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Memories of 'The Yard'

Wilson John Haire shares more of his vivid memories of two generations of his family working at the Harland and Wolff shipyard.

The Yard - by Wilson John Haire

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The first apprentices' strike in the yard...

Article by Wilson John Haire Nov 05

In 1950 I was standing at my bench in the Joiners' Shop when I heard a commotion at the far end of the shop. It was hard to make out faces from a distance for the shop was huge. I would say that over a thousand joiners and apprentices worked there.

In the centre of the shop was the woodworking machines with the wood machinists and their apprentices. Another section was the paint shop with the painters and their apprentices. The benches of the joiners were organised in sections with a chargehand in a brown dust coat and bowler hat. We had about twelve joiner chargehands. Over all the sections was a foreman, who wore a suit and bowler hat Over the whole shop floor was a head foreman in a more expensive suit and the usual bowler hat. But over all of them, including the wood machinists and the painters, was the manager wearing an even more stylish suit and a bowler hat.

We made the furniture for the ships, the doors and frames, wooden stairways, mahogany handrails, teak handrails for exterior use, heavy teak doors for the same purpose. There was no rush because the work had to be perfect. When finished, it was closely inspected by the chargehand who made the decision if it should be passed. It was always an anxious moment for us. We were under continual scrutiny. The chargehand's office was made totally of glass so as he could watch out over the shop floor.

The Joiners Shop circa 1950

The commotion turned out to be maybe a hundred apprentices from the plumbers and sheetmetal shops in the Thompson Works. They were shouting slogans about wanting a pay rise and they told us apprentices to join them. None of us moved. We were too surprised and even fearful. You could be sent home for a month without pay for some misdemeanours. I couldn't imagine being sent home and having to tell my father news like that even though I was eighteen at the time. We weren't called teenagers at the time. That term was unknown then.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939Wilson John Haire with his father in 1936
The four-year old (1936) is me with my father, also called Wilson Haire. He still dressed like a returned-Yank, having come back from New York in 1930.
We were five-year indentured apprentices until the age of twenty-one and we had to live at home and be subsidised by our fathers, who usually only had a manual worker's wage coming in with maybe other sons and daughters to keep. Starting at fourteen as an office boy and maybe losing that job was losing the apprenticeship as well. Five pounds had to be deposited by our fathers as well at the start of the apprenticeship. To lose the apprenticeship was to lose that money as well. So father was the man who pulled you out of bed in the mornings from the age of fourteen to the age of twenty-one. Nor could you leave the apprenticeship without written permission from your father. He was very unlikely to do that.

The few who did manage to leave joined the colonial police or the army or navy. Some came back on visits and said it was easier than working in the shipyard with your father as sergeant-major, prison warder and general kill-joy.

The wages for young people in the Yard was poor. At fourteen it was sixteen shillings a week (£0.80p). At fifteen nineteen shillings (£0.95p). At sixteen, and the first year of apprenticeship, it was one pound, four shillings and sixpence (£1.22p). Bus fares for me at the time (I lived out in Carryduff) was four shillings and sixpence a week (£0.22p). Father took you along to Spackman's in High Street and picked a suit, shirt and tie for you, for he was doing the paying. When I wore the clothes I felt like a Victorian mourner. I remember my mother screaming when she saw me dressed in what my father thought was modern dress.

The wages crept up year by year of the apprenticeship by a few shillings. Any time lost through illness or other reasons like bad timekeeping had to be made up after the five years were up. If you had three months to make up then you only got fifth year apprenticeship wages of about four pounds for that three months. The wages on completion of the apprenticeshp was six pounds, four shillings and sixpence. (in 1953) If you decided to live on at home the custom was to hand in half your wages to the house.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939In the Joiners Shop in 1950-

(Above:) The Joiner's Shop in 1950. I'm to the front of the group, dressed in a dark jacket and overalls, with a tie - usually worn by joiners and electricians, the elite trades. This Joiner's Shop had been the original aircraft works where my father worked on constructing Stirling bombers. There is a phograph in the H&W web pages of it as a ruin. It was very cold place to work in winter because of its vast size. The original very high and wide doors through which the war-time aircraft were taken throught was still there.


During the office boy period the timekeepers in each time office we visited would give us a shilling a week but only if we did our work properly. My father would calculate how much I was being given and I would have to hand that into the house and expect nothing in return. It became normal for we office boys to lie and hold back a shilling or two. In the first year of my apprenticeship I was given two shillings a week pocket money. That crept up year by year as well by a shilling or two. In the third year of my apprenticeship I began doing Saturday jobs to earn more money. It was usually an extra ten shillings for the day, renewing someone's doors or garden gates up the Malone Road. I was reluctantly allowed to keep this.

