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The job at Grimsby was for the pharmaceutical company Ciba. They had operated a small plant at Grimsby for many years – I passed it daily when commuting to my job at Courtaulds. Now they were expanding into the manufacture of “intermediates” on a much larger scale. Our part of the job was the installation of a tank “farm” and all of the associated pipework and pumps.
The main contractor was a subsidiary of Trafalgar House and they were enthusiastic supporters of “partnering” in their relations with sub-contractors. The corridor leading to their offices was emblazoned with a sign proclaiming “The Partnering Route”. It’s easy to be cynical about such initiatives but it certainly worked for us. So did their commitment to Total Quality Management which our CEO embraced with surprising passion.
As the contract end approached I was offered a permanent appointment with the company. He was pleased with the way the planning and execution of the contract had gone and wanted me to “drive” planning as a key element of their contract procedures. Included in the offer was a salary close to my earnings as a freelancer, plus all the benefits of a permanent staff post – paid holidays, sick pay, pension, and a car. I was also trained as a TQM “facilitator”, supporting improvement workshops across the workforce.
Acquisition of the car was delayed until August, when there were bargains to be had under the new registration system. Just in time, as it happens, for a trip on the ferry from Hollyhead to Dun Laoghaire to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. We collected Mum and her husband in Hereford. I badly underestimated the journey time from Hereford to Hollyhead. Every stretch of winding road seemed to be blocked by a farm tractor – it was harvest time after all – and I was sure we would miss the ferry. Had it sailed on time we would have. It was cancelled, however, due to bad weather so we had to board a later one.
The next few days were delightful. We visited all the usual sites and discovered how friendly Irish people are. Our 30th anniversary was on the Saturday. The following day, Sunday, saw the annual all Ireland Gaelic football final which brought a festive atmosphere to Dublin’s streets. Mum and Pop enjoyed every minute. We were concerned about them on Sunday night because there were a lot of people with, as they say here, “drink taken”, some staying in our hotel. Freda laid awake worrying about Mum. We heard a commotion around 3am.
At breakfast Mum told us that she’d opened her door to speak to a young man who had knocked on their door thinking it was the room occupied by a friend. She was not in the least bit bothered by the experience.
The next big job the company undertook was for British Oxygen, on the outskirts of Rotherham. Another collection of tanks and pipework. At the end of the job there was a long list of extra work, payment for which had to be sorted out. I and my opposite number at BO reached agreement on this to the satisfaction of both parties. The company also had a small team permanently based at the BP refinery in Hull and I supported them with the introduction of planning and other software solutions.
By the summer of 1994 several large projects we had tendered for had not borne fruit and I was warned that, unless something did materialise, they would have to down size. As the most recent recruits I, and the Project Manager recruited with me, would become redundant.
This time, redundancy when it came, was done in a much more civilised way than at the power station overhaul company. I was allowed to work out my notice. Nevertheless, the result was the same – out of work shortly before my birthday. Once again I was responding weekly to advertisements in the Yorkshire Post and the Daily Telegraph.
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.