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My boss, the Chief Engineer, was heavily invested in the waste burning project. My council workload was becoming a problem for him. He came to discuss the situation with me, saying he was finding that when he needed to discuss work with me I was not around. Could we come to an arrangement whereby my council business would be confined to specific days of the week? I should point out that, up to this point, the company had been extremely generous in allowing me time off with pay for these duties, subject to my returning the council attendance allowance to them.
A subsequent meeting with the Site Director resulted in the suggestion that a voluntary redundancy package could be put together should I wish to leave. For me the suggestion was welcome, provided the terms were right. It would enable me to embark on my preferred career as a writer and/or politician. When the terms were put to me, they were indeed generous. A tax free lump sum, roughly equivalent to two years salary. In addition, my qualifying service for my future pension would be increased from 18 to 20 years and the pension would be paid from age 60, not 65.
Coincidentally, the company’s pension had been a subject I had addressed in an article for the Senior Staff Association magazine a few years before. A number of the members were exercised about what seemed like inadequate communication between the executive and the membership. I and one of the Chemists from the R&D department in Coventry had, independently of each other, proposed that a members’ newsletter or magazine was needed. “Why don’t the pair of you get together and produce it?” was the challenging response, and we did.
There was a general feeling that Courtaulds’ staff pension scheme did not measure up to those offered by the civil service and other “blue chip” companies. I investigated and concluded that our scheme was – I think my words were – “disappointingly average,” backing that conclusion with data gleaned from various sources. You could call it my first piece of investigative journalism! The basic principle of all such schemes, based on rules established by the tax authorities because the contributions were tax exempt, was that the pension earned by the combined contributions of employer and employee, extending over 40 years, should not exceed 2/3 of your final salary.
More than 30 years later, now that I have been in receipt of a pension from the scheme for 17 years, I have to say I am grateful to have been a member whilst I was an employee.
To her credit Freda supported my decision to leave my safe, secure job. Ian was now well settled in his position as a student nurse, living in Lincoln and making new friends. It would not be easy living on the meagre attendance allowance and Freda’s salary from the Spastics’ Society, but the lump sum redundancy payment would yield some income if wisely invested and I hoped to be able to generate some additional income from writing.
I left Courtaulds shortly before my 45th birthday in November 1986. One of the first things I bought on the strength of my severance package was a Word Processor. Since the early 1980s I had had access to an Apple 2 desk top computer at work and, more recently, this had been replaced by a Hewlett Packard PC which was networked with new HP mainframe computers.
The Amstrad Word Processor came in two versions – the basic 256 kb machine with one built-in floppy disc drive and the larger 512 kb machine with two disc slots. I opted for the 512. The main advantage of this being that you did not have to keep swapping discs. To explain that properly, it is necessary to realise that neither 256 nor 512 kb of on-board memory allowed for any software to be permanently installed. You used one disc to load the software, then saved the files you created to a separate floppy disc. This was infinitely easier with two discs than with one.
I had become quite accomplished at using Lotus 123 spreadsheets for work so my colleagues purchased, as their leaving gift for me, a spreadsheet programme that would run on the Amstrad. Because of the limited on-board memory you had to create your spreadsheet from scratch, defining how many columns and lines you would need. A long way from the seemingly infinite number of columns, lines and sheets that can be utilised on present day spreadsheets!
More about my role in Courtaulds at Grimsby and our family life in Cleethorpes.
The capital projects section carried out a range of projects from a few thousand pounds in value to several tens of thousands. The inception of a project would occur when one of the factory Engineers or Production Managers submitted a “pink form”. This would describe the proposed development, list the expected benefits including the financial savings expected to accrue. Actually, the process would have begun even before that with production teams being asked to prepare an annual “wish list” with ball park costings. From this a budget request would be submitted. The list would be pruned/prioritised to arrive at an approved budget for the year.
The pink form would be passed to one of us Project Engineers. Generally the subject would have to have been included in the approved budget, unless it was something deemed to be urgent. In that case something would need to be removed from the budget to compensate. We would then discuss it with the originator to ensure we understood exactly what was in mind. If necessary we’d then get one of the contract draughtsmen who worked for us to do a preliminary design, we’d then obtain quotations from specialist contractors and/or specialist equipment suppliers, and discuss with our small team of craftsmen the number of labour hours required to carry out the work.
