Skip to main content

Memories of Smith’s Docks

My greatest memory is the sound of the slipway.


Photograph of Jeff McKever

Jeff McKever

I am Jeff McKever, I am 66 years of age and I worked in Smith’s Yard Dry Dock in North Shields. I worked there from 1968 when I left school until 1972 or 1973. The first year included a year at the pre-apprentice training school in Wallsend so I wasn’t at Smith’s Docks for the full five years of my apprenticeship.

When I started as an apprentice the yards were going through quite a bit of change because we had this thing called interchangeability where workers were expected to do little bits of other jobs as well.  You were expected to do a little bit of welding and a little bit of some of the other boilermaker trades.  It was all very new and that was reflected in our apprenticeship training.  I was an apprentice plater, but we spent a lot of time learning other trades as well.  I spent time with caulker making the ship watertight and in welding bays learning to do some welding.

Before I started the apprentices were trained up on the job which they applied for like a plater, shipwright, caulker, riveter or whatever so interchangeability was a big thing by the end of the 1960s.

There were pranks when new apprentices started, sort of an initiation process.  The journeyman or whoever you were working with as an apprentice would tell you to go for something like a long stand.  So, you would stand at the counter and you would still be standing there half an hour later, waiting for nothing.  I think that had largely died out by the time I started but some of the pranks still carried on a little while after that.

You were expected to work on your own rather than with other people.  You had more responsibility, when you came out of your time you got paid a full wage, so you were basically expected to do jobs on your own.

There were a lot of characters, some of them very funny people indeed.  I always remember being on top of a ship once, I’ll not mention the guy’s name. I was on the top deck of a ship and he was my helper and the chargehand shouted up, “Who’s your helper today?”.  I didn’t know his real name so I had to shout his nickname down to the dock side and tell them who I was working with and this guy didn’t like his nickname and I got a right old rollicking off him for even knowing his nickname.

I am not sure if it had implications for my health but what I do remember about the riveting machines was the sheer noise of them especially when you got them all working together.  It used to have a detrimental effect on your body at the time when there was a sheer vibration going through your body.  I have had an issue with my right ear and I cannot be certain if that was down to the shipyards.

There were safety protocols but nowhere near today’s standards.  For example, if you go on any building site now you will see most of the workers, or even any visitor to the site with a hard hat and safety gear on but in those days certainly the workers only wore caps there was no hard hats.  You only saw management grades wear hard hats, managers wore a white hard hat, my foreman wore a green hard hat, there was a pecking order of colours, but the workers generally wore caps and overalls. Obviously, boots with steel toe caps in them, it was very unwise not to wear them, so everybody used to wear them. So, there was safety protocols which might have seemed quite extensive at the time but nowhere near today’s standards.

It was just a terrible environment to work in, especially working in a ship repair yard where the plates of the ship were old and thick of rust whereas in a shipbuilding yard, things tended to be a bit better.  I’m not saying it was all that different, but all the plates were new and the shipbuilding yards tended to be more in a covered environment where everything was prefabricated.  Some of the cargo ships that used to come in still had some of the old cargo on them like rotten fruit, so it was a nasty environment.  But I think that once you started your apprenticeship you just started to get used to it.  It was not something that you complained about.

Some of my greatest memories of the shipyards is of lunch break experiences and food experiences.  Generally, what I used to do was just sit on the dockside or in the platers shed and have my packed lunch.  I think there was a couple of occasions where I used the works canteen. They were quite good meals there but generally, I used to take something to work with me. Being an apprentice and quite often the youngest, I was sent to get food for the older workers like fish and chips at lunch time.

Also, when I worked at the Haddock Shop, which was a little off station of Smith’s Dock about half a mile away, I was there for some welding training and I remember in the mornings I used to go and get six bacon sandwiches for the workers in the yard.  It was only a small yard, we used to repair light ships and little tugboats and things like that and at about half past 8 or 9 o’ clock I used to go for the bacon sandwiches.  It was a nice little routine; it was a little bit of a skive for me.  It was about a 20-minute walk there and 20-minute walk back and 20 minutes to wait for the bacon sandwiches and I used to do that every day.

There was one day I remember I went to the Fishermen’s Mission on the fish quay and I went to get the bacon sandwiches and I waited about 20 minutes.  You used to go around the back it wasn’t like Greggs where you watch them make the sandwiches; they went to make the sandwiches and then they would come through with two bags for you, six in one and six in the other.  When I got back to the yard there wasn’t a rasher of bacon in any of the sandwiches, not a single rasher.  The shipyard workers liked their food and they liked it on time. They were joking about it, but they weren’t too happy.  I don’t know what happened; the person that put the bacon in the sandwiches must have gone to the toilet or something and forgot about it.  I had to go back obviously and take the buns back.  I was even accused of eating the bacon out of the buns on the way back from the Fishermen’s Mission to the yard.  I was known for quite a few months after that as the bacon thief.  That was quite a memorable experience of food.

I also remember pre apprentice training school as well where there was three yards together.  There was Swan Hunter, the dry dock in the middle and the Neptune yards on the far side.  I think each yard had its own canteen and the workers used to go to whichever one they wanted to.

I always remember a little guy who used to come in a van.  He used to sell pies in one of the sheds of the Neptune yard and they were very nice pies as well.

When I worked at the pre apprentice training school I used the main Wallsend station, but I did use the Riverside line on a few occasions.  I used Carville station which was nearer to the main gate than Wallsend station was.  I know there wasn’t many trains used it, I knew a little bit about it as I was a railway enthusiast at the time.

