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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories




Fred Taylor worked for Bagley’s Crystal Glass Company in Knottingley from 1924 to 1975. Despite the satisfaction of doing a skilled job, the gruelling conditions of the glass industry, clearly portrayed here, made Fred look forward to retirement.

It was the best-paid work in Knottingley. Everybody thought you’d best job in the world if you managed to get into the glass works but they didn’t know what it was like. "Chinese Labour, Fred," my mate used to say. I tell you retirement brought the happiest days of my life.

I started in the glass industry at 14 in short trousers. I can remember running down Hill Top at 2.30 of a morning to start at 3, getting set pots ready for 10 o’clock shift. We had our own potmakers. Mr. Sidwell used to let you see him making the pots so far up but never how he put the crown on; he kept that a secret. His daughter would tread the clay for the pots with her bare feet.

Apprentice gatherers had to reach over and scoop out the last bit of metal at the bottom of the set pot. There’d be a gauze over the top, a flag we called it, to keep some of the heat off but you’d still get wet and blistered on your chest. Apprentices had the dirty jobs to do like cooling the battery plungers in water, you needed rubber boots and apron for that. I’d be so tired when I went home I couldn’t lift my arms to wash myself.

It was the job of the apprentice to keep the men supplied with beer. I’d take eight tin cans on me fingers, pint or pint and a half, and go over to the lamb. Jim Jagger would refill them at sixpence a pint. Once I dropped the lot. Jim said never mind and pulled me another set. I didn’t know it but he put the dropped ones on the slate as well so I got a right telling off later. The men were always suspicious. "This is a small pint Taylor; come here and let me smell at your breath!" The cans were used for tea as well as beer and no matter how much you washed them out they’d not be clean. Maillie, a big Geordie, was the biggest drinker and he had a filthy can, always smelt of stewed tea. "Come and fasten my boots Taylor!" he’d shout at me. He’d a pair of great dirty legs on him, colour of ink. Only thing I hated more was lighting cigarettes for a man who lost half of his face and an eye in the First World War. His cigarettes were always going out and I’d have to re-light the soggy things for him.

We’d all take bottles of tea to work. "What shall I do wi’ this bottle?" I asked on my first day.

"Put it against furnace lad. Keep it warm."

It got that hot that when I came to take a drink out of it I burnt a ring on my lips. After that I learned to put it on side of the glory hole which was cooler. That wasn’t perfect though; the tea tasted of oil from the glory hole burners.

I fainted time and time again with the heat to start with. They had some habits to bring your round. One chap took me outside, I were going over, me eyes half closed, and I could just see he’d a mouthful of water he were going to blow all over me.

Working close together there was always the danger of getting the gathering iron caught up in your overalls. One time, a gatherer was cleaning his iron in a bucket, turned round and splashed molten glass all up my legs. I never wore short trousers again after that. You’d be sent to the lobby where they kept first aid but they knew no more about first aid than a ten year old boy. If you’d a blister on your hand as big as half a crown they’d just clip it off, worst thing you can do to a blister.

There were seven men in a chair, or a shop as we called them; a gatherer, a presser, a turner out, two firepolishers, a shaper (he was in charge) and a taker in, usually just a lad. You’d need everybody there before you could get started. Three brothers called Moon were always late, held everything up. One time they were extra late and several shops were waiting. Harry Winterbottom, my presser, said: "I think there’s been a total eclipse today!"

It was a free for all at the beginning of a shift. Everybody’d help themselves to rubber tubes and tin blowpipes as they needed them. If you were late on the job someone else would have had the piece you’d specially set aside. When I got to be shop manager I hit upon a better idea and we changed all that, me and Winterbottom, everybody was to keep their stuff separate. Winterbottom used to buy his own tubes from Brotherton, he was so keen on the job. He bought his own shears too, better quality than what Bagley’s offered us. He took a real pride in the work. At a meal break or end of a shift he’d always ask me "How’ve you worked?" I was a shaper, you see, and the quality of what I could do depended a lot on the presser. "Beautiful work, Harry." He could judge exactly the right amount of glass needed for each dish when dropping the gob into the mould; I’ve never known anyone so accurate.

We were paid on piecework, negotiating a target with management beforehand. The boss would say "I want you to have a good try at this", and we’d give it a go, not too fast. Once a target was fixed it couldn’t be changed. Then we’d belt it away to get on bonus. The target for No. 3141, a 51/2" dish, was 1500 in a shift, paid at three and ninepence halfpenny per hundred. On a good day we could make 2400 so we’d be on bonus, double the ordinary rate. The target was known as a doggie. One shop would ask another "Have you got your doggie yet?"

The smaller the job the faster you had to work to get your money. Sometimes they’d go too fast at one end and the shaper would have two pieces on his chair at the same time. One’d get cold and drop off and then the ballon’d go up as you’d all lost money. I’d send a message, "Tell em they’re working a bit too sharp." Just to be awkward the gatherer would rest his iron and slow the pace completely until I had to say "Tell em they’re too slow!" Then he could turn round and say "Mek up your mind, What do you want?"