With the likely cost of implementation thus arrived at, the pink form plus estimate would be submitted to the board. This was a time when interest rates were very high by present standards so the saving expected to accrue had to be sufficient to recover the cost in a pretty short time. If it failed, the pink form would be rejected. If the expected financial return was deemed satisfactory – or if the project was considered essential for health and/or safety reasons – it would be approved.
The next stage would be to work up the design and estimate in more detail and submit a “voucher” request. Once approved, the “voucher” authorised the necessary expenditure. It now became the responsibility of the Project Engineer to oversee the execution of the work – purchasing equipment and materials, authorising labour and arranging with the Production team for access to the area of plant where the work was due to take place. Usually this would mean timing the work to happen on a day when a maintenance shut down was scheduled – sometimes on more than one such occasion.
If the work ended up costing more than the estimate, the overspend had to be authorised and detailed explanations provided. The same applied to failure to meet the expected timetable. Both things meant that the expected financial return would not be realised. There was, sometimes, pressure to keep the estimate low in order to ensure approval, but that came with the risk of an over-spend.
Meanwhile Freda and Ian settled into their new environment, Ian in school and Freda with a job as manager of a charity shop. Now long since renamed “Scope”, the Spastics Society had a chain of shops around the country that took in pre-owned clothing for re-sale in order to raise funds to support people with cerebral palsy and their families. Locally donated clothing was sent to a regional sorting centre to be redistributed. In this way potential customers would be unlikely to come across a garment that had once belonged to someone they knew. Ian joined the local scout group and his mother and I resumed our activities in support of the group.
This included, in the autumn of 1980, the Lyke Wake Walk. A forty mile long trek across the North Yorkshire Moors, from the village of Osmotherly to the coast at Robin Hood Bay, this was accomplished in 20 hours, commencing at 10pm on a Friday night. The walkers, myself included, stopped for food and a rest at around 6am. This is where Freda had an important role: accompanied by a couple of other mothers she travelled by road to the camp site where they set up a field kitchen to cook a “full English” breakfast.
We walkers set off again at about 9am, reaching Robin Hoods Bay at 6pm. The first part, though mostly up hill, had been largely through woodland. After the break we were on the moors proper, an area of raised peat bog which sucked one’s boots into a substance resembling treacle, necessitating many detours onto firmer ground not previously trodden by the many walkers that accepted the challenge to complete the walk.
The “Mums” had set up camp in a field overlooking the town of Robin Hoods Bay and the North Sea where we once again enjoyed a hearty meal before a night’s sleep in tents. I’m sure there were visits to public houses at each end of the walk as well! The journey from Cleethorpes to Osmotherly on Friday, and return from Robin Hoods Bay on Sunday, was accomplished by coach.
Not long afterwards I learned about a small group of volunteers planning to start a talking newspaper for visually impaired people in the district and decided to offer my expertise gained with Coventry Community Broadcasting Service. Naturally they were in urgent need of funds so I volunteered to undertake a sponsored walk. This I did, from Immingham to Louth, a distance of some 20 miles, in the summer of 1981. By which time I was becoming increasingly involved in local politics.
Coming next week – a group of MPs resign from their party and I embark on a decade of political activism.
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.
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 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.
An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past. This one picks up from where 1968 ended.
We settled into our new home and I into my job. All the residents of the Stadium Estate were young couples like us, most with children. There was a residents’ association and, before I knew it, I found myself elected chairman, a role no-one else wanted.
Courtaulds had, not long before, successfully defended itself against a hostile take-over by another large and successful British company, ICI. The two firms had been joint owners of a nylon yarn producing business, British Nylon Spinners. As part of the settlement of the take-over battle, Courtaulds gave up its share in that business. It could afford to do so because it had been working on its own version of Nylon fibre.
Originally developed by a Dutch company, this process was already in small scale production at Aintree. Courtaulds bought the plant and a parcel of land alongside whilst the Chemists and Chemical Engineers in Coventry set about upscaling. The new, much larger, facility was named by the company ‘Jumbo’.
