Goodyear memories

Vol. 11 No. 1 - 2019

Goodyear memories

An inside view from the firm’s early days in Craigavon

by Bob Toner

of Benburb

The main reason why the Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Company set up an ‘industrial rubber products’ factory in the new city of Craigavon was to accommodate the expansion of their tyre factory in Wolverhampton.

Goodyear logo

The floor space of the tyre production area in Wolverhampton was shared by other units, namely: Industrial Rubber Products and Vitafilm. As the factory was located in a built-up area there was no available space to build an extension to cater for the demand for an increased production of tyres.

An agreed solution was to move the Industrial Rubber Products and Vitafilm units to a location elsewhere. The decision to move across the Irish Sea to Craigavon was due to a number of factors. Firstly, there were generous government grants for training employees and for setting-up and installing new machinery. There was also the added benefit of a rapidly growing labour force taking up residence in the new housing estates springing up in the vested rural landscape between Lurgan and Portadown. The proximity of Lough Neagh was also a major deciding factor in the move to Craigavon.

Millions of gallons of water were pumped daily from the Lough to provide steam pressure for curing the rubber products. This water went through a purification process before returning to the Lough in a much better condition than when it had first entered the factory.

The Industrial Rubber Products that were manufactured in the Craigavon factory were mainly hoses and belts of all types and sizes. A special transmission belt for DAF cars was made exclusively in Craigavon. There was also a department where soles and heels for all kinds of shoes were made.

Goodyear: the life and times of an employee

The summer of 1968 was drawing to a close and the apple orchards were laden with fruit as I drove my Morris Minor along the scenic route to the Goodyear factory. In that first morning I joined my fellow rookies who were also starting work that day, after a brief introduction which included an intelligence test, a safety lecture and a tour of the factory which took us to our respective work places.

My dropping-off point was the V-belt department, where I was introduced to a man wearing a shop coat similar to the one worn by Ronnie Barker in the popular TV soap opera ‘Open All Hours’; he was later to become my Supervisor.

My job, when trained, involved the manufacture of fan belts for the motor industry. The job title was V-Belt Builder. Like most jobs in the factory, the building of the belts was very labour-intensive. At least a dozen manual tasks had to be performed before the machine could be started. Heavy rolls of rubber had to be lifted on to the machine and a large steel drum had to be fitted. The remaining tasks were slightly less taxing but still required one’s full attention. Once started, the work became very repetitive and demanding on leg and arm muscles. Intense concentration was required throughout the process.

It was on one of these machines that I received 16 weeks’ training with an operator from Wolverhampton. When my training period ended I was assigned to the Supervisor I had met on my first day, who for whatever reason gave me a hard time.

I was producing good quality belts and my output was increasing week by week, but none of this would satisfy my Supervisor.

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"Long term employment security" offered in advertisement for experienced creative machine designers

His unreasonable behaviour continued for several weeks, until I couldtake it no longer. I was at my wits’ end when I approached him and said ‘One of us is going to end up in St Luke’s mental hospital in Armagh, and it’s not going to be me!’

Off I went to the factory nurse, who gave me a sick note to go home and rest. When I handed the note to the Security Officer he wanted to know the nature of my sickness; I told him that I was sick of Goodyear. But after a week of monotonous inactivity I began to reflect on my reasons for leaving, and decided to return.

The following Monday I reported back to the nurse, who rang the department to inform them that I was returning to work. With some trepidation I made my way to the V-belt department, to be greeted by a different supervisor. When I enquired as to the absence of his Supervisor I was told that he was in St Luke’s mental hospital.

Changing course

Four months later, while working on the night shift, my new supervisor informed me that I was to stay behind at the end of the shift as the Employment Manager wished to speak to me: I would no longer be working on the machines, but teaching others in the art of V-belt building. A week later I began an intensive teaching course, with eight others from different departments who had received the same news from their supervisors.

