Build the Ships – Chapter Five – The Ship Takes Shape

Our author then moves outside to the yard where the blocks are being laid on which to put the keel of the ship. Unlike the average person’s perception of a block, of course, these blocks are as high as a man’s shoulder and are laid out to take the full weight of the ship during its construction. The bottom of the ship, which will become chambers for carrying oil and water ballast are laid and then the ribs begin to rise within which are built the walls of the bulk-heads, watertight compartments. The plates are hung up on the ribs and temporarily held in place by nuts and bolts until the riveting teams can get to them. Alternatively, as welding was starting to be used more often, they would be tack welded awaiting a welder. Props were built up around the hull to support the vessel until she is built.

I love the description the book gives of the atmosphere: “If the platers’ shed suggested a medieval rite, the shipyard itself suggests a medieval city, self-contained and animated by a large number of independent trades.” He describes how random groups of people appear to be wandering about, as they go from one job to another. Small groups apparently with no contact with the others but clearly intent on carrying out a particular job somewhere else on the ship. The groups he saw at the time were time-served welders on their way to do the more complex upright welding, less experienced ones welding conning towers, and apprentice and boys mixing the insulating material for the walls of the destroyers, others loading asphalt for the anti-aircraft armour, a group taking the coffin plate to a new tanker with the aid of a crane and girls going to paint a recently launched ship. Whistles indicate to the crane driver with a large plate on his crane to stop while the men bolt it in place.

Riveters are part of the ‘black squad’ – the riveter, holder-up, heater and a boy who work wherever needed. The heater works at his coke brazier to heat the rivets, removes them with his tongs when they are ready. The catcher takes it in another pair of tongs and the holder-up puts it in place. As it appears through the holds the riveter squeezes it flat with his pneumatic riveter which hits at a rate of about 700 strikes a minute (or in previous times, would hit it with his hammer). All this, and averaging 37 rivets an hour if it is a good team. The number completed were marked on the plates, cross-hatched and added up periodically as they were paid on piece work per hundred.

Pritchett describes the noise inside the ship as “unimaginable” and says that “Here your shouts are knocked clean out of you. You have to dodge around a corner and hope one word in six will reach the ear that is leaned towards you. The roar comes from above, below and on either side of you – a pandemonium of clangings, rappings and sawn-off-gun work with men making rival roars in an alley-way a yard wide, that at first causes terror as you grope though the darkness. Hundreds of men seem to be lying, kneeling , crouching, crawling about…You watch the men step about there like demons in the galleries of Dante’s hell. It is like looking down the side of a bombed-out house, each storey naked and revealed. And in all this shindy and rusty disorder you see one of the most extraordinary sights of the shipyard, the first sign of civilisation – a woman in overalls, sweeping up!”

Footnote: Through some further research, I have realised that V.S Pritchett is the grand-father of Matt, the cartoonist in the Telegraph – no wonder he is so perceptive!

 Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010

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About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
This entry was posted in British War Ships, plater, Shipbuilding, Tradesmen, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Build the Ships – Chapter Five – The Ship Takes Shape

  1. John Stevenson says:

    Have been thouroughly enjoying this “look back in time” – many thanks and keep them coming !!!

    “riveter, holder-up, heater and a boy who work wherever needed.”

    In Robb’s it was a riveter , a “hudder oan” , a heater and a “catch boy”
    When I went to the yard in Spring 1948 I was “15 and ten months” and therefore wasn’t able to start my engineering apprenticeship.
    They gave me a job as a “riveter’s catch boy”.
    This meant that if the fire was below/above where the men were working the “heater” would throw the hot rivet for the boy to catch in a pan.. The “hudder oan” would then place the rivet in the hole.
    After six weeks I moved on to the maintenance dept to start my apprenticeship.

    As to the noise : I , along with many many thousands more ex shipyard workers , suffer severely with tinitus which means I/we are now basically deaf
    This deafness has been directly linked to the yard clatter plus ships engineroom noise.
    Ear Muffs /Hard Hats ? What were they ?
    In the ships engine room there was an “Acoustic Hood” which allowed the watchkeepers to use/hear the telephone

    Boiler suits you bought and then cleaned/washed yourself
    Safety boots were available if you bought them yourself .
    Toilets – described as “dry lats” and primitive to say the least.
    Washing facilities – a bucket of water and ” half a pound of black soap ” a month
    “Rosalex” hand cream became available around 1952 (from memory)

    When involved in major heart surgery three years ago it was brought to my notice that I had “……. slight signs of abestosis in both lungs”
    My involvement with asbestos while in the yard was confined to, during the final year of “my time”, removing “lagging” from pipes and similar when at sea.
    Again no safety precautions were provided or even possibly expected !!!!!!!!

    Interesting when reading your extracts and speaking with old colleagues we all agree we just accepted the conditions and “worked hard and played hard”

    As I have asid before “Old Henry” always had time for a chat with the men he knew : unfortunately things changed and it became very much a “them and us” situation.
    Regardless, I look back on my five years with a certain amount of pride and a great deal of gratitude to all the journeymen, charge hands and foremen who helped me take the first steps on a career which has rewarded me well !!

    Regards
    John

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  8. AT THE TIME YOU SPEAK OF, MY DAD NED HAMILTON,. WAS A RIVITERS HOLDER ON WITH THE BLACK SQUAD. HE DIED ON WEDNESDAY 10 JULY 1957, HIS FUNERAL WAS ON THE FRIDAY AT HIS REQUEST, AND ALL OFF HIS FELLOW WORKERS ATTENDED. HIS GREAT MATE WAS GEORGE TAYLOR.
    IF ANYONE CAN REMEMBER HIM, PLEASE GET IN TOUCH, I WOULD LIKE OTHER PEOPLES MEMORIES OF HIM, THANK YOU. ALICE

    • GEORGINA DUNS says:

      Hello Alice

      I am one of George Taylor’s 9 daughters. I’m sorry I don’t have any particular memories of your father, but I do remember my Dad speaking of Ned and Alice Hamilton. My father’s other friend in the shipyards was Bobby Boag. I have a photo of Leithers at a picnic in the 1920’s and I think your father might be in it. If you like I could email that picture to you.

      Georgina Duns (nee Taylor)

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