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I hope this post is not too boringly technical as I provide some context to what follows in future posts about my life in the 1980s.
The Courtelle plant at Grimsby consisted of three separate factories. South Factory, originally commenced in the 1960s was the oldest. North Factory followed in the early ’70s. West Factory was completed not long before my arrival there in 1978.
South Factory contained six production lines in three pairs, each pair associated with a single chemical plant installation. These pairs were designated Units 1, 2 and 3 and the lines A to F. Typically the chemical plant consisted of a sequence of pumps, heat exchangers and vessels in which the chemical acrylamide was mixed with a solution of sodium thiocyanate. If that sounds like a potentially toxic mixture, it was. This solution was a clear semi-liquid with the consistency of treacle. Heat and pressure caused the acrylonitrile to “polymerise” – basically the molecules were realigned, changing the behaviour of the product. Small quantities of other chemicals were added also to give the finished fibre certain desirable properties.
Strange but True: The metal from which the jets are made is an alloy of Platinum and Rhodium. They are, therefore, extremely valuable and spares are kept in a secure store. Worn jets are sold back to the metal merchant to be recycled.
On the production floor, the mixture was forced through a “jet” – actually a curved metal sheet perforated by several hundred thousand tiny holes – into a bath containing a weak solution of sodium thiocyanate. The sodium thiocyanate from the treacle like liquid was immediately attracted to the weaker solution leaving the polymerised acrylamide, which instantly solidified into hundreds of thousands of fine fibres. These fibres were then stretched by passing between rollers to further reduce their thickness. The fibres were then washed to remove any residual sodium thiocyanate, passed through a bath containing a liquid wax which softened the fibre; if required, a dye bath of the desired colour, and thence to a dryer which consisted of a series of 24 perforated drums through which air was drawn by fans. Above and below the drums were a series of finned tubes containing steam to heat the in-drawn air.
From the dryer the fibres passed between hot plates which applied a crimp to them before dropping through a hole in the floor into a box. Each line held five jet and bath combinations, the fibres from each of which came together before the softener and dye baths to be separated again on exit from the dryer. The whole was usually referred to as a “spinning line”.
The solution of sodium thiocyanate from the baths was pumped back to the chemical plant where an evaporator recreated the strong solution required for the next batch. If this is a fair outline of the nature of South Factory, then North West Factory was a more or less exact replica, with units numbered 4, 5 and 6 and lines G to M. North East Factory contained several lines that operated on slightly different principles and was not much used during my time there. West Factory, referred to as Unit Ten, had 6 lines, designated AA to FF, each with 6 jets.
The plant operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except for North West Factory which contained the lines that were shut down, in pairs, for the major overhaul I had been engaged to manage. Except, also, for one eight hour shift each week when one line was shut down for general maintenance and cleaning.
Once I became a permanent member of the Engineering team I began to become involved in further projects, each of which was undertaken with the co-operation of the Management team of the relevant factory. In each case this consisted of an Engineer, responsible for maintenance of all the equipment, a Production Manager for the chemical plant and another for the spinning lines in each of the three factories. There were also an Electrical Engineer and an Instrument Engineer.
The three Factory Engineers, the three Project Engineers (of which I was one) and the Electrical Engineer shared weekend and bank holiday duties on a rota for which we were paid an allowance. Thus I “worked” every seventh weekend and one bank holiday each year. The seven annual bank holidays were rotated so that, in theory and for example, we only had to do Christmas Day once every seven years.
I used quotation marks around “work” because it was only necessary to attend for 3-4 hours on Saturday and Sunday, or the designated bank holiday, to investigate any problems that might have developed over night and to sign work authorisations for such tasks as needed to be tackled by the Engineering craftsmen once you had satisfied yourself that the necessary safety precautions were in place and understood by the work team. Thereafter one would be “on-call” for the remainder of the day should any further problem arise – a rare occasion.
There were, in addition, a Works Engineer, with overall responsibility for all Engineering on the three factories, a Services Engineer who was responsible for the safe operation of the steam and power generating plant and all air and water services, and a Site Engineer whose responsibilities also included the rayon production factory which had been in operation at Grimsby since the 1950s and took wood pulp from SAICCOR, where I had worked six years earlier.
One day in November 1976 I got a message summoning me to Coventry for a meeting with the Technical Director. Frank, the Site Engineer, he told me, had angina and was not permitted on site. It was now up to me to take on the Site Engineer role. This announcement was followed by a memorable conversation in which my request for an increase in pay, to match the increased responsibility, drew a response to the effect that I was paid according to what I was capable of doing, not what I actually was doing – and, of course, he would not have asked me to do this job if he did not believe I was capable of doing it!
Construction, installation and commissioning continued throughout 1977. There were many problems with getting the pipework within the plant to fit together properly. The detail design of the pipework had been carried out by the Dutch company but we had many arguments about responsibility for work that had to be re-done on site. Was the error due to the contractor not following the Dutch company’s drawings? Were the drawings wrong? Had the piece of plant to which the pipe was supposed to connect been installed correctly? Between Frank, the pipework foreman and myself, we had many altercations as I decided whether or not I could sign off on extra expenditure, often dozens of such adjudications each day.
I was also responsible for site safety, implementing the new regime introduced by the Health and Safety at Work Act that resulted directly from an industrial disaster that happened in Lincolnshire whilst I was in South Africa.
I had acquired the habit of taking a beer or two with my lunch, originally in Coventry with colleagues. I remember it was one lunch time in that Coventry pub in 1975 that I first heard an amazing piece of music: beginning with something that sounded like an operatic aria then segueing into heavy rock and back again, it was much longer – and very different – to most of the material on the juke box. I had to know what it was called and who it was by. Bohemian Rhapsody, and all of the subsequent output from the band Queen, have remained favourites ever since.
Working alone in Derby I did not bother with lunch time drinking, for one thing the pub was too far away from my work site. After I was joined by an assistant, as the construction work progressed, we went to the pub together every lunch time. Thus it happened that one afternoon we were surprised by an unannounced visit from a government Health and Safety Officer who asked me to conduct him around the site where he was able to observe various, in his view, unsafe practices. Back in the office he berated me for my lack of attention to such matters, no doubt noticing the smell of my breath. Not an experience I want to repeat.
