Dawdon And Me
By Keith Binks
I began my working career at Dawdon as an apprentice electrician in September 1979 at 16 years of age, however had you asked me in September 1978 where I would have been in a years time, then Dawdon couldn't have been further from my thoughts. At the time I had great designs on becoming a fireman and so it was when I approached my careers teacher at school in the spring of 1979 in order to air my career ambitions. Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, I was told that the fire brigade only accepted people at 18 years of age, and as I was expected to do quite well with my exam results that I should consider training for a trade in the meantime. I could always take up my fire brigade ambitions at a later date. Off I went to fill in the various application forms for the many heavy industries which were still present in the North East at the time, and one of those applications was to be an apprentice mechanical fitter at Wearmouth Colliery in Sunderland. My dad's side of the family were all from mining stock, with my great grandad having worked at South Hetton, my grandad having worked at Ryhope, and my dad having worked as a fitter at Wearmouth for a period of time. It was quite natural that I should attempt to follow in his footsteps.
Very soon I attended Wearside Technical College to sit some aptitude tests for the NCB, and this was quickly followed by an interview at Seaham Colliery more commonly known as "The Knack". I travelled to the interview with a school mate of mine who also had an interview the same morning. I recall sitting there waiting to be seen, mesmerised by the sight of the winding gear wheels spinning on one of the shafts. The sight of this was too much for my mate who promptly left the waiting area, never to return.
I felt at the time the interview went well, and one of the first questions asked was how I would get to work in the early hours of the morning if no transport was available. I replied "by pedal bike" and then followed a discussion on where friction and lubrication were present on a pedal bike. Somehow following my answers to this, and other subsequent questions an offer of a job as an apprentice electrician at Dawdon Colliery arrived in the post a few days later. My first thoughts amongst the elation of getting the role, was "where the bloody hell is Dawdon"? I was soon to find out.
My first view of Dawdon was a couple of weeks later when I went along to sign the various forms needed to enrol. I very quickly realised I was a boy entering a mans world.
My early months were spent between college and training centres with very little time at Dawdon, however when I did get there me and my fellow apprentices very quickly stuck out like sore thumbs. It wasn't our youthfulness or naivety that betrayed us, but those garish bright orange overalls we were forced to wear as first year apprentices. They were very different from our "proper" work wear and wouldn't look out place on a Guantanamo Bay prisoner in the current day. The clamour between us apprentices to see who was going to be first down the pit was huge, yet we were all to be disappointed in the time it took whilst we had our "basic" and "face training". Of course during this period it was when I became very aware of the dearth of characters the pit employed, and these characters would play a huge part in the development of both my technical and life skills in the coming months and years.
It felt like all of a sudden you had a lot of dad's about. You had those who would take you under their wing and teach you new skills and look after you, you had those who would haul you into line when you stepped out of it (which we invariably would on many occasions), however the biggest shock was the relentless banter and general "piss taking" which went on. It was a huge lesson in life and one which you had to take on board rapidly in order to survive. It was also real character building. Learning to give as good as you got soon got you respect and you soon became accepted as one of them, even if coming from Sunderland I was always earmarked as a "Townie" in their eyes.
I quickly learned strong values which were important in the "Dawdon working environment". The values of loyalty, respect, of friendship and camerarderie, of being part of a team, of being reliable and not letting people down. For many working at Dawdon, their very lives could often depend upon these skills.
I learned many technical skills too, many which were to help me in my later working career. The ability to evaluate and step back from a problem before acting, the ability to problem solve and not act irrationally, good decision making, as again a lot of men's livelihoods could depend upon decisions you made. It was a truly steep learning curve, but a very enjoyable one.
In the end I spent a mere 8 years of my working career at Dawdon, however the skills I learned there have served me very well throughout my working career and I look back on my times there with much fondness and affection. If I have one regret it was not being able to have my own apprentice whilst I was there in order to pass on the skills I was taught onto them.
My later working career has taken a very different turn and I now have a management role in Facilities, Health & Safety, and Environment with a prominent City of London professional services firm. I have also been fortunate in recent years that I have been able to go along to speak with 6th form politics students at a South West London college about what life in the mines was like, and what it was like during the miners strike of 1984-1985. I also get involved with career initiatives that my current firm has with local schools where again I am able to explain my background and hopefully give them inspiration of what can be achieved by adopting good life skills etc. All in all I wouldn't have been able to achieve any of this without the help of "My Dawdon".