As the recent Christmas season came to a close I was reminded of a Christmas past…..
In the early seventies I was an apprentice in the toolroom at Wilsons & Mathiesons Ltd. based in Armley. It was a great place to work, with some excellent toolmakers who were only too pleased to pass on their skills to the younger generation. Closer to Christmas a collection box came around for the annual ‘fuddle’ and we made contributions which were to go towards food and drink on Christmas Eve. It was the tradition on the last working day of the year that everyone ‘clocked off’ at midday and went to the pub for the afternoon. In the case of the toolroom lads it was much better organised than a casual meet up in the pub. I discovered during my first time that our fuddle was to be held at The Holy Family Club in Armley, a short walk from the works. One of the toolroom lads was an active member of the club and arranged a private party to be held there until 5.00 pm when it was then opened to their members.
On arriving at the club we were all given two tokens for drinks at the bar and there were several tables creaking under the weight of pork pies, sandwiches and cakes, some of which had been supplied by wives and girlfriends. I had not seen such a feast as this for ages. I wondered if it would all be finished by the lads as there were only about thirty of us in total, including a few friends from other departments. The club was well appointed with two dart boards and a couple of snooker tables. Some played dominoes and some played games of cards. My father had played billiards and snooker from the age of fifteen and had given me a few lessons over the years. Teams of two were drawn up and, as I was the new boy, I felt as though I would be one of the last ones to be picked.
Peter, a flame haired older apprentice chose me, maybe out of sympathy, and our game of snooker doubles got under way. At first I was a little relieved to see some dreadful shots, having initially thought I would be embarrassing myself on the table. Peter potted a red with confident skill and followed by potting the pink. There was occasional applause, being careful not to distract players on the adjacent table. My turn came and there were a few encouraging comments as well as a bit of banter. There was an easy red much to my relief and, more through good luck than skill, the cue ball lined up for a similar shot at the blue. Comments from onlookers grew louder and I felt my heart pounding as I lined up the shot. The blue disappeared into the pocket and I was immediately declared a ‘hustler.’
It was amazing how acceptance grows amongst your workmates but for me that was a moment to savour. We won the frame but it was mainly due to Peter’s consistent success with shots. Having been somewhat successful at snooker I was next roped in to play darts. I had played a few times in the local pub and again I feared embarrassing myself. Some of these chaps were very good players and had brought their own darts. After a couple of uneventful games I was relieved by an announcement “Grub Up!” We tucked into the food with gusto with appetites enriched by the first couple of pints of Tetley’s Bitter. As any inhibitions we may have had fell away we circulated and chatted with our colleagues. It was a wonderful afternoon and after Christmas I felt a closer friendship with one or two of the lads, who up to that time, had kept me at a reasonable distance.
The afternoon was drawing to a close, the food mountain had been all but demolished and some were beginning to drift away. A hard core, I am afraid to say including me, stayed on until around 6.00 pm. My pal Peter suggested we continue the party and invited me to The Northern Snooker Centre on Kirkstall Road in Leeds, where he was a member and had obviously honed his skills there on the tables. We made our merry way (for that, please read ‘staggered’) down Armley Road to the centre. Peter signed me in and I found myself for the first time in a proper snooker hall. It was very impressive and just how I imagined it would be, having watched many snooker tournaments on television. Only a couple of tables were in use and Peter tried to cajole me to play. I was terrified in my state of mild festive inebriation that I would rip the green baize. Instead we watched a couple of frames of the other members. A young lad of around twelve years old appeared and greeted Peter. I was introduced to Robert who was the younger son of the proprietor of the centre. Robert and Peter played a couple of frames and I watched in admiration at their skills, especially of young Robert, who would have been a fantastic secret weapon in our snooker team at the club earlier. I feel sure he would have pretty much trounced the rest of the players. More members arrived at the centre and we socialised as best as we could considering that by that time Peter and I had probably drunk enough beer to render a small horse unconscious, or it seemed to me that I had.
I saw on social media that people were comparing stories of Christmas Eve after work. One writer could not believe that it was possible to drink from midday right through to midnight. I survived that day, and the following year too, when we had a similar afternoon in the same club, although that time it was to be an early finish and we all headed for home at 6.00 pm.
A year later and the company was broken up. Some products were transferred to other companies in the parent group. A select few products were to be manufactured on a much smaller site in Elland Road and the valuable twenty-seven acre site in Armley was to be sold off. The toolroom was no longer required due to new production processes coming along and so the lads I spent my early years with were disbanded and they moved away to work at other engineering plants around Leeds. It was the end of a long established company but for me it was to be the last time I enjoyed such a splendid Christmas Eve afternoon with my workmates.
Gordon Toulson – January 2021