Big Gerry, my old man, is getting on these days. Though approaching eighty three he’s young at heart and full of joie de vivre but the body is not quite as sprightly as it once was.
He came to England from Ireland in 1956 as a fresh-faced eighteen year old and headed for Birmingham first before settling in Bolton. Initially working on the railways he then went onto work in the construction industry up until retirement in 2009.
My father is a natural story teller, my mother once said that ‘he did not kiss the Blarney Stone, he had a full blown affair with it.’ For many years I’ve listened to his stories to the extent that I nearly know them by heart but lately I’ve taken to either recording them or transcribing whilst he chatted away. It’s fair to say that I’ve spent a bit of time with him this week so I have taken three very short stories from his early days in England in the 1960s. Maybe it’s because I’m a historian but I feel it’s important to capture these tales.
In the early 1960s my father worked on opencast coal sites. He wasn’t a miner but his job was to cart away the earth above the coal seams that lay close to the surface in large dump trucks. There were quite a few such coal sites around the Bolton and Wigan area. He also worked on them in South Wales.
“In December 1961 I was working for Tarmac on an opencast coal site in Windy Arbour, between Wigan and Billinge, driving a dump truck. It was mostly young Irish lads on the job working twelve hour shifts, six days a week. Christmas time came and half the lads went home to Ireland for a fortnight. The foreman Johnny Stanton, a Mayoman, decided to make up for the others being away somewhat by putting the rest of us that stayed on 6am to midnight shifts. Eighteen hour shifts for two weeks. I’d be driving home to Bolton, having a bite to eat, a few hours sleep, and then back to work again. No opportunity for rests on those sites. All go. Great times.”
When JFK was shot and my stitches burst
My father has a large scar running vertical on the left side of his belly. It’s about 250mm (approximately 10 inches in old money) and every time someone asks about it this is his reply.
“It’s an old war wound. No, I’m joking. I got that the day President Kennedy was killed in Dallas in 1963. I’d just had my gall bladder removed and was in a convalescence home in Bolton recovering. The food was terrible and there was a painter on site that lived near my father so I passed the painter a note to give to him. The next day my father turned up with a large bread loaf, a load of thick ham, cheese, butter, a pint of milk and a big cake. I was that hungry I ate the lot.
That night I woke up with crippling pains and I looked down and my stitches had burst open. I spent the whole night with my arms around my stomach trying to keep it together. I was fearful of telling the on duty matron as she was a real nasty piece of work.
At redressing the next morning my secret was finally blown. The matron was informed and stormed over in a foul mood.
‘You Irish! You come over here expecting everything for free.’
Before she could finish I cut in.
‘Now you hang on a minute! How much did that operation cost?’
‘About £60.’ She replied.
‘£60. Well I’ve been here six years and paid into this system every week since. I’ve paid for this operation, in fact I’ve probably paid for it twice over. You probably owe me!’
She stormed off and the whole ward cheered me.”
Skeeth and the Old Morris Car
From the mid 1960s onwards my father moved on to work on the motorway and bypass projects that were cropping up all over the northwest. From 1967-72 he worked on the M53, M56, M61, M62 and the Edenfield and Haslingden bypasses. He drove a grader which was a large coat hanger-looking machine that was used to level out the stone that provided the foundation for the motorway surface. He always describes this work as ‘mighty craic’ and ‘pure devilment’ because the primary motivation was to break the heart of Ted Whittle, the site foreman. He has so many stories of this time but here’s one.
“I was working on the Manchester end of M61 and I had an old Morris car. A few days before the day in question I drove it through a large puddle and both mudguards flew out sideways like the wings of a bird. It was done for and I wanted rid of it. Now there was a dump truck driver that was a complete head case from Laois (a county in central Ireland) called Malcolm Skeeth and we arranged that I would park the car on the haul road and he would crash in to. Skeeth was jacking that day so he didn’t care if he got sacked.
I was driving a grader and Skeeth would pass me driving like a lunatic on that haul road and then this one time he passed me, gave me the thumbs up and I knew he’d go for the old Morris.
Now Ted Whittle, the site foreman, was constantly endanger of blowing his own head gasket, emotionally if you know what I mean. He came roaring over in his Land Rover and got out.
‘Have you seen what that mad bastard Skeeth has done to your car? He’s destroyed it. It’s in pieces. Get down to it quick.’
Whittle brought me down to it and sure enough Skeeth had absolutely obliterated it. Smashed it to pieces. The poor old Morris.
‘Don’t worry though’ said Ted ‘I’ve been on to the Black Gang (the haulage contractors) and they’ll see you right. They’ll pay you out for it.’
I was over the moon. Skeeth got a job working for his brother-in-law driving a wagon and turned up on the same site that very afternoon which did not impress Whittle one bit. Poor Ted.”