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Monday Memories – Arrival in South Africa

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.

A recent image of the SAICCOR plant taken from their website. There are many more buildings there now than when I was there 45 years ago.

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.


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Monday Memories – Into The Seventies

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.

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The rear view of the former Courtaulds factory viewed from the Melling Road across Aintree Race course. The factory is long since gone, replaced by a retail park.
  © Copyright J Scott and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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.

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Bray Head Walk, Co. Wicklow. Still from a video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKFr2M3BdRE

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.

Monday Memories – 1968.

An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past.

At work, after completing my apprenticeship, I was designing components for eventual incorporation into the ill fated TSR2 defence project and the highly speculative super-sonic airliner Concord (Concorde if you are French). TSR stood for ‘Tactical Strike and Reconnaisance’. I’ve no idea why it was designated ‘2’. I suppose there must have been an earlier version of this aircraft. In any case it was cancelled, being deemed too expensive at the time.

There were four of us ex-apprentices within a couple of years of each other, each of whom got married in 1963 or ’64. As well as watching Hereford United football and socialising in the club’s Supporters’ Club we organised a couple of events of our own. One ‘initiative test’ involved lads being dropped off at various points on the outskirts of Chester. This was at 10pm and the task was to make our way back as quickly as possible. In another we set off at 8pm with the objective of getting as far away from Hereford as possible and back by 6pm the following day. This demanded judgement as well as initiative, determining when and where to commence the return journey so as not to be disqualified for being late. I and my partner achieved creditable results in both.

In the second we made it to a village called Misson in the northern corner of Nottinghamshire, not far from Doncaster. I remember a friendly policeman who stamped our form to confirm we had been there and treated us to a breakfast of tea and bacon butties in the kitchen of a factory making cattle feed pellets from grass. Apparently this was part of his morning routine.

At some point the company recruited a young draughtsman to augment the team of design draughtsmen. Originally from Lancashire, he was quite ambitious and would prove to have a significant, if indirect, impact on my future career.

He quickly found a better paid job with another firm based in Hereford, Denco Miller Ltd. The parent firm, Denco, had begun life just after the war manufacturing lubrication systems under licence from an American company. At some point they were approached by a refrigeration engineer called Alan Miller who saw an opportunity to use the principle of refrigeration in various industrial applications.

Denco Miller was the result of this collaboration. The company produced air conditioning plants for the burgeoning computer industry, and compressed air drying systems for manufacturing plants that used tools powered by compressed air. The company had just begun selling gas drying equipment to the nationalised regional gas companies who were converting from coal to oil as the source for gas production.

Marketed as ‘High Speed Gas’, this was a precursor to the yet to be discovered North Sea Gas. Delivered under pressure via a nationwide network of pipes, it replaced the low pressure distribution of coal gas which was stored in large tanks, or ‘gasometers’, which could be seen in every town of significant size. The nation’s town and city streets were being dug up to install these new pipes to deliver High Speed Gas to homes, and a programme was underway to convert domestic appliances to use the high pressure supply.

Denco Miller’s business was booming because of this and my former colleague was appointed as the new Chief Draughtsman and set about recruiting other colleagues. I succumbed to his felicitations, not so much a promise of higher earnings at once, but a near certainty of early promotion as the business expanded. So it was that, in February 1966, after a total of seven and a half years at the company where I had served my apprenticeship, I left to join Denco Miller.

Sure enough, within a few months I was promoted to the role of Contract Engineer. This meant I was put in charge of supervising the delivery of various projects from conception to commissioning.

Many of the new Synthetic Natural Gas production facilities were constructed as an integral part of an oil refinery and there were, at that time, a number of such projects underway in Britain. Such vast projects were managed by large companies using American project management techniques which could quite easily make mincemeat of small enterprises like ours working as sub-contractors. I was certainly not up to the job of negotiating with their Project Managers. Contracts tended to be priced low to ‘get a foot in the door’ in the hope of getting future business. My job was to screw as many concessions and payments for ‘extras’ as possible from the client, theirs to screw as much out of us as possible without paying more than the originally agreed price.