I should probably add that the new ethylene manufacturing facility at Derby never did produce much ethylene. Whilst we were installing our small plant, BP were installing a much bigger unit at their Hull site. Once that was up and running it became cheaper to buy ethylene from them than to operate our own plant.
Meanwhile I increasingly wanted to involve myself in the community as a volunteer. Ian had joined the scouts and I participated in various fund raising activities for them, notably the collection of bundles of old newspapers from the front doorsteps of homes in the neighbourhood. This was undertaken on Saturday mornings once a month, the bundles stacked in a shed at the back of the scout hut until sufficient had accumulated to make a load for the recycling company that paid a good price.
I applied to join the suicide counseling service, Samaritans, but was rejected after completing a psychometric test. Then I read about a new organisation, just starting up in Coventry, that intended to produce a talking newspaper for visually impaired people and a video magazine to be distributed to nursing homes and day centres. That seemed to be just right for me and so it proved to be. Soon I was writing scripts for mini-documentaries, operating a simple black and white video camera and reading aloud my own scripted voice-overs. I was also elected treasurer for the organisation.
I produced a short film about the Coventry fire station and its personnel; another about the refuse incinerator that provided hot water to the adjacent automobile factory. We filmed at events like the Royal Agricultural Show, held just a few miles from Coventry and where I recall operating the camera whilst a fellow volunteer interviewed the Liverpool based folk group “The Spinners” and (separately) Animal impressionist Percy Edwards. We also videoed school end of term theatrical productions. And we videoed a monthly news report as well as the audio ‘talking newspaper’ which was distributed by post on cassette tapes.
But that all came to an abrupt end early in 1978 when I began commuting, not to Derby, but to Grimsby, in a career move that would prove to be life changing.
Like many others, I had a pay rise of almost 30% in 1975. It made little difference to our standard of living since costs rose by a similar amount. By the end of the year the money we had saved during our period of living, mostly at the company’s expense, in South Africa was gone. I sold the Mini back to my brother-in-law and began cycling to work every day.
By now, I was our department’s representative for the Courtaulds’ Senior Staff Association which had, under new trade union legislation, become a trade union. To give an idea of the group of employees that this small union represented it is perhaps helpful if I outline the archaic class divisions that were still extant in British workplaces at the time.
At the bottom of a pyramid were ordinary workers who operated machines or practiced crafts, essentially work with the hands rather than the head. Such workers were usually paid by the hour with bonuses earned if agreed rates of individual or departmental production were exceeded.
Next were clerical staff and those who supervised the hourly paid workers. These were paid a weekly wage which could be augmented by shift allowances and overtime paid at an hourly rate, derived from the weekly wage divided by the number of hours in the standard working week, and then factored up depending on whether the overtime was undertaken on a weekday or at the weekend.
Finally there were managers and professional staff who were paid a monthly salary regardless of the number of hours worked. In brief these were referred to, in Courtaulds, as “hourly paid”, “weekly staff” and “monthly staff”. For practical reasons, there came a time – before I joined the company – when weekly staff received their pay monthly, so the two staff categories were redesignated “group 1 staff” and “group 2 staff”. Each of these was represented by a staff association. Very few “group 2 staff” belonged to a traditional trade union, but, under the new legislation, the members decided that the “Group 2 Staff Association” would become a union.
I suppose I should add that hourly paid workers worked longer hours than office based staff. When I started work, in 1958, the standard working week for manual workers was 44 hours which soon reduced to 42. Meanwhile “office” hours reduced from 39 to 37.5. I think that is where they remained in the mid 1970s.
As a representative I found myself attending meetings and discussing employment terms and conditions. I got to know some of the other representatives quite well, among them the representative for the Structural Engineers who occupied an office next to ours and with whom I also had occasional contact on technical matters. One day in early 1976 he came to my desk to ask how busy I was; would I have time to look at a job he had been asked to evaluate at our Derby factory? I told him I was close to finishing the Derry project and suggested he talk to my boss. The upshot of that conversation was that I spent about 20 months – from Easter 1976 until the end of 1977, commuting daily to Derby.
The Derby complex consisted of several different manufacturing units. One of the most important products was celulose acetate, both in the form of a textile fibre and in granular form as a filler for all manner of products from wallpaper paste to ice cream. It is manufactured by dissolving wood pulp in acetic acid. Acetic acid is made from ethylene. The company operated in-house ethylene and acetic acid production processes. The ethylene plant was old and inefficient and the company had decided to purchase and install a replacement. This necessitated the strengthening of the supports for pipes that carried feedstock to – and product from – the proposed site as well as services like air, steam, water and electrical cables. My colleague had been asked to evaluate the condition of the existing supports then design and price any necessary strengthening.
[I would like to include an image here but the best ones are copyrighted. You can see a whole collection by following this link where you will see images of the kind of pipework into which I had to thread the new lines.]
“I need to know what new pipes are going where. You’re a pipe man. Can you talk to the people over there and see what’s involved?”
I began daily commuting to Derby after Easter 1976, as Hereford United were looking increasingly like becoming third division champions. Designing a long pipe line is not a simple matter of drawing a line from A to B and around corners. You need to incorporate provision for expansion and calculate the loads that will be imposed on the supporting structure. Only then can the line be broken down into manageable sections and manufacturing drawings produced. In the summer, as I completed various sections of pipework detailing, a contractor was appointed to manufacture and install them. Now I became responsible for over-seeing the delivery of materials to site and then the actual work being undertaken by the contractor.
Meanwhile, back in Coventry, work proceeded on the design of the new plant in conjunction with a Dutch company. In due course materials for that began arriving on site and, again, I was responsible for checking it all in. In the autumn a Site Engineer was appointed to supervise the installation of the plant, with me as his assistant. His name was Frank and so was that of the Dutch company’s English Engineer – potentially a very confusing state of affairs.
Continuing my series of memoir snippets as we return from our year and a half living in South Africa.
Our visas lasted only 3 months and were, accordingly, renewed every 3 months. When my 6th was due to expire, at the end of January 1975, the portion of the project for which I was responsible was almost completed so we began planning our return to the UK. I contacted the co-ownership housing association to enquire if there was a current vacancy. When I was informed that there was, I asked them to reserve it for us. The MD invited me to his office for a farewell discussion, making it clear that there was a permanent position for me if I wanted it. He referred me to the availability of building plots for staff members. “Go home, think about it, discuss it with family, but let me know within 3 months if you decide to take up the offer.”
