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Tyne Docks

It was always happy times and you always enjoyed yourself.


Photo of Smith's Dock in 1988

Smith’s Dock 1988

I started Smiths at 15 to serve my time and once I came to 21 you were more or less expected to move on, which is what I did.  My wife and I went down to London, to Leadenhall Street, for an interview and they just said yes, you’ll be able to start with Royal Mail Lines and that was it.

It was always happy times and you enjoyed yourself.  You just had boiler suits; I think we bought our own when we first started.  Then you were distributed to different parts of the job.  I ended up in the general office where all the workers came in for materials.  Then when I moved on a little bit, I ended up where the managers were, just generally cleaning.

When you started work you didn’t have much time.  I went to sea, when I got paid off, so I ended up going to Blyth Dry Docks.  It’s a building yard in Blyth where they did new stuff and pipe works, and stuff like that, and it was absolutely freezing.  I can remember there was actually ice coming down the river, that was one of the coldest jobs I had for years.  They used to say, if you are coming in make sure you leave by a certain time because they knew you started by half past seven. You had to get out by a certain time because if you went away too late you couldn’t work a double shift.

You clocked in, that was normal.  I had to use the bus because I lived at Tynemouth then and I used to get the fires going before I went off for my days’ work. We ended up having a baby earlier than we wanted to.  So that was how I was keeping the family going.  I used to come home probably quite late, I think about 9 o’clock at night, that’s after leaving at ten to seven.

The awful part was in the wintertime. They had the ships anchored right on the front coast, and some of the deck work was hard, trying to get the bolts off.  The work on the engines was really heavy, you were using a quarter or a second sized hammer all the time. Every job was different, that was the enjoyable part because when you were fitting you didn’t know what job you were on next.  So, it was quite busy, but a lot of camaraderie and I enjoyed it.

I was in the fitting shop; I can’t remember his name now, but he used to teach you all the implements.  You learned to use the saw and use a file, a micrometer.  You had to use infinite pieces of material and you had to do it to thousandths of an inch. You would get a piece of plate and you had to drill it and make it say an inch square and then you would get a similar piece of hard metal and you had to saw that off and leave a cube. What you had to make it so that you could get the cube in any way, but you couldn’t get half a thou in, to make sure it was a good fit.

There were some horrible accidents. I can remember one day, the fella had his head in, watching the gauge because it goes up and down to turn the engine, and he forgot the engine was turning.  They had to stop it because the angle would have chopped his head off.  You got so engrossed in what you are doing.  I was a fitter then, so you were earning your living, you had to just get on with it.

After I came back from sea I started to look around for another job and I managed to get an interview through a friend of ours at the Port of Tyne, and I got the job.  I said I would take anything because at least I know I am getting a wage.  I was offered a job as a chauffeur but the only thing that would faze me was, I was not very knowledgeable driving around Newcastle at the time.  So, I was offered the job of just general labouring, really.  It was a good job and good camaraderie and sometimes the work was different, and you enjoyed it, but it was all like a navvy.

We used to occasionally have a “do” at the Port of Tyne which was good, and I used to enjoy meeting people.  Then you had some training days, because you had to train for forklift trucks, tug masters and you had to learn how to get the air out to get it on the fifth wheel, and things like that. Then you had to drive and hook a trailer up and drive the tug master around in reverse, right around.  Everything is the opposite to what you would naturally think of doing. After that I trained on forklift trucks up to 25 tonnes.

They were bringing timber in but you could lift full packs of timber and they had steel slabs which were 25 tonnes and you used to lift those and put them in their respective bays.  Because you got in a position where at a later date a lorry came in to fill up for certain slabs and things, you would have to know where to go because there were different grades. You had to take the grade, take the size and give them the weight because you had to tell the driver what weights were put in each position and then you would have to sign for it. Then you would send them to the office, and they would give them the relevant documents so they could drive out.

When you were 18 that was the first time you were allowed to work overtime.  You worked in the boiler room.  They would say “I want you to take these steel pipes out”.  There was lagging round them, so you got your hammer and chisel and took it off and there was lagging flying all over and then you had to get all the bolts off, all the studs out and get a top block and tackle and pull them out.

You had to go down the tanks and they could be ninety-foot deep, and you had to take your tools down.  When you finished the job, you had to have a long piece of rope, tie them on and pull them all the way up 90 foot.  Then you would order what materials you wanted to redo the job back, because it had to go back in.

It wasn’t safe at all.  One of the jobs I had to do was for a ship and all they did was they tied some staging up, it was swinging around the top of the mast.  I got a hold of this and managed to get across, got all the bolts off and said, right the last bolts off, take it down, we had to follow it down, take it into the fitting shop and strip it and see why it hadn’t been working correctly.  What we had to do was strip it down, put a new diaphragm in, and then we’d fit it back up, test it in the fitting shop, then in reverse it had to go back up.

You couldn’t feel your hands.  Quite a lot of the time you had to split five-eighths nuts so you could knock the bolts out and you had to warm the end of your chisel because if you didn’t it would just break.  So that’s part of the job you had to do.  And of course, you had to supply your own tools.  Nothing was supplied for you.