There was only one time I worked a night shift at Smith’s Dock and that was as an apprentice.  There was a dispute on and the night shift workers weren’t coming in this night and the apprentices were…  it might be a bit of a strong word to say, but …forced to work a night shift to do some of the tasks that the night shift workers would have done.  We were just apprentices; there might have been one supervisor there, but we were just let loose to do these jobs that the striking night shift workers would have done.  I think one of the jobs was putting something around where the anchor chain comes out, we were supposed to put that on, and I think we just made a complete mess of it.

That’s the only time I ever had experience of shift work.  Probably most of us would have volunteered to do it anyway as it was a change of scenery and we didn’t have all the gaffers on our backs for one day.

I remember there was always union meetings about this and that, but I certainly don’t remember any long-term strikes.  I think there was a lot more industrial strikes after I left in the early 70s.  Most of the disputes I experienced was little local disputes probably between trades about demarcation and that sort of thing which might have meant tools being downed for three or four hours but not a one-day strike.

Three ship launches I did see are some of my best memories of the shipyards. The first one was a Royal Fleet auxiliary ship called the Green Rover.  I think it was the first of five types of ship that they built; they were oil tanker replenishment ships.  The instructors from the training school took us down to the riverside to watch the ship being launched at Hebburn, on the other side of the river.  That was the first ship launch I had ever seen and it was quite interesting to watch it coming down the slipway on the other side of the river.

Then of course there was the famous Esso Northumbria, a 250,000-tonne oil tanker which was getting built as we were in the training school.  That was a really spectacular event.  We had a special place reserved on one side of the ship which was the other side to where all the guests and members of the public and royalty were watching the ship getting launched.

Princess Anne launched the ship, but we had a special place on the other side and we felt quite privileged. That was so spectacular ‘cos it was a huge ship and we were right close up to it.  I have got so many memories, it sticks in my mind the memories of that.  We couldn’t see Princess Anne as it was a huge ship it went right past you; the bow was almost touching the river side railway line.

My first memory was the sound of the triggers going underneath the ship then it seemed like an age and nothing happened and you think nothing is going to move and then you just see it just gradually moving.  But my greatest memory is the sound of the slipway.  The friction of the slipways the screeching and squealing and grinding sound of the friction of the slipways, I always remember that sound. I think there was quite a bit of smoke coming from the slipway because of the friction.  But just seeing that huge hulk moving down towards the river was just an amazing memory, it really was.

Of course, we all had our hard hats on, and I always remember our instructor had said to us, “Don’t move whatever you do just stay where you are in this area which we have been designated, so don’t move”.  And it was an exciting thing to see watching the ship going down the slipway and this one apprentice started running after the ship and the instructor just went ballistic, shouting “Get back, get back”. It was an extremely large ship; I think it was the biggest ship in the world at the time.

Then I remember there was the drag chains once the ship got in the river and the sound of a drag chains and the dust was quite a spectacular sight it really was.  It is probably my greatest memory of a ship launch, even though I wasn’t involved in the launch in any way.  Purely as a spectator, a privileged spectator.

Then there was a third launch which was unexpected.  It was when we were coming out of the pre apprentice training school.  We used to finish strictly at 4 o clock, there was none of this ’10 to 4 get yourself away’ like my job I got later at the Ministry, there was none of that.  You clocked out dead on 4.

As we were working not only was the Esso Northumbria getting built but also a ship called the Vortigern which was a British Rail ferry getting built at the Neptune yard.  So often, when we used to get our pies from the guy in the van over there, we used to see that ship on the slipway gradually getting built.  As we were coming out this day at 4 o’ clock the ship was actually going down the slipway, being launched.

I think that if that had been a 2 o’ clock or a mid-day launch they would have taken us down to see it.  I seen it at Dover a couple of years later as I was a railway enthusiast and I was doing taking some photos and I seen it.  It was a obviously a cross channel ferry.  So that was my three experiences of seeing launches even though I wasn’t involved.

One thing I do remember is that the workers were always talking about social clubs.  “I didn’t see you in King Street club last night Jackie” or “I seen you in the Pan Shop club last night, but I didn’t get to talk to you” or “I seen you in Tynemouth Club”.  It was a big part of the shipyard workers scene, but I cannot remember Smith’s Dock having a particular social club.

It tended to be the Pan Shop club which was just at the top of the dock on the main road, a lot of people used to go there.  You always heard the workers talking about them, so it was a big part of their life

Some of the foreman did have certain workers that did homework for them, like certain jobs in the house.  We used to call them home helps.  The foreman would commandeer one of the workers, but I think they were very few and far between.

I do remember working in a mould loft once which is where the shipwrights used to work and do the frames for the ships and there was a little trap door leading down to a cellar.  No one used to go down there very much I think it was where the piped were controlled ‘cos it was all steam heating and somebody decided to put some mushrooms down there to try and grow some and obviously with the amount of heat down there those mushrooms came up very quickly. If the boss had found out he would have gone ballistic.

Somebody let the cat out of the bag once as we were having a conversation and the boss said, “Oh that’s a big ship over there” and one of the lads said, “Oh like the mushrooms” and he said, “What mushrooms?”  But I don’t think he found out about it. That was a little job on the side.

I think one of the main things that sticks out in my mind is how the culture changed when we started there.  With the interchangeability; I’ve mentioned that word a few times and they really wanted to push it.  I’m not quite sure what sorts of disputes it entailed before we got there or how much the workers argued against it but it seemed to be well established before I started.  I think pre apprentice training school indoctrinated you into interchangeability because you did everything there.  Even the boilermaker trades used to do a little bit of plumbing, it might have only been a week’s plumbing, but it gave you an idea about that job.  Or you would spend a week on a lathe which wasn’t really relevant to boilermakers’ work.  But you got the feeling that interchangeability was a big thing, and that it was coming in big time by the late 60s.

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

If you've enjoyed this memory and would like to share a story of your own why not go to our Contact Page to find out more.