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Like many others, I had a pay rise of almost 30% in 1975. It made little difference to our standard of living since costs rose by a similar amount. By the end of the year the money we had saved during our period of living, mostly at the company’s expense, in South Africa was gone. I sold the Mini back to my brother-in-law and began cycling to work every day.
By now, I was our department’s representative for the Courtaulds’ Senior Staff Association which had, under new trade union legislation, become a trade union. To give an idea of the group of employees that this small union represented it is perhaps helpful if I outline the archaic class divisions that were still extant in British workplaces at the time.
At the bottom of a pyramid were ordinary workers who operated machines or practiced crafts, essentially work with the hands rather than the head. Such workers were usually paid by the hour with bonuses earned if agreed rates of individual or departmental production were exceeded.
Next were clerical staff and those who supervised the hourly paid workers. These were paid a weekly wage which could be augmented by shift allowances and overtime paid at an hourly rate, derived from the weekly wage divided by the number of hours in the standard working week, and then factored up depending on whether the overtime was undertaken on a weekday or at the weekend.
Finally there were managers and professional staff who were paid a monthly salary regardless of the number of hours worked. In brief these were referred to, in Courtaulds, as “hourly paid”, “weekly staff” and “monthly staff”. For practical reasons, there came a time – before I joined the company – when weekly staff received their pay monthly, so the two staff categories were redesignated “group 1 staff” and “group 2 staff”. Each of these was represented by a staff association. Very few “group 2 staff” belonged to a traditional trade union, but, under the new legislation, the members decided that the “Group 2 Staff Association” would become a union.
I suppose I should add that hourly paid workers worked longer hours than office based staff. When I started work, in 1958, the standard working week for manual workers was 44 hours which soon reduced to 42. Meanwhile “office” hours reduced from 39 to 37.5. I think that is where they remained in the mid 1970s.
As a representative I found myself attending meetings and discussing employment terms and conditions. I got to know some of the other representatives quite well, among them the representative for the Structural Engineers who occupied an office next to ours and with whom I also had occasional contact on technical matters. One day in early 1976 he came to my desk to ask how busy I was; would I have time to look at a job he had been asked to evaluate at our Derby factory? I told him I was close to finishing the Derry project and suggested he talk to my boss. The upshot of that conversation was that I spent about 20 months – from Easter 1976 until the end of 1977, commuting daily to Derby.
The Derby complex consisted of several different manufacturing units. One of the most important products was celulose acetate, both in the form of a textile fibre and in granular form as a filler for all manner of products from wallpaper paste to ice cream. It is manufactured by dissolving wood pulp in acetic acid. Acetic acid is made from ethylene. The company operated in-house ethylene and acetic acid production processes. The ethylene plant was old and inefficient and the company had decided to purchase and install a replacement. This necessitated the strengthening of the supports for pipes that carried feedstock to – and product from – the proposed site as well as services like air, steam, water and electrical cables. My colleague had been asked to evaluate the condition of the existing supports then design and price any necessary strengthening.
[I would like to include an image here but the best ones are copyrighted. You can see a whole collection by following this link where you will see images of the kind of pipework into which I had to thread the new lines.]
“I need to know what new pipes are going where. You’re a pipe man. Can you talk to the people over there and see what’s involved?”
I began daily commuting to Derby after Easter 1976, as Hereford United were looking increasingly like becoming third division champions. Designing a long pipe line is not a simple matter of drawing a line from A to B and around corners. You need to incorporate provision for expansion and calculate the loads that will be imposed on the supporting structure. Only then can the line be broken down into manageable sections and manufacturing drawings produced. In the summer, as I completed various sections of pipework detailing, a contractor was appointed to manufacture and install them. Now I became responsible for over-seeing the delivery of materials to site and then the actual work being undertaken by the contractor.
Meanwhile, back in Coventry, work proceeded on the design of the new plant in conjunction with a Dutch company. In due course materials for that began arriving on site and, again, I was responsible for checking it all in. In the autumn a Site Engineer was appointed to supervise the installation of the plant, with me as his assistant. His name was Frank and so was that of the Dutch company’s English Engineer – potentially a very confusing state of affairs.
Continuing the occasional series in which I describe significant events in my life.
Despite my long hours at the pub, we were still struggling financially. Freda wanted to make a bigger contribution and it occurred to us that a small shop, of the kind where we would live on the premises, would enable her to use her training and experience in retail over a greater part of the day. Moreover, instead of working at the pub at weekends I would be available to work behind the counter of our own shop. We began looking at the property advertisements in the local paper and found just such an enterprise. It seemed to be within our capacity to purchase if we sold our present home.
