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Two Rooms And A View: 59 - Working Relationships

...Many new and innocent apprentices were often exploited for a laugh when they went onto the factory floor for the first time. It was not uncommon to be sent for a bucket of steam or a left-handed screw-driver. The most popular was perhaps being sent to the stores first thing in the morning for a long stand!...

Robert Owen recalls life in a huge engineering works.

To read earlier chapters of Robert's life story please click on Two Rooms And A View in the menu on this page.

Looking back, the working relationships of personnel in the various factory departments would have provided wonderful material for some structured sociological research.

For example, the morale and perhaps the efficiency of many departments seemed to vary according to the philosophy and leadership style of the foreman. Some ruled by fear, others didn't rule at all. Several were forever on the factory floor while others were rarely seen.

In one department, the foreman used to stand outside his office and blow a whistle for the start of the morning and afternoon tea breaks. Exactly ten minutes later, stopwatch in hand, he would blow a back-to-work whistle.

In other departments, everyone just stopped work when the tea-lady arrived. Then about twenty minutes later, the Section Leader, after he had finished selecting horses for his daily bet, would simply shout, "Okay lads!"

In several departments, the rate-fixing system ran the department not the foreman! This was confirmed whenever the fitters did not have a rate for a job. They usually went on to time work and very little productive work was done. Most rate-fixers were ex-fitters from the shop floor and had to be acceptable to both management and trade unions.

Unfortunately, the concept of standard performance or rate for the job varied a great deal. This meant that high wages could be earned for moderate effort in some departments, while in others only moderate earnings were earned by very high effort. Apprentices soon got to know this and saw some sections of the factory as very desirable compared to others.

Overall, working in the factory was a necessary and worthwhile experience. However, most of the time I felt like a production trainee, not an apprentice fitter. I once heard somebody say, "The only real fitting that is done in Reyrolles is in the Toolroom."

What it did do was to confirm that I did not have an aptitude for the use of hand tools. Also, it gave me the opportunity to see how people behaved in a working environment. This exposure to the factory culture was just as much a learning experience as the practical aspects of the job.

I shall always remember the dry, raucous and often spontaneous humour of many fitters in the factory. Hank Janson's books, the Weekend Mail and Reveille were essential reading of the time and many jokes were either borrowed or developed from these publications.

I remember during one morning break, a fitter reading the Reveille shouted, "Hi - there is a bloke here has had six operations to change his sex!" Without raising his head, a colleague retorted, "Aye, and another operation and we will find out if it has worked!"

This was the age before equality and although many females worked at Reyrolles, they were employed in what was seen as jobs for women. These were typists, secretaries, clerks, tracers and canteen staff. This was apart from some small sections where, for some unknown reason, only females were employed.

One such section was Transformer Winding. This had a reputation of being staffed by 'brazen, foul-mouthed and sex-mad young females.' We were told that a good-looking young apprentice went in there by mistake many years ago, and was never seen again!

Many new and innocent apprentices were often exploited for a laugh when they went onto the factory floor for the first time. It was not uncommon to be sent for a bucket of steam or a left-handed screw-driver. The most popular was perhaps being sent to the stores first thing in the morning for a long stand!

Factory workers had to clock-in twice a day, while office workers only clocked-in once in the morning. This caused much resentment in the factory and there were many stories of workers having an afternoon off and getting a work mate to clock-in for them. This was something they said office workers did all the time.

My complaint however, was the varying times it could take to get to the many work locations in such a large factory. A worker could be inside the factory gates but still three or four minutes’ walk away from his clocking-in machine. As a result, many people lived dangerously, took their time cards home with them and clocked in at the first available machine.

The method of paying wages in the factory also seemed very Victorian. These were paid out in alphabetical order at a defined location once the finishing buzzer had sounded on a Friday night. The queue of workers was very lengthy and it took several minutes to complete the operation. Many buses and trains were missed and most workers got home later on a Friday night.

Worse still, if an error was found in the pay packet. This had to be reported straight away and was a time-taking process with workers being punished for the firm's inefficiency.

Both Hebburn and New Town Works had large canteens. These supplied a variety of meals, or just tea or coffee for workers who brought sandwiches. What I recall most about the 57-minute lunchtime at New Town, was the mad rush to get into the canteen queue. It was alright for workers in the nearby Toolroom or Mining Switchgear Department, but hard luck for anybody in the Machine Shop or well-known Copper Benches nearly half a mile away.

Although a security officer guarded the entrance to the canteen until the mid-day buzzer sounded, once it did, workers used to appear from everywhere - each running to get a place in the queue for their table colleagues. Any workers arriving late had to take what was left.

In an attempt to reduce the lunchtime stampede and protect the workers who arrived late, the canteen authorities introduced a coloured token system for meals. A three-choice menu for the following day was displayed and workers were asked to purchase a coloured token, which represented their choice of meal. Using this method, the authorities hoped to produce the number of meals required and to reduce wastage.

However, many workers in the factory didn't see it as simple as that. "How the ... do I know what I want to eat tomorrow?" was a much repeated comment. Possibly the workers had the last laugh. Many of them purchased all three tokens and decided the next day what they would have for lunch!

Tea ladies, who brought a tea trolley around the factory twice a day, are another nostalgic part of Reyrolle's history that should never be forgotten. They were usually mature ladies of indeterminate age and always seemed to be named Sadie, Sarah or Sally. They had a broad imagination, thick skin, easy tongue and an amazing memory, with the ability to recall which of the twenty-odd cups in a tray were black, white, with or without sugar.

The tea lady was often the only female seen all day in some departments, which possibly explained the verbal flirtations and sexual fencing that often took place as fitters collected their tea. A typical conversation would go:

Tea Lady: "You didn't turn up last night!"

Fitter: "The wife wouldn't let me out."

Tea Lady: "Let's try again tonight. Same place, same time?"

Fitter: "Okay - I'll bring the rubbers." (. . . as the tea lady disappeared with her trolley.)

On another occasion I recall a fitter arguing his case by saying, "You must remember that a good man is hard to find."

Without looking up the tea lady replied, "You've got that wrong as well, it's a hard man is good to find.”

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