People at Work
Stories and animations about paint
People at work
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Open Days and Evenings
People at work in 1998
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End of an era - Colin's last shift
Workers Playtime 1982
1955 Office Christmas Party
Memories of Smith & Walton 1954-1956 – Walter Reeve 2019
On the 4th November 1954 I stepped off a train at Haltwhistle station having that morning been demobbed from the army after two years of National Service. When I went into the army my parents were living in Newcastle; while away, my father got a job with Smith & Walton and moved to Haltwhistle. I had previously been employed in the photographic trade in Newcastle and, under the law at the time, my previous employer was obliged to re-engage me but the distance precluded any possibility of travelling to Newcastle to work, so I sought employment in Haltwhistle. Through the good offices of my father a position was found for me in the office of Smith & Walton in their factory.
Prior to taking up my new job I was sent to the paint shop where I was instructed on the various types of paint the company manufactured and also their application. Apart from their standard range of decorative paints, Smith & Walton also made primers, lead based undercoats, varnishes and decorative finishes such as Wahlide. I was shown how these were applied and the purposes for which they were designed. The tradesmen employed in the paint shop were very skilled at creating designs with varnishes and special tools to produce an effect that resembled natural oak; this finish was often applied to doors and panelling. Wahlide was a thick medium which was applied to a wall and then combed with a special tool to create an effect. I think the same material was used in a machine that splattered the paint on the the wall surface creating a speckled effect. This method was used where a wall was uneven and the need was to cover irregularities. I spent a few days in the paint shop and always remember I was told that the three functions of paint were Decoration, Hygiene and Protection. The company made three brands of paint, ostensibly of different qualities, so as to have a share in the lower priced market. But I was told all the paints were the same quality and just put in different cans. This made logical sense as there would be no point in setting up a production line to produce an inferior paint.
Having completed this grounding in the company's products I was given a clerical job in the office. I was assigned the task of checking invoices typed by the pool of typists against the original order, which was received either by phone or post. I had to ensure the details typed on the invoice matched those on the original order. Should a discrepancy be found I had to take the invoice back to the typist for correction. I had been trained in the army to cope with many situations but I was not prepared when confronted by some twenty young typists in one office who, by virtue of their numbers, were extremely saucy and predatory. If an error was found I would have to steel myself when entering their domain in anticipation of a good- natured 'ribbing'. The floor where the typists worked also
accommodated the offices of the senior staff and executives. Mr. Cecil Dixon was the General Manager, a man regarded as gruff and uncompromising who took no nonsense from any of us. Mr. Harrison Walton also had is office on this floor.
The offices were fitted out with panelling and artefacts from the RMS 'Olympic', the sister ship of the 'Titanic'. These had been bought in 1935 when the factory was extended and refurbished. A story was told of a workman who was delegated to wash the top of the cupola, which was from the 'Olympic', that was located above the stairway. To get there one had to get into the loft and walk on planks across the entire length of the offices. While on his way, burdened with a bucket full of water, he slipped off the plank and his foot penetrated the ceiling beneath him. The view from below was of a disembodied booted leg, with the trousers rolled back, sticking out of the ceiling with water dripping down its length. A good, but unverified, story.
After a stint in the office I was promoted to manager of the Direct Mail Department. This department was responsible for sending out 'mailing shots' to selected customers. Every customer and contact was on record and their names and addresses were embossed by a special machine on small metal plates, about the size of a credit card, and stored in trays under headings such as, Contractors, Architects, Hospitals, District and Urban councils etc. When it was required to send any of these promotional material, or a price list; the appropriate trays were located and fed into a printing machine which was operated by foot. Each depression of the foot brought into position a plate and printed the address on an envelope which was fed into the machine by hand- one at a time. Great dexterity was needed to synchronise the envelope with the arrival of the plate. When all the envelopes had been printed they were given to the typists in the last half hour of their working day and they inserted the material to be sent. We had a Roneo copying machine for printing out leaflets and circulars. It was an elaborate affair which comprised of an inked drum that revolved. The circular was typed out on a special waxed paper on a typewriter which created a stencil and this was attached to the drum. Paper was fed into a tray and when the machine was activated by turning a handle a sheet of paper was fed into the machine, the drum revolved, and the ink was squeezed through the letters that had pierced the wax coating on the 'master document'' It was a very messy business and not always satisfactory. After some use the 'master document' would tear or the ink would become thin and produced barely legible text. We also utilised a folding machine. This machine pre -creased the circulars so that it was easy to fold along the exact line to get it in the envelope. Sometimes the machine would malfunction and take in many sheets at one
time and, instead of creasing them, would cut them into pieces. I had one assistant, a Miss Sowerby, who lived in Slaggyford.
The dining room/canteen was located on the ground floor below the offices. Here a meal could be bought at a very low cost. The whole canteen was fitted out with doors and panelling from the 'Olympic' which was quite out of context and quite out of step with the interior design of the day. The meals were wholesome and taken advantage of by the staff. It also was an opportunity to meet up with the factory workers with whom we had little contact in the normal course of the day.
I discovered that there were a few fellow colleagues who were interested in classical music and soon we formed a small group. Apart from visiting each others homes to listen to classics played on the then new LP records; we used to organise trips to Newcastle to attend concerts. A friend of one of the group offered to drive us to Newcastle for a small charge. We would all cram into the car, there were no seat belts in those days, and head off for an evening of music. I was very much attracted to one of the young ladies in our group; but my shyness prevented me from asking her out, so I derived some consolation at being in close proximity to her in the confines of a small car. We also attended a concert in Carlisle given by Joan Hammond in the fruit market there. The company organised a works trip to Blackpool. When we got there we had a meal at Pontins Holiday Camp and then fanned out to seek our own entertainment along the Golden Mile. On the way back, with some of the men slightly worse for wear, the coach resonated with popular songs of day; with 'How much is that doggie in the window?' being one that has stuck in my memory.
