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Crewe Memories: History of Crewe Works seen through the eyes of the men who worked there

By Crewe Chronicle on Dec 11, 09 09:26 AM in 1800-1899

AS MORE jobs are cut at the iconic Crewe Works railway engineering site, MELISSA PULLAN takes a look back at how the site came to be how it is today, and the experiences of two workers who dedicated many years of their lives to working there.

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FOLLOWING the building of Crewe station in 1837, the Grand Junction Railway (GJR) built Crewe Works in 1840.

Crewe as we know it did not exist until the GJR built 200 houses to house workers, many of whom had moved from their Edgehill site.

The houses were built in the rural hamlets of Church Coppenhall and Monks Coppenhall, which still exist as areas of Crewe.

Just eight years after it was built, the Works was employing 1,000 local people, many of whom went on to work abroad in developing countries which were then part of the British Empire.

In 1845 the GJR merged with the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. A year later the Manchester to Birmingham Railway and London to Birmingham Railway were also included to form the London and North Western Railway (LNWR).

In 1923 the LNWR became part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and Crewe took control of building heavy locomotives.

The Works was also responsible for producing 150 Covenanter tanks for the Army during the Second World War, when it employed 20,000 people.

During the 1980s and 90s, the Works changed hands several times.

In 1988 it became part of British Rail Engineering Ltd (BREL), before being sold to Adtranz in the mid-1990s.

In 2001 the current owner, Bombardier, a French-Canadian company which employs over 34,000 people in 35 different countries, took it over in a £485m deal.

The Works was also famous for its annual open days, events that boasted some of the biggest and most diverse locomotive collections and displays in the world.

Railway enthusiasts travelled from countries such as America, Holland and Germany to attend.

The Crewe Works Collection, an assortment of old maps, records, railway artefacts and models, is worth a reputed £500,000.

Many famous trains have visited the site including the Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Sutherland, The Duke of Gloucester, Union of South Africa and the Hogwarts Express, built for the Harry Potter films.

Despite its proud history, the Works has suffered in the economic recession.

Much of the site has been sold off and now houses a supermarket and leisure park.
There have also been a series of job cuts and unofficial strikes.

The annual open days no longer take place and the number of apprentices being taken on has dropped.

The company recently announced that another 69 jobs would be lost, following 60 workers who took voluntary redundancy in September and 80 jobs lost in May.

Now fewer than 300 workers remain on the payroll.

Mick Roberts, Unite's senior trade union representative at Bombardier, said: "On the back of past major under-performance, a too-high cost structure and an inability to win third-party work, the site has experienced massive job losses over the last three years.

"It's clear that going forward the business will be very different in shape, size and operation to how it has been in the past."

Mr Roberts also criticised the company's failure to make changes after an attempted management buy-out in 2005.

"I think the company failed to address some fundamental failings at Crewe: the emergence of aggressive competitors for all aspects of the product portfolio, changes in the nature of work undertaken at Crewe and a lack of any coherent plan to modernise working systems and processes."

One Bombardier worker, who did not wish to be named, said: "We're all worried about the future of the company. We have already said goodbye to a lot of our friends this year who have taken voluntary redundancy. A lot of us have been tempted to jump ship before it goes down."

Mr Roberts added: "It's clear that many workers, quite understandably, feel a great deal of uncertainty over the future. Fear of closure runs very high in employee minds. It's evident that trust is not at a high level."

Despite its current problems Mr Roberts believes the Works will never be far from people's minds.

"It's fair to say that Crewe Works will always be important to local people. It's no exaggeration to say that the town of Crewe, at one time, was the railway works."


Phil Cort's story
PHIL Cort applied for an apprenticeship at Crewe Works in 1977.

philcort.jpg

At the time apprenticeships were still going strong in the company and provided a great career foundation for Crewe's young people, many of whom went into work straight after school.

In Phil's year, he was one of 120 apprentices. He was asked to go for an interview and a few weeks later found out he was accepted providing he passed a medical.

At the time, work was still labour-intensive, and despite safety regulations being put into place in 1974, the work was still dangerous and difficult.

Phil started at the Works Training School and his first wage packet was £29.10 for a week's work, compared to the £300 a week he takes home now.

He attended the Training School for 12 months working on a number of sections including electrics, machining, milling, plating and fitting. After a year he was moved into the Main Works, beginning his proper career in the brake shop.

Over the next three years he was moved to several different departments, gained experience in the brass, steam and generator, and wheel shops amongst others. As part of their continued training, apprentices also spent one day a week at South Cheshire College, plus a night class between 5pm and 7pm.

Phil finished his apprenticeship in August, 1981. He says of the time: "It was policy in those days to finish apprentices once they qualified but British Rail kept us in the old spring shop, in what was called 'The Pool'.

"From there we were sent to different shops within the Main Works to help out as and when needed.

"A lot of time was spent working in the Melts, dismantling old class-40 locomotives. It was very cold in that shop in the winter so we'd light a brazier and sit playing cards for a lot of the shift. In 1982 I found a permanent job in the Arcade doing inter-coolers."

Phil was moved into the pump house where fuel pumps were built. He describes it as a 'horrible job' that involved him "going home smelling of diesel oil every day".

This was followed by an even dirtier job working in the stripping pits of the bogie repair shop (a bogie, in mechanical terms, refers to the framework that carries the wheels on the train).

This often meant retrieving bits of dead birds and other animals from the traction motors.

For some workers this job was even more horrific, particularly when a train came in for repair after a suicide.

Phil's partner Sue, who worked for British Rail, recalls: "I once pulled an eye off the front grate of a train. It was a horrible."

