The Last Walk – Marshall’s Remembered by A W (Tony) Roberts

The following is an account written for me by a gentleman I met by chance through a photo group on Flickr and who I am proud to say has since become a good friend who has assisted me a lot with research on some of our Marshall photographs from inside the workshops. His memory is phenomenal and he has a real skill in taking you back to a time long gone in his written word some of which you will read below, I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

July 2011.

            After living in Canada for 31 years my 5, or was it 6, visits back to Gainsborough now appear in my mind as a series of old black and white photo’s that have become dull and wrinkled, one barely discernable from the next.


Perhaps my memory needs more RAM now but probably a new Motherboard and CPU.

            As was the norm I would fly overnight under the influence of one of the wifes sleeping pills. Arriving at Heathrow sometime after 7:00a.m, I would brace myself at the thought of a daunting rush hour drive in a strange car to the M1. Especially driving on the wrong side of the road where roundabouts became nightmares.

            Almost always alone as I headed North-East, where I came to understand the words, “In Englands’ green and pleasant lands”, something I never did in the 34 years I lived there. Arriving outside the home on Hill Crescent where I met my wife in 1965 I would park the car, rarely getting back into it until it was time to leave. For walking is the only way to really see the Gainsborough I once knew so well and I couldn’t wait to get started.

            In a nutshell I am a nostalgia junkie who is capable of drifting back in time, and walking the streets of Gainsborough can be as intoxicating as the very best of Scotch Whiskey. One minute I would be five years old entering the brand new house on Woodfield Road and then I would be 18 kissing my wife for the first time under a lamp post on Hill Crescent. Unfortunately, some idiot moved it so cars can park on the sidewalk now?

            And so it went on day after day with both feet and heart aching for different reasons. The repeated visits to Coxs fish and chips, a favourite, but the memories would be tainted by the graffiti now so prevalent everywhere. Gangs of youths roamed the streets quickly reminded me of Dodge City in Wyoming I had once visited. If ever there was a need for Wyatt Earp it was now.

            A change of scenery to the serenity of Whites Wood lane where the silence was only broken by a Skylark singing high on the wing soon lifted my mood. It really is still a place of fantasy where a little boy was once Robin Hood in those endless days of the summer holidays.

It was to be today, purely by chance, that turned out to be a very special day. Walking down the hill I would nod to people who looked at me inquisitively. Yes, you know me but for the life of me I cannot remember your name or where from. Turning down Cross Street I came face to face with a building I knew so well. Spring Gardens was pretty well devoid of cars for few worked here nowadays. I paused at the lights spotting a lady I knew well scurrying down towards the market and resisted calling out. It probably was not her anyway. Turning south down Beaumont Street it was not long before I stood outside #1 Yard, the main entrance to Marshalls although it had Nettleham Engineering across the large open gates. I stared up to the top where Heavy Machine Shop and Tractor Assembly once stood observing numerous apprentices coming and going through the “tunnel” in their green overalls. But they weren’t really there for they were old men now, many having departed to that big machine shop in the sky.

Nettleham Engineering

Nettleham Engineering and the entrance to No.1 Yard

A large magnet pulled me in some ten yards or so in as I travelled back thirty years in milliseconds. Perhaps I didn’t need a RAM upgrade after all for that was pretty fast. High up the stairs to my right a ladies voice politely called out. “Can I help you” and I tried to explain why I was stood there transfixed by this time-shift. At the top of the stairs she stared at me. “Don’t I know you”, and I stared back racking my brains. “I think so”, I stammered. “My name is Eileen and you once came to our house at the bottom of Whites Wood Lane to buy some tropical fish”, and it all came back. It had been 1973 when I became interested in Guppies and Serpa Tetras. “You taught my husband Mick when they closed the foundry” and it all fell into place. “Have you time for a cup of tea, come in, please”. “I suppose you know Mick’s been dead ten years now” and I apologised for I didn’t. Good grief, he was only 2 or 3 years older than I, I mused. Upon entering into a large office that I had signed my indentures in as a sixteen year old she introduced me to her second husband who was the owner of Nettleham Engineering. He was dressed in a three piece suit and tie and instinctively I changed from visitor to business man pulling out my business card and explaining who I was and why I was there. We chatted for well over an hour over tea and biscuits when he apologised that time had run out on him, he had an appointment. He apologised for not having the time to show me around. “If you wish you can wander round alone, I have to imagine you know your way?” he grinned as we shook hands and I thanked him as he left. Eileen said it is not likely anybody will stop you but just tell them it is o.k.

