What a Great Apprenticeship!
By Tony Alder
Saturday 5th August 1978 was my 16th birthday, two days later Monday 7th August I started my first shift with the NCB. It sounds like something from the Victorian era!. At that time I was unaware that my apprenticeship would be so enjoyable as well as educational and that I would meet so many marra's (characters) along they way. I will try and remember some of them (forgive me if names not entirely correct).
That first day at 'the knack' training centre I met up with my fellow 1st year Dawdon apprentice fitters - John Edwards, Kevin Burrell, Kenny Cleminson, Davey Tunstall and George Donnelly. All but George were from Sunderland so we were known as 'Townies'. We were kitted up and sent to a classroom where our instructor went around the room asking each apprentice 'which pit we were allotted to', when we replied 'Dawdon' he said 'you lot will retire there not like these at inland pits who will have to transfer to the big coastal pits' - oh how wrong he was!
Year 1 apprenticeship was split between Wearside College and Vane Tempest training centre. Although towards the end of year 1 we did spend a couple of weeks at Dawdon with our first job being to dismantle two rows of old lockers to make space for the new lockers that would house our new three sets of overalls, net bag and the biggest nappy pin you've seen. The NCB were going to wash our overalls weekly for us. This was a great job as the amount of money we found meant we never spent any of our own money getting tea, coffee and bait in canteen.
Years 2, 3 & 4 apprenticeship were split between day release at college and time at the pit. Pit time was split between different tasks. It was now that we met Vincey Smith, fitting shop gaffa, and his multi-coloured apprentice task allocation chart. Weeks of the year had different colours allocated to your name and a quick check of the colour index indicated where you would be working any particular week. Despite being in charge of all the apprentices I'm not really sure if Vincey ever liked any of us ha ha.
The Fitting Shop is where I met people like Brian 'the business' Hughes, Billy Benson, George 'the coat' Anderson, Stan Stan the lathe man and little Raymond the only man who could drill a square hole with a twist drill!!!!!!! Other surface fitters were Spud and Lester Murphy (the best 80's hairstyles ever - Spud with his blonde tips and Lester with the best wedge ever - although I never did tell them at that time!), Mickey Shovlin a large man with flaming ginger hair, Ray Kennedy and Jimmy Whittington. Surface Loco's was a good place had a great bait cabin with fire and you could always grab an hour after your bait. The washery was a place I avoided like the plague, I spent one week there and never went back it seem to be staffed with people from a sub-culture.
After my 20 days underground training (well we only did 20 half days because each afternoon our trainer liked to 'get his down') - I got my first taste of life on the coal face on 10 North with Bobby Lowery. While working with Bobby he had gone on a Friday night out to Newcastle with lads from The Harbour and the bus left him behind so he walked all the way home along the A19 to Seaham. I'm not certain but I bet he was back in time for the 6am Saturday morning shift. Another fitter on 10 North was Billy Etherington, later to become an MP although because he was always away on union duty he was an MP on 10 North, Missing Person!
Then I was off to Southside E80 (a big hitter face as known) here I met 'Flying Kite' Brian White, Dickie Ord, Stewy Brown, Alan 'chocco' Constable and Dennis 'king dot' Rooney. Another King Dotter was Doc Patterson who looked after the underground pumps. It was once rumoured that one day Doc had said he couldn't work overtime that afternoon as a friend was being cremated, however he couldn't refuse the overtime and when asked what about the cremation he replied 'they will have to keep him on a lar leet (low light) until I get out!'
The 'G' & 'F' seams introduced me to Tony 'Ginger beard' Hepple, Dickie 'the cat' Catterill, Jimmy Connen, Billy Craggs, Brian Melenthaman (probably spelled wrong) who once lived above Dawdon chippy and another king dotter Brian 'Sas' Savage. Also Cosh Barrow who resembled Paddington bear by wearing a duffle coat underground.
A spell in the underground loco's with Charlie Walker instilled the NUM and Durham Mechanics into me. Off to the Low Main trunks and meet 'The Royal Family' - Billy Wilson, Matty Finkle and Darkie Dobson who had a fantastic underground bait cabin with a dartboard and two beds and you were always guaranteed to get out of pit at lunchtime.
Then comes one of best jobs Northside 480B with Dek Bowers, Ramsey Ardle and Andy Watson - this meant 5 days a week fust (first) shift through day shift, 13hrs friday night through saturday and 6hrs sunday, big money time.
Dek was as strong as an ox. One day after a doubler we were travelling out from 3 loader on the mail and I was sitting opposite Ramsey when he yawned I put my hand into his mouth and took out his bottom teeth. I gave them to Dek who threatened to throw them out! the look on Ramseys' face was a picture.
Some others I came across were Trevor Ray, Jimmy Dicka and Ginger John Smith.
Throughout my apprenticeship I had pleasure of working for some great gaffas who looked after me - Stan Simpson, Bobby Watson, Alan 'flipper' Phillips, Desi Smirk, Alan Black, Arty Greener, Dennis McKenna and a Deputy Engineer Keith 'the bairn' Dunn.
Below us came new sets of apprentices Eddie Shield, Neil Stoessel, Pearny, Roly Pounder, Budsy, Snagger, Wassi, Grant Lisle and Smokey Defty. Then came the final set of apprentices who appeared just to want to do as little work as possible during their apprenticeship - Steven 'Docka' Docherty and Paul 'Loopy' Gulliver. Docka arrived with a bit of a chip on his shoulder but a few times hoisted up in the fitting shop crane and the odd five gallon drum of oily water tipped on him whilst he sunbathed in the chockyard brought him down to earth.
It was at College I learned the technical part of engineering, at the pit I learned the practical part but it was my mentors throughout my apprenticeship that taught me the best lessons in life. Im sure it was those formative years that helped me get to where I am in life today and the person that I turned out to be - so for all those who helped me along the way I am eternally grateful. Marra's then and Marra's now.