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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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Monday Memories – 1968.

An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past.

At work, after completing my apprenticeship, I was designing components for eventual incorporation into the ill fated TSR2 defence project and the highly speculative super-sonic airliner Concord (Concorde if you are French). TSR stood for ‘Tactical Strike and Reconnaisance’. I’ve no idea why it was designated ‘2’. I suppose there must have been an earlier version of this aircraft. In any case it was cancelled, being deemed too expensive at the time.

There were four of us ex-apprentices within a couple of years of each other, each of whom got married in 1963 or ’64. As well as watching Hereford United football and socialising in the club’s Supporters’ Club we organised a couple of events of our own. One ‘initiative test’ involved lads being dropped off at various points on the outskirts of Chester. This was at 10pm and the task was to make our way back as quickly as possible. In another we set off at 8pm with the objective of getting as far away from Hereford as possible and back by 6pm the following day. This demanded judgement as well as initiative, determining when and where to commence the return journey so as not to be disqualified for being late. I and my partner achieved creditable results in both.

In the second we made it to a village called Misson in the northern corner of Nottinghamshire, not far from Doncaster. I remember a friendly policeman who stamped our form to confirm we had been there and treated us to a breakfast of tea and bacon butties in the kitchen of a factory making cattle feed pellets from grass. Apparently this was part of his morning routine.

At some point the company recruited a young draughtsman to augment the team of design draughtsmen. Originally from Lancashire, he was quite ambitious and would prove to have a significant, if indirect, impact on my future career.

He quickly found a better paid job with another firm based in Hereford, Denco Miller Ltd. The parent firm, Denco, had begun life just after the war manufacturing lubrication systems under licence from an American company. At some point they were approached by a refrigeration engineer called Alan Miller who saw an opportunity to use the principle of refrigeration in various industrial applications.

Denco Miller was the result of this collaboration. The company produced air conditioning plants for the burgeoning computer industry, and compressed air drying systems for manufacturing plants that used tools powered by compressed air. The company had just begun selling gas drying equipment to the nationalised regional gas companies who were converting from coal to oil as the source for gas production.

Marketed as ‘High Speed Gas’, this was a precursor to the yet to be discovered North Sea Gas. Delivered under pressure via a nationwide network of pipes, it replaced the low pressure distribution of coal gas which was stored in large tanks, or ‘gasometers’, which could be seen in every town of significant size. The nation’s town and city streets were being dug up to install these new pipes to deliver High Speed Gas to homes, and a programme was underway to convert domestic appliances to use the high pressure supply.

Denco Miller’s business was booming because of this and my former colleague was appointed as the new Chief Draughtsman and set about recruiting other colleagues. I succumbed to his felicitations, not so much a promise of higher earnings at once, but a near certainty of early promotion as the business expanded. So it was that, in February 1966, after a total of seven and a half years at the company where I had served my apprenticeship, I left to join Denco Miller.

Sure enough, within a few months I was promoted to the role of Contract Engineer. This meant I was put in charge of supervising the delivery of various projects from conception to commissioning.

Many of the new Synthetic Natural Gas production facilities were constructed as an integral part of an oil refinery and there were, at that time, a number of such projects underway in Britain. Such vast projects were managed by large companies using American project management techniques which could quite easily make mincemeat of small enterprises like ours working as sub-contractors. I was certainly not up to the job of negotiating with their Project Managers. Contracts tended to be priced low to ‘get a foot in the door’ in the hope of getting future business. My job was to screw as many concessions and payments for ‘extras’ as possible from the client, theirs to screw as much out of us as possible without paying more than the originally agreed price.

After one particularly difficult contract that lost money for the company I was ‘redeployed’ back to the drawing office. This made me determined to look for employment elsewhere – and I was in no doubt that it would have to be away from Hereford.

The first alternative opportunity I explored was as a Technical Journalist with a weekly publication called, I think, Engineering News. I went to their offices in London for an interview and was offered a job, but it would be at the same salary as I was already earning. The idea of trying to live on such a salary in London with its inflated housing costs simply did not appeal. I had responsibilities and we were managing reasonably well in our rural backwater.

It was not just the cost of living that deterred me from moving to London – traffic noise and fumes, over-crowded buses and Underground trains, and too many people crammed into poor quality housing seemed like a bad idea by comparison with our little house and garden a stones throw from open country.

A few months later I travelled to Cambridge to an interview with the electronics company Pye. They wanted someone to design equipment enclosures and manufacture prototypes. I would have access to a small workshop but would have to do the prototyping myself. Memories of some of the mistakes I’d made whilst working in various machine shops as an apprentice made me have second thoughts about that job.

I can best illustrate this by recounting an incident from my period in the so called ‘Short Order Department’. This was where small batches of components were manufactured, quantities that did not merit the expense of creating the tools and jigs required to produce large numbers of a particular set of components. As well as a number of basic machine tools, the department had a bench were certain items were hand made by a craftsman. Geoff was one of the nicest men I met during my apprenticeship or since.

A Scotsman, he had been mechanic to the Allard motor racing team after the war. He was not only a master craftsman but also a wonderful mentor and teacher for those of us apprentices fortunate enough to work alongside him. Upon my arrival in the department and introductions, he Christened me “Squire Parker from Peterchurch”. From then until the day I left the company I was known as “The Squire” or “Squire Parker”.

There is a technique for using a pillar drill which is one of the first, most basic things, a user learns. The object to be drilled needs to be supported so that when the drill bit exits the object it does not enter the table of the drill. Despite this, many of the old pillar drills with which various departments were equipped were peppered with holes left behind by individuals who had ignored the rules. One day the Short Order Department was treated to a brand new pillar drill. A few days later I was allocated a task which necessitated drilling a hole in a piece of aluminium. Everything was going fine until I noticed the silver coloured alluminium swarf from the drill had been replaced by dark grey slivers.

I felt the heat rise from my neck to my cheeks as I realised the error of my ways. I can well imagine that some of the craftsmen and supervisors alongside whom I had worked previously would have been unable to hide their anger at such incompetence and the spoiling of a new, expensive, piece of equipment. Not Geoff. Of course, he gave me a well deserved lecture. But he also set about finding a suitable piece of steel bar and then creating a deliberate hole in place of my accidental one. This new hole was a tight fit for the piece of rod which Geoff drove into it, filing and polishing until my mistake was completely erased.

One of Geoff’s favourite remarks was “Bloody hell’s bells (name) what d’ye think ye’re doing?”. A phrase he used that day, accompanied with a lesson on taking the trouble to do things the right way.

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The Foleshill Road, Coventry, offices of Courtaulds Limited, now a listed building. Image found at heritagegateway.org and copyright Coventry City Council. Permission sought

To get back to my job search, the day after my trip to Cambridge I went to Coventry for an interview with Courtaulds Engineering Ltd. The textile conglomerate was undertaking a massive investment in its many plants around the country and further afield, as well as offering the services of its Engineering subsidiary as Project Manager and Design Specialist to other organisations.

I was offered both of these jobs and chose the one in Coventry, not least because it was not too far from our original family homes in Herefordshire. It also meant a higher salary at a time when there was a government imposed cap on wage increases. I began work at CEL in June of 1968. We sold our house and purchased one in Coventry which we moved into in November. I was to spend the next 18 years as an employee of Courtaulds Group, in various locations and capacities.