The Project’s Walking Oral History Interview
Back in August, myself and ex-shipyard workers Ken Barley and Keith Pearson, along with several of our volunteers, gathered on the riverside at Grovehill, Beverley to take part in the ‘Trawling Through Time’ project‘s ‘s walking oral history interview. Our location was the former site of the town’s main shipyard, occupied by Cook, Welton and Gemmell between 1901 and 1963, now redeveloped as the Grovehill Industrial Estate. The purpose of the interview was to document the memories and experiences of some of the yard’s labourers, the skill and labour of whom made the vessels in our ships plans a reality. Estuary TV (recently re-launched as ‘That’s TV Humber’) also joined us to film the session and capture footage of the site and its environs for the project’s TV documentary, due to air next summer. The testimonies recorded on the day will be added to the Digital Archive and made publicly accessible at East Riding Archives. The following is an insight into how the afternoon unfolded and some of the recollections shared by the interviewees who kindly agreed to take part in the project.
“Derelict equipment and a small boat repair yard close to the river’s edge were reminders of the site’s shipbuilding past”
As our walk got underway Ken and Keith noted how greatly the site had altered since the early 1950s, when they began work aged just 14. Back then, they said, the yard had been like a small self-contained village made up of dozens of buildings of varying sizes and descriptions. These included the shipwrights’ and joiners’ shops, the mould loft where loftsmen cut templates or ‘moulds’ for the burners, a smithy used by blacksmiths to fabricate metalwork and tools, and stores that contained an almost infinite number of spare parts. Alongside these structures, Keith noted, had been offices where the entire shipyard operation was administered and ships’ plans drawn prior to the commencement of construction.
As we explored further it became clear that many of the original buildings had disappeared. It was clear that most surviving structures were now hidden behind cladding and home to a number of small local businesses. However, derelict equipment and a small boat repair yard close to the river’s edge were reminders of the site’s shipbuilding past. This area was where newly assembled ships had once stood on the stocks before being launched famously ‘broadside on’ into the River Hull. It was here that our group paused and Ken and Keith began to share their recollections of a once thriving shipyard community that employed some 800 workers at its peak in the 1950s.
Early memories were of first days on the job. Both had followed their fathers into work at the yard and Ken described how entire families, including uncles, cousins, even grandfathers, laboured side by side as caulkers, platers, riveters, welders, burners, shipwrights and joiners. Once apprenticed as a burner he soon learned about the strict demarcation between the different crafts, each of which were paid at greatly varied piece-work rates. Keith remembered the ritual of acceptance into the ‘United Society of Boilermakers, Shipbuilders and Structural Workers’ that followed his completion of a five-year apprenticeship as a caulker. Shipwrights, he explained, joined a completely separate union – ‘Shipconstructors’ and Shipwrights’ Association’. Both recalled that the shipbuilding industry’s unions, which had been established during the nineteenth century, were still largely Victorian in nature and organisation. Members were expected to keep up to date with the payment of dues and adhere to a strict moral code that included the avoidance of “loose women and spirituous liquor”!
As Ken and Keith relayed their stories they brought the atmosphere of a once thriving shipyard back to life. Ken explained that daily work was undertaken amidst the deafening rhythmic clatter of the riveting squads’ hammers striking the ship’s hull, which was later replaced by the crackle and flashes of the welders’ gear. Keith added, that he recalled the distinctive smell and smoke of the pitch used by the highly-skilled shipwrights to seal ‘oakum’ and ‘caulk’ wooden decks. Another aspect that loomed large in their memories was the harshness of working conditions. Both related how Health and Safety measures were virtually non-existent and that a visitor to the yard during the 1950s would have seen workers clad in old suits, cloth caps and overcoats, rather than overalls, hard hats and ear defenders. Furthermore, there was also little in the way of amenities or facilities for workers (and the less said about the communal toilets the better!)
“Both recalled that the shipbuilding industry’s unions, which had been established during the nineteenth century, were still largely Victorian in nature and organisation”
Alongside memories of hardship were recollections of a strong sense of community and comradeship amongst the work force. Ken discussed how some workers lived a stone’s throw from the yard’s gates, whilst others resided across Beverley or travelled from the outlying villages. He mentioned that the workforce also contained a large number of labourers from Scotland and the North East, mainly welders who had left the shipyards on the Clyde, Tyne and Wear for higher wages at Beverley. Both agreed that there had been a general sense of sadness and loss when Cook, Welton and Gemmell folded in March 1963. Some stayed on to work at the yard under Charles D. Holmes & Co. Ltd, whilst others departed for employment at other shipyards and graving docks on the Humber waterways at Hessle, Hull, Goole, Selby and Paull.
By the end of the interview many anecdotes about the yard and its workers had been shared by Ken and Keith. Our volunteers too made valuable contributions by talking about their own memories including personal and professional connections with the yard. The testimonies recorded on the day offered a rare and valuable insight into the experiences of the workers whose skill and craft produced ships like Arctic Corsair and Yorkshire Belle, both of which survive today.
Dr Alex Ombler: Archives Assistant
(East Riding Archives)