Interview with Ian Smith, 2nd August 2013, born 1955
Interviewed by John Ashley and Rob Hulme. Transcription by Rachael Lovering and Sarah Daly.
I: = Ian Smith
K: = John Ashley
R: = Rob Hulme
I: My name’s Ian Smith and I was brought up in the Hafod; we lived in Principles Road for, till I was 4 and then we moved to the pub known as the Dublin Arms and I lived there until I was about 16.
Yeah when, as kids we used to play down the river, all the time, it was literally couple of hundred yards away from us, we used to nip down; through the, either through the, under the Hafod Bridge and down the Strand or walk along to the tunnel down, as you head down to Swansea station, down the tunnel there past the unit works and find a way into the river down there, you know, at the back of the works and it was always like a magnet for us kids; you know, it was dirty, smelly, rats running about the place and we just loved playing down there.
In amongst all the ruins of what was all the industry, I was born in 1955 and apparently the first time I went down there was when I was 4 and told some of the boys I was going to go fishing and had all the family out searching for me, for the rest of the day, until, they didn’t find me, I found my own way back home, and you know, and getting into loads of trouble over that, you can imagine, at 4 years old. But then again, they/it was different times, there wasn’t so much traffic about to start, down there, it was desolate, it was just like lots and lots of buddleia growing everywhere and derelict buildings; fun places for kids to play, you know, you come across all sorts of stuff down there, but we used to go down the river and literally, we, you know, from an early age, we’d be fishing for eels and things, digging up some rag worm in the mud, playing in amongst all the old wrecks of the boats; lots and lots of old bits of boats lying about, just a bit of cork on a bit of fishing line and a hook and just, just dip them in and you know within two minutes, you’d have an eel or something.
And as we got older, I mean when we were about, sort of, oh I don’t know, maybe 13; 12/13, we used to take inner tubes down and make rafts and always making rafts, you know, just go down to the local scrapyard and ask them for some inner tubes; they’d always give you some, you know, you wouldn’t have to buy them or anything and very often, they’d blow, blow them up as well for us, but if they didn’t, we’d just sort of blow it up ourselves as hard as we could and jam a bit of mud or something in there or something just to stop it running, you know, and get in, get in down by the docks somewhere, usually down by the old pier as the tide was coming in; get in with the inner tube and just float up the river with the tide; with the incoming tide and then get out wherever we wanted, usually covered in mud and grease and God knows what, to be honest.
But rafts; very often, we’d get big inner tubes then; get a lorry inner tube or a couple of them; tie them together with a couple of planks over them and just play in the river all day, it was just excellent fun, used to fall in, that was before I could swim, fell in loads of times and we used to be scrabbling about and somebody would have to throw me over board and jump in after me, I remember falling in once; and I think maybe I was about 7, and climbed on to the old; there was an old ship there, it was a metal ship, there were a lot of wooden ones, but there was an old metal one and we used to love that and it was fairly close to where the old drawbridge was and we used to think that was some sort of submarine to be honest, we thought that was a regular submarine, cause of the shape of, like a conning tower and there was a metal ship there and I climbed on to that one day and fell in and I think I was, you know, quite close to drowning and somebody dived in and pulled me out; an older boy, but that was a bit scary and very often, we’d be frightened to death by a seal or something, would come up the river and we’d jump out of skins; you know; what the heck’s that like?
Fishing down there, we used to fish for mullet as well and right up as far as White Rock, we’d just, you’d see the mullet coming up, even though the water was still quite dirty in those days, still a lot of fish and life in the river and you can just follow the fish up and try and catch them, nets and all sorts of things, go home with a couple of mullet and my grandfather who was from the Faroe Islands would cook anything I took home basically, you know, I’d take an eel home and he’d skin it, cook and fry it and we’d sit down and eat it together, but anything we caught would go, would go back up there.
Funny, we used to play in the old White Rock area as kids, go down past, let me think now, the old ICI club as it was there, there was a footbridge down to that and sneak across the railway tracks to get down to where the river was; always crossing the railway tracks; got, got arrested once for trespassing when I was 10, on a Sunday, hauled down to the station; to the High Street Station where the railway police and taken home in the back of a car then to my mother and father. Yeah, we used to go down across, across there, make some sort of raft and get across the river, very often at low tide, you’d, we’d just walk across, there was so much silt and stuff in it those days, and play in the old derelict buildings and it seems as if we were playing, you know, just about the time when space travel was coming in and there was Fireball XL5 was on the telly and we used to think that we were on Mars or something cause of the colour of the rock, you know, it was like, it was bright orange in places and bright yellow in other places with sulphur and you know, we used to just imagine that we were on the moon or on another planet really and play all these space games and that’s actually stuck with me all my life; you know it’s, it’s the fact that it was there.
