Memories Of Whiteheads, Pill, Newport

Memories of the Newport steel works in the 'sixties

By Jim Dyer

© Jim Dyer 2012

As I trundled through the strip mill one chilly November morning to collect and deliver post to its office, I became mesmerised by a beefy steel man going about his job. What skill! The red-hot, long, strip of molten steel would speed along rollers from one end of the mill to the other arriving at a point where it had to be turned. Here was my man, cowboy shirt and orange steel toe-tector boots, poised with a pair of long tongs to use deftly to catch the steel and turn manually. In between he returned to his chair to continue reading the morning Daily Sketch. This was superb artistry and I would spend many hours watching this feat in my two years at Whiteheads Iron and Steel Company, Mendalgief Road, Newport from 1964.

After a short and harrowing job as Apprentice Mechanical Engineer at British Aluminium (six weeks) I got a post with Whiteheads as an office boy based in their Post Room. I was soon to discover that the steelworks was very much like a large town situated on acres of land in Pillgwenlly and next to the eastern valley railway line, upon which the main office block was perched. Also adjoining was Godins, a subsidiary dealing in steel sections, and well-known during the war for its output and superb canteen, much used by the girls for dances. Of course each part had a sort of office - strip mill, hot mill, canteen, metallurgy, doctor and such - all of which I called to each day.

Not only did Whiteheads look after its employees well, it gave them a bonus every year based on company profits which caused great pleasure for those who qualified for one. Generally this was around Christmas time. They also had a social club. The Courtybella Club, on the town centre side of Cardiff Road, and a large tract of land in Bassaleg for football, rugby and other sports. Many famous names played rugby for Whiteheads, including Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner of the noted Pontypool Front Row. On the work site a doctor and nurse were employed to deal with workers health issues. Every so often a magazine would be issued with plenty of news, gossip and pictures. What more could a worker want!

Office Block

This was a three-storey, rectangular building near the site-entrance, a hive of activity. About a hundred staff were based here, bearing in mind that Whiteheads had subsidiary companies all over the country. Inside, it was like a school with windowed partitions except of course for those of the big bosses and directors who turned up most days and were treated with high esteem. A few regulars were Gus Latham, the big-boss, his son Peter and Vic Parry, more the office organiser with his thick, black spectacles and bow tie. Peter usually arrived in his crimson Jaguar sports car, Gus chauffeur driven, and Vic in his black Rover. Impressive! Greeted by the uniformed commissionaire, they would toddle off to their luxurious, carpeted offices.

All sorts of office skills were employed here: typists, alesmen, purchasing, draughtsmen, secretarial. chemists, store-men to name a few. Between these, us two post-boys would visit before doing our trips to the outposts of the plant.

The most coveted were the sales team, always immaculately suited, with an enviable air of confidence about them. Names such as Bill Raisen and Adrian Williams, the local pop star still come to my mind. The phone was always ringing there and it had a unique sense of humour about it as deals were brokered across the world.

Equally as busy were the Invoice Section when every so often thousands of payment invoices had to be produced and dispatched to bring in cash for the company. Down in the basement were the Purchasing Section the Stationery Store, and Records Room where men and women often met up for a 'quick feel'!

For the post-boys all these sections had one thing in common – orders at break time for snacks from Godins. It really was a pleasure going to the Godins Canteen for bacon rolls and pasties, all home made, and the aromatic smell of the place was a delight. Of course, we worked out a system to earn extra cash by charging each person a small fee for collecting their goodies. A few weren't happy about this but most coughed up to aid our horse-betting fund.

Post Room Routine

As one would think the day started with opening the mail, loads of it sprawled across the huge table. The two of us were joined by others to help, but always Jimmy Lewis or Eric Davies were there. They were the office managers adjoining us. A big funeral was held when Jimmy died and Eric took over.

My colleague changed several times with promotions. Some youth called Mervyn was a pain but was replaced by Brian Clegg from Cwm. We took it in turns for office collection and trips to the outposts. Apart from doing special jobs for the directors and others it was basically pretty mundane. The big event was taking the franking machine to the general post office at the top of High Street, when we went by van and had a chance to mess about in town.

The other highlight was Christmas time when the post considerably increased because of cards and presents. And I mean presents. Under the direction of Eric we both arrived early and started opening. The range of gifts was tremendous, thousands of cigarettes and diaries. So, of course, many of theses never arrived at their correct offices. No wonder I had a problem giving up smoking!

Some of this changed however when Mrs Bright was appointed to operate the new-fangled TELEX machine. A nice lady, but somehow we felt we were being supervised.

And so days passed lovingly at Whitehead's until I got another job with the old Monmouthshire County Council in Pentonville. When I told them, Vic Parry called me in and offered a fortune not to leave with career prospects. But my mind was set.

Memories of Whiteheads still abound, though closed decades ago after being nationalised with British Steel. The site is still there off Mendalgief Road with possible houses being built there.

Names of people working there arise like Pat Barfield and Sonia, my pal Alan Grey and Geoff Phillips in Purchasing. Chilcot, Brendan, Blackburn, Watkins always ring a bell as does the Christmas Eve Party we had when three of us ended-up in Cardiff after numerous pints of Bass at the Prince of Wales.

Every so often former workers meet to celebrate their memories. It certainly was a fantastic industry in Newport when jobs were about. Now it is part of history.

Jim Dyer - 25th March 2012