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Memories of our early days at work

The Annual Finger  By: Steve Thompson

mill2.jpg (5191 bytes)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
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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 hand.

originally appeared in Newcastle Community News