The last place I worked before leaving home (Preston, Lancashire) and going to New Zealand was a large public bus company, Ribble Motors, Frenchwood, Preston. I was there for a little over two years, and my time there was very significant.
I was really impressed by the thoroughness of the overhaul given to each vehicle that came into section of the workshop. The journey began outside, where the steam cleaning took place, removing most of the accumulated dirt, oil and grease from the vehicle. It was then moved a short distance, whereon the whole bus body was lifted off the chassis and shunted down to the body repair shop where every item was checked, repaired or renewed, before the painting or revarnishing took place.
Whilst that was being done, the chassis was driven round to our part of the factory; the engine, front and back axle, drive shaft and steering unit removal bay. Now, various teams came along at the appropriate time and removed their particular item. The engine was our job; we removed it and sent it down to the engine stripping bay. After that, the front axle was removed by one team, the back axle by another, and both items taken off in different directions to be completely stripped down and overhauled. All that remained was the chassis perched on two metal stands. At this stage, two elderly men with wire brushes came along and the chassis was cleaned of any remaining dirt. Just before they left, they gave the chassis a coat of aluminium paint.
If you were to look down on that particular area of the factory, you would be able to see the different bays working on their particular item taken from the vehicle. In the middle stood the chassis, newly painted, on two metal stands, right up close to my team’s workbench. At times there could be two or three vehicles in various stages of this treatment, and work would alternate between this one or that one, depending on the stage each one had reached. Once each item had been overhauled and reassembled, it was returned to the waiting chassis, where each team replaced their particular piece. The last item was the engine, which our team replaced before taking the vehicle out to be road-tested, still without the body.
Yes, it was all very thorough. It had to be, as those vehicles covered the whole of Lancashire and other major routes of the UK as well. Two other bays need to be mentioned. Down to the right of our bench was the degreasing plant, where my mate Jock worked. As different parts of the vehicle were stripped down, the items were placed in wire baskets, taken to the degreasing plant where they were immersed for a few moments, to emerge clean of all grease, ready to be checked for wear and fitness or thrown away as scrap. The last bay was the engine restoration bay, the bay the degreased parts of the engine were returned to. Another mate George worked here.
(I will return later to Jock from the degreasing plant and George from the engine restoration bay, with whom I would discuss such things as the running of the workshop, the ruining of the country and our possible escape to the moon when planet earth became uninhabitable.)
There was generally plenty of work to keep us occupied, us being Sandy and Brendan from Ireland. What Sandy did escapes me for the moment but he often quoted great chunks of Shakespeare, which fascinated me and always left me wanting to hear more. I’m sure Sandy is responsible in some part for my love of great literature today. Brendan and I often worked together on the engine removal or replacement and the overhaul of fittings attached to the chassis, that is, things not fixed to any other part, such as the front or back axle. It was Brendan who dropped ideas and thoughts into my mind, so that I often found myself thinking and discussing things with him as I worked on the bench or chassis. Then there was the guy in charge of the bench and who directed the rest of us to our particular jobs. His name was Cliff, and when I think of him I remember a friendly, smiling, cooperative mate, always busy but always ready to stop and advise, help or just chat: a really nice guy.
Then there was Steve, who worked at the extreme left of our bench. I think his was the steering unit department, where he dealt with everything to do with the steering mechanism on the vehicle. All I can recall of him was that he was thinning on top and we teased him a lot about that. He seemed to take it in his stride and got on with his job, joining in with the chats and discussions we had together as a group from time to time. The last one to mention, Tony, was something else, he was the youngest of the group, tall, thin and with dark hair, and he was living with the fact that he had tuberculosis. Every now and then he would be absent from work, away for several weeks at the sanatorium close by where I went to visit him a couple of times. I came away challenged by the way he dealt with his illness. The place was not very uplifting, it was cold and draughty, it needed painting and I found it generally depressing. Tony didn’t look well as he lay on top of his bed, wearing a dressing-gown. I can’t remember what we talked about really, only that his comments were mainly positive, even in such depressing surroundings and he tried not to let things get him down. Once or twice he would cough into a tissue, look at me and say as cheerfully as he could, “A little bit more lung there, Den. Never mind, there’s still plenty left to keep me going for a while yet.” When he returned from the sanatorium, he would carry on with his work but with ‘a little devil on his shoulder’, which is as good a way as any to describe his mood and attitude, for at any moment he could break out into song or verse or something quite unusual for the floor of a busy workshop. Two particular events like that are printed clearly in my memory.
The first one involved him standing at the bench and suddenly waving one hand in the air whilst beating a large spanner on the bench with the other hand to attract attention. The lads on our bench and other benches close by all stopped what they were doing to watch him. When he felt he had enough people watching, he stood up on the bench and began to give a parody of a political speech, about the workers needing to unite. “Yes, brothers,” he shouted, “what we need is shorter working hours and more pay…”and on he went, encouraged by various comments from the ‘brothers’ who joined in the farce and kept it going a little longer. It was all very light-hearted and took only a few minutes, before he closed his meeting, thanked them for listening, informed them of another meeting to be held at the local Lenin Hall (a non-existent place) later in the week, and jumped down off the bench to resume work. All this with a row of windows up above our heads, from which peered faces of the office staff and general management at various times of the day. It made no difference to Tony; if it was time for the workers to be ‘brought up-to-date’, he would hold a meeting. I believe he was given some leeway at these times because of the seriousness of his illness.