Our return journey was somewhat different from our original journey south. That had incorporated brief stops at Frankfurt and at Nairobi. There in the grey light of predawn my colleagues and I were allowed to leave the aircraft but not to leave the tarmac. The contrast between the air conditioned cabin and the heat, even at that early hour, of an equatorial summer was stunning. The route was jointly operated by British Airways and South African Airways, the latter company responsible for the return leg. Many African countries were engaged in a boycott of South Africa because of its apartheid policies, therefore her aircraft were not permitted to overfly any of the newly independent African nations. We were, therefore, routed via a refueling stop in Angola, a Portugese colony. Portugal at this time had just undergone a coup, replacing its dictator with a military junta, and as a result the future status of Angola was in question. We were not allowed to remain on the aircraft during refueling and were escorted by armed military personnel to a small bar where we waited under their supervision/protection.
The number of passengers was considerably below the capacity of the aircraft which had two consequences, one good, one not so good. The air conditioning, presumably designed to cope with a full cabin of warm bodies, lowered the temperature to something much lower than we were used to. On the other hand, we had 3 or 4 seats each so were able to stretch out beneath airline provided blankets and attempt to sleep; this after watching Goldie Horn in the movie “The Sugarland Express”. If the air conditioning had made us shiver on board the aircraft, the drizzle and sleet that greeted us early in the morning at Heathrow froze us.
We quickly settled back into our boring lives in Coventry. Freda obtained a job as a saleswoman on a stall selling women’s wear in Coventry market; her brother sold me a second hand Mini. I worked throughout most of the year on the layout of machines and service pipework for a huge textile processing factory being constructed in Derry. Basically it was an enormous shed which received bales of fibre at one end and delivered fully finished work wear and household textiles at the other. In between were carding, weaving, bleaching, dying, making up, packaging and storage areas, each of which needed one or several of steam, water, air, gas, chemicals and, of course, electrical wiring to the different machines.
I discussed the possibility of leaving to take up SAICCOR’s offer with the Technical Director whose attempt to dissuade me included the remark that a project in our Cornwall, Ontario, plant could be about to break. Nothing came of that possibility. Going to live permanently in South Africa, so far from relatives and everything we knew, became less attractive as time went on and I never did take up SAICCOR’s offer.
Over the years since I turned 18 I had smoked cigarettes and even, for a while, a pipe. Like most people I occasionally thought about giving up. Whilst in South Africa there was very little incentive to do so because cigarettes were so cheap. We were able to buy premium brands in packs of 200 and did so as part of our weekly shop.They were manufactured using Rhodesian tobacco which tasted quite different from the Virginia tobacco we were used to but we quickly became accustomed to it. Back in the UK price was a significant deterrent to the habit.
On the morning of the Monday before Easter I purchased a pack containing 18 cigarettes as this was the pack size available from vending machines at that time. I had a cold which meant that I couldn’t taste anything and smoking aggravated the accompanying cough. By the evening of Good Friday, when we traveled to Hereford to spend the long weekend with Freda’s family, I still had two remaining in the pack. 16 smokes in 5 days surely meant I could manage without. I have not smoked since, one factor that means I am a good deal wealthier and healthier at 77 than would otherwise have been the case.
With Ian approaching 10 we decided that, as we clearly were not going to add to our small family, I may as well have a vasectomy, so, one evening in the summer of 1975, I drove the Mini to a private clinic in Leamington Spa, returning a couple of hours later a little sore down below. I’ve heard some men express dread at the idea of such an operation. Take it from me it’s no more painful than a visit to the dentist – indeed, I’ve had far worse experiences in the dentist’s chair.
My series of memories from my long career as an Engineer will now appear every Monday, instead of fortnightly as hitherto. Here is a fairly long final installment about life in South Africa during 1974.
Weekends we would often get in the company car and drive out to one or other of the many beauty spots nearby: Oribi Gorge, Nagel Dam, the Drakensberg Mountains and, of course, Zululand again, this time without the distraction of a would be rally driver in front. We visited Durban zoo, the reptile park and quiet coastal resorts down the coast. One of these had a tidal pool. This was good because sea bathing was ill-advised unless shark nets were in place. The tidal pool facilitated a close encounter with the ocean’s waves without the risk of attack by sea-borne predators.
Often on Sundays we would spend the greater part of the day at the poolside of the hotel where we had stayed before we were properly housed. Sitting in the shade with a book, occasionally looking up to see the children enjoying the water, savouring a curry washed down with Lion ale, it was easy to believe that life could hardly get better.
In July – the winter in the southern hemisphere, remember – we took a two week holiday and motored up to the town of Sabie, about 500 miles to the north. Internationally there was a fuel shortage and a speed limit of 50 miles per hour was in force. The same restriction applied in the UK, accompanied, from 1st January to the end of March, by restrictions on commercial use of power which had the effect of reducing the working week to 3 days.
For much of our journey we were on empty dirt roads, straight so far as the eye could see, bounded by fields of maize. We had been used to driving in the rolling green hills of Natal with clusters of African dwellings clinging to the hillsides and in deep valleys. Once we arrived in the vicinity of our destination we discovered a land of forested hills that reminded me of paintings of Scotland. From our base in Sabie we took day trips to various tourist destinations including the Blyde River Canyon, where centuries of erosion have created multi-hued hemispherical hollows in the rock face, and God’s Window, a part of the escarpment created by the Great Fault from where it is possible to look across the lowland plain a thousand feet below.
One day we drove down the escarpment to that lowland plain with its orange groves, and on to the wild life reserve, Kruger Park. Before we set out at 8am I had to scrape ice from the windscreen. By 10am, down on the plain, the temperature was in the 80s Fahrenheit. In the reserve it was dangerous to wind down the windows. We saw zebra, giraffes, elephants and various species of deer, all in their natural environment, often just glimpsed through the scrub, but no lions.
Another day we visited a nineteenth century mining village, preserved as it would have been during the South African Gold Rush. One of the timber buildings, all of which resembled the kind frequently seen in Hollywood Westerns, housed a shop selling souvenirs and local crafts and produce. The place seemed to be run by two rather camp young men. A woman in front of me commented on the local honey displayed for sale: “Do you make it yourself?” she wanted know.
