Monday, 2 October 2017

THE LAST DAYS OF ERF MIDDLEWICH



by Dave Roberts

When we talk about the last days of ERF Middlewich, we need to be perfectly clear that we are talking about the last days of the ERF Service Centre which opened in 1971 and closed in 2000. 
We are not talking about the make-believe 'factory' which was built at the end of Middlewich's truncated stub of a 'by-pass' at the fag end of the 1990s, and was so obviously not really intended to be a factory at all, but a warehouse. Which is precisely how it has ended up, with all its production facilities long removed. 
The last I heard that 'factory' was a distribution warehouse operated by Wincanton Logistics.
ERF has been wiped off the face of the earth and it is not for us to speculate on how and why that happened. The whole sordid story can be found in the archives of many a truck magazine and journal. (See 'A Sad Allegory' - link below)
No, we're talking about the real ERF Middlewich, built on part of what had once been the ICI alkali works halfway along a public footpath which rejoiced in the name of 'Poppityjohns'




The part leading from Brooks Lane to ERF was made into a road and christened 'Road Beta' which, as a name, is hardly much of an improvement.
And from 1971 until it all came to a juddering halt in the year 2000 ERF Service Centre was the hub of ERF's parts distribution network and also provided (at various times) vehicle repair facilities, training schools, production lines and more.
I'm writing this in the early hours of the 12th of September 2017. This is my 65th birthday, and the day on which, if things had worked out as planned, I would have been retiring from ERF. But things didn't work out as planned. They very seldom do. 
I worked at ERF Service from 1974 until it closed in 2000. By that time it was plain that the Service Centre's days were numbered and that we were all going to be moving to the new 'factory' across the railway line and a couple of fields away from where we'd been working for all those years. 
(The word factory is in inverted commas, like so much concerning the end of ERF in this diary entry because so many of us remember the feeling we had at the time that the wool was being pulled over our eyes and all was not as it seemed.)
The problem was that ERF stores wouldn't be moving to 'ERF Way' as the spur road off the 'bypass' had optimistically and, as it turned out, unfortunately, been named.
We'd heard tales of some autocratic ERF 'exec' spotting the words 'Parts Distribution' on the plans for the new site and abruptly drawing a line through them. 
Whatever jobs we were all going to do at the 'new place', they were not going to involve spare parts.
Like all management, then and now, the management of ERF considered everyone who worked for the company (particularly at our lowly level) to be mere units and completely interchangeable.
This attitude was what put an end to my 'career' with the company on my first day at the 'new place'. But that's another story.

Before ERF Service passed into history I took a few photographs, mainly to capture for posterity some of the people who worked there and the place where we all spent our working lives. I fully realise that they will be of little interest to most people who never worked there, and quite a few people who did. 
But these photographs, mundane and workaday as they might be, are at least a record of a Middlewich workplace which has vanished never to return, and of just a few of the people who worked there at the time.
The photographs aren't in any particular order, and don't try to tell a story. 
But they do, I hope, give a flavour of ERF Middlewich seventeen years ago. What better way to spend the day I should have retired than looking back at days which have, like, I'm sorry to say, a couple of the people pictured here, gone forever.

That white box on stilts was the Goods Inwards (or Goods Receiving) office and underneath was Steve Farrington's domain. Steve was responsible for unloading, unpacking and checking deliveries. He'd then pass the advice notes to myself and Mr J.S. Davenport in our eyrie at the top of the stairs.


Steve's domain. Note on the left hand side of the bench the computer which I can't recall Steve himself ever using. Like most 'shop floor' people at ERF he regarded computers as the devil's work, and made a lot more use of the broom seen on the extreme left.


A general view of the Goods Inwards office at the top of those stairs. The eagle-eyed observer will notice a portent of the future, in the form of the logo affixed to the computer screen in the foreground. A future which was, unfortunately, to be very short-lived. 
Note the printers by the window. These were used for printing 'Goods Inwards Notes' (or 'GIN' notes) telling people which location in the stores to take spare parts to. Occasionally these printers were  clandestinely used for printing posters etc for the Middlewich Folk & Boat Festival. You had to be very very sure which printer you were sending your illegal poster to, though. If you'd made a mistake and sent it to, say, the printer in the parts manager's office, the consequences don't bear thinking about...


