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 Memories of the Phoenix Works


During my childhood I was taken several times by my Father to spend the day at the Phoenix Works and despite the passage of many years, some of the more impressionable activities are still clear memories and it is these which are described below.

For many years, my Father cycled to work on his Raleigh bicycle with his packed lunch in a haversack, a souvenir from his time in the wartime National Fire Service.  When we went together, we went by bus from Gleadless Town End, where we lived in a detached house almost on the corner of Ridgeway Road and Gleadless Road. The house, in which I was born in 1940, was the one into which my parents moved when they married in 1934 and my Father left Ridgeway House. On one occasion, I can remember walking to the Phoenix Works during the winter of 1947, just after the bulldozer had cleared a way through the snow to High Lane. We walked down the centre of the road with snow piled on either side, to a height way above my head.

When visiting the Phoenix Works, the first thing we had to do after arriving, was to climb the steps from the yard to the first floor. This I hated, because the steps were so old and worn that it felt as though one would slide backwards off of them. On one occasion I can remember being almost transfixed near the top of them, not by fear but by the sight of a large coloured butterfly clinging to the wall about two feet away. It was the most exotic butterfly which I had seen. I later learnt that there was a butterfly called the wall butterfly, because it did just that.

At the top of the steps we turned left along to my Father's office which was at the end of the wing near the road. One of the office doors was quite different from the rest, it was very thick and had heavy studs through it in a regular pattern. I cannot remember asking why this should be. My article about the history of the Phoenix Works mentions an inventory made in 1861, a copy of which John kindly sent to me for inclusion. In the inventory one room is described as the Counting House, presumably where the cash was kept for paying bills and wages, so this must have been the room.

I did not find my Father’s office very interesting, other than playing with the roll top lid on one of the desks and would soon go off on my own into the works. My first port of call was always my Uncle George’s forge which was just beyond the bottom of the steps on the left. Just inside the door on the left were the bellows. In size and shape they were like a pile of car tyres and were operated with a long wooden handle. I operated them on one or two occasions but not very often. To the right of the bellows was the hearth and then his anvil. Further to the right of the anvil was a manually operated press into which one carefully placed a small thin piece of pre-cut, almost triangular, sheet metal. When the handle was operated, the piece of metal was bent round to form a cone, which was then removed. These were obviously ferrules of some kind. The press was easy to operate and I made many of them.

Having an Uncle who could work metal was very useful, when I built myself a new sledge, he would make me a new pair of irons if I needed them, of whatever length, thickness and height.

Understandably, the forge became hot and to quench his thirst, he would take a drink of cold tea which he kept in a clear glass “Tizer” bottle on the floor to the left of his feet. For some reason, probably the colour, I used to think that it looked horrible and undrinkable.

If one left the forge and walked up the yard, against the wall on the left was usually a crate containing several bottles of milk. These were provided free by the Company for the junior members of the work force, the senior members had to provide their own. My Father used to take his milk, for making tea, in a flat glass bottle, one of those which my Mother had collected from the Children’s Clinic during wartime containing fresh orange juice . In earlier years, ale used to be collected from the Phoenix Inn, in large conical flagons made from copper. I can recall seeing one of these flagons in an exhibition of historical artefacts held in Kent House in the early 1950s. The early photograph of the Phoenix Works was also on display at the same time.

At the top of the yard was a forge with a small furnace of a type which was accessible through a square hole in the wall and was very deep. I cannot recall what it was used for but I can remember that the workmen in there had made themselves a special toasting fork which was very long. When it was lunchtime, they would sometimes stick a slice of bread on the fork and feed the fork down inside the furnace to a predetermined depth and immediately pull it back, turn the slice over and do it again. I’m sure that they could make a slice of toast in about ten seconds.

I never ate lunch with my Father in his office but I would stroll up to the Phoenix Inn where Mrs. Kay would make me some sandwiches, presumably my Father had made some earlier arrangement. We would sit in a deserted bar chatting and having lunch together. I really liked Mrs. Kay, she was always kind and friendly. She also had a distinctive hairstyle which, even to a young schoolboy made an impression. It looked as though the hair had been arranged into a single plait and then wound round and round into a large bun.