We arranged a viewing at which we were told the place was already under offer. If that offer fell through then we would have a chance. Meanwhile would we like to put our house on the market?
We looked at a few other potential retail opportunities before we discovered that the size of mortgage available for such properties was less than that for a house. ‘Goodwill’ was not something that could be used as security. How would we finance the purchase of stock?
The plan began to look like a non-starter. Then we saw a leasehold property where the remainder of the lease was being offered for a relatively low price. Our offer was accepted, subject to the approval of the landlord. We received an offer for our house from a couple who did not want to take possession until after their marriage in March, six months away. This, we fondly supposed, gave us plenty of time to find something if the landlord did not approve our proposal – and why would he not?
We were, I now know, incredibly naive. The landlord strung us along throughout the winter. He even came to discuss our plans whilst I was at work in the pub, but still would not give us an answer.
Eventually, one morning in February 1972, when we were becoming increasingly desperate to have the business concluded, I took a call at work from our solicitor. The vendor’s solicitor had contacted him to say that the landlord had foreclosed on the lease, for non-payment of rent, and that, the vendor, no longer had anything to sell.
In answer to my question he indicated that we would have to negotiate directly with the landlord. Unsurprisingly, he was not available that day. When we did make contact it was to be told that he had let the property to someone else.
Looking back, it is impossible not to conclude that we were nothing more than a back-up plan to him. The tenant to whom he let the place, a small bakery chain, was the one he wanted and they wanted the premises without having to pay anything to the outgoing tenant. As she could not pay the rent, all the landlord needed to do was to delay until the point when he could legally end her tenancy. Only if the bakers became impatient would he need to find an alternative. He could have turned down our offer at the outset but it suited him to keep us ‘on ice’, stringing us along until he achieved his intended outcome.
We, now, had to be out of our house in a matter of weeks. House prices had started to rise rapidly since we had agreed our own sale, so buying was no longer an option for us. We would have to find somewhere to rent.
What we found was a small co-ownership apartment block on the West side of the city. The apartment offered two bedrooms, a decent sized kitchen, living room, bathroom and a garage in a separate block. The rent was affordable and, if we stayed for five years, we could claim a share of the equity on leaving. As it happens, we did not stay for long because, within a year and a half, I was offered an opportunity much too good to refuse.
Meanwhile I continued working at the pub, painted the Corsair yellow, and watched unbelieving as Hereford United achieved unprecedented success in the FA cup, beating
Newcastle United and drawing with West Ham United in the 3rd. and 4th rounds respectively. On August 19th 1972 I attended their first home match in the English Football League Division 4 in which they beat Reading 3-0 having previously lost in away matches to Colchester (Div.4) and Aston Villa (League Cup). They would go on to win promotion to the 3rd Division at the end of that season. [For those whose memories don’t go back far enough, League Div. 4 was equivalent to the present EFL Div.2, Divisions 1 and 2 having been superceded by the Premier League and Championship, respectively.]
In another attempt to increase our income I went to Brmingham one evening to attend a presentation from a multi-level marketing organisation that involved selling Unit Trust investments. Although I did buy into the investment, cold selling was not for me so nothing came of this.
One day my boss called me into the office. Our subsidiary had been asked to assist with a project in a pulp mill in which the parent company had an interest. The mill was in Swaziland, a small country sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. I would need a passport and several inoculations – Yellow Fever, Typhus and a Small Pox booster, among others.
I had the ‘jabs’, got a passport – and then was told the job was cancelled. I continued with what I was doing – I can’t recall precisely what that was at the time. One important project undertaken around this time was the detailed design of the first production scale manufacturing plant for ibuprofen at the Boots pharmaceutical facility in Nottingham. All we were told about the product at the time was that it was “a new arthritis drug”. I suspect that even Boots would have been surprised at the way in which their invention has become ubiquitous as a pain killer and remedy for colds and flu.
In the summer of 1973 I was called into the boss’s office again. This time the project for which I was being recommended was in South Africa. Expected to last for between 18 months and 2 years, the team would be accompanied by our families. We would be provided with accommodation and basic living expenses whilst our salaries would continue to be paid into our UK bank accounts.
Ian was 7 and attending a primary school in Coventry with children of assorted ethnic origins. I wondered how a period living in a country in which people of colour were treated as second or third class citizens would affect him. After due consideration we, his parents, decided that it would be advantageous to see for ourselves whether conditions were as bad as the UK media portrayed them.
I tried very hard to get the company to allow us to travel together. To no avail. I don’t know the reason, whether it was to do with South African visa regulations or the possible cost to the company should a situation rise in which I did not fit in with the team and had to return.
I left the UK, together with another mechanical designer and the team leader, on 3rd August, 1973 aboard a Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” operated by the then newly formed British Airways.