1950- ,Civil Engineering, The Runway Job,1

DIGGING FOR BRASS – LETHAL WEAPONS During the Hitler War, rubbish from most of the main industrial complexes in Belfast, like the shipyard, the Aircraft factory, the big engineering works, included furnace ashes, off-cuts of wire and road excavation arisings, indeed anything which was surplus and required to be quickly dumped out of sight, out of mind. It was sent to fill in the lower part of the estuary, North of the existing runway, in such a way that berms were formed to enable the area to be drained at low tide through sluices. When the tide fell below the level of the water within the ponds, the sluices were opened and the areas were drained in the same way the Dutch polders were formed
The area was in the shape of two black rectangular borders raised above tide level, side by side, and joined together along a line on the centre of the existing runway. The open spaces formed by these borders were wet mud at the level of low tide. This was what we were faced with and on which we were supposed to build the runway. I was sent there to work on my own to start with and the first job I had to do was to get some idea what the berms were made of. The centre one on the line of the old runway would be the basis of the extension and would have to support the new Comet aeroplane when it landed, while the side berms were to be the taxi-ways.
Huge plates of reinforced concrete and brickwork were sticking out of the berms like rotten teeth; they were bits of air-raid shelter demolished in the city and dumped randomly. In fact after some testing I discovered these slabs were tipped so badly they formed huge voids the size of a small room and this meant excavating thousands of tons of rubbish and replacing it with firm filling. It consisted also of everything from oil drums to rotting orange-peel.
The excavation of the berms brought us in contact with people known locally as ‘hokers’. People scrabbled through the tipped material with home-made bent steel hooks, for bits and pieces, garnering all the most valuable and saleable, later to sell them to scrap dealers. The material, which had been tipped for the runway, contained off-cuts of metals and short lengths of ship’s cabling with a heavy copper content, all very recyclable.
In those days the type of digging we were doing was accomplished with a machine called a face shovel, it would dig by pushing a toothed bucket into the face of the excavation and then scrape it upwards, filling as it went. At the top, the motion would stop, the machine would rotate on its axis and the rubbish would be jettisoned into a lorry by opening a flap at the back of the bucket.
It was this action, which worried me as much as the collapse of the face of the excavation itself. Before the machine was at the top of its scraping action, let alone had moved round, the hokers were into the excavation with their little bits of bent steel, scratching and pulling to find what they could before the machine rotated back and down again to start its dig once more. If the bucket had inadvertently opened, if the hydraulics had failed while the bucket was rising or rotating, if the face of the excavation had suddenly slipped, there would have been the need to call an ambulance, if not a coroner. I was at my wits end, because, no matter what I said went unheeded, yet it would be I who would be held responsible in the event.
A chainman is a labourer whose job it is to hold the end of a tape, help in setting out pegs and so on. My chainman hailed from a family of semi-professional boxers whose prowess was a byword in Belfast. Having tried reason and expletives of the most virulent kind at the top of my voice, I thought I would try him. I asked him to thump a couple of the hokers and maybe they’d see sense. He obviously relished the idea but declined as he said he would be put in prison. It appeared that in law his fists were deemed to be lethal weapons and any use outside a boxing ring could put him in chokey.
It was a pity he didn’t heed his own strictures. Some months later he was engaged in a ‘friendly’ football match during the lunch hour with a scratch team from our site playing one taken from the aerodrome people. In the course of the game things became heated and he broke the jaw of one of the opposition.

Categorized as General

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