The plumbing and sheetmetal apprentices taunted us for not coming out immediately. They said they would be back the next day. They came back and there must have been a thousand of them this time with the added shipwright, caulker, blacksmith and riveter apprentices. We were impressed and joined them. Some of us jumped on to benches to implore our mates to strike. Those of us who jumped on the benches were added to the strike committee. This was the first apprentice strike ever in the history of Harland and Wolff in Belfast.

Some lads didn't want to strike for religious reasons. The chargehands advised them to go because there were shouts from us of: `Get his coat!' That became the slogan. We left the Joiner's Shop and stormed all the ships lying in the Musgrave Channel and all the wharves and workshops. We even stormed aboard naval ships under repair. One had two naval armed guards but we just brushed them aside and hunted down the apprentices as if they were rats. Then we gathered outside the Main Office and chanted for Sir Frederick Rebbeck to come out: "Come out this very minute ye wee man ye!" He did come out. I had never seen him before. He was small all right, slightly bent man wearing a grey suit and bowler and a large gold pocket watch and chain. He was so small some of the apprentices called out to get him a box to stand on. His reply was that he would box our ears. He said we were no good to him and no good to ourselves and what did we want anyway. I was so furious I went up to him and told him that the overalls I was wearing cost nineteen shillings. What we wanted was a pound a week rise. He started to imitate me saying: "My overalls cost nineteen shillin's, so it did." While I was arguing with him the harbour police arrived and made for me and the rest of the committee gathered around him. Rebbeck, to his credit, shouted to the harbour police in an angry voice to move away. They also seemed to be no good to him and no good to themselves.' I suppose we thought of him after that as a slightly grumpy old granda who would bear no grudges against us. We liked him for daring to come out and face us in person, alone.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939In the Joiners Shop in 1950-

(Above:) In the foreground is a pneumatic dovetailing machine. In the row of people at the back I am standing in white shirt sleeves. Nearer the machine, second on left, is a young footballer who once played for Glentoran but suffered an knee injury just when he had been signed up for Man United. I can't remember his name at the moment. He might have been a pre-George Best


After he went back to his office we stood watching the Engine Works a few hundred yards down the road. The gates were closed permanently as usual. We knew they would have to open some time to let lorries in or out. One lorry was about to come out and the huge wrought-iron gate on rollers was opened. About five of the apprentices sprinted towards the open gate. The gateman being on his own couldn't shut it quickly enough nor force it against them so he just raised his hands in surrender. We poured into all the workshops, the coppersmith's shop, electrical shops, brass moulder's shops, furnace rooms, with the slogan: "Get your coat on." There were apprentices who resisted but usually the journeymen they were working with advised them to go with us. After that we marched to Blitz Square or Red Square - as that part of the WW2 bombed High Street was known to the Belfast wits of the period - and held a mass meeting. Some apprentices from the Sirocco Works and Mackie's came out in support of us for a few hours.

We were out less than two weeks when H&W announced through one of the newspapers that they agreed to the one pound rise. As our strike committee was anonymous and we made no contact with the shipyard management except briefly with Sir Frederick Rebbeck, whom we presented with our demands, I suppose the announcement had to be made through the media. We did all this without any trade union organisation or support and with no one over eighteen years old.

We went back to work and the whole structure of the apprentice's committee just disappeared as if it had never been. I can't remember anyone discussing the strike after that. I think it was a major event in the life of we teenagers then. We came mostly from strictly disciplined homes during a period when Bing Crosby was in the top ten records and sheet music.

I think the strike was about more than a pound a week. We challenged the shipyard management and we spoke to their head Sir Frederick Rebbeck directly as equals. Normally we would be overawed by such a man. But mostly we also challenged our fathers who were afraid that our apprenticeships would be terminated. Some of us had to suffer being gurned at night and day during that crisis. We had no wages, such as they were, for two weeks, which put a strain on family relationships.

But we knew we were right. Looking back now shipyard life is the great discipline that stays with most of us during our life.


The joiners' shop around 1950...

A workmate is getting married and someone cut a chamber-pot out of plywood. (chamber-pots being still in vogue then) I tried to obliterate it before showing the photos to my family or my mother would have thought I was associating with a no--good crowd.

The shipyard and its workers were looked down on by the more genteel members of Northern Ireland society at the time.

Even when we went dancing at the week-ends we usually told the girls we worked in the drawing office of H&W while at the same time gently holding their hands in order that they couldn't feel our hardened manual worker's hands. Of course that's what we got for going dancing in the Co-Op Hall in York Street with girls who worked in banks and offices.

The dance floor was on top floor of the Co-Op building that became a casuality of the bombing campaign during the 1970s.

Pre-marriage hi-jinx in the joiners shop of H&W


Wilson John HaireWilson John Haire is a playwright whose work has been produced at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, The Royal Court and The Royal National Theatres in London, The Lyric Theatre, Belfast, and in other theatres throughout the world. Born in Belfast, just off the Shankill Road, he entered the shipyard as an office boy at fourteen. At 16 he became an apprentice joiner, working with men who had been born in the nineteenth century and had worked on building the Titanic, had fought in the 1914-18 war and were still working after the Second World War.

