Crewe Works: Former worker of 50 years said it 'seemed like a prison'

Bryan Skellon was just 14-years-old when he went into Crewe Works to start a seven year apprenticeship – and he said it felt like a prison. For a lad who had been born in Warmingham and started his working life on a farm, being plunged into everyday life in the grimy, noisy and often dark and dangerous workshops was more than a short, sharp shock. His biography, Inside Crewe Locomotive Works: My 50 Years in the Workshop – gives a real insight into how horrendous working life was at the time especially before the Health and Safety At Work Act was introduced in 1974.

Bryan Skellon as an apprentice at Crewe Works

Accidents were common place and fatalities weren’t unheard of – during Bryan’s time there he recalls how one worker died of cyanide poisoning, another was killed instantly when a five hundredweight casting landed on his head.

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But, says Bryan, the one thing that kept him and the thousands of rail workers going was the banter and the camaraderie.

“When I first started at the Works there were 20,000 employed there,” said Bryan. “And my first impression was it was like a prison. It was very frightening. “When I first went in there it was a massive place, about 100ft high, and the noise was horrendous – the riveting, the welding, the banging of people using tools.

There was no ear protection, there was no Safety at Work Act then. The noise and the flashing of the electric welders and the dust – there were no face masks, no goggles.”

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Apprentices moved from department to department so they learned different skills and trades. Bryan started off an office boy in the enginemen’s department and later worked in all areas including the machine shop, the erecting shop, the tender shop and stay shop during his apprenticeship, before qualifying at the age of 21.

He recalls the time when he was moved to the job he dreaded the most – the stripping pits, where locos were dismantled down to the bare frame and men doing the work were deep in a pit under the locomotive with all the oil and noise. “The stripping pits was an horrendous job. You were dismantling locomotives, covered in dust, oil, grime.

It was a terrible job but some of the men had been working there for 25 years and they were brilliant men to work with,” he said. “The worse the conditions, the better the people you worked with.”

Crewe Works: Former worker of 50 years said it 'seemed like a prison'View of Crewe Works in 1957 from Crewe North Shed showing the works entrance and original buildings

Bryan was 16 when he was moved to the aptly named ‘pits’ and worked there for six months. The most hated job was stripping the smoke box. “There was about two inches of soot surrounding the smoke box.

You had to undo the nuts holding the bits and pieces you were about to dismantle but the nuts you were trying to undo had been misshapen with the heat. “You couldn’t get a spanner on them, you had to cut them open with a hammer and chisel and the soot showered down. With all that banging, and breathing all this soot and stuff, it was horrendous.”

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Another department Bryan worked in was the tender shop.

This work also was very dirty, not only with grease and oil but also contaminated with stagnant water and lime and coal deposits. “You had to climb through a hole 12 inches diameter about six foot down in this tank and you had to crawl through mud and water to the front to uncouple the valves you were to take out to be repaired,” he said. “There was newts and frogs and all sorts in those tanks.

You’d go down into this jet-black hole with a candle and if the candle went out you were struggling. It was frightening really.”

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And to make it worse – if it could be – the platers on the outside of the tender would start riveting patches on the worn sides of the tender while Bryan was inside. “The noise inside magnified into a horrendous din,” he said.

Discipline was strict, the hours were long – especially during the war when it was a seven-day week – and the work, physical and draining. But Bryan remembers his friends from those days like it was yesterday – life long friends, most gone now.

Crewe Works: Former worker of 50 years said it 'seemed like a prison'Bryan Skellon, second from left, with apprentice friends at Crewe Works

And he remembers the practical jokes and the funny side – like the time a nervous worker was asleep in a box truck, someone tied his legs together then shouted that the foreman was on his way. “The man leapt to his feet and fell flat on his face,” said Bryan.

He explained these pranks were necessary to break the boredom for teenage boys. And they helped to distract their minds from some of the horrific accidents and fatalities. One accident involved Bryan’s elder sister Joyce, who was drafted into the Works during the war – before Bryan started there.

She sliced apart the sinews in front of her ankle after walking into a razor-sharp cutting stretched between the legs of a machine. She ended up in Manchester Royal Infirmary and was off work for three months. The lack of health of safety in those days would be unthinkable today.

Crewe Works: Former worker of 50 years said it 'seemed like a prison'Bryan Skellon pictured with his book : Inside Crewe Locomotive Works and also an unpublished work which he wrote for his family, Bryan’s Story

Bryan recalls the man who died of cyanide poisoning.

The plating plant in the brass shop had two vats containing a mixture of cyanide and water. “It was like a bath of cyanide liquid and we used to have our lunch round there,” he said. “We used to put the lunch boxes round the side and we played cards there. There was no protection at all, no notice – and the bloke that ran it, he used to go into the stores, collect these cyanide eggs put them in a scoop, walk through the shop with bits dropping on the floor.

Crewe Works: Former worker of 50 years said it 'seemed like a prison'

“Anyway, it was a well-known fact that if you’d got cyanide and just put a bit on a piece of paper or rag and put it in front of a wasps nest the cyanide gas would kill the wasps and then you could dig the maggots out for fishing.

“This bloke from the next department, he got an old iodine bottle with a tapered stopper, filled it with this liquid, went fishing in Shrewsbury on the Saturday and they found him dead on the river bank. “The tapered stopper had come adrift and the liquid had got on his sandwiches and he ate the sandwiches and it killed him.” Bryan said shortly after the man died, massive steel surrounds went up round the ‘cyanide bath’ with big notices, warning ‘danger, cyanide’.

He also recalls how workers on the night shift would hide away for an hour’s sleep during their lunch break in the blue asbestos lagging store – totally unaware of the danger. “Men would virtually wrap themselves in this material and sleep,” he said.

Crewe Works: Former worker of 50 years said it 'seemed like a prison'Bryan Skellon as works inspector testing an electric pantograph in Crewe Works

Bryan witnessed many changes during his time at Crewe Works where at one time, everything – nuts, bolts, rails – was all manufactured in Crewe. When Bryan joined Crewe Works, it was a job for life.

Those days have long gone. When Bryan started there were 20,000 people employed at the Works – now there’s about 350. And during Bryan’s time, the Works stretched for about a mile and a half from the station to the West End near Merrills Bridge – now most of it has been flattened and houses are being built there.

Inside Crewe Locomotive Works: My 50 Years in the workshops, by Bryan Skellon and Neil Smith, is a fantastic read – and most of the proceeds go to St Luke’s Hospice. Already the hospice has received GBP3,500 from the book sales.

Crewe Works: Former worker of 50 years said it 'seemed like a prison'Proceeds from the book Inside Crewe Locomotive Works go to St Luke’s Hospice

A final reprint, which has just arrived, costs GBP9.99 and is available from the new St Luke’s store in Market Street, Crewe or by post – send a cheque (payable to N. Smith) for GBP12.50 to 22 Sundale Drive, Crewe, CW2 8UB.

The book is also available on Amazon.

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