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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.
My series of memories from my long career as an Engineer will now appear every Monday, instead of fortnightly as hitherto. Here is a fairly long final installment about life in South Africa during 1974.
Weekends we would often get in the company car and drive out to one or other of the many beauty spots nearby: Oribi Gorge, Nagel Dam, the Drakensberg Mountains and, of course, Zululand again, this time without the distraction of a would be rally driver in front. We visited Durban zoo, the reptile park and quiet coastal resorts down the coast. One of these had a tidal pool. This was good because sea bathing was ill-advised unless shark nets were in place. The tidal pool facilitated a close encounter with the ocean’s waves without the risk of attack by sea-borne predators.
Often on Sundays we would spend the greater part of the day at the poolside of the hotel where we had stayed before we were properly housed. Sitting in the shade with a book, occasionally looking up to see the children enjoying the water, savouring a curry washed down with Lion ale, it was easy to believe that life could hardly get better.
In July – the winter in the southern hemisphere, remember – we took a two week holiday and motored up to the town of Sabie, about 500 miles to the north. Internationally there was a fuel shortage and a speed limit of 50 miles per hour was in force. The same restriction applied in the UK, accompanied, from 1st January to the end of March, by restrictions on commercial use of power which had the effect of reducing the working week to 3 days.
For much of our journey we were on empty dirt roads, straight so far as the eye could see, bounded by fields of maize. We had been used to driving in the rolling green hills of Natal with clusters of African dwellings clinging to the hillsides and in deep valleys. Once we arrived in the vicinity of our destination we discovered a land of forested hills that reminded me of paintings of Scotland. From our base in Sabie we took day trips to various tourist destinations including the Blyde River Canyon, where centuries of erosion have created multi-hued hemispherical hollows in the rock face, and God’s Window, a part of the escarpment created by the Great Fault from where it is possible to look across the lowland plain a thousand feet below.
One day we drove down the escarpment to that lowland plain with its orange groves, and on to the wild life reserve, Kruger Park. Before we set out at 8am I had to scrape ice from the windscreen. By 10am, down on the plain, the temperature was in the 80s Fahrenheit. In the reserve it was dangerous to wind down the windows. We saw zebra, giraffes, elephants and various species of deer, all in their natural environment, often just glimpsed through the scrub, but no lions.
Another day we visited a nineteenth century mining village, preserved as it would have been during the South African Gold Rush. One of the timber buildings, all of which resembled the kind frequently seen in Hollywood Westerns, housed a shop selling souvenirs and local crafts and produce. The place seemed to be run by two rather camp young men. A woman in front of me commented on the local honey displayed for sale: “Do you make it yourself?” she wanted know.
“Yes, aren’t I a busy bee?” came the reply in a pastiche of camp.
This surprised us in a country where the NGK (Nederlands Gereformed Kirk or Dutch Reformed Church) had such influence on behaviour. But then, the State and Church were full of contradictions. Like the heritage site we visited once where, after a tour of the rondavels, we were treated to a demonstration of African traditional dance by bare breasted women. I couldn’t help describing this particular “attraction” as “the human zoo”. African topless dancers were acceptable whilst a young white woman who performed a cabaret act in which she danced wearing a live python and very little else was prosecuted for indecency.
I cannot recall how it began, but somehow Ian struck up a relationship with an elderly lady who was a permanent resident at another of the hotels in town. During the long school holidays he would spend hours in her company, playing cards and, I have no doubt, listening to her life story. I must ask him how much of this he remembers now.
Freda was quite content to do the small amount of housework required herself. During our first weeks in the new house it was not unusual for her to answer a knock at the door and find a young African woman looking for employment as a maid. Several times she refused these offers. She discussed it with Walter’s wife, Vi, who had taken on a ‘Girl’ as these women were called. “You should,” Vi advised. “For one thing, once you have one, the others will leave you alone. But where’s the harm? They have no other source of income.”
Freda wondered if they could be trusted, but decided to engage the next young woman who came seeking employment. There were rules attached to such casual arrangements. The ‘girl’ must not use the same washing and toilet facilities as the family. The block of five houses had been provided with a small brick building at the back which is where ‘girls’ were supposed to take care of their personal hygiene. Freda let our ‘girl’ know that she had no objection to her using our downstairs toilet.
