Oral History: Cooperative Voices – Joe Smith

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CWS Voices 2015

Interview Notes with Joseph Smith Birtley Tinplates 1944-1951

Interviewer Kath Connolly in his home 11.12. 2013

Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives

Joe had been born in Chester le Street 25.2.1930 they lived under the viaduct , he had an older brother and a younger sister. Joe’s father had worked at Pelton Fell Colliery but the offer of a colliery house at Browns Buildings, Barley Mow with a job at Harraton (Cotia) Colliery brought the family to Barley Mow. The house had one cold tap, no bathroom and a toilet in the yard, one bedroom and an attic room. At that time the council houses at Barley Mow had not been built, it was just a single row of 35 houses, fields, a clayhole for Blythe’s Brickyard. Joe went to school at St. Joseph’s in Birtley. He remembers during the war being given the job of pumping water out of the air raid shelters and while there were a few bombs dropped there was no damage done. In common with the characters in the Machine Gunners, he spent time as a teenager looking for shrapnel. During the war his mother worked at the ROF (Royal Ordnance Factory).

On leaving school at 14 he went (the following Monday) to work at Birtley Tinplates. His uncle, Eddie Grimes was a foreman in the churn shop. He didn’t attend for an interview just got the job. Joe’s brother also worked at the tinplates. He was supposed to start at 7.30,they were late on the first morning they caught a bus from Barley Mow to Birtley – didn’t arrive until 8 am. It was seen to be important to have a trade.

During the war there was plenty of work so no problem with finding a job in Birtley – you could pick and choose where you went.

Joe didn’t start to serve his time as an apprentice ‘tinker’ ‘til he was 16, at that time the tin products –loaf tins, dripping tins, pit (water) bottles, tea urns- all cut on the guillotine and hand made . He worked at first with a tradesman called Alec Fish, later Billy and then Jack Shields. The sheet metal shop were making heavier goods and the women in the top end of the factory making tins to go to be filled in the dry saltery at Pelaw. He was working a maximum 48 hour week until he was 18, the management didn’t allow him to work longer hours- it was long enough as it was

AT 18 he was called up to National Service but was deferred to complete his apprenticeship- a criteria was attending nightclass but at that time saw that as ‘sissy’, had never enjoyed school- nevertheless the boss seems to have known how to get the apprentices deferred and he didn’t attend night school. He was called up a week after his apprenticeship finished on his 21st birthday.

The people who worked at the factory came from the wider local area, Joe recalls in particular old timers from Gateshead who were really master craftsmen, respected for their ability, they had their own way of doing things which they proudly guarded.

The tin shop was in the oldest part of the factory, a very old building, small windows, benches and hand tools. It was next to the railway so the sheds rattled as the trains went past. It was not very warm The machines were driven by belts. They were taught how to work with potentially dangerous pieces of equipment like guillotines and he didn’t remember many accidents.

Joe did’nt see it as a strict place to work but he respected the foreman and the men he worked with. The tinplates was a union shop- all members of the National Union of sheet metal workers and coppersmiths. The union rep came around and collected union dues every Friday. He thought industrial relations were good any problems seemed to be sorted out with management didn’t remember any disputes but when propted recalled a meeting in the canteen when they were being asked to adopt a new method of payment/production targets.

He did not qualify for CWS concessions, family were members of Birtley Co-op Society- it was a good store with many departments and as a boy had taken jam jars (washed out) as payment to get into the Co-op cinema.It would normally have been a copper or two.

Joe was a keen sportsman playing football and ran in the Tinplates relay team. They would play after work or on a Saturday, were given theit tea in the canteen and played in the local Birtley Football League and competed in the Co-op Cup – playing teams from other Co-op establishments. He remembers going to Manchester – but didn’t beat them they didn’t get much time to practice , just turned out to play.

They did have a good relay team and went to the Annual Event at the Cowgate Sports Ground. It was always on a Saturday-they did well . There was a photograph (sister might have it). The relay team also went to run at Manchester, they ran as Birtley Tinplates (not North East). All expenses were paid, stayed in a hotel- this helped make them feel that they were an important part of the business. Your work was your life. His friends worked there too, and one of the reasons why it made it a good place to work- it was a nice atmosphere.

Wages were very low as an apprentice and recalls being paid 7/6 and his mother giving him 2/6 pocket money. A tradesman could make a few extra shillings on top of the basic pay but it was never well paid. He spent some of his pocket money going to local dances= Birtley Welfare, Chester Ballroom and remembers an annual dance for CWS employees in the Great Hall in Blandford Street- you bought your ticket for the dance with a band.

No women worked in their shop, they had to walk through and women from the pay office came into the sheet metal shop with the occasional wages query.