One of my favourite areas in the Works was the warehouse on the first floor, where the finished products were packed into large cube shaped bales and wrapped in hessian. In order to ensure that the finished articles looked perfect, my Father told me that men with sweaty hands were not allowed to handle the blades in case their damp finger marks promoted the formation of rust.

Sometimes when I was in the warehouse, I would be given a small pot of black stain, a brush with short stiff bristles and a metal stencil and I would then crawl over the top of the bales and stencil on to them the name of the country to which they were to be sent. I am sure that knowing the names of lots of foreign countries helped me with my geography lessons at school.

The bales were finally tied up using strong rope made from Italian hemp, this was white with a blue strand running through it and made it possible for the bales to be hooked onto the hoist which was used to load them onto a lorry parked below, at the rear of the Works. This hoist lifted the bales up from the warehouse floor, moved them along a beam projecting outside and then lowered them. The hoist was operated with a system of pulleys and chains which made a loud clanking noise. Fortunately one didn’t have to stand too near the edge of the loading bay to pull on the chains and I sometimes operated it when there was nothing on the hook. Also at the rear of the Works, my Father pointed out to me the position from which the small cannon, "The Phoenix Big Bang", was fired towards the village during coronation celebrations.

When time allowed, the men in the warehouse would throw a couple of lengths of rope over one of the roof beams and then tie the ends to the separate handles on one of the baskets which they used to carry small items about the warehouse. The basket was made from heavy duty cane and resembled a large laundry basket. When secured, I would climb into the basket and hold tightly to the sides, the men would then swing me to and fro across the warehouse. I really enjoyed it.

During one or two of my visits, I was asked to collect water from a hand operated pump, which I think was in the lower part of the yard, although I am not certain. During the first two or three pumps of the handle, the water came out a deep rusty brown colour which then cleared.

Almost all of the items which were produced by the Works, were exported and because my Father dealt with the incoming mail, he had an inexhaustible supply of foreign stamps, which, in the late 1940s, almost every schoolboy collected. If my Father had to stay at home because he was unwell, sometimes one of the workmen would cycle over to Gleadless with a leather briefcase containing the day’s mail. This briefcase was old and well worn, the corners of the flap were curled almost completely back on themselves and it was locked with a round brass lock. After reading the mail he would pass on his instructions. Even as a schoolboy I could tell that there were anxious times when work was very slack and new orders were desperately awaited.

One day during the early 1950s, my Mother saw my Father coming up the garden path when returning from work and told me that from the look on his face, something must be wrong. Apparently, there had been an accident and something had broken with such force that parts of it had penetrated the roof. The next day I cycled over to the Phoenix Works to see the damage and there was a hole in the roof with several of the roof tiles broken. The damage was to the roof on the wing nearest to the Phoenix Inn, on the side sloping towards the yard. I never knew exactly what had happened.

During my visits to the Phoenix Works, I was always welcomed warmly by the workmen no matter which part of the Works I wandered into. It was only in later life that I realised how much more I should have appreciated at the time, the effort which they made to amuse me. Kindness was not only shown to me by the men on the shop floor, as I can remember the managing director, Mr. Clegg, driving over to Gleadless from Ridgeway, in what was then known as a shooting brake, to give me a Christmas present of five shillings.

I mentioned at the beginning, the house in which I was born, which happened to be next door to the Co-op butchers shop. In those days it was the usual practice for butchers to sprinkle sawdust on the shop floor, both behind and in front of the counter. My Father made arrangements for the sawdust to be supplied by the Phoenix Works, presumably a by-product from the making of wooden handles. As I ran many errands to the butchers as very young boy, this sawdust must be the first tangible item from the Phoenix Works with which I came into contact and was to become the first of many.

Tony Rippon

March 2009


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