by Andrew Foote
The weeks that followed found most of the lads getting on with the cleaning up of the machinery, engine and both the upper floor area and our squat. They had divided themselves into groups, each group responsible for a particular task and it was difficult to say which task was the most impressive.
The squat had been cleaned and two coats of white emulsion applied to the walls which lightened the interior. It did give it a clinical look but without any direct light from outside, any other colour wouldn't be practical and anyway, we had inherited the emulsion from the Waterways people which saved us from spending money.
The Bollinder was getting a thorough going-over. The build-up of years of grime, cobwebs and grease had been removed and items such as the cooling water tank, the fuel tank and air intake were painted with dark green Hammerite to preserve them and the area surrounding the engine was also treated to coats of white emulsion.
The plan was that once we knew it ran, we'd polish all the brass work and paint the engine block, however that could wait.
The machinery upstairs was carefully cleaned but with everyone under strict instructions not to disturb the carriages or spindles for fear of damaging the guideways. We could take advice as to the best way to proceed later, but for me, the best bit was being able to look out of clean windows onto the wharf and the canal below. I could easily imagine working boats plying their way up and down the cut in days past. The busy wharfs, a hive of activity in the cradle of Britain's industrial revolution, although now they were just decaying relics – a sad tribute to the past.
"You should come and take a gander at what Mitch has uncovered Ed.
He took a break from painting the squat and decided to see if he could pick the lock on that door in the out-building. He failed miserably so he lost his temper and smacked it with a hammer!
That did the job as the lock just fell to pieces, but you ought to see what was behind that door."
"Good news or bad?"
"Dunno really. Personally I couldn't give a fuck one way or the other, but you're so into all this historical shit, you might just find your mind being blown. Oh yeah…… and bring your camera with you."
We had researched Myton together with Bishops Wharf as well as we were able through the archives in the library, and all that we managed to come up with was the history of the company together with details of its past trading history, but then I remembered that they used a fleet of boats to transfer their products to Dudley and to that end, they had a wet dock at Bishops Wharf so they could load their cargo. Why they needed a wet dock given the almost two-hundred-foot frontage to the canal wasn't clear, but I followed Tiny down to the shed – camera in hand.
Mitch was standing outside looking a touch shame-faced.
"Sorry Ed, my curiosity got the better of me, but when I couldn't pick the padlock, so did my temper, so I clouted it with a hammer."
"No harm done, but please don't go hitting anything else, you might be trashing something important or valuable."
Come see what we found inside."
For reasons still unknown, I ignored the obvious shape in the centre of the workshop covered in a rotting tarpaulin, concentrating on the collection of tools and boxes of bits and pieces that littered the benches.
There were lockers containing paint tins, brushes and thinners together with boxes of rivets, nuts and bolts all sporting the manufacturers name 'Myton Fixings Limited'.
For me this was pay-dirt – the connection between the machine room and the finished product, the building I now called home and the people who once worked here.
I was snapped back to the here-and-now by Mitch who waved in the direction of the tarpaulin.
"Here's the best bit. There's a fucking boat under there!"
"A boat? What sort of boat?"
"A canal barge-type boat. Old but new as I don't reckon it's ever seen the water. Someone was building it but gave it up as a bad job and left it here.
Wanna take a look?"
Mitch unsuccessfully tried to roll up the tarp but it disintegrated, but what was underneath was the shell of an old work boat. Its hull had been blacked but this was peeling away giving up the fight to surface rust, although the insides of the hull had faired rather better having been painted in layers of red oxide with another tarpaulin covering the interior across the gunwales.
Further back was a deckhouse painted in a red and green livery, faded but otherwise in decent enough condition.
I eyed the plank that gave access to the stern of the boat from the dock, but it was rotten and I wasn't about to trust my luck to it, so I settled with taking photos from every angle before leaving.
"Nice find Mitch. Don't go telling anyone outside of the squat about this, okay?"
"Don't worry. I won't say a word. Do you reckon it's important then?"
"I don't know. A boat's a boat so far as I'm concerned, but it has to have some historical interest so I'm going to pay the Black Country Museum a visit if I can get Pip to drive me there. They should be able to shed some light on this place and its significance. Why not come with me?"
