Oral history recording of Terry Boyd of Blyth, Northumberland, recalling his experiences as an apprentice and journeyman plater in Blyth Shipyard in the 1950s and 1960s.
Terry Boyd, Plater
Interviewed by Beth Bryson, 7.11.2013
Born 20th November 1937.
Tape 1 –
Left Newlands Secondary Modern School at age 15 in 1952.
Father a miner.
Went to college in South Shields to train as commercial artist but after a year, he realised not sufficient employment. Looked for an apprenticeship (had to start by age 16). Father very opposed to him going down the mine,
Employment Office suggested he try to get into the Drawing Office at the shipyard. Welfare Officer at shipyard said he would have to start in one of the construction trades and he would move him to the Drawing Office when there was a slot – but it never happened even though he kept asking. Reason was you had to have a family contact to get in, as it was a good job. Serviced his time as a plater. It was a 5 year apprenticeship. Not all practical – apprentices received tuition in the theory of ship building from an ex-foreman shipwright.
In their leisure time they had inter-trade football and cricket matches. Terry went cycling and Youth Hostelling. He was taken under the wing of the journeyman plater he worked with – Eddie Foggin, and his wife Mary. They went away cycling most week-ends.
When they were laid off due to a steel shortage, Terry and his friend cycled to Carter Bar and back in a day. On another occasion, 4 apprentices took an afternoon off without permission to go swimming at Jesmond – they got suspended for a week.
Many of Terry’s friends were apprentice engineers – they went to sea because that exempted them from National Service.
The shipyard had a good community spirit – people worked together and socialised together. Went to each other’s weddings, etc. Kept in contact all their lives.
Tape 2 –
In about 1959, trade was slack and Terry and 3 friends went down to London because they weren’t getting enough overtime. Terry found work at a small yard in Essex where they built small trawlers. Being a small yard, there was a lot of flexibility between trades – EG, Terry had to use a welding torch and do temporary welds. Drawback was that it was less efficient; he wasted time looking for equipment needed – whereas in Blyth yard, each trade concentrated on their own skills and had the right equipment.
Terry made oil tanks for central heating, then worked at Ford’s Daggenham plant for 6 weeks, making gantries, chutes, etc.
Came back to Blyth in about 1962 – was missing his girlfriend and trade had picked up in Blyth.
Stayed there till closure, then worked in various Tyneside yards. When ship-building declined, he retrained as a TV engineer.
Shipyard workers were very fit and strong. There was a lot of heavy lifting and climbing. Terry was able to carry his father (a much heavier man) upstairs in a fireman’s lift. There were several accidents – a lot of men lost fingers. One or two deaths; for example, due to a crane wire snapping. Shipyards not much less dangerous than mines. It was dangerous when there was an electricity cut while you were in the bowels of the ship and had to find your way out. It was also very noisy and this damaged your hearing.
One man who lost three fingers was a joker – when he went to the bar at the Coronation Club he would put up 2 whole fingers for 2 pints and three half fingers for 3 halves.
Terry prevented a very serious accident with a plate guillotine – his journeyman was adjusting the plate while the guard was up and Terry saw the blade start to move – wasn’t supposed to be possible with the guard up – and yanked his arm out in time.
There was plenty of work in the yard in the early 1960s. They had a 44 hour working week and did overtime as well at the weekend. Sometimes working all Friday night.
One plater had 5 journeymen of 5 different nationalities working with him. Men came from Tyneside to work.
“Derek the Darkie” had an accident and received a huge amount of compensation [TERRY WANTS THE REFERENCE TO LAWYERS PROVING NEGLIGENCE TO BE REMOVED] – he bought a yellow Rolls Royce and hired a chauffeur to drive him around the district, wearing a top hat and tails and smoking a cigar.
Another example of humour in the yard – One morning the gatekeeper shut the gate on a local man who arrived just after 7.30. He protested, saying “You let that coloured fellow in!”. The gatekeeper replied – “If he can get here all the way from Africa for 7.30, you’ve got no chance!”
The closure came as a great shock. Young journeymen had taken on mortgages with the prospect of long-term employment. Wasn’t just the shipyard workers who were affected – Colpitts, the Star Foundry and other engineering firms were also hit. About 1500 men lost jobs.
Not true that the yard was unproductive or there was a lot of absenteeism. Men lived from week to week – if you did not go into work you lost a lot of money. They were on piece-work, but he doesn’t believe many would take time off having made enough money for the week. Possibly a few did, but most people worked a lot of hours.
He heard the banks weren’t getting sufficient return on their money.
Also there was a general decline in ship-building. A lot of continental countries had modernised
their ship building industries. Some of the machines at Blyth were 70 or 80 years old. Methods were very labour intensive. Terry makes the comparison with changes in the docks, with the introduction of containerisation and reduction in the workforce.
The weather had a lot to do with it. In Germany and Sweden they were building inside huge sheds. If you had a gale-force wind (in an open yard) it was too dangerous for the cranes to lift the heavy plates.