“Yes, aren’t I a busy bee?” came the reply in a pastiche of camp.
This surprised us in a country where the NGK (Nederlands Gereformed Kirk or Dutch Reformed Church) had such influence on behaviour. But then, the State and Church were full of contradictions. Like the heritage site we visited once where, after a tour of the rondavels, we were treated to a demonstration of African traditional dance by bare breasted women. I couldn’t help describing this particular “attraction” as “the human zoo”. African topless dancers were acceptable whilst a young white woman who performed a cabaret act in which she danced wearing a live python and very little else was prosecuted for indecency.
I cannot recall how it began, but somehow Ian struck up a relationship with an elderly lady who was a permanent resident at another of the hotels in town. During the long school holidays he would spend hours in her company, playing cards and, I have no doubt, listening to her life story. I must ask him how much of this he remembers now.
Freda was quite content to do the small amount of housework required herself. During our first weeks in the new house it was not unusual for her to answer a knock at the door and find a young African woman looking for employment as a maid. Several times she refused these offers. She discussed it with Walter’s wife, Vi, who had taken on a ‘Girl’ as these women were called. “You should,” Vi advised. “For one thing, once you have one, the others will leave you alone. But where’s the harm? They have no other source of income.”
Freda wondered if they could be trusted, but decided to engage the next young woman who came seeking employment. There were rules attached to such casual arrangements. The ‘girl’ must not use the same washing and toilet facilities as the family. The block of five houses had been provided with a small brick building at the back which is where ‘girls’ were supposed to take care of their personal hygiene. Freda let our ‘girl’ know that she had no objection to her using our downstairs toilet.
Another rule dictated that whites were not permitted to enter the African village where these ‘girls’ resided with the male family members who worked at the plant. So we were not supposed to give her a lift home at the end of her working day. Not even after using her as a child minder on nights when we drove into Durban to catch a show or to go dancing in one of the dance halls. Strictly speaking, blacks were not permitted in ‘white’ areas after dark so we were breaking two rules when we did this.
One thing that became obvious was that the Europeans in Natal, perhaps because it had been a British colony, were far less bigoted in their view of the Africans than were those in the other provinces, at least so far as one could tell from comparing observed behaviour with what we read of events and attitudes elsewhere in the Republic. Our transport manager, with whom I had frequent contact due to our continuing use of the company’s vehicles, was an Afrikaaner. As such he was one of the few people I met who was open in his contempt for Africans – he usually referred to them as ‘Kaffirs’ – and would pontificate about them and their perceived short comings at length given half a chance.
One of his stories, told more than once, was of a visit by the British Labour foreign secretary George Brown several years before. It was an open secret that Brown had a drink problem and Van – the man’s surname was Van Roen, always shortened to Van – Van was full of scorn in his description of Secretary Brown stumbling and staggering in and out of the diplomatic car. Van also told us that the BBC crew accompanying the British minister had filmed black children scavenging in dust bins which, Van assured me, had been staged by throwing coins into the bins. It was never clear whether Van had actually witnessed any of this in person or if it was an apocryphal tale the details of which had been embellished through frequent tellings and re-tellings.
Van also had a theory – and it was undoubtedly plausible – that the bloom of red silt that we saw each summer flowing from the river into the ocean was the result of inefficient agricultural methods employed by the ‘Kaffirs’. Van’s contempt for their ignorance never seemed to extend to the idea that ‘The Kaffir’ would benefit from education.
Fortunately that attitude did not have an echo in company policies. Design drawings are traditionally produced on tracing paper from which prints are prepared for use by those implementing the designs. Every drawing office has its print room where the machines for reproducing the drawings are housed along with the stored originals and catalogues of all drawings. The operation of these machines and the maintenance of the drawing register is usually the responsibility of a clerk. At SAICCOR that clerk was an African.
At the staff Christmas party in December 1974 I talked with one of the directors, an English man who assured me that white rule would be ended in the near future: it was in everyone’s interests, not least the business community who would gain a vastly increased market as Africans acquired greater purchasing power. The recent granting of a license to Philips to roll out a television service would help to facilitate this change. Eighteen months later I would witness on British TV the Soweto uprising and subsequent reinforcement of discriminatory laws. It would be another 15 years before the release of Nelson Mandela and the eventual enfranchisement of Black South Africans. Almost 30 years after that there is still appalling poverty in the Republic whose government is well known to have been plagued by corruption.
I wish I could illustrate this post with my own photographs. Although I took many, a lot have been lost in the course of several house moves since. The ones that survived are of very poor quality. I have found better quality photographs on the web and acknowledged their provenance in the captions. Please follow the links to find lout more bout the places featured. Next Monday I’ll tell you what happened on our return to the UK 45 years ago this month.
Between “Living in South Africa” parts 1 and 2, a rather boringly technical article about my reason for being there. This will be the last Monday Memory for 2018 but I intend to increase the frequency from fortnightly to weekly when I return with “Living in South Africa” part 2 on January 7th 2019.
The principal agricultural product of the region where the SAICCOR (South African Industrial Cellulose Corporation) mill is located is sugar cane. This is harvested throughout nine months of the year, during which time a large fleet of road and rail trucks transports it to sugar mills. For three months of the year this fleet is idle – or would be, but for the eucalyptus plantations, SAICCOR and other timber conversion operations such as Masonite whose mill was and still is (though now operating as Evowood) in Estcourt.
The problem for these operators was that the bulk of the year’s supply of timber was delivered during this 3 month ‘closed season’ for cane. The wood yard at SAICCOR covered a vast area in which logs were stacked up to 15 feet high. A 9 foot wide trench filled with water (the canal) ran the length of the yard in its centre. Down this logs were floated to the point where they were transferred to the chipping machine. A team of African labourers used wooden poles with metal hooks to guide the logs along.
A couple of crawler cranes with grabs unloaded the trucks during the delivery period, dropping a proportion into the canal and stacking the remainder. The rest of the year the same cranes lifted logs from the stacks and dropped them into the canal.
The process operated 24/7 except for a single weekly 8 hour shift when everything was cleaned and necessary maintenance undertaken.