Another rule dictated that whites were not permitted to enter the African village where these ‘girls’ resided with the male family members who worked at the plant. So we were not supposed to give her a lift home at the end of her working day. Not even after using her as a child minder on nights when we drove into Durban to catch a show or to go dancing in one of the dance halls. Strictly speaking, blacks were not permitted in ‘white’ areas after dark so we were breaking two rules when we did this.
One thing that became obvious was that the Europeans in Natal, perhaps because it had been a British colony, were far less bigoted in their view of the Africans than were those in the other provinces, at least so far as one could tell from comparing observed behaviour with what we read of events and attitudes elsewhere in the Republic. Our transport manager, with whom I had frequent contact due to our continuing use of the company’s vehicles, was an Afrikaaner. As such he was one of the few people I met who was open in his contempt for Africans – he usually referred to them as ‘Kaffirs’ – and would pontificate about them and their perceived short comings at length given half a chance.
One of his stories, told more than once, was of a visit by the British Labour foreign secretary George Brown several years before. It was an open secret that Brown had a drink problem and Van – the man’s surname was Van Roen, always shortened to Van – Van was full of scorn in his description of Secretary Brown stumbling and staggering in and out of the diplomatic car. Van also told us that the BBC crew accompanying the British minister had filmed black children scavenging in dust bins which, Van assured me, had been staged by throwing coins into the bins. It was never clear whether Van had actually witnessed any of this in person or if it was an apocryphal tale the details of which had been embellished through frequent tellings and re-tellings.
Van also had a theory – and it was undoubtedly plausible – that the bloom of red silt that we saw each summer flowing from the river into the ocean was the result of inefficient agricultural methods employed by the ‘Kaffirs’. Van’s contempt for their ignorance never seemed to extend to the idea that ‘The Kaffir’ would benefit from education.
Fortunately that attitude did not have an echo in company policies. Design drawings are traditionally produced on tracing paper from which prints are prepared for use by those implementing the designs. Every drawing office has its print room where the machines for reproducing the drawings are housed along with the stored originals and catalogues of all drawings. The operation of these machines and the maintenance of the drawing register is usually the responsibility of a clerk. At SAICCOR that clerk was an African.
At the staff Christmas party in December 1974 I talked with one of the directors, an English man who assured me that white rule would be ended in the near future: it was in everyone’s interests, not least the business community who would gain a vastly increased market as Africans acquired greater purchasing power. The recent granting of a license to Philips to roll out a television service would help to facilitate this change. Eighteen months later I would witness on British TV the Soweto uprising and subsequent reinforcement of discriminatory laws. It would be another 15 years before the release of Nelson Mandela and the eventual enfranchisement of Black South Africans. Almost 30 years after that there is still appalling poverty in the Republic whose government is well known to have been plagued by corruption.
I wish I could illustrate this post with my own photographs. Although I took many, a lot have been lost in the course of several house moves since. The ones that survived are of very poor quality. I have found better quality photographs on the web and acknowledged their provenance in the captions. Please follow the links to find lout more bout the places featured. Next Monday I’ll tell you what happened on our return to the UK 45 years ago this month.
An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past. This one picks up from where ‘Into the Seventies’ ended.
I sometimes struggle to get this next sequence of events in the correct chronological order. There was ‘spot-the-ball’, a mini spending spree and the ending of overtime at work.
I’ll begin with ‘spot-the-ball’. This weekly competition, run by the Coventry Evening Telegraph, involved the publication of an action photograph, taken at a soccer match, with the ball blanked out. Contestants were asked to ‘use their skill and judgement’ to estimate the position of the ball.
Had the man with his feet off the ground already headed the ball? Was the goalkeeper about to catch it or had it passed over his head? Those were the sort of judgements one was supposed to take into account before marking the centre of the ball with a cross. Suffice to say that one week I won a runner-up prize of £250.
To put that into context, it was the equivalent of about two month’s earnings at the time. It meant, among other things, that we could afford to purchase a car. I perused the ‘for sale’ columns in the same newspaper and, after viewing a few of the motors on offer, agreed to pay £80 for an old Hillman Minx.