The winter of 1955 was bitter. I recall the Tyne freezing over and being covered with snow to a degree that there was no indication that the river was there . The walk from home to work found me on arrival with ice around my mouth and eyebrows frozen. We had to dig our way out of our backyard. One of our representatives was killed in an accident when his car skidded on an icy road.
The company launched a campaign where they targeted architects sending them at monthly intervals copies of Old Masters. The prints were produced by an outside concern and we posted them to the architects . It was very ambitious and high minded but did not always meet with approval from some of the recipients. I recall getting instructions to delete architects from our mailing list because they complained at being sent unsolicited mail and also some felt that it was unethical that they were being placed under pressure to recommend Smith & Walton products in their specifications. I recall, while attending a
Territorial Army camp in Wales in September 1955, I met up with a school teacher from Gateshead who was very interested in the promotion and asked if I could put him on the list to receive a print. This I agreed to do and a metal plate was duly created for him.
The factory printed all its own literature and also put together its colour cards. Special sheets were sprayed with the paint and then cut into rectangles and each rectangle was manually stuck on to the card against the appropriate colour name. The sheets were sprayed in a special chamber that had an extractor fan than conveyed the excess paint to the outside. On one occasion Mr. Keith Florey, one of the executives, had parked his car in close proximity to the fan and his car was covered in very fine spots of assorted colours; prompting a flurry of activity with solvents.
The company, in order to reach out to architects, created an 'Architects' range of 101 colours. This was a departure from the standard colour range that comprised of colours with names like County Cream, Brunswick Green and Light and Dark Brown, all derisively referred to as 'workhouse colours'.
When the range was released the task fell to a group of us to select names for each colour so, putting aside our games of pontoon at lunch break, the group sat down and started to think up names. At first it was quite easy with Lichen, Mallard Green and Sage coming to mind, But as we progressed we ran out of names that accurately described the colour and so we reverted to more bizarre names that offered only a vague clue to the colour. The colour range was released with little change to our selected names but no doubt with some confusion to the clientele.
Only recently I discovered that a film had been made of a visit to the works by Welsh contractors and architects. A special train was chartered to bring them from Cardiff to Haltwhistle. Being in the office , I was aware of the excursion but I never saw any of these visitors, I was told by my father about their itinerary. What the film fails to mention is that one of the party died on the train from a heart attack, a event that took the gloss off what was a brilliant PR exercise.
Close to the factory was a stone bridge that took the railway line across the Tyne River from Haltwhistle to Alston. It was only a short walk from the factory and often ,after lunch, some of us, together with some of the female staff, would walk along the picturesque banks of the river. On one occasion the more extroverted young men fired with the bravado of youth, and eager to impress their female companions, climbed up the bank to the bridge and inched their way along the outside parapet , which was only inches wide, while hanging on the the short rail on top of the parapet. The drop was considerable and
almost certainly have been fatal had they made a false move. I am not sure whether the young ladies were impressed but I couldn't bear to watch such a reckless display. When I recently visited Haltwhistle I walked along the same bridge, which is now a walkway, and one could see where the railway had once been and where deeds off 'daring do' had been performed.
My father was employed as a Technical Representative. His job was to provide detailed paint specifications for major projects when tenders were put out. He would have to inspect the project and then provide a precise working schedule for the type of paints to be used and their preparation and application. He came to Smith & Walton with some knowledge of the paint industry having been employed by British Paints in Byker, Newcastle. He left British Paints to set up his own film company. The idea was to make documentary and promotional films for companies, or organisations, that were of general interest but sponsored by them for community benefit rather than an advertising exercise. In this he was moderately successful, making short films for football clubs, ship builders and on one occasion for the HMS Trafalgar, showing the rum issue ritual. He brought these skills with him to Smith &Walton and made two films for them. One told the story of how a PVA material used by the Germans during the war in the fuel tanks of their aircraft was modified to becoming a constituent in Synflat - the first emulsion paint on the market. The other film he made was a short documentary on Hadrian's Wall. This subject was ideal for the company because of its proximity to the Wall and also its paints had Roman connotations in their names – Hadrian and Centurion. The film, which was shot in 16mm colour, was purely educational and was designed to be shown in schools and the like with only a subliminal reference to Smith & Walton. I assisted in some of the research for this project; travelling to Newcastle and visiting libraries to gather facts and figures and, on a few occasions, assisted in the field during the filming.
We lived in, and rented, a house owned by Smith & Walton at 1, Tynedale Terrace East; when the opportunity came to buy the house, my parents took advantage of the offer and purchased it for £1800. For the family this was a huge step. It was the first house we had ever owned. My father had been a professional soldier and the family had travelled over many years in India, Pakistan and Ceylon and had always lived in army accommodation, hotels or requisitioned houses; so to actually live in our own house was a revelation and novelty and also an indication that maybe our days of travelling were now over. My father and I set about decorating the house from top to bottom with paint supplied by our employer at no charge.
In September of 1956 my father, much to the annoyance of my mother, was transferred to Smith & Walton's London branch. Once again we were on the move and heading for rented accommodation. I, of course, accompanied them and found myself in London without a job. Here again my father was able to intercede and , after an interview with the branch manager in London, I was given a clerical job in the office. This was fortuitous for me because I met my future wife in the office and we married in 1961. So I have very fond and enduring memories of my time with Smith & Walton and have a lot to thank them for.
Hadrian Paints Key Fob