At 22 he left Belfast for England, and in the early ’60s he began to have stories published and joined the semi-professional Unity Theatre; in 1968 his one-act play, The Clockin’ Hen, was performed. In 1971 Within Two Shadows, described as “the first play on the Ulster Crisis” won major drama awards. His other plays for the theatre include Bloom of the Diamond Stone, Echoes from a Concrete Canyon and Lost Worlds, and he has written television plays for the BBC: The Dandelion Clock and Letter from a Soldier

Read more of Wilson's H&W memories...

YP&M main Harland and Wolff pages...


Sonia Banwell - Aug '08
Mr Haire Did you by chance know my Granda Walter Barr he started work at the age of 14 in 1935 or thereabouts at H&W and retired as a crane operator at 65 in 1975/76. He was a very funny man who carried around a homemade furry rat which he used to scare the shipyard men out of the tea hut with. This ensured he got his tea while on a time limited break in a yard with hundreds of men scrambling for a cupper. I would be so grateful for any info as i emmigrated from Belfast in 1974 as a 7 yr old child and rarely saw my granda and family after that.

P.S. I have just ordered a copy of your book The Yard on amazon . com can't wait to read it

Sonia Banwell - Aug '08
A heartfelt thankyou to Wilson John Haire for submitting these chronicles of shipyard life. You have no idea how much it means to me to read and put into historical perspective the lives and attitudes of my family of origin. My Granda Walter Barr Started work at H & W when he was 14 that was in 1935 or therabouts. He retired from his position as crane operator in the 70's. He was from E. belfast and married my Grannie Violet Jackson at 16. They had 13 children my father being the first. I was born in 67 and we emmigrated to Canada in 74. I remember my Granda as the patriarch of the family and i looked up to him as a little girl. He was a jokster known to many in fact i heard there was a documentary on the belfast tele re: the shipyard and my Granda was mentioned. I am very interested in attaining a copy your book The Yard, How may i do that?
P.S. My mother Elizabeth Greene was from the Shankill

Will Morrison - May '08
A belated reply to Arenee Henderson's query about the names of the men killed in the Juan Peron accident. Here is the list, which can be found in Belfast newspaper archives. I was an apprentice joiner on the boat at that time.

Will Morrison, author of BETWEEN THE MOUNTAINS AND THE GANTRIES, (Appletree Press), a memoir containing a story of the disaster, and the names above.

Arenee Henderson - Feb '08
Would anyone know any names of the men who where killed 31st January 1951 on the Juan Peron Whaling Ship as I believe my grandfather to be one of them?

Bill Gwynne- February '08

Dear Mr. Haire, I have read your article about Harland and Wolff with great Intrest. I was born in Belfast 1934 and can remember just about all of what you were writing about. I had two cousins who worked for H&W, one a motor mechanic and the other a carpenter and joiner, his name was James (Jim) Campbell, you might even have met him! Both cousins are older than me. The day the gangway collapsed on the Juan Peron is especially vivid, seeing my cousin Jim had been working on board the ship, luckily he was not one of the injured. I remember the air raids mainly aimed at the docks and can still see York St nearly demolished and blitz sites in High St which were used as car parks -- not now! -- I myself lived at the top of the Ormeau Road and served an apprenticeship at H J Scott on the Ravenhall Rd as an electrician and had to go to night school 3 nights a week on a bike, rain hail or snow !! I joined the Merchant Navy, P&O as an Electri!
cal Officer and was with them for 10 years, married a New Zealand lass and came to Tasmania in 1969. I must say, reading your start with H&W and your going to London makes me remember my own thoughts -- I have to get out of here!! There IS life outside Belfast. Thank you for your excellent article, it certainly does bring back memories.

David James Smith - May '07
Hello Wilson

Great to read the stories of the ship yard and your memories of the two generations of your family working at the Harland and Wolff shipyard.