Once back in the yard I stood and stared at the rows and rows of machines that were not supposed to be there. I looked up at the crane some 20 odd feet above that I had climbed all over as I laboured to remove the “bull wheel” for re-bushing in 1963. I cannot remember the names of the two skilled men I assisted.

A number of solutions entered my mind as to which route I would take, for there were many. Deciding to head towards the Training bay where it had all started I headed through the large doors to Road Roller erection and immediately left again to climb the stairs onto the Gallery.

The stairs were dark and foreboding and each step was deeply curved where a million feet had eroded them, on one side up the other down separated by a corroded brass rail that had once sparkled. Now covered in litter and dust this once bustling thoroughfare would bustle no more. Opening the Gallery door I was relieved to be bathed in light. Some 60 yards away was an office I remembered well. One door still bore the brass plate proudly proclaiming, “Inspectorate of Fighting Vehicles”, a door that probably hadn’t been opened since the war……. or maybe the first war? The other door had been much busier because this was the Internal Mail room managed by Mrs Cole and ably assisted by the “post-girl” that I had fell in love with as a sixteen year old. If only she had known I existed but she sure was pretty. Turning left at the corner I was faced with perhaps a 150 yards walk parallel too and high above the Road Roller Shop below. My $150 Nike Air-Max cross trainers squeaked as my footsteps broke the profound silence. I felt guilty for they should have been steel toed boots as years of Marshalls discipline took over. A pigeon took flight and startled me and I cursed for not bringing my camera. Not because of the pigeon but somehow I felt I would never walk this way again. There was now an overwhelming sense of melancholia as I began to fully realise the magnitude of what was happening to the old girl and I now understood her day was done after a 150 or so years.

To my left was a store area full of jigs and fixtures, neatly lined up all oiled and tagged waiting for the day a tractor or roller component would be clasped in their grip and cutting fluid would flow across their plates once more. Thousands of hours had gone into their design and manufacture by skilled men long forgotten, but still they waited patiently.

Approaching the end of the gallery I came upon the “zigzag”. To my right was the Aero or Brass Gallery depending on which decade you were from. To my left were the stairs leading down into Machine Shop Extension that had been my home for many years, now bathed in sunshine and silence. It was eerie because there should have been so many men and yet there were none. It must have been ten minutes or more when I realized I had been stood transfixed, my feet firmly bolted to the floor. One minute a lump in my throat the next a smile as I remembered all those clowns in green overalls who were very loosely described as Marshalls future.

Turning to cover the fifteen steps or so, the void that was once the Aero gallery appeared. A solitary Ward 3A stood alone in the corner as if it had been naughty. Numerous conduits poked up out of the barren floor waiting to supply power to machines long since sold or melted down.

Twenty yards away Arthur Mitchells sloping desk and tool cupboards still had locks on. He was probably in his late fifties and I had never seen him without the oil stained “cheese cutter” cap he had worn since the late 20’s or early 30’s. I walked towards him and he retold me the stories about being the only setter for 50 women during the war. I turned away to see Mabel Turner and Dot, their arms a blur as they operated the little Wards making nuts, bolts and washers. Panning around the shop I pulled out a packet of Woodbines from my white Foremans coat as I watched many at work. Roy Nicholson, Alf Rainsforth, Lou Golland, Percy Radcliff, Cyril Fitchett and Jackie Lees………. plus the others my memory searches for in vain. Yes, the blind fellow in his forties. He had Myopia, a form of severe tunnel vision and legally blind. I had taught him to operate a machine and remain very proud and humble to this day that we once passed in the darkness of night.