The next afternoon Pip took Callum, Mitch and me to Dudley and the chance to get answers to our many questions and to begin with, the museum's secretary didn't seem too keen on disturbing the curator over some casual enquiry from a bunch of scruffy kids, but I turned on my Grammar School voice and eventually we did manage to see him.
"Myton you say?
Yes, I know of the company. They manufactured fastenings for the ship and boat building industry and latterly, they supplied BSA during the two world wars. They closed their doors to production in 1947 and the Myton brothers retired to the country and their workshop abandoned and later sold for redevelopment.
What is your interest here?"
"They closed for business, that is true and the Aston plant is no more, but what of their facility in Digbeth?"
"I imagine it went before Aston as Digbeth was their original factory. Our understanding was that all production was moved from there between the wars."
"Not so. Take a look at these photos. These were taken two days ago. Maybe production moved, but their original workshops still exist together with machinery and their old wet-dock.
There's more – much more, but this is just to give you an idea of what we've uncovered so far."
He leafed through the photos then I handed him the catalogue we'd found.
"We've boxes of rivets, nuts, bolts, washers and stuff we can't identify – all packed in their original containers. The workshop houses some very old machinery together with cutting tools and half-finished items, almost as if they left in a hurry.
We've already managed to get their electricity generator running, and now we've found the engine that drove the machines, and with luck, it shouldn't be too long before that's up and running as well."
"Fascinating, but if you're looking to sell, it's pretty much worthless."
"We understand that, but historically, it has to be significant doesn't it?"
"Significant yes. Unfortunately, many old factories were raised to the ground with the demolition people completely unaware of what they were looking at, but we can't realistically go uprooting a factory and relocating it here? It's just not feasible."
"And also its significance to Digbeth would be lost."
"Yes. Location is everything with things like this.
Could I see it?"
"Yes please. I hold the lease and we'd appreciate some advice in its restoration and upkeep."
"Yes, I lease it but I own the contents to do with as I see fit, and my See Fit is to restore it. The building isn't my responsibility."
"Okay. So when would it be convenient to visit you?"
"Whenever suits you. Just don't expect to find a nice, organised place. We're doing our best, but funds; well they're somewhat limited let's just say."
"As is the case with all industrial heritage projects. This museum took years of planning, fighting the local authorities and so on.
All of us who were involved from the outset, did what we did during our spare time with none of us being paid; not even expenses, so I know the score.
If we can agree on two tomorrow afternoon, then I'll bring a couple of engineering experts with me. They should be able to give you some information and guidance regarding the workshop and how best to preserve it. I'll come armed with video equipment and still cameras so we can document everything."
"Good enough, although we don't want any of this to become public knowledge; at least, not now."
"That's a given. Two tomorrow afternoon then?"
"Was that such a good idea Ed? They know where we are and what we've got, and that makes me nervous."
"Listen up Callum?
They're just a bunch of enthusiasts who bury their noses in the past; boffins and eccentrics. They're not interested in us, just what we've uncovered.
Doubtless they've come across kit similar to what's in the workshop before, and it isn't valuable, however what is valuable isn't so much what we have, but where it is; everything we've found was untouched since the Myton brothers chose to take retirement so making it like a time capsule, a snapshot to a forgotten era.
They restore back-to-back terrace houses now, the likes of which even the rats have moved out of. The past is seen as important – an asset, and an example of how things used to be and perhaps it'll stop people from thinking that their lives are like so much shit – make them realise just how much things have changed for the better instead of carping on about how much the world owes them a living."
"You're wrong on so many fucking levels! What the fuck do you know about life on the street and the reasons behind why people believe it's the only escape from their problems.
You know about Pip – you know about me, but we're on the lighter side of things. You've no idea about what drives kids onto the streets and away from their families. It's every young person's idea of a nightmare but still they do it. Life IS SHIT for them but they see an escape from whatever was tormenting them by living rough and no fucking museum is going to change Jack Shit!"
Pip drew the car to a halt and threw me a look which basically told me to shut up.
