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Digging up our working history.

Byline: By Vince Gledhill

Memories of happy days crawling in the cramped confines of a mechanical giant were rekindled when Lewis Marvell opened his Chronicle.

Mr Marvell, 72, read our story about the birth of Britain's biggest walking dragline excavator and the team of shipyard specialists who made the platform on which it stood.

Mr Marvell, of Leam Lane, was in his 20s when he became part of the team of welders and platers brought in from Smith's Dock, North Shields.

Their specialist skills were needed to construct the 40ft base on which Europe's biggest muck-shifter, affectionately known as Big Geordie, would later stand.

The base was made from steel plates two inches thick and needed miles of welding to make it strong enough to hold the 3,000-ton excavator.

Mr Marvell was a night-shift welder working in a field between Bedlington and Hartford which was the platform's construction site in the 60s.

A few years later he became part of a maintenance team that kept Big Geordie running almost 24 hours a day at the Radar opencast site at Widdrington.

"It was hard work but I enjoyed it and if I had my time over again I would do exactly the same again," he said.

Big Geordie, built to an American design, was powered by electricity. Its base could be lifted off the ground by two giant platform "feet" and edged forward in a walking motion.

For many years it was the biggest walking dragline excavator in Europe. Building the platform called for highly skilled shipyard workers capable of precision work in cramped conditions.

"Working on the base was just like being in a ship," said Mr Marvell. "We built it on keel blocks and it was built the same way as the hold of a ship is, with welded boxes to hold ballast or fuel. We had to crawl around inside the base, welding as we worked our way out. All we had for ventilation was a wind pipe and there was no extractor. But I really enjoyed my work."

He enjoyed it even more a few years later when he went to work at the Radar site.

He said: "I could do my welding in the sunshine, which was great.

"But we only had half an hour in every 24 hours to do our work so it took quite a big maintenance team and we had to swarm all over it."

He continued working as a welder around the North East until he retired in 1993, ending a career begun as a shipyard apprentice at the age of 16.

John McLackland, 78, of Burdon Street, North Shields, one of the Smith's Dock platers in his 30s, sent photographs of the base under construction, after reading in the Chronicle that Big Geordie is no longer wanted by its current owners, UK Coal, which is having it dismantled and scrapped.

Among those pictured working on the platform are his pals Derek Brown and Bill Robson. Mr Robson's family have been in contact to say that he died some years ago of an industrial disease.
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jul 6, 2004
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