Love on the Docks... how Verolme brought these two love birds together

The Verolme Dockyard opened on October 15, 1960, and 36 ships were built there up to its closure in 1984. TREVOR LAFFAN talks to a man who came from Holland to work here, met his wife here, and is still living in Cobh today
Love on the Docks... how Verolme brought these two love birds together
Adrie and Gretta Verwey at their home in Cobh, Co Cork. Picture: David Keane

THERE was a certain sound that was very familiar to the residents of Cobh and the surrounding areas from 1960 up to 1984.

It was the sound of the siren in Verolme Cork Dockyard. It was impossible to avoid because it was loud enough to wake the dead and it wailed several times a day.

It went off at specific times and you could set your watch by it. Many did, I suspect.

It sounded at 10am every morning to let the workers know it was time for a tea break. The canteen staff made large urns of tea that were collected by a tractor and delivered to the various departments in the yard for the morning cuppa. The siren went off again ten minutes later to tell them to get back to work.

At 1pm, the siren announced that it was time for the lunch break and at 1.30pm it chased them back to the grindstone.

The final siren of the day was at 4.30pm to let everyone know it was time to go home.

The size of the workforce varied from 800 to 1,500 and I can remember, as a youngster in the ’70s, seeing hordes of men spilling out of the shipyard at finishing time, like a crowd coming out of a stadium after a football match.

Rushbrooke train station was directly across the road from the entrance to Verolme and many employees used that to get to the city.

There were many sub-contractors too who benefitted from Verolme, including the people who supplied materials to the site such as steel, timber, paint and food for the canteen. It was great for the local economy.

The company founder, Cornelis Verolme, owned several shipyards in Holland and when he bought the Cork Dockyard in 1960, he had big plans for it. He wanted to have the right people in place from the outset, so he sent some of his foremen to Cobh to help organise and train the workforce. He also took some of the Cork workers to Holland to train them there.

Adrie and Gretta Verwey at their home in Cobh, Co Cork.Picture: David Keane
Adrie and Gretta Verwey at their home in Cobh, Co Cork.Picture: David Keane

Adrie Verwey was one of the Dutchmen who came here as a foreman joiner, on January 31, 1961. He reckons there were about 30 of his countrymen working here in total, but Adrie is thought to be the last one still here in Cork.

When Adrie first arrived in Cobh, he stayed in a house near Whitepoint, not far from the dockyard. Verolme bought this large property to accommodate the Dutch workforce and employed people to cook and clean for them. Later on, the company built a scheme of houses nearby and rented them to the foremen. The estate is known locally as Dutch Villas or Dutch Village.

Adrie had always been interested in joinery, but his dad advised him to stay away from the building industry because it was too fickle and full of ups and downs. He told him to concentrate on shipbuilding and Adrie took his father’s advice.

He served his apprenticeship in Holland and while working there, he saw a poster on a notice board looking for foremen to work in Ireland and Brazil. He decided he wanted to travel but he was unsure which country to opt for.

He was staying in digs at the time with a chef who had spent a lot of time at sea and he was familiar with Cork. He told Adrie that Cork was a nice place and it was also closer to Holland than Brazil, which would make it easier to return home for visits.

That made sense to Adrie and, as he had some basic English and no Portuguese or Spanish, he decided Ireland was the better choice. He and his colleagues were given a few English lessons before they left Holland and off they went.

Adrie travelled with another guy and because there were no direct flights to Ireland, they flew from Schiphol to London. While trying to board the flight to Ireland they were stopped by British Immigration Officers, who told them they couldn’t continue their journey because they had no work permits.

A KLM pilot passing by overheard their dielmma and realised the lads didn’t have a great command of English, so he stopped to help. It took some time, but the problem was eventually resolved although by then the men had missed their flight. Adrie and the others ended up on the last flight to Dublin and then got the last train from the city to Cork.

They eventually arrived in their new accommodation in Cobh in the early hours of the morning after overcoming their first challenge.

Another immediate challenge Adrie faced was working with the Imperial measurements of feet and inches. He was used to the metric system and found the 3ft measuring stick a bit unusual.

He was initially sent here on a five-year contract, but it ran on a bit longer than he envisaged and he’s still here in Cobh, nearly 60 years later. Adrie’s extended stay is due to another contract he entered into after meeting his wife, Gretta, while she was working in the canteen in Verolme.

Gretta is a Cobh native and was a manager in the canteen in those days. Feeding that amount of men every day was no easy task, but she said there was a great buzz around the place and the men were all very nice.

I asked Adrie what he missed most about working away from home in the early days and, without hesitation, he told me it was the ice-cream — parlours were common in Holland and he said the taste here just wasn’t the same.

His craving for sweetness was sorted though, when he met Gretta. They have been together for 55 years and both enjoy good health. And I noticed with amusement that, after all these years, Adrie still hasn’t lost his Dutch accent.

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