MY JOYFUL ADVENTURES
AT MESSRS. HARLAND AND WOLFE.
A SHIP REPAIRING FIRM AT NORTH WOOLWICH
By JOHN FOX
Some time ago there appeared in the Society’s Newsletter, an account of a chap’s apprenticeship - he had served in the Woolwich Arsenal. I wonder if it would be of interest if I gave an account of mine, completed at Messrs. Harland and Wolfe, a ship-repairing firm in North Woolwich.
Leaving my Plumstead school on Wednesday at the age of fourteen, I knew that Mum intended to take me on Monday to the Arsenal for job nailing ammunition boxes together. However, I had a different opinion, for I didn’t care what I did as long as it wasn’t nailing ammunition boxes together in the Woolwich Arsenal. My father, sensing that I held a deep apathy toward ammunition boxes quietly suggested, when mother wasn’t present, that engineering was a good trade and I might like to serve an apprenticeship as one, suggesting I applied at Harland & Wolfe’s. So, on Friday, two days after leaving school I went on my own to the works in North Woolwich buoyed up with the thoughts of starting an apprenticeship. Presenting myself at the Gatehouse I asked the fellow in the office when they would like me to begin. My hopes nose-dived when he pointed out that I couldn’t start an apprenticeship until I was sixteen. My sad look may have softened his heart, for he held out a glimmer of hope, “We do need a lad in this office, in this gatehouse, you can work here if you like. The job will mean running around the works, offices and the ships in the dock we’re working on delivering messages, you can work here for the two years until you are old enough to start an apprenticeship.”
To my young mind, anything was better than nailing ammunition boxes together in the Arsenal and so I eagerly said ‘yes’. The next move was to be taken to the office of the timekeeper, who asked me further questions, glanced at the certificate which told the world that I had left school and being apparently satisfied, gave me a brass tag with a number stamped on it and told me to start on Monday morning. That’s all it took in 1944 to get a job, a chat with whoever was in charge of the section, an interview in what then passed as the personnel department and you started work, as simple as that.
As one may imagine this all caused a hectic row at home, nevertheless on Monday I began my duties in the gatehouse of Messrs Harland and Wolfe’s North Woolwich site. The job didn’t require any great intelligence. Sorting and delivering the mail that had been dropped of in the office by the Royal Mail and the runners, men whose job it was ‘run’ around the docks. Operating a stand-by telephone switchboard before the telephone girls upstairs started their day. Given a moment of glory perhaps two or three times a week, when waving a red flag, I stopped the road traffic to let a train run into the works on the railway line from the King George Fifth dock. My main duty, however, was cycling around the docks to deliver those messages to offices, works and the many ships, both merchant and naval we were repairing in the Royal Group of Docks.
No, it didn’t need the brains of Einstein to carry out my duties, but to a fourteen-year-old it was bloody fascinating and I have most certainly done a lot more borings jobs since. Why, once I even went to the “Thames Iron Works”, at the mouth of Bow Creek, the then largest steam warship in the British Navy, HMS Dreadnought, had been built there in the 1900’s and, incidentally, West Ham United Football Club was started. Thames Iron Works was about 3 miles in the west; the other end of my sphere of influence was Fords at Dagenham, about 3 miles in the east. Though I think my trips to Dagenham were made up trips, for my boss, Eric Dawson, was a great womaniser and every time I had to cycle to Dagenham, on my way back, I had to go to his house and give his wife a note explaining to her that poor Eric had to work late that night. For going to these distant places I was expected to use my own bicycle, receiving a cycle allowance of 2½ p a week, thus making my take home pay to the grand sum of 92½ p a week, (it sounds even less in new money doesn’t it).
Harland’s was the London division of the famous Belfast shipbuilding firm, the London branch was mainly engaged in ship repair, but there were other strings to our bow. Making large body casting for the presses at Ford’s of Dagenham, maintaining the Port of London Authority’s railway stock, casting the iron brake blocks used on the trains and, at the end of the war, the joiners shop putting together the wooden parts of the prefabs that were being erected all over the country.
It takes but a moments thought to realise how many different trades are employed in the building and maintaining a ship. Carpenters, upholsterers, painters, tinsmiths, electricians, shipwrights, riggers, caulkers, blacksmiths, all these with their ancillary trades moulders, boilermakers, platers, pattern makers, coppersmiths and of course, the cream of them all, the fitters. Without the fitters, the workmen of Harland and Wolfe’s would be nothing more than a working class rabble. Amid all these I would roam, why even today the scent of the sail making loft still lingers. There were a lot of tarpaulin covers used then and the inviting tang of a thousand jumbled odours as you climbed up the stairs into their sail making shop is still with me, like walking into another age. Yet another relic of bygone life was the general office, there banks of clerks still sat on tall stools working on chest-high wooden sloping desks, dipping their pens into ink encrusted inkwells, (ink encrusted inkwells might not be strictly accurate, but it does sound very romantic, this was before the days of ball point pens - remember).
Many of these dignified old men were badly injured when a V2 rocket fell on the lock gate of the King George Dock, 20 to 30 yards from the general office. They, and many of the draughtsmen on the top floor, were badly cut by the shards of glass that were blown in by the explosion.
I had two years of this rather carefree life cycling around the docks at the tail end of the war, a sort of Wells Fargo of E16, I suppose. On one occasion a German buzz bomb droned overhead as I cycled peacefully up the King George V dock, without a care in the world, then the buzz bomb’s engine stopped… A docker yelled at me to take cover with him under some railway wagons. All he kept saying was ‘Jesus‘, when, the bomb having exploded some distance of, the pair of us climbed out from under the trucks and saw they were loaded with HE shells bound for France. If the same thing happened to a fourteen-year-old today, he’d be smothered by a hoard of trauma counsellors. I didn’t suffer from the effects of a traumatic shock however, mainly because I don’t think anybody had invented the malady then.
this article appeared in the GIHS Newsletter for November 2001