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My Smith’s Apprenticeship

I had a week’s holiday from school, then went straight into the yards.


Photograph of John McKever

John McKever

I started work in 1964, I left school and went straight into Smith’s Docks.  I didn’t really want to, I wanted to be a motor mechanic.  I had a job to go to at a garage, but my Dad said to me, “No come into the yards, better prospects”.   He got me the interview and I started at 15.  I had a week’s holiday from school and then went straight into the yards.

You went into the office for a year because you didn’t start your apprenticeship until you were 16.  It was a five-year apprenticeship, 16 to 21.  So, I went into Smith’s and they sent me down to a little yard called the Haddock Shop on North Shields fish quay.  I was in the accounts office, but I just took letters around the yards all the time.  Then from 16 they sent you to the main Smith’s Dock repair yard, and that’s when you started your apprenticeship.

Going onto the ships at 16, the noise and the oil, the repair work, the smoke and fumes, it was terrible.  I was there until I was 21 serving my time.  You’re mainly working for the first year with a journeyman to get used to it.  There’s either two apprentices working together or you get a labourer with you and that’s how you pick it up.

When I was 15 and started in the office, I was naïve at the time and I think it was my first day and the manager was in the main yard at a meeting with the Directors.  He rang down and said, “Bring my glasses, they’re in the cabinet by the door in my office”.  The dock was about half a mile away from the Haddock Shop. So, I went into his office looking around for glasses and I saw six whisky glasses in the cabinet.  I picked these six whisky glasses up and ran half a mile up to the yard, up the stairs into the boardroom.  “Mr Moor there’s your glasses” I said.  He said, “You stupid lad, that’s not what I want, I want my spectacles not my drinking glasses, go back down”.  So, I ran back down to the yard and there were his specs on the desk.

Other pranks they used to do; they used to say, go for a long stand, or go for a sky hook and you were standing there for about half an hour, stuff like that.  Once I was sent for the key for number eight dock gate, as if it was a yale key and it was massive.

You came out of your time and you were sent on your own, the pressure was on you then.  You were making templates, and everything had to fit.  It was a little bit frightening at first, but you got used to it as the weeks went by it just fell into place, everything went smoothly.

There were quite a few men had nicknames.  Where they lay the ships is called a berth, and the manager was the berth control manager.  He had a sign on his door, and somebody wrote under that ‘the pill’.  So, he got that as a nickname.  They used to say, “Here’s the pill coming”.  He got it scrubbed out but that stuck with him for years.

There was one fella, a foreman, used to leave his office open at night and one of the guys on night shift got a hold of his trilby and cut the middle out.  He was bald and he came in the next day and put his trilby on and his head was sticking out and everybody was watching because they knew. It was hilarious.

In the 1980s this deafness test came out and you got compensation for it if you were deaf.  But the noise was horrendous.  You would go onboard the ship into an empty tank and there would be caulkers and riveters going and the noise was terrible.  People were sent all over the country, but my test was in the yard in a soundproof booth.  There were hundreds of men in for it and there were some tricks you could do; if they asked you if you could hear with earphones on you would say, “No I cannot hear it”.  I was a little bit deaf and I got £800, some of them got a few thousand pounds.

Then there was white finger with using vibrating tools, that was another test you had to go for. I’ve still got it, once you get it, it never leaves you.  My fingers are white now and they go numb in cold weather.  And I was working with asbestos from 16.  It used to fly around the yards, and you were hoying it around and you just didn’t know.  So, it’s quite scary knowing that you have worked with it and some of your pals aren’t here now, they’ve died.

There were loads of accidents.  When I was serving my time, there was what was called a flanging machine, and this fella used to bend the plates and the metal used to go into a block where a big blade used to go in and bend it.  Well, the block wasn’t tied down and there was oil underneath and it slid off and it went over his boot and chopped his boot off with his toes were in his boot.  I was there at the time, there was a big crowd around him, and he was lying on the ground.  There were no mobile phones then, somebody had to go down to ring for an ambulance and it was about 20 minutes before the ambulance came. He was conscious and this fella came up with a cigarette and he said to him, “Oh you’ll get some compensation for that”.  He looked up and he said, “I’m going to buy a new Hillman Avenger with the money”.  That’s all he was worried about and his toes were lying in his boot.  He came back to work a year later, and he had a new Hillman Avenger.  I think he got £3,000 for it, that was in 1969.

