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Swan Hunters Shipyard (1956 – 1963)

The ship caused a tidal wave and all the Swan's men had to run like mad to get out of the way


The launch of a ship was the major thing to happen for the workers, as it was a big day, with VIP’s doing the honours, the band played and the place by the launching was decorated with streamers and flags.  Officially the workers were not allowed to stop work and watch, but thousands of them did, and a blind eye was the thing.  For the apprentices, it was also a good excuse to see the office girls etc., because they hardly ever mixed.

Either side of the Tyne had shipyards and when there was a launch across the river, Swan Hunter had to move their ships which were tied up at the jetties.   The men from Swan’s would watch the Hawthorn Leslie’s launches.  But one day a longer than usual ship caused a tidal wave and all the Swan’s men had to run like mad to get out of the way, and dozens of rats were running around our feet also trying to get out of the way of the tidal wave.

There were a lot of rats around the place and during the working day you could see them walking along the dust extracting pipes.  The men used to throw blocks of wood at them to try and knock them off the pipes, if they did manage it there was panic stations as they didn’t know where they would run to.

During my time at Swans there were no betting shops, but you could always get a bet on the horses as there were bookies runners who would stand at a certain point and collect any bets, then deliver them before racing to the bookmaker’s office.  Bookie’s runners were illegal, but everyone knew who they were, and the system worked very well.  As a 16-year-old boy, I used to collect betting slips from a few men and deliver them to the runner who in turn would get them to the bookmaker.  If they had a winner, I would usually get a shilling or two back as a tip.

On Christmas Eve, the shop boy, who would only be 15 years of age, would go round all the men in his shop, the machine shop, joiners, painters, riggers, electricians, whichever he was working in ready to serve his apprenticeship when he turned 16. He would make himself a box and you would probably get 2/6 or 2 shillings or even 5 shillings off each man, which was a nice Christmas box if you worked with a lot of men, probably about seventy men in the sawmill where I worked.  It was a lot of money in them days, probably only earning about £5 per week, but the boy had never to let the box out of his hand, never mind his sight as the jokers would seize it, pass it on and hide it until home time.  It was always handed back, but the young boy didn’t know that and would get really frantic as time wore on.

When I was 16 years and just into my apprenticeship, you worked your way up the machine ladder starting off on circular saws and drilling machines. You were usually asked by different tradesmen to cut up small bundles of firewood for them which was fair enough, it was all off-cuts and waste, but one old man was very greedy and would take as many bundles he could get his hands on so we used to cut up a lot of fireproof timber which was used for the Naval boats, cruisers, frigates etc., it wouldn’t burn, just smoke and smoulder out so after a while he stopped coming to us.

You used to dread getting up to start work at 7.30 a.m. on a Monday morning, but once you were there, there was a lot of good fun, and it set me up to deal with all the harder issues and elements of life.  It was good training and it hardened you up so you could go and work anywhere and feel confident.   After the shipyards of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, any other job was not frightening at all.

The real characters were an old sweeper up called ‘Pot-Pie’, from Simpson’s Lodging House, and the jokers were Jack Young (the Billy Connolly of his day), little Bobby Scott (my Father) and Lard Belly Arthur Rowlands.  All very funny men, either joking on or storytelling.  Brilliant!

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