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