Reunion will give ex-Sunderland crane workers a lift

Victor, Challenger and Lier cranes ready for delivery at Coles Cranes, Pallion, in 1965.
Victor, Challenger and Lier cranes ready for delivery at Coles Cranes, Pallion, in 1965.
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A reunion will give former Wearside crane workers a lift.

Ex-Coles Cranes staff are to host a get-together at Steels Club, in Peacock Street West, tomorrow night - 17 years after the closure of the Crown Works plant at Pallion.

A general view of the machine shop at Coles Cranes in around 1960.

A general view of the machine shop at Coles Cranes in around 1960.

“Coles wasn’t just a place to work, it was a way of life,” said Paul Quinn, a former forklift driver and one of the reunion organisers. “The place was unique really - it was just like one big, happy family.

“Everyone looked after one another, it was a very close-knit community. It actually got to the point when people didn’t want to take time off work incase you missed anything! The comradeship was tremendous, and we would love to see as many people as possible at the reunion.”

Grove, Coles, Steels - all were names synonymous with crane-making on Wearside for more than half-a-century. Indeed, cranes made in Sunderland could be found making tracks across deserts, snowfields and industrial sites around the globe.

But the history of Coles Cranes actually dates to Victorian times, when Londoner James Coles started an engineering business - laying down the foundations for what became a world-famous firm.

At around the same time, up here in Sunderland, Lancelot Steel founded a builders’ merchants. By the turn of the century, it was one of the biggest companies of its kind in the North East.

Both firms survived, and thrived, through the First World War and the Great Depression until, in 1939, Henry J Coles Ltd was sold to Steel and Co Ltd - and Coles Cranes was born.

“The first step was buying the Egis shipyard at Pallion, which was renamed Crown Works in recognition of the huge amount of Government work being carried out by the firm,” said historian Carol Roberton.

“Crane-making started almost immediately, although the site also produced a huge range of other products such as pulley blocks, fireplaces, electric vehicles, snowploughs and anchors.

“Most of these products came under the umbrella company of Steels Engineering Products in 1943, but the Coles product name was kept.”

British forces standardised on Coles cranes during the Second World War, causing production to soar, and in the late 1940s the Crown Works was completely revamped at huge expense.

The next few years saw the firm’s employment levels pass the 1,000 mark, while in 1964 there was a change of name to the British Crane and Excavator Corporation. A change to Coles Cranes followed in 1970 and, just two years later, the group was acquired by Acrow.

“I joined the firm in 1967 as a battery boy and, after working there as man and boy, I can safely say it was the best job I ever had. It was just a brilliant place to work,” said Paul.

“Coles won the very prestigious Queen’s Award for Industry at least three times. The place was full of very hard workers and it was a real shame to see it close. I ended up at Rolls Royce when I finished at Coles, but it just wasn’t the same.”

In 1984, following the collapse of Acrow, a management team tried to take over the Sunderland operation - but it went to American-owned Grove Europe instead.

The next few years brought job losses and job boosts, as the market fluctuated, but manufacturing continued until the shock closure announcement in November 1998.

Grove Europe blamed the decision on “severe financial losses”, but many workers were unconvinced by the claims – and waved angrily-worded placards as they left for the last time.

“Coles Cranes was one of the world’s biggest crane manufacturers at one point, and our cranes were used all over the world. It will be great to remember this very special place at our reunion,” added Paul.

l  The reunion will be held in the lounge at Steels Social Club, Peacock Street West, from 7.30pm on Thursday. Admission free, and all ex-staff welcome.