Was looking through the sight regarding your Memories of 'The Yard'
and was pleased to see that the yard will never be forgotten as long as men like yourself' keep the stories a live. my father was very proud to be a member of such great men who worked with him and who had came before him. He never forgot all thoughts men and as a young man was told stories and seen first hand what it was like to be one of those men. (Walk the walk) saw bravery, honour, pride, great workmanship, great heartship, joyfulness, sadness, kindness, fearless men, jokers, cowboys, rakers, etc. And always said the best men the ship builders ever seen in the world and always will be. My father was James Couser Smith aka as Big Jim Dromore. when working in the shipyard. (Height 6ft 5inc tall well built man) came from the Mount in east Belfast he started his apprenticeship with Harland & Wolff Limited, of Queen's Island, Belfast, Shipbuilders & Engineers on the twenty third of March 1943 at the age of 17 years as a Boilermaker (lived Dromore Co. Down) and Completed h!
is apprenticeship on 30th June 1948. He retired as a Riveter. on July 10, 1975 aged only 49 years old of ill health,. (Vertigo). His father was a William Robertson Smith and he started as a Clerk for Harland & Wollf Ltd, and his father was a Robert Logan Smith And he was a Ship-Plater and went on to be a Foreman in the yard. (From Govan Glasgow) worked in the Clyde shipyard also. The reason why I was looking at this page is that I am tracing my family history and my father told me of the bravery of one such man who worked in the ship yard and he was of German Nationality and was killed about the late 1940's early 1950's as he had made the greatest Sacrifice gave his life to save his fellow man. No greater Sacrifice can one give. my father was on his lunch break I believe my father told me with all his work mates including this large chain connected to the roof of the shed which had a great big hook on it came lose and headed towards the men who were sitting having lunch. !
When this young man jumped up onto the chain taking it away fr!
om the o
ther men killing this young man saving the lifes of his work mates. I was wondering if anyone was out their who was at the accident or knows the date of the accident would be great full for any information which could lead me to the Belfast Telegraph to find a picture of this great man.


David James Smith

David Rowe - Feb '07
Very Good site..Does anyone know a site i can research tugs (londonderry)1940.45. ,Pictures,crew lists,shipping companys etc.!
Any help would be welcome.

Karen Palmer - Dec 06
My grandfather, Charles Forsythe and my father, Alfred Forsythe, both worked at Sirocco Works. Charles Forsythe worked as a labourer until his death in (May?) 1961. Alfred Forsythe undertook an appreciticeship here in the early 1950's becoming an engineering pattern maker. Alfred Forsythe also was a very keen football player and probably played for the Sirocco team. Does anyone remember either of these gentlemen, both of whom are now deceased. Any information would be gratefully appreciated.

John Lewis - Dec '06
My name is John Lewis and my father William Lewis was the swimmer, even in his 80s he still swam.

Wilson John Haire - Oct '06
I would like to first of all comment on what Daniel Robson wrote on this website on Oct' 06. He is 26 years old and a bench joiner. He decries the lack of skills now showing in the woodworking trade. When I say what he has said here in London, at the age of 74, I am made to feel that I am past my sell-by-date. So therefore it is refreshing to know that a young man like Daniel Robson also has this concern.

It is hard to believe these days that an apprentice joiner once did seven years. My father did from 1914 - 1921 in the Workman Clark shipyard that used to exist in Belfast. Now the apprenticeship for a joiner is three years and has been for some time. But even that time isn't kept to much anymore. In England here there are three months courses and I have even known people to do six weeks training in woodwork. You would be lucky to come across a proper woodworking apprentice in London today. That is why great numbers of skilled workers have to be brought in from Eastern Europe. Near where I live a number of houses are being refurbished and those doing the woodwork are young Russians. They are excellent joiners from what I can see. They did a proper apprenticeship. So what is happening to our own youth in the UK and Northern Ireland who seem disinclined to learn a skill, particularly joinery work. And what are the employers doing about it. There are about twenty East European !
joiners working in my area but not even one apprentice joiner.

Will Morrison, who has contributed to this website by writing of his experiences as an apprentice joiner in Harland and Wolff has now got a book published called BETWEEN THE MOUNTAINS AND THE GANTRIES. A friend sent me a copy from Cork City a few days ago. When Will left the shipyard in 1954 he began studying at Trinity College, Dublin and got a B.A., became a Presbyterian minister, emigrated to Canada, left the ministry and became a teacher of philosophy and English literature at a university college in British Columbia. In reading about his childhood in Belfast, which by today's standards could be called impoverished and deprived, I ask myself in amazement how did he achieve all of this. Well, his apprenticeship maybe taught him accept discipline and by such means he achieved self-discipline. I reckon we need another shipyard in Belfast with proper apprenticships then all sorts of talents could come to the fore again.

Daniel Robson - Oct '06
Im a 26 year old Bench Joiner and I have to say that I find this article absolutely facinating. I have spent 9 years in the trade now working mainly in the field of period joinery reproductions, the quality of work these men produced was outstanding. I cannot stress enough the loss the trade has suffered in the name of 'progress'. These days the items those skilled individuals produced is carried out by a machine and an operator (To a standard that at the time would have been considered poorly thought out and shoddy) who's most demanding task is to push a few buttons. To learn that there was as many as a thousand joiners all under one roof is a very inspiring thought, never mind understanding the level of organisation that must have been required for continuity of work. These days finding a handfull of these skilled bench joiners in a district is an achievement , but a thousand! wow.

Thanks for sharing this, its really struck a cord.