Opening the door to the mess room the old gas stove and tables were still there. Lord those tables were hard as I tried to catch forty winks on the night shift.

But the shop was empty now apart from the solitary Ward that had been naughty and the lump returned with a vengeance.

Apprentice Training Bay Mr W J Fovargue instructor 1961

Apprentice Training Bay Mr W J Fovargue instructor 1961

Walking slowly now, I approached the fence that separated the Training Bay from the Gallery. From a distance I could not understand why the always opened frame that was the entrance was securely boarded up with “DANGER” in bright red letters stencilled on it. Surely the apprentices that followed me could not have been that bad? The lower half of the wooden fence, some 4 feet high, was topped by ‘chicken wire”. Close enough now, I understood. There was no floor and I could see down to the Foundry entrance below. From wall to wall was a hole where so many apprentices had received their initial training from Ted Taylor, Albert Golland, Bill Forvargue and Stan Wistow. It would have been nice to look out the window at the police station below. Reluctantly, I turned once more to view the Aero Gallery before walking away.

Top Tool room

Top Tool Room photo courtesy of Paul Wright (Lincsranger)

I had sort of expected what I was to see on the south end gallery, A.K.A. Top Tool Room. It too was a barren wilderness the full length from Cross Street to the Horse and Groom. The Standards Room where all measuring tools were calibrated was air conditioned and immaculately clean. Jack Longstaff was so meticulous he would scowl at you if you even sneezed in this room. There was no sign of it now apart from the red painted floor.

Halfway down the shop, the tool-room elevator alone stood defiantly against the passing of time. Standing alongside it I stared down to the end seeing only dust, debris and another garden of conduits where machines had once stood so long ago. As a 26 year old I had my first experience of teaching displaced men from the Foundry the basic fundamentals of machining right here.

The silent sadness of it all was reaching critical mass.

Passing down the stairs into the Tool Room, I found it packed wall to wall with machines with little chance of walking round. I stared at the bench my brother-in law, Bernard Oaks, had worked on for so many years but felt it was prudent not to try and remember all the men who had worked here that I knew so well.

Once outside the Tool Room doors I glanced to the right half expecting the coffee machine to still be there. It wasn’t of course and the automatic foot clamps snapped tight around my ankles like a bear trap and I was gone.

AEU Tour

AEU tour of the works with Bernard Oaks front right

“My turn isn’t it?” Pete had said reaching for the change in his pocket. It wasn’t but he knew I was broke and wouldn’t embarrass me. Peter Pettinger had been taking the piss out of me nonstop for days because I was twitterpated and the signs must have been obvious. He was my setter in my third year and in his mid fifties. No, he was more than that, for he was my part time father, mentor and as close a friend as I had in all my years at Marshalls. Like all setters, he would tease me relentlessly and endeavoured to see just how many shades of red I could go when discussing women. You see the only ones I had known were my mum and sisters and I had only met my future wife a week ago and I really did not know if I was punched, bored or reamed at that time.

The clamps snapped open again and my eyes welled up.

Rest easy old son, rest easy in the full knowledge that I have used the skills you taught me for almost 50 years and I remain forever in your debt.   

Why is it in life you never think to or get the chance to thank the people most deserving?

I wandered up and down the aisles recognising many machines. The clamps were to open and shut many times before I got halfway round. The silence had become oppressive now with the lump a permanent fixture in my throat. I didn’t decide to leave prematurely……… I fled as it all became too much.

Some four hours later I walked through the doors of #1 Yard onto Beaumont Street without looking back……….. I couldn’t.

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