Episode 06: Dark Satanic Mill (1)

‘Gorton Tank’, as it was known, was the locomotive works in East Manchester of the old Great Central Railway. I had chosen it for my engineering apprenticeship because, unlike Derby and Crewe, the other two possiblities, Gorton repaired the electric locomotives which operated the line to Sheffield. What I hadn’t realised was that the 1500 volts DC system which they used was obsolete!

I started work at the Tank on 2 October 1961, at the tender age of 16. Shrewsbury seemed a million miles away from this vast Lowry-like industrial sprawl. I found ‘digs’ in nearby Denton, from which there was a special bus to the works entrance. I would cling to the last few minutes in bed, mesmerised by the unfamiliar sound of clogs in the street. By the time the seven o’clock hooter sounded, I was having breakfast and hurrying out to catch my bus. I must have been the only passenger without a cloth cap, unless there was a woman with her hair tied up in a scarf. Getting off the bus we joined crowds of other workers pushing through the gates and spreading out to the various ‘shops’ as the hooter sounded again to warn us that we had five minutes to the 7.30 clocking-in time.

I was in the machine shop for the whole of my time at Gorton. This meant going down through the stifling heat and gasses of the foundry and the deafening roar of rivetting in the boiler shop. Our clock was at the top of the boiler shop and was looked after by a disabled man, Joe, who was a communist. (The local MP, Mr Ziliakis, was at that time the only communist in parliament.) When we could hear one another Joe and I had great political discussions. Because of my public school accent he nick-named me ‘the Duke’, and this stuck.

For three months I worked on a lathe, producing nuts, bolts, bushes, washers, screws and so on. From time to time a gaffer would stick an order, written on a scruffy piece of scrap paper, onto the spike above my machine, and then when I had finished a job Len, the foreman, would take it down, scrutinise it for a couple of minutes, and set up my machine as required.

My wages were around £3 a week for a 44 hour week (though in my case this included a day at college studying electrical and mechanical engineering and applied maths and an evening class in engineering drawing). We were paid a minute supplement for piece work, and so naturally I thought it worth-while to work as fast as I could to earn a couple of extra pence. But I soon learnt the error of my ways. A union rep tapped me on the shoulder: ‘Slow down lad. Rate-setter’s coming soon, and no one wants them changing t’rate now, do they?’

One evening I went to a meeting at which, with great ceremony, I was sworn in as a member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. It felt a bit strange being addressed as Brother Clark-Lowes by someone I had never seen before!

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