Denise nee Kelly - June '06
So enjoyable to read these accounts. It sounds like little had changed since my Grandfather worked there as a boy rivet heater from 1901 to 1904. He had held hopes of getting an apprenticeship but these were dashed when his father a caulker, died in an accident in the yard. Grandfather then joined the RN and served at Jutland. His motto, handed down from his father through my father to me, was "if you have your health and a job, you have everything".

Anne Herron - March '06
I enjoyed finding out more about the Juan Peron. After a recent discussion with my partners' grandmother, she informed us that her mother was the last nurse to leave the scene of the Juan Peron accident. We were told that there was a big write-up in the papers the following day, searching for the nurse and that the doctors wanted to thank her for her help and energy and for just staying. Her name was Rachel Quail. We've tried to do a localised search for any newspaper articles or archives for the date of the accident and the days following, but so far have come up with nothing. I was wondering if anyone had any hints or tips or any further help on finding out what articles were in the local media at the time?

Sid Spence - January '06
Great reading articles like this i started work as a gateboy in the engine works in1951 before going on to serve my time as a Boilermaker in the engine works Boiler shop. One of my tasks was to meet the old Night Gateman Pop Dickeson get money of him to get the Belfast telegraph and deliver it to managing Director Mr Blair great job especially at Christmas. All the Gateboys took it turns to mark the foremen out as they went home, we got 3d from old pop for doing that. Funny enough that Hugh (shooie) Long that was mentioned was married to my wife's next door neighbour from Templemore st. Beersbridge Rd. Your article brings back a lot of memories. Now Living in Adelaide Australia for 37 years never tire of reading articles like this.

Wilson John Haire - January '06
To Larry Brown: Thank you, Larry, for your comments. My branch of the Haire family don't have any connection with the Haires of Portadown. They came from the other direction, Strabane, then Belfast. Seaview Street off York Road in the 19th Century which my grandfather moved to in order to take advantage of the industrialisation of Belfast.

Larry Brown - January '06
What a lovely article. I hung on every word. I am,however,curious about your surname. Are you related to the Haires of Portadown? Sidney Haire went out to India and joined the Moran Tea Company-at the outbreak of war he joined an Artillery Division in India and attained the rank of Major. Sadly he was killed during operations.

When the Reina Del Pacifico went up just about every street in East Belfast was affected.

I will have to obtain your many writings.

Best Wishes- from a wee fella who left Belfast in 1960, spent 12 years in India - 16 in Papua New Guinea and now drawing to a close in Australia - since 1986. My very best Wishes..Larry Brown.

Wilson John Haire - January '06
Will Morrison mentions Pop Reid. I remember him well though I had forgotten his name. A big jovial painter who banished that Monday morning feeling. The finishing trades like joiners and painters alway had to have a stool to either stand on, work on or sit on during lunch time. The first thing you did as a joiner, when assigned to a ship from the shop, was to make one. And you usually ended up making one for a painter. Those who worked permanently on the ships always guarded their stools for they could disappear very quickly. That sent you searching the ship from stem to stern, from the upper deck to the engine room. You wouldn't be always sure what reception you would get when you found its would-be owner. Pop Reid, after a long search, would find his stool and say to the culprit: `Mohammed says: Two men will meet before two mountains. That's my stool, oul hand.'

I worked alongside Pop Reid on a number of ships as an apprentice. I suppose you could call him the shipyard sage. He always had a humorous antidote to every awkward situation. When we learnt he had died because of the Juan Peron accident it made many of us feel that there was no mercy in this world. There was another painter of his build in the shipyard but not of his wit but a decent enough man who wore a hearing aid. (maybe Will remembers his name) Many of the men said it was this man who died and not Pop Reid. Wishful thinking at the expense of this poor man? But it did show how Pop was higly regarded. He helped you go that extra mile in the harsh environment of the then shipyard.

William `Pop' Reid was 58 when he died as the the result of the Juan Peron tragedy on the 31st of January, 1951. He lived at Lower Clara Crescent, East Belfast.

Will also mentions Pop Reid's method of surviving the Battle of the Somme. Joe Beattie, at whose bench I worked as an apprentice, also used to relate his narrow escapes during the ferocious battle for Crete during WW2. In a particularly tight spot, when his comrades were falling all around him, he felt a hand go through his hair and his mother's voice telling him: `Go on, son, you'll be all right.' Post Traumatic Experience with its flashbacks was not labelled as such then. At least some disturbed survivors of the WW1 might be called shell-shocked and allowances made but the WW2 men seemed to think that to be an old-fashioned term even though some men were coming straight from the battlefield into the shipyard. Joe Beattie did mention an occasion when he tried to dive for cover when a pneumatic drill during road mending started up near him suddenly. He, like so many others, had to re-condition themselves to civilian life, without help

A former boxer for his regiment the Royal Ulster Rifles, Joe Beattie was known as a hard man in the shipyard. But he wasn't a bully nor did he ever try to intimidate his work mates. His brother, also a former WW2 soldier, ran the Pitch-and-Toss school at Deep Water Wharf during lunch time. Joe would be there to stop any trouble whether it was to do with attempted takeovers by rivals or aggrieved gamblers who, having lost most of their money, might run amok and attack his brother. No angels maybe but no devils either.