It was, you know, I dread to think what we were playing in, just chemicals some days, you know, and I know some other kids would take the stuff home, you know and ‘Oh look what we’ve found today and..’ you know, find a big tin of bright yellow chemicals, it was probably sulphur, it wouldn’t do you any good at all and all sorts of things and collect anything, really, you know, old tools and things you’d find, you know, probably maybe harking back to why I became a museum curator, I dunno, we used to pick things up and just take them home for our mothers to chuck them out again.
What else did we do down there? We used to, well, you know, as I’ll say, it’s sort of been connected to me all my life, because when I left school at 18, I took a year out from going to university, I never went to university when I was young actually, had a year out and I got a job in Yorkshire Imperial Metals; that was 197 … 3, and I was Assistant Personnel Manager there, went straight into work with a guy called Frank Knowles, so I actually worked in the Hafod Copper works, we used to call it Yorkshire Imperial Metals in those days, it went from being a subsidiary of ICI to IMI industries and worked there for about 18 months and actually got to see a lot of the works because I was working in the Personnel Department.
We were involved with Health and Safety and you know, just all sorts of things to do with, with the guys working there, so we used to go and speak to somebody in the Cast House and make sure they weren’t burning their feet; all sorts of things; metal splashing about all over the place. Go down to the Rolling Mills; you know, and the noise of that, the Engineering Department; you know, they were milling all the different things and, and one of the worst places was the, was actually where they had the acid baths; where they were actually cleaning the plates up and they’d be dipping the finished plates; the rolled plates into the, into the, into the acid baths, and, you know, the fumes coming off those things and I remember going down there one day and walked into the place and your eyes would start streaming straight away and no, no ventilation, like, you know, you’d say; ‘Boys you’ve got to open the windows and doors here’, ‘Ah it’s too cold, we can’t have those open, you know, keeping, its freezing’ and I’d say;’ This stuff will kill you’, ‘No its fine, its fine, you get used to it’, it was absolutely, you know, an horrific place as far as I was concerned, gave that a wide berth.
Rolling Mill was very noisy, very hot as well in the hot parts, you know, there was a hot rolling mill and a cold rolling mill and when that was going full blast, if they had a big order on, that was really, really some place to see and of course the (castors/cast house?); it was almost like going back in time, I told you, you know, first day I walked through the gates, it was like stepping back 100 years almost, nothing had changed; the old lanes in between all the buildings and the noise, and the dust and the smell and it just really sort of got to you that you were part of this thing which had been there for like 100’s of years really and you were just sort of continuing on with it.
We used to get, because of the job I had, I used to have access to lots of different places and I can remember going into the old, the main office building by the gate which had been, wasn’t used any more as a main office, that had moved down into sort of prefab offices down at the bottom of the hill. But it was still almost as if it had been left there, in maybe 1950; there was a big boardroom with a massive table and pictures on the walls, maps and things of the world; and you know where all the copper was going and all this, and down in, down in the basement, something which horrified me, I went down there one day to see what was down there; there was like files an files of all different workers and I pulled out a folder and in this folder was the guy’s birth certificate and then you know, his marriage certificate; if he’d gone off to fight in the War, all that detail was in there and then in the end, the last thing there was like his death certificate; somebody’s whole life in this folder and that really, I don’t know, sent a shiver down my spine, to think that somebody could actually just be sort of put in a folder and that was it, like, you know, that was the sum of their, their worth, like, was in there. Cause we had lots and lots of men who actually worked there for over 50 years, you know; long, long service people; they’d, you know, started as a 13 year old boy; as an apprentice, or you know, or whatever, and worked there their whole life; time off to go to the War was actually taken into account, so if they went to fight for their country, when they came back, that was added back into their, into their long service award and things like that.
J: Well … fantastic … it’s really difficult not to, for me not to say anything..
I: Yeah, well if you want me, to ask me specific questions, you can and I can just answer those if you want.
