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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 2

Of course, it soon became clear that the job would take longer than six months – there were at least six lines to do, at three months each that meant the project would last at least a year and a half.

It also meant, of course, that I was away from home from Monday morning to Friday evening. I had the use of a car from the company pool and my accommodation in Grimsby was paid for by the Courtelle Division who also paid Courtaulds Engineering for my services. I discussed with my ex-colleague the possibility of my becoming a permanent member of his team and he agreed that it would make sense, but for some reason I never fully understood, the divisional board considered the possibility on a number of occasions over the succeeding months but it was fully one year before they finally said “yes”.


Cleethorpes Pier in the background from Dolphin gardens
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Steve Farehamgeograph.org.uk/p/3888454

My lodgings were in a small boarding house on one of the short streets running back from the promenade in Cleethorpes. Run by a Scottish former sub-mariner and his wife there was a clientele that mostly consisted of company representatives who made visits to the area on a fairly frequent basis and I got to know them all. There was also, for a while, a chap who was in the same position as me; from Newcastle, he had been appointed manager of the local branch of Lucas vehicle electrical equipment and needed to stay in the boarding house until he found, and completed the purchase of, a house in the area. We’d often stay up until quite late after dinner playing darts and “chewing the fat” with these men and the proprietor’s Scottish friend who was the PR Officer for the local council.

A full English breakfast every morning (very similar to a “full Irish”), two courses for lunch in the staff canteen (staff were separated from shift workers!), and two further courses for dinner back at the digs, washed down with two or three pints of beer, saw my weight climb from 10 stone to 11 stone for the first and only time in my life. I took note of this and cut back on some of the meals and the booze.

I also spent some evenings taking long walks on the beach south of Cleethorpes. There were miles of mud flats exposed by low tide. I remember one occasion when I had walked a long way towards the sea and suddenly realised I was looking up at the horizon and the string of container ships and tankers awaiting the tide before entry to Hull, Immingham or Grimsby ports. That is certainly how it seemed. It was definitely a disconcerting feeling and I quickly turned round and walked back! I can fully understand now how people get caught out by fast incoming tides in similar situations.

In the summer of 1978 I booked us into a chalet in the nearby holiday camp for two weeks so that Freda and Ian could have a taste of Cleethorpes. Back in Coventry at weekends I helped out with the collection of old newspapers for recycling as part of the local Scouts’ fund raising as well as continuing my voluntary work with the Community Broadcasting Service. Ian joined the cast of the Gang Show. I’ve written elsewhere about the snow that made it difficult – but not impossible – for me to get back to Coventry to see the show in March of 1979.

In May of 1979 the company finally made me an offer of permanent employment at Grimsby. They would continue to pay the boarding house costs for three months. As I was no longer working for Courtaulds Engineering I had to return their car and purchase one of my own. The salary I was offered was considerably more than I had been getting and there was a lump sum allowance to help with the cost of moving.

A Renault 10 like the one I purchased in the summer of 1979. Image found at https://barnfinds.com

We found a house in the centre of Cleethorpes, a narrow Edwardian terrace that had been constructed with four bedrooms upstairs and four rooms downstairs. The two back bedrooms had been knocked together and the bathroom made larger. Downstairs the door connecting the first two rooms had been taken out and replaced with an archway. Beyond that was a small dining room and a good sized kitchen. It would be our home for the next nine years.

We arranged the move for the middle weekend of Ian’s two week camp in the New Forest with his Coventry scout group. We learned later that he had asked his best friend’s mother if he could stay with them after his mother and I moved to Cleethorpes!

Marlborough, Wiltshire, Englnd. Image copyright © of Barry Samuels

We drove down to Bournemouth on the last weekend of the camp to bring him back with us – the whole group had traveled down from Coventry by mini-bus and were returning in the same way. I had purchased a car from Freda’s brother – a white, rear engined, Renault 10. Although I’d driven it between Coventry and Cleethorpes several times by then, I had never before taken a short break during a long journey, setting out to continue before the engine had properly cooled.

We stopped for a food break in Marlborough, parking near the town’s Market Square. When I turned the key in the ignition on our return to the car the engine emitted a loud report and a puff of smoke. After the initial shock, and having checked that everything looked okay in the engine compartment, I turned the key again and the car started as normal. We learned that this was a “standard feature” of the car and sometimes took pleasure in watching people’s reactions whenever it happened.