The course, which lasted several weeks, was conducted by two Professors from Queen’s University. We made history by being the first properly qualified Instructors since the company had been founded in 1898.

After several months had passed and the initial high turnover of labour had settled, trainees were now getting thin on the ground. As a result, two new jobs were added to the role of Instructor. One was in Public Relations, the other was conducting factory tours. Public Relations involved helping families of employees to settle in to their new environment, and organising activities for children. One such activity was a trip to the seaside. On a pre-arranged date in July of that year a convoy of double-decker buses descended on the seaside town of Newcastle, County Down.

By a special financial arrangement with the local Council the employees of Goodyear and their families had full use of the town’s amusements and play parks absolutely free. The trip was so successful that it became a regular annual fixture in the calendar of events for the month of July.

Factory Tour Guide

The other additional role as Factory Tour Guide was less challenging and more satisfying. One interesting aspect of this was giving snippets of information on the history and development of the company. One such gem was the story of Charles Goodyear (who had no association whatsoever with the company named after him). He had been responsible for the discovery of vulcanisation, which brought the development of tyres to the level of excellence which motorists enjoy today. Before his discovery in 1839 tyres were just mere bands of rubber that went brittle in winter and melted in summer. Vulcanisation changed all that.

There are two conflicting stories of how the discovery was made. One was that the breakthrough came about as a result of much experimentation before the mixing of raw rubber and sulphur solved the problem of keeping rubber pliable and solid in all weather conditions. The more interesting story was that Charles Goodyear was working in an old wooden shed in his back garden when he accidentally spilled some sulphur on a piece of raw rubber that had fallen on to a hot pot-bellied stove. These two substances coming together resulted in the birth of what became known as vulcanisation – the name originating from Vulcan, the old Roman god of fire. This latter story was the one told to visitors on the factory tours.

Another interesting myth associated with Goodyear was that of Mercury, messenger of the ancient gods, which inspired the design of the Goodyear winged foot, which appears on all Goodyear merchandise including tyres. A monthly magazine called ‘The Wingfoot Clan’ was published by Goodyear and distributed to employees – I was a regular contributor.


Vitafilm - cling-film

It was around this time that a new, much smaller factory was being built adjacent to the Industrial Rubber products factory. This was to house the Vitafilm unit, then closing down in Wolverhampton. Three of us from the team of Instructors were sent to Wolverhampton on a six-week course to learn the manufacturing process of various types of films for industrial and domestic use. The main type of film, and the one most well-known, was Cling Film, which was supplied mainly to supermarkets.

When we arrived back in Craigavon after the six weeks were up one of our number, Jerry Donaghy, was promoted to Supervisor back in the Rubber division from whence he came. So myself and john Thompson had to cover two 12-hour shifts between us for several months. It was really hard work, as everyone was new to the job. We found ourselves training a dozen people all at the same time while the operation was in progress.

When the Vitafilm factory finally got into full swing and everyone knew their job I found myself back again in the Industrial Rubber factory, this time in the role of Trouble Shooter. It was here that Brian Montgomery introduced himself to me and appointed me to the role.

Brian, as it transpired, was a member of an elite group known as Goodyear International, whose role was to oversee all the plants throughout Europe, America, Canada, Australia and the UK. Brian’s home base was in Sydney, Australia.

In the course of my work as a Trouble Shooter I was presented with many problems which thankfully I was able to solve. There was one problem, however, that was deemed impossible to solve by the three Americans who approached me with it, but felt that they had to ask me anyway. The problem was that the specification book for building Hoover belts was either lost or destroyed when equipment and machines were being transported from a factory in Germany that had closed down as a consequence of their work being transferred to Craigavon. This meant that there was nothing on paper to specify how the belts were to be made.

Better than German

My solution was to seek an outlet that sold Hoover belts and buy one. I eventually found such an outlet and made the necessary purchase. I took the belt back to base and measured the inner and outer circumferences. Next I cut it in two so that I could see the inner construction, and took a note of the type and layers of rubber that made up the thickness of the belt.

