Memories of a Royal Ordinance Factory Apprentice – Part 1.
By John Day
Pre-war there were three grades of apprentices in the Royal Arsenal: Trade apprentices who, as the name suggests were training in their chosen trade such as fitter, turner, pattern maker, etc. After six months they had one option to change their choice. Student apprentices who spent a couple of years of practical work after college degrees. The third grade was the engineering apprentices who spent five years working at a number of trades and spending a fair amount of time studying for a degree. Entry as an engineering apprentice was by examinations and interview at the age of 16. The average intake in the 30s was about 12 from some 100 to 150 applicants. For the first two years there was compulsory attendance for two days and two evening a week at what was then the Woolwich Polytechnic, The remaining three years were spent during term time at the Poly or, for a few, at one of the London colleges. At the end of the five years most of the apprentices had a degree in engineering and the necessary 36 months of practical training needed for membership of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
From here on things get personal but they are my memories as far as they go and after something like 60 years may not be accurate. For both of these I apologise in advance. If anybody sees a mistake please let us know to be put right for future historians
I have no recollection of any examination perhaps I was exempted by having matriculated with distinction in for technical subjects.
(There is a bit missing here)
.. model engineer and had a lathe which I was allowed to use. I had made a model of two cylinder boiler fitted pump (described in ‘Shop, Shed and Road’ by L.B.S.C.) and this I produced at the interview when I was asked if I knew anything about metalwork. There was a pause while the interview board thought of something else to ask me.
When the results were published I headed the list which comprised: Sydney Bacon, Alfred Bennett, Eddie, Hessey, Hibbert, Jarvis, Norman Lindsey, Maybe, Cyril Morris, Malcolm Starkey, and Robert Walker. Morris died of TB in his second year. Lindsey after his discharge from R,E,M.E. as Lieut Colonel at the end of the war, Walker became a civil engineer with the Port of London authority after getting his degree at City and Guilds, Sir Sydney Bacon retired as Director General of Ordnance Factories. Starkey was one of the militia called up in 1939,being released to become manager of one of the war time ordnance factories, Fazakerley, making Sten guns and later taking a senior position with Tranco valves
I was no stranger to the Arsenal. In the mid thirties my father became a craft engineer in the Central Power Station and on Sundays when he was on days I took in his hot lunch in a basket. Since everything was shut down such electricity as was needed coming from the Woolwich power station at Warren Lane, I had the freedom to wander where I liked within the building. At that time the western end of the Arsenal was still on direct current. in the power station were two Yates and Thom 1450 HP inverted triple expansion engines with Corliss valve gear, direct coupled to DC generators some 10 to 12 feet in diameter Alongside was a totally enclosed Vickers Howden triple with a piston valve on the high-pressure cylinder and side valves on the Intermediate and low-pressure cylinders. alternating-current at the eastern end came from a 6000 kilowatt Metropolitan Vickers turbo generator and when needed from a pair of rotary converters. As usual the switchboard ran along a gallery on the north wall and at the west end was the engineers’ office that I came to know even better in later years. the Boiler house was south of the engine room and contained six water tube boilers; four Thompson and two Babcock and Wilcox, all with chain grate stoking. The Ash went down into long narrow trucks on the 18 inch gauge railway this being the last use for narrow gauge. On the north side of the power station was a pump house providing hydraulic pressure for the various machines and cranes and to the north again was the electrical repair shop
On my first day I reported to the apprentice supervisor in the Central Office and was taken to the Gauge Shop for the New Fuze Factory. Actually the shop was the Fuze pool room and the Gauge shop was the high accuracy part of the tool room. The chap I was given to as an apprentice was Jim Hands. He made the jigs and tools for Mechanical Time Fuze No 207 which was a short-term watch mechanism using a swing arm in place of the usual balance wheel. The movement was made and assembled by girls on the first floor of the adjacent building, Te New Fuse Factory. It was a long time before I cottoned on to why it was always Jim who fixed the belts and bolts under the benches while I did all the work on top.
The first job I had was to scrape the faces of light alloy depth gauges true and square. These had to be frosted (am ornamental pattern left by a scraper) and be accurate to a couple of thousands of an inch although they were only graduated in eighths. They were in light alloy because they were for use in the Danger Buildings for measuring the depths of explosives in shells.
When I had finished that job Jim suggested I make myself some tools and started with a five x inch engineers square. after hack sawing the shapes from gauge plate, the parts were ground on a Brown and Sharp surface grinder, riveted together and scraped and tapped to the standard demanded by the View Room i.e. less than one tenthousanth of an inch square and true in any direction, I still have a square it is true because I never dared to use it
One of the tools Jim thought up and made was a device for burnishing the pivots of the balance arm. this comprised four dead hard and highly polished discs rotated on spindles in massive cast-iron bearing blocks my part in this was machining the bearing blocks, base plate, etc on a Butler 18 in shaper, a lovely tool on which I enjoyed working and as they say, could nearly make talk
The New Fuze was near the fourth gate (Plumstead gate) and I rode to work on my 1920 Sum beam motorcycle which I had bought for £2 and fully restored. One morning, in the crush, the inverted brake lever on the end of the handlebars caught in a man’s pocket, tore it so that his lunch fell out on the road, he was not pleased. In the evening he came to our house and was pacified with a ten shilling note and an old jacket f my fasters. By that time my father had become foreman of the Electrical Shop and he arranged for No.4. electricity substation to e specially opened morning and evening for me to garage my bike safely in the dry.