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Song of the Tyne

As the hooters died down, the noises of the shipyard took their place: the clang of steel upon steel...


The quietness of the early morning was disturbed by the tramp of heavy boots.  Few at first,  then they quickly grew in number as, across the town, men made their way towards shipyards, docks and factories.  Most converged on Station Road, and hundreds merged into thousands as, like an invading army, they poured down the bank into Swan Hunter’s shipyard.  Conversation was sparing and, for the most part, carried on in low voices, and the sound of the steady tramping filled the air.

At 7.30 all other sound was transcended by the stentorian tones of the various shipyard hooters.  They were never synchronised but, each on a different note followed one another in quick succession combining into a mournful, discordant summons to toil.  As they died away the noises of the shipyard took their place:  the clang of steel upon steel, the screech of steel shearing steel.  Riveters, caulkers, platers, blacksmiths, anglesmiths, straighteners and drillers plied their trades sending up a raucous cacophony which formed the aural background to existence for the dwellers along the banks of the Tyne.

At close quarters, within the confines of an empty hull during the early stages of construction, the sound smote upon the eardrums with painful intensity.  Only essential communication took place, mainly by sign language.

At noon the hooters arose once again bringing work to a halt and releasing hungry men to their midday meal.  A further blast at one o’clock peremptorily summoned the workers once more to their labours until released by the final hooter at five o’clock.  Children at school, housewives at home and many others besides gave ear to this ubiquitous horn obligato which regulated all their comings and goings.

On certain occasions, sounds of a very different sort arose within the shipyard precincts.  At the launch of a major vessel of the Royal Navy the choir of St. Luke’s, Wallsend assembled on the launching platform, their gleaming white surplices and stiff Eton collars looking strangely out of place amidst the surrounding grime.  Accompanied by the brass band they rendered part of Psalm 107, “They that go down to the sea in ships”, and the hymn, “Eternal Father, strong to save”.  Then came the naming, the shattering of glass, a moment of hushed expectancy as the keel block was knocked away, then a great cheer from all those assembled – drowned by the roar of the massive drag-chains being drawn along to take up the strain as the huge hull slid gracefully into the water which parted before the thrusting stern sending enormous waves across the river.

Alas, as the thirties drew to a close, those harsh but honest sounds were overlaid with a strange and fearful dirge.  The blood-chilling wail of the air-raid siren, the thud of anti-aircraft guns and the whine of their shells overhead accompanied by the sinister drone of enemy bombers – lament for the end of an era.

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