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Goodbye to the Seventies Part 1

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.

A Rayon weaving shed – this one at Courtaulds plant in Cornwall Ontario. Image found at https://cornwallcommunitymuseum.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/artifact-of-the-week-original-painting-advertising-tenasco-cord-for-tires-courtaulds-canada-ltd/

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.

General view of Courtaulds’ Grimsby plant. Image by Alan Hilditch on Flickr, found at https://hiveminer.com/Tags/courtaulds%2Clincolnshire/Timeline

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/

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Monday Memories – Derby Days Ahead

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.

Inflation in 1975. Graph found at https://www.inflation.eu/inflation-rates/great-britain/historic-inflation/cpi-inflation-great-britain-1975.aspx

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.