Royal Navy 1941 to ’46 in order, Belfast Shipyard Part 1.

To those who hate technicalities I apologise for this entry, For me it records something gone and lost never to be recovered. Whether that is good is debateable. In ’43, I was drafted to Belfast to supervise the radio installations on the warships being built there. The shipyard was vast, there were at least six dry-docks functioning concurrently and ships of every size were issuing continuously. Today the area is almost a wasteland. Then, no sooner was a ship off the slipway than the keel plates of the next were down. The noise was deafening and vibrant. The very place itself seemed to be alive. One could see it transforming day by day, ships grew, they changed colour, they left, others were planted, while the men, tens of thousand of them, were like insects, dwarfed by the ships, the cranes and gantries which they served and which served the ships.

The men were working round the clock on some contracts, so it was only at the end of a shift that one realised the size of the workforce when the men issued in their hordes from every gate, running for the trams which were lined up along the Queen’s Road. Every day, at knocking-off time, it was like the end of the match at Wembley on Cup Day. The trams were old, many with no cover to the top deck. As they gathered speed men came from everywhere along the road, from design offices, accounts, drillers, platers, electricians, joiners, rivet boys and me, jumping onto the running board, and when the inside of the tram was full, which included the stairs and standing on the upper storey, we would then stand on the heavy steel bumper round the back and hang on as the tram swayed and rattled over the tracks set in the granite blocks. This was all standard practice and just to show there was no favouritism, the conductor would collect the fares of those hanging on as well as those impeding his ascent of the stairs.

Many would have a small haversack slung over one shoulder carrying the remnants of their ‘piece’, the midday snack, the little tin for sugar and tea, and, perhaps, something which should have remained in the shipyard or been shown to the Customs Man at the gate. I was advised to get the little tin. It consisted of two of the small size, oval Coleman’s mustard tins, soldered together by their bottoms to form two compartments, one for sugar the other for tea. Most people also had a can – a tea can. I had a tea can, a disused food tin, blackened by use and with a wire handle – an essential piece of equipment as necessary as my Avometer with which I tested the radio sets. Holding just over a pint of water, managed by the rivet boys when they were not heating or throwing rivets, they would take the cans at break time, fill them with water and put them on the rivet brazier. When boiling they would bring them to the men who would stand, hold the tin by the wire-loop handle, put the tea and sugar in and then, with a back-and-forth swinging motion start the build up of momentum and finally complete the ritual by swinging the tin in a vertical circle, described by their arm fully rotating round their shoulder, so the ingredients went to the bottom – the principle of the centrifuge. The tea ceremony was then complete and all that remained was to drink it out of a stained enamel mug.

The skill of the rivet boys had to be seen to be appreciated. They were apprentice riveters. One would heat the rivets to orange heat and then grasping one with long tongs, hurl it up to another boy, the catcher, standing precariously high on the scaffolding, who would catch it in a bucket, remove it with tongs and fit it into holes in the two plates which were to be riveted, so the riveter and the holder could then together hammer it to a tight fit. Targets aren’t new. Men, although officially on the workforce of the yard, worked in gangs selling their combined services to the Company, contracting the work and being paid as a group. A man was paid a rate for producing a product in an agreed time, based on a Rate Fixer’s assessment having watched the man work, and the man under scrutiny was very particular to cut no corners. Once the rate had been agreed the man upped productivity to get a comfortable wage and set aside enough products to go to a Wednesday match without being missed, while a mate was handing in his work.

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