J: Yeah, another thing, you, that’s what we can do with this, there are only 3 areas in there; you’ve got sort of childhood; playing on the river, sort of first working on the plant and stuff about the working environment, so we can split those into chunks; the Ian Smith Archive, or whatever it is, that sounds really great. You told us about, tell us a bit more about when, when you were living in a pub, you told me sort of about lining up on the side of the road waiting for the fight to start … laughter …
I: Oh yeah, yeah … right, cause we moved, we moved to the Dublin Arms when I was 4 and it was the old pub then; the building that’s there now is CK supermarket and that was actually built while we were living there, so we lived in the old pub till I was about, let me think, till I was about 14, so maybe 1970, they sort of half built the new pub and then knocked the old pub down and then finished the new build, so we moved into the new build. But the old pub was ancient, it’s probably, I would guess round about the turn of the century; 1900’s, it was built, it had big sort of, round, sort of picture windows in the attic and really down in the cellar; there were all sorts of things going on down in the cellar, there were little tunnels going off and all sorts of things, but it was great, cause the characters there, you know, when we moved in, it was 1959 and it was a different age, you know, it’s quite a while ago now, but it was even a different age then and we used to have, I can remember we moved in there and there was a big sort of coal, sort of stove in the middle of the bar and I went there one day and I could hear my Granddad shouting and bawling at somebody and somebody had come in and put a couple of kippers on top of the stove, you know, in the middle of the day, just plonked a couple of kippers on the stove to warm through while he was waiting for his pint and they, you know …
I remember Saturday night, we were just, this was the early ‘60s maybe, I was about 7, say 1963/64 and Saturday night in the summer, we’d just, all the kids would sit on the wall opposite the pub and just wait for the fight to start, you know, 10 o’clock, the singing would be going and all of a sudden, it’d go quiet, deadly, you know and there’d be shouting, a couple of raised voices and then it would spill out on to the street, there’d be people throwing punches and I remember one guy ripped the drain pipe off one time for clobbering a few other people and they was cast iron drainpipes, they weren’t the plastic ones.
And the Black Maria would be waiting down the bottom of the road, it’d be about 50 yards away down by the police box on the Hafod Bridge, wouldn’t do anything and the fight would be going on and then after a bit, they would all die down and people sort of, you know, dusting themselves off, then the Black Maria would come up and throw them all in the back of the van and take them all off to the station. All the kids would be, we’d all be sitting there waiting, with our bags of crisps and bottles of pop or something and just waiting for it to kick off and that was regular, every Saturday; every Saturday night, so you, you just can’t imagine it now really can you, they’d all shake hands the next day and that would be it like, you know.
And of course Sunday clos … you’d be closed in those days, but you know, we’d have the back door open and the same boys would come back the next morning now; 11 o’clock for a freshener and they’d all be coming in and they’d all be going; ‘Quiet, quiet now’, and the policeman would be walking down the hill and you know, every so often; ‘Quiet now, the policeman’s going past’, but what they didn’t know was he was going around to the back door as well for a pint, so they didn’t actually realise that in the bar.
J: (laughing) Oh right … so your dad was he, was that the only pub he had or did he …?
I: No, he had, we were tenants in the Dublin and then he became the manager when they built the new one and then they asked him if he’d take over the Hanbury, at the Kingsway and we went there for a bit and then we ended up in the King’s in High Street; the King’s Arms in High Street, so we did quite a few pubs.
J: One thing I thought of, I, you were, I’ll ask the question and then you can answer it, really it’s sort if you remember how you used to get to work, cause I’m not sure if you were in the habit, if you had moved into Swansea then, wondering how you got to work in White Rock?
I: Yeah, when by the time I’d sort of, I went to school in Dynevor and by this time we were living in the Hanbury, in the Kingsway, so I used to get the bus to work, we used to get the No. 77 bus from the Kingsway up to, let’s see, it was just past the Mexico Fountain, used to get off the bus there, just down through the main gate then and into the Works and bus home.
Years later, I did a course to drive a JCB and got into driving heavy plant and things and actually went back clearing part, not as far down as White Rock, but we actually cleared all where the Enterprise home was and I was sort of pushing all this stuff around again that I’d been working with and playing with all my life, so I was actually sort of back in it again and digging out trenches through stuff which was stronger than concrete, you know, we, you’re digging through stuff; layers and layers of, years of, oh, I don’t know, maybe 200 years’ worth of rusty concretions that had been dumped there and sometimes the JCB bucket wouldn’t look at it, we’d have to get something heavy that would break it up, cause it was just solid and you’d also come across bits of, piles and piles of what appeared to be, black sand and I don’t know where this came from, whether it was used as ballast or what, but it was, sometimes you could, a lot of iron in it, cause you’d put a magnet to it and it would pick up a lot of the stuff out of it and we reckoned it was probably used as ballast from somewhere maybe, filled up in the hull of a ship.
R: Copper slag probably?