Here's a rare photo of your Middlewich Diary editor in uniform making a very important telephone call (probably concerning the Folk & Boat Festival). The fact that
the stores are in darkness (as evidenced by the windows) tells us that this was probably taken on one of those Friday nights when we'd spend hours waiting for spares to reach us via the M6 which, then as now, was the most accident-prone motorway in the country.


Something of a rarity - in fact unique in my experience - a lady storekeeper. Her name was June, and if I ever knew her second name, I've forgotten it.
Update: Our old friend 'Anon' has put forward the name 'Proudlove' as June's second name.



Also brightening the place up somewhat was Theresa, an agency worker brought in to help out with our 'heavy workload'.


So little time...so much to do....just a tiny fraction of our 'heavy workload'. Note that someone appears to have dumped the telephone on one of the paper trays, possibly through sheer frustration after being 'mithered' once too often by material control at Sandbach.


Here's Theresa again, this time with the late Harry Bayley.



Andy Newall, once described by one of the foremen as 'doing the work of ten men'.
The foreman was Andy's brother-in-law, mind you...



 Andy Newall again, this time with Herbert Hampton, a distant relation of the author, 
and thus dubbed 'Cousin Herbert'.




David 'Brisket' Briscall. Note, in the background, the whiteboard with the words 'ERF SERVICE 1971-2000' written on it. 



Even a clapped-out old whiteboard has a tale to tell
                                                       That tale is told  here.



The 'high-racking stores', invariably referred to as the 'new stores' due to the fact that they were built later than - you've guessed it - the old stores. Special guided trucks operated here, very much on the same principle as guided buses and it was possible, when using 'lift trucks' (from one of which this photo was taken) to climb right into the roof of the building. An ideal method of getting out of the way and hiding from the foreman for a while.


The late, and still very much missed, Steve Farrington. At work...


...and at play, in the White Horse one Saturday lunchtime in the 1990s. That's Steve's brother Peter on the right.
Steve was a true friend and, as I've said, we all still miss him after his untimely death a few years ago at the comparatively early age of 61.



It's That Man Again! Here's Steve, pictured in October 1997, on the phone to someone or other (most probably material control) sorting out just one of the endless series of problems which beset us every day of our working lives. Apologies for the damage to this print.                                                         (Photo added 3rd October 2017)


Mr Mark Wayne Brett Nevitt, storeman extraordinaire. Now working for Network Rail as a signalman.


The 'square'. The area where goods were unpacked and checked ready to be placed in the stores. Mr Nevitt, ever eager to be photographed for posterity, adopts his 'I'm getting some work done, honestly Terry!' pose.


This dark and almost completely useless photo is included because it is the only known photograph of Mr John Stuart Davenport (in the background with red hair and blue shirt). We never were able to get a photograph of his face (which, some would say, was just as well). This photo was taken in the old, ground-floor Goods Inwards office (one of several we had over the years) which was very vulnerable to the attentions of fork-lift drivers who spent a lot of their time bending its tin walls, the chief exponent of this practice being Cousin Herbert Hampton, who also liked to bend the metal shutter doors of the stores about twice a week.



The somewhat unprepossessing main entrance to the ERF Service Centre. The office block shown here no longer exists (although the main buildings are still in use). The single story building on the left was, in the 1970s, the works canteen. In the 1980s, in the days of mainframe computers, it became the 'Computer Room' where huge spools of magnetic tape whizzed to and fro and little lights blinked on and off in the approved manner.


..and here's one of the terminals that mainframe computer would have been connected to. A CRT monitor with the then standard green-on-black screen and the letters ERF made up of smaller characters, something we all thought pretty impressive at the time. This was not even our first computer system. The earlier one, introduced at the very start of the 1980s, was in just plain black and white and the terminals had valves in them, just like your old-fashioned TV set and had to be 'warmed-up' each morning. Later, like everyone else, we moved to desktop PCs. An interesting piece of ERF ephemera the like of which you'll never find in any museum of the British motor industry.



A general view of part of the ERF Service stores. The 'square' is in the foreground, with the 'high racking' stores beyond.


