Saturday, 13 April 2019

My Father’s Work Experiences at Tunnel Glucose,

My Father’s Work Experiences at Tunnel Glucose
Tunnel Avenue, East Greenwich.

My father, Percy McDougal, was born in 1908 in Siebert Road, Blackheath, the youngest of five children. He left school at the age of 14 and did a variety of jobs including shop work and painting and decorating.  In 1932 he married my mother Doris Hughes and at that time he was working as a shop assistant. By 1935 he had joined Tunnel Glucose and gradually worked his way up the ladder until he became works superintendent. This being his position when he left the company in 1954.

During the 1930’s he made several trips to the company’s parent factory in Alost, Belgium. At that time travel was limited to taking the train to Dover and then ferry to Ostend in order to catch another train to Alost. It was during one of these trips to Belgium that he fell out with management due to the toilet facilities available. The rule in the Belgium factory was that all toilets that the workers used were not fitted with doors. It was considered necessary in order for the workers to be seen taking their toilet break. There was much fear amongst local management that workers would use the toilets as an excuse to skip off to have a smoke. Smoking at the place of work was of course not allowed on hygiene grounds. My father objected strongly that he was not prepared to give up his privacy when the call of nature came. Thus, he made a stand for him to use the same toilets as the Senior Management as they had doors which could be closed when in use. I understood from him that my father won the day but totally upset the company’s Belgium managers.

Tower Julie delivering grain from Amsterdam 1970s
photo Pat O'Driscoll
By the time the second world war started my father was on the way up and in mid forties he had been appointed works foreman. This enabled our family to move from the rented upstairs flat in Chevening Road to a house at the top of Tunnel Avenue, a few doors down from the Fire Station.  My cousin told me many years after my father died that he was the first in our family to buy their own home and to have both a tv and a telephone.

The TV was great but the telephone only seemed to ring when my father was needed out of hours to deal with some kind of works emergency. He was forever being contacted to rush back on his bicycle to handle a manufacturing problem which had stopped production. As a process industry the operation was 24 hours per day and 7 days per week. Now we knew why we had a phone. My father was on 24-hour callout.

One specific incident I can recall is when he was called out one night to deal with a major problem with a tanker that had crashed in Blackwall Tunnel. This was before the additional tunnel we have today. Therefore, there was just one access through the old Victorian tunnel under the Thames.This was the only major road artery connecting north and south London.  It was a long way upstream to Tower Bridge and the Woolwich Ferry was very limited and time consuming. The Tunnel Glucose tanker in question had crashed in the tunnel and spilled its entire load across the road. Blackwall Tunnel was completely blocked and the sticky mess would take hours to clean up and let the traffic flow as normal. My father spent all night and most of the next day on the emergency which was so serious that it made the newspapers. There were no TV crews then as there are today but if there were Percy may well have been interviewed and asked to explain what was being done to resolve this massive disruption to road communications. 

Amongst my fondest memories was the times my father used to bring us home ‘sweets’. Sweets were still on ration so in very short supply. The ‘sweets’ that he brought for my younger brother and I were not bought in shops.  They were yummy slabs of solid glucose which had been produced in the company’s laboratory as part of pre-production testing. They were very hard, crunchy and probably didn’t do our teeth much good but to two young boys they were heavenly gifts of luxury.

Another great memory was my first trip in an aeroplane. In 1953 my father had to make a business trip to the factory in Alost. He decided to take an extra week in Alost as holiday so took my mother, my brother and I with him. We flew from Heathrow when I was allowed chewing gum when we took off and landed. The family stayed in the same hotel my father stayed at before the war and we had a marvellous time whilst he worked hard. Other first experiences were drinking Coca Cola and chocolate milk shake, riding in shiny black Chevrolet and Citroen cars and admiring ‘plus fours ‘which all the children wore. My father refused vigorously my request to bring a pair back to the UK. My thanks to Tunnel Glucose for this wonderful opportunity to travel abroad.

Towards the end of my father’s tenure several things happened to Tunnel Glucose. One was the change of name to Tunnel Refineries and the other was being merged or taken over by a company called Glenville’s. I believe that my father was one of the few people who had stayed on and helped the skeleton staff to survive the difficult wartime. He was not called up as he worked in a protected job and had been totally committed to the company having worked there for nearly 20 years.

Management changes to operating policy was too much for my father to handle so he handed in his notice although he was asked several times to reconsider his decision. He left Tunnel Refineries in the summer of 1954.The same year the family moved to Swindon where he and my mother bought a grocer’s shop. He had returned to his earlier role when he and my mother had first met.

I visited the works on several occasions during the early 1950’s some good experiences some not so good but I will expand on these visits in other memories of Tunnel Glucose and living in Tunnel Avenue.
Tunnel Glucose as Amylum fromm the river 1990
photo Peter Luck

 Graham McDougal

5th April 2019


gravyb said...

Interesting post! I worked in IT there in the early 90s, but I didn't know all the history. There was a great view of the city from the top of that grain silo down by the river.

Unknown said...

A much appreciated look at Tunnel Refineries in the years just before I started there. I was there from 1959 to 1968, initially working in the wages office,then,later, in what was the called the data processing department.

One thing that strikes me is the name change. I remember when I started there, it was still known as Tunnel Glucose, certainly, all the tankers still had that name painted on them.

I really enjoyed my years at Tunnel, probably the most relaxed working environment I ever knew. I am still in contact with my first boss, Alex Nelson, now well into his 90's!