Speech Archive - Some Selected Speeches

From time-to-time we will include the text of one of our member's speeches so that you can see the sort of things we do. We will display each speech for a month or so. Please note that each speaker retains the copyright of their speech.

Ralph Weaver - 'The Death of the Old Black' - Word Painting

Madam Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen 

Am I getting old or do you too feel our past life seemed better? 

I was witness to the demise of the old Black - more than three and a half decades ago - and to those last gasps of life. 

There was no mourning - no sense of loss or feelings of bereavement – then. 

For over 80 years the Black had stood - grown sturdy, solid and developed: seen two world wars and the fall of empire and worked on thousands of tons of iron and steel throughout. 

My grandfather had worked with the Black - dressed in the waistcoat, neckerchief and flat cap that were the workers uniform of the day. My father too had worked with the Black, but I was the one to see the life essence ripped from this major part of three generations. 

I had known the Black for nearly half of my working life till then. The other half enduring the high pitched screaming and chattering, ear-wrenching of the ‘Bright’, where the multi-spindle automatic lathes made the silvery steel stock yield into screws and fixings by gouging out the metal from the rotating steel that whipped and screamed their pain through the works that was flooded with the stench of hot cutting oil - and always, always the crunch of swarf underfoot. 

Not so with the Black - here was a dark, cavernous netherworld - the lighting dimmed and hooded by a shroud of smoke and fume and soot - not quite a fog - that gave an eerie primordial subterranean feel and restricted vision into its further reaches - till you got used to the light that was infected with the ruddy glow from the growling fiery furnaces that heated the billets. 

Each furnace stood sentry to a steam driven forge hammer - each a great ominous bulk of metal, oil and dirt - wheezing steam and compressed air, dribbling oil and water as it strained to hoist the top die. Struggling to hold it the two foot or so above the die block while the forgemaster, one of the two men who pandered to the whims to feed the snorting monster, wrangled a fiery tipped billet from the furnace and wrestled the tongs to locate it in the die (whilst fighting shy of the heat) - to leave just the yellow-hot nub just visible above the dieblock. 

- WHOPPP!!! - 

The top die lowered with the grace of an Olympian in slow motion to kiss the billet locating it firmly in the die - there was no escape now. Then, just as quickly, the die head reared up its slide - reversed and ... 

- BANG!!! - 

The full force of eighty tons of steel, steam and gravity shook the very foundations of the area as hardened steel die smashed onto the still glowing hot billet. Showers of red-hot scale festooned from the impact, and the top die withdrew back to its attack position - poised there - waiting - while the other servant of the machine wrestled the now reformed billet from the die and tossed it aside to its next process. 

The forgemaster had already dragged the next billet from its inferno and loaded the die to do it all again - and so it went on sixteen sweltering hours a day - there the two gladiators of iron, heat and noise tended the forge hammer, synchronised like a clockwork toy - this ballet acted out on the 40 odd hammers that populated the Black, assaulting the body with an unorchestrated percussion - each and every blow felt through the air and through the black scale coated floor through your feet - through your legs and into every fibre - as though each forge were forcing you to pay heed of its the presence and pure power. 

What made the Black welcoming for me were the smells: 

- of heat 

- of burnt, black iron and the taints from the furnaces when the men cooked their food and brewed their tea. 

- of the fragrance of sweat and machine oils blended with the steam from the lumbering monoliths and the acrid acid stench of the pickling vats at the far end of the shop - smells of honest labour, toil and heat. 

To outsiders it was just another part of another nut and bolt factory in Darlaston spewing out dust and fumes and noise into the world. 

But to me, at the time, the Black was my world. 

And so Madam Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, although that world has long since passed away - some may say thankfully so - I feel for the old Black as a vibrant, strong, dark and pounding lifeforce - dirty, almost diabolic, almost demonic in nature - but to me - remembered as always warm and welcoming and alive. 

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