Working Conditions

Illus: Enamelling a Bath at Falkirk Iron Works – wearing cloth masks.

Most of the workmen are employed in moulding… The industrious and sober can earn wages sufficient to enable them to live comfortably without overworking themselves.  Others are employed in making patterns for the moulders, in dressing the articles when moulded, in fitting their various parts together, and finishing them for sale.  They are not generally so well paid as the moulders.  No branch of these employments is considered more detrimental to health than other trades, and no disease is peculiar to them.  The most common complaints are, fever, a disease called blackspit, and other epidemical disorders; but to these they are subject only in common with other workmen in the neighbourhood.  Many of them attain an advanced period of life.”

(Begg et al, 1841 – New Statistical Account, p.18).

As Rev Begg mentions in his account, dust was a problem in many industries and yet facemasks were rarely worn.  J Aitkenhead worked on a large grinding machine at the Falkirk Foundry for several years from 1948.  He worked alongside two other men who were grinding longer jobs and the three shared the piecework pay.  They made between £8 and £10 a week.  However, he swallowed a lot of the iron and stone dust and ended up with pleurisy.  He was moved to Gowanbank Foundry where he learned to drive a lorry and spent many years delivering goods, mostly baths, all over Scotland.

Illus: A four-wheeled bogie being pushed along rails in the moulding shop at the Gothic Works in 1913.

In the early days there was little protective clothing.  Moulders wore trousers with moleskin fronts to provide some barrier from the splashes of molten metal, but they were of little use against large spillages and numerous accidents still occurred.  

We laid down railways all thro’ our moulding shops to get the iron brought to their places in large ladles mounted on wheels and drawn by labourers… This plan was so great a saving to them not only in labour but also from the heavy sweat and danger of burns…” 

(Letter from George Ure dated 1 May 1878).

Any works with moving machinery was full of hazards and there were few safety guards.  Many examples could be given of people being trapped in the rotating elements of large machines, often dragged in as a result of loose clothing being caught up.  Just one example will be given here, chosen because it illustrates that specialist external contractors were used and also suffered losses:

“On Tuesday last a serious accident occurred to Mr Geo. Gilchrist, engineer, one of the firm of Eadie, Gilchrist & M’Leod, engineers.  While engaged in fitting up a new engine for the Forthbank Foundry Co.  His hand got entangled in a cog wheel and so severely crushed it that he had to get the little finger of his left hand amputated.  He is progressing favourably.”

[Falkirk Herald 13 Jan 1877].

The provision and transmission of power was always a potential hazard.  In 1860, when the Columbian Stove Works opened, the Falkirk Herald reported noting:

We were much pleased with the arrangement of the machinery etc.  To prevent accidents occurring, all the wheels, shafts, pulleys, belts, and fan are placed outside, and enclosed in a long narrow house where no one has access to unless the person in charge.  The steam boiler is also fitted with a glass tube showing the height of the water, and a patent pressure gauge showing the pressure of the steam at a glance to all who pass, and thus giving timely warning if the engine-keeper neglects his duty.”

In 1883 the Bonnybridge Foundry became the first to fit a Turnbull safety valve to their boiler.  Such was its importance, it was demonstrated to the press:

A patent equilibrium safety valve has just been introduced into the works belonging to the firm of Geoge Ure & Co., which promises to be a most effective article in preventing boiler disasters.  The great important feature of this valve is that the steam is let free as fast as it is generated in the boiler.  On Wednesday last we were privileged to see the efficacy of the valve tested, and the result was highly gratifying.  No sooner had the boiler pressure registered 60 lbs, than the valve began to emit steam, which, as the pressure rose, increased in volume, giving forth a tremendous noise.  The furnaces were kept brisk, but it was found impossible to add a lb to the pressure, so effectual was the escape.  This is worthy of notice when compared with the lever valve in general use, and also in view of the many boiler explosions which have of late startled many parts of the country.  As soon as the extra pressure of steam had been removed, the valve suddenly closed at the opening pressure.”

Indeed, the valve was fitted as a direct response to a boiler explosion earlier that year at the Bonnymuir Cast Malleable Foundry.  That boiler had been incorrectly fitted with a lever-type valve, which allowed the pressure to build up beyond what it was supposed to and consequently burst a weak seam at its base.

Operating the boiler, or the cupola, were specialist jobs and required training.  Yet,

It is told by our oldest men that, in the earlier times, when the only furnaceman was off work, one of the moulders took his place, but only on condition that a friend would stand by with a jug of beer.”  

(Callendar Iron Company Ltd 1927).

Alcohol and work do not always mix well – but on this occasion it combated the excessive heat.