Will Morrison - January '05
Wilson John Haire's recollection that a gaffer, Andy, (Best?) had survived the Battle of the Somme in WW1, reminded me of Jimmy, a joiner with whom I worked for a while in a squad on the whaler, Juan Peron. Jimmy had been at the Somme too. Once, I asked him how he managed to stay alive in that slaughter. He said that on going over the top he noticed that men who dodged to and fro during the attack were being hit. He decided that he would fix his eyes on a point ahead, and walk straight towards it, and take his chances. A bullet never got him, but gas did, and wrecked his lungs. He climbed the gangway to the boat in stages. Another Somme survivor on the Juan Peron was Pop Reid, a painter. A jovial and popular man, 'a great geg'. He had been badly wounded in the war. Tragically, and ironically, he was one of the 18 men killed when the boat's gangway collapsed, January 31, 1951.

Wilson John Haire - Jan '06
Ruby Craig played quoits. Ruby played it in the Curtain Shop in the Yard and a lot of us played in the Joiner's Shop. Our set of quoits were made of lead. The noise of them hitting the board was so loud some of the joiners trying to have a sleep during the lunch break complained. But it didn't do them any good. You could have a sandwich (piece) in one hand and a quoit in the other to save time and never think of catching lead-poisoning while you sipped tea you could stand on from an old bean tin that had a wire handle. (they don't make us like that anymore)

Another game was shove-halfpenny. You used your board (a piece of wood the size of a ten-packet of Woodbines with your time-office number stamped between the two ears) to shove the halfpennies towards the goal entrance. The clicks of this game also annoyed the those joiners trying to catch up on their sleep - head on bench, body on a hard stool.

Outside the Joiner's Shop not far from the log pile cricket was played. It was all-year-round cricket which even the snow couldn't stop. The balls were made by a wood turner out of a hard wood, usually beech or oak. They were cannon balls to the batsman who didn't have any protective gear to wear. Few fielders bothered trying to catch the ball. The stumps were also turned by the same man. The bats were made by a joiner. All of this was done while the chargehand was away on his morning and afternoon ablutions.

Jimmy McGrath, the Joiner's Shop manager, was a keen cricket fan. The players felt honoured when he came out to watch a game. One day he decided to take a closer look at the bats, the balls and the stumps. He had a good look but just smiled. On one occasion the horn blew (His Master's Voice it was called. You could hear its bass note the other side of Belfast) in the middle of a game. You were usually required to be up and ready at your bench the moment HMV died away but Jimmy McGrath told the players to go on until finished. But those not playing were to go back to their benches. He had that game all to himself for another five minutes.

And table tennis of course - bats made of plywood and cut on the bandsaw by a wood machinist. Played on a door under construction on a bench. More annoyance for the would-be sleepers.

Then there were the musicians. I suppose you could call them air-musicians today for they had no instruments. One of them was the conductor. He had a conductor's baton - made by himself with a small wooden ball at the end so as it wouldn't fly out of his hand. They had sheet music and a lot of humming, dinging and wow wow wowing went on with the conductor pointing at each one in turn. I never knew what they were rehearsing for you dare not interrupt them. Afterwards you asked and they would just shrug as if to imply that you wouldn't understand. Maybe they became the Northern Ireland Philharmonic Orchestra? It was no place to try and have forty winks. The insomniacs were delighted when all the woodworking machinery started up again. It could be deafening at times but at least it go rid of all that other noise.

Ruby Craig - Jan '06
I have enjoyed reading all the stories here , they brought back some great memories.
In 1961 I worked in the curtain shop with about 11 other girls. I was 18 at the time. We always got out of work a wee bit earlier than the rest of the workers , it gave us time to just get to the bus before we got trampled to death with a sea of men a hurry to get home for their dinner or to the pub for a pint. Yes times were hard and some days we were very cold in the shop, I remember punching holes in cans of soup with a nail and hammer and then putting them in along side the hot radiators to heat for our lunch. We played something at lunchtime ....It was a square wooden board with a hole in the middle and marked out in four numbered sections, you had to try getting the highest score. I must say all in all I enjoyed my time in the "Yard". I was Ruby Wilson at the time and lived in Belmont Ave.

Wilson John Haire - Dec '05
A tail-piece I forgot to add to my other shipyard experiences was the talk about William Pirrie (Lord Pirrie). He was very much a hands-on-man when it came to having a look around the Yard. One man I worked with in the Joiner's Shop in 1948, when I had just started my apprenticeship, told me how William Pirrie usually picked an apprentice to carry his coat during these inspections. The lad's reward was a pound note - lot of money back in 1912.