The second was similar to the first, but this time he dragged a large tool box into the centre of the bay and stood on that, gave his speech with his mates gathered round and finished up with, “Now brothers, let’s all join together and sing one verse of, Glow Little Glow-worm. And he started to sing, “Glow little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer …” with lots of gusto in his thin, piercing voice until he had sung the whole verse. And that, mind you, with two diesel engines roaring away on the test-bench, just by the engine bay. I had to hand it to Tony. Despite his poor health, he was determined to live life his way, and now and then do something like this as an act of defiance perhaps, or as a way of expressing his frustration, or maybe even, just for the hell of it.
Which brings me now to Jock. I don’t know if Jock was his real name but that’s what everyone called him. He was very short and walked rather strangely – I think he had some deformity in his hips. He also had a very strong Scottish accent. The place where he worked was a pocket-sized edition of Dante’s Inferno, or so it seemed to me. Small and dark, lit by one single bulb suspended from the ceiling, it gave only a feeble, yellow light to the interior which housed the degreasing plant. Fired by gas, this plant made the place hot and steamy, and filled the air with a mixture of sweet smelling vapours and foul smelling diesel and other oils removed from the parts placed in the plant. Dotted around Jock on the floor were wire baskets holding dirty parts for cleaning or clean parts ready to be returned to the different bays, which were collected or added to from time to time.
It was here that Jock and I chatted. We got on well as we talked about a whole range of subjects, widely if not very deeply; and the time seemed to slip by very quickly as each day, he or I brought up some item of interest to start us talking. He had sharp little eyes, and when he spoke the words had to slip through his teeth at a place where the teeth seemed reluctant to let the words pass through, so that when words did emerge, they did so with a wet sort of hissing sound, which I found quite absorbing. He had a long box affair to stand on as he lowered the baskets down into the hot, sweet smelling vapour. The gas heated the liquid causing it to rise. It was kept from rising further by a barrier of cold water, circulating round the top of the tank in thin, copper pipes. This vapour worked on the grease and oil, so that it came away as a liquid to collect in the bottom of the unit, leaving the contents of each wire basket, clean and ready to check for wear, etc. A clever piece of equipment – despite its setting – which made life and work much easier for those working in the bays surrounding it.
Anyway, that’s where Jock and I thought, discussed and shared our ideas. Just before I left to come to New Zealand, we discussed whether man would ever get to the moon. Imagine, in that whole factory, one of the most outstanding events that would occupy the attention of the whole world a few years later, was being discussed by two such lowly creatures as Jock of the degreasing plant and Dennis of the engine removal bay. None of my other mates knew what Jock and I discussed in that dark and dismal place, but if our bodies were imprisoned in a work system, parts of which resembled something of a Dickensian setting, our minds were able to wander and explore free of such encumbrances. In their own way, those discussions helped to exercise my mind, preventing it from becoming stale. Yes, I owe quite a lot to Jock and also to George, who comes into the picture, thus.
It was the management’s policy to move some workers around the benches in order to give them wider experience on the various parts of the vehicle. At some stage I found myself moved from the engine removal bay, to the engine stripping bay. The engine stripping bay was right next to the degreasing plant on the right, whilst the engine reassembly bay was on my left, and it is here that I now came within George’s sphere of influence. At this time, I was a member of an amateur dramatic society, and in one of the plays we performed someone quoted a few lines from Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’, about “…a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.” Little did I know that George was to play a part in pointing me to such a tide arising in my own life, which came about like this.
Moving down to the engine stripping bay meant that I could look over a wooden partition into the engine reassembly bay, where George was working. We quickly became friends and I discovered that he had escaped from Poland during World War Two and had been a pilot with the Polish Air Force. I knew little about him, apart from that. (I later found out more about him; (George) Jersey Fijalkowski from Radom, Poland, and I have written about him here.) But as we chatted from day to day, we shared our ideas and thoughts and came to enjoy each other’s company. One day, I happened to say to him how I thought I could do the work that he was doing, reassembling the engines. He agreed with some enthusiasm, so much so, that I was encouraged to think of ways that I could get on the bench with him. A few days later, I raised the subject with him again, outlining the approach I would make to the management in my request, it went something like this: I said to George that I would go the manager of the department and suggest I be given six weeks on the engine reassembly bench, working at the same rate of pay as at present. If I proved I was capable of doing the job, perhaps the management would consider moving me to that bench. George nodded his approval, then asked me this question, “Have you thought about going to New Zealand?”
Wow, that was some question. No, I hadn’t, why did he ask? George went on. “I have two friends who answered an ad in the newspaper some time ago. They’re in New Zealand now and doing very well. You would do very well too, I know,” he said with some conviction. And I went home from work that night, my head buzzing with the idea. There was nothing to stop me. I was single, no responsibilities… The newspaper offer was still open, George had assured me, promising to bring the cutting with him the following morning. And sure enough, he placed the cutting in my hand soon after starting work that day, around September 1953. I read it through. Yes, there was no doubt I would be eligible to apply being ex-National Service, and with a good record of service. After about an hour thinking about it, I told George what I had decided to do: I would go to the manager and make my suggestion as outlined earlier, if he gave me a chance on the engine reassembly bench, no problem; but if he didn’t, then I would send off the application to New Zealand House in London. Which is what I did, as the very next day the manager politely but bluntly told me there was no chance of my suggestion being accepted, with him knowing nothing about my idea to emigrate to New Zealand.
The rest is now part of my history. (More of this can be found on my blogsite.)
Dennis Crompton © 1998