FOR a three-week period in summer 1987 I had a real job, as in getting my hands dirty, really dirty; and not just my hands.
During that fortnight towards the end of August the mill employed temporary labour, mostly sixth form students, to help the skeleton full-time staff and sub-contractors with the maintenance programme.
As I recall this was mostly word-of-mouth, and I probably secured my place by writing a letter; Dear East Lancashire Paper Mill…
On the first day, which I think started at 7:30am, we students assembled in the canteen where our names and the department we were to be working in were read out. We were also given our overalls; dark blue in colour with the East Lancs Paper Mill shield on the left breast pocket. There wasn’t a right breast pocket.
I was assigned to the boiler-house, and it wasn’t just any boiler-house. This was vast, and could be seen from miles around. It generated so much electricity that it fed into the national grid, and was supplied with coal brought in articulated tipper wagons by Alfred Hymas, a haulage company from Burton Leonard, a village between Harrogate and Ripon, in North Yorkshire.
The coal was tipped into a hole in the ground which was covered with a large metal grill; meaning rain could easily fall in but not humans.
The next bit I’m not too sure about, but somehow the coal was taken from this hole into a series of buckets that travelled up the side of boiler house via a Paternoster-style conveyor to a small entrance at the top, and then onto a horizontal conveyor that dropped the coal into the appropriate hopper for one of the four boilers.
Cotton mills and engineering
I was one of two students working in the boiler house, which was handy as we were as naive/stupid as each other. Both of us had been born in the 1960s when the north Manchester area was all cotton mills and engineering factories; although their days were numbers even back then and by the early-1980s the Thatcher government had pretty much killed them off.
The boilers were huge; there was no problem standing up in them and I was told they’d come from a ship. Only three out of the four worked at any one time, the far right one on standby should one of the others fail.
My job, which was supposed to be for two-weeks but was extended to three, involved helping to clean the boiler house, repair the fire bricks inside the boilers, fit new gaskets to certain pipes and, for an entire day, shovelling the coal that was stuck to the sides of the hoppers down the chute.
Shovelling coal from the inside of the hopper would be a health and safety nightmare today; but in 1987 myself and the other student were given rags to tie round our necks and the bottom of the legs of our overall to keep the dust out, and very basic face masks.
Armed with our shovels we slid through the safety fence from the gangway into the top of the hopper and got stuck in.
We took it in 10 minutes shifts; this was seriously exhausting and sweaty work. We were both young and fit but the heat at the top of the building, even without the boilers working, was incredible.
It was possible that if we got too close to the edge the coal would give way and we would plummet a few metres down into the boiler. It never happened and even if it had I doubt we would have been injured; it would have been a Veruca Salt down the pipe in Willy Wonka type adventure; but not as psychedelic.
We had taken our coal shovelling instructions from a man who’d lost one of his little fingers while cleaning some dirt from the conveyor belt chain that took the coal to the hoppers. He told us he’d wiped it with a rag and felt a “nick”. He rubbed his hand with a rag and then saw his finger was missing; and then he started to scream.
Shovelling coal was good fun; doing some real work because up until then it had been pretty easy; we weren’t the poor people that had been assigned to shovelling the paper pulp that had been lying around for months on end. That was like shovelling shit.
My cushy job, however, didn’t really involve 45-minute breakfasts, leisurely walks around the mill, including the separate storage mill, or sitting around drinking tea and reading the newspaper.
Neither I nor my co-student had ever been in such a vast place before so we didn’t know how these things worked. We didn’t realise that on our “welcome to ELPM” induction sheet, when it said that breakfast was between 10:00am and 10:45am it actually meant that we were only supposed to take 15 minutes within that time period.
This was pointed out to us in our second week, which is when we re-read the sheet and there it was; although it was quite hard to understand. We’d really enjoyed our leisurely breakfasts, especially because the canteen was spotless and for me I could fantasise that I was Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
And anyway no-one in the boiler house was bothered about our leisurely breakfast. Same as when we set of for a walk one morning, as you do in a vast paper mill and especially if you’ve read Peter Currell Brown’s Smallcreep’s Day.
The boiler house was separate from the main mill, presumably to reduce the risk of fire, and was clad in light blue-coloured corrugated sheet metal. It looked newer than the rest of the complex; although I doubt it was.
East Lancs Paper Mill was founded in 1862 and was made up of a series of buildings separated by yarded areas, which reflected the way the business had grown over the years with new bits being added on an ad hoc basis.
By far and away the largest of these buildings was the paper mill itself, which was where the raw pulp was mixed and dyes added before heading to vast steel plate beds where this gloop was fed at speed through a series of heated rollers, and where at some point a watermark was stamped, before emerging as paper and then being cut to shape.
There was also an adjacent building; the brown mill which, as you might guess, is where brown paper was made.
After visiting the two main paper mills we then headed across the River Irwell on a footbridge to Pioneer Mill, a former cotton mill built in 1906 and bought by East Lancs to store paper.
Pioneer Mill, and the footbridge, still stand today with the mill mostly unused save for a few cash and carry wholesalers and back street car repairers.
The three-storey red brick building was filled wall to wall, ceiling to floor with paper of all sizes and quality. Some of it, such as A4, was boxed and on pallets ready for the outside world and East Lancs at that time was known for its Elan brand, which was the paper for photocopying and was the bedrock of the business.
Clocking in and clocking off
But ELPM was far more than just two papermaking mills, a boiler house and an old cotton mill. There were also storerooms, maintenance workshops, packing rooms, storage areas, toilets and washrooms, the canteen (of course) and offices. And it was the office where each Friday afternoon I went to pick up my wages as my “reward” for clocking in and clocking off to signify that I was at work.
To collect my wages I’d ring a bell on the wall outside of the office and a small window would be lifted open from the inside; I’d give my name and a small brown envelope would be handed over packed with cash.
Aside from the various building and departments within the mill complex there was a pub across the road from the main entrance in Church Street East, the Papermakers, and ELPM also supported a cricket club, social club and bowling green; and it also had its own small reservoirs, referred to locally as lodges, supplying water along with the River Irwell to the papermaking process and no doubt in the early days to power the mill via steam or water wheel.
Radcliffe is a small town within the Greater Manchester population and it was evident that the majority of the people in the mill had known each other all their lives; infant school, secondary school, apprenticeship.
And what was also evident was that bullying was rife; perhaps not as bad as it had been in school days but it was still there.
These bullies were merely showing off in front of us students. Men who had become fat from too much booze – in the Papermakers – and too many fish suppers; and wheezing from too many fags thought they ruled the roost. And, to an extent, they did.
These bullies had, no doubt, stopped their co-workers from fulfilling their potential in life, but East Lancs Paper Mill wasn’t unique in terms of bullying; bullying was part and parcel of working in heavy industry but was, and is, no way excusable.
And while bullying was evident the fact that the mill’s days were numbered wasn’t. Up until the mid-1990s the paper-making industry in Radcliffe employed 2,000 people with East Lancs and Radcliffe Paper Mill being the two largest.
The 32.5-acre ELPM site currently lies vacant, all evidence of its existence apart from the sadly unimpressive main gates, now razed to the ground. It has outline planning consent for around 520 new homes and a school.
The collapse of the paper industry in Radcliffe, and indeed the Irwell Valley, was abrupt and brutal and East Lancashire Paper Mill closed in 1998.