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Meanwhile, Ian had taken “O” levels and was considering whether to attend college or continue his education in the school’s sixth form. I accompanied him at a meeting with a careers adviser at Grimsby College where we were told that universities give preference to students from school sixth forms over applicants from colleges of FE. Ian duly agreed to enter the school sixth form but it soon became clear that he was unhappy there. The school, too, were not best pleased by his evident lack of interest and they soon parted company.
The next couple of years were difficult for him and us, as he struggled to find a suitable future path as well as with fraught relationships with young women. To be honest it was Freda who did the “heavy lifting” as I was preoccupied with Liberal Party affairs. Eventually he saw advertised a selection day for nurses at a large Psychiatric hospital in Lincoln and decided to attend. On his return he said he thought he had done okay, even in the ‘practical’ session on the wards for elderly mentally infirm patients. He wasn’t sure if it was something he wanted to do should he be offered the chance.
In due course a letter arrived saying that he had been accepted; that the September intake, for which he had applied, was fully subscribed but that he could join the January intake. Meanwhile he could, if he wished, join the staff of the hospital as a nursing assistant. His decision to accept led indirectly to our decision, more than two decades later, to come to live in Ireland after my retirement.
Also around this time, a drop in demand for Courtelle dictated a decision by the Board to close South Factory. I feared redundancy but was reprieved by being offered a post as Development Engineer, attached to a group of young graduates who were working on a number of innovations aimed at increasing productivity and quality of the Courtelle product, and exploring new markets. My role was to turn their ideas into practical working solutions. They were based in Coventry but seconded to Grimsby for the implementation of the programme.
It ought to be obvious that, if 5% of everything you produce is sub-standard and has to be destroyed or, at best, sold at below cost, reducing that 5% to 3% or 2% represents a significant increase in over-all profitability. And, if the product can be enhanced, making it suitable for a high end use, it can be sold at a higher price. Those were the principals that we were applying. It probably seems archaic now, but some of the things we did involved introducing computerised control systems with software running on a Commodore Pet!
It was in conversations with some of the Coventry “boffins” that I first heard the phrase “fuzzy logic”. I still have only the vaguest notion of what it is but one of the IT experts on the team was convinced it was the “next big thing” in control theory. It seems she was right. According to Jacoby Carter of the National Biological Service’s National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette, La., writing in The Scientific American,
“Fuzzy set theory has been used in commercial applications of expert systems and control devices for trains and elevators; it has also been combined with neural nets to control the manufacture of semiconductors. By incorporating fuzzy logic and fuzzy sets in production systems, significant improvements have been gained in many AI systems. This approach has been particularly successful with ambiguous data sets or when the rules are imperfectly known.”
Political activity continued to fill my waking hours outside of work, including working unpaid in the bar of the Cleethorpes Liberal Club and assisting with a redesign of the upstairs back room to turn it into a games room for younger members who were also encouraged to become involved in political campaigns. Nationally the Young Liberals had always been an important element within the Party. I persuaded Ian and his friends to put together a motion for submission to the annual party conference. At my prompting, they chose third world development as their theme. The motion was accepted by the conference committee and “composited” with several others. My first, and only, televised public speaking engagement was at the 1984 Liberal Party Conference where I spoke about the indebtedness of developing countries and the need for some level of debt forgiveness.
The pattern of local elections in that part of the country at that time was as follows: in Grimsby one third of the councillors stood down in each of three successive years, in Cleethorpes the whole council was re-elected every four years as was the whole of the county council. Cleethorpes elections took place midway between county elections, which occurred on the year without a Grimsby council election. In case that’s difficult to follow: County Council elections took place in 1981, 1985 and 1989. Cleethorpes Borough Council elections in 1983 and 1987, Grimsby Borough Council elections occurred in 1982, 1983 and 1984, then again in 1986, 1987 and 1988. All local elections throughout the UK were, and still are, held on the first Thursday of May.
Thus I, and other aspiring Cleethorpes politicians, were able to learn and practice campaigning skills by assisting at Grimsby Borough Council elections in 1982. We also travelled to places where Parliamentary by-elections were being held. Several of these occurred in the months following my having joined the Liberal Party.
