Friday, 29 July 2011

Working at Shelton Bar Steel Works

It is over 30 years since I had a temporary job working at the steel works at Shelton Bar. I was working for cleaning contractors that was based in Birches Head. The experience was like something from Boys and the Blackstuff and for many of the men employed I guess that it was a last hurrah, as I could not see many of them surviving the mass unemployment of the following decade.

Some of my colleagues sort to avoid work by hiding in the shed, which was close to an old furnace. Sometimes a splash of hot metal would send a shower of sparks on to the roof. Inside the building was a scene of indescribable squalor filled with many months of accumulated debris

A number of people who worked with the contractors had problems and some of them tried to flush their troubles away with drink. One, I was told, drank ten pints a night in a pub in Cobridge He did not say anything and sat slumped in a chair everything morning holding his head. Another rather haunted figure was illiterate and it was said that his wife died because he did not know how to use a phone to summon an ambulance.

One was so detested by the others that they got their revenge by substituting his filling in his sandwich with the contents of a mouldy something found in the back of a sofa in the shed. It reminded me of the line in the "Odd Couple" of it being either old meat or young cheese. There was a rumour that he was the son of a very wealthy businessman who despairing of his congenital idiot of a son had paid him off by buying him a house in Stoke. One of his few friends said that he had called around to see him and had been stunned by the state of decoration. It would seem that he covered the walls of the house with the contents of a wallpaper sampler. The root of the dislike that he provoked was the belief that he had made a pass at one of the men.
Another a young worker with a harelip would earn extra money by running a disco each weekend on a local estate. He would often clash with people and would turn up on a Sunday morning with a fresh cut or bruise gained after a brawl on the dance floor.

I worked outside helping to clear up an oil leak into a nearby brook. I worked in an enclosed culvert in which there were heated pipes. The oil was a foot deep. I filled buckets of the sand and oil mix, which was hauled off in a dumper. It was August and it was hot. I gained some satisfaction when it was all cleared up. I was working with a very cheerful Irishman who had the unnerving habit of tossing the butts of his cigarettes into the fuming oil. He always apologised afterwards. I was filthy and there was nowhere to wash. I would travel back home on the bus to Abbey Hulton looking like tar baby. No one would sit beside me. It took several hours to clear the mess off as it had stained the skin.
One aspect of my time with the cleaning company was a friendship that has now lasted 30 years. I was reading history at York and as I had a few essays to write decided that I should try to catch up with some reading. I was reading the "Social History of the Third Reich" when I met up with Greg. He assumed that I was a Nazi. It was only over the sausage and chips in the canteen that the misunderstanding was cleared up and I found out that he was going to York that October. We have remained friends since; in fact he reminded me that it has been 30 years this month