Lighting was also a problem.  The early moulding shops had pantile roofs with little natural light, and it was only slowly that cast iron rooflights were inserted.  These had become standard by the 1870s.  In 1895 Dobbie Forbes’ foundry in Larbert became the first in the district to replace their gas jets with electric lighting throughout.  The lights operated on a patent sliding system designed and installed by Thomas Laurie and Co of Falkirk.  They could be adjusted to illuminate all parts of the works and taken to the seat of the various operations.  This minimised the amount of lighting required.  It was seen as an advance both on account of its economy and cleanliness.  This and subsequent systems at most of the remaining foundries were powered from dynamos attached to the firm’s steam engine.  Even the inside of the new building that housed the switchboard was lined with white glazed brick.  The following year the enamelling shop of the Falkirk Iron Works was similarly lit and in 1899 the newly constructed foundry at Laurieston had electric lighting from the start; the latter with a dynamo of sufficient capacity to maintain 1000 8-candle incandescent lamps.  By 1900 Laurie’s had completed contracts at Gowanbank, Dorrator, and Carmuirs.  Even so, lighting was often primitive and naphtha lamps were still in use in some places until after the Second World War.

By contrast with the tremendous heat for those working the cupola the moulding shops were cold.  Heating varied tremendously.  It was not uncommon for it to be provided by means of pails filled with hot material from the cupola or coal.  Slow combustion stoves, made at the works, provided some warmth for breaks.

Referring to 1840 the writer of a guide to Falkirk Iron Works in 1924 wrote:

At the present time it is interesting to look back on the hours and conditions of those early days.  The regular working hours which were by no means adhered to were 6am to 6pm during the week and 2pm on Saturdays.  Boys in the Moulding Shop started at 4 or 5am.  Difficulties with the “Melt” made it quite a common occurrence for the blast to be on the Cupola until seven or eight o’clock at night.  One of the old workers who used to visit the Works about twelve years ago stated it was quite a common thing for the wages to be paid at ten or eleven o’clock on the Saturday night.  For the most part all meals were carried.  Porridge and sour milk was the regular breakfast and kail and tatties for dinner.  The evening meal at home was porridge or brose.”

Illus: Mrs Gardner logging in at the time clock in the entrance to Carron Iron Works during the Second World War.

Timekeeping was important and anyone who arrived behind their scheduled time had their pay deducted for each quarter of an hour that they were late – they were “quartered.”  John Duncan described timekeeping at Broomside Foundry in the 1930s:

  “…in one corner there was a small office about 8 x 6 and it was used as a despatch and time office.  The window in this office was fitted with small glass panes about 10 inches square, one of which had been removed and fitted with a sliding wooden panel.

Inside there was a shelf with a slot in it similar to a penny bank.  The reason for this was that on the wall outside a board was fitted, and on it was brass discs with each employee’s number.  Under the shelf inside there was a box divided into three divisions, this box could slide along so that if you were in time your disc dropped into the first compartment, if you were quarter an hour late it dropped into the second compartment, by this time the time clerk was on duty.  However, you could put your hand in through the window and push the box along if you were late, but you paid a penalty if you tried it, because when you put your hand through the window you got your knuckles rapped with a heavy wooden rule as Charlie Quinn, labourer come watchman, would be out of sight under the desk.” 

For small foundries in particular the business was cyclical with episodes of boom and bust, meaning that the men could be working a 6 or 3 day week according to the demand.  About 1933 the Broomside Foundry introduced the Betta combination grate and it proved a winner.  The sales rose to such an extent that the grinding mill worked nightshifts.  More fitters were employed – there were as many as 26 at one time.  The Berlin Black department also started a nightshift.  At the same time the company commenced making chair sides.  Two of the largest orders were for the Greens Playhouse in Glasgow and for Cardiff Arms Park.  At their busiest the drillers used to work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday until 10pm.  Then on Friday they would finish at the normal time and return for 7pm and work until 1am the next morning.

These were long hours but occasionally time was taken off for unofficial breaks, such as when Carron Dams froze over and the workmen went skating. 

For many years it was impossible to get a cast on the day following the Falkirk Fair; while, when a circus arrived in the town, a holiday was declared, and there was no cast next day.  In these days daily “sub” was commonly paid to a large number of moulders, while hard drinking went on regularly and the loss in working days was serious.  Conditions are altogether different now – all classes of our men are of a very high standard, keen and anxious in their work, and craftsmen of a high order.”

(Callendar Iron Co Ltd 1927).

