LIFE WITH WOODALL-DUCKHAM.
In the summer of 1943, following the publication of University exam.
results, I was summoned to appear before a Government Committee which would
decide my future. There were two possibilities, either I continued a
military career, or I went into Industry. As my military history had been
slightly more creditable than my academic one, I expected to go on to an
O.C.T.U. with a view to being commissioned. However, the Committee thought
otherwise and I was instructed to put my chemical engineering qualifications
to good use. The Woodall-Duckham Vertical Retort and Oven Construction
Company, then with its headquarters at Guildford, was one suggestion made,
together with one or two Companies in the Midlands.
One of the latter was favoured by my Father and he offered to 'use his
influence'. This would, of course have kept me in the Midlands and I would
have been expected to continue to live at home. As one of my principal
desires by this time was to get away from home, I resisted this,
particularly as I doubted whether his 'influence' would count for as much as
he imagined it would.
It is incredible how much pressure and emotional blackmail my parents
applied to keeping me at home. From this distance in time, I wish I could
know the thinking which went on behind all this. They never seemed to
realise that the harder they tried, the harder I tried to get away.
Eventually I was called by W-D for interview at Guildford with 'our Mr.
H. Kerr, Chief Operating Engineer'. After a journey from Stourbridge via
Paddington and Waterloo, sampling the delights of the Southern Railway en
route, I was ushered into the presence of one Horace Kerr (pron. Car), who
was later to be referred-to as 'Horace' - but not to his face. One or two
rude people were even heard to refer to him as 'Horace Horsecollar' after a
Disney cartoon character, but the resemblance was slight.
Horace was a well Brylcreemed, dapper man with rimless pince-nez and an
unbending manner. His favourite opening gambit was 'Quite candidly.....'
especially when expressing disapproval. This was designed to suggest that he
hated upsetting you by being quite candid, but had to do so out of a sense
of duty. Occasionally he would make a studied effort to unbend which made
him appear rather pathetic. As one Operator later said, "'When Maurice
Wadsworth tells you a dirty story, you roll on the floor laughing; when
Horace tells you the same story you want to go out and be sick!" That says
Having been advised by Mr. Harold R. Perks, who had preceded me in a
similar interview by twelve months, that I must convince Horace that my one
aim in life, apart perhaps, from entering heaven at a later stage, was to
enter the service of the Woodall-Duckham Company, I was offered a job as a
potential Junior Operator. I was then taken to see T.C. Finlayson the
Technical Director and sent home to await developments. My starting salary
was to be £250 per annum.
At the station on my way home I ran into Willie Gardiner who had just
retired as Technical Director and by some means we got into conversation as
far as the parting of our ways at Effingham Junction. I wished that I had
known him earlier.
Soon there arrived a letter commanding me to report to 'our Mr. F. C.
Wagg at Saltley Gasworks Birmingham on Monday September 3rd. 1943 at 9.a.m.'
This was a little disappointing as I had hoped and expected to be sent to
some far flung outpost such as Penzance, Edinburgh or Warrington as my first
However, I took the train to Snow Hill, followed by a Washwood Heath tram
from Dale End and duly presented myself at the gatehouse of Saltley gasworks
as instructed. There I met the gateman, a cheerful little character in a
brown 'cow-gown' and a 'flat-'at'. On enquiring for Mr. Wagg of Woodall
Duckham, I was a little non-plussed when the gateman grinned broadly and
said, "Yo' won't see 'im yet !" On my pressing to know when I would be
likely to see him, the answer came. "Wednesday if yo'm lucky."
As there was a war on and everyone was being exhorted by authority to
work themselves to the limit, I, in my innocence, considered this to be
rather odd. I was, however directed to a small village of shacks, one of
which was the abode of the 'Carbonisers', this, in Freddie Wagg's absence,
under the supervision of one Roland Law who came from Marple in Cheshire.
Adjoining this shack was a larger and more luxurious set of shacks from
which operated the Construction Engineer, one Johnnie Downs, son of the
Company's Chief Construction Engineer. Obviously nepotism was permitted.
Johnnie was capably served by his secretary Dot Read, whose husband Henry
looms large in later narrative. There was also an assortment of foremen,
including one Fred Atkin, an 'ironfighter', whose appearance suggested that
he might have been knocked up quickly by Frankenstein as a rough prototype
before hitting on the formula for a better-looking one. Fred's never
appearing as a sartorial model in the 'Tailor and Cutter' was something on
which limitless money could be placed. I believe it was Fred who, when asked
in a pub in some part of the country whether he wanted a 'can' or a 'jar' of
beer, this local usage for a half or a pint being unknown to him, replied
with genteel diplomacy, "Yo' con gi'e it us in a bucket if yo'm a-minded -
we'll get it out!" Fred Atkin was one of the industrial hazards for which a
University training had left one a little ill-prepared.
