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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.
Of course, it soon became clear that the job would take longer than six months – there were at least six lines to do, at three months each that meant the project would last at least a year and a half.
It also meant, of course, that I was away from home from Monday morning to Friday evening. I had the use of a car from the company pool and my accommodation in Grimsby was paid for by the Courtelle Division who also paid Courtaulds Engineering for my services. I discussed with my ex-colleague the possibility of my becoming a permanent member of his team and he agreed that it would make sense, but for some reason I never fully understood, the divisional board considered the possibility on a number of occasions over the succeeding months but it was fully one year before they finally said “yes”.
My lodgings were in a small boarding house on one of the short streets running back from the promenade in Cleethorpes. Run by a Scottish former sub-mariner and his wife there was a clientele that mostly consisted of company representatives who made visits to the area on a fairly frequent basis and I got to know them all. There was also, for a while, a chap who was in the same position as me; from Newcastle, he had been appointed manager of the local branch of Lucas vehicle electrical equipment and needed to stay in the boarding house until he found, and completed the purchase of, a house in the area. We’d often stay up until quite late after dinner playing darts and “chewing the fat” with these men and the proprietor’s Scottish friend who was the PR Officer for the local council.
A full English breakfast every morning (very similar to a “full Irish”), two courses for lunch in the staff canteen (staff were separated from shift workers!), and two further courses for dinner back at the digs, washed down with two or three pints of beer, saw my weight climb from 10 stone to 11 stone for the first and only time in my life. I took note of this and cut back on some of the meals and the booze.
I also spent some evenings taking long walks on the beach south of Cleethorpes. There were miles of mud flats exposed by low tide. I remember one occasion when I had walked a long way towards the sea and suddenly realised I was looking up at the horizon and the string of container ships and tankers awaiting the tide before entry to Hull, Immingham or Grimsby ports. That is certainly how it seemed. It was definitely a disconcerting feeling and I quickly turned round and walked back! I can fully understand now how people get caught out by fast incoming tides in similar situations.
In the summer of 1978 I booked us into a chalet in the nearby holiday camp for two weeks so that Freda and Ian could have a taste of Cleethorpes. Back in Coventry at weekends I helped out with the collection of old newspapers for recycling as part of the local Scouts’ fund raising as well as continuing my voluntary work with the Community Broadcasting Service. Ian joined the cast of the Gang Show. I’ve written elsewhere about the snow that made it difficult – but not impossible – for me to get back to Coventry to see the show in March of 1979.
In May of 1979 the company finally made me an offer of permanent employment at Grimsby. They would continue to pay the boarding house costs for three months. As I was no longer working for Courtaulds Engineering I had to return their car and purchase one of my own. The salary I was offered was considerably more than I had been getting and there was a lump sum allowance to help with the cost of moving.
We found a house in the centre of Cleethorpes, a narrow Edwardian terrace that had been constructed with four bedrooms upstairs and four rooms downstairs. The two back bedrooms had been knocked together and the bathroom made larger. Downstairs the door connecting the first two rooms had been taken out and replaced with an archway. Beyond that was a small dining room and a good sized kitchen. It would be our home for the next nine years.
We arranged the move for the middle weekend of Ian’s two week camp in the New Forest with his Coventry scout group. We learned later that he had asked his best friend’s mother if he could stay with them after his mother and I moved to Cleethorpes!
We drove down to Bournemouth on the last weekend of the camp to bring him back with us – the whole group had traveled down from Coventry by mini-bus and were returning in the same way. I had purchased a car from Freda’s brother – a white, rear engined, Renault 10. Although I’d driven it between Coventry and Cleethorpes several times by then, I had never before taken a short break during a long journey, setting out to continue before the engine had properly cooled.
We stopped for a food break in Marlborough, parking near the town’s Market Square. When I turned the key in the ignition on our return to the car the engine emitted a loud report and a puff of smoke. After the initial shock, and having checked that everything looked okay in the engine compartment, I turned the key again and the car started as normal. We learned that this was a “standard feature” of the car and sometimes took pleasure in watching people’s reactions whenever it happened.
When I began commuting to Derby in 1976, I travelled on a number of occasions with another Coventry based Engineer I’d not previously met who was running another project at Derby. That project finished in 1977 several months before mine. Back in Coventry in early 1978 I learned that he had been transferred to Grimsby. Meanwhile I had no substantial task. A couple of the projects I assisted on took me to the noisiest work places I have ever known – fortunately for only a brief visit – I can not begin to imagine what it would be like to spend eight hours in such an environment.
