Memories of our
early days at work
The Annual Finger By:
Whilst I was an apprentice at Consett Steel Works I was
moved around different parts of the works to experience different
kinds of work. I was destined to become a Blast Furnace Fitter so I
began there and then every six months went to another part of the
works. One such place was the Billet Mill. Here, steel ingots
were heated to red-hot and then passed through huge rollers to be
pressed down to billets of varying size but roughly in the region of
six inches square. Considering that they started out around six foot
square and ten foot high, you can imaging the brute force of the
machinery that was used to achieve this. Like many places in the
Steel Works, this was a noisy inferno. These ingots were carried
overhead by cranes holding them in a pincer grip. Ingots thundered
through the rollers being pummelled into shape. The result was a
piece of red hot metal much smaller in girth but about 20 feet long.
This shot up and down a line of rollers for further passes through
the jaws of the main roller press. You had to step over this line of
rollers quite often and occasionally it just so happened that one of
these 20 foot strips of red hot metal shot between your legs as you
crossed causing a slightly more than warm glow. The though of
slipping here was terrifying
The mill worked
24 hours a day and we were told that whenever there was a breakdown
it could cost the works millions of pounds. Preventative maintenance
was therefore essential but if there was a breakdown it was all
hands to the pump. This included apprentices. I can remember that we
apprentices were very proud at the first signs of sweat flowing from
our foreheads just like the older men.
Every year there was the famous "MILL SHUT
DOWN". For a whole fortnight the mill stopped completely for a
complete overhaul. The work was around the clock but the shifts were
12 hours long. We apprentices did 12-hour shifts too and it was
customary for the last shift of the weeks shutdown just before the
mill was restarted to be 24 hours long. We earned loads of money but
I'm sure it was highly irregular.
Being a musician, I was horrified by the number of
men who had fingers missing. The Guitarist in my band had the index
finger on his right had missing. It was incredible that he could
play so well. To be fair this finger was not lost at the steel works
but by poking it into an electric socket when he was younger.
However, his father had lost both thumbs in
the Steel Works fitting shops. (I know I'm drifting off but , I may
add that the drummer in our band had no fingers at all on his right
hand but that's another story)
As my first Mill Shut Down approached I heard of a
story from the previous years shut down. A fitter and his mate
(whose names I can't remember) were removing a very large bolt. To
do so the fitter was holding a sizeable spanner and the
fitters mate was striking it with a two handed hammer. You know the
kind; in the movies you see prisoners working on the chain gang,
breaking rocks with them. One blow was misjudged and the hammer
struck the fitters hand taking off one of his fingers just below the
joint. The fitter received a fairly large compensation payment as a
result. People being what they are, the rumours spread that they had
planned it between them and shared the money. There was not a shred
of evidence except that they remained on friendly terms and
continued to work together. I'm afraid I would have felt extremely
bitter if it had been me. Not that it could have, mind you, because
in similar situations I used any tactic to be the person wielding
the hammer, not the one holding the implement being struck!
A year later, another Mill Shut Down, the one I was
involved in was taking place. A crowd had gathered around a section
of the mill. The reason being that the same fitter and
fitters mate were performing the same task that had 12
months earlier cost the fitter a finger. Unbelievably they were each
performing the same function. The fitter was holding the spanner and
the fitters mate was weilding the hammer. I thought this was either
an act of supreme stupidity or complete nonchalance.
The comedy of the situation was not lost on the
gathered crowd as they cheered the team on. "Go on Jacky, take
another one off, fill yer bank account"
Sometimes fate maps out events. A thing is going to
happen and nothing can change it. It is useless to resist and in
doing so perhaps we would just cause the inevitable to happen.
The sound of the finger coming off was no different
to each preceding blow. The flesh barely deadened the clang of the
hammer on the spanner. The evidence of what had happened was in the
shriek of pain from the fitter and the resulting cheers from the
gathered throng who almost immediately began to disperse to attend
to more important matters.
I can't say it had much effect on me either. I had
done a few 12-hour shifts and my senses were numbed. I just put the
experience into my memory bank with a greater resolve never to be
the one holding the spanner.
The Steel Works was tough place. There was a great
deal of humour and this was perhaps to compensate for the adversity.
There was very little precision work to be done and I can only
assume that such a cavalier attitude towards lost fingers was
because they were not absolutely essential for the job in