A Portishead Apprentices Tale

We all departed from the Training School at Yelland in the summer of 1970. The year had closed with a formal dinner at the Sports & Social Club and an open day for parents to come to the Training School to see what we had all be doing in our first year away from home. It was also an opportunity for parents to visit the lodgings where their off-spring had been staying and could meet the various landladies – if they so wished. Those who would have read my first “Blog” about Yelland may remember that I mentioned the rumour that one of our group was supposedly “romantically involved with his landlady”. This memory made me think about how awkward the conversation could have been if the parents had actually met her. “So you are my sons landlady and for £3 10s a week he’s also shagging you”. I suppose you could say that’s pretty good value for money!

We had all taken our exams at the College and using the end of year reports Joe Kemp and Alan Fisher had sat us all down as individuals and “suggested” what route we might now like to take – Mechanical, Electrical or Instrument Apprenticeships. I was offered Instrument and took Electrical. Mainly because the Instrument course meant another year away in lodgings – at Penarth I think? My Parents turned up and I introduced them to Phyllis Becklake and her husband Stanley – and then we all departed for home.

The first disappointment I had was that unlike School we didn’t get six weeks off for the summer holiday! So after a couple of weeks leave I was off to Portishead and its two Power Stations, one coal and one that had been converted to oil.

In a list of my “best or worst anti-climaxes” this has to be at near top. You spend a full twelve months away from home – working in a very controlled environment, learning techniques that would hopefully last you for a life time. (I spent bloody hours making that tapered drift so it was parallel to 3/1000” all over. God know how many hours I spent with a file in my bloody hand). And when I got to Portishead – well!

Looking back now you have to take into context where we were at that time as an industrial nation and of course the power of the Trade Unions at that time. I became a fully paid up member of the E.E.P.T.U – who had the one and only Frank Chappell as its General Secretary. The Shop Steward for Union was a certain Ray Critchley – and he approached with the application form to join within about 10 minutes of me arriving at the Electrical Workshop on my first day. I duly signed up – after all it was a “closed shop”. If you mention “closed shop” nowadays people thing the local convenience store has been wound up! Apprentices were not allowed to do anything on their own – and we certainly were not allowed to carry our own tools. I recently published a book about my career at Bristol Water and in it I reflect on the working practices that existed throughout the whole of the 1970’s. There must have been around ten apprentices in total at Portishead and we did have a laugh – even if we were spread over the two Power Stations “A” & “B”. However, the life of “A” was coming to a close.

All the Power Stations (1960’s terminology) had their characters, that was obvious from the discussions we all had when we met up every three months in Barnstaple to attend the College. As apprentices we were often “set up” to be the brunt of some mischievous act of some sort. In the 21st Century they would call it “abuse”, we knew it as “banter” and part of our learning about “life in the workplace”. We had a Fitters Mate at Portishead who was rather “well endowed”. Mates used to hand out the tools to the Tradesman. They would set up an apprentice to do a job in a tight space so the apprentice had to be handed the tools with his back to the mate. He would wait for the apprentice to put his hand behind his back to be handed a tool and then flop his own “tool” in his hand! You wouldn’t get away with that now! I was once told that a “water otter” had got into the bottom of the intake and I should go and have a look. I climbed 80ft down the ladders to see a bloody kettle (“water hotter”) sat at the bottom. Trips to the stores for “0BA Flogging Spanners” and “Long Weights” were routine for any new apprentice.

One of the other things often found circulating around the workshops was pornography. Like many of my age group at that time our knowledge of the sex industry had been limited to “Tit-Bits” and “Men Only”. When one of the tradesman thrust a coloured magazine in my hands and said “get some of that”, I wasn’t sure which way up I should be looking at it! This was hard-core stuff – and not something I had ever seen before. People sometimes talked in code. I learned what taking a “2171” was – bizarre. The telephone number for the station was Portishead 2171 (again, what a useless piece of information to retain after fifty years). If you were sick you had to ring in – so going sick was called “taking a 2171”.

