True stories from ‘Norky’ who comes from Scapegoat Hill, a small, isolated farming village, high on the Pennines in West Yorkshire. You can catch up on his ramblings so far via his author page.
I will avoid trying to justify the rights and wrongs of the industrial disputes of the 1970s, of which there were many. I’ll happily leave that to others who are much more qualified to do so. What I do feel qualified to write about is how they affected me.
Blackouts and the three-day week
I’ve previously written about the firefighters’ strike of 1977, in the ramble entitled ‘Firefighting, floating gerbils, and running about a bit’. There was also the electricians’ work-to-rule in December 1970, where we had regular blackouts. Whole areas were just switched off, and homes, hospitals and offices were run by candlelight or emergency generators.
I’m sure people under 40 years old would struggle to imagine what life would be like without smart phones, iPads, televisions, radios, computers, battery chargers, lighting in the home or street. Heavy industry and shops that required electricity had to hang around until the power came back on again. Luckily this dispute only lasted a few days.
However, another dispute– this time involving the miners and railway workers, and their work-to-rule in December 1974 – resulted in the ‘three day week’. All commercial business, with few exceptions such as hospitals and newspaper printing presses, could only work on three consecutive days per week. The measures were introduced by the then Conservative government as a means of conserving electricity supplies, which were restricted because of the industrial action.
A new job at Brook Motors
At the time of the three-day week I was working at Brook Motors, Huddersfield. Owing to jobs in the textile trade becoming more and more scarce, I made the move to another aspect of engineering and became a welder/fitter at the company. After mergers and take-overs, its full and proper name was Hawker Sidley Brook Crompton Parkinson Motors, but if someone asked where I worked, they would have wandered off before I got that lot out. So we just called it by its previous name: Brook Motors.
The photo at the top is of some of my colleges at number ten department, just before it was merged with number six. I seem to remember they didn’t want any handsome chaps in this photo, which would explain why I’m not in it.
This next photo is much better, and includes the more handsome and prettier members of number ten. It shows Keith presenting Stan with a long-service award. I’m sure you can see that we were all asked to be smartly dressed for the presentation.
This is me and Hymas collecting drawings for our next project from the drawing office. Many of the drawings like the ones Hymas is holding were adapted from earlier drawings, therefore included both imperial and metric measurements.
Not that each measurement was shown in both imperial and metric, but the older section was imperial and the newer, adapted sections were in metric. What could possibly go wrong? We had to keep our wits about us, or we could easily have a roller conveyor emerging from the gent’s toilet or a crane leg secured in front of an emergency exit.
Workplace pranks and banter
The merger of number six (the mechanical maintenance fitters) and number ten (the welder/fitters), brought together many who were young and fresh out of apprenticeships. As a consequence, practical jokes and banter were commonplace. Much of this would not be tolerated in the modern workplace. I can’t remember any instances of racism, sexism or homophobia, but I seem to think most else was fair game.
Practical jokes were many and varied. They could also be described as bullying, but we were all subjected to these jokes in equal measure. The welding benches were big solid steel constructions with the arc welding earth permanently connected, if anybody came along to bother us and leaned on the bench we could grab the electrode end of the welder and accidentally touch their bare hand and give them a very amusing jolt.
Jeff (Bigs, because he was tall) was our store man. He rode to work on a pushbike with a wooded box on the back, for the occasional spare part he’d spirit away. Periodically, when Jeff had been given time to forget the previous episode, someone would remove what was in the box and fill it with scrap metal instead. We always enjoyed that prank!
We also played a game whereby we’d ask someone to place their head inside a cardboard box about the size of a television, having already cut a hole in the front the size of a television screen. The object was to appear as if we were on television looking out at the audience and whistle. Yes, all we had to do was whistle. Many lads tried it but nobody, not a single person, managed to whistle.
Using nicknames was one of the milder forms of banter, based on what we were like of something notable that we had done. Hymas’ real name was Michael; other notables were Fruitbat, Father Jim, Jim Lad and Beaker. Mine was Petal.
It is over 40 years ago now and I can only remember some origins of the nicknames. Fruitbat was quite mad of course; Father Jim was called Jim and was the foreman; Jim Lad was also called Jim but was not a foreman. Unfortunately, Beaker looked just like his namesake from the Muppet Show, from the mid to late 70s. I was called Petal because I called everybody ‘petal’ or ‘love’ at that time, and it fitted nicely with Peter (Peter Petal).
We were all subjected to this banter, which was to some extent abuse of course. But I’m sure it helped us tolerate the difficult working conditions of heavy industry, and it certainly helped when coping with the 12-hour day.
Experiencing the three-day week …
At the start of the 1970s, I had a three-year-old marriage, a two-year-old mortgage and a six-month-old child. “Pressure, what pressure?”
Incidentally, our first mortgage in early 1968 was £6/1s/8d, per month, (about £6.80 in today’s money). That was every month mind. It may not seem much now, but I was still an apprentice in the textile industry at the time, on about £12/14 per week. Also because I was under 21, my dad had to sign as guarantor so we could get the mortgage.
(Two years later when my wife Moi was also 20, she entered our village library attempting to get a library ticket. We’d been married for three years by that point and Moi had our one-year-old daughter Rachel in a pushchair with her when she went in. The jobsworth behind the counter would not give her a library card without a responsible adult acting as guarantor. So Moi had to trail to the other end of the village to her dad’s, then go grovelling back to jobsworth with the signed form.)
The three-day week regulations meant that companies were allowed to work no more than 12 hours per day for those three consecutive days. I therefore worked for 36 hours per week, 12 of which were counted as time and a quarter overtime, as our normal working day was eight hours. Then we were allowed to sign on (dole) for the rest of the week, which at that time included Saturday morning. The result was that I was actually a few pounds better off each week, despite working fewer hours than our normal 40.
However, even though we were getting normal break times, working in a manual job for 12 hours in one stretch was quite tiring. Still, but by the time the dispute was settled (just over two months later), we were getting quite used to it. So getting back to a five-day week had its own difficulties. Working 12-hours a day was a long day; working five days a week felt like a long week.
We had no choice of course, and as I remember we weren’t consulted on the matter. On balance, I preferred the three day week, particularly if I would be paid more.