AIR-CONDITIONING, water coolers, high-viz jackets and computers – that is the reality of working life for most people today.
Just a few decades ago, however, when Sunderland was the biggest shipbuilding town in the world, some 72.2per cent of Britain’s 20.3million workers were grafting in manual jobs. The mills, mines and shipyards which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution are mostly just memories now. Long gone, too, are the engineering plants, ironworks and steel foundries.
But a book featuring the “voices of the post-war working class”, Working Lives, will ensure that while the industries which made Britain great may be gone, they are never forgotten.
“Coal, steel, textiles and shipbuilding gave life to communities,” said author David Hall. “Once the heart of the community had been taken away, they began to wither and die.
“This book is about a way of life that has now disappeared in many places, and the way in which these industries shaped people’s lives – giving them a sense of identity and belonging.”
David devotes several lengthy chapters in his book to long-long industries such as the textile mills of the North West, as well as iron foundries, engineering and mines across Britain.
Of particular interest to Wearside Echoes readers, however, will be Chapter Four – which features 41 pages of facts, figures and memories about the shipyards of the North East.
The vivid recollections of several Wearside workers are included, such as Robert Hunter – who joined Bartram’s as a management trainee and went on to become fitting-out manager.
During his time at the yard Robert was involved in the construction of the very first SD14 to be launched in the late 1960s – designed as a replacement for the old wartime Liberty ships. “For me it was a wonderful experience. When we started it was thought we would only be able to build four SD14s a year, but we forged ahead to increase production to six,” he said.
“We had a blackboard and each week it would be brought up to date with production figures from both Bartram’s and Austin Pickersgill. The friendly competition worked very well.”
Also featured in the book is former shipyard draughtsman John Bage, who started his working life at Readhead’s and finished on the Wear, working for Sunderland Shipbuilders.
“When I was at school in the 1960s, one third of lessons were related to technical subjects. My classmates dreamed of sailing to distant shores, I wanted to be a draughtsman,” he said.
“I will never forget the sights and sounds of the shipyard, as steel plates were formed into magnificent ships that would go on to sail around the world. We were proud of every one.
“The people in the North East’s shipyards were unique – this has been said many times by many people. I can confirm they were special from my years working with so many of them.”
Working Lives does not, however, sugar-coat the sweat, blood and tears which came from industrial success. Indeed, many of the poignant stories deal with injury, death and poverty.
The daily dangers faced by miners working in ‘dirty, cramped, and claustrophobic’ pits are described in detail, as is the almost routine loss of a finger or thumb in the textile trade.
Even laboratory assistants wore only a white coat when boiling tubes of liquid ammonia, and welders were often left blind by their work – as well as suffering from crippling migraines.
“Toughness, hard graft and knowing your place in the hierarchies of family, work and community were essential qualities for survival,” said David.
“An apprentice soon learnt that the ideals of ‘hardness’ won respect for you not just in the brutal environment of the mine, steelworks or shipyard, but in the wider community outside.”
The end of industrial greatness came at the same time as the end of the Empire. By the 1970s, Britain no longer ruled the waves – and mines, shipyards and textile mills were all closing. Beautiful countryside was left scarred by abandoned pit heaps, rotting foundries, “gaunt mills and smoke-blackened factories.” Shopping malls and call centres were built in their place.
“A whole way of life has gone, and the voices of those who laboured in the ‘workshop of the world’ in its last days are now largely ignored and forgotten,” said David.
“Working Lives gives a few of them a voice. It takes us to some of the great industrial centres to meet men and women who worked in our industries when they were still at their peak.”
l Working Lives, by David Hall, is published at £25 by Transworld Books.