A group of storemen (or, to use the more correct term 'storekeepers') at the end of the high-racking stores in 2000. The gent with the white shirt on the left is John
(or Jon?) Owen, a larger-than-life character from Birmingham, inevitably nicknamed 'Brummie'.

As the time drew near for the move from Brooks Lane to the new, pretend 'factory' the company began transferring equipment to 'ERF Way'. Here local firm Paces of Arclid loads fork-lift trucks in the yard, ready for the short trip 'up the road'.



Moving out. Off down Brooks Lane to Kinderton Street and then to ERF's brand new promised land in a field near the sewage works.



Poster produced  by ERF inspector Frank McPhillips, one of the first people
to have his own personal computer at home

To ERF Management, of course, the closure of the ERF Service Centre was of little consequence, or interest. The parts operation was contracted out to a firm with facilities in Burton-on-Trent, and we were all given the great honour of teaching some of the new company's staff how to do our jobs so that we could be 'phased out' and given completely unsuitable jobs on the 'production line' at ERF Way. 
Although it may not have mattered a jot to the powers-that-be, some of us thought that the passing of the Service Centre deserved at least a little respect and ought to be marked in some way.
Accordingly, storeman John Smith, who had been staging Sixties Revival Nights at Northwich Memorial Hall, got everyone together for a social evening at the Pochin's Club just at the end of Road Beta (the building, formerly the ICI Club, is now home to Middlewich Community Church).

The former ICI/Pochin's Club in Brooks Lane, Middlewich, where we all gathered in October 2000 to commemorate the end of nearly thirty years of the ERF Service Centre.

I recall making a short speech in which I said something along the lines of, 'the management may not care about ERF Middlewich, but we do. We've all worked together for so many years, and we think it's only right that we celebrate the fact.' Words to that effect, anyway.

The Salt Town Poets sang a song I wrote specially for the occasion, The Storekeeper, and there wasn't a wet eye in the house.

The words of this  little ditty, telling the story of my working life at ERF and the closure of the Service Centre, are featured below:

THE STOREKEEPER
(Tune: The Wild Rover)

1: I've been a storekeeper for many a year,
And I've spent hours and hours wishing I wasn't here,
Booking in all the parts for your ERF truck;
But now I'm disheartened, and...don't really care....

Chorus:

And it's no, nay never,
No nay never, no more,
Will I play the storekeeper...
No never, no more.

2: I've booked in your gearboxes, propshafts and things
Such as nuts, bolts and washers and fuel tanks and springs,
And pins, flanges, screws, hinges, spacers galore,
But I never will play the storekeeper no more.

Chorus

3: And now things are changing, our time here is spent,
They're shifting the whole lot to Burton-On-Trent,
Where things will be perfect, all sweetness and light;
And if you believe that, you'll believe..almost anything...

Chorus

4: Rip up all your picking notes, burn all your GINs,
A new day has dawned, a new era begins;
And it's quite plain to see, as they show us the door,
They don't want us to play the storekeeper no more.

Chorus

5: And if you should wonder why we've gone to hell,
The answer is ringing out, clear as a bell,
But we'll try not to worry, we're sure we'll be fine,
You can stick your spare parts where the sun doesn't shine.

Chorus

6: Farewell to the old stores, farewell to the new,
Farewell to Goods Inwards and Goods Despatch too;
Now God alone knows what these years have been for,
But we never will play the storekeeper no more.

Final chorus

© Salt Town Productions 2000/2017

Notes:

Verse 1: Most of my working life at ERF Middlewich was spent 'booking in' parts, at first by hand on notes later sent in batches to an IT firm in Manchester which compiled weekly print-outs of stock figures. These print-outs were always wildly out-of-date, of course. From the early 1980s I did the same job using a succession of computers.

Verse 3: A logistics firm was brought in to examine our parts distribution network, and concluded that it should be 'outsourced' to a firm operating from Burton-On-Trent, giving greater efficiency and effectiveness. We were, as you can gather, sceptical about this, with every justification as it turned out.

Verse 4: A 'picking note' is probably self-explanatory. It was a list of parts required by a customer with the stores location of each one on it. A storekeeper (usually a member of the legendary 'White Stick Gang') would 'pick' the parts from these notes and take them to the despatch dept. A 'GIN' was a Goods Inwards Note, used to put incoming parts into their correct locations. Well, most of the time...