I didn’t like doing flower blocks, that was a dirty job, too much water flying about. Cake stands were one of the trickiest pieces. You’d have a bowl with a stem, the firepolisher would melt it in a glory hole and then one spin would make it a plate with a stem. I’d to shape a very small lip on the edge. In no time at all the lip would be too large and you’d have a bowl again if you weren’t careful. We did all sorts – car reflectors, 3,000 a day of them you’d fetch out of the furnace, interior lights for cars, piano stoppers to keep floors or carpets from being marked with piano feet. They were always very heavy. If you were making a dish and the stuff was a bit heavy you’d say "What are we making today – Piano Stoppers?"

We’d do tumblers for racecourses. The men used to like that job as anything you made they’d take it, blisters, stones the lot. They’d just be thrown away after being used. Only thing racecourses would refuse was flush, that’s where you get and extra bit of squeezed glass and it makes a sharp lip.

We had a 30-ton oil fired furnace which burned 18-20 gallons oil every hour. Every shop had a glory hole, a smaller firebox used to get a polish on the ware. You’d sweat that much you could get hold of your shirt off a washing line and it’d stand up on its own with salt in it. Fred Miller, my gatherer, always had white veins of salt on his trouser legs. I’d say " Have you jumped into em this morning Fred? You can’t have pulled em on!"

The lehr was 40 yards long, a conveyor belt which started off at same temperature as furnace and gradually cooled to the other end. When you opened the lehr doors the blast of hot air could burn off your eyebrows and eyelashes.

There was a lot of cats about. They used to walk into the lehr as far as they could and then sleep down to the cool end. One day a lad was putting a piece in the hot end when a cat flew out over his shoulder! It hadn’t a hair on it and we had to drown it.

The heat was worst during the war when we couldn’t open the windows after dark because of the blackout. At first we used to finish work when the air raid sirens went but they were going nearly every night and too much production was lost so we had to work through. In the morning we could see the red glow in the sky from the bombing over towards Hull or Sheffield.

In the war Bagley’s was mostly put on making cells for batteries for submarines, field telephones and railway signal boxes. All domestic work had to be declared. If you did frivolous things like a flower jug you wouldn’t call it that, it’d be a celery holder so as to pass as a utensil for food. My wife worked at Bagley’s too. She was put on making steel shell cases. We were always under the impression they were gas shells though I don’t think they were ever used.

After the war I became shop manager. I’d always get the new samples to try, make a trial piece before the item was approved. I was the expert on colouring, especially pink. Pink was done with arsenic in a bag on the end of a steel rod. You’d dip it in water and then dip it in the molten metal to agitate it and bubble it up. In time it struck colour. The furnacemen had to wear masks; you could see the pale blue flames coming off the metal. Later it was found that the steam out of a potato worked just as well as arsenic. We’d send down to the canteen for a good big one. If we couldn’t get a potato we’d use a turnip but we liked potatoes best as they did a better job. The potato would turn black but there’d still be some white in the centre; it’s a funny thing but you could take hold of that and it didn’t burn you, it was just warm. There’s many a time I’ve gone in Saturday nights to time how long it would have to boil to strike the right colour. They wouldn’t let anyone else boil it up without I was about somewhere. I’d get a four or five inch sample on the floor and I knew how long it’d need just by looking at it. When I thought time was up I’d shout "Out!" I was never very far wrong.

Uranium was used to give green glass a yellow tinge. The batch mixers suffered with the chemicals. Horace Pickard, head of the mould department, told me the other day of a man who went to Pontefract Infirmary with a cancer on the nose. "Do you work with chemicals?" they asked him.

"Aye, arsenic."

"By the scoop?"

"No, by the shovel."

We’d a lot of asbestos about too; we used to sweep it up when it crumbled. We’d no idea of the risk.

All I thought about were artistic. Sometimes I used to change the design a bit, make something out of a bowl that was never intended and put it in the lehr. They never came back. Management never said anything but they took them. I used to make glass crackers for the Bagley’s to give out as presents. You’d pull the tail and the little droplet of glass in your hand would explode into a powder finer than flour. I even did a crystal ball for a gypsy once.

For the last seven years I worked in the Training School, teaching young apprentices. Do you know, I liked that better than my own trade! There were times as a shaper when I could hardly face going back to work after the dinner break.

I remember the big fire of 1954. I was standing at home in the garden at Ferrybridge when the sirens sounded and I thought "I hope that’s our place gone up." It was terrible that fire, the products in the finished store all melted down again, molten glass poured down the stairs. Gypsies got in and took the pieces that were still whole but it was very dangerous. The glass had lost its annealing properties in the heat and the pieces could explode at any time.

Even before the fire things used to walk from the factory. One woman used to take out a trinket set every week and sell it round the pubs. Others used to smuggle out fruit dishes in their bras, so I’m told!

I worked at Bagley’s for fifty-one years. You had to be tough to last. We had miners come and go, couldn’t stand the heat. The boss’s favourite saying was "We don’t keep green pastures for tired horses."

I met an old workmate on the bus the other day. All he said was "Would you go back?" I just answered "Would you?"


'Glassmaking' by Fred Taylor, is reproduced from 'All In A Days Work - Wait While I Tell You No.2', edited by Richard Van Riel and published by Yorkshire Arts Circus.
It is reproduced with the permission of Richard Van Riel.

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