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/

The Beast from the East, February 1979.

blizzard-1972645_640

Image free download from pixaby – “no attribution required”

It had been cold all week up to now. A brutal North Easterly wind scoured the coast in sub-zero temperatures under leaden skies. I was working in Grimsby, awaiting the board’s approval of my permanent posting, still travelling back to Coventry at the weekends. That Thursday morning, St. Valentine’s Day 1979, was no different to any other that week: still bitterly cold as I left the guest house at 8am for the twenty minute drive to work. As I crossed over the traffic lights where Grimsby Road, Cleethorpes, transforms itself into Cleethorpes Road, Grimsby, I felt the wind rock the car and saw the first flurries of snow caught in the headlights’ glow.

By the time I reached the next set of lights, at the junction with Freeman Street and Fishdock Road, the traffic seemed to be at a standstill, nothing moving when the lights changed. The snow was still fine and light, though driven by that bitter wind. There was now a light dusting of white powder on the road being picked up and swirled around by the wind, mingling with the steam from vehicle exhaust pipes.

Eventually the traffic in front of me began to move forward slowly. I switched into the right-hand lane by the derelict Alexandra Theatre, ready to turn right onto the swing bridge. As I made the turn into the wind, the snow began to plaster the windscreen and I turned on the wipers. Beyond the swing bridge, the road climbs briefly. It was here that I discovered the cause of the hold up. Heavy vehicles were struggling to negotiate the incline, their rear wheels spinning, causing them to snake slowly forwards.

Beyond the dock estate the road to the plant runs parallel to the coast, about half a mile inland. That half mile consists of a flat cultivated field – or it did then. The field is separated from the road by a low hedge and a ditch. Here I was to learn the meaning of the expression ‘white out’. The road, the sky, the field, were all white. Snow flakes swirled around the car. The only guide I had, as I covered the mile or so of straight road to the plant entrance, was the red glow from the rear lights of the car in front of me. Its driver, like me, an employee arriving later than usual to work that morning.

My morning routine, having arrived in the office, was to take a walk around the various projects for which I had responsibility. This necessitated a quarter mile walk outside. I donned waterproof over-trousers, wellingtons and a hooded waterproof, carrying the hard hat and goggles I would be obliged to wear inside the plant. Snow stung my face and I turned my head to the side so that the hood took the brunt of the storm’s blast. Where the internal factory road turned a corner between two buildings set at an angle to each other, snow was piling into a huge drift.

By noon I was back in the office, nursing a mug of hot tea. In the meeting room all eight of us Engineers were gathered around the conference table to hear the Chief Engineer explain that the road leading to the plant was completely blocked, the narrow channel between low hedges creating the perfect repository for every flake of snow the wind scoured from the farmer’s field. Nothing could get in or out of the plant. No deliveries, no collections.

Of greater importance was the fact that a change of shifts was due at 3pm. The road needed to be open, both to enable the employees due to arrive to do so, and to ensure those leaving were able to do so safely.

Bucket Loader

The plant generated its own steam and electrical power by means of a bank of nine boiler and generator sets, 4 coal powered, 5 oil fired. The company employed two large bucket loaders to move coal around the yard. It was agreed that one of these would be deployed to clear the road. The cars belonging to incoming employees would be held at the entrance to the road, then led in, in convoy, behind the bucket loader. The loader would then lead the vehicles containing departing workers away from the plant. This process would be repeated as often as necessary to complete the change-over.

With this operation completed, the day staff, officially due to leave at 5pm., would be led out. Finally, those of us who would normally leave at 5:30 would be led out. We were left in no doubt that this operation would take some considerable time and that we would likely be here until well after six.

There are 3 other plants, further North along the Humber Bank. Two produce Titanium Dioxide and the other, fertiliser. I learned the following day that staff at one of those had been unable to leave their plant and remained there over-night.

I had hoped that, by Friday afternoon, the roads out of Grimsby would have been cleared. They were not. So I had to spend an extra night in the Cleethorpes boarding house, journeying to Coventry on Saturday morning. By my return on Monday morning most of the snow had cleared, just the drifts under the hedges remaining.

Gang Show

And here is an odd thing. Four weeks later, on Friday 15th March, there was another heavy snow storm that prevented me travelling to Coventry until Saturday morning. That was a bigger blow, personally, than February’s winter blast had been. My son, Ian, was a scout and was in the Gang Show company. Their show was playing Saturday night in the Coventry Theatre. I had to be there. More than that, the plan was that I would drive to Hereford on Saturday morning to collect my mother and her husband so that they could see her grandson’s performance. That part of the plan had to be abandoned, but I did get to see the show.

