Iorwerth Davies, Voices from the Factory Floor

Items in this story:

Iorwerth was born in 1932 in Penrhyndeudraeth. His father worked in the quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog but died when Iorwerth was four years old. He didn’t enjoy good health as a child, neither did his sisters, suffering from TB and they all spent time in the hospital. He went to school in Penrhyndeudraeth and went to work in the powder factory. He went down there and got a job without being interviewed. The Labour party brought in a law saying that young workers had to finish a half hour before their seniors so Iorwerth finished work at four thirty. The usual hours were eight until five thirty (?). There were many young workers in Cookes who started there straight from school. They made bags and weren’t allowed to work with explosives until they were eighteen. Cookes made explosives for the coal mining industry and quarries after the war. He did many jobs during the forty two years that he was there. He started on the bags – the paper shells –and moved on to work on the explosives when he was sixteen (the girls had to be eighteen). The bags they made would go to the girls in packing to be filled with explosives. He wasn’t given any training when he started work but was thrown in at the deep end. When he was sixteen he worked in the sheds with the bags rather than the explosives. Men also worked as service waiters taking bags round to every shed and collecting them when they had been filled. His first wage was one pound and two shillings which was low because of his age but he later received a pay rise. He didn’t have to wear overalls or special clothes because he wasn’t working with the explosives, and he had to clock in and out in the time office.
He was happy to get a job in Cookes and be earning money. His two sisters were still living at home and he would give his wages to his mother. She would give him a shilling or two from his wages. Everybody knew each other at the factory and got on well.
Between the ages of fourteen and sixteen Iorwerth made paper bags. When he was sixteen he started taking these bags around to the women in the sheds. He had to wear overalls to do this job. These bags were wrappers which the girls put around the gelignite. He wasn’t receiving a man’s wage at the time, even though he was doing a man’s job. He had a word with one of the managers about this and was told he couldn’t have a man’s wage due to his age. Iorwerth argued, 'well, if I'm not entitled to a man's wages I'm not doing man's work.' The matter went to the senior manager and in the end he secured a man’s wage. The boxes of explosives were seventy five pounds and quite heavy, and that’s why it was a man’s job. He did this job until he was eighteen.
12.00 When he was twenty he became a charge hand in the packing house and then outside, and this meant he had a lot more responsibility, even though it didn’t pay much more. As a charge hand he had to do a work programme for each shed, and had to decide matters such as how many explosives 6 everyone made. There were six hundred cartridges to every case, and the women wrapped these cartridges in twenty five pound and fifty pound quantities. Iorwerth made work programmes to determine how many cartridges went to each shed. There were eight sheds and four to five girls working in each one. He began work as a temporary charge hand while somebody was off ill but ended up staying in the job.
He would quarrel with the girls in the sheds who would get angry if one shed got the smaller amounts of cases. They were on piece work, and this meant that they earned less. Iorwerth tried his best to be fair but sometimes it was impossible. The women would tease him especially around Christmas time.
They had half an hour for lunch and had to pay for their food. They had to go to the canteen to drink their tea, and would wear their special clothes and shoes there but weren’t permitted to take any explosives with them. The foremen were very relaxed and did cut corners occasionally. Everybody knew it was dangerous work but there was nothing else around. He remembers an explosion in 1988 when two men were killed, one in 1968 and the one in 1957 when four people were killed. There were walls around the sheds to stop the impact of an explosion but in 1957 these failed. Mounds were then built around the sheds. He also remembers a man who lost his sight in an accident with one of the periscopes. Health and safety, and wages, improved when ICI took over.
23.00 Iorwerth was a union member, even though it wasn’t compulsory. He was in a pension fund and paid ten pence in every pound into it, and later on six pence in every pound when he was thirty six years old, on the staff and being paid monthly (unlike the girls in the sheds who were paid weekly.) He received a good pension when he retired because one of the managers advised him to start paying in when he was eighteen. The workers would go to the office window every Friday to collect their pay packets, but later on everybody got their wages paid into the bank. Outside work hours, Iorwerth would go out for a pint or to look for a girlfriend. He met his wife in work while she was working in the sheds.
