Big Wullie: or ten years of industrial bliss

Big Wullie: or ten years of industrial bliss

A personal account of work life as an apprentice in a Glasgow metalwork shop in the 1960s and 70s.

‘The man with wrong opinions is not necessarily the worse reasoner.’ Robert H. Thouless

In 1966, at the start of the third year of my apprenticeship I was transferred into the metalworker’s plant maintenance shop, known as ‘The Tinsmiths’. As we were often sent off on jobs to repair/replace/install metalwork, this was an excellent way of exploring the large buildings, the ‘blocks’, which constituted the main factory.

In the shop, I shared a bench with Wee Stevie an amateur feather weight boxer (he fought for Scotland a couple of times) and behind me on the corner bench was Big Wullie and Old Tom. Wullie and Tom were rather short in stature though very powerfully built. Both liked to puff on pipes, they enjoyed their work and each other’s company. From my observation they had little else in common. Tom was a sociable old buffer. Wullie had a driven personality, who despised laziness, poor workmanship and Roman Catholics. He was a man of few words and would often reply with a grunt.

Tom had a strange sense of humour and I remember him looking at me with a solemn face, “Well”, he said, “I’ve never understood grammar, tell me which is correct. Is sole fish or are soles fish?” I looked at this elderly old gent and decided to play it straight. “It is, are sole fish?” He looked me over, nodded his head, took out his pipe and bellowed with laughter. Periodically as he worked, he’d exclaim, “Are sole fish!” Big Wullie just shook his head and worked on.

The men often used me as an ‘extra pair of hands’ and it was a treat to work alongside Tom. He was brilliant with hand tools though he disliked electrically driven machinery. That’s where I’d come in and help. Unfortunately he retired soon after I arrived and Wullie had lost his ally.

Wullie would keep his eye on me, and when he first learned I’d gone to get a plaster for cut on my finger, he gave a grunt of disgust. He appeared to regard cuts and blue nails as inevitable and badges of honour. Part of his pride in being a metalworker. I admired his skill though thought of him as an oaf.

Slowly I gleaned his history. Some years before he’d had an argument with someone in the shop and in a fury had pushed his heavy wooden bench several feet away from the other man. I could well believe it, as he was built like a bull. His nickname, when he was out of earshot, was ‘Gigantar’.

On one occasion he’d got so well lubricated at a Masonic function he scandalised many present by marching up and down the hall singing at the top of his voice, ‘The Sash My Father Wore’. Not really the sort of behaviour approved of by the often puritanical brethren. The story that made me laugh most was when his barracking of a turn at a variety show was so offensive it got him and his wife ejected from a city centre theatre. Now Glasgow audiences are known to be tough, but this was well over the top.

Time passed and when the old foreman retired, I though the charge hand would get the job. Not so, in this factory the Masons monopolised the middle ranks of management. It didn’t help the charge hand’s case that he was a Roman Catholic. What did surprise many people was Big Wullie being appointed.

He was like a dog with two tails. Unfortunately for everyone, Wullie had an explosive temper and sometimes you could hear him the length of the shop. One morning he was bellowing into the telephone and gave the man on the other end a heart attack. It was another foreman. Luckily it was not fatal, though he had to ignominiously go upstairs for a reprimand. We all wept for him. It dampened him down for a few weeks.

To make sense of the next part I have to step outside the factory. For some years I’d been active in the peace movement. The group I was in was all young people the majority of whom were female. The largest single political component was anarchist. Young Mary was recruited and she brought along her elder brother, ‘young’ John. She though he made the sun rise every morning. He was approximately eighteen and had worked as a demolisher, unfortunately he’d damaged his back and was unemployed. That was not his only ill-fortune, as many years before their dad had got into a fight and been kicked to death. They were both lapsed Catholics.

I was surprised to learn that their uncle was my new foreman. They did however give me more insight into the man. When they were little, Uncle Wullie would play the piano at Christmas parties and all the children would dance. He had helped his sister-in-law, his wife’s sister, through some rough times. One year he’d built a boat, a canoe, large enough to take his family down the river Clyde on a camping holiday. A Govan man, he’d launched his craft using the Govan ferry landing, as most of the Clyde side was completely inaccessible, being lined with high walls, containing the yards and warehouses.

