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U3A Writing: Rock Solid

Derek McQueen tells of his early days as a draughstman - and of a demonstration which failed to impress.

It was a mistake to leave Firth Browns, Thomas Firth and John Brown to give the engineering company its full name. I was an apprentice draughtsman in the Commercial drawing office on Savile Street in the east end of Sheffield. That would be 1947, the year I left Eckington Grammar at sixteen. I shouldn't have left there either. That was another mistake. I could have stayed on for two years to achieve Higher School Cert. and maybe university, who knows.

Looking back, I'm pretty sure it was the money, needed at home, that made the difference. I did get back to studying art again but that took another fifty years. My mother got me the interview with Norman Wareham who managed the drawing office at Firth Browns. She had a job in the Managers' dining room there and heard about the vacancy from Mr Shaw, one of the directors. She came with me for the interview would you believe. We went on the tram together and got off at Gate 36 Savile Street. It was gloomy, filthy weather and I remember how the car and bus headlight’s sparkled in the heavy rain.

We crossed the wet cobbled yard at Gate 36 and climbed slimy wooden steps at the far end. The offices were on the level above. It was more gloomy in Norman's office, which was off a corridor next to the blueprint room. The blueprint room had a pungent ammonia smell from the blue dye. Pauline who worked in there had the same smell about her. You could smell her coming a mile off. There were eight huge windows in the drawing office looking onto Savile Street. and the heavy traffic below. They were coated with grime, the windowsills gritty with Savile Street dust.

Mr Wareham was very pleased to see us and asked Evelyn to make a pot of tea. I didn't much like the look of Arnold, Norman's deputy. He wore a shabby tweed jacket and had too much black hair for a man of his age; at least forty. A large Bakelite hearing aid rested on Arnold's chest, hung from a cord round his neck. He paced up and down the office all the time and was scowling for some reason. But Norman I liked immediately and really hoped I would get the job. Despite being completely bald he looked very smart in a navy pinstripe suit and smiled at us reassuringly.

We finished the tea and then he showed us his own drawing instruments, which were polished silver in a velvet-lined case. I would have to have a new set and Norman had asked the Lee Guinness sales rep to leave a sample of what I would need. They were of superb quality but the problem was they were six guineas and Mr Wareham was concerned that we perhaps didn't have the money. He was right about that and I was afraid that this might be the end of the interview.

Norman saw that we were concerned and offered me the job there and then. He would arrange with wages department to have two shillings and sixpence per week deducted from pay for the instruments. Firth Browns would supply pencils, Indian ink and a white overall. I started work as a very junior apprentice draughtsman three weeks later. I loved it with one exception; fetching Norman's dinner from the manager's canteen, two gates down from gate 36. I had to choose a main course and a pudding and carry two covered plates of food in all weathers. Being overlooked by office workers in the offices above was very demeaning. I couldn't wait for the time when the next junior would take over the job.

Six years later, that would be 1953, I got a job with Siskol Machines on Penistone Road near the Sheffield Wednesday ground. Norman had taught me a great deal and I was forever grateful. I still have drawings I made in his office. But it was time to move on.

Jack Berryman the chief designer, at Siskol, interviewed me. I remember him saying that Gwen Berryman from the Archers was his sister. He seemed to be very proud of that. The design office was much smaller than I had been used to and I wondered if I'd done the right thing when he offered me a senior draughtsman's job at £8.10s a week. Siskol made mining and quarrying equipment and I went down coalmines quite a few times in the year I was there.

There was just one other draughtsman in the office and I was introduced to him after the interview. His name was George Turnbull and he was a shambolic looking man in his thirties. It took me a long time to get used to working with George. That was before he told me about his time in the army. One day over a sandwich lunch, he told me about the D-day landings in France in 1944. He was on code name 'Gold' beach near Arromanches-les-Bain and La Riviere. During the actual landings there had been over 400 casualties on the beach and George's orders were to prepare dead soldiers for repatriation with shells and bullets flying everywhere. His stock went up with me after that. We were good friends until I left Siskol a year later.

Fortunately, neither George nor I had anything to do with what happened next. There was a large yard behind the factory, which among other things, was used to demonstrate the company's new machines to the Coal Board, quarry owners and other potential customers. Jack Berryman had designed a new and innovative coal and rock cutter. He'd been working on it for months and the future of Siskol depended on it being a great success. Bill Goode had built a ten foot simulated coal and rock face in the yard to make the Siskol, Mark 3 Cutter demonstrations as realistic as possible. Eight very senior people in the mining and quarrying business had accepted invitations to see Siskol's latest cutter at work. Mr Wood, the MD, had laid on a buffet and drinks in our office so George and I did the waiter and wine waiter's jobs. There was no sign yet of Jack Berryman. The MD had asked him to do the actual cutting and he seemed a little nervous. Promptly on time, at two clock, we all trooped out to the yard with customers at the front.

The Buxton certified Power Unit was wheeled out and attached to the cutter by it's twenty-foot umbilical cable. Jack hauled himself to the top of the Works Managers concrete version of the rock of Gibralter and signalled down for the power to be switched on. Everyone in the yard craned forward and Mr Wood asked for everyone to take great care to avoid falling rocks from the drill. Jack Berryman positioned the cutter, leaned into it with his shoulder and started the drill. There was an unusual scraping sound from the machine but no cutting. The harder Jack pushed the pick into the rock, the more it became obvious that the machine wasn't doing the job. Mr Ken Leyland, a senior engineer from the Coal Board was at the front of the group who were now getting very tense. The MD looked on horrified as Jack Berryman laid his machine on the rock defeated. "It was going anti-clockwise", the Coal Board man yelled. "There's no way it can bloody cut going backwards." Siskol's humiliation was complete. Jack Berryman was sacked there and then and I moved on again a year after that.


To read more of Derek's articles and stories please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=Derek+McQueen


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