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My Family in the Shipyards

The day HMS Kelly limped up the river.


Photograph of Dorothy Cole

Dorothy Cole, 1955

My father worked most of his working life at Swan Hunters, he did a few temporary stints at Palmer’s shipyard in Hebburn but, apart from six years National Service during the war, the remainder of his working life was spent at Swan Hunters.

He served his time then went on to become a fully qualified French polisher. The ships they built at that time were quite luxurious. He used to get specialist jobs for the captain’s cabin where everything was done to a high standard. He used to say that the captains lived in bigger and better places than the workers did when they went home. In 1922 when he started he was 14 but they had to wait until they were 16 (or maybe even 18) to get their indentures and were signed up to learn a trade.

We lived in Hebburn Colliery and dad had to walk to the Hebburn ferry landing to get the ferry across to Wallsend. It was a twenty-minute walk but he always walked, hail rain or shine.  The ferry used to be heavily laden with men and before they’d even tethered it, the men used to jump to get off first. He used to say that sometimes the ferry would nearly capsize as all the weight went to one side.

During the school holidays all the kids used to go on the ferry with their bottle of water and their sandwiches, pay their penny and stay on all day. The ferry would go across to Wallsend, pick up and drop off, then go further up the river to Walker Naval Yard then back to Hebburn so it was like a triangle. At about 4 o’clock they used to throw us off because then the workmen would be coming back from the shipyards.

The ferries were a very important part of daily life and right up until the 60s or maybe even later, the ferries were still running. Once the Tyne Tunnel, the pedestrian tunnel opened, a lot of people used to walk through but my dad never did. It would have been too far to walk to Jarrow and he couldn’t afford bus fares, he just didn’t earn enough.

My grandfather was a retired miner and when the war broke out and all the men had to go away, my grandfather went into the shipyards. A big man, he was a blacksmith’s striker and of course he wasn’t time served because he was a miner but he used to wield a big hammer in the blacksmith’s shop. They sometimes worked all day and all night and sometimes, the really hardy ones, the following day too because in wartime everything was urgently needed. I can remember my grandfather telling me, my brothers and sisters a lovely story about the day HMS Kelly limped up the River Tyne, half of her missing and Mountbatten standing to attention as she sailed up the river.

Women went into the shipyards during the war too. They went in to paint ships and they had to paint the identity out, paint them all grey. They called them “slabbies” or slap dashers. They opened “war nurseries” so that mothers of younger children could take them at half-past seven in the morning and pick them up at 6 o’clock at night.

My granddad wore heavy boots. I think they all did in the shipyard but I don’t think my dad did after the war ended because his feet were bad so he couldn’t wear boots. My grandfather wore boots with segs on the back and when he walked you could see the sparks. I thought that was magical, how he could make sparks with his feet.

When I was at school, I must have been maybe 13 or 14 and my dad was back in the shipyard, he got a couple of tickets for the launch of a ship which was quite unusual, the dignitaries did but not often the men and their families did. He got two tickets and I got half a day off school and went to see Princess Margaret launch the Velutina. I remember when she threw the bottle of champagne it didn’t break first time and she had to do it again. I just remember how tiny she was and how big the ship was. It was amazing and I was in love with the Royal Family after that. We were still recovering after the war and things were still quite dowdy and of course she was there in this beautiful outfit and I think that was more interesting than anything else. That stuck in my mind.

They didn’t get any special Christmas bonuses or anything like that but what they did get, on a fairly regular basis, was overtime and I remember my dad used to work two half shifts and a Saturday morning. Quite often they would work a lot of overtime to get a job finished. They’d work hard, put all the hours in, get the job finished and then get paid off. My father was one of the lucky ones, he was always kept on in some capacity or another. I think he must have maybe done a good job, he never took time off and was never late. It was everything to him, to be punctual so maybe that stood him in good stead, I don’t know but I can remember lots of people being laid off, working hard then being laid off until another job came in.

Occasionally my dad would be sent across to Palmer’s if there was a special job that needed to be done but that was on secondment. His main place of work was at Swan Hunters. When he left there was no big ceremony or anything but they gave him a gold watch and, as I say, he’d never been late. When he came home with it he held the watch and he said, “What the hell do I need a watch for, 37 years I’ve been going there and I’ve never been late, why the hell did they give me a watch?” He never swore. It was a long service gift. I don’t know if he would have rather had the money, he’d never had a watch and he didn’t want one. It was actually stolen later on.

During the war, especially towards the end, people that were in reserved occupations didn’t get called up. They used to have overcoats with big pockets and getting towards Christmas time they would smuggle off-cuts of wood, paint and suchlike out of the yard in their pockets. Then, come Christmas morning you’d see all kinds of amazing wooden toys made by hand. I have twin brothers and my father made two scooters from wood for them, even the wheels were wood. The thing we laughed about was on Christmas morning all the kids had these wonderful wooden toys and they were all painted battleship grey, full of lead but nobody cared and I can’t remember a single person suffering with it.

Dorothy Cole was interviewed for the Shipyard Memories Project, 24th February 2020

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