The words ‘Hoke, hoker or hoaker’ do not appear in Chambers Dictionary, but are common in Ulster for the act of or the person acting, in digging with the fingers, hands or a tool in small areas ranging from a rotten tooth to the Town Tip. In ‘Digging For Coal’ the construction of the berms of the airfield extension has been described. When a test hole on one of the berms was dug, it was discovered that there was everything from oil drums, rotting fruit to large slabs of brick and concrete. Further testing using a rock borer, a tool similar to a road drill, to penetrate the berm as a probe, elucidated that all the berms were the same and unsuitable as a foundation for the runway extension. They would have to be excavated totally to 8 to 12 feet deep (2.5-3.5m) and replaced with stone. In those days excavators were less flexible than today, and were based on a single design with different jib and bucket attachments. The one most often chosen to excavate the berms was a ‘Face Shovel’ which dug upwards from the ground with a gouging action along the base of the excavation, thus creating a sort of cliff ahead of itself. This in turn produced overhangs which the operator knocked down, or which fell down unpredictably.
The berm contained waste from the Shipyard, machine and electrical works of every type which meant that the excavated material had a high metal content, including copper, all of which in ’51 was attracting a high scrap value. Hokers, mainly men, arrived, up to ten at a time, to scrabble through the loosened material for the metal, using a home-made raking device and they did their raking as soon as the Digger bucket was just off the ground and swinging to fill a lorry standing near. To anyone responsible, this was heart-stoppingly serious – an imminent accident. No amount of shouting, pleading or swearing had any effect, and the work had to proceed. One of the men on the site was a professional boxer of some local renown. He was approached and it was suggested he should ‘chin. a couple of the hokers to make a point that might have less consequences than the accident about to happen. While he liked the idea, he refused, explaining that his fists were legally categorised as Lethal Weapons, and if used outside the Ring, would more than likely put him in jail. We were then faced with the expense and inconvenience of temporary fencing.
A few weeks later, though, men from the site were playing a scratch, lunch-break football match with the Hanger-men from the airfield when the boxer took exception to one of the opposition, chinned him, and broke his jaw. He lost his job because, although it was on his own time, it was also on the site. I never heard the police were involved, but, clearly, his weapons were lethal.