Thursday, 7 November 2019

Harland and Wolfe

  this article first appeared in the GIHS Newletter January 2002

By John Fox

Harland’s works occupied about nine acres of land on the riverside of the road from North Woolwich to East Ham.  The works was all under one roof, with a large open foundry occupying perhaps a quarter of the site. For safety purposes, a brick wall enclosed the area where wood and other inflammables were worked on.  In this bricked off area toiled the joiners, upholsterers, sail makers, pattern makers and laying out loft for the platers.  The rest of the works housed the stores and the workshops of all the other trades needed to keep ships repaired.  Behind the works, next to the river was a large open space criss-crossed by a railway system for the storage of boiler plates and other rubbish a ship repairing firm generates.  In the corner of this yard was a slipway where LCM’s (Landing Craft, Men) had been built during the war.  During my apprenticeship, for a couple of weeks I worked on this slipway with an Australian fitter; we were overhauling the steam engines of a German tug taken as reparations.

 In the main part of the works were the boiler makers and the fitters- over these shops beneath the corrugated iron roof ran overhead cranes, operated by the crane ‘drivers’ in their cabs above ground whose contact with the mortals below was via the ‘slingers’, who, not unnaturally ‘slung’ whatever was to be lifted.  Many of us have seen the old photograph of William Penn’s engine works taken in the 1870’s; except for the machinery, being connected by lay-shafts Harland and Wolfe’s fitting shop was just like that.  I was, literally, thrust into this world when I reached sixteen.

After signing my indentures as a Fitter and Turner in the works manager’s office, I was turned over to the tender mercies of the fitting shop foreman, Mr Haines.  That’s if Mr Haines had any mercy, tender or otherwise.  For in my five years with him I never saw any sign that either was any part in his make up.  Incidentally, you could always recognize the foreman in any London ship-repairing firm then, they were the ones who wore a bowler hat.  The foremen wore them as a status symbol and also protection, (a forerunner of the safety helmets worn to enhance the macho appearance of building workers I suppose).  The symbolism of being entitled to wear a bowler hat was such that legend had it that many years ago a mere boilermaker had come to work wearing a bowler hat.  He was taken to one side by the foreman and told, politely but very firmly, that on no account was he to come to work wearing that kind of headgear again.

Mr Haines gave me his welcoming speech.  “Don’t give anyone any lip and do everything you’re told.”  He took me down the short flight of stairs; his office was on stilts of course so that he could keep an eye on the workers below, to the brass finishers shop.  Putting me under Bert, a brass turner, to spend nine months or so learning this aspect of the trade.  Bert was one of the last four remaining members of the Brass Finishers Union and, bearing in mind that we are working in the London docks, a remarkably well-spoken man.  There were two of us lads working under his watchful eye, learning brass turning by making cones, to be brazed by the coppersmiths onto pipes, valve spindles, re-cutting valve seats, fancy brass handles and a handy sideline for us lads was making plumb bobs for whoever was willing to buy one for a six pence or so.  Much brass turning was done using hand tools, something like wood turning, a lot of screw cutting was done by scratching a cut on the job you were doing at the pitch of the thread (a brass lathe’s feeds were the usual brass and pipe threads pitches) and then finishing off with hand held thread chasers. 

The skill of being able to use hand turning tools never left me, many years later I was in Green and Silley Weir’s, another London ship repairing firm, it was about the time that their apprentices were refurbishing the Cutty Sark before it went into its final resting place at Greenwich.  I was in Green’s machine shop watching the fitting apprentices making a big meal out of turning some brass handles for the tea clippers cabin cupboards, when my big head got the better of me.  “Come here”, I told them, “I’ll show you how it’s done”.  Borrowing a couple of hand scrapers, I produced a rather good effort.  Today somewhere in the bowels of the old tea clipper stands a brass handle on a cupboard, that is gazed at daily by a thousand tourist marvelling at the long ago craftsmanship that went into the intricate brass work, not realizing they are looking at one of my efforts. 

There was no apprentice training school at Harland’s; the skilled men with whom we worked did our training.  They were entrusted to teach us what they knew of the trade and, looking back, they did a damned good job, regarding it as their duty to pass their knowledge on.  Recently there was an item on the television news about the education Minister intending to run more trade oriented tuition and a lad was shown using a round file on some sheet metal.  Yes, he was using a file, he certainly wasn’t filing, it was obvious the poor lad had never been taught how to hold a file, let alone use one.  I was told to stand erect as you file, put pressure on the forward stroke and ease off on the return, not rub the file back and forward as he was.  Any passing fitter in the shop would regard it as part of his job to give my elbow a sharp rap if he saw me copying the antics of the boy on TV.  Yet, going back to the lad rubbing a file on an inoffensive piece of metal, I expect he was the best in the class to have been selected to appear on TV, how bad was the worst in the class I wonder.  There was no works based training school but you could take a day off to go to the Polytechnic, this was unpaid of course and as my weeks wage, as a first year apprentice, was 90p I certainly couldn't afford that luxury, so evening classes it had to be. 

The craftsmen under whom you were working not only taught you how to handle the tools but also how to do any basic mathematics that was necessary for the job you were doing.  Thus when I worked with Bert he taught me how to use trig tables to find any angles required and later in the machine shop I was shown how to use log tables to ease any calculations.  The calculations we did were was mainly to convert metric sizes to imperial, for sizes in marine engineering were millimetres, but metric micrometers are so awkward to read, as compared to imperial, we would invariable convert the millimetres into inches and work in those.  Incidentally, a part of any lathe was always kept clear so that, with a damned great lump of chalk, you could do these calculations.

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