email: tony@lathes.co.uk
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My Apprenticeship at Holbrook 1949-1954
by John Heath

Instruction & Maintenance Manuals are available for many Holbrook lathes

Holbrook Home Page   Holbrook Model B No. 8   Holbrook Model B No. 9   

Holbrook Model T Lathes   Model 5P Precision Plain Lathe 
 
Holbrook Minor 1960s - 1980s   An Apprenticeship at Holbrook
   
Holbrook Edgar Lathe   Serial Numbers   Holbrook Model C

Holbrook Type B13, B17 & B21

The Holbrook Machine Tool Co. Ltd., specialised in toolroom lathes, high-precision models that were regarded throughout the industry as among the finest in their class. The UK had a thriving machine tool industry in 1949 and it had prospered during the war - but was now struggling to meet a huge world demand fuelled by post-war reconstruction. Holbrook lathes were in use throughout the world, and particularly within the Empire.  It was rumoured that old man Holbrook, a wizened little chap who still put in an occasional appearance at our Harlow works, had survived the slump between the wars by supplying lathes to Russia during its industrialisation under Stalin. The business had been set up originally in Stratford, East London, where it still had a factory and its head office. The Harlow factory had been built during, or just before the war, presumably to aid the war effort.
The factory comprised two large bays housing a machine shop and a fitting shop and, between these bays, a store and drawing office. At the front of the main factory was a separate small office building, although Mr. Watts, the Works Manager, also had a desk in the drawing office where he was usually to be found discussing technical matters with one of the four draughtsmen. Although I was apprenticed as a turner and fitter it was thought appropriate that I should start in the planning department. I was to remain there for a full year, I suspect the needs of the company influenced this decision far more than its contribution to my training.

The Planning department
This was a sectioned-off corner of the assembly building next to the drawing office. Within the planning office there was also a separate section occupied by Mr. ????? who looked after inspection. In charge of the planning section was John Stopford, a tall, dark bespectacled man of about 30. He was intelligent, helpful and pleasant to work for. He was very approachable and patiently explained what I was to do and why. But neither he nor anyone else at Holbrooks ever provided any formal training. An apprentice, it seemed, picked things up as best he could by asking questions and observing how others did their jobs.
Our job in the planning section was to schedule production. This involved the manufacture in the machine shop of the hundreds of different components that go into a finished lathe. A key component, giving the machine its accuracy, was the leadscrew. These were machined in a separate air-conditioned room held at a constant 68F. The National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, certified the accuracy of each leadscrew. Many of the larger components arrived in the form of rough iron castings from outside foundries, which then had to be machined. The largest items were lathe beds up to 12' long and weighing several tons (we were still working to imperial measurements in 1949 -metrication was still some way off). These were machined on large planing machines, moving backwards and forwards under the planers cutting tools in a rhythmic to and fro motion accompanied by the distinctive, low-pitched tone of the cutting stroke and the quieter echo of the return motion. It was somehow akin to the comforting tick and regularity of a grandfather clock.
Other large castings were the headstock, gearbox, saddle, apron and tailstock. Headstock spindles, the revolving heart of the lathe, were machined from large steel forgings.. In addition there were hundreds of smaller components such as gears, spindles, bearings and so on. All these were manufactured in batches of fifty, or multiples thereof. Most components required several different machining operations, passing in turn through various sections of the machine shop for this purpose.
In the planning office operation sheets were kept for every component on which were recorded the machining operations they required and their estimated machining times. Working back from planned delivery dates for finished machines, we calculated when orders for each component would need to be issued to the machine shop. This was a complex task before computers were available, and one at which John Sapsford seemed to excel. There were several factors to balance in our work, for the aim was to maintain a steady workload on all the machines in the machine shop and to ensure components were available in the stores when needed by the assembly department. At the same time we had to avoid wasting money by building up excessive stocks. Needless to say there were frequent panics as we attempted to balance these conflicting demands with promising unrealistic delivery dates to customers or changing the priorities given to them often being the cause. Post-war reconstruction meant that Holbrooks enjoyed a very large order book and delivery times of two years or more was not unusual on some models.
A long board, rather like a huge calendar, was placed in the planning office and showed the workload on each machine. On it, each job issued to the machine shop was indicated by a strip of coloured paper - the length of which represented machining time required. These strips were placed end to end and showed, at a glance, how far ahead each machine had work.  A moveable date marker showed the current date across the board and we had to ensure there were no blank spaces under the marker - for this would have indicated that the machine shown had run out of work. Machinists worked on a piece-work system so they became very annoyed if kept waiting for work since waiting time was paid at only a modest flat rate.
After about a year in the planning office it was decided I should now start to get my hands dirty. So I moved next to the machine shop where I spent the following two years.