When you’d been paid off you used to go to the market at half past seven in the morning, carry your toolbox down, which I would say the average person couldn’t have lifted, it was quite heavy.  You waited for the foreman to come down and then all of a sudden, he would say, “Right I’ll have you, you, you, the rest come back at dinner time”.   So, they were started, the rest had to come home, bringing their tools home, and then go back at 1 o’clock which was just like a cattle market really.

If you’d been paid off you had three days lying on before you could actually get unemployment and that was rubbish money.  We didn’t get sick pay at first. I think you had to be three days off.  I was lucky I was never on the sick as such.

In the ship repair yards, you’d be working half past seven until half past seven overtime, and then you would carry on for the full week and then the charge-man would come round, “anybody want to work Friday night?”  They had a specific way of paying your wages, they used to say it was double time but it wasn’t. Time was on the National Time Rate and it wasn’t anything like the full rate of pay that you would get, so even when you worked a Sunday you had supposedly double time, but that was never double money that people would think now.  Part of the double time was from the National Time Rate.  Say it had been sixty-quid it was only be forty-odd so that is what they paid your wages on, which was pretty tough really.

Occasionally if you’d been working on engines, they might ask if you wanted to go on trails.  You had to wait until all the oil stops inside the engine and then you had to get all the doors off and go inside.  The oil doesn’t stop running straight away so it’s like having a shower in lubricating oil.  You went in there and used to strip your top off and went in your underpants.  You did the work then got all the tools together and by the time they got the readings they’d realise if there was going to be any alterations to the main bearings.  So, by the time you got changed that could be another four or five hours sometimes.  Then you had to go up Jacobs ladder with your tools hooked on your back and if it was choppy, they would say, “Wait, wait” and then “Jump”.  You jumped because you got to wait for the boat going past and if you did it at the wrong time you could break your legs, but that was part and parcel of your job of course.

Then I come back to another job, because we were boring the holes out on the tail end shaft and we got one so far and we took a micrometer reading and we realised one of the bolts needed to be just a half a thou off.  So, they had a piece of tarpaulin over the back end because it was blowing a gale half the time and I said to a labourer, “Will you go and take the bolt across and see if you can get half a thou off”.  And I waited and waited, I thought, “Where is he, he’s been away ages”.  So after, what we found was, we didn’t realise he had caught his foot on the tarpaulin as he was going out.  These bolts, you’ve got to remember, are really heavy and he fell and caught his hand and nearly severed his thumb.  It was dinner time then, which was half past two in the morning.  We passed this fella, one of the labourers, sitting reading his book.  I said, “What you been doing?” and he said they had to put an injection in and they got some snips and just chopped the gristle off and just sealed it up.  He’d lost his finger. I said, “Have you not been to see your wife?” and he said “No, no, it’s not worth waking her up”.

We finished a job on the top of an engine once, and they had a fella standing beside me, busy.  He wasn’t working with me, but they had been cutting some steel up a height and when I looked round this lump of steel had been cut off and came down pointy ways and hit him on the head.  I was wearing a cap at the time because we didn’t have safety gear then.  I used my cap to stop the blood pumping out, then we walked him down the gang plank and across into the first aid room before they sent for an ambulance to get him away. There were some tough lads.

When the gas bottle went up, it was a Saturday morning, I wasn’t actually on that ship.  It had blown up, an acetylene bottle, and it’s nearly the height of a man, full of acetylene gas, and blew this fella across the ship to the other side, killed him of course. That happened as easy as that.

I was working on a tail end of a propeller and they had a crane on either side, and you took it a little bit, one at a time and if one crane took it too much it would shoot across.  This bloke got squeezed by the bulkhead and the whole propeller squeezed him and he was dead, no second chances.

Then we had a labourer with us on the tail end taking a rudder out, the rudder was the size of that house. We called him Snapper, but he was always getting into trouble.  I said, “Listen, we are knocking the last bolt out, but it is going to move, I tell you, it is going to move a bit”.  He said, “Righto Alan”.  So, I kept hold of the back of his boiler suit and just knocked the last bolt out and the whole rudder shot across about four or five foot and he screamed “arrgghh!”, I said, “You are alright, it’s out now”.

I wasn’t actually on it, but they had staging all the way around a ship they had been busy with and one of the wires must have slipped and all the staging came down, right on the dock bottom.

Near the end when I was on night shift there was a ship and all the oil in the engine room had caught fire and it was just spreading right across. So I managed to get hold of what they call a fire engine.  You had to operate it manually, you hit the top and it was supposed to shoot out, but it just went ssssssssssssss.  That was the night we were sent home, they had fifteen fire engines on the quayside.  Some stuff had been hung up on wires in transit, that came crashing down. That was a shock.  We had been working all night and we got word we had to go to a meeting at 9 o’clock so they could verify everything that had happened.

And of course we’re getting to the end of a job, we’re getting nearly all the packs out, and one the straps fit to one side and it must have got caught with the next bit that went up.  I didn’t realise that my foot was underneath in one of these loops for the lift and when they say go, these lifts go.  I went about fifteen feet hanging upside down and I thought, oh this is it I’ve had it.  But I managed to stop the lift and slow it down, and when I got the lift to about head height, I slipped out of that and slid down the side of the MDF which was rough on the edge and scraped my face and landed on my shoulder.

Tyne Dock, aye happy days!

Alan Ford was interviewed for the Shipyard Memories Project, 4th March 2020.

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