John Brown Engineering; reflecting on the passing of 40 years.

It was 40 years ago, almost to the day, I walked through the doors at John Brown Engineering (JBE Clydebank), starting out on my working life as a young adult, a boy really. The images and smell of the factory, burning metal, welding, oil and coolant are still fresh in my mind, it never leaves you, it’s ingrained – even to this day when I visit engineering works, in my day job, the smell hits you and the memories come flooding back.

My dad would give me a lift to Renfrew Ferry in those early days from our house in Thrushcraigs Crescent, Paisley, as the timing suited him on his way to his shift at Chivas on Renfrew Road. Popped over the ferry to Yoker and onto the number 2 bus, to the stop just before Rothesay Dock entrance or sometimes on to the terminus. My daily routine was 2 rolls (well fired) with cheese and tomato from Blacks shop, then on to work. I’d leave £15 aside from my wages for my travel and food every week, that just about covered everything.

I remember getting off at the wrong stop, panicked a little but don’t think I was late on the first day! Not sure what to expect, I clocked-in to the apprentice training school for the longest induction ever – at least 1 whole week of industry awareness, health and safety, measured for my lovely blue boiler suit, turned up twice at the bottom, with APPRENTICE melted on the chest, nice wee cloth cap with built in hairnet, safety glasses, safety shoes, tools and my own locker. I have blamed that wee blue cloth cap for my lack of hair ever since, we had to wear it every day for the first year in the apprentice school, never mind the stress and strain of 40 working years and what life has thrown at me since or our family inherited gene pool of testosterone induced male pattern baldness, none of that; it was the wee blue cloth cap and hair net that contributed to my baldy napper. All the other apprentices will be the same, aren’t they? 

Induction included the most important task of the day, how to fill and turn on the tea urn which was situated at the back of the bay near the toilets. Also included in induction was one of Dan’s many catchphrase teachings; “two scoots n oot” was all the soap you were allowed from the dispenser to wash your hands with, although generous and copious helpings of pink barrier cream was mightily encouraged before returning to the task at hand.

College was day release at Clydebank Tech at the top of Kilbowie Road at the time – setting me on my way to an ONC in Mechanical and Production Engineering before a trip up to the city for an HNC at Glasgow Tech in the years that followed. Computers were non-existent. I remember we had an introduction to BBC computers at Clydebank College and a visit to the big computer one day in Browns – that was it, a visit to see it – it was massive, took up the whole side of a room. The visit was fleeting, something like; there’s the computer lads – there it’s there – one day they’ll take over the world! Big change to nowadays having online access 24/ 7 and contact with people all over the world in an instant, whether you like it or not!

I didn’t express it well, if at all, at the time, but I’m mightily thankful to Dan Muir, Maurice Pert and Archie Stewart of the Apprentice training school for that first year of learning and some rough edges being brushed off. It passed by with all the of basic skills covered – welding (yer arkin’), fabrication, fitting, filing, tapping, turning, CNC, burning, sheet metal, hot metal forming; “cherry red then quench”, crane operation and knowing how to turn a machine off first before pressing the start button.

End of that year, summer of ’82, the “Paisley Cherry Boys” – me and my mates were off to Blackpool for a well-earned blast.
On return to work, I was now ready for life beyond the training school, up to the factory we all went, to where the turbines were fabricated, formed and assembled, to where the legendary QE2 was built, and I was to be part of that, what an amazing place to work, every day was an adventure. Early rise though, sometimes I would get in to grab an extra bit of sleep next to a steel column or behind the caustic tank in the pipe shop before Sid would give me a shake to get to work!

3 more years were ahead of me before my time was out; working with these wonderful people, I recall fondly as my journeymen and mentors:

Willie Cochrane, Tam Pollock, (Pipe fitting), Al Loban, (Bay 1/ 10 Fitting),
Jim Cowan, (Purchasing),
Alastair MacDougall, Eric Whyte, Findlay Dryden, Sam Currie (Plant Drawing Office),
John Harkins (Test Department),

I salute all those amazing people, my fellow apprentices and all the other wonderful characters, I not only learned technical skills from, but people skills too. There were certainly a few bad habits instilled along the way at Browns. One I specifically recall was being sent to the toilet to sleep because there wasn’t enough work. Andy Dunn showed me his specially made seat, hidden on top of the old toilet watchman’s booth, the one upstairs across from bay 10, made out of ply with a duct tape hinge joining two pieces together to form a base and back plate. Think this was his subtle warning to us youngsters not to steal it or use it, in fact it wasn’t subtle at all – he told us it was his, never ever touch it, ever! Rest easy Andy and all those sadly no longer with us.

1985 was certainly a year to remember, the year of LIVE AID, the year I went to Corfu with my mates for 2 weeks, and the year I lost my job!
Redundancy came on 8th November. We had all been gathered at the training school, awaiting our fate and final sentence. Roger Follet, I remember it quite clearly, welcomed me into a room upstairs with all the other boys in the room next door, one by one we were invited into the room. He actually started the conversation with a joke, a flippant one liner, something like; here’s the good news Gary! Words to that effect, then delivered the redundancy notice I knew was coming, along with a note of how much money I would get as a payoff, close on a couple of thousand pounds from memory – had to last me 7 months, as it happens, until I got a job down in Barrow. Draughtsman, I always wanted to be a draughtsman.

I didn’t know what lay ahead of me on that November day in Clydebank, or to be honest what we were leaving behind, as we sunk the beers (lager tops probably) almost celebratory, together as one large redundant group in Chandlers, but what I do know, what I am sure of is this; without the grounding and training received at Brown’s I would not have had the career and opportunities I have been so fortunate to experience in my work and actually in my life. It was a gift.

I often wonder if JBE would still be around if industrial management and discipline would have been different or if Thatcher hadn’t come along. Who knows? The real tragedy really when I reflect on it all, is not just the wholesale loss of our industrial and manufacturing base, it's the knock on effect of that loss too. We used to make things in Scotland, big things and lots of them, we sent ships around the world, sewing machines, thread to name but a few. Our young people used to leave school with hope and purpose, itching for their career ahead of them in those lost industries, just like their fathers and grandfathers before them.

40 years though, where has all the time gone; 19 of us, we knew everything.

For the record, the year of 1981 were Gary Kerr (me), Ian McSporran, Ian Morrison, Stan Hill, Arnie McKinnon, Dougie Stewart, Gordon Wood, John McDougal, Robert Paxton, Iain McLeod, Robert Kinnaird, Robert Duncan, Alan Robertson, Angus Robertson, Andy Howie, Jim Orr, Craig Muir, George Cadzow and Stuart Wallace, sadly no longer with us.

Here’s to meeting up again soon and to the next 40 years!