Saturday Sound-off: Mixing Politics With Other Work

This recollection is provoked by the news that the MP for Tatton, George Osborne, has been appointed to edit the London Evening Standard whilst maintaining his seat in Parliament and his other highly lucrative, if part-time, jobs.

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My 1981 election leaflet

In the 1980s I decided that, if I wanted to change the world, it was time to stop moaning and get involved in politics. I joined the Liberal Party and stood for election to the County Council. I didn’t make it at the first attempt but four years later – in May 1985 – I was successful. I became one of four Liberals holding the balance of power between 36 Labour and 35 Conservative councilors.

It was a large county. About a quarter of the population of over 800,000 resided in the city of Kingston-upon-Hull. Grimsby and Cleethorpes formed the next largest centre of population. Scunthorpe was also included within the county boundary as were three other sea-side resorts, the port of Immingham and eight or so medium sized towns.

Back then the County Council had responsibility for Education – schools, colleges and adult education; Social Services, including childrens’ homes and old people’s homes; Economic Development, which included responsibility for a small airport; Libraries, Police and Fire Services, Weights and Measures inspectorate and the maintenance of major roads. The Authority employed in excess of 20,000 people in these important activities.

The four of us decided from the outset that we would not form a coalition with either of the other two parties. Instead we insisted that every decision must have the agreement of a majority of members. It didn’t matter how that majority was constituted so long as two of the three parties were in agreement. Of course, that meant we had to be represented on every committee, sub-committee, and ad-hoc panel or consultative body.

Airport management

To begin with it didn’t look as if the commitment would be too heavy. The council worked on a 3-monthly cycle during which each main committee and the full council met once. So, two committees plus full council would mean twelve meetings a year, one day a month to take off from my job. But the Education Committee had two large sub-committees, one dealing with schools and the other with everything else. And there was a sub-committee of Economic Development to deal with management of the Airport. So that doubled the commitment to two days a month. Still quite doable.

But Schools Sub-Committee members were expected to meet with the governors of the schools in their area. If a school was facing a possible upheaval of some kind there would be meetings to be had with governors, teachers’ representatives and parents. If an employee was accused of some misdemeanor he or she had the right of appeal to a panel including councilors. Recruitment to fill vacancies in senior positions in the Authority was undertaken by a panel including members. And I’ve posted elsewhere about the panel of members, advised by staff, who determined which young people could and which could not receive a grant for their third level education.

Severance

Before long I was taking two, sometimes three, days off every week. My employer was remarkably generous in granting me this much time off for what the contract of employment defined as ‘public service’. The deal was that I continued to receive full pay so long as I returned to the company any allowance I received from the council for carrying out those duties. After a year and a half I was asked if I’d prefer to leave. I was offered a very generous severance package which I am still reaping the benefit of 30 years later.

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Aerial view of Grimsby docks. Image from Cycling Weekly

The council embarked on the full scale reorganisation of the schools in Grimsby which involved closing every existing school and opening a bunch of new schools covering different age ranges. Every teacher in that part of the county had to accept early retirement or apply for a job in one of these new schools. The process began soon after I was elected with a consultation exercise in which the nature of the proposed change and the reasons for it were explained at a series of meetings. Feedback from the consultation was debated and the proposal document amended accordingly. Once the plan was approved by the Department of Education at Westminster it had to be implemented. Councillors sat in a long series of meetings with governors to choose heads and deputy heads for the new schools.

The work of a councilor, in these circumstances, did indeed become almost a full time job, for a while at least. For the first 6 months after leaving my job I worked unpaid for the Party, as election agent for the District Council election and the General Election that followed a month later. My wife and I decided to find a shop – a disastrous venture the details of which have no place in this post. I got a part-time freelance job as a feature writer and advertising sales agent for a regional business magazine.

All of this recollection is provoked by the news that the MP for Tatton, George Osborne, has been appointed to edit the London Evening Standard whilst maintaining his seat in Parliament and his several other highly lucrative, if part-time, jobs. He is the same age as I was when a county councilor. Several former editors of the Evening Standard were interviewed on the BBC last night. At least one suggested that the job could occupy up to 100 hours a week. I dare say the job that Osborne has taken, though described as Editor, is much reduced from what the person with that title formerly had to undertake. Even so, I don’t envy him trying to juggle the demands of both roles. He has to survive until May 2020 unless he decides to resign from one or other post before then.

Will he last three years? I’m not a betting man, but I am inclined to think that he will not. What do you think?