quarter of an hour.  We had to mark their timecard if they were late and when the cards come back in it is recorded in the book.  So instead of getting eight hours for the day they would only get seven and three quarters.  Hence if they came in after quarter to eight, they would lose half an hour.  If they came in after 8 o’clock they would get sent home until after lunch time, quite strict.

Roger Vaughan, who was the Chief Executive got the white-collar workers into the drawing office.  He stood on one of the drawing office tables, so that he could address everybody, and he announced what was going on. I thought he was a brave man.  The sad thing about it was, in my office, they had a guy whose wife, his mother and his father all worked there as well.  Because it was such a family institution at Swan Hunter’s lots of families worked there. Fathers had brought their sons in as apprentices and other relatives so that was worse for them. If I remember correctly, it rained for three days and somebody said that, “It was God crying because Swan’s had shut.”

I stayed until the end of 1995 and by then the Dutch had already bought it, in July 1995.  I had met Jaap Kroese and Jan Vonder and they offered me a position there similar to what I had had in the Payroll at Swan’s. I took it up and I stayed with them for 10 years. The Dutch are very nice people, but they are very ruthless. If you do not fit in, you are out.  It is as simple as that. If you did your job and kept your nose clean so to speak, they looked after you which I had no qualms about, I had a good relationship with them.

I had an instruction from the receivers, and I called it scorched-earth.  The plans for all the ships that Swan Hunter had built were stored in the bankside, under the canteen. Rosyth bought the plans for all the ships that were still afloat, but the instruction for the others was to take them out of their tubes, shred them and burn them.  To me that was horrendous, but that was what I was told to do. I did get in touch with a guy from Tyne & Wear Archives and told him about it and he came down with a van to load the original blueprint plans. Whether they are in there or not I do not know. The only time I have ever seen anything surface was on the Antiques Road Show. Norman Gilchrist was the Naval Architect, and his daughter had the plans of the Mauritania on the Antiques Road Show and they estimated them at £20,000. She said her father had been given them so that was the plans for one famous vessel saved.

That was quite moving, it took probably 12 weeks to clear that out. But also, every time Swan’s built a ship, they would also build a scale model of the ship, and those vessels would be put in libraries clubs, union offices, that sort of thing. A guy from London purchased all of them through the receivers for I think about quarter of a million pound. There might have been 20 or 30 of them and they picked them all up.

In the early days, women used to stand at the top of the bank on payday, when the men were paid weekly. They would get their house-keeping money off them before they went to the Coronation Pub because once they got to the pub that was it, all gone. We used to have an in-house banking system.  The wages weren’t huge in those days, but they could maybe save £5 a week and a lot of them would have the money come off at source, but they were there on the Monday drawing it out for their beer money.

That was basically my life there from 10th November 1969 up to Christmas 2006 when I left and then went to Blackett Charlton, along the river.  All my working life I worked on the river, for the Tyne Improvement Commission (TIC) first at Howdon Yard.  My very first job was on the Tyne Tunnel, which was strange.  I was in the office there, but on the day of the topping out I went down in the bucket to the bottom. On a building you would clink your glasses, they had cans down there. TIC, then Swan’s, then Blackett Charlton’s.  So, all my working life I had worked on the river which was probably within a mile radius from my first job to my last job.

On the social side you had football teams and there were always social events of some sort, quiz teams or dances.  They were good to attend because everybody knew everybody.  Nights out from the office were good fun.  We had a 5-aside team that used to play at Wallsend sports centre.  We used to bribe the girl who was on the telephone with chocolates and all sorts so she always gave us the same time and when we finished work, we would rush up and get a game because if you didn’t get in, instead of playing at 4.30 it could be 8.30 which was a no go. The social side was good, and I still see a couple of the guys I used to work with for golf or other things. There was a Golf Society there which was very popular, with good prizes, and we used to play all over the North East.

I think when I started in 1969 there was 19,000 people employed by Swan’s and that included everybody on the river, Haverton Hill and South Bank.  In Wallsend, from what I can remember, I think there was probably 1,900 people including in the yard and there would easily be at least 500 women.  Some were mothers, some were girlfriends of some of the guys. In our office, we used to have a lady who worked on the stamps. You could imagine if you had two and a half thousand men, and in those days, it wasn’t franking, you had to manually put the stamps on the cards. She had piles and piles of stamps.  How she ever balanced them out I will never know; a gust of wind and they would be all over the place. There were three types of stamps, one was National Insurance, the other two were savings and she did that for years and years. Then there was an older lady who was a Secretary, she was a lovely woman.  Then when new technology came in things changed and we had two or three girls working on the machines, inputting data.  But in the old days, we had the coding cards.  At night, when the men went home, they dropped their cards into big wickerwork baskets and,  if you were working overtime, you had to take the hundreds and hundreds of cards out, sort them into trade and then into numerical order ready for checking the next morning.  Then they would go over to the punch-card girls, there must have been fifty or more of them in this huge outside office. Then at the end of the week that data would be then transferred in readiness to run the payroll. Lots of women worked in our office then, but eventually there was only six or eight.

When the crunch came and people had to go, I had to do a work study with them; what are your strengths and what were your weaknesses. I was interviewing, ticking boxes and at the end of the day the scores were totalled and those with the lowest scores would then be made redundant. There was some who queried the decisions, but at the end of the day, they knew everybody was going anyway, it was just a case of when.

The first ones left in September 1993.  When things had settled down a bit and as the men were going, the office staff started to go too until a couple of my colleagues who worked closely with me, went in July 1995 which left me as the last person at Swan Hunter’s. I was there for people who had forms to fill in for mortgages or loans, I would fill a form in and put a stamp on for them and away they would go.  Certainly, in the last 6 months that is what I did.  I used to administer the Pension Scheme and that got wrapped up monetary wise.  Then I had to write my own P45 out because there was nobody else there to do it.  I literally had to lock the door and hand the keys into security.  Where I had switched the light off was a brass fitting and one of the security guys took it off and gave it to me as a keepsake. I have still got it.

My mother, who knew what was happening, rang the Sunday Sun and said, I think this is worthwhile putting in.  They came along and I was interviewed by them.  Ironically, my wife, who worked for the Fishermen’s Mission had been doing something outside of the Mission and she called in just as the photographer and the reporter came and she got on the picture as well.  When I came back, it was under the management of the new Swan Hunter Tyneside as opposed to Swan Hunter Shipbuilders.  They invited press to come as a bit of a booster told them “We are re-employing people, and this guy is here now.” I had ten good years with them.

Bill Cockcroft was interviewed for the Shipyard Memories Project, 17th March 2020

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