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Monday Memories – Into the Eighties #1

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.


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

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.

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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/

Monday Memories – 1968 Part 2

One of the conditions of buying a house from Hereford City Council was that we were not supposed to sell at a profit, at least, not until we’d lived in it for five years. We could, however incorporate the value of ‘improvements’ within the sale price, with the agreement of the council. I’d built a few cupboards and shelves, we were leaving behind a new, Cyril Lord, fitted carpet and there was the garden that I’d created from nothing. We were, therefore, able to put the house on the market for around £600 more than the original price we’d paid, and had no difficulty finding a buyer at that price.

Finding a house in Coventry at the same price was not as easy. For a start you could only get a building society mortgage if you had been saving with the same society for at least 3 months. That was not a problem, nor was the imposed limit of 3 times annual earnings. However the notional 10% deposit required was. Any loan against a house purchase would be a maximum of 90%, not of the asking price, but of the society’s valuation and this was almost always lower.

To give a hypothetical example, a house on the market for £4,000 could, in theory, be acquired with a deposit of £400. The building society might value it at £3850, meaning that, unless the vendor was prepared to accept a reduced offer, the purchaser would have to find £535. And then there were solicitor’s fees and agent’s commission, not forgetting any redecorating that might need doing on a house that had been occupied for a number of years.

We made one or two weekend house hunting forays to Coventry. Freda’s brother drove us there on at least one such occasion. We looked at a number of prewar houses which, once we took account of the above factors, proved to be beyond our means.

Some of these viewings provided our first experience of families whose origins were in the Indian sub-continent. It was not unusual to find that only the children spoke English. The cooking smells, too, were a revelation to us. I can honestly say that we did not find any of this objectionable. Hereford, at the time, had only a handful of families of foreign origin so we had little experience of alien cultures*. Nevertheless, the presence of such diversity was one of the attractions of the move to Coventry. Hereford, by comparison, seemed backward.

Not withstanding the cooking smells, there was no doubt the homes of Asian families in Coventry were clean, something that I could not say about some homes I’d visited on a regular basis during the preceding couple of years in my role as collector for a football based charity lottery. In the mid-fifties a producer of nickel alloys established its manufacturing base in Hereford. Over the following years the company’s old units in Birmingham and Glasgow were closed and a number of employees moved to Hereford where many were housed in the same estate on which we had purchased our house.

I recall being horrified by the condition of a few homes I visited; just a few years old yet the front doors were filthy. On at least one occasion I saw a front door with a large hole caused, like the muck, I suppose, either by a football or a boot. When the door was opened the person doing so would be followed by a blast of warm, fetid air ripe with the smell of dog.

After looking at several preowned homes it became obvious that our best bet would be to find a newly built house on a modern estate. One such was almost complete on a site previously occupied by Coventry’s greyhound stadium. The Stadium Estate was a relatively small development consisting of semi-detached and terraced houses and a couple of two story apartment blocks, between Holbrooks Lane and Lockhurst Lane on the North West outskirts of the city. There was a bus stop within comfortable walking distance, on Holbrooks Lane, making access to the city and my place of work easy.

The house we purchased was at the end of a block of 3 next to a junction between two culs-de-sac. There was very little garden at the front, most of which was occupied by a car port. There was, however, a modest area at the back which I could turn into a garden.

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You will recall that I had given up on motoring upon getting married some five years previously. Working for Denco Miller I occasionally drove a car from the company pool. To get to Cambridge and Coventry for my interviews I hired a Mini. With its low centre of gravity, front wheel drive and innovative suspension, the Mini was especially good at going around corners fast. I remember boasting at how quickly I’d covered those two journeys, neither of which included sections of motorway. That network, in the UK, was still in its infancy.

For the first five months of working in Coventry I used the bus; departing Hereford on Sunday afternoon and returning Friday evening. But for the weekend of our move I needed a car to convey wife, child and those domestic essentials that we would need whilst unpacking the big stuff from the furniture van. The car rental company in Coventry didn’t have a Mini available but could rent me a brand new Morris Minor. Although new, this vehicle was based on outdated technology and was far less manoeverable than the Mini, as I was to discover to my cost.

One of the recent additions to the embryonic motorway network, the M5, crossed the road I had to travel. A new bridge had been constructed with a wide approach for maybe 50 metres either side, after which it reverted to its narrow, winding norm. It was November, dark, damp and, possibly, icy. I accelerated on the wide section of road and entered the first half of an ‘S’ bend traveling much too fast. This meant I was on the wrong side of the road approaching the second half of the ‘S’. I mounted the grass verge and was brought to a stop by the hedge.

I mentally sighed with relief and began to wonder where I could find someone to tow me out of the hedge. I felt the car start to tilt and at once I was upside down then the right way up, with the sound of water trickling somewhere.

The driver’s side door was jammed against a grass bank and would not open. I clambered across to the passenger door and exited the car. I had left the road on the right hand side so the road should now be on my left. The spin made me think the car had turned around to face the wrong way. So I climbed over the bonnet of the car to ascend the bank on the driver’s side and found to my surprise I was in a field.

When I eventually made my way onto the road I could see the lights of a building about 100 metres ahead. Somewhere, I hoped, where I might get help and access to a telephone. I realised that my back was wet. I could not sense any injury – later I discovered a graze on my left hip left by the seat belt. The building whose lights had attracted me revealed itself as a pub. I explained my situation and was pointed to a telephone from which I called the police to report the accident (necessary for the rental company’s insurance) and a neighbour to let Freda know I was unhurt but would be home late. Could she contact her brother to come and get me?

I was quite shaken by the experience and asked the pub landlady for a large whisky. She sensibly advised against alcohol until after the police had talked to me.

The following morning I had to hire another car in Hereford for our journey to Coventry. On the way we stopped to look at the Morris Minor and rescue some of my belongings from it. The back window had shattered as the car rolled into a deep ditch beyond the hedge. Everything was soaked in stagnant, evil smelling water.

There was no doubt that I was very fortunate: firstly that there was nothing coming from the other direction when I crossed the road and secondly that I was uninjured in the subsequent roll-over. The car was invisible from the road and, had I been immobilised, I could have lain there all night.

*I ought to add that one of my colleagues at Denco Miller, a highly intelligent and educated young Engineer, was Indian, having graduated from one of India’s universities before completing his Masters degree in London. As a Proposals Engineer he had set up one of the contracts that was handed to me to execute and I remember traveling with him to London for a meeting with the client and being introduced to some of his University friends at an Indian restaurant.

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.