A. Reyrolle and Company was born at Hebburn-on-Tyne with about sixty employees in 1901. A hundred years later, the company employs not many more. In the period between, however, it was the major employer of labour on South Tyneside.
Alan Wright (2001) describes how Frenchman Alphonse Reyrolle came to London in 1883 at the age of 19 to work for a firm manufacturing scientific instruments. Eighteen years later, he moved to Tyneside and started his own company with a locally raised capital of £20,000.
In 1950, over 8 million people or nearly 40% of the working population in the U.K. were employed in the manufacturing industry. On Tyneside, if an employed male did not work in mining or ship-related trades, it was a good bet he was one of the 12,000 who worked at Reyrolles. I became one of that number in April 1950.
The large Reyrolle industrial complex consisted of an older Hebburn site and the New Town Works. The Hebburn site included a five-storied office block, stores, warehousing, packing, despatch, and research, as well as many manufacturing departments.
In contrast, the New Town Works across the South Shields to Newcastle railway, included fabrication, welding, machinery, tool room, testing and limited manufacturing departments.
A personal problem raised its head before my first day at work. Shaving – the mystery of many teenagers. At school it didn’t matter, but at work? The main problem was that I didn’t have a male mentor to show me how to select and use a razor.
Realising the need, I eventually secretly bought a cheap razor out of my very scarce pocket money. I then used to experiment with my new purchase when the house was empty. Learning was real trial and error. During the first few weeks at Reyrolles I got away with dry shaving. I then progressed to soap and water before – to my delight – discovering shaving cream in a tube!
Even with the tools of the trade, I used to find shaving extremely embarrassing in front of my mother. In the mornings before going to work it was fine, because I usually had the living room to myself, but at the weekends, it was difficult and I recall retreating to the bedroom with a dish of warm water in an attempt to seek some privacy. Sometimes, if I was late for work, I would take my razor with me and dry shave in the toilets. The joys of growing up without a father!
After shaving for my first day at work, I got the train from High Shields railway station to Hebburn. It took about 15 minutes and cost 9d (4p). The train was nearly full when it arrived yet everyone on the crowded platform got on. The same thing happened at Tyne Dock and nobody seemed to think anything abnormal as the ‘mobile sardine can’ headed towards Newcastle. Fortunately, nearly everybody got off at Hebburn. They all seemed to be going to the same place – Reyrolles.
Going down the bank from the railway station, both sides of the pavement were full of hurrying people four or five deep. The road was also crowded with cars and bikes queuing to get into the narrow road leading to the Hebburn Works. It reminded me of the half-hour before kick-off at St James’s Park.
At the entrance to the Reyrolles office block, a Security Officer stood glancing at the hundreds that must have been passing him every few minutes. He had obviously been told to expect a number of green fifteen-year-olds because before I could ask, he pointed to the main entrance that I found out later was known as the Time Office.
About half a dozen other fifteen-year-olds, male and female, were already waiting in a room near the time office. Shortly after 8.45, the official starting time, someone came in and said, “Okay, let’s go. I am going to take you to the section where you are going to work.” In my particular case, it was to be the Cable Section in the Protection and Control Unit of the Engineering Department.
The Reyrolle office block at Hebburn in 1950 was the hub of the firm’s activities. About 2,000 staff must have worked there. The Engineering Department, more commonly known as the drawing office, occupied the top two floors. Contracts (Sales), Accounts, Purchasing, Costing and works-related departments were found on the lower floors. On the first floor there was a carpeted corridor known as ‘Quality Row’ where messengers never entered. This was the directors’ domain.
The Engineering Department was divided into five different units according to its type of product. These were High Voltage (H V), Metal Clad (M C), Mining Industries (M I), Protection and Control (P C), and a Service Unit. These in their turn were divided into sections of between 10 to 50 draughtsmen.
For example, the P C Unit consisted of Transformer, Control-Board, Relay, Wiring Diagrams and a Cable Section. The respective sections were identified by the initials of the Section Leader. In my case this was a middle-aged engineer named Harold Mordue who was in charge of the Cable Section. The reference for the section being Eng.Dept/P C/HM, something I would write out hundreds of times during the following months when collecting drawings and prints for various draughtsmen.
Harold Mordue (although I always called him Mr Mordue), my first boss, spent only a few minutes with me that morning before passing me over to the section’s Customer Order Clerk – Basil Edgecombe. Basil was my main source of support during those strange early days and also throughout the next nine months. He told me I was also to work for the smaller, nearby Relay Section managed by Tommy Marwood. When he returned, I was introduced to the existing office messenger – someone called Jimmy whom I was replacing. Later conversations established that he was leaving at the end of the week, having failed to be accepted as an apprentice. By 9.30 a.m., that first morning along with Jimmy, I was on my first errand.