What I was unaware of at the time was that many of the advertisements that purported to be ‘private sales’ were in fact dealers operating out of private residences. Some of these individuals had few scruples and would indulge in various tricks of the trade in order to make a vehicle appear, and sound, much less decrepit than it really was. That seems to have been the case with the two-tone blue and cream Minx. It was not long before I realised that it was using far more oil than it should.
By then Freda’s brother was in an informal business partnership with an older chap who restored and resold cars. When I shared my Hillman Minx story with him he asked why did I not go to him? When I did just that, he showed me a Ford Corsair on which the paint finish was deteriorating. Having begun life in dark green livery, the car’s previous owner had decided to re-spray it silver. This second coat had not adhered too well – perhaps the original surface had not been properly prepared. My brother-in-law offered me a tin of bright yellow paint which he assured me was easy to apply with a brush.
Meanwhile we decided also to purchase a heating system for the house and a chest freezer which was supposed to save money by enabling bulk buying of various food products. This particular deal included a number of vouchers that had to be spent in a wholesale warehouse in Dunstable. Additional vouchers could be purchased but no actual cash changed hands at the warehouse. We made a couple of trips, before we figured out that the cost of fuel for the journey, plus the interest we were paying on the purchase price of the vouchers, exceeded any saving made on the goods we were buying.
I mentioned the ‘Jumbo’ nylon production facilities at Aintree. When the design stage of ‘Jumbo 6’ was completed there was no new project for the team involved to move on to. Contract draughtsmen were the first to be let go but there came a morning when long serving individuals were called into the office to be informed that their services were no longer required.
It was a worrying time. I had recently been assigned to a project for the manufacturer of anti-knock additives for motor fuel. As a relatively recent recruit I fully expected that I would be given my marching orders and that a long server would be re-assigned to my role. My relief, when it became obvious that this was not the case, was tempered by the knowledge that colleagues with years of loyal service were discarded.
For a long while I had become used to my income being boosted by regular overtime. Now that was no longer available. Freda could not increase her hours because of the need to be at home outside of school time. I found a job as barman in a nearby pub, working three weekday evenings plus lunchtime and evening on Saturday and Sunday.
I enjoyed the work. It was quite straight forward with a limited range of products with prices that were easily remembered. There were three bars: the ‘public’ which was mostly male; the lounge, where beer prices were 1p dearer, and the ‘snug’, a small room patronised by an exclusive clientele who were happy to pay an extra 2p for a pint of their favourite tipple in the company of a few close friends. There was also an ‘outdoor’ counter where people who preferred to drink at home could purchase bottled ale or bring their own jug to be filled with draft beer.
We did not have the benefit of an electronic till with each product allocated its own button. When someone ordered a large round of drinks we had to memorise, and mentally add together, the individual prices before presenting the customer with the total. We’d then ring up the total before taking any change from the drawer to hand to the customer.
The landlord and the other staff were a friendly crowd, as were the regular customers. We were paid for a half hour for clearing up after the doors closed at 10:30. After that the landlord would buy everyone a drink and we would play darts, sometimes for a further hour.
No food was prepared or consumed on the premises – apart nights when the darts team were playing a home match. Then the landlady would produce a tray of roast potatoes for both teams and their followers.
I don’t recall ever witnessing a fight, nor were there many arguments. I do remember the music that played frequently on the jukebox: Rod Stewart’s Maggie May, Olivia Newton Johns’ cover of John Denver’s Country Roads and the same artiste’s Banks of the Ohio, Joan Baez’ The Night We Drove Ol’ Dixie Down and Cher’s Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves. It’s impossible to listen to any of those songs now without recalling my days working at The Convoy.
And it was there that I heard something that for me came to epitomise the attitudes of certain members of the working class, especially those in public service, during the 1970s. I already knew that the individual concerned worked for Coventry City Council. I’ll call him Bill. The conversation went something like this:
Cutomer: Hi Bill. How are things?
Bill: Fine. Enjoying a nice break.
Customer: Annual leave?
Customer: Oh dear, what’s wrong?
Bill: Nothing mate. I get 4 weeks sickness entitlement every year so I’m taking it.
I was shocked to discover, when I looked on-line for a photograph of The Convoy, that it has been demolished to be replaced by eight houses. It was, in the 1970s, a friendly local venue where neighbours socialised. I guess it’s a sign of the times that such places have fallen into disuse.