Herbert the Steelroller - composition - Hwyl Nofio - Dark
In my recorded work I have occasionally referred to steel manufacture and the memory of my grandfather Herbert Parry - The abstract guitar composition ‘From Elevated Gangways Rivers of Molten Metal Flow’ underlining the experience of visiting a steelworks.
Herbert worked as a steel roller and unfortunately died of gangrene poisoning when I was only 3 years old. A quiet, dignified gentleman – he was someone I would have liked to have had the opportunity to know better.
I recall in my youth walking along a public footpath that cut through Panteg Steelworks on my way to secondary school. The sights, sounds and smell of the place reverberate to this day. The blistering heat of the furnace, the white light sparks the deafening thud of an industrial hammer and the noxious gasses that remained long in the nose and throat.
All that remains today are the echoes of memories of a once heavy industrial landscape. Currently the site is being developed as residential housing and the Parc Panteg housing estate. The industrial buildings and structures have been removed and remedial work in relation to land contamination has been carried out, in its place there appears yet another LEGOLAND development with the promise of a better lifestyle, devoid of character.
But what about people and jobs you may ask. Panteg steel works was founded in 1873 and operated for over 130 years until its closure in 2004. At one point 900 people were employed producing stainless steel at Panteg. Throughout its history many thousands of people including my grandfather Herbert Parry were employed in the manufacture of steel. Others benefitted throughout the local community as the factory provided work for many trades and businesses.
Working in steel production was extremely hard, hot, filthy work that often acutely affected your health, but it wasn’t only a job it was the opportunity of employment and with it a way of life.
Today – the eastern Afon Valley seems intent on promoting itself in terms of its industrial heritage. Museums of rail, steel, iron and coal attract visitors from far and wide to experience the relics of the past and presumably part with their cash. Men dress up as coal miners and tell a tale or two as the cage descends into the dark – the illusion is real!
Culture and society are intricately related. Through culture and society people and groups define themselves. Today the valley appears to have become an industrial theme park?
What follows is a partial account of Herbert’s working life by my father John Parry.
HERBERT PARRY - STEELWORKER - EARLY MEMORIES OF THE LATE 1930s AND 1940s
My Dad, Herbert Parry was a Roller in the Richard Thomas & Baldwins Steelworks at Panteg about a mile and a half from where we lived in New Inn, Pontypool.
A roller was the leader of a team of men who took Steel ingots which had been heated in the furnaces to a very high temperature and rolled the steel in large metal rollers until it was the required thickness and size. There would be a number of Rollers in a large steelworks like Panteg.
The roller was paid on the tonnage they processed and he then paid his men. The roller had to be highly skilled and was rewarded accordingly.
I remember asking my Dad why he did not progress to Manager of all the rolling mills and he told me he would be getting a lot less money. I believe at the time my Dad was earning £20 a week compared with the Manager's £8 a week.
The roller and his men had very tough and onerous jobs. They had to manhandle the steel ingots on to the rolling mill and using large tongs they manoeuvred the steel back and fro between the large rollers until it met the size needed and the right quality. My Dad liked dealing with stainless steel as it was very challenging and possibly more lucrative for the team.
The heat in the rolling mills and furnace areas was very high which, with the heavy work, made the men sweat profusely. They all wore flannel shirts with a sweat clothes around their necks and needed to drink a lot to stop being dehydrated. During the shift they drank a lot of tea which they had brought from home in metal canisters. I can remember I was often asked by my Mam ( Hilda) to take a fresh can of tea to my Dad at the Steelworks during the shift. To get there I used to go along the road to Griffithstown and cut across the fields and then climb over a large pipe to cross the Afon Llwyd river and then go in the back way to the Rolling Mills. My Dad was always pleased to see me with the tea which was very welcome.
After the shift my Dad took his team to the pub near the Steelworks and made sure his team made up for the moisture they had lost. My dad had a good team and it was his way of showing his personal appreciation for their hard work. They then went home for a good bath as they were dirty and their clothes were sweaty.
During the evenings when my Dad was not working he would go to meetings of the Royal Order of Buffalos of which he was President, to the Home Guard or to socialise with friends at the pubs in the village. My Dad was a very generous man and usually would be the first up to the bar.
My visits to the Steelworks gave me a good insight on what it was like working there. Sometimes, when my Dad and I were having an argument, I would say that I was going to work at the Steelworks which was the last thing he wanted me to do. This did not happen very often as my Dad was a very even tempered and gentle man.
Unfortunately, by the late 1940's my Dad was taken ill with dermatitis and had to give up his job as a roller as it was considered that his illness was related to his work. He took a job as a labourer in the steelworks which was a huge drop in wages. At the time he was just over 50.
I often thought that maybe he would have been better off if he had accepted the earlier offers to be a Manager but it is easy to be wise after the event.
The large drop in income made a big difference in my Dad's life style and I was sad to see many of his friends disappear. There were some loyal friends who tended to be in the same situation as my Dad and they remained loyal. This was a lesson to my Dad and to me.
John Parry, April 2012