I was working in the Neptune Yard on the HMS Glasgow when they had a fire in 1976.  At the time there were no fire alarms or anything, there was just a foreman with a whistle.  We heard the whistle go and we had to get out of the engine room and off the ship.  The fire brigade turned up and they said the paint on the side of the ship just started melting off with the heat.  There were eight fellas down, they couldn’t get out.  There wasn’t an explosion, it was an oxygen pipe leaking all night, no smell or anything.  Oxygen burns and there were rubber cables and everything down there and the welder sparked up and it just went up in smoke, it was that quick.  So, eight men lost their lives, it was very sad.

We worked in all weathers, outside in the winter and inside in the summer.  You were working in a steel tank and the sun was beating down on the side of it and it was just red hot, no air or anything and it was terrible.  I did spend a while in the sheds which was a little bit better because you got a bit rest from the snow and the rain, but outside you could be working on the decks or anything and it was pretty bad.

When I worked at Smith’s Docks, I just used to live up the road at North Shields, so I used to walk in but then in 1971 the work fizzled out and you had to go up to the yards.  I used to get the train on the Riverside line or the green bus into Wallsend.  I used to get off at Carville station.  When you came out of your time you had some money, so I bought a cheap car and used to use that.

When you were on day shift you could work Saturdays and Sundays, two half shifts when the work was there, but there was also a night shift.  I did one year on night shift when I was in the Neptune Yard and I quite enjoyed it in the summer, working nights outside.  That lasted a year, and then I went back onto day shift. That was 1977.

In 1972, I think we wanted more wages so decided to strike.  There was 10,000 men in the yards, but it was the boilermakers that went on strike.  The union used to give you £1 and a loaf of bread every day to take home but I never bothered going because it would have cost me as much to go up and then come back.  So, I was on strike for nine weeks and we went back with absolutely nothing.  I had to suspend my mortgage at the time and luckily my wife had a job.  We had no children, but it was a hard time we just couldn’t afford anything.  That was in 1972 and a year later there was another strike, same sort of thing.

I said, well I’m not going on strike for another nine weeks.  So, I packed in and I got a job in Southampton at Vosper Thornycroft’s.  I enjoyed it, but I didn’t like staying in digs and my wife was pregnant at the time, so I came back.  The strike was over, and I went back on to the same job I had left, the same ship.  There was a lot of work at the time, a lot of ships being built.

We were on the ship right until the end and then the morning of the launch you just got things tidied up so nothing could fly around when it was hitting the water.  You could either watch the launch, which was quite exciting, or you could go home.  I used to enjoy watching it and I’ve seen quite a few launches.

You got a few dignitaries and sometimes royalty was there and the Swan Hunter’s brass band.  It was very interesting; a bit of pride watching the ship going down when you had worked on it.  Sometimes you had been on it for two years.  The launch wasn’t the finish of the ship.  Once it hit the water it would lie alongside for a couple of years getting fitted out.

I remember going to one social event at Christmas at the Miners Club in Wallsend.  You took your wife and there was a band on, Johnny Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys, it was about 1970.  That was the only social we had, they didn’t have a social club or anything.

In the early days when you had a coal fire, I used to make a poker and a tin bleezer.  Instead of putting the newspaper over the fire, if you were posh you made a tin bleezer for it if you could.  I had a friend who was an artist in the yard, I used to be working mates with him and he was a shipyard artist.

There was one guy, he had this lovely wooden chair; it was his pride and joy.  He was about 6’6” with a club foot. Every day the apprentices cut quarter of an inch off the four legs and it got smaller and smaller.  He used to sit on the chair and after a week his knees were right up in the air.  It was a while until he realised, and everyone was laughing. He was that mad he hoyed his flask against the wall, there was glass all over the place.  That was a funny one.

John McKever was interviewed for the Shipyard Memories Project, 20th August 2020.

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