Young John, who had once delighted in tearing down churches, had developed a very fixed opinion that free will was a total myth and he was now on a predetermined road. If he was an anarchist, as he once claimed, he was something of an ‘individualist’. In a few months his despair, I suspect, made him very impetuous and dangerous to know. He fell in with some empty headed student sub-hippies, who adopted him as a working class hero. Eventually he left his young wife and infant and moved into the rented flat of his new found friends.

One dark winter morning just after the start had sounded over the Tannoy speakers, Big Wullie appeared at my left shoulder. What now? I wondered. He was simmering with anger, his words I don’t remember. I was being held accountable for John’s desertion of his family – that is, ‘me and my group’. I was stunned and don’t remember saying anything. He stormed off with me standing at my bench with curious silent workmates.

The following weekend I had the opportunity to confront young John regarding his uncle’s allegations. He was furious and told me it was none of my f***ing business what he did - and his uncle could go f**k himself.
At the time I didn’t realise that I’d just made an enemy of young John.

A few day later I noticed a change for the better in Wullie’s attitude and presumed he’d heard something on his family grapevine to modify his opinion. I tried to keep out of his way, as did most people.

Jumping ahead, almost a year later, John ran off to London, after double crossing some gangsters in a drug deal. Some weeks later he was found dead in a bed-sit having o.d.

My next confrontation with Gigantar was some months later. In the meantime, Wee Stevie had got married to Wee Aggie, who had operated a capstan lathe in one of the machining blocks. They soon immigrated to Australia. So now Peter worked opposite me, a young fellow not long out of his time. He was a likable man, quiet and a Catholic. He hadn’t been too lucky. As an apprentice he’d so annoyed his journeyman that the fellow had accidently punched him out! The wee man who did it was more upset than Peter (another workmate, who the apprentices loved to work alongside, punished bad behaviour by standing on their prostrate bodies, while he sang to them. They seemed to think it fair enough and treated it as a joke – what was worse being trodden on or his singing? A man would always cover for ‘his boy’, in return he wanted respect).

Peter and I had been working outside all day, it had been overcast, and I was longing to go home. Peter had been badly shaken up a few months before, as his workmate had been killed. The two had been working in a confined space and had to dismantle a length of ducting, which was no longer required. They’d set up two trestles with a youngerman secured between them on which to stand. Having secured one end with rope they proceeded to loosen the joint to break the duct in two. Unfortunately the other end, which appeared to be fixed with metal brackets to the ceiling was unstable, as the hanging brackets had rusted through. The unsecured end swung out and knocked Peter’s companion off the trestle. The drop was only five feet, just enough for him to land on his head. It was a mess. I thought Peter was now feeling better, though maybe not the full shilling.

I’ve always tried to avoid working overtime as much as possible and that evening, though most of the shop were working late, I’d decided to literally ‘get on my bike’ and go offski. I was standing by my bench starting to take my overalls off, when Wullie came storming up and told me if I wasn’t going to work overtime I’d better start working through the day. I could see out of the corner of my eye Peter sitting down, his head in his hands. In a flash I turned on Wullie and told him to, “Get the f**k off my back”. An apprentice talking to a foreman like that was rather unusual. Willie startled, gave me a hard look turned round and stalked back down the length of the shop. Behind the guillotine, where he had a table, he picked up a bundle of drawings and threw them down on the floor. He picked them up and threw them down again. As I walked out of the shop to clock out, several men said “Well done lad”. I had no idea what was going to happen next, though now with the benefit of hindsight, I can see there was a sea change in his attitude. A kind of respect that I’d stood up to his bullying.

It didn’t happen at once, as he started giving me crap work – boring and repetitive. I was determined I would not be ground down. One of the jobs involved cutting and bending short lengths of wire to fit into a complicated jig. After completion they were to be sent to the spring shop to create the elasticity needed to hold them in place. Somehow I managed to detach my brain from my hands and become an automaton. I heard later that Willie was surprised and told people I’d completed the task in less time than he had taken. I thought, “F**k you!”

