Messenger boy

The school year commenced after the summer holidays at the end of August and in 1956 I moved up to fourth year. This promotion however was short lived. My fifteenth birthday was in September and I was required to leave school in December, the end of the school term. Unfortunately, I was halfway through a painting that was going to be entered into a school competition . I didn’t even get a final school report.

Close to the end of my schooling at Lawson, an Employment Officer visited the classroom. He called each lad in turn to stand in front of the teacher’s desk and asked them what they wanted to do when they left school. It was a big sham. I dared to say that I wanted to be a draughtsman. The officer gave me a long hard stare and said dismissively: “Take these forms, fill one out and return it tomorrow.”

There was one other boy who was a very good artist and we discussed about the possibility of art related jobs. The best that he could do was as an apprentice Sign  writer.

All of the forms were for labouring jobs or apprenticeships in the local industries such as the Dorman and Long Steel Works, a number of shipyards and the ICI1 Chemical Plants at Wilton and Billingham. Dad helped me to in the fill the forms. He insisted that we aim for an apprenticeship and that ICI was the best company to work for. On the second page was a list of trades that had to be numbered in order of preference. Having no idea what some of the trades entailed, we numbered them anyway.

Just before leaving school I received a letter summonsing me for an interview for a messenger boy’s job at Billingham ICI Plant. This was the first step on the way to being selected for an apprenticeship at sixteen. Quite a number of the local lads were to attend the interviews at the same time, which made the ordeal less traumatic.

I started work at the ICI Billingham Plant as a messenger boy on 16th January 1957. The first few weeks were spent at the training school to learn the tasks required, find our way around and, for many of us, learn how to use the telephone. We were also presented with a handbook each, with a map of the works, the various plants and pages of statistics. The only piece of information that I can remember is that there were an incredible 800 miles of railway lines in the complex.

Mary Black – ‘School Days over’
Come on then john
Time to be getting your pit boots on
On with your sack and your moleskin trousers
Time you were on your way
Time you were learning the pitman’s job
And earning a pitman’s pay

It was the middle of January and having to get up at 5:45am was quite an effort. Most mornings were bitterly cold. Upstairs, the condensation on the inside of the windows would often freeze. The first thing I did each morning was to light the fire so at least the front room would be warm when the others got up.

A strange old lady from down the street got into the habit of knocking on the front door each morning for no particular reason. She was regarded by the general community as ‘not being the full quid’. I often let her in to get warm by the fire. She wandered in and sat by the fire in silence. She’d stay for a while, then wander off home. I never even knew her name.

At 6.30am, on a freezing January morning, I set off for the Market Square where I had to catch the workers’ bus to Billingham. The letter in my pocket contained a map and instructions of how to find the Messenger Boys’ training building. It was still dark when I stepped off the bus in front of the three-story main office. The noises, strange smells and festoons of lights of the chemical plant, assailed my senses. I hoisted my haversack over my shoulder and walked nervously past the still camouflaged general offices and through the steel gates. My first day as a ‘working man’ was about to begin.

The ‘training school’ was run by an unpleasant man, who enjoyed ridiculing the new young workers. We were given tasks he knew would end in failure. First we had to learn how to use the telephone. None of the lads in the group had telephones at home so we were quite apprehensive. My first experience was to sit in a room alone, wait for the phone to ring and write down any messages. The wait seemed an age. I’m sure the long wait staring at the phone was sadistically designed to un-nerve us. When the phone eventually rang, I nearly jumped out of my skin. A garbled message blasted in my ear:

“There is a ship that has run aground in the river near Bamlett’s Wharf and is sinking fast. Call emergency!”

Of course, in my panic, I stuffed up the message and failed to ask sensible questions. The instructor called me back into the classroom for interrogation and looked at the scribble: “You idiot, you could have cost the lives of the crew.”

I was assigned to the Sulphuric Acid Plant, one of the dirtiest plants in the works. My boss was a diminutive Welsh time-clerk, Taffy Evans, and my job was to run errands, collect and deliver mail from around the complex. Billingham covered a huge area, with many plants, offices and even its own wharf, mine, power station and cement kilns.

The outgoing messenger boy, Eric, was not very cooperative in showing me the ropes, so consequently I made many mistakes in my first few weeks, delivering to the wrong offices and making wrong turnings.

Elvis Presley – ‘Hound Dog’  1957
Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit
And you ain’t no friend of mine

The works produced explosives, fertilizer, many chemicals and cement. There was an anhydrite mine in the centre of the complex which also had to be delivered to and from. The whole complex was connected by railway tracks, many roads and kilometres of pipelines.

One of my tasks was collecting hot meals from the other side of the works for the men who were working overtime. The mode of transport was a heavy ancient box bike painted bright yellow.

A box bike is a three wheeled contraption, with a large box on two wheels at the front, and the rear half of a conventional bike at the back. On the first meal trip, one wheel of the bike got stuck in a railway line and consequently the ungainly machine ended up on its side, with about fifteen rings and plates of fish and chips in a pile inside the box. After I righted the bike, the meals were haphazardly reconstructed. The workers were not impressed!

The roads were treacherous, greasy and covered by all kinds of waste chemical products. A number of spills eventuated, with scrapes and wet hands and knees. After one such spill, I dried out in front of the office radiator. That evening on the bus home, the knees of my jeans fell into shreds as I sat down. The next morning the palm of each leather glove that I had been wearing was gone! It wasn’t just water that I had fallen into.

Cement kilns that I walked under each morning       Billingham ICI Plant, 1956

Each day, as a 15-year-old messenger boy, I walked under these massive rotating kilns to deliver lunches and dinners to overtime workers, and letters and trade journals to management offices. The kilns are on a slight incline, are heated and rotate slowly. The cement slowly travels the length of the kilns.

It was at Billingham that I became firm friends with Gordon Patterson (my future brother-in-law), Malla Fixter, and Gordon Sherris. They had all been in the year level above me at Lawson Secondary, and started as messenger boys a few months before me. We met regularly at the Main Offices on our rounds. All four applied for apprenticeships at the Billingham site and also at the Wilton Works near Redcar.

Conway Twitty – ‘Only Make Believe’ 1957
My only prayer will be
Some day you’ll care for me
But it’s only make believe

With my new-found wealth I bought myself my first oil paints and brushes. Not having anything to paint on, I found a square of chrome boot leather in the cupboard. My first painting was of our dog Bobby.

Although I had left school, I was still involved with the school’s Life Saving Club, assisting Mr Joblin to teach the younger lads to swim and the various life saving techniques. One night, Mr Joblin said he had a challenge for me:

“We have a lad who can’t swim a stroke and I’d like you to teach him. There’s one snag. He’s deaf and can’t speak.”

Mr Joblin was unaware that I had first-hand experience communicating with Gran who was also deaf, so I was quite successful in the task.

Guy Mitchell – ‘Singing the Blues’  1957
Well, I never felt more like cryin’ all night
‘Cause everythin’s wrong and nothin’ ain’t right
Without you
You got me singin’ the blues

Next: Brambles Farm

Previous: Holiday!

  1. Imperial Chemical Industries