Talk continued around the Yard about Lord Pirrie - his Home Rule ideas, ideas about setting up a rolling mill to make steel for the benefit of the whole country. Steel was then and still is imported into Northern Ireland. I didn't detect any animosity towards William Pirrie during these conversations. His ideas and ambitions were stated and acknowledged. I gathered that he was still a well beloved head of the Yard. No, he didn't die of a broken heart after the Titanic disaster as claimed in a recent television drama about the Titanic. He was still flourishing in his many roles in Belfast nine years later.

Will Morrison - Dec '05
John Haire mentions the Finn who worked in Moffatt's squad. I remember him well. We called him the 'Big Finn' because he was a huge height of a man. He had worked on the windjammers in the age of sailing ships (we worked at times with men who were born in the 19th century and, as boys and young men, had worked on vessels at the turn of the 20th century). The Big Finn was a terror to have as a mate. He could fling a massive teak deck door across a bench as if he was tossing a sheet on a bed. I was his mate for a while. He had fingers missing from one hand, and by god, I kept my eye on my fingers every second while I helped him hinge the teak door. The apprentices often made fun of him. He smoked a large pipe, which he lit when the siren wailed at the end of the day's shift. One afternoon, the boys stuffed it with teak shavings, concealed under tobacco, and as he walked to the time office, we filed behind him sniffing for the odour of burning teak. His guttural gulders could be heard at Bangor.

Wilson John Haire - Dec '05
In response to Will Morrison (Willie) 8th December, 2005

I remember Bob Moffatt the chargehand joiner in the H&W Joiner's Shop, late 1940s/early 1950s - his bowler hat seemed too big for him and rested on his ears. He was also slightly cross-eyed. If he is still around and reads this then my plea is that I have momentarily reverted back to to being a rebellious young teenager. Certainly in my more mature years now I would hope that my imagery would be a lot more tolerant. When I was standing at my bench back then Bob Moffat's section was further up and to the right of me. I can well remember him parading between the benches or standing stretching with his arms behind his back. If I remember rightly in his section was a Finn and an American.

The Joiner's Shop also had its complement of deaf apprentices and journeymen. They were usually called "dummies" but not in a derogatory sense. A lot of terms used then to describe out of the ordinary people didn't mean the same as it would in these more enlightened times. Deaf people in H&W weren't allowed to work on ships nor at any other trade but the joiners trade. My father knew the sign language and spoke regularly to a couple of men he was friends with. I remember him coming home one night during WW2 and saying he had learnt the sign for Hitler. It was a finger tapped quickly on the upper lip. That referred to Hitler's unique moustache.

I still dream in my sleep right up to the present day about being back in the Joiner's Shop. I dream of a life of regimentation in which I have to turn out a pefect piece of furniture but in which I have made mistakes. The joinery trade which incorporated cabinet-making could be difficult. Make a mistake befor going home and you thought about it the whole evening at home, dreading the next day. It wasn't so much that you would lose your job it was more to do with humiliation and the knowing that all the joiners around you knew about it.

One of chargehands, in charge of the section I was in, was Hughie Long (known as Shooie) He was as dictatorial as his namesake the controversial Huey Pierce Long, the 1920s/1930s governor of Louisana. He could make my life hell at times. At the end of my apprenticeship in 1953 he did wish me luck when I was leaving. I saw a better side of him in the last minutes of my life in the Joiner's Shop. Another chargehand was Andy (Bell?) A survivor from the Battle of the Somme during WW1. He must have been to hell and back but never a more serene man have I ever met. He was especially understanding of apprentices. He never raised his voice and while I was in his section I behaved myself for I didn't want him to be disappointed in me. I never saw him laugh or smile once but his whole presence conveyed a great human being. Of course we apprentices could be dismissive of tragic events in someone's life. The stock joke was that Andy was asked on the Somme if he would like to join the!
cavalary. Andy's supposed answer to this was: "I don't want a horse to keep me back when they blow the retreat."

The manager of the Joiner's Shop was called McGrath. His assistant was head-foreman Johnston. I can't remember their first names. Those whom we liked we referred to only by their first names. Those whom we were wary off we used their second names. With Hughie Long I suppose we liked calling him `Shooie' because he didn't like that Belfast pronunciation. He was probably still in his twenties but he was certainly amibitious. He seemed to be always studying during his lunchtime and coming in with armfuls of books each morning.

Willie mentions University College British Columbia. I was there in May, 1979 for Irish Culture Week. The lecturer who invited me was a Belfastman called John Wilson. Maybe our paths crossed.