The first such election in which I went to assist was in November 1981 in Crosby, Liverpool, where Shirley Williams, a former Labour minister who had lost her seat in the 1979 general election, was standing for the Social Democrats. A month earlier the Liberals had taken a seat from the Tories in Croydon. I recall seeing Ms Williams waving to passers by from the back of a truck and being surprised by her small physical stature which in no way matched her charisma or her intellect.
Glasgow was a bit too far to travel but the third success for the Liberal/SDP Alliance came in March 1982 when another former Labour Party minister, Roy Jenkins, won in the Hillhead constituency. I did travel to Birmingham Northfield, in October of 1982, and Darlington in March of 1983, although our candidates there failed to take those seats, both of which were won by Labour. I was not impressed by the style of the SDP candidate at Darlington, who I thought employed too much “razz-a-matazz” and not enough grass roots campaigning.
Perhaps this was the first sign, for me, of a difference between Liberal and SDP methods. The latter, I suppose, being based on Labour Party traditional campaign techniques. Liberals, by contrast, had introduced something they called “Community Politics”, basically, being active in the community, seeking out issues and leading campaigns to persuade those in power to address them. In that way, individuals acquired a reputation which enabled them to garner votes when they stood for election to the local council.
All this by-election activity, as well as helping get Liberals and SDP candidates into Parliament, also provided us with experience in campaigning in readiness for the Cleethorpes Borough Council election in May of 1983. By then we had selected a Liberal candidate to contest the Parliamentary seat. Originally from Nottingham, Gavin had worked in Grimsby as an operations manager with Ross Foods, one of several frozen food companies with facilities in Grimsby that process fish from Grimsby port and vegetables from the farms of Lincolnshire and neighbouring counties. During that time he had served a period as a Liberal councillor on Grimsby Borough Council.
Because of this background he was the favourite of the Cleethorpes Liberal Party “hierachy” who head hunted him from his new post as an aide to the Chairman of Imperial Group at their London Head Office. Imperial, a company with investments in tobacco and brewing as well as food processing, had taken over Ross Foods some years before. Gavin was, at the time, engaged in investigating the person, or organisation, behind a series of recent significant share purchases which the Imperial board believed signalled an intention to launch a take-over bid. From the autumn of 1982 he returned to Cleethorpes on most weekends to help us with our campaigning.
There was a great deal of speculation that a General Election would be called soon after the fourth anniversary of the Conservative landslide of 1979, to take advantage of the boost in support for the government following the successful Falklands military campaign. Sure enough, a few days after the Council elections in May, the election was called for early June. I was given the role of aide to the candidate and agent, the latter being the same lady that I had button-holed at the pubic meeting a couple of years before, in February 1981. Meanwhile I was one of the candidates fielded for the council election. Once again, I did not secure a seat, but collectively we achieved some success, increasing the number of Liberals on Cleethorpes BC.
The General Election resulted in an increase in representation for the Conservatives in Parliament, the consequence of a split opposition. Nationally the “Alliance” received over 25% of the vote but only 23 seats. Although this was 12 more than previously, it was bitterly disappointing.
Full result: Conservative: vote share 42.4% (down from 43.9%), seats 397 (up from 339); Labour: vote share 27.6% (down from 36.9%) seats 209 (down from 261); Alliance: vote share 24.5% (up from 13.8% gained by the Liberal Party in 1979); seats: 23 (up from 11 held by the Liberal Party in 1979)
How could a party gain seats while losing vote share? How could a party with 27.6% vote share end up with eight times as many seats as a party with 25.4% vote share?
The answer lies in the “First Past the Post” election system used in the UK. Imagine a constituency with 3 candidates contesting the single seat available. With the votes split 42:30:28 there can be only one winner. It is only because of demographics that Labour won any seats, some constituencies being predominantly working class. In such elections a third party can come second everywhere and win no seats at all. On the other hand, the presence of a strong third party can adversely effect the relative positions of the two other parties, which is why the Labour Party lost seats to the Conservatives.
In Parliament the Conservatives, now with a majority of over 140, were free to implement a raft of harsh policies based on the doctrine of “Reaganomics”, and did so.