"I don't believe that Ed was trying to preach to us. Sure, he isn't aware of the abuse and shit that a lot of the kids have been subjected to, but that's a plus in my book.
Be reasonable Callum. Look at the guy who you love and accept the fact that at the very least, he's trying to make a difference despite his lack of understanding?
The Farmers Lock Flight crew are lost causes because no one was bothered to listen, but our lot? They came to be with us when the weather turned cold, but it's June in just under a week and most of them are still with us.
What does that tell you?"
"Tells me that they've found an easy option. Regular hot food, a cosy and dry place to crash and all for helping clean up a heap of shit Ed thinks is important.
Their enthusiasm will disappear as will they. There's no hope for any of them."
"What's eating at you Callum? Think back to when you two met up. What's changed and how do you feel about it?"
Callum put his head in his hands and thought about Pip's comments before turning to me.
"Sorry Ed. That was uncalled for and I apologise.
I don't get all this history bollocks, but the boys are animated, and if it helps them to learn shit then who am I to go throwing stones."
"I'm not looking for apologies, and I'll go with that perhaps my approach was wrong, but all I wanted was to fire their enthusiasm for something other than stealing another wallet, nicking another car or breaking into another house. Just to see that there can be other ways to go.
I'm not a social worker or a shrink; I don't know how to deal with abused and frightened kids? All I'm trying to do is occupy their minds doing something passably enjoyable.
Look at the squat. They clean up after themselves and take pride in their surroundings. This seems to have carried over to the old workshop. They feel like they own it and need to clean it up.
The other day, one of the younger boys came down stairs and almost begged me to follow him so he could show me the name plate he'd found on one of the lathes. No big deal right? But for him, it was like the discovery of a lifetime. He asked me to read it to him, but I refused and had him read it. He managed it pretty well, and here's a boy who couldn't write his own name three months ago?
Even if they buggered off tomorrow – which they won't, at least we've managed to sow seeds which might germinate into positive actions in the future."
"So it's not about you scratching an itch, but more like a means to an end?"
"Yeah. Just like that. While they're here, they work as a team rather than doing their own thing. They might leave us, but I hope they don't."
Pip, who had remained silent throughout this exchange of words, decided to speak up.
"You have to admit that Ed has a point. Look at Bubba as a prime example.
I know what shit he had to deal with as a young boy, but look at him now? He's gone from that big jovial oaf to getting a job washing plates at Ronny's, to a short order chef to shift supervisor and all in a matter of months.
Yeah okay. Ronny's isn't like your swanky five-star establishment, but it's paid employment. Bubba pays National Insurance and income tax – he has a track record that could take him onwards to better things and all 'cos he came here when it was too cold to doss the streets."
"I know and I'm sorry, but I've shit of my own to deal with – heavy, heavy shit."
"Do you wanna talk about it?"
"I dunno. What's going down scares me and a part of me doesn't want to involve anyone else, but then again, I feel the need to let it all out. If I go telling anyone, it won't just be me looking down the barrel of a gun or worse, it'll be their arses in a sling as well. It's too much of a risk Pip."
"We've managed to work through stuff in the past, so why not now?"
"Because this goes beyond scamming, that's why. Yes, we've blagged our way out of some nasty situations before, but this is different.
Ask yourselves a question. Do I normally look like someone frightened of their own shadow? Do you see me as a kid who's scared to go into town or frightened to walk the streets at night?
No. I'll bet not, but…… I fucking-well am now!"
I'd never seen this side of Callum before. He had moods sometimes; I think all of us did, but I was looking at a kid – yeah a kid – scared half to death and no matter what, he had to tell us what was frightening him so much.
"Please Callum? I know you're trying to protect us, but if you don't confide in someone; and who better than those who love you, you'll go into meltdown. There's no need to name names, but to get a handle on what this is all about might give us ideas?"
"You'd put your head in a noose for me?"
"Yeah. Why not!
You saved me from turning myself in to the authorities or risk freezing to death, so now it's payback time for me, the others can choose how they play it for themselves."
Mitch went with me with Pip hot on his heels.
We pulled over into a layby to talk.
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