After one particularly difficult contract that lost money for the company I was ‘redeployed’ back to the drawing office. This made me determined to look for employment elsewhere – and I was in no doubt that it would have to be away from Hereford.

The first alternative opportunity I explored was as a Technical Journalist with a weekly publication called, I think, Engineering News. I went to their offices in London for an interview and was offered a job, but it would be at the same salary as I was already earning. The idea of trying to live on such a salary in London with its inflated housing costs simply did not appeal. I had responsibilities and we were managing reasonably well in our rural backwater.

It was not just the cost of living that deterred me from moving to London – traffic noise and fumes, over-crowded buses and Underground trains, and too many people crammed into poor quality housing seemed like a bad idea by comparison with our little house and garden a stones throw from open country.

A few months later I travelled to Cambridge to an interview with the electronics company Pye. They wanted someone to design equipment enclosures and manufacture prototypes. I would have access to a small workshop but would have to do the prototyping myself. Memories of some of the mistakes I’d made whilst working in various machine shops as an apprentice made me have second thoughts about that job.

I can best illustrate this by recounting an incident from my period in the so called ‘Short Order Department’. This was where small batches of components were manufactured, quantities that did not merit the expense of creating the tools and jigs required to produce large numbers of a particular set of components. As well as a number of basic machine tools, the department had a bench were certain items were hand made by a craftsman. Geoff was one of the nicest men I met during my apprenticeship or since.

A Scotsman, he had been mechanic to the Allard motor racing team after the war. He was not only a master craftsman but also a wonderful mentor and teacher for those of us apprentices fortunate enough to work alongside him. Upon my arrival in the department and introductions, he Christened me “Squire Parker from Peterchurch”. From then until the day I left the company I was known as “The Squire” or “Squire Parker”.

There is a technique for using a pillar drill which is one of the first, most basic things, a user learns. The object to be drilled needs to be supported so that when the drill bit exits the object it does not enter the table of the drill. Despite this, many of the old pillar drills with which various departments were equipped were peppered with holes left behind by individuals who had ignored the rules. One day the Short Order Department was treated to a brand new pillar drill. A few days later I was allocated a task which necessitated drilling a hole in a piece of aluminium. Everything was going fine until I noticed the silver coloured alluminium swarf from the drill had been replaced by dark grey slivers.

I felt the heat rise from my neck to my cheeks as I realised the error of my ways. I can well imagine that some of the craftsmen and supervisors alongside whom I had worked previously would have been unable to hide their anger at such incompetence and the spoiling of a new, expensive, piece of equipment. Not Geoff. Of course, he gave me a well deserved lecture. But he also set about finding a suitable piece of steel bar and then creating a deliberate hole in place of my accidental one. This new hole was a tight fit for the piece of rod which Geoff drove into it, filing and polishing until my mistake was completely erased.

One of Geoff’s favourite remarks was “Bloody hell’s bells (name) what d’ye think ye’re doing?”. A phrase he used that day, accompanied with a lesson on taking the trouble to do things the right way.

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The Foleshill Road, Coventry, offices of Courtaulds Limited, now a listed building. Image found at heritagegateway.org and copyright Coventry City Council. Permission sought

To get back to my job search, the day after my trip to Cambridge I went to Coventry for an interview with Courtaulds Engineering Ltd. The textile conglomerate was undertaking a massive investment in its many plants around the country and further afield, as well as offering the services of its Engineering subsidiary as Project Manager and Design Specialist to other organisations.

I was offered both of these jobs and chose the one in Coventry, not least because it was not too far from our original family homes in Herefordshire. It also meant a higher salary at a time when there was a government imposed cap on wage increases. I began work at CEL in June of 1968. We sold our house and purchased one in Coventry which we moved into in November. I was to spend the next 18 years as an employee of Courtaulds Group, in various locations and capacities.