William Derbyshire: My life as a man of steel with Watson
AN iconic Bolton firm is marking its 80th year in business — and one long-serving employee looks back at his time there.
RETIRED steel worker William Darbyshire, started at Robert Watson Steel in 1941 and retired in 1992.
He joined the firm, now Severfield Watson, aged just 14, during the Second World War when the firm fabricated huge sections of ships for Merseyside’s Camell Laird in the war effort.
Later, in times of peace, Mr Darbyshire spent years with Watson on commercial steel fabrication for projects including bridges, motorway viaducts, office blocks, airports, shipyard hangers and industrial sites.
The 87-year-old, of Brandwood Street, off St Helens Road, said: “Watson is now in its 80th year this year, which is quite an achievement. When I retired in 1991, I was the longest-serving person at the company.
“My final job was welfare-related, looking after workers who were sick or had been injured. But I began my working life with Watson as a riveter when it was based in Bolton town centre.”
Mr Darbyshire was there during the firm’s 50th anniversary in 1981 and he has a souvenir programme from a open day held in May of that year to mark the achievement.
Recalling his early memories, he said: “During the war Watson made huge steel sections of ships, as part of the war effort. Bolton wasn’t a ship-building town but the steel industry was adapted during the 1940s to help Britain’s war effort.
“The UK’s steel and engineering industries were essential. The ship sections we made at Watson were then transported to Birkenhead’s Camell Laird yard to be assembled into ships.”
Mr Darbyshire was born and bred in the same home at Brandwood Street.
His dad, also called William, worked at Higson brickworks in Bolton but was transferred to Carlisle during the war.
His mum Helen, known as Nelly, was a weaver who worked for the Bolton textile firm Tootal, Broadhurst and Lee, known as TBL, which made parachutes during the war.
Mr Darbyshire had three sisters, Dorothy, Edith and Mary, and went to school at Brownwood Street.
He left school aged 14 and his dad told him it was “time to get a job”.
Mr Darbyshire said: “Watson was then based at High Street in Bolton. I remember rough, dirty, physically-heavy work. The old site did not have a concrete floor and there was a lot of dust. When I removed the scales off the steel, the scraps would all just fell on the floor. There was a 14lb hammer, which we used. It was tough work.
“We had to carry out different jobs and just fit in. You did whatever you were told or you went down the road. We sometimes worked a seven-day week because of the war. We’d get a half-day off if Bolton Wanderers were playing at Burnden Park.
“However, although the work was tough I generally enjoyed it. I began as a plater. I would set out template boards and had to cut the steel plates to fit the templates.”
He remembers workers’ morale as being generally good although there were a few strikes too. Mr Darbyshire said: “Every now and again, the men might go on strike. The boilermakers’ union was one of the big unions there. I remember one strike for a six pence-an-hour rise. But people came out with just a farthing-an-hour. The workers had to accept it — and that was when union membership was huge.”
During the war, Mr Darbyshire said Watson was often visited by representatives from all the UK’s big steelworks, including Dorman Long in Middlesbrough.
The plates and girders used by Watson were originally cast in massive steelworks elsewhere and then delivered to Bolton by road or rail. Watson then turned the steel sheets and girders into whatever was needed for customers. (The same process exists today at its Lostock site) He said: “Some men would take the steelworks reps out for a drink and get them drunk to win a contract with the big firms.”
Mr Darbyshire said he never smoked or drank, being a Methodist and member of a chapel in St Helens Road.
However he remembers how other Watson workers met in Bolton pubs, including the Ram’s Head and the Pike View.
Instead he was active in sport.
Mr Darbyshire spent 34 years helping Bolton Boys Football Federation, where he was secretary.
He also helped with football at Bolton Lads Club and Bolton Catholic Boys Club.
After the war, Watson returned to civil, commercial jobs fabricating steel for offices, factories and bridges.
The rise of road traffic brought contracts for big motorway and trunk road bridges, viaducts, flyovers, footbridges and sign gantries. Big projects included the M1/M62 interchange at Lofthouse, West Yorkshire, and the M62 viaduct at Rakewood.
That viaduct is 840 ft long and is one of the highest motorway bridges in the UK, crossing the Longden End Valley at the height of 140ft. Because of ground conditions at the bottom of the valley, the bridge was built by launching 10ft-deep steel plate girders from one end of the viaduct, braced in pairs.
Other jobs included the landmark Halifax Building Society headquarters, which won a top design award in 1974. The rhomboid-shaped office includes a zig-zag steel sculpture outside the entrance which was designed to screen the building from windy blasts and also act a ventilation ducting.
And Watson steel was used for Blackpool’s Revolution roller-coaster, Europe’s first 360-degree rollercoaster, and a cement plant and kiln built on Humberside. The structure resembled an ‘umbrella’ with a central, 22 metre-high column supporting 16 angled trusses supported a sloping roof.
Elsewhere, Watson undertook major airport schemes at Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester and Bahrain.
Other work was carried out for chemical, oil, mining, refuse, air pollution, water and power industries.
In the early 1980s this included the Dinorwic hydroelectric scheme in north Wales, at the time Europe’s largest pumped storage power station. Watson worked through a network of tunnels under a mountian and fitted steelwork inside a massive underground machine hall measuring 180 metres long, 25 metres wide and 60 metres high. The former slate mine site links to the National Grid and is also known as Electric Mountain.
Also in the 1980s, Watson made huge new hangers for submarines at the Vickers shipyards in Barrow-in-Furness.
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