Early in 1981 a group of Labour MPs, led by four former ministers, left their party in order to establish a new one – the Social Democratic Party or SDP, a left of centre grouping. They were unable to support three of Labour’s then policies: unilateral nuclear disarmament, opposition to EU membership and “Clause 4”, the long term intention to achieve public (ie. State) ownership of “the means of production”.
I had long been someone who supported a middle-of-the-road political outlook which, up to that point, meant voting Liberal. Enthused by this new development I wondered should I join the new centre-left party. I liked the policies that people like Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams, in particular, had pursued in government. I suppose it was a sense of loyalty that drove me to stick with the Liberals, especially when the two parties agreed not to stand against each other in elections. It seemed that this could yield a change in fortunes for the Liberal Party.
About the same time an international trade treaty called the Multi Fibre Agreement was being renegotiated and seemed likely to increase competition for Courtaulds from low-cost countries. Of course, Courtaulds had been indulging in potentially suicidal activities by selling, not only fibres, but the means to manufacture them, to China and the Soviet Union. So there was a certain amount of hypocrisy involved in the request to employees to write to their MPs seeking assurances of continued protection for home produced textiles. Nevertheless, I did so, and copied the letter to David Steel, then leader of the Liberal Party, with a request for information about joining.
One morning the Works Engineer asked me if I’d heard back from our local Tory MP. He had, and the MP had mentioned a meeting due to take place that week to protest about plans for a new leisure centre to replace the swimming pool on Cleethorpes sea front. I attended the meeting and was pleased to see that the small group of Liberal Councilors were the most helpful, not offering support for the protestors, but explaining the benefits of the development, how it had come about and apologising for the fact that the council had not consulted or informed the people living close to the site.
As the meeting broke up I buttoned-holed one of these councillors and asked about joining the Party. “We are heading up to the Liberal Club later. Do you know where it is? You could meet us there.” She went on to point out the Club’s location and suggested I wait in the bar until she arrived.
That night I had a long conversation, almost an informal interview, with three leading members of the local party, as a result of which I not only joined the Party and the Club but became a volunteer in both. During the course of the conversation I was informed that the party was seeking suitable individuals to stand for election to the County Council in May of that year.
There was a council by-election taking place in Grimsby at this time. Assistance from party members from outside the borough was always welcomed and I joined a few other Cleethorpes Liberals canvassing and distributing leaflets. It provided a valuable insight into campaign practices which I was able to put into practice in the County Council election the following May. I did not win on that occasion but my appetite for campaigning was certainly whetted!
It was not long before I was elected as secretary to both the local and constituency parties. This was a time when there was a lot of negotiating to be done. Around the country Liberals were struggling to reach agreement with SDP officials on the question of which party contested the General Election, widely anticipated to take place in two years time. Fortunately, in the case of our constituency, there was no difficulty in agreeing that the SDP, who already had quite a strong following in Grimsby, would contest that constituency, and Cleethorpes, where there was a strong Liberal tradition, would be contested by a Liberal.
The problem for us was that a recent re-drawing of constituency boundaries had created a difficult situation for Cleethorpes. In past elections the borough had been included in a constituency with a large rural hinterland to the south, centred on the market town of Louth. Now Cleethorpes had become the southern half of a constitency that included a rural hinterland to the north, centred on the market towns of Brigg, Barton and Barrow-upon-Humber. We had to get to know a whole new group of people – not that this proved on the whole to be difficult. Much harder to resolve was the question of party assets, especially the Liberal clubs.
Louth Liberal Club had been allowed to run down and a team of Cleethorpes Liberals had, in the period before I joined, worked hard to get it re-established. They were not over-eager to see that asset lost. Cleethorpes also wanted to keep the Parliamentary candidate that had contested the previous general election. A resident of Louth, where he operated a wine importing business, he was reluctant and, despite repeated entreaties from leading Cleethorpes Liberals, he decided to stick with the new constituency that contained Louth. The newly formed Brigg and Cleethorpes constituency would have to find a new candidate.
The new constituency also had to approve a constitution. So, as secretary, I found myself with a great deal of work recording the many meetings in which two groups of people with broadly similar aims about which they were passionate were nevertheless determined to ensure that their local demands were recognised.