Life in the Machine Shop
Here I learned to operate drilling machines, bar automatics and milling machines. Drilling holes was the least interesting job. One simply placed components into a jig and drilled the necessary holes through guide bushes (hardened hollow inserts) in the jig. The work was made marginally less boring by the fact that batch sizes were small so we moved quickly on to a new job and also because, in the machine shop, it was possible to earn a bonus. This was based on the time taken to do a job compared with the time allowed for it. It was possible on 'good' jobs to do the work in about half the allowed time. So a two-hour job done in one hour earned an hour's bonus. Bonus was paid at the same rate as normal pay. This meant that on good jobs we could earn double our flat rate of pay. However, trying to do better than this caused the adult machinists (fearful that allowed times would be reduced if we "flogged the rate") to frown upon the practice.
From drilling machines I graduated to bar automatics and screw machines. This was more fascinating stuff, especially the Brown & Sharpe autos that produced all kinds of small screws, studs and similar turned items. There were no electronic or computer controls in those days. Instead, all the motions of the machine were controlled mechanically through cams, gears and adjustments to slides and tools. Machines had to be re-set for each new component produced, for which a set-up time was allowed. There were about six 'autos' in the section, supervised by a lanky man, whose name I forget. He wore a greasy one-piece boiler suit and walked with a pronounced bounce to his step. Machining operations were doused with copious flows of cutting oil to keep tools from over-heating and it was hard to avoid contact with the oil as we leaned against the machine to adjust tools on the far side. This seeped through overalls, particularly across the thighs, leaving an oily deposit on the skin. Years later I read that some companies had been successfully sued for failing to protect employees from this potentially carcinogenic hazard.
With six machines to supervise, the 'autos' man had the opportunity for earning high bonuses if he managed things effectively. First, he tried to ensure that only one machine needed setting at any one time. Then he cut operating times by judicious adjustment of slides and cutting tools. He also fiddled the sequence of components to minimise the adjustments needed from one job to the next. He could only go so far in this respect - and only if he could obtain the list of jobs scheduled for his section for some time ahead.
One of the 'autos', an Acme multi-spindled machine, was used for machining larger components, but was old and rather slow. I was tending this one day during a long and boring production run and I attempted to speed things up by indexing the turret manually, rather than waiting for the automatic sequence. Unfortunately, this resulted in a disastrous crash as rotating spindles smashed into advancing slides. I can't imagine why this machine had no 'fail-safe' device to prevent bored apprentices from causing such mayhem. The chargehand, a surly individual, swore at me and even Fred, the foreman, normally a decent chap, was far from pleased. Mr Watts, the factory manager, visited the disaster zone as everyone argued about the best way to fix it. The machine was out of action for a couple of days and I was in the doghouse for some time afterwards.
It was while I was on the 'autos' section that the Labour government introduced some new industrial legislation, one element of which required employers to provide seats for machinists. Up to this time machinists at Holbrooks were on their feet for the full working day, except for the lunch break. A tea trolley came round morning and afternoon but drinks were taken standing up and on the job. Holbrooks reluctantly issued us with stools but sitting on them was, nevertheless, frowned upon. People took the weight off their feet only when both the chargehand and foreman were out of sight.
I moved to the milling section for my final stint in the machine shop in 1952 (just before the King's death). I was in charge of two machines and soon learned how to maximise my bonus opportunities. On the adjacent machines was a dour, middle-aged man whose main preoccupations were keeping an eye on any 'flogging of the rates' on my part and avoiding draughts to which he claimed to be susceptible. Our machines were on the side of the factory near a main sliding door, frequently opened to admit deliveries, and seldom, if ever, fully closed afterwards. My neighbour checked this several times every day and never stopped grumbling about it.
Some jobs on the milling machines, for example the milling of spiral splines on a shaft, were quite complex. Settings had to be calculated with care, the correct gears mounted on the dividing head, and angular settings precisely adjusted. It was a very satisfying experience to master this technique.
By the time I completed my time in the machine shop I, like the other operators, had filled a notebook with memos and calculations on machine settings that were a distillation of what I had learned over the two years, and an essential tool of the bonus-earning game. By now I was earning quite good money for a 19-year old apprentice, and exceeding £7 in a good week.
King George VI died suddenly in February 1952 and I completed my stint in the machine shop a few months later. It's strange how world and personal events fuse in one's memory over the years. I then moved to the fitting shop for the last 18 months of my apprenticeship.