He doesn’t remember any strikes taking place there. He does, however, remember an incident that took place when he was sixteen, during the time when he was taking the papers round. There were four girls working in a shed and three of them had been nasty to the other one. The other girls in the factory refused to return to their sheds in order to support this girl and when they eventually did return had followed the three girls who had been nasty and booed them. On the whole though, animosity like this was rare, and everybody understood each other. Another time, as foreman, he had to sort out a situation where one of the lads had called one of the girls from the sheds a whore. Everybody got nicknames. When he returned after retiring he was dubbed Hitler because he wouldn’t allow just anybody onto the site.
He was already acting foreman on the night shift for two weeks every other month when he was called up to the office and offered the job. He had five children and he didn’t want to work nights and a job as staff supervisor came up soon after that and he got that job. His wage increased considerably. He was getting forty pounds a week on the night shift. There were four shifts – mornings, afternoons, nights and days and the night shift was a regular shift unlike the others which chopped and changed from week to week. Iorwerth was on the night shift for two years and there was only one man above him on that shift.
The women working in the sheds and the men collecting the bags suffered headaches because they were breathing in the gelignite. The company tried to solve the problem by installing fans or screens but this didn’t work. The workers didn’t have masks or gloves in the beginning. Women workers fainted from time to time as well. The nurse would give them something for their stomachs. Some people took small pieces of gelignite home with them to sniff because they would suffer withdrawal symptoms from the gelignite when they were off work, although Iorwerth never did this.
35.00 He started courting in 1950 and got married in 1955 when he was twenty three and his wife was twenty one. Mary, his wife carried on working until she had children, five in all, and became a house wife. They lived on Iorwerth’s wages and it was difficult despite the fact that his wage increased. He bought a house in Tanygrisiau before getting married and would get the bus to work. He became a transport manager and would drive the lorries around the site even though he hadn’t passed his driving test. The company paid for him to have driving lessons and he passed his test. They put a phone in his house at the same time.
Sometimes the explosives would sweat on their way to a mine and when that happened they were very dangerous. Iorwerth’s job was to manage things like this and deal with the danger. When the explosives were leaving the factory they were solid and safe, but if they sweated and got wet in transit they became soft and dangerous. He had to travel great distances sometimes to do this like the time he went to Doncaster to deal with twelve cases. He had to stay there for four nights to ensure they were safe. He ended up throwing the twelve cases into the North Sea. Cookes head office was in Scotland.
He didn’t get any qualifications working in Cookes but he gained a lot of experience. When he finished in 1988 there were only ninety people still working there and they all had to do a bit of everything. When he’d started there, there were about seven hundred. Towards the end he also had to destroy faulty detonators that had been returned by detonating them into a bell and throwing them into the lake. They were live detonators and would explode. The company had created a lake for this purpose. He didn’t feel frightened when he went into the sheds where the women wrapped the explosives but he was scared of the detonators.
He had to burn explosives as well, and there was a wonderful view over the sea towards Harlech from the place where he did this. During the troubles in Ireland they were sending explosives to the army and they had to fill in all types of official forms. They had a special red dye on them and a shed had to be cleared specially for them to be made.
When he was earning better money he would go to Butlins in Barry, Bognor Regis, Minehead or Skegness on his holidays, like many of his co-workers. There was a Christmas lunch in Cookes every year and he remembers they had Workers Playtime on the radio in the canteen when it had just started.
Many of the Cookes’ workers went to work in Trawsfynydd, but it paid for Iorwerth to stay on because he got a good pension as a result. He enjoyed working there but didn’t enjoy the headaches. The workers had to have a medical examination regularly. There were two doctors - Dr Pritchard from Porthmadog and Dr Mansell. Dr Mansell only ever asked the workers, “How are you feeling today,” but Dr Pritchard would give them a proper examination.
Workers had to have a medical examination before they started work. Everybody was searched for 8 matches as they came in through the gate. If they smoked they had to go to the canteen where there were special machines on the wall for them to light their cigarettes. They weren’t permitted to carry coins in case these caused a spark, and couldn’t wear their own shoes in case there was something on them that could cause an explosion. He remembers a new female worker from Tanygrisiau going into the shed wearing shoes with studs on them. The company had given them to her by mistake but some of the men noticed just in time.
Iorwerth tells another story about burning explosives. The police and fire brigade were in attendance, as was the norm, and he kept on shouting ‘Fire, fire’ but nothing was happening. When he was on the staff he had to attend conferences in the North of England and Jersey at the expense of the company. When he retired he received a picture of Mount Cnicht. He is still in touch with many of his co-workers. Not one of his children has gone to work in a factory.
Duration: 1 hour