In 1992 Phil was asked to work at another railway-engineering site in York for six months.

He returned to an offer of a new project involving stripping, cleaning and rebuilding gearboxes. He was also responsible for building the pinion and top housing single-handedly as there were only four men allocated to the job as a whole.

He still works with the gearboxes today, part of a team of eight men working on the job, spread out over two daytime shifts. Nightshifts have been removed since the recession took effect.

Despite the job cuts at the Works, camaraderie among the remaining workers remains high, with teasing and jokes a regular occurrence.

"We all have nicknames for each other," says Phil. "I'm referred to as 'Cowboy' or 'Phillipe the French Fitter'. In the team we also have 'The Snake', 'Braindead' and 'Snoopy' among others.

Phil concluded: "Throughout my time at the Works I've made lifelong friends who help the day pass quicker and the work seem easier. It has been a very varied job but it's sad to see our workforce has gone from 10,000 people when I started in the Works to fewer than 300 people that are left in there now."


Malcolm Broadfield's story
MALCOLM Broadfield was 15 when, in April 1955, he started an apprenticeship at the Crewe Works along with 30 other boys the same age.
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Fresh from school, they underwent a medical at the old LMS Hospital on Mill Street before enrolling at the Crewe Works Training School.

At the time the Works spread from the Heritage Centre to Merrill's Bridge and had three sections: the Old Works, Deviation and the Steel Works.

The trainees spent 60% of their time doing practical work and the rest in the classroom learning Maths and English. Malcolm describes it as "like being paid to go to school".

He spent 12 months in the school, being paid £1 10s 6d a week (£1.52).

During his time there he experiencedseveral different sections including fitting, machines, pattern making and the coppersmiths, Malcolm reflects: "Most of us liked our lecturer Mr Powell the best, who taught coppersmiths. He was the easiest one to get on with.

"It was important that we tried to get on with our lecturers as they had the majority of the say as to what section you would spend most of your time in." Malcolm eventually becoming an apprentice plater, but many of his friends were assigned to different sections.

Malcolm recalls: "We were very excited to receive our first set of overalls. They were green and supplied by a firm from Borrowash in Derby. What we didn't realise is that green overalls would immediately mark us out as apprentices; people would call us 'wet behind the ears'.

"We were all eager to get the overalls in a state to prove ourselves to our superiors."
After finishing his training Malcolm moved into the Main Works and carried out several jobs including tank diving (repairing side tanks for steam engines), working on rivet fires, working in the boiler shop and repairing ash pans and signals.

He remembers many of his fellow workers from the time: "I worked in 10-Shop with a man called Jack Smith who was a mad Man Utd fan. I remember going back to see him after the Munich air disaster to offer him my condolences."

By the time Malcolm was 18, the British Transport Commission modernisation scheme was finding its feet.

Steam engines were being phased out in favour of diesel and electric locos. He started working nights and received the first and only black mark on his record.

He recalls: "I was working one night and clocked on a friend who hadn't turned up. I was found out and given an immediate three-day suspension. Thinking I'd be clever, I took sick leave to avoid the suspension.

"After I returned I was called in to see the chief foreman. He asked how I was feeling and I said I was OK. He remarked that I still looked peaky and should take the suspension. I learnt then that I wasn't so clever."

National Service was still in forced when Malcolm turned 18 but he was deferred until he was 21 due to his apprenticeship - by which time it had been abolished.

He says: "Some of my mates weren't best pleased because us lads at the Works were on full wages in contrast to their Army pay."

Malcolm also tells of the light-hearted rebellion shown by his fellow workers. "One plater was asked to make a wheelbarrow the same as the mangled up one he was using.

"He went off and did a tremendous job, making all the curves, until it looked just as bad as the one he was provided with. Needless to say the bosses were not impressed."

The next few years involved various jobs for Malcolm including repairing chimneys on the steam engines. During this work he had a tool stolen. "I was with my boss when I had my hand hammer pinched. I asked him what to do and he said: 'Pinch someone else's!'"

In 1962 Malcolm came out of his "time" (what the workers called their apprenticeship period) and chose to leave the job because, in his own words, "steam was on the way out and there wasn't much future for platers."

Remarking on the current situation of the Works, where jobs are being cut regularly, he said: "When I worked there bBetween 1955 and 1962, 7,500 men and women worked there. It is very bitter to see it down to less than 300 now."


The old photograph at the beginning of the article was unearthed recently during a quest to find old photographs of people from Haslington for a third book about the village by resident David Green. It depicts a group of workers at Crewe Works around the turn of the 20th century. The loco number is a very early one and it may have been in for repair.

The person on the back row, second from the right as viewed, is Frederick Bateman, my grandfather of Haslington, who died in 1936. Seated, first on the right as viewed, is Ambrose Wilson, who was a good friend of my grandfather. Mr Bateman's son, also called Fred Bateman, went on to become works convener at Crewe Works before becoming the assistant general secretary of the Boilermakers Union.

If readers can identify any of the other men in the photo or put an accurate date to the picture, please get in touch with the Chronicle office via email

3 Comments

geoff bellamy said:

my parents worked in crewe works in the 1940 s
George Bellamy from Church Minshull
Muriel Wilkinson from Crewe was a hammer driver
anyone remember them

Harbhajan Singh Jaswal said:

I too was an aprentice at Crew Works rom 1956 to 1958 sebt from Wolverhanpton Bushbury repair shed.
Like to exchange experiances as now I have retired as cosultant engineer in northern ireland. I left England in 1963 after working as design engineer at ICI Marston Wolverhampton.

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