Johnstone History Museum
A Project of Johnstone History Society
Remembrance of Wickman Lang
September 8, 2017
This is the story of my work as a time served engineering fitter at Wickman Lang ,Mary Street, Johnstone from 1971 till 1979 when the factory was closed.
I had served my apprenticeship with Thomas White and Sons woodworking machine tool makers in Paisley and saw an advert for fitters in Wickman Lang as in 1971 they were expanding and paid the highest wages in the area. The hourly rate at Thomas White was 11/6 pence and in Langs 15/3 pence so an enormous increase in wages and no more buses to work in Paisley. I also stayed in Johnstone castle so the move made sense all round.
I was interviewed by Jim Gibson the senior fitting foreman and told they would let me know. I waited six weeks before my mother told me a Mr Gibson had phoned and I was to call him. It appears that due to a postal strike a letter offering me employment had not been delivered.
I was given a starting date and hours of 7.30 to 4.30 daily and so a very anxious 21 year old duly arrived at the gatehouse with my toolbox. The gatehouse was where the clock in machines were and hundreds of workers were streaming in to start a new week. There would have been about eight hundred workers at that time.
Office workers also entered here so there was a mixture of women and men in suits as well as all the shop floor workers in their boiler suits. I was very apprehensive as anyone who has started a new job will understand.
After about a half hour hanging around the foreman Dan Logue came and took me into the fitting shop which was adjacent to the gatehouse. The long bay was split into sections with different sub-assembly units where fitters put together the parts needed at the top of the bay in the final assembly where all the parts came together into a working machine tool.
There were two foremen’s desks, one at the sub-assembly sections and one at final assembly. My foreman was to be Dan Logue whose brother was a catholic priest, Father Logue. The other foreman was Duncan Mcfadden who looked after the final assembly.
Dan Logue was a fussy man always running this way and that with the habit of wringing his hands when stressed which he was most of the time as we never made life easy for "gaffers".
Anyway Dan took me over to a section of the sub-assembly where I was to work and introduced me to the two men already working there Jim Houston and Larry Meechan.
I should state at this point that the type of work I was tasked with was quite different from my previous employment and I struggled at the start however Larry Meechan saw my distress and made sure I got the hang of the work. It was mostly every man for himself so Larry was a godsend for me as the other fitter big Jim while pleasant enough never offered any advice. Larry is a lifelong friend now and was also responsible for me becoming a golfer but that's a story for another place and time.
It was skilled work to fine tolerances which when completed had to be passed by the inspector who all wore brown dust-coats and were very strict as anything not exact was returned to you for sorting.
We all worked in a long line at benches running up the length of the fitting bay with steel vices spread along the bench to hold the workpieces.
As you worked you chatted and joked with all around you. Most of the worlds problems were discussed and solved especially at a teabreak when eight or nine would sit on boxes, benches and gossip, argue about football etc.
The jobs had time limits for completion but the times were reasonable and as long as you did your quota the foreman was happy.
The company supplied most tools needed although we all had certain tools of our own including jigs etc. that we had made up to make some jobs easier. The hand drills we used were all pneumatic and when first installed the system was full of water and it made for very uncomfortable drilling and was a big problem due to rust. An specialist engineer came in and said we needed a refrigeration unit which certainly stopped the water problem but after using for a few minutes your hand became frozen.
A skill I perfected in Langs was hand scraping of initially steel wedges used on tool slides then eventually graduated to lathe beds. The old timers were amazing at this and although I could produce a lovely finish it was with an electric hand scraper.
To break the monotony you would go to the toilet several times a day with a different newspaper stuffed inside your boilersuit each time, you had to keep up with the news ha ha. Everybody bought a different newspaper and they were shared around. Another ploy was to have an assembly drawing in your hand and go for a wander to see who you could blether to and the gaffer thought you were working as you had a drawing. I had a small circle of men I had a blether with throughout the works from storemen,drillers,turners all who became good friends.
The toilets as you would imagine were large and always busy and a lot of extraneous business was conducted there and you could even get your haircut as one of our labourers had trained as a barber and did a roaring trade.
When the Derby race at Epsom was on the radio the toilet would be packed with men listening to various transistor radios ha ha.
There was a works bookie runner who took your bets and passed them to a local bookmaker (the bookmaker used was in Laighcartside street and is the house Penney the dentist now occupies)
There were several hand washing stations dotted about. They were huge round basins with a central tap which started a shower spraying out from the central column. On the wall were plastic containers of Swarfega (green gel )which was great at getting oily grease off your hands.
The boiler suits were part of a scheme whereas for a weekly charge you got three boiler suits with one washed every week in rotation ensuring a clean one on a Monday morning.
There were all sorts of clubs within the factory from chess, cards, pigeons, football, golf and of course the social club, the Lilybank Bowling Club, which was heavily subsidised and well used.
I was showing that I was a good worker and after about a year I moved to a bigger sub-assembly area building more complicated machinery. This had been the sole area of another worker called Tom who was an obnoxious wee git and didn't want to show me anything and it was a few months before I was able to get to grips with the new work. I soon was top man and worked away without us speaking to each other. I only explain this to show it wasn't all pleasant.
About this time the workers in the grinding department walked out on strike over a time study which had reduced the time allowed for some jobs. This was to become a major problem as the company decided to dig in their heels and refused to reinstate the original job times. Both sides were intransigent and after a week or so the whole factory was laid off because of twenty odd men. The strike lasted thirteen long weeks with only social security payment to live on and at the end the grinders never won.
So as to understand more easily the set up in the fitting it is necessary to give some background. The final assembly workers considered themselves to be top dogs although we all in fact time served engineers.