Similar undertakings in North America had converted from storing logs to storing chips. This took up less space but meant that chipping capacity, and the handling of timber, had to be doubled. That was the main task for our small team. It took all of 1974, running well into1975.
Taking our cue from similar installations in North America and at Estcourt, the canal was replaced by a flume – a fast flowing stream that carried logs down to the transfer point. This was served by a concrete storage tank the top of which was at ground level, a filtration system to remove sand, grit and bark shards from the water, a pump and a pipeline to return water to the top of the flume. All of this had to be designed and constructed whilst the normal operation of the plant continued.
The hydraulic design of the flume to achieve the desired combination of volume and velocity required the application of a complex formula involving a constant called the Reynolds Number, meant to represent the frictional resistance of the steel liner which was layed to a gradient.
Back then there was no computer programme available to do the calculation for me. The team were allocated one of the first electronic calculators. This was a fairly basic model. I’m not sure if the kind called ‘scientific’ even existed yet. Certainly ours would only do basic addition, multiplication/division and simple functions like square roots.
It was important that I got the calculation right because there was a lot of steel and skilled labour involved in the construction. If it did not work as intended the cost of rectifying it would have been considerable. Because of that my calculations were thoroughly checked by one of the in-house designers. I’m pleased to be able to report that we did get it right.
Another innovation concerned the unloading crane. This was intended to run on rails either side of the flume, with an articulated jib and grab that lifted logs from road or rail transports and dropped them between its ‘legs’ into the flume. The proposed machine had been designed in conjunction with a hydraulics engineer who had come from Italy as part of the original installation team in the mid 1950s, subsequently setting up his own business in Durban. The contract had been awarded before we arrived. Many months had elapsed since then and several trials in the works had failed to demonstrate that the machine was capable of performing its intended task.
SAICCOR’s managing director, an Irishman who was extremely supportive towards our team, was becoming increasingly frustrated by this failure of the supposed specialist to deliver. The route from Umkomaas to Durban passed through an industrial area on the south side of the city. One of the many businesses that lined the dual carriageway was Blackwood Hodge, the South African distributor for JCB. There was always an array of excavators of various sizes on display in their yard. One day the MD waltzed into my office and explained that he had just come back from Durban and had a brainwave as he passed Blackwood Hodge. Would I get in touch with them and see if it would be possible to come up with an adaptation of one of their machines? To cut a long story short, it was and we did.
A further design task which I undertook was the method for lifting logs from the flume and depositing them onto the final conveyor into the chipper. The canal terminated in a so called jack ladder – a chain conveyor that carried the logs up an incline and dropped them onto a conveyor belt running at right angles. With the flume, the logs would be the wrong way round for this so my new elevating chain conveyor had to end with a steel chute designed to turn the logs through 90 degrees before dropping them on to the conveyor belt.
Whilst I was designing the log handling part of the project, Walter was designing a system of pipes and blowers to distribute chips to the new storage area. This now had to be integrated with the existing chip handling which consisted of a very long inclined conveyor belt which transported chips from the base of the chipping machine to the top of the digester – a vertical cylinder in which the wood chips were dissolved in acid to create pulp. This conveyor had to be split about half way up the incline so that chips could be diverted to the blower system when required.
One aspect of the design for water cleaning was the final filtration to remove very fine particles. I had seen an article in a South African business journal which described how a centrifuge had been used to reclaim tobacco shreds from the water used in a tobacco processing facility in what was then Southern Rhodesia. It seemed to me this would be ideal for our application.
The team leader disagreed. He had already been in touch with a company that had supplied filtration equipment to Courtauld’s Derby factory and insisted we should have a cloth filter that would be cleaned by vibration. He contended that “you can’t separate organic materials (in our case small particles of bark and wood splinters) using a centrifuge” I argued that tobacco is organic and it reportedly works in the tobacco factory. Perhaps I could go up there and have a look. Anyway, I thought the splinters would get trapped in the fabric of the vibrating filter.
Of course I was over-ruled. I spent many hours over the Christmas and New Year period, when we were commissioning the plant, trying to get the vibrating filter to work without success. The manufacturer’s representative flew out to assist but had no success. At the end of January Freda, Ian and I returned to England. When Walter returned, a few weeks later, he told me that the vibrating filter had been abandoned and a centrifuge installed in its place.
Continuing the occasional series in which I record significant events from my life. This installment takes up a couple of months before the previous one ended.
For the first couple of weeks after Freda and Ian arrived, in September 1973, they joined me in the hotel which I had been staying in since my arrival. Soon we were offered a furnished house. A traditional colonial style bungalow with a tin roof and veranda, this cottage had been vacated by the owner who had a modern bungalow built at the back. At first it seemed quite romantic with its early twentieth century furnishings and decor. That was until the night Freda went into the kitchen to brew a nightcap – and screamed.
Anyone who knows anything about cockroaches will know that they hate the light. They come out to play after dark. If their playground is suddenly illuminated, by someone switching on a light for example, they scuttle back to their hiding places – in this case under the kitchen cabinets. “I’m not staying here,” was Freda’s verdict. When I explained the situation to the HR department, who passed it on to the owner, that lady insisted there were no cockroaches in her house, implying that we were impugning her reputation by suggesting such a thing. In that case, why were there several cockroach traps under various pieces of furniture? We wondered.
The company agreed to relocate us at the hotel for the time being. Construction, by a local developer, of a block of five terraced houses was almost complete and the company had taken a lease on two of them. One would be allocated to us. We were given an allowance to spend on furniture and textiles and told to visit an emporium in the inland town of Alexandria. “Ask for Smiley”, we were told.
“Smiley” turned out to be a very accommodating Indian gentleman and we selected beds, a settee and chairs, curtains and bedding from his overflowing warehouse. The day we moved in, the developer pointed out that a pair of Minah birds had constructed a nest in the eves. Should he remove it? No, we said. It would be a shame to disturb the birds, at least until after their young had fledged. Also, it would be interesting for Ian to watch the birds.
We got into the habit of doing our weekly shop on a Saturday morning in a new mall in the larger town of Amanzimtoti a few miles away on the road to Durban. We had become used to hearing the birds chatter but one Saturday, as we were having lunch after our shopping trip, they seemed especially noisy. “Those birds are inside,” Freda said.
“Don’t be silly, how could they get in?” was my response.