The Fitting Shop
Here it was a case of " sitting next to Nellie" - the traditional way of picking up new skills. It involved watching and copying skilled fitters, and seeking their help when necessary. Some were more forthcoming than others who kept the tricks of their trade closer to their chests.
We each had a large wooden bench, these being arranged in a long row up one side of the shop. On each bench small sub-assemblies of components were built - and then fitted into larger units. These were then lifted by a large overhead crane to the assembly line and fitted to the lathe. This assembly line was not a moving one but simply a batch of six lathe beds, to which all the various units were fitted.
I learned to draw-file, fit keys to shafts, assemble gearboxes, and use a scraper. The real artists with the scraper produced beautiful, scallop-shaped patterns on the sliding surfaces of meshing parts ( a technique know as 'feathering'). A film of oil adhered to this to lubricate the parts as they slid over one another.
Earnings dropped in the fitting shop compared with what I had managed in the machine shop.  There was a bonus scheme of sorts, but it was less generous. I think this was partly because skilled fitters were paid at a higher flat rate than machinists and the bonus element was less important - their overall their earnings worked out at about the same.
There was a good atmosphere in the fitting shop and most of the fitters were decent sorts.  There was a lot of banter and practical joking. From time to time, after a visit to the toilet or stores we returned to find that all our tools had been put away neatly, and it looked as if we had gone home for the day. Sometimes the tool drawer would also be nailed closed as well. We would then have to borrow someone else's tools to unfasten the drawer. The shop cleaner, a simple soul, had a lot to put up with too, but he took it all in good part as a member of the "family". He had a wheelbarrow, in which he collected rubbish, and often picked it up to move on, only to find the handles had been smeared with grease.  He always fell for this, and always laughed. There was plenty of cotton waste with which to clean it off, which he did with a wry shake of his head.
At lunch times the fitting shop became a market place. People bought and sold all manner of things, played cards, had their hair cut, or worked on "government jobs" or "foreigners", these being jobs for the home, car or garden for which things were being made or repaired--and, of course. the odd "earner" for a friend or neighbour….

And so my apprenticeship moved steadily towards its conclusion. Eventually, on the 11th March, 1954, my 21st birthday, I received my indentures which marked my emergence as a qualified turner and fitter. A turner is a skilled lathe operator, but the strange thing was that I had never received any training as such. Although I was building lathes towards the end of my time, I had never used one "in anger". I also received something else on that day - my calling-up papers for National Service - not a very nice 21st birthday present! Most people were called up at 18 but apprentices were deferred until they had "served their time", usually at 21. So things were about to take a new turn, and my life would be at the disposal of Her Majesty for the next two years.
John Heath

Instruction & Maintenance Manuals are available for many Holbrook lathes

Holbrook Home Page   Holbrook Model B No. 8   Holbrook Model B No. 9   

Holbrook Model T Lathes   Model 5P Precision Plain Lathe 
 
Holbrook Minor 1960s - 1980s   An Apprenticeship at Holbrook
   
Holbrook Edgar Lathe   Serial Numbers   Holbrook Model C

Holbrook Type B13, B17 & B21

My Apprenticeship at Holbrook 1949-1954
by John Heath
email: tony@lathes.co.uk
Home   Machine Tool Archive   Machine-tools Sale & Wanted
Machine Tool Manuals   Catalogues   Belts   Books  Accessories