Thursday, 7 November 2019

Harland and Wolfe

By John Fox

It was part of the apprenticeship given by the firm that you learnt a little of other trades by working for a spell in other departments, in my case after being ten months in the brass finishers I was sent to the blacksmiths’ shop.  The foreman blacksmith I thought a smashing chap, named Smith if I remember right.  I could never understand why the blacksmiths, after their Christmas Eve drinking spree successfully set fire to his office, maybe they held a much different opinion of him than I had.  This spell in the blacksmiths’ shop I look back as the highlight of my apprenticeship, for I did enjoy the four months or so spent there.  Its so pleasing forming a length of red hot iron into the shape you require by knocking hell out of it, giving one a feeling of power I suppose.

After this spell I returned to the fitting shop proper to work under Ernie Hayman, he was as deaf as a post and, as can be expected, called Deafy, but never to his face.  I forgot myself and did, but only once, he took me to one side and said, “If I were blind you'd give me sympathy wouldn't you, don't you think I still deserve that even though my affliction is something that is not so obvious?”  Even after fifty-five years, I can still remember my embarrassment as he said this, for, of course, he was right.  Old Ernie was one of the ‘stars’ of the fitting shop; he was a ‘steam’ man and rather looked down on the glorified ‘motor mechanics’ he had to work alongside. 

He was given all the steam pumps, shuttle valves, rotary pumps, white metal bearings, etc. that came in for repair.  When I say he had all the steam pumps to repair, not always, Harry Palmer, who usually spent his day fitting rings onto pistons, a very low position in the strict hierarchy of the fitting shop, was given one to overhaul once.  Looking back, I am sure it was part of a deep nefarious plot laid by the charge hand, but I'm afraid Ernie took this as a mortal insult.  His eyes followed poor Harry wherever he went, while his lips muttered soundless curses.  Rumour spread throughout the shop that Ernie spent his evenings sticking pins into a waxen image of Harry, but I personally think this a slight exaggeration.

A big part of our work was the white metal bearings that came into the shop for re-metalling.  Firstly we would take a sketch of the layout and size of the oil groves, then when the bearing had been re-metalled we’d insert pipes through the bolt holes to line both halves of the bearing, insert spacers to represent the brass shims that would be used to adjust them on site and present them to the borer. 

When he’d finished his part, we would chisel the oil ways, as they had been when the bearing first came in.  Perhaps give the bearing a scrape on its horns to ensure that contact was only made at the butt and cap, and that would have been another job done.  

Repairing steam shuttle valves, a device driven directly by linkage from the pump or engine that directed the live or exhaust steam to the correct part of the cylinder, called upon a lot of the skills of a fitter.  Most of the shuttle valves we dealt with were Weir’s, overhauling one would involve; marking out the port layout of the shuttle and the D-valve and when new ones had been machined marking out the position of the slide face.  When that face had been cut on the shaper, chiselling in the steam ports as our original layout and then making the face between the shuttle and the D-valve perfectly flat by the use of a flat scraper.

As well as working with a fitter, us apprentices were encouraged to make their own tools, the stores held a supply of castings which they would hand out to us and if we wanted some machining done the machine shop charge hand would quite happily arrange it.  Until a few years ago I still had the scribing blocks, face plates, centre square, scrapers, chisels and other tools I had made.  Making chisels and scrapers was a seasonal task; the winter was the season for making these tools.  For this was when the fitting shop would be heated with coke fired oil drums and while these drums may have only kept the part of your body facing the fire, they did make a very useful furnace.  The chisels we made were from valve springs, no nothing like watch spring, but ones made out of 5/8 of an inch diameter spring steel and bloody good they were too.  These chisels were of a special shape needed to cut oil groves in white metal bearings; the oil groves of diesel engines were simply four arrow headed cuts at the horns to spread the oil across the whole width of the bearing.  Whilst those of a steam engine were truly works of art, I am sure they were cut to any fanciful pattern that satisfied the first fitter’s artistic endeavours, if he had a drink inside him when he cut the groves, why, then  the sky was the limit.      

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