“I left the bedroom window open.”
With that she climbed the stairs – and, once again, screamed.
One of the birds had indeed come in through the window. Confused by the dressing table mirror, which was situated directly opposite the window, it had been trying to fly out of the reflected window. We succeeded in guiding it to the real window. There was now an awful mess to clear up.
All three of us developed itchy rashes which we put down to the change of climate. Several mornings we noticed accumulations of grit on the corner of the bath. Then one day I noticed that the ‘grit’ was moving. Once again we contacted the HR department and they sent along someone to have a look. “You have an infestation of bird lice,” was the verdict. “The birds’ nest has to be destroyed and the whole place fumigated.”
With the birds removed and the place fumigated we settled into a routine. The house was on a hill overlooking the estuary and the Indian Ocean, a view we never tired of. Ian was, by now in school. At that time in South Africa children did not commence school until they reached 7, unlike the UK where 5 was the usual starting age. At 8, Ian was therefore 2 years ahead of most of the children his age in the school and entered the 4th year alongside 10 and 11 year olds. Indeed, some were older because a grade system was in use which meant that children who failed to make the grade at the end of any year were held back. Ian, I’m glad to say, had no trouble keeping up, except with regard to the compulsory second language, Afrikaans.
Our son also joined the cub scouts. This was run by the wife of the factory’s Electrical Engineer, both of them German and both delightful to know. Over our time in South Africa we took part in various fund raising efforts for the Cubs and helped out at some events.
Before we knew, the spring of 1973 had metamorphosed into summer, the highlights of which were Christmas and New Year celebrations. These included an outdoor Christingle service on the village football ground and a factory Christmas party at which a group of the African labourers entertained us with their “Gumboot Dance”, a traditional African stomping dance performed in Wellingon boots.
By then the house next door to us had been let to a young couple. The husband was a Welsh Chemical Engineer. Having begun his career in one of the steel mills in South Wales, he had emigrated to South Africa to work for the South African Steel Corporation (SASCOR). From there he had moved to SAICOR with his Dutch wife. For clarity, when I say “Dutch” I mean that she was born in Holland, not that she was a South African of Dutch descent. As a new employee he was provided with temporary accommodation whilst he awaited the construction of his own house in the company’s staff village. This was an area of land owned by the company where employees could purchase a plot and have a house built to their own specification.
They brought with them twin boys about 2 years old, both as blond and pale skinned as their mother and each determined to play with the other’s toy despite having his own identical copy! The poor woman was forever having to break up fights between them, or so it sometimes seemed. To be fair, they were a delightful family and we quite often “babysat” for each other.
The summer climate was extremely hot and humid – or seemed so to us being more used to the British climate. Days would usually begin very hot with clear skies and brilliant sunshine. In the afternoon clouds would appear and the atmosphere would become very oppressive. There were frequent thunder storms with torrential rain in the late afternoon and early evening. One consequence of this was that the ocean in the vicinity of the estuary became red with the soil being carried down river from cultivated lands in the hills above.
The other feature of the portion of ocean visible from our windows was a long line of white surf about a mile off-shore. This, we learned, was a rocky outcrop known as the Aliwal Shoal. One Sunday, having taken Ian to a scouts’ event in a town a few miles down the coast, I noticed as we were traveling back without him, a tanker that appeared to be too close in. We stopped at a lay-by to take a closer look and it was obvious that the vessel was listing. Once back in Umkomaas we watched from our upstairs window as a couple of the ski boats operated by local fishermen journeyed to the stricken vessel to bring the crew to shore.
Ian was back in town in time to see the helicopter that landed to take the crew back to Durban. According to the newspaper the following day, the vessel was carrying molasses (raw sugar) from Mozambique. It had docked in Durban to refuel on the Saturday. It seems the Norwegian crew had a good night out in Durban and, after leaving the port on Sunday lunch time, had set a course due South before heading for their bunks, forgetting to allow for the Aliwal Shoal on their course.
Continuing the occasional series in which I record significant events from my life. This installment takes up where the previous one ended.
We had given up our membership of the co-ownership housing scheme and Freda moved back to her parents’ home in Herefordshire. It was the long summer break from school so there was no disruption to Ian’s education.
A week or so after I arrived in South Africa the small team was joined by an electrical engineer. A week after that he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalised in Durban. In the circumstances his wife was flown over to join us.
I had not previously met any of the team members. Walter, my fellow Mechanical Designer, although based in Coventry, had been engaged on another overseas project – this one in the Soviet Union. The team leader and the Electrical Engineer were both from the company’s Derby facility, where the former held a senior management post. As a consequence his role as our team leader was part-time and he returned to the UK after a few weeks, to pay the occasional flying visit every few months.
Before he left, he was determined to demonstrate his driving prowess. Back in the UK Barry had built, and raced, a Formula Ford racing car. The team had been allocated 2 cars – necessary for travel from Umkomaas village to the mill and for personal transport at weekends. On his last weekend Barry decided we should have a group outing to Zululand, an area to the North of Durban characterised by spectacular mountain roads and beautiful scenery. The roads were, of course, unmettalled.
Not surprisingly, I can’t recall precisely who travelled with whom. I’m certain that Peter, the electrical engineer and his wife, Vi, were passengers in Barry’s pale blue Peugeot 504. And, of course, Freda and Ian were with me in a dark green Datsun (Nissan) 260 C. I am less certain of Walter’s position – if he was in our car, why was he not driving?
Walter was a widower. Whilst he was in the USSR his daughter was cared for by his mother but he was determined to have her with him in South Africa. About six weeks after Walter and I arrived in South Africa, Walter’s mother delivered the daughter to Freda in Hereford, from where she, Freda and Ian were picked up by a company driver and taken to Heathrow. Walter and I were permitted to fly from Durban to Johannesberg in order to meet them and accompany them on the final leg of their long journey.
As for the weekend motoring tour of Zululand; I think Barry thought he was taking part in the African Safari Rally. I do recall Vi telling us that he scared her witless whilst pointing out various interesting features of the landscape with his eyes averted from sharp bends above sheer precipices ahead. As for me, I did my best to keep up as we raced along rutted dirt roads in the cloud of dust thrown up by Barry’s car.