The Main Office of H&W I remember very well. Dozens and dozens of clerks sat at their desks in the central office. We office boys had to bring the wages books down there each week to be checked. The wages books were about two feet by eighteen inches and had plywood covers. While there we also had to take our turn in cancelling national insurance stamps with a spring-loaded ink stamper. You can imagine the piles of perforated sheets of stamps with thirty-five thousand men working in the shipyard. The noise of about ten stampers going was appalling. The man in charge of that was an elderly large man with a bald head whom we called Curley. If he overheard you call him that he would suddenly slap you across the mouth and then say. "I didn't mean that, son, so don't waste your time telling on me."

Also there was clerk with closely cut hair. He had been a wrestler. He loved to see the boys fighting one another. Two boys fell out one day and he brought them into the strongroom and said he would hold their jackets while they whacked one another. It turned into a wrestling match and one of the boys had his shirt torn. He was almost crying but not about the bloody nose he had. He was afraid of going home with his shirt ruined. The ex-wrestler was so excited he told the boys to finish the fight and he would pay for any damage to their clothes. When they refused he asked them if they sat down to pee. He later became a boxing and wrestling promoter.

John Morrison was in charge of the Main Office with William Donald and Joseph Kenney. I'm reading these names from my Indenture of Apprenticeship which they signed, or rather the copy - I sent the original to the Linenhall Library some time ago. William Donald was a stern Victorian you could find in a Dickens novel like David Copperfield. He referred to us as `Boy'. "Boy, don't let me catch you running in this corridor again. God help your poor parents!" John Morrison I don't ever remember seeing even once. Joseph Kenney was much kinder to us and usually bid us good morning whereas William Donald just grunted and wished us out of his sight.

The Main Office was male-orientated but a few females did exist there in some of the offices. I thought then they seemed too delicate to be in that harsh industrial environment. The only other women were a few curtain-makers, upholsterers and some canteen staff. The office girls started at nine am and finished at 5pm so they weren't seen by the great waves of men making their way into work or going home. The curtain-makers and upholsterers, as manual workers had to start at 8 am like the rest of us and stop at 5.30pm. From the top of a tram going up Queens Road you might see a bunch of these women among a sea of men.

On one occasion I saw a white-boilersuited figure coming out of the engine room of a ship up for repairs. She was a woman. A ship's engineering officer. Some of the men lifted their caps in courtesy and one even offered to carry her tool kit. Everytime she passed down the ship's alleyways the men would almost bow and push each other out of the way to make room for her. Word went round the Yard about her existence. Most of them thought she was Russian. Russian ships delivering cargoes of grain were a common sight tied-up in the Pollock Dock next to Rank's grain elevator. These grain ships carried female deckhands, and engineers. We would see them on deck coiling ropes or running around with spanners on our way home after we got off the ferry. If she wasn't Russian then she had to be English. She was. Well, we couldn't think of her as maybe coming from Northern Ireland. How times have changed!


Will Morrison - Dec '05
Mr. Haire's story of the apprentices' strike at the shipyard struck a chord in me that's still trembling. Every time I read it, my memory of the event becomes more vivid. A wonderful article. Thank you.
I recall waiting in the joiners' shop for the whistles to blow at 1:30 pm, shortly after lunch, to call us off the job and on to the strike. I was in a squad at the far end of the shop, and word came down to us that the doors of the time offices had been opened to let us out. We were on tenterhooks, because we knew that being indentured we were violating our contract, but the feeling that we were being unjustly treated by the Company overcame our jitters. Nobody held back, and at the sound of the whistles, we streamed through the benches towards the time office, the journeymen wishing us good luck, and according to rumour, so too did Jimmy McGrath, the Head Foreman. My recollection is that the strike lasted 3 weeks - or was it only 1 week? Will Morrison, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada.

Val Elmitt - Dec '05
Great story. My grandfather - Ernie Houston worked at the shipyard. Anyone out there remember him? During the raids you mentioned - I remember lying in a ditch close to our home. I clearly remember the German aircraft. Flying up our road firing their machine guns.

Will Morrison - Dec '05
I remember the strike well. I started my 'time' in the joiners' shop in 1949. Also worked on the Juan Peron, and was on it the night of January 31st 1951. Have a story on that.
I left the shpiyard in 1954 at the end of my time, on matriculating at Trinity College, Dublin. Did a B.A. there, was ordained in the Presbyterian Church, left for Canada in 1960, left the ministry to teach, and taught philosophy and Englash literature at a university college in British Columbia until I retired in 1997. Have written a book about boyhood during the war years in Belfast - grew up on Alliance Road.
Also written two stories about the Yard. Was a Hall Porter boy at the Main Office from 1947-49.
My gaffers in the Joiner's Shop were Moffatt and Albert Miller, and another wee fellow. On the Juan Peron my gaffer was called Norm, a decent bloke. I'd like to hear from you. Will Morrison. (Willie)

Brian Taylor - Dec 05
This is an excellent article and serves to highlight the working ethos and hardships prevelant at that time.

Tanya Lauwrence
N o pictures of tobacco making? i need it for my history homework!!!!!!!! except for that, this is quite good.


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