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The Shipyards, Royals and Charvers
by Robert McColl

Historically, the Shipyards have always been a pretty weird place to work. You find all kinds of people in there. Some are funny; some are right bastards; some are tragic, and some are hard. But you will always find a sense of belonging-a brotherhood forged in steel and sweat.

The first thing that strikes a newcomer on entering a shipyard is the sheer scale of the place. The fabrication sheds are enormous with huge steel structures of all descriptions. Looking up at the giant cranes on the berth can result in a semi-permanent crick of the neck. The ships themselves, especially when they are in dry-dock are threatening in their sheer bulk. There are pipes, wires, and cables, hanging from all over the place like a multitude of umbilical cords supplying the steel foetus with energy until it is ready to be born into the river. Closer to, the men themselves are larger than life figures that become the living personification of their respective jobs.

Though the mind will become accustomed to the scale of the modern ship yard it can never accept the mind-numbing incessant noise of hammers, fume extractors and screeching that assaults the senses. The sensation of being on a working ship has often been colourfully described as being in a biscuit tin in which two skeletons are copulating. The noise means that all communication has to be carried by a shout. An arm goes round the shoulder from the rotund Gaffer:

" Billy, will you gan on this job for me?"

Billy's face will see to smile or twist depending on his relationship with the aforementioned Foreman.

Historically, the business of the relationship with the Foreman has always been all-important and the only way that the Yard could operate effectively. A Gaffer has his own hand picked men. My Dad told me that they were called the 'Royals'. These are men who actually built the ships, the rest are employed as best the Foreman can. The notion of the Royals goes back to the days when a man had to queue outside the Yard gate every morning waiting for work. (Can you imagine this happening today?) A Gaffer usually appeared issuing tickets to those fortunate to gain a day's employment. The rest were turned away. As the working conditions became more secure, during the days of piecework, these men were the ones who got good money jobs, where large amounts of work could be done in the least time. When hard times came along, these men usually managed to work forty-eight hours because of their effectiveness.

The Royals are few and far between today, but they still excite the envy of other workers sneeringly regarded as "gaffers men". But these dedicated and skilled men were the real heart of shipbuilding in the mid twentieth century. They were good timekeepers, good grafters, and supplied the consistent vitality in a turbulent industry. In them exists a ancient, fierce pride in there job, which is in a sense heroic in nature, and often absent in the service driven economy of today.

The Royal, however, is not the perfect example of carbon based humanity with a hammer. A Royal never became a Union official; his individualism was totally focused on his work. He rarely becomes a Gaffer, it being notorious in the yards that they don't make foremen out of good workers but out of good timekeepers. As I have said, the Royals are a dying breed; a few of them exist and they are usually found in the workingmen's clubs and in the Leek Associations.

The young men who will build the new ships on the Tyne will be very different from the Royals and their like. The modern day plater will drive to work in his new car with his music blasting. He will be thinking about what video he will watch when he gets home, and how his kids have trashed his computer. The modern worker will dress in his Ben Sherman shirt hung outside his jeans and sporting a number one haircut with a trimmed goatee beard to match. He will not drink in the workingmen's clubs, he will prefer "stack 'em in, stack 'em up" pubs that populate the Quayside in Newcastle. His children are likely to be first generation ' Charvers' who have exhibit the attitude of someone who has lost a tenner and found a fiver. But they will face a future, and with a little hope, so will their sons and daughters.

 

 

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