After a day or two under the tutelage of Roland Law, a form arrived for
me from Head Office, enquiring about some of my personal details. Law very
kindly volunteered to help me fill it in. Putting aside a slight resentment
at the presumption of my illiteracy, I suffered this assistance. Towards the
end was the question, "State any technical or academic qualifications". Law
looked down his nose and said, "Of course you won't have any of those yet
will you!" So it was with great glee that I was able to say, "Well, only an
honours degree as yet." It was a cherished moment.
On the following Wednesday morning Freddie Wagg turned up. Fred was an
elegant man, somewhat below average stature, who has been a good friend over
the years. He was in such sharp contrast to the abundance of Fred Atkin
types at Saltley that it was difficult to imagine him 'sweating his guts
out'. I later discovered that he usually avoided having to do that by
getting someone else to do it while he stood by in his white coat. This he
did with such aplomb and bonhomie that even if one felt exploited, no
offence was taken. It was a valuable lesson and example of good management.
It seemed to be the curious policy of the Company to put the most junior
Operator on the night shift. This seemed to me to be a little odd, since it
is generally known that if something is going to go wrong, it will happen at
some ungodly hour in the middle of the night. To leave the least experienced
man to deal with the problem at such an hour seemed to be a policy fraught
with danger. One realised later that this policy was to enable the senior
man to arrive next morning to a scene of chaos, and to restore order within
the hour - thus collecting a great deal of kudos. Another valuable lesson!
Having been shown the three million inspection points, known as 'U', 'T'
and 'V' boxes in descending order of size, at which I was expected to take
temperatures every hour or so to give me something to do, I was put on night
shift on the three benches of 'Lambent' retorts at Saltley.
One rapidly learnt of what Maurice Wadsworth, of hallowed memory, was
later to call 'The Graphite Method' of temperature taking. It worked like
If the temperature of the third pass of the 'B' side of retort No. 21 was
1360°C at 12 midnight, and 1340°C
at 4.a.m. it was reasonable to suppose that at 2.a.m. it would be something
between the two. It was possible by extrapolation to apply this principle to
both axes of the temperature sheet and both spatially and temporally.
The term 'Lambent' was a curious one to find applied to gas retorts. The
word derives from the Latin lambere which means 'to lick'.
The heating gases 'licked' their way along horizontal flues instead of
belting their way up or down vertical flues. It seemed to be a reasonable
idea, but a dearth of classicists in the Company made one query the
provenance. I had a theory at the time that Freddie Wagg had invented the
term when he was the owner of Lambourne gas works in the hope of financial
advantages but it could not be proved.
One of the main fears on night shift was that a retort would become 'hung
up', i.e. the flow of coal, which should have been continuous, became
gridlocked. On enquiring from Mr. Wagg what should be done if this happened,
I was told, "Get the stoker to rod it." Since, by the time one became aware
of the problem, said stoker had probably been rodding his guts out for at
least the past hour, it was both wise and diplomatic not to take this advice
too literally. There were those who, being insensitive to this diplomacy,
had been threatened with having the "b****y rod wrapped round yer b****y
I do recall Freddie Wagg's being summoned away from perusal of the
Financial Times to deal with a small problem 'up on the bench'. The stoker,
a man with the proportions of Mike Tyson, explained to Fred what the trouble
was and what he had done about it. Fred, about foot and a half shorter,
looked up at him with a grin and said, "You've been a silly bugger haven't
you!" I expected murder to be done. Instead the stoker grinned sheepishly,
and all was well. Fifty years later, a friend said to me, "My old headmaster
used to say, 'never call a man a fool, you can call him a bloody fool, but
that's different.'" How true!
Being the new boy, I was naturally a little anxious about my performance
and prospects. There was, however on that 'job' another operator named Jack
Baker. It was with some satisfaction that I soon realised that Jack did very
little, and that I did more. The logic was that if the firm kept Jack on the
strength, then I must be safe. This illusion was soon shattered however when
Jack got the sack.
After a month or two at Saltley, it was decided, quite erroneously, that
I was fit to be let out on my own and I was sent to Melton Mowbray to 'put
to work' a couple of 44" retorts which had been rebuilt. The risk which the
firm took in doing this is truly amazing. Melton Mowbray bore little
similarity to Saltley and I had not yet seen any plant heated up, lit up or
'put to work'. So, armed with a 'black book' of instructions and little else
I was let loose upon the world. Freddie Wagg visited once a week, but
otherwise I was left to put my own interpretations on the instruction book,
thereby illustrating the axiom that it is not what you write that matters,
but what the reader understands from what you have written. There is
sometimes a wide gap. Looking back on that job, I can only say, "Had the
Lord not been on my side....."
At Melton I lodged with a family in a terrace house in Charlotte Street.
I had a room of my own, three meals a day and my laundry done for 30/- a
week. In the 'digs' also was an R.A.F. barber which meant free haircuts.
The works staff consisted of a Manager whose name I forget, and a works
foreman named Albert whose conversation usually began with the words, 'Ye
caaan't do that !" If he meant "You shouldn't do
(The file ends abruptly at this point!)
© The Estate of William John Green, 2004