The Bo’ness and Carriden Band used to play at the Linlithgow Marches.  In the 1920s, David Ballantine, manager of New Grange Foundry, asked the band’s secretary not to play through Grangepans so as not to cause any disruption to the work.  The martial strains apparently led to mass desertion from work and there was “nae blaw”.  So the band slipped quietly away to Linlithgow, but were surprised, when the Marches procession reached the West Port, to see it filled with the usual large contingent from the foundry.  As one of them said, “The blaw is all in the band, none in the foundry today.”

The working conditions of the women who were beginning to be employed at the foundries in greater numbers was being scrutinised in 1897, particularly in the enamelling department of the Falkirk Iron Works where a Parliamentary question had been raised about them wearing trousers!  The Falkirk Herald reported:

A large number of girls are employed in these works, almost all of whom are engaged in the enamelling department, a very few only being connected with the Berlin black and other departments, and of these the greater portion are elderly persons, who are so far indebted to the company for a means of subsistence.  The enamelling works are situated to the west of the foundry, and separate entirely from the other portion of the works.  The enamellers enter their department by a separate entrance, and do not require to enter the foundry… The first department visited was the designing, engraving, and stencil-cutting department, where are employed a number of expert draughtsmen and others.  The room in which those branches are carried on is lofty, well lighted, and ventilated.  Adjoining there is a commodious shop, in which the girls are employed, the ceilings of which are over 30 feet in height, so that there is abundant air space, and no overcrowding.  The floor is laid with granolithic pavement.  In connection with this department, a large sum has, we understand, recently been expended by the firm to provide a thorough system of ventilation, a powerful exhaust fan having been constructed to draw any dust from the premises.  The workshops, which are lit throughout with electricity, are kept cool and healthy by means of four rows of rising skylights, which have been placed along the whole length of the building, and in warm weather three Blackman ventilating fans are kept in operation, which change the air in the shop every few minutes.  Our representative was afterwards conducted through the bath-enamelling department, which is also a very large, airy, and well-ventilated shop.  It was interesting to observe the process of enamelling, and it is a credit to the district that such beautiful work is produced in it.  What struck us particularly was the spray-bath called the “Hygiene”, of most beautiful design, it being a first-class combination of spray, shower, and plunge bath.  Very beautiful work was also observed in a large number of baths lined inside with porcelain enamel in various shades, which has a hard glazed surface, and will not, therefore, scratch like ordinary paint.  The imitation of the various marbles and wood gave evidence that they were executed by skilled workmen possessed of great artistic taste.  It could be seen that the enamelling process was of the most expensive kind, the machinery and plant being of a very costly nature.  The greatest care has evidently to be taken in the manufacture, as the least mistake would involve great expense, and this necessitates minute inspection.  It is satisfactory to know that all the materials now used are quite harmless, and the work done is not in any way dangerous to the health of the females employed, and that all the arrangements have been made on the most scientific sanitary principles, which have, we understand, met with the highest approval of Her Majesty’s inspectors of factories.

The girls are under the charge of one foreman, and the whole department is overlooked from the manager’s office.  No person is allowed to enter this department unless those connected with it, and no one is allowed to interfere with any of the workers, nor are they in a position to mix with any of the workmen.  The Messrs Kennard, the proprietors of the works, have always been, as is well known, most anxious to promote the comfort of their employees, and we have a striking instance of this in the arrangements connected with the enamelling department.  A large airy room has been provided for the exclusive use of the females, where provision has been made for cooking and taking their meals, and it is furnished with a suite of lavatories with hot and cold water, retiring rooms, and every convenience.  These rooms are under the supervision of an experienced woman, whose duty it is to keep everything clean and in order.  It is but natural to expect that the girls employed in this department highly appreciate all that has been done for their comfort, while the remuneration they receive is such as enables them to better provide for themselves, and many of them to be of assistance to their parents at home.”

It was only after 1953 and the production of the Gareth Report that major steps were taken in the regulation of iron and steel works.  The full powers of the Public Health (Scotland) Acts 1897-1945 were enforced and showers became compulsory.  In 1955, for example, even the small foundry of James Dobbie & Co at Banknock installed three showers and four sinks with lockers next to the moulders’ shop within its large industrial shed.  It was many years after that the employer started to provide safety boots.

Efforts continued to reduce the weights that were handled manually.  The furnaces making chrome steel at Broomside were able to handle aluminium and were used to make moulding boxes and plates, which were much lighter and easier for the moulder to handle.  Throughout industry in the 1950s all sorts of firms were starting to use pallets.  The small foundries found that their incoming materials were being delivered on pallets and forklift trucks became an essential.

To read the next section, dealing with unions, click here.

G.B. Bailey, 2021