The big change came in 1966 when the firm acquired a computer. It was a huge machine and a special room had to be prepared.
I was born and brought up in Sunderland. In 1928 I began work as a junior clerk in the office of a ‘one-man’ firm of stockbrokers. By the time war broke out in 1939 I was senior clerk. I joined the army in October 1939 and was returned to ‘civvy street’ in October 1945.
The firm was then in not too healthy a state and the pay was paltry so I decided I would have to move to progress. After about three or four dozen letters of application, I was eventually offered work at Swan Hunter’s at Wallsend.
I had to leave home just after 7.00 am to catch a bus to Sunderland station – then a train to Newcastle – then another train to Wallsend. Returning in the evening the procedure was reversed – the earliest I got home was about 6.30 pm, but in bad weather, say fog or snow, or trouble with the electric trains which then ran between Wallsend and Newcastle, it could be nearer 8.00 pm. But despite the travelling and lunch out, I was still better off financially.
We worked 5 days per week – 9.00 am to 5.00 pm and 9.00 am to noon on Saturdays. At 7.00 in the morning, the trains had been in the sidings all night and in winter they were still cold when we boarded; it was not long before our breath froze on the windows, and the heat was so minimal that it was only beginning to come through by the time we arrived in Newcastle.
I stuck this out for five years, but when I caught a nasty dose of ‘flu, I decided that I would have to live nearer to my work. Vera and I were married in March 1951 and set up our first home in North Shields, which only necessitated a half hour journey to work. During the terrible winter of January to March 1947, there were two days – one in February and the other in March when it was impossible to travel to Newcastle. Trams, buses and trains were all off the road.
I was employed as a clerk in the office of the Registrar – looking after the shareholders’ ledgers and preparing dividends and Annual Returns to Company House in London. All the books were handwritten, and all transactions were recorded by hand: share certificates were also handwritten. We had a machine to write the shareholders’ names on dividend warrants, but the amounts had to be calculated, and tax worked out and entered on the cheques by hand; this could be as many as four or five thousand. This process was unchanged from early in the century until the fifties.
In 1950 I was appointed Registrar and had a staff of three assistants. In 1954, and again in 1959, a share for share bonus was allotted to shareholders – i.e. their shareholding was doubled. This meant Allotment Letters had to be sent to each holder and later new share certificates written out – again by hand – quite a sizeable undertaking.
The big change came in 1966 when the firm acquired a computer. Nothing like the modern types – this was a huge machine and a special room had to be prepared to house it. The staff to work the computer were all relatively new to the job – different records were gradually entered on the computer – but when our turn came, the computer workers did not really understand the working of the Share Department and we found that they sometimes entered ‘sales’ before ‘purchases’ – with the result that some shareholders were being shown to have ‘minus’ holdings.
I had to devise a system to overcome this and gradually the man who was our representative on the computer staff eventually got the message. The hours of overtime worked was unbelievable – sometimes I got the last train home about 11 pm and then the telephone would ring – the night staff with more queries.
In the end, we got it all sorted and the system worked well, so long as they observed the sequence of numbers by which the transactions had to be registered.
In 1946, when I first started at Swans, shipping firms were all wanting to replace vessels lost during the war. The result was that orders came in thick and fast, without ever having to go to seek orders. There were, perhaps about 1,400 men employed in the various trades in the yard – I have no idea how many office staff there were: estimators, draughtsmen, wages, insurance, cost investigators, share department, general office, cleaners, directors and their secretaries.
In 1950, the ‘Velutina’ was launched by HRH Princess Margaret. The first one million pound ship – 28,000 tons, I believe. Over the years the ships – especially the tankers, got bigger and bigger, until the Esso Northumbria was about 250,000 tons.
In the 1960s, business began to fall off, and directors and officials had to go off to seek orders, and tenders for prices became extremely competitive, especially with increasing foreign competition. Later the Japanese always seemed able to undercut the home builders. Several small yards closed, and some were taken over by Swans, who were to be eventually the only shipbuilders left on the Tyne.
In 1976, the Labour Government nationalised the shipyards and, of course, my job was not needed any more – as there were to be no more shareholders; however, as I was about due for retirement by then, it did not affect me much, and my staff were absorbed into other departments. But gradually they, and nearly everyone else was made redundant, when the yard eventually closed. It is now open again but on a much smaller scale, with none of the old staff which I knew still working at Swans.