Learning the Ropes:

Alan Swinburne’s story continued

As a teenager I had no intention of working in the steel industry. My father was a farmer and that was my passion, so academic qualifications were not high on my list of priorities. I was going to be a farmer but my father thought differently and sent me to the steelworks to get a proper job. In the 1960s it was quite easy to obtain employment with several large organisations in the locality looking to employ  apprentices every year. Luckily I had  taken an interest in science subjects at school and I was granted an interview at the Technical Research Department.

It was an daunting experience walking into the massive complex that was Consett Iron Company from a farmyard environment, and the photo of the gatehouse shows  my first view of the steelworks. The interview was very memorable: I was interviewed by the Chief Metallurgist, who not only blinked constantly but pinned his tie to the desk with his thumb and ran a model car down it. I must have thought if this is the CHIEF Metallurgist what are his deputies like! Over the next seventeen years I found out, meeting some great people but a lot of characters too.

My interview took place after I sat my O levels but before I received the results. I was offered a placement but the actual job depended on the exam results and as I passed Chemistry and Maths I was offered a job as a Metallurgical Technician. I was placed on a 5 year training program which involved day release and night classes at Consett Technical College [shown above] for 3 years and, if successful, a further 2 years at Rutherford College in Newcastle. During these 5 years you visited different  departments for 9 months at a time, although some placements lasted longer. If you were successful after 5 years of training you were given a permanent job in a Quality Control Section of one of the  production plants or in the TRD [Technical Research Department].

Although the company would not allow us to do further day release courses, five of us went to night classes to Rutherford College to study for a Licentiateship in Metallurgy. This involved going to college 3 nights a week for a year which was fairly arduous, especially after a full day at work, but because the company would not give us time off it was the only option open to us. With a lot of hard work and a point to prove we all passed!

Attendance at college was taken very seriously, especially night classes. On one occasion, against my better judgement, I decided to play in a semi -final of a table tennis competition instead of going to college. On arriving at work the next morning I was summoned into the Chief Chemists office before I even got my coat off: the college had been on the phone very early reporting my absence. I explained the reason and was given a severe dressing down, being told how metallurgy was more important than table tennis and warned about future attendance. I was then sent out of the office, but before I reached the door I was asked how we came on, I said we had been successful and the Chief Chemist congratulated m, before adding “I hope the final is not on a college night”. Reprimand over and forgotten about, and that was how I found most managers treated us.    

My first training placement was to Templetown Brickworks Laboratory, more about that next time.

Alan Swinburne, former CIC employee