As part of the 'North East People's Archive' project, we've asked folk of the North East to submit stories and mementos from some of their most cherished times.
Writer Tom Kelly has written us this evocative piece on his first day at work at the Mercantile Dry Dock in Jarrow. It truly paints the setting of working life on Tyneside.
I am myopic. I had broken my glasses and needed to go for my first job- interview. Not a good start. I thought, at sixteen, going on seventeen, meant I definitely could not go. My mother went apoplectic when I suggested I miss the interview, ‘I had to.’ I looked for comfort from Granny. She would realise I would feel very uncomfortable because of my poor eyesight and could not find my way there. Granny was incredulous. How could I think of not going? The die was cast. After finding a compliant wall I made my way to the shipyard office where I had to be interviewed. Picture Blind Pew from Treasure Island. Now the interview, like my eyes, is not clear. The office, however, is printed strongly on my memory: I had slipped into a Dickens novel. Take away the harsh fluorescent lights on the ceiling and everything else was Bob Cratchit. I was surprised, initially, as to why the rest of the staff did not talk about Ebenezer Scrooge. Heavy jackets and the arses of trousers shining like a brand-new half-crown were the order of the day. Shirts and ties, not matching, completed the dress code. Ebenezer may not have approved.
Outside the office, boats were being repaired in the shipyard and the noise was unbelievable. Frightening. Caulker’s and riveters hammers attacked the air and echoed around the docks. No-one seemed to notice. This was my new normality. At dinner-time I walked round the shipyard. Can you see me? Black Donkey jacket and brightly coloured shirt with a tab collar. I still sense my insecurity. ‘What did I do?’ I worked in the Time-Office, I checked and calculated workers’ time spent on their job. Have you noticed how people rarely ask what you do at work after you tell them you have an office job? Words like ‘Accounts’, and ‘Wage Department’ seem to suffice. Then you talk about getting to and from work. This is what I did in the Time-Office; I wrote in huge ledgers. How ‘huge’ is ‘huge?’ Spread both your arms out as far as they will stretch and about half that span is the width of the black ledgers. They are made of metal and you attach ledger sheets into punch holes. I hope the picture is clear.
I soon learnt some men were not always happy about how much they were being paid. Men, generally smelling of beer, would come to our window in the Time-Office and tell us that they wanted their pay sorted or they would ‘sort us’ out. I would dive to the office door and lock it quickly or if that failed hold my foot and the rest of my body against the bottom of the door. One man told me, several times, his wages were wrong. He refused to accept anything I said. I stood at a window where queries were dealt with. I eventually closed the window on this man as he had drunk so much it was difficult to understand anything he was
trying to say. I brought the window down. And fastened the bolt that locked it. The next moment I was covered in glass. He had put his fist through the window. The police were called. The man stood in the yard, outside our office, telling of his complaints to anyone who would listen while blood dripped from his hand. The policeman asked if he had broken the window. He said, ‘No’. He was then asked how he cut his hand. He said, ‘Shaving this morning’.
Shaving did not feature with the Tank Cleaners. They had to get oil from the inside of tanks, going into the hold of a ship on make-shift ladders, after a pump had taken as much oil out of the tank as it possibly could. The oil had to be removed before the ship could leave the dock on the tide. These were mostly young men dressed in rags. No masks. No hard hats or breathing equipment. They had a lop-sided cabin where they kept haversacks with sandwiches that they would eat after their journey to the bowels of the hold. In the corner of the yard was a 45- gallon drum, filled with ‘Swarfega’, which helped clean oil from their arms and faces.
It is winter. I am with the Tank Cleaners’ Foreman asking how many hours his men had worked during the night. The drum is covered with ice. A young lad, about the same age as me, picks up a metal bar and smashes the ice which is preventing him from getting at the ‘Swarfega’. The noise is of a skull being smashed. The ice shatters across the drum as I take off my repaired broken glasses and place them in my inside jacket pocket and the young lad becomes a blur that is with me today.
Tom Kelly is a Tyneside writer who has had a great deal of his stage work produced by the Customs House, South Shields. His ninth poetry collection 'This Small Patch' has recently been published and re-printed by Red Squirrel Press who also published his short story collection Behind the Wall. His stories have appeared in a number of UK magazines and on Radio Four.