The mill is located – yes, it is still operating all these years later, though now owned by SAPPI, the world’s largest producer of dissolving wood pulp as well as paper and board – a few miles upstream from the point at which the Umkomaas River enters the Indian Ocean. Originally a project created jointly by the South African government, an Italian fibre producer called Snia Viscosa, and Courtaulds, the plant was constructed by a team from Italy, many of whom had remained as the nucleus of the Engineering management and development team.
The basic idea was to establish plantations of fast growing eucalyptus which would be coppiced to provide the feedstock for the mill. The resultant pulp would be exported to Italy and the UK to be converted into viscose fibre by the two specialist corporations. Whilst Courtaulds had succeeded in adapting their process – which originally used pulp from Scandinavian soft woods – Snia had not, and sold their share in the mill to Courtaulds.
The project to modernise the raw material handling and storage for the mill had begun in the small in-house design office. Realising they lacked sufficient resources to handle such a large undertaking, they had turned to Courtaulds Engineering Limited to complete the job.
The production of pulp from timber is a simple enough process. Apart from wood, the only ingredients are Sulphur and Limestone, which are used to create an acid in which the wood, having been reduced to small chips, is dissolved to separate the celulose from the resin that holds it together in its natural state. The mill in Umkomaas also generated its own steam and electricity. A new coal fired boiler was being installed by Babcock and Wilcox when we arrived.
My first task was to complete the crane and conveyor system for transferring coal from the storage area to the boiler. Design for this had been partially completed, and construction of the reinforced concrete elements begun, already. I had to design the hoppers through which coal would be dropped onto a conveyor, evaluate tenders for their manufacture, and supervise the installation and commissioning.
Walter was undertaking a similar exercise for the Limestone and Sulphur handling facilities. The Electrical Engineer took care of the selection and installation of electric motors and wiring for all three. These were comparatively simple tasks and were completed by Christmas. The real ‘meat’ of the project concerned the complete reorganisation of the timber handling facility which would occupy us for the whole of 1974.
I’ll reveal more about this part of the project, my role, and our experience of living on the South African coast, in the next installment.
Continuing the occasional series in which I describe significant events in my life.
Despite my long hours at the pub, we were still struggling financially. Freda wanted to make a bigger contribution and it occurred to us that a small shop, of the kind where we would live on the premises, would enable her to use her training and experience in retail over a greater part of the day. Moreover, instead of working at the pub at weekends I would be available to work behind the counter of our own shop. We began looking at the property advertisements in the local paper and found just such an enterprise. It seemed to be within our capacity to purchase if we sold our present home.
We arranged a viewing at which we were told the place was already under offer. If that offer fell through then we would have a chance. Meanwhile would we like to put our house on the market?
We looked at a few other potential retail opportunities before we discovered that the size of mortgage available for such properties was less than that for a house. ‘Goodwill’ was not something that could be used as security. How would we finance the purchase of stock?
The plan began to look like a non-starter. Then we saw a leasehold property where the remainder of the lease was being offered for a relatively low price. Our offer was accepted, subject to the approval of the landlord. We received an offer for our house from a couple who did not want to take possession until after their marriage in March, six months away. This, we fondly supposed, gave us plenty of time to find something if the landlord did not approve our proposal – and why would he not?
We were, I now know, incredibly naive. The landlord strung us along throughout the winter. He even came to discuss our plans whilst I was at work in the pub, but still would not give us an answer.
Eventually, one morning in February 1972, when we were becoming increasingly desperate to have the business concluded, I took a call at work from our solicitor. The vendor’s solicitor had contacted him to say that the landlord had foreclosed on the lease, for non-payment of rent, and that, the vendor, no longer had anything to sell.
In answer to my question he indicated that we would have to negotiate directly with the landlord. Unsurprisingly, he was not available that day. When we did make contact it was to be told that he had let the property to someone else.
Looking back, it is impossible not to conclude that we were nothing more than a back-up plan to him. The tenant to whom he let the place, a small bakery chain, was the one he wanted and they wanted the premises without having to pay anything to the outgoing tenant. As she could not pay the rent, all the landlord needed to do was to delay until the point when he could legally end her tenancy. Only if the bakers became impatient would he need to find an alternative. He could have turned down our offer at the outset but it suited him to keep us ‘on ice’, stringing us along until he achieved his intended outcome.
We, now, had to be out of our house in a matter of weeks. House prices had started to rise rapidly since we had agreed our own sale, so buying was no longer an option for us. We would have to find somewhere to rent.
What we found was a small co-ownership apartment block on the West side of the city. The apartment offered two bedrooms, a decent sized kitchen, living room, bathroom and a garage in a separate block. The rent was affordable and, if we stayed for five years, we could claim a share of the equity on leaving. As it happens, we did not stay for long because, within a year and a half, I was offered an opportunity much too good to refuse.
Meanwhile I continued working at the pub, painted the Corsair yellow, and watched unbelieving as Hereford United achieved unprecedented success in the FA cup, beating
Newcastle United and drawing with West Ham United in the 3rd. and 4th rounds respectively. On August 19th 1972 I attended their first home match in the English Football League Division 4 in which they beat Reading 3-0 having previously lost in away matches to Colchester (Div.4) and Aston Villa (League Cup). They would go on to win promotion to the 3rd Division at the end of that season. [For those whose memories don’t go back far enough, League Div. 4 was equivalent to the present EFL Div.2, Divisions 1 and 2 having been superceded by the Premier League and Championship, respectively.]
In another attempt to increase our income I went to Brmingham one evening to attend a presentation from a multi-level marketing organisation that involved selling Unit Trust investments. Although I did buy into the investment, cold selling was not for me so nothing came of this.
One day my boss called me into the office. Our subsidiary had been asked to assist with a project in a pulp mill in which the parent company had an interest. The mill was in Swaziland, a small country sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. I would need a passport and several inoculations – Yellow Fever, Typhus and a Small Pox booster, among others.
I had the ‘jabs’, got a passport – and then was told the job was cancelled. I continued with what I was doing – I can’t recall precisely what that was at the time. One important project undertaken around this time was the detailed design of the first production scale manufacturing plant for ibuprofen at the Boots pharmaceutical facility in Nottingham. All we were told about the product at the time was that it was “a new arthritis drug”. I suspect that even Boots would have been surprised at the way in which their invention has become ubiquitous as a pain killer and remedy for colds and flu.