With all this information gathered it was just a matter of putting it all together in the sequence that it was to be built. It was now presented to the Supervisor in charge, who had samples made and sent off to Hoover. A short time later a letter was received from the Hoover Company stating that these belts were superior to those made in Germany.

Sometimes the most difficult part of the job was convincing department managers to buy into possible solutions that were presented to them. The last success that I had solving a long-term problem bears this out. It was a problem that I wasn’t even asked to consider.

It was on a day when I wasn’t doing much in the way of sorting out problems. I spotted Brian leaning over a large conveyor belt and decided to go over for a chat and maybe go for a cup of coffee. He jokingly said to me ‘You couldn’t solve this one!’ I asked ‘Why not?’ He said that the problem had been with us since the 1920s.

Problem solved

The problem with the conveyor belts was that during the curing process blisters appeared at regular intervals along the surface of the belt. These blisters had to be slit open and liquid cement applied underneath the surface until all the blisters were flattened out. The belt then had to go through the curing process all over again. The final result was that hundreds of yards of six-foot wide belts had unsightly scars all over the surface and had to be sold as sub-standard.

My solution involved the use of a small hand-held oil can used by fitters for oiling the machines, and a bradawl, a tool used by workers in the Soles and Heels department.

Brian was convinced that this would work and sent me to the department manager’s office to get a requisition note for an oil can. When I asked the manager for the requisition he wanted to know what I needed the oil can for. When I told him that I was going to fill it with liquid cement he bawled me out of the office. I sauntered back to the conveyor belt where Brian was waiting for the oil can that I never got. When I told him of my fruitless discourse with the manager he bounded over the conveyor belt like an Olympic high jumper and burst into the manager’s office. I followed him by a less direct route at a much slower pace, so by the time I got there a red-faced manager was signing a requisition for a hand-held oil can. And the idea was a huge success. The oil can and bradawl did the job and after that there were no more scars on Goodyear conveyor belts.

An offer I couldn't refuse?

As a result of this success Brian offered me a high-paid job in Sydney, Australia. If I took the job I would be given a house, which would be mine to keep even if I got a better position at some later stage with another employer: the house would still be mine. It was an offer that was difficult to refuse, but I hadn’t the final say in the matter and after much debate on the domestic front I had to turn it down.

Shortly after this Brian went back to Australia and I went back to building V-belts. It was a humiliating experience being back on the machines and not performing as well as the operators I had trained.

After a short while I packed up and left. The plant manager, who had been a good friend to me while I was there, came to wish me well. He asked me why I was leaving and I told him that Goodyear was the only firm in my experience where you could start at the bottom and work your way down.

Brighter days ahead

When I reached the car park a flock of wild geese were flying overhead in a regimental line across the cloudless sky on their way to Lough Neagh. I climbed into my Ford Cortina, a step up from the Morris Minor I owned when I first drove in four years earlier. I sped off, leaving behind the noise and the smell of rubber, and took the scenic route home to blue skies and brighter days ahead.

In 1983 the Goodyear Company pulled out of Craigavon and is believed to have re-located to a new purpose-built factory in Afghanistan.

The Eighties were a decade, not unlike the present one, that suffered from a recession when work in general was hard to find. As an early casualty I was soon to join the ranks of the unemployed. However, on the advice of the Careers Officer in the Portadown Job Centre I found myself adjusting to life as a student in the Belfast College of Art.

A change of career

When Goodyear left the scene in 1983 I was in my third year of study on a B.A. Honours degree course in the faculty of Three-Dimensional Design. Unfortunately I missed out on my fourth and final year due to unforeseen circumstances; but when I did eventually get my degree I followed it up with a teaching certificate in Further and Adult Education. From then until retirement in 2004 I taught out on yearly contracts with the Upper Bann Institute and East Tyrone College of Further and Higher Education.

So in leaving the Goodyear factory, 1972 turned out for me after all to have been a good year.