How Plessey’s nearly didn’t make it to South Shields

A photo of Plessey's 5005 Crossbar telephone exchange equipment being assembled at the company's 'new �500,000 factory' at South Shields, taken in November, 1969.
A photo of Plessey's 5005 Crossbar telephone exchange equipment being assembled at the company's 'new �500,000 factory' at South Shields, taken in November, 1969.

In its heyday, Plessey’s used to employ hundreds of people in South Shields.

But as one of its former managers explains, the company very nearly didn’t come to South Tyneside – it almost ended-up in Stockton-on-Tees.

Eighty-two-year-old Graham Wheatley reveals what happened.

Mr Wheatley said 52 years ago, he married his wife Margaret in a little place near Nottingham. And like many other newly-weds at the time, they struggled to find a home.

However, his employer, Plessey (who had just bought out Ericsson Telecommunications) would soon provide a solution.

“My boss came to me and said ‘I think we can get you a house’,” said Mr Wheatley.

“He told me they were going to open a factory in the North East, in Stockton-on-Tees, and asked if I would go up there and have a look.”

Sure enough, Mr Wheatley headed north, but there was no sign of a factory on Teesside, so he reported back to his boss who told him he would look into it.

Shortly afterwards, he was asked if he had heard of a placed called South Shields where “there were some factories”.

Although, at first, he mistakenly thought South Shields was near Southampton, he was soon directed to a town “near Newcastle” and headed there with Margaret.

Having spent a “foggy” night at the Marsden Inn (delighting in the sounds of the sea), Mr Wheatley asked about factories, and was directed to the Rank Bush Murphy factory, which was soon to be vacated by that company.

“It was good for what we wanted,” says Mr Wheatley, who again reported back to his superior in Nottingham.

“Later on, my boss came to South Shields with me and said it was ideal for our factory. As we moved in, Rank Bush Murphy moved out.”

A month or two later, and Plessey’s started to recruit through the local job centre – when four or five people, “without any qualifications whatsoever” turned up. “It was my job to train them up,” continues Mr Wheatley, who soon saw the workforce (some of whom were seconded from Plessey’s Sunderland factory) rise to 100”

The first telephone exchange equipment to be built at the Shields factory travelled south to Bournemouth, but Mr and Mrs Wheatley were going nowhere – they had been found a council house in the town.

And although they were far from their Midlands home, they had plenty of family visitors, keen to visit the seaside.

“During the years, we made equipment for telephone exchanges, the biggest project being for the Post Office tower, in London.

“I was sent to London to work on the installation of the equipment there, at one time having to go up the tower in a rickety workman’s lift.”

By that time, 1,000 people were working in South Shields, and a second factory was built, adds Mr Wheatley, who was the technical services manager.

“I stayed with Plessey’s until I was offered a job in London, which I hated.”

As a result, he took voluntary redundancy, switched careers and became a probation officer. But despite leaving the company, Mr Wheatley still has fond memories of working for Plessey’s. “It was a fantastic place. Plessey’s was my life, I worked for them for 25 years. It was a good firm to work for.”