Industrial Britain was going to change but not that drastically or indeed quickly in my years as an apprentice. There being two Power Stations on the same site provided ample opportunities to go “missing for hours”. High up in the roof or low down in the basements, or take a walk out to the coal plant. We had two bicycles with large baskets on the front so we could cycle around the site. On a good day go out on the roof and watch the boys from Portishead Nautical School (a local approved school for miscreants) row up and down the docks between the Station and Albright & Wlson, the chemical plant on the other side. I say “nice day” but these poor souls would be doing this in vests and shorts in the middle of January. If it rained we put on our wet weather gear and got paid “wet money”. If we worked in the dust we got paid “dirt money”. The highest additional rate was for working in the electrostatic precipitators, and if my memory serves me correct that was an “extra” 7s 6d per hour. There were numerous advantage points for Tradesman to get “lost”. As an apprentice the tact was to find a tradesman that was actually “interested in the apprentices”, and not seeing them as a “hindrance to their day”, and then build a relationship with that tradesman so you actually benefitted from their guidance. The practice of moving the apprentices around so they got the benefit from the various skillsets all the tradesman only really worked if you ended up with someone who was intend to train you. I found some of the practises bizarre. How many men does it take to change a light bulb?  Or at Portishead – how many different trades can you involve in disconnecting one bloody fan? An electrician to disconnect it. A fitter to remove the coupling guard and the coupling bolts. A rigger to put the strops on. A crane diver to move the fan to a dilly and a dilly driver to drive the actual dilly. And when it was all back together a bloody painter to paint two numbers on the side of it!

We routinely went off to North Devon College, at the top of Sticklepath Hill, (Barnstaple)  and these  three month get together’s were often an opportunity for getting pissed in the evenings and occasionally causing havoc.  Celebrating Birthdays was a favourite – usually by giving the individual the “bumps” in the refectory (posh name for canteen) in the College and then throwing them up that high they went through the ceiling tiles! Our relationship with the Lectures had progressed to Christian name terms, whether they were comfortable with that or not. The drugs scene passed are way – getting joints was easy if you wanted them.

I was lucky to have lodgings with a great family in Fort Street – the house has since been demolished to make way for the widening of Alexandra Road. I had the same lodgings for the next three years. I’m not aware of anyone in our intake that did not complete the apprenticeship, but that isn’t to say there wasn’t anyone – I just can’t remember this far on.

I still find it odd how the smallest decision, sometime taken out of your control, can have a huge impact on your life. Such was Trade Union dominance back in the mid-seventies any tradesman position that became available had to be offered to an apprentice coming out of their time in the first instance. If there was more than one apprentice it had to be offered to the oldest first. We competed our final exams in May/June 1973, and shortly afterwards a vacancy occurred on shift at Portishead. My fellow apprentice Barry Helps (sadly now deceased) was a couple of weeks older than me was offered the post – and declined. I was offered and accepted. There were two Mr Lowe’s at Portishead – “High Low” and “Low Low” they were called. On offering me the post Low Low said “I don’t like appointing apprentices but the Union says I got to” – he sure new how to inspire confidence! Of course in many ways he was right. You serve a four year apprenticeship where the work you do is completely controlled. You are rarely, if ever, given the opportunity to work on your own – and then you get an appointment as the only bloody electrician on nights for two power stations!

I’m not sure what would have happened if Barry had accepted the post – perhaps I would have gone elsewhere. To another CEGB site maybe. Barry took a job at Yelland and married a girl from the area. I stuck it on shift for five months and then left – taking a post at Bristol Water.

The apprenticeship I had was probably one of the best that existed at that time. The first twelve months gave me a basic grounding in engineering and gave me skills that I would not have ever had otherwise. In a world where there appears little basis for the so called friendships that are created through the world of social media there was a camaraderie between all of us throughout that four year period. No, of course we weren’t all “best buddies”, that was never going to happen. Many of us came from different social backgrounds and had differing views on many things. But we were all aware that on “this journey” we would sometimes need the support of each other.

Whist we eventually benefitted from a telephone at home any real desire for keeping in touch when we all went our own way didn’t exist. It is now all these years later that we sometimes find ourselves thinking “I wonder what happened to xxxx?” It’s also now that I find myself with time to record some of the events over a lifetime at work – as much for maintaining my own sanity in retirement as anything else.

As I left Portishead Power Station for the last time on December 31st 1973 Britain was in turmoil. The Government was in dispute with the country’s mine workers, and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in particular. The country was on a three day week. In January 1974 the NUM turned down a 16.5% pay rise and Prime Minister Edward Heath called a General Election for the following month, February.

In the last few weeks I met up with Steve Savage, a fellow Portishead Apprentice of the same year group. We spent a great few hours reminiscing over those years and as he had stayed in the industry, he was able to update me on the whereabouts of a couple of our former colleagues., and also on a couple that had sadly passed away.   Many of you reading this blog would have lived through the same period as me, and probably remember some of the turmoil and the angst created in those turbulent years, as well as the great times. Perhaps it’s because we were the first Post War Generation and we understood  some of the hardship that our parent’s generation went through,  or maybe  just maybe – it’s simply because, in a world free of the technology that now exists where distractions were limited we only truly had the support of one another to get through it. But we did get through – didn’t we!.

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