Here is Consett lad Paddy McGuigan’s story which features in our next MADE OF STEEL show at Consett Juniors on Wednesday June 5th.
When I left school in 1969 I knew that I would get a job at ‘The works’. In those days, the doors of the school opened and we all flooded out; then doors of ‘the works’ opened and we all flooded in.
I wanted an apprenticeship, and not just any apprenticeship. I wanted to have the best one which meant being an electrician – ‘A sparky’. And that’s what I got.
I always wanted to be the best and to know everything, especially while I was still young because my grandad always told me that, ‘the only thing the years bring to a fool is old age.’
And I wanted to remember everything like Leslie Welch,’ The Memory Man’ who used to be on the radio. I’m still the same today, I love learning and continue to study; it’s Economics at the minute.
I’ve heard people say that they had great training during their apprenticeship at ‘the works’, or ‘The Company’ as we used to call it. I have to say that I didn’t. I learned much more when I finished my apprenticeship. I learned ‘on the job’ – ‘sitting by Nellie’ as it was known, watching a good electrician working. I particularly loved the logic of ‘fault finding.’ This was learning from experience.
One of the many things I learned was to keep an eye on my work mates because they loved nothing better than playing practical jokes. Many a time when I was working up in cable racks, suspended 30 foot high they would take the ladders away so I couldn’t get down and leave me stranded until the end of the shift, or even longer, so that sometimes I even clocked up overtime! I’d shout down to them, ‘Howay lads’ but they’d just ignore me and go away laughing.
Even the foreman was a joker. He says to me one day, “Paddy, you must be nearly 65 by now are you?” I said, “Hardly, I’m not even 30. How’s that like?” And he said, “You’ve got to be 65 according to the number of hours you’ve claimed on your time-sheets.”
Mind the lads were jewels. My electrician’s mate, Arthur Dickenson saved my life. One nightshift we were called out to the ‘100 tonner,’ an overhead crane in the bay because it was out of operation.
The main supply cable had worked loose from its connection, as I saw when I poked my head in the switch to look. The electricity was still on and the other crane in the bay came down and bashed into the one we were on.
The loose 500 volt cable hit the metal switch casing and ‘earthed’, exploding in my face. I staggered blindly backwards in shock across the thin walkway towards the edge where a huge gap led to a 100 foot drop below. Arthur was quick thinking and acting. He punched me in the stomach and I dropped to the walkway and he kept hold of me, all of the time telling me just to lie still and stay calm.
He then took me to the First-Aid Room and though me eyes were open I couldn’t see anything for 20 minutes. I thought I had been blinded. I looked odd for a while with no eyebrows or eyelashes which had been burnt off.
The lads were typically sympathetic and took the mick out of me mercilessly.
But as I said, Arthur Dickenson saved me life.
Being a maintenance electrician meant there was a lot of hanging about waiting for a break-down. I filled my time by reading Greek and Roman books which the lads would snatch from me, read a sentence or two out loud and then laugh their socks off. They were not impressed as these books were not like their magazines with pictures in them.
I used to do 5 crosswords per shift in the daily papers. And then I’d have competitions with people to complete them, against the clock, to see who could finish first. I never lost.
I’ve often asked myself, “What did ‘The Company’ give me?” The answer is it gave me a lot. I became a shop-steward, learned to fight my corner and debate cogently. I got a trade, friendships, skills and an education as well.
After being made redundant, along with 3,700 others on the 12th of September 1980, they paid me to learn once again, allowing me to attend South Shields Marine & Technical College to do Electronics for a year.
Then I took an English degree and after that a Careers Officers course and worked as an Unemployment Specialist Careers Officer for 3 years back in Consett. As an U.S.C.O. I had a badge made with that abbreviation on it followed by the words D.I.S.C.O and U.F.O.
I worked with unemployed people who had been made redundant just like me. I ended up teaching English Literature and Language at Derwentside College for 20 years and became Community Education Manager.
Everything seemed to come full circle when the former Consett Tech College, now Derwentside College, moved from its original site and me with it, to the old steelworks site in 2002. Even more bizarrely, it was built directly on top of what was my old Apprentice Training Centre! Not a bad journey for a sparky.
I was asked, “What did ‘the works’ closing mean to me? For too many people it was the worst thing that could have happened: some never worked again after they lost their livelihood; others got work in small firms or factories around Consett, but the wages were a lot poorer.
But for me ‘the works’ closing was the best thing that ever happened I was lucky, just 27 years old (Timing is everything) and had just done two ‘A’ Levels in English and Law at night classes at Consett Tech College. I was ready.
If I contrast the time of my youth and first employment with young people’s today, I feel so lucky. I’m one of the blessed baby boomers and as such had many things today’s young people don’t have.
I had opportunities; for employment as there were plenty of jobs back then, for education, which was free to degree level and for social mobility to move up the ladder the lads so mischievously took away from me.
But for me then it was the start of a new life. I loved it and grabbed these opportunities with both hands. As I say, I was one of the lucky ones; others weren’t so fortunate. And I’ve never forgotten those people and their families that have struggled and continue to do so.