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.