In the summer of 1973 I was called into the boss’s office again. This time the project for which I was being recommended was in South Africa. Expected to last for between 18 months and 2 years, the team would be accompanied by our families. We would be provided with accommodation and basic living expenses whilst our salaries would continue to be paid into our UK bank accounts.
Ian was 7 and attending a primary school in Coventry with children of assorted ethnic origins. I wondered how a period living in a country in which people of colour were treated as second or third class citizens would affect him. After due consideration we, his parents, decided that it would be advantageous to see for ourselves whether conditions were as bad as the UK media portrayed them.
I tried very hard to get the company to allow us to travel together. To no avail. I don’t know the reason, whether it was to do with South African visa regulations or the possible cost to the company should a situation rise in which I did not fit in with the team and had to return.
I left the UK, together with another mechanical designer and the team leader, on 3rd August, 1973 aboard a Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” operated by the then newly formed British Airways.
An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past. This one picks up from where ‘Into the Seventies’ ended.
I sometimes struggle to get this next sequence of events in the correct chronological order. There was ‘spot-the-ball’, a mini spending spree and the ending of overtime at work.
I’ll begin with ‘spot-the-ball’. This weekly competition, run by the Coventry Evening Telegraph, involved the publication of an action photograph, taken at a soccer match, with the ball blanked out. Contestants were asked to ‘use their skill and judgement’ to estimate the position of the ball.
Had the man with his feet off the ground already headed the ball? Was the goalkeeper about to catch it or had it passed over his head? Those were the sort of judgements one was supposed to take into account before marking the centre of the ball with a cross. Suffice to say that one week I won a runner-up prize of £250.
To put that into context, it was the equivalent of about two month’s earnings at the time. It meant, among other things, that we could afford to purchase a car. I perused the ‘for sale’ columns in the same newspaper and, after viewing a few of the motors on offer, agreed to pay £80 for an old Hillman Minx.
What I was unaware of at the time was that many of the advertisements that purported to be ‘private sales’ were in fact dealers operating out of private residences. Some of these individuals had few scruples and would indulge in various tricks of the trade in order to make a vehicle appear, and sound, much less decrepit than it really was. That seems to have been the case with the two-tone blue and cream Minx. It was not long before I realised that it was using far more oil than it should.
By then Freda’s brother was in an informal business partnership with an older chap who restored and resold cars. When I shared my Hillman Minx story with him he asked why did I not go to him? When I did just that, he showed me a Ford Corsair on which the paint finish was deteriorating. Having begun life in dark green livery, the car’s previous owner had decided to re-spray it silver. This second coat had not adhered too well – perhaps the original surface had not been properly prepared. My brother-in-law offered me a tin of bright yellow paint which he assured me was easy to apply with a brush.
Meanwhile we decided also to purchase a heating system for the house and a chest freezer which was supposed to save money by enabling bulk buying of various food products. This particular deal included a number of vouchers that had to be spent in a wholesale warehouse in Dunstable. Additional vouchers could be purchased but no actual cash changed hands at the warehouse. We made a couple of trips, before we figured out that the cost of fuel for the journey, plus the interest we were paying on the purchase price of the vouchers, exceeded any saving made on the goods we were buying.
I mentioned the ‘Jumbo’ nylon production facilities at Aintree. When the design stage of ‘Jumbo 6’ was completed there was no new project for the team involved to move on to. Contract draughtsmen were the first to be let go but there came a morning when long serving individuals were called into the office to be informed that their services were no longer required.
It was a worrying time. I had recently been assigned to a project for the manufacturer of anti-knock additives for motor fuel. As a relatively recent recruit I fully expected that I would be given my marching orders and that a long server would be re-assigned to my role. My relief, when it became obvious that this was not the case, was tempered by the knowledge that colleagues with years of loyal service were discarded.
For a long while I had become used to my income being boosted by regular overtime. Now that was no longer available. Freda could not increase her hours because of the need to be at home outside of school time. I found a job as barman in a nearby pub, working three weekday evenings plus lunchtime and evening on Saturday and Sunday.
I enjoyed the work. It was quite straight forward with a limited range of products with prices that were easily remembered. There were three bars: the ‘public’ which was mostly male; the lounge, where beer prices were 1p dearer, and the ‘snug’, a small room patronised by an exclusive clientele who were happy to pay an extra 2p for a pint of their favourite tipple in the company of a few close friends. There was also an ‘outdoor’ counter where people who preferred to drink at home could purchase bottled ale or bring their own jug to be filled with draft beer.
We did not have the benefit of an electronic till with each product allocated its own button. When someone ordered a large round of drinks we had to memorise, and mentally add together, the individual prices before presenting the customer with the total. We’d then ring up the total before taking any change from the drawer to hand to the customer.
The landlord and the other staff were a friendly crowd, as were the regular customers. We were paid for a half hour for clearing up after the doors closed at 10:30. After that the landlord would buy everyone a drink and we would play darts, sometimes for a further hour.
No food was prepared or consumed on the premises – apart nights when the darts team were playing a home match. Then the landlady would produce a tray of roast potatoes for both teams and their followers.
I don’t recall ever witnessing a fight, nor were there many arguments. I do remember the music that played frequently on the jukebox: Rod Stewart’s Maggie May, Olivia Newton Johns’ cover of John Denver’s Country Roads and the same artiste’s Banks of the Ohio, Joan Baez’ The Night We Drove Ol’ Dixie Down and Cher’s Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves. It’s impossible to listen to any of those songs now without recalling my days working at The Convoy.
And it was there that I heard something that for me came to epitomise the attitudes of certain members of the working class, especially those in public service, during the 1970s. I already knew that the individual concerned worked for Coventry City Council. I’ll call him Bill. The conversation went something like this:
Cutomer: Hi Bill. How are things?
Bill: Fine. Enjoying a nice break.
Customer: Annual leave?
Customer: Oh dear, what’s wrong?
Bill: Nothing mate. I get 4 weeks sickness entitlement every year so I’m taking it.
I was shocked to discover, when I looked on-line for a photograph of The Convoy, that it has been demolished to be replaced by eight houses. It was, in the 1970s, a friendly local venue where neighbours socialised. I guess it’s a sign of the times that such places have fallen into disuse.