Woodall-Duckam 1943
 
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LIFE WITH WOODALL-DUCKHAM.

(incomplete)

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 much.

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 job.

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 this.

If the temperature of the third pass of the 'B' side of retort No. 21 was 1360C at 12 midnight, and 1340C 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 neck".

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