I: There was lots and lots of copper slag there but this was different, yes this was just like black sand, it was, it was you know, it really was like black sand and you know I’ve got stacks and stacks of copper slag on my desk, so I know what that looks like, this was completely different and there was a fair bit of it, there was a mountain of it in one place, I don’t know where that had come from, I just assumed that it may be from, I don’t know, somewhere in South America, I don’t know.
R: Can you remember whereabouts on the park it was?
I: It was, let me think, it was, it was to the north of the railway line, but quite close to the railway line, before it went, before it got to the viaduct, so it was down that end.
J: Rob’s in? … so there’s a chance for him to sort out … yeah if it was..
R: Near the ink smelters then? Cause were about 4 or 5 by the Post Office area just as you went round that corner..
I: The Post Office was like the modern Post Office building, right by, it was further down the valley from there, say, I would guess, nearer the railway line, rather than the middle of, you know, between, we also found lots and lots of old archways there, you know, we’d come across, we’d be scraping the top off and then you’d come across stone archways and break through and then you’d be like, what would appear to be cellars but obviously at one time, you could have walked into these things with lots and lots of hundredweight, lumps of lead ingots and all sort of things down there, we’d find, we’d be tripping over those, they were everywhere.
R: That’s the old lead ink smelters then, (J: yeah), there were about 4 or 5 and you had the Siemen steelworks about, must be just about where Macro was and then as the line went around and then curved more northwards, there was just a run of lead zinc type establishments there so you probably picked up one of the zinc smelters, cause they had lots of yard and they had these torts that went across to stop the zinc, so it sounds like you might have gone into one of them.
I: Well we were the main contractors on the site clearing it, so we worked all over the site basically and because I was working for the main contractor, I got shunted about all over the place, where subcontractors were into doing specific jobs, like knocking the buildings down or with massive D8 bulldozers pushing stuff around, but I actually got to be sort of, you know working on a little sort of bits and pieces and things like that and course, cause they were main contractors, they were very, very, how can I say, proactive in collecting the scrap and putting it into skips to be carted off and weighed in, so you know, once, once somebody came across a hoard of lead, you can sort of move straight over and it had to be all buttoned off and, and you know, we never saw any of that, perhaps part of being a main contractor, they got anything they found. Yeah, but this dust was really, it wasn’t dust, it was sand, it really intrigued me, you know, I did A-level chemistry and I was a bit; ‘What the hell is this, sort of thing, you know?’, cos of you know, warning people not to near certain sorts of bits and things.
R: Yeah obviously, cause you had your arsenic smelters and plants as well down there.
I: It could have been anything, they had all sorts of things there, yeah.
J: So the clearance you were doing, was in the late ‘70’s, was it?
I: This was, I guess, yes, late ‘70’s because it was, it was after Maggie had given it over to be a, an Enterprise Zone, so what was that; 1979 or ’80, something like that? It was one of the first things she did when she came into power, wasn’t it? Created 10 Enterprise Zones, I think.
J: Yeah, yeah.
I: … and that was, that was the kick-start of it, if you like, we put the roads in, we cleared the old buildings, put the roads that are there now, we actually put those in.
J: Oh right … so it was after Maggie was dealing with the dereliction project?
I: Yes it wasn’t during that, it wasn’t the Lower Swansea Valley project, no, I was too young to be involved with that.
J: So you were at school in the Hafod during that?
I: Hmmmm … no, I was in Dynevor (pretty sure this time!) School by that time, 1967, so I possibly still might have been living in the Hafod.
J: Right … were you involved in the tree planting on Kilvey hill?
I: No, nothing like that, no, no.
J: The guy used to, he came to the museum a few years ago, he’d made a colour Super 8 film, did you see that?
I: Yeah, yes I’ve seen it.
J: Yeah, I’m not sure where it is now, I can find a copy I’m sure, but he used to go down to the school in his Land Rover and say; ’Can I have half a dozen kids for the day?’ and he’d go up on the Hill with these half a dozen kids and they’d have a whale of a time digging holes and planting trees, in fact, this guy, this guy; I met Gary Williams, who was one of those kids, he’d planted trees up there.
I: You know, I went back there about 2 years ago and hadn’t really looked at the place and I was sort of just sitting in the car waiting for somebody and I looked up and it was a mass of green and it really hit me, you know, how green it has become, but then, when, when Tehmina [Goskar] was first started the copper project, I took her up there and showed her round, where all the different places were. We went, the old ICI club and we sort of walked from the back of the ICI club on the bed of the canal, and you know, you can look down into the old engine houses and things and you notice the trees growing round there, how, how poisoned they are and you know, you really see, it comes home to you then what they’re actually growing in because the bark is falling off and they stunted and there’s black bits and all sorts of lumps and bumps growing on them and that really sort of brings it home what was actually, they’re buried in, what their roots are buried in.
