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The Reyrolle Story: Twenty-One - Soviet Visitors

Robert Owen, continuing his history of a major industrial concern, tells how changes had to be made in the aftermath of war.

To read earlier chapters of Robert's history please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_reyrolle_story/

Britain in 1946 was in near economic chaos as the bankrupt country tried to adjust to peace-time conditions. The cost of the war had been very high, but now it was over, many people expected living conditions to improve immediately. This didn't happen, and it took many years for the country to recover.

At Reyrolle, as armament contracts came to an end, there was a major fall in the order book. Also, as service personnel (mainly men) returned from the war, and war-time workers (mainly women) fought to retain their jobs, there was a major labour problem. Even though Trade Unions pressed to retain employment for their members, many were dismissed. This in turn created industrial relations problems.

The General Shop Stewards Committee was not impressed when the Convener of the General and Municipal Workers Union was dismissed in favour of a non-union, returning ex-serviceman. A strike was threatened before a satisfactory solution was found. The same Committee also demanded that rate-fixers should be members of an appropriate trade union - a point which management refused to confirm.

After the war, the Pelaw factory was returned to the C. W. S and the Ashington plant was reorganised to manufacture a variety of small household goods including the Morphy Richards electric iron. Grace Boom (formerly Kippax) was Secretary to Managing Director Bruce Lesson and recalls the long meetings with Messrs Morphy and Richards discussing the proposed project. When the production line started she was one of the first to be presented with a new electric iron.

Reyrolle was honoured with some distinguished visitors in 1947, when eight members of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R toured Tyneside. They must have been impressed, because they left a substantial order for switchgear for the U.S.S.R coal mining industry.

The U.S.S.R visitors brought some Russian weather with them, because the winter of 1947/48 was the worst in living memory. The snow and ice succeeded where Hitler had failed and for a short while the country was brought to a halt. At Reyrolle, absenteeism soared and stories are told of workers arriving at Hebburn just in time to go home. In addition, planned deliveries never arrived and power cuts always threatened. The big freeze continued until March. However, some Outside Erectors had the opposite trouble, as John Diamond (2006) explains. "Mr T S Flynn, a Reyrolle Supervising Engineer leading a team installing switchgear near Kuwait in the Persian Gulf, reported extreme heat and unbearable working conditions. He joked that the well known "Erectors Pint" had taken second place to water which had to be transported from Abadan and used very sparingly."

A significant political event also took place in 1948 when the new Labour Government nationalised most major industries. In the electrical supply world this eventually resulted in greater standardisation of specifications and the various switchgear manufacturers "playing on a level playing field".

During this time, two long serving, senior Executives of the Company both retired. Frank Coates was the first graduate engineer to be recruited by Reyrolle in 1898. He contributed much to the Company's development, but was known as "The Invisible Man" because he always kept in the background. Norbert Merz was perhaps the opposite. He was Secretary of the Board in 1901 and retired as Chairman in 1946. Unfortunately his retirement was short. He died at Dunston Hall, the family home, near Alnwick in 1948. His grandchildren Frances Dower and Michael Baker - himself a Graduate Student at Reyrolle from 1960-63 - fondly remember him during family visits to Dunstan Hall and seeing the lobster fisherman at nearby Craster.

Another long serving employee who retired in 1947 was George Pawsey. George started work with Alphonse Reyrolle in 1899 and retired as Men's Employment Officer 48 years later. For over thirty years he conscientiously worked for the Employee Benevolent Association and the Hospital and Charities Committee. Outside of work, George spent most of his spare time fundraising for the Ellison Hall Infirmary, known locally as the Institution. After retiring, he ambitiously wrote to Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health, asking for a contribution towards the cost of installing a lift in the Institution. He got a negative reply. Twenty eight years later the Institution was closed by the National Health Authority and one of the main reasons was because "it did not have a lift".


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