Verse 5: The gentleman who masterminded the transferring of the parts stores from Middlewich to Burton-On-Trent was a Mr George Bell. An alternative location for those parts is also suggested here...

The song went down a storm. So much so that we had to sing it twice.

A memorable evening and, as Dave Lewis said on the night, 'only right and fitting'.


This door, at the side of the old ERF Middlewich office block was the one I used when I left ERF Service for good in the winter of 2000. Again, this was only right and fitting, because it was by this same door that I first entered the place back in 1974 for the interview with Bill McArdle which led to my working there for 27 years.

By contrast, my working life at the 'new place' lasted less than one day.

I'll never forget my time at ERF. I made some good friends and, of course, one or two enemies.

We all knew deep down that we were on the way out and that we were living through the last days of the independent British truck industry. 

And I think that, despite everything, most of us were proud to be a part of an industry which 'flew the flag' for Britain right to the bitter end.

Photo: Commercial Motor

This diary entry will be added to from time to time, as more photographs come to light.

If you have any which you think may be of interest, please don't hesitate to send them to us.

Dave Roberts
Middlewich
12th September 2017




UPDATES



Promises Promises...Here's a piece of ERF ephemera from the days when 35mm slides were the norm for presentations, rather than the now ubiquitous digital projectors attached to laptops. Most probably dating from the early 1990s, it's obviously just one of a series of slides shown to people from the parts distribution network to chivvy them up and get them passionate about selling diffs, gearboxes, propshafts and a myriad other spares, including everyone's favourite,the time-honoured 'No 10 pins' (said to be a remnant of the first ever parts list for ERF 1 in which the parts were simply numbered 1,2,3,4 etc. Part no 10 being a shackle pin for a road spring). Like all the best Middlewich Diary ephemera, this slide was rescued from a skip.
ERF 1          Photo: Truckphotos
(15th September 2017)

(From Christine Foster)
(l to r) CHRISTINE FOSTER, ? , ANN ADDY, EVELYN MALAM, SUSAN MITCHELL
Photo taken outside the ERF Service Service Centre office block, early 70s.
(Expanded caption coming soon)
15th September 2017





SEE ALSO:  
                                                  STRANGE VISITOR
                                                        ERF BADGES
                                                        ERF SERVICE 1971-2000 (revised Sept. 2017)
                                                  EVERYTHING STARTS WITH AN 'E' (1990)
                                       

First published 12th September 2017
Updated 15th September 2017
19th September 2017, 3rd October 2017.

9 comments:

  1. Great to see this. It's a real insight into ERF of days gone by. I worked at the Sandbach offices for a short while. Fond memories.

    ReplyDelete
  2. like you i would have worked to my 65th there as would most of the team.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice to hear from you Pete (makes a change from meeting in Morrisons!). Yes, it's a real shame. We all thought we'd be there until the bitter end. I shudder to think how many of the people there 17 years ago are no longer with us. I do know that Mr J.S. Davenport is still around, though, as I saw him in Aldi a while ago. This makes it sound as though I spend all my time in supermarkets...

      Delete
  3. June Proudlove is not lady in the stores

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. When you say 'is not' do you mean 'is'? As I say I don't remeber ever hearing her last name. She was a great person to work with.

      Delete
  4. Nice to read but also very sad.
    I was the original Chairman of REVS for 18 years and also made some good friends at ERF

    ReplyDelete
  5. Very interesting article thanks for taking the time and effort putting it all together.

    I have a couple of pictures of the ERF MW recovery truck that you had at Middlewhich if you can send me your email address i will send them over.

    moomooland01@hotmail.com

    Regards Paul

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks Paul. We're always interested in anything to do with ERF Middlewich (and, of course, Middlewich in general. I'll be delighted to add your photos. I remember the breakdown truck very well from my early years at ERF M/W

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ...and the email address is Middlewichdiary@aol.com. I'll email you separately incase you don't see this. Thanks again!

      Delete

Leave your comments here. Please note that comments are moderated and, if they are particularly relevant, may be incorporated into the original diary entry.