More about my role in Courtaulds at Grimsby and our family life in Cleethorpes.
The capital projects section carried out a range of projects from a few thousand pounds in value to several tens of thousands. The inception of a project would occur when one of the factory Engineers or Production Managers submitted a “pink form”. This would describe the proposed development, list the expected benefits including the financial savings expected to accrue. Actually, the process would have begun even before that with production teams being asked to prepare an annual “wish list” with ball park costings. From this a budget request would be submitted. The list would be pruned/prioritised to arrive at an approved budget for the year.
The pink form would be passed to one of us Project Engineers. Generally the subject would have to have been included in the approved budget, unless it was something deemed to be urgent. In that case something would need to be removed from the budget to compensate. We would then discuss it with the originator to ensure we understood exactly what was in mind. If necessary we’d then get one of the contract draughtsmen who worked for us to do a preliminary design, we’d then obtain quotations from specialist contractors and/or specialist equipment suppliers, and discuss with our small team of craftsmen the number of labour hours required to carry out the work.
With the likely cost of implementation thus arrived at, the pink form plus estimate would be submitted to the board. This was a time when interest rates were very high by present standards so the saving expected to accrue had to be sufficient to recover the cost in a pretty short time. If it failed, the pink form would be rejected. If the expected financial return was deemed satisfactory – or if the project was considered essential for health and/or safety reasons – it would be approved.
The next stage would be to work up the design and estimate in more detail and submit a “voucher” request. Once approved, the “voucher” authorised the necessary expenditure. It now became the responsibility of the Project Engineer to oversee the execution of the work – purchasing equipment and materials, authorising labour and arranging with the Production team for access to the area of plant where the work was due to take place. Usually this would mean timing the work to happen on a day when a maintenance shut down was scheduled – sometimes on more than one such occasion.
If the work ended up costing more than the estimate, the overspend had to be authorised and detailed explanations provided. The same applied to failure to meet the expected timetable. Both things meant that the expected financial return would not be realised. There was, sometimes, pressure to keep the estimate low in order to ensure approval, but that came with the risk of an over-spend.
Meanwhile Freda and Ian settled into their new environment, Ian in school and Freda with a job as manager of a charity shop. Now long since renamed “Scope”, the Spastics Society had a chain of shops around the country that took in pre-owned clothing for re-sale in order to raise funds to support people with cerebral palsy and their families. Locally donated clothing was sent to a regional sorting centre to be redistributed. In this way potential customers would be unlikely to come across a garment that had once belonged to someone they knew. Ian joined the local scout group and his mother and I resumed our activities in support of the group.
This included, in the autumn of 1980, the Lyke Wake Walk. A forty mile long trek across the North Yorkshire Moors, from the village of Osmotherly to the coast at Robin Hood Bay, this was accomplished in 20 hours, commencing at 10pm on a Friday night. The walkers, myself included, stopped for food and a rest at around 6am. This is where Freda had an important role: accompanied by a couple of other mothers she travelled by road to the camp site where they set up a field kitchen to cook a “full English” breakfast.
We walkers set off again at about 9am, reaching Robin Hoods Bay at 6pm. The first part, though mostly up hill, had been largely through woodland. After the break we were on the moors proper, an area of raised peat bog which sucked one’s boots into a substance resembling treacle, necessitating many detours onto firmer ground not previously trodden by the many walkers that accepted the challenge to complete the walk.
The “Mums” had set up camp in a field overlooking the town of Robin Hoods Bay and the North Sea where we once again enjoyed a hearty meal before a night’s sleep in tents. I’m sure there were visits to public houses at each end of the walk as well! The journey from Cleethorpes to Osmotherly on Friday, and return from Robin Hoods Bay on Sunday, was accomplished by coach.
Not long afterwards I learned about a small group of volunteers planning to start a talking newspaper for visually impaired people in the district and decided to offer my expertise gained with Coventry Community Broadcasting Service. Naturally they were in urgent need of funds so I volunteered to undertake a sponsored walk. This I did, from Immingham to Louth, a distance of some 20 miles, in the summer of 1981. By which time I was becoming increasingly involved in local politics.
Coming next week – a group of MPs resign from their party and I embark on a decade of political activism.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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/