Now in my fifth year, one of the apprentice training supervisors got a real surprise when he met me as he was entering the factory block where I was based. I was walking out with a tool box, as a blind, I was actually making my way to the canteen, which was a good ten minutes’ walk and it was almost lunch time. It was obvious he had forgotten me completely, as I’d kept below their radar as much as I could. They were shocked that they had ‘lost’ me though relieved when it turned out I had been attending college and had not been on a four day week for months at a time!

This had happened because the factory usually liked to send their boys, there was about a hundred, on ‘block release’ of several weeks at a time, to study at an engineering college. They were together in year groups and fairly easily monitored. As a metalworker I had ‘day release’ (one day a week during term time) and had the luxury of mixing with apprentice metal workers from all over Glasgow.

After the first year we metalworker boys arranged to choose a ‘release day’, which allowed us to stay with our pals! I enjoyed college (I had left school with no qualifications) and passed all my C&G exams, which allowed me access to college for five years, we helped each other and two metalwork comrades, who worked in the yards, were in the same class.

Unfortunately the training centre now began to take an interest in me and word must have got back to Wullie and it seemed he was quite chuffed that ‘his apprentice’ had been quietly going his own way, doing his own thing. He began giving me more and more challenging work.

Over the next two years the metal shop expanded with four more workers being employed. This was mainly due to Wullie pursuing work that normally would have been sub-contracted out and mainly ducting work. He had to fight hard for the ‘extra’ work. On the shop floor we always suspected that this sub-contracting was the result of those upstairs getting a back hander. It was known that each New Year at the back gate, along with the calendars, came boxes of scotch.

To try and monitor what was happening, the shop stewards in the factory habitually checked out the union cards of any contractors who had come inside a block to work. The metalworkers hated cowboys, next to scabs. I had learned my lesson some time before, when a contractor borrowed my Gilbows - never to be seen again. My man had no sympathy, it was, “I told you so you daft bugger”. I had to buy another pair and it took bloody ages to pay them off (we owned our own hand tools). Half a century later and I’m still hopping mad – thieving from a boy, absolutely pathetic!

In 1971 the factory went bust, when the R&D spiralled out of control. The first we workers heard about the company collapse was one night after work, with hundreds of us lined up waiting for buses to take us home, we read all about it in the ‘Evening Citizen’. The government intervened, followed by big redundancies. The factory operated a ‘last in first out’ policy. Our shop steward along with half of our shop were lost.

I was elected as the replacement steward. The men who were left gave me great support. As the years went by things picked up in the shop. We put pressure on Big Wullie to modify his ways, if he behaved obnoxiously we instigated an unofficial overtime ban. When we were asked to work, we’d all individually refuse the offer. I’d say, “Nothing to do with me”. It had to be unofficial as the works committee, the shop stewards’ mouthpiece, had to sanction overtime bans. This tactic worked because the shop could apply it quickly and it was deniable. When I later became a convener and sat on the works committee, the tactic luckily had served its purpose, or it could have been rather difficult to explain.

Eventually the penny dropped and Wullie began to prefer talking things over rather than just charging in, head down. I had got more involved in union work, stopped being a peacenik and joined the ORA. Eventually my domestic arrangements fractured and I decided to head south. It was the mid-1970s.

The last time I saw Wullie, just before I left for London, we were almost friendly. He was no longer a great bear of a man. He had lost some weight, which appeared to hollow him out and his prominent cheekbones gave his face a gaunt look. His pipe was long gone and he was only smoking the occasional cigarette. He still liked a good drink, though his diabetes now forced him to read drawings with a large magnifying glass.

He gave me the present of a book by Robert H. Thouless, lecturer in psychology at the University of Glasgow, ‘Straight And Crooked Thinking’ (1930). I still have it, though the grey sandstone tenements of Govan are all gone and so too is the factory.

Posted By

Jan 18 2015 11:39


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Jan 16 2015 18:20

That's a great story Auld-bod, it should be a blog.

Serge Forward
Jan 16 2015 18:22

Thanks for that. An interesting read. In some ways it takes me back a bit to my own teenage years on the factory floor.