IN recent weeks we have featured several stories about Joseph Sankey and Sons, the great industrial conglomerate based in Bilston, but with works across the region, that was one of the manufacturing giants of the Black Country. Former Sankey apprentice Malcolm Stevens from Cradley Heath has written in with his recollections of his early days working for the firm, when he joined the laboratory.
Malcolm writes, “I enjoyed reading the various articles about Sankeys and I believe that when this company closed the country lost yet another of the jewels from its industrial crown.
“I started work in 1958 at Manor Works, in the laboratory. The works was very large with massive rolling mills producing silicon steel sheet and it was a formidable sight to see such huge, white hot billets being rolled into sheet form. The factory was so large that it even had its own gas plant producing ‘Galusha gas’ for the furnaces that brought metal up to temperature.
“On the day I started, the chief metallurgist, Fred Pugh, introduced me to the chief chemist, Walter Burden, who took me on a long walk to the gas plant, which was situated alongside the railway line. Then, by using some glassware, he showed me how to take a gas sample. Back in the laboratory, he showed me how to use an ‘Oerset’ apparatus to determine the carbon dioxide, oxygen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane content. This was done by passing the gas through various chemicals and determining volumetrically how much gas had been absorbed by each chemical. He told me this had to be done once in a morning and once in an afternoon, leaving me to decide the most suitable time. I had to give a report on the finding. I started doing this and after a few days he remarked that he was impressed with how methodical I was in taking the samples at the same time each day. I acknowledged his appreciation but failed to tell him that I was a train-spotter and these were the times the ‘Glasgow’ came by!
“One day several people were away ill and the chief chemist also got called away, leaving me to look after the place! A man in a suit came in and said, ‘Custom and excise’, I said, ‘What’s that mean?’ He said, ‘Just find me a chair.’ But instead of sitting on it, he stood on it and poked his nose over the apparatus we had for making distilled water. He said, ‘Well, that’s my job done,’ then sat down, writing up his experiment! “Then an elderly man came in a plonked two enamel jugs of water down on the bench with a thump. He said, ‘Check these for softness,’ and walked out. I though to myself, ‘Yes, my lad, I’ve heard of your sort,’ and thinking it to be a joke I poured the water down the sink. But when the chief chemist came back he said, ‘No! He didn’t mean softness, he meant hardness!’ The penny dropped and I had to go down to the boiler house and get some more boiler water to determine its hardness! “As time went by I found the laboratory was far more scientific than people taking a big sniff and talking about softness when they meant hardness! “One day a huge Pickfords low-loader came slowly up the road with three police escort outriders. On it was a massive steel fabrication, towering very high. It stopped outside the works and the driver was greeted by several of our staff. Nothing to do with me, of course, or was it? Far from being a nosey observer, I found I was the one they were looking for! Apparently, this construction had been made at another branch and, for some reason not known to me, required a ‘crack detection test’ to be carried out right at the uppermost level. Hence, being young and wiry, I was chosen to do the job.
Then, having satisfied that no cracks were present, the load went slowly on its way with the police motorcycles surrounding it. I was told it was a telescope.
The whole thing was repeated several times over the next week, with one or other of us young men having to climb up and do the test. I never found out who these monstrosities were for but often wondered whether Sir Bernard Lovell had something to do with it.
“The place was full of laboratory glassware and all the necessary chemical reagents to determine what seemed to me like all the elements in periodic classification. A complete analysis could take a day or so, but the end was near for this type of metallurgical analysis. The advent of the spectrograph meant all this could be done much more quickly. The spectrograph generates a ‘spark’ on a metal sample and analyses the wavelengths of the light emitted to determine the various elements present – all done in a few minutes.
“I was transferred to Albert Street and Bath Street laboratory. Here they made a massive assortment of products, from wheelbarrows to aluminium beer barrels, and from aircraft engine centre sections to a whole array of parts of the little ‘Car of the Century’, which was by now pounding out of the gates of Longbridge. In fact, there was an enormous amount of pressings made for all of the volume car manufacturers.
“The laboratory was a hive of activity. Much of the steel used came from the Steel Company of Wales and a tremendous amount of testing was done to comply with our customers’ requirements.
But initially, as a teenager, I had to take it in turns with others to make the tea. Nothing could go wrong with this, you would think. Well, there were about 20 cups involved and all the laboratory personnel and associated departments came together in a large room for the ‘break’.
After sorting out which cup was which, I rang the x-ray department to tell them the tea was ready. But this was the Black Country, after all, for a very gruff voice said, ‘Wossay? The tay’s ready? This is the walebarrer shap!’ “My apprenticeship progressed and I was involved with all the mechanical testing of the material used, analysis of the metal, failure investigations and much non-destructive testing, including x-raying to make sure that no internal defects were present. It’s quite a skilful job, examining radiographs to make sure that safety critical components are completely sound. But even here, the human element showed its hand.
“One severe winter morning, the man in charge came in, walking through deep snow and said, ‘Would you believe it? When I put these wellingtons on, a mouse shot straight up my trouser leg and I had to get my trousers off again to find him!’ If I wasn’t shivering from the cold, I certainly shivered when he told that story.
“What a wonderful company Sankeys was – a huge team of trained men doing skilful work and producing such a range of marvellous products.
When they eventually closed the gates for the last time, it was like emptying a bag of feathers, it was impossible for the combined skill, expertise and organisation to be gathered back together again to serve the nation in the way that its pioneers had achieved.”