The hourly rate paid throughout the factory varied greatly from unskilled,semi-skilled to time served and differed even between them.
The fitters had a group bonus scheme whereby all the fitters stats were added together and a level bonus payment was arrived at and was used to calculate our wages. It meant that the fitters were in the main the highest paid workers in the factory. In regard to the bonus it was the final assembly fitters who contributed most to the "pot" and so they felt top dogs.
I was if I say so myself a very hard worker and good as well which did not go unnoticed so as when a vacancy occurred at the final assembly I was selected both by the gaffer and the co worker I would partner (for you worked in pairs as a team in final assembly).
The works canteen was very popular as it was both good and heavily subsidised by the company so it is no surprise that it was always very very busy. Getting to the top of the queue became an art form with all sorts of tricks being used to get out of the factory first and cross over the cobbled road to the canteen building as soon as the dinner hooter went off.
The works were full of characters funny,sad,idiots,complete nut cases (I joke not) but it gave a variety of situations to entertain us and gossip about. One of the fork lift drivers was always crabbit in the morning but always cheery by the afternoon as he had drunk a quarter bottle of whiskey by then.
There was Red Reilly who favourite cry at union meetings was "hit the street" meaning walk out on strike no matter how small the grievance.
There was an electric oven for heating up cylindrical bushes so as the metal bushes expanded with heat and were then fitted over a shaft and when cooled were immovable. However this oven was used constantly for heating Wisharts pies and sausage rolls.
Anyway back to my move to the final assembly line which entailed working with three cast trays ( 5' x 10') on which the sub-assembly units were fixed. The trays were hollow so as to hold coolant for the machining process they would eventually carry out. We had two drill holes and tap them with a screw thread while the trays were hanging from the crane, these holes would be used to fix copper tubing that carried oil all around the finished machine. The trays were then lowered to the floor and levelled before we started assembly. We were allowed a maximum of 10 days to assembly three single spindle machine tools. At various stages both a plumber and electrician would work with us to complete their areas. Also at each stage an inspector checked the assembly against the drawings.
It was very physical work but I never ceased to have a sense of pride when the machine were running in the test bay. The final stage was to fit safety guards all round the machine which then went to the spray booth for painting. I marked every machine I worked on with an R in a hidden place during assembly just in case I was blamed for someone else's work as the machine all looked identical when finished and painted.
My foreman was now Duncan McFadden who was a very large man who was never seen without his cap on his head and there was much speculation as to what he was hiding under his cap. Whereas Dan Logue was excitable and rushed about and did everything by the book Duncan was a different kettle of fish as he would stroll about and was not above bending a rule or two when needs must. He was an easier gaffer to work for all round.Duncan was a single man who spent his leisure hours in the works social club i.e. Lilybank bowling club. He was always getting work done on the side for the club.
After about five years, in 1976, I was moved to the assembly of a new machine Wickman were developing the SCA 12. I was assigned to work in a team of three doing basically the same assembly type of work as before just on a different machine. As this was development work there were no time constraints to work to and so made for an easier life all round.
However the job now needed me to think a lot more instead of following drawings on a well tried build program as there were errors in drawing calculations and machining some components. This meant our team had to come up with answers to many problems during the build and I was now involved with more of our technical personnel which I found interesting.
When an SCA 12 was completed it was taken to another large area called the demonstration bay where inspectors tested thoroughly and produced a snag list for us to rectify. This was usually a cushy couple of days and a sought after duty.
It was early in 1978 that the management discovered a young turner working for them who had a degree and they were shocked that this could happen. A form was handed out to all workers to complete with any qualifications they had. It so happens I was well qualified myself but the wages were very good and could not have been made in a bank etc. I had seven O levels from the John Neilson school and The Mechanical Engineering Degree gained at The Reid Kerr when serving my apprenticeship. I still remember the senior foreman chastising me as he thought I had filled these awards in for a joke but then being amazed.
Anyway a few days later I was asked in to the works managers office to speak with Mr Birrell a small man who wore an obvious wig. I was well acquainted with him as I had been a shop steward for a couple of years being in the AUEW. I was offered a promotion into the drawing office which I accepted as the thought of wearing a suit and tie,having clean fingernails and working in a warm office was awful attractive.
There were five draughtsmen plus a head draughtsman. I must admit I was wary of how they would react as they had served their time in the drawing office however I was treated well and began to enjoy working at my big drawing table and as a bonus The Glasgow Herald broadsheet was a rare fit on these drawing boards, ha ha!
The manager was Donald Blackburn a man of exceptional talent and a real gent. He was responsible for a lot of innovation at Lang Power Chucks and in 1979 after I had about a year in the drawing office he asked me to head up along with a senior draughtsman a new initiative they were starting, a new research and development department. He thought my background of both working hands on and in the drawing office a perfect fit.
Donald had been developing an Index chuck as there were many factories across the world who had employees put a component into a chuck then complete an operation before having to stop the revolving chuck take out the component and turn it round and put it back in the chuck and repeat the same operation. Donald's idea was a chuck which you didn't stop but was able to revolve the component up to four times without stopping the chuck. This would result in major time saving and revolutionise chucking.
You need to appreciate that these factories had maybe up to one hundred machines so the potential for huge orders was there.
A month later it was announced that the company were closing in July 1979.
We were of course stunned and we immediately contacted our Union who then had several discussions with the management of the Company. I remember a march through Johnstone carrying a coffin. A speech was given by Jimmy Airlie who had been one of the union leaders at the upper Clyde shipyard sit-in along with Jimmy Reid. All was to no avail and a redundancy package was eventually agreed. In July 1979 the factory closed. Some employees were kept on for a few weeks to run the place down.