One was a weaving shed in Skelmersdale where I went to investigate a problem with yarn breaking because of the air conditioning system not maintaining optimum humidity. I recall a vast shed filled with looms as far as the eye could see and a noise that I can only liken to what it might be like to be inside an aircraft engine.
The other noisy environment was a wire winding shed. One of the principal markets for the company’s original product, rayon fibre, was as tire cord. By the seventies rayon was being replaced in many tires by steel cord. Courtaulds had purchased a steel tire cord manufacturer and we were asked to look at some proposed improvement or other. Again my recollection is of a vast shed filled with machines that took thin strands of brass plated steel wire and twisted them together to form the cord. And, again, I recall a thunderous roar that vibrated in my chest, never mind its effect on my ear drums.
These memories remind me of the many different products that Courtaulds had in its portfolio at the time and might be worth mentioning before we leave the 1970s. I mentioned in a previous episode that in the mid-sixties Courtaulds had fought off a take-over bid from ICI. The resistance had been led by a director who was a Chemist.
ICI’s interest was in gaining access to Courtaulds’ considerable reserves of cash resulting from the forced sale in 1941 of it’s American subsidiary as part of an agreement, called “lend-lease”, under which the USA supplied the allies with war materiel and other goods free of charge. With the battle with ICI won, the Chemist became Chief Executive and used that cash reserve to embark on a series of investments.
One facet of this strategy was the purchase of companies whose businesses complemented Courtaulds’ own. In particular they adopted a policy of ‘vertical integration’. Put simply, this involved the taking over of businesses that used Courtaulds’ raw materials, so it included weavers, spinners, worsted mills and garment manufacturers, many of them with household name brands such as Wolseley, Lyle and Scott, Bear Brand and Contessa among many others.
In effect they were tying these companies in to buying their raw materials from Courtaulds at the expense of the enemy, ICI. At Courtaulds Engineering one of my colleagues headed up a Materials Handling section where conveyor systems and packing lines were designed and installed in many of these factories. Often branded products were produced alongside those bearing the labels of well known chain stores.
Under the second element of the strategy, the Research and Development teams were funded to investigate new products using the same basic techniques as used in the manufacture of synthetic fibres. One such was KESP – spun soya protein as a substitute for meat. It featured on an edition of the BBC’s technology showcase “Tomorrow’s World”.
Versions of the product appeared in the company’s shop and we tried it. As an alternative to stewing meat, the chunks were acceptable but needed a good seasoning of herbs and other flavourings. The pilot plant and manufacturing license were sold to a food processor in East Anglia but the product never achieved significant commercial success. Interestingly similar products are once again being offered for sale, no doubt in response to an upsurge in vegetarianism and veganism.
Another attempt to introduce a new product into an established market concerned tobacco. I have no idea of the process used to manufacture Courtaulds’ tobacco substitute. Employees were offered the opportunity to blind test samples of different compositions. This must have been before I left for South Africa because I gave up smoking a few months after our return. I do remember that the particular formulation I was given to sample tasted horrible. The best way I can describe it is by reference to an occasion when I inadvertently lit the wrong end of a tipped cigarette.
Another business that Courtaulds purchased at this time was International Paints. This once again brought them into direct competition with ICI who owned the Dulux paint brand. International’s specialty was anti-fouling paints used by shipping world wide.*
I remember once creating the script for an imagined TV commercial demonstrating, via a series of short clips, how every activity during an ordinary day in someone’s life brought him or her into contact with a Courtaulds product. The strap line or slogan would have been “We are all around you” and it certainly seemed at the time that Courtaulds had such a huge variety of products and brands that it was indeed impossible to avoid contact with the company, although most people would have been unaware of the ultimate ownership of those brands.
I suppose the fact that I found time to indulge in such exercises as devising a TV commercial confirms that I did not have enough to do. That was changed by a phone call from the man who had occasionally given me a lift to Derby.
He was now head of the capital projects department for the company’s Courtelle Division at Grimsby. Courtelle was the company’s acrylic fibre and the production facility at Grimsby had been steadily expanded over the preceding fifteen years. They had an annual budget for modernisation and improvement projects, one of which consisted of the complete overhaul of some of the older production lines. Each would be shut down for three months at a time, stripped down, major repairs carried out and new equipment incorporated. I was seconded for an initial period of six months to manage the work.
*For more on Courtaulds history, see http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/courtaulds-plc-history/
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.