Yesterday I collected the 100th Labour of Love recording.
The recording was made by a gentleman whose first job had been working with his father in a tinplate works in South Wales in the 1940s. It reminded me of the really tough manual labour that heavy industry required then, that would undoubtedly have taken place on the docks and factories in the East End.
My father was a Bar Dragger and that was the hardest job in the steelworks, apart from perhaps the Heaver-over, who was constantly passing the metal bar back and forth until it got sometimes as long as 8ft long and thinner and thinner. They were changing it from an oblong of white-hot steel to a flat sheet.
My father would place the steel ingot in the furnace and when they were ready he would bring them out. He would do it with one hand; he had arms like Popeye.
He would have a long pair of tongs, obviously couldn’t get too close and just by balancing the tongs on the edge of the furnace he could lever the ingot, he had a knack obviously because he could lift up to 100lbs like that and bring it out. Just one hand. It would be very, very hot, no sides to the works, just a roof, and he would wear what you call dravers, a pair of long john underpants made of thick blue Welsh wool to absorb the sweat and a crys fach, a small shirt, open at the neck and cut away at the arms. He was half-naked when he was working. His boots were made of special green leather that didn’t burn and studded with metal studs underneath. They would wear out fairly rapidly, he would often have to have his boots resoled. He worked 72 hours a week, 16-hour shifts and move 20 tons on a shift. On his way to work he would have six pints in the pub and six pints on the way home – that was nothing in those days.
The steel was made of overlapping sheets that were glowing red because of the heat. He would drag it part of the way and then throw it on its edge, sparks going everywhere, and the Heaver-over would catch it with an even bigger pair of tongs and heave it up on to these huge rolls, rolling in opposite directions. There would be a huge BANG when the first one went in and you could hear it where we lived 3 miles away. It would go through the rollers and then there would be another Heaver-over who would catch it and pass it back. The Roller-man would gradually adjust the thickness of the rolls until it was done to the required thickness.
My hometown of Llanelli was the tinplate capital of the world. Towards the end of the war they built a mill at Trostre and that could turn out more finished tinplate in 24 hours than all the dozen tin works could turn out in a year. That killed off all the tin shops over night in about 1948. But my mother worked in the social club in Trostre and she was a clever, good-looking lady, so it didn’t take long to get my father a job there.