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He would sit on the step at home, completely shattered

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: March 09, 2014

By John Workman

  • The cover of the 'Made in Oldbury' souvenir handbook

  • The furnace being tapped with Furnace man Bill Tombs (far right) watching on in 1949

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HERE at the Bugle we publish stories, especially recently commemorating the centenary of the start of the First World, about the heroics of servicemen, who as regulars, volunteers or conscripts, put themselves in the firing line when the safety and freedom of their family and country were at stake.

But it is worth remembering that men and women on the Home Front also put their lives at risk, both during wartime and in peaceful times, in the days when jobs in industry and manufacture were not necessarily governed by the best and safest work practices. This was a situation that would continue to exist until the introduction of the Health & Safety at Work Act in 1974 which also concentrated on self-regulation and employee participation.

A letter that featured in last week's edition of the Bugle entitled 'Three sisters had lucky escape in factory blast', emphasised the dangers of working in a particular industry, in this case munitions."The shells were already loaded, the fuses had to be inserted and the cap screwed down by hand before being placed into a machine which revolved the shell and finished screwing the cap down tightly. Suddenly there was a violent explosion which killed 35 women and injured many more". (This accident happened at Barnbow munitions factory near Leeds).

In 1922 the effects of the Great War were still being felt on the Home Front, this time in the Black Country when an explosion rocked Dudley Port in Tipton killing 19 young girls in a factory blast. They were in the process of dismantling redundant First World War cartridges and removing the gunpowder when a stray spark blew apart the small factory in which they were working. The memory of these teenage girls is now preserved on a blue plaque near where the explosion took place.

Following the war years of 1914-18, health and safety in the workplace was still a questionable issue and only improved in a piecemeal fashion. Acts of Parliament were passed but generally just extended to deal with particular hazards and work activities as they arose, and despite a vast amount of legislation, millions of workers were still not covered by law in the course of their employment, and there was no statutory provision for the protection of the public.

A few weeks ago we featured a story about the town of Oldbury and the best it could offer in terms of industry when a postwar exhibition was held in 1949. It was a time when the country was still suffering from the consequences of war, rationing was still in place for many every day items, but championing industry in all its different forms was a way to promote a positive feeling that the country was getting back on the road to recovery.

The army of workers at the vanguard of that recovery included a Black Country chap named Mr. Bill Tombs who was employed at Shotton Brothers Ltd. in Oldbury, and to feed his family and provide security for their future he worked every day at the mouth of the furnace in a potentially dangerous environment. When we put the original article together we used a photograph that was described as 'A dramatic study of a furnace being tapped' and Bugle reader Jack Tombs from Oldbury quickly recognised his dad Bill in the frame with two of his work colleagues.

Jack told us, "I was flabbergasted and then delighted to see my dad in the photograph. It brought back a lot of memories, both happy and sad. Unfortunately he died as a result of an accident at Shotton's when I was just 18."

Jack's memories of his dad are a reminder that those who died throughout the 20th century as a result of an accident at work when Britain was striving to recover from the turmoil of war, deserve as much credit as the many who served in the armed forces, for they too have contributed to the history of the Black Country. This is Jack's story about his dad Bill.

"It was with great interest that I read the Bugle on January 23, 2014, in particular the article about Oldbury. I was born and have lived in the town all my life and I am proud of that fact. Dad was employed at Shotton's, a firm that moved to Oldbury in 1916. They were one of the pioneers of the black-heart malleable casting that could be machined easily and at high speed.

"In 1949, the year of the 'Made in Oldbury' exhibition, Shotton Brothers were carrying out extensive alterations and enlargements which subsequently increased output and the number of employees. A second 15-ton rotary furnace had been installed and a modern conveyor system which reduced the amount of manual handling. The castings produced were mainly for commercial vehicles and cars, pit props for mining, flexible pipe joints and general engineering machinery.

"Dad worked at Shotton's for twenty-five years, starting when he was 21, and experienced both the war years and the aftermath. In 1950 I was aged 18 and in the armed forces when I received news of a terrible accident. Dad had been hurt and by the time I managed to get home he had already died of his injuries.

"He was the main furnace man, and when I was a young lad I remember going to his workplace to take him his dinner in a basin that Mom had prepared that morning. He always had a towel around his neck which served as a sweat cloth, and I often noticed his clothes were burnt by splashes of molten metal. Another indelible memory I have is seeing him sitting on the step at home completely shattered after 12 /14 hours of toil at the face of the furnace.

"In December 1950 the furnace was tapped in the usual way and the slag run off at the rear where Dad and another chap began to break it down before it was removed. Suddenly the head of the sledgehammer that the other workman was using flew off and hit Dad, and he died as a result.

"He wasn't the most educated of fellows, but it was cruel luck for him to die from an accident at work, not much of a reward for all his endeavours. And my mom, God bless her, did a wonderful job taking care of us after Dad died. I now realise that to die so young at 46 meant I didn't really get to known him as he always seemed to be at work. But I do know that during the time we had together Dad taught me a great deal, and I am proud to say he worked hard and was the finest father any son could ask for."

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