R: The interesting thing is, when they came to do the actual project of digging, they said the pollution levels in the Tawe went through the roof, until they sealed everything off.
I: Disturbed it, yeah.
R: cause of all the muck that was in there and that valley was poisoned … badly poisoned.
J: Oh yeah … (I always?) see before and after pictures of Kilvey Hill now are quite unbelievable..
J: And I was talking to a guy from Blaenymaes last year and he hates the trees, since they grew, he can’t see the river anymore! (Laughter)… so you can’t win.
I: No, you’ll never please everyone.
I: It’s lovely up there now, it’s really nice, but saying that, I liked it when it was muddy too!
J: Yep, actually, I’ve got quite a through diaries of travellers in the mid-19th and 18th centuries and a few of those involve trips, you know, especially on the train, down the Swansea Valley, so I’m going to have to get somebody to read some of those I think, but they’re sort of very vivid descriptions of the, the sight and the smell and one of them, actually; she got to St. Thomas; and she wanted to get off the train, she stayed on it, cancelled her holiday and left, because it was so revolting!!
I: I can remember reading an article somewhere, that somebody says it’s like Hades, coming through hell isn’t it?
R: The devil came across, was it the Hafod and said; ‘Oh I can’t be that far from home’!
I: Yes, that’s it.
J: Yeah, I put one of the quotes on the website and I got plenty more where that came from.
R: But I always remember when I first came down to college, back in ’77, cause I’m from Crewe, I came down the Heart of Wales line, cause that was the line I wanted to do, so of course, you’ve got the run along the Loughor Estuary, that beautiful view of North Gower and you come into Swansea and oh its lovely. But then after the interview, I went back via Cardiff, I had my first ride on a 125 train, I thought; ‘Good grief, what is this?!’… laughter…you know, it was just, that run up to Llansamlet was absolutely disgusting and that was in the ’77, so what it must have been like before, I dread to think!
I: It’s … do you know what? It’s changed beyond all recognition, you, when I show people pictures of what, cause I do talks to schools and we talk about the changes in Swansea and they just can’t believe it, how, how much it has changed, you know, you’d never never credit it really, no.
J: Yeah, well that’s one of the things I’m trying to get across in this project, cause now we’re collecting all these photographs, the contemporary ones, you can do it, but it’s still difficult, as you look at it, even though, sort of; yes it is the same view from the same place, but I don’t believe it.
I: Yeah, no.
J: I just don’t believe it could have possibly been like that.
I: No, one thing, what struck me when we were digging there was how deep these layers were, you know, you keep digging and digging and digging maybe, we’d, we had, we had some holes that were 40 feet deep and we’d still be, we’d still be coming to slag and waste, we’d still be in the bottom of it.
J: Yeah, well they reckon with the dereliction and with the works that shifted it, would have filled Singleton Park up to 12 feet and they must have gone for landfill somewhere, I’ll have to have a look in the book, it tells you in there, I just can’t remember where it went. But during the War, a lot of the spoil was, used to went to the foundations of Fairwood airport.
I: Aye, well when I was working for, Marriott Construction back in the late ‘70’s, we used to use a lot of the red ash in particular, under footpaths and things, all round Swansea; any tarmacked footpath, well you’d probably find red ash under it, which came straight off the site up there.
J: So what would have made it red; not red lead?
R: No, probably iron oxide.
J: Ah yeah.
R: Rust … did it go a browny-red or?
I: Yeah, yeah,yeah.
R: That’s partly copper slag.
I: Pinky-red, browny red, um, I can’t remember the name of the firm that used to supply it, but they obviously had some sort of loading plant over there, they’d be loading up the lorries and they’d arrive on the back of a lorry and just spread it out and then roll it in and tarmac over it.
J: Well if you walk down Clyde Valley now, the stream still runs red.
I: Yeah … so it’s made up, made up, we didn’t use it for roads, but we used it for footpaths and things.
J: Oh right, this has been really good, superb, you’re a good talker.
I: (Laughing), it’s all the lead and arsenic inside me!
R: Well that’s the thing, that was going through my mind, have you had any medical checked since then?
J: The things we used to do, my father was Pathologist at Morriston hospital, so he ran the Paths labs there and he used to bring mercury home for us to play with.
I: Yeah, I was stealing it from school … laughing!
J: Yeah, that’s right … laughter … didn’t do us any harm!
I: No, exactly!
J: Well that’s great, well we’ve got 3 lots of technology!