Chris Arnot

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When the wheels came off the dream

Industrial relations Ford’s Dagenham plant – once the biggest factory in Europe, now a fallen giant – rolled out a rich social history alongside its ‘accessible’ cars. Chris Arnot looks back over 80 years and a struggle for workers’ rights and equality

Shop steward Dora Challingsworth (fifth from right) and machinist colleagues at Ford's Dagenham plant, Essex
Shop steward Dora Challingsworth (fifth from right) and machinist colleagues at Ford's Dagenham plant, Essex

Harry Coleman was 13 when he started work on the site of what would soon become the biggest factory in Europe. He should have stayed at school until he was 14, but he had a note from his mother. “She just told them I wasn’t well,” he chuckles. “In them days it didn’t matter too much.” What mattered was getting a job. Any job. Even making the tea for one of the plumbing contractors laying pipes for the Ford Motor Company’s new enterprise in Dagenham.

Essex boy Coleman lived just down the road in Barking. “But there were over 3 million unemployed at the time, and people came from all over the country to work around here,” he recalls, looking out from the bungalow that he built himself in Rainham, a few miles from the plant that provided employment for three generations of his family. Now a loquacious 93, he witnessed the birth of mass car manufacturing in the UK and he was still around for its death. It makes him an ideal contributor to Ford’s Dagenham Dream, to be screened next week on BBC4.

There is something grimly appropriate about the timing. Eighty years on from the first pipes being laid for the car plant, unemployment is at 2 million and rising. Workers in what’s left of the UK’s car industry understandably fear for their jobs. Among them are the 2,000 or so who still make diesel engines for Ford on a site that employed more than 50,000 in the 1950s. Today, acres of that site are covered by parked cars, waiting for a sluggish market to pick up. But they were assembled at Ford plants on distant shores. The production line here ground to a halt in 2002.

Losing marbles

The history of Ford in this country mirrors the story of 20th-century industrial relations, including the rise and fall of trade unions and the struggle for equal rights by women and ethnic minorities. Ford’s Dagenham dream was the American dream, imported from Detroit. Henry Ford wanted to sell to the British scaled down versions of American cars – “dreams that were accessible”, as the programme puts it. Those who helped to produce the Prefects and Populars, Zephyrs and Zodiacs, Cortinas and Capris would be among the highest paid manual workers in the country. But the wages came at a price.

Some felt as though they were “losing their marbles” from the sheer monotony of matching the human brain to the relentless demands of an inhuman production process. “The period between clocking on and clocking off was like a living death,” says Keith Dover, 49, who followed his father into Ford in 1978 and gratefully accepted a redundancy package in 1992 to take up a rather different career as a stand-up comedian. His appearances at the Hackney Empire and Edinburgh festival rarely featured material from his old workplace. “The stand-up routine was always an escape from work,” he confides. “I just wanted to leave it behind.”

Elsewhere in the huge Dagenham plant, a grim humour prevailed over the working conditions. It was particularly evident in the foundry, where men stood to lose more than their “marbles” if they weren’t careful. Former shop steward Denis O’Flynn remembers a colleague losing a finger: “We rushed him to the medical centre and the doctor wanted to get it back on as quickly as possible. But he’d left it in his glove by the moulding line. I hurried back to get it, and discovered that one of his mates had fed it to the cat.”

O’Flynn, now 75, was one of many Irishmen to find work in the foundry in the 1950s. He had been a fitness instructor in the British army, serving in the heat and dust of the Middle East. “Mind you, I thought my first day in that foundry would be my last,” he says. “The heat and condensation when you opened up a hopper made you sweat in a way the desert never did. And, as a former sergeant, I was used to having shiny boots. Here I was up to my ankles in black sand.”

The old soldier devoted the rest of his working life to fighting for better conditions for his fellow foundry men – and with some success. In the early 60s, the company opened a new foundry with showers, two canteens and lockers well away from the dust. “But they wanted their money’s worth,” O’Flynn goes on. “The foreman would be tapping his watch when you clocked on at seven. He told you when you could go to the toilet and timed you when you did.”

Not surprisingly, wars of attrition continued between union and management over tea breaks, track speeds and time allotted to washing away the dirt of the job – issues that seemed trivial to outsiders and provided ammunition for Daily Mail leader writers to condemn “greedy car workers” out of hand. “Ford’s Dagenham workers still produced more cars for less pay than any other plant in Europe in the 1960s,” O’Flynn insists. As the 70s progressed, however, one day in four was being lost to industrial action. “There were activists in the body and assembly plants who thought the Communist party was rightwing,” he concedes, sipping his orange juice.

Macho attitudes

We’re sitting in a pub on one of many former London county council estates that began to spread eastward over swaths of Essex in the 1930s to accommodate the influx of workers as Ford’s Dagenham dream became an all too solid reality. Sitting opposite is Dora Challingsworth, another retired shop steward who was a key figure in the battle for women’s rights at Ford. The struggle began in 1968 when machinists making seat covers for the car giant were paid less than men who swept floors. Their cause was taken up by employment secretary Barbara Castle, architect of the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Challingsworth joined the following year. “But it was 1984 before we finally got recognition that ours was a skilled job,” says Challingsworth. “The unions were against it as much as the management because the unions were for men.”

But then the motor industry has always been one where macho attitudes have prevailed. Ford fulfilled its ultimate Dagenham dream for men in the 1970s when it came out with the sleek, low-slung Capri. “It was the Essex boy’s weapon of choice – rock’n’roll on wheels,” beams professional musician Dave Harley, 44, an Essex boy himself – “resident Elvis” at the Jailhouse Rock club in Romford, no less. “I’ve always bought Fords,” he says. “I wanted to support a homegrown product that seemed genuinely classless. These days I drive a Ford Maverick, but don’t ask me where it was made. I haven’t a clue.”

The workers in what’s left of Britain’s car industry wouldn’t be surprised to hear that.

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