The market for the fibre must have been expanding because, by 1968, the office I was assigned to was working on ‘Jumbo IV’. I, however, did not spend many weeks with that team. Soon I was asked to work on the layout of equipment for a solvent recovery plant destined to be installed in the company’s rayon fibre production facility at Carrickfergus, just to the north of Belfast.
Once the layout was settled and agreed, the next stage was to produce detailed drawings of individual pipe and duct sections. A small team of contract draughtsmen were employed to do this and my role was to check the drawings they produced and make sure they fitted together correctly on a master drawing. Contract draughtsmen are freelancers who work through an agency on short term contracts – an early version of what, today, would be called the ‘gig economy’. It is, or was, a lucrative, if risky, career.
One day I was talking to one of these young chaps and remarked that, although his name sounded Welsh, he did not have a Welsh accent. That is when he told me that he had lived close to the Welsh border for a while as a child. Further discussion revealed that his parents had kept the general store in the next village to the one in which I grew up. This would turn out to be the first of at least two coincidences demonstrating how small the world – or at least the UK – really is.
In the autumn of 1969 I accompanied my Project Manager on a visit to the site where the plant was being installed. We needed to understand why some of the ducts wouldn’t fit together the way they were supposed to. It did not take long to ascertain why. A cable tray, which my master drawing clearly showed was supposed to be routed above the duct, had been installed in a straight line. For some reason the installation sequence had been changed – probably because the manufacture of the ducting had been delayed. To keep things moving on site the supports for the electrical cables had been installed before the duct and no-one bothered to ask why the drawing showed it following a rather tortuous route.
There had been rioting in Belfast that summer but things had calmed down. Even so, strategically important facilities like the water supply in the hills above the plant were protected by armed military personnel.
We completed that trip, there and back, in a day. When the installation was completed, in the early part of 1970, I went over again, this time with the young graduate who had been selected to commission the plant, and stayed for a couple of nights. I have written elsewhere about my encounter with a pair of angry young men during that trip, although it has not previously appeared on-line. For those who may be interested, there is an abridged version here.
Just a month afterwards I was assigned to a small team to spend a month in Dublin. Jacobs Biscuits had an ancient factory in the centre of the city. Following a merger with another, smaller, company, to form an entity called Irish Biscuits, and the acquisition of a contract to supply Marks & Spencer, they had decided to build a new factory. CEL won the contract to design and project manage the construction of this new factory.*
A lot of the machinery from the old factory would be installed in the new one and we needed to ascertain as much information as possible about it. We were given access to as many drawings and manuals for the existing machines as were available but all of the information they contained had to be checked by comparison with what was on the ground, because changes made over the years may not all have been recorded. Furthermore, there were some machines for which no record existed.
The staff at Jacobs at the time were very good to us – they, after all, were the clients and, traditionally it would be we, the contractors, entertaining them. But they were delighted to show us around various popular tourist spots during our first weekend off. We visited Glendalough and Bray Head – I distinctly remember climbing to the top of the Head with snow still lingering under the stone walls.
I was very definitely struck, too, by the difference between the two cities. Even then, Belfast’s industrial past was becoming extremely run down, whereas Dublin, never sullied by heavy industry, seemed to retain a more genteel exterior. I have since learned, of course, that that was no more than a veneer, hiding terrible poverty and all manner of cruelty.
Meanwhile Ian was due to start school – he was already at nursery – and Freda returned to work as an assistant in a shoe shop. We socialised with several of the couples on the estate. One family in particular introduced us to the Coventry Welsh Rugby Club which became our social hub. We even staged an estate Christmas Party in the clubhouse. And we went on holiday with them.
We had treated ourselves to a week at Butlins holiday camp in Minehead at the beginning of the summer. Ian and I came third in the ‘father and son’ competition wearing identical pink paisley print shirts and ties (it was the seventies,after all!). Freda, wearing hot pants, came second in the ‘lovely legs’ competition.
Butlins offered us another week, later in the season, for half-price, plus we could bring another family for free. We took them in September to Barry Island and the four children had a whale of a time. But rarely do such good times last for ever, as we were to discover in 1971.
*Footnote: This ‘new’ factory closed in 2008 and has since been purchased by Amazon.