Saturday 9 November 2019

Harland and Wolfe


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. 

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.

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. 

After spending 18 months with Deafy I was sent for a spell in the machine shop, here I was lucky in not going on the lathes but working with a little Geordie chap, on the shapers, milling machines and a slotters. His having a mouthful of bad teeth (perhaps, due to him, as a child, having been weaned on Newcastle Brown Ale) and always wearing brown overalls is all I can recall about the chap. I do remember that the fellow's ability wasn't highly regarded by the fitters, others in the machine shop would only leave a few thou for the fitter to work with to make the final fit whereas the closest our Geordie measurements came was 16ths. He must have taught me something however, for when a vessel built by Harland's at Belfast sunk on her maiden voyage outside Buenos Aires, I was given the task of drilling hundreds of 2inch holes running together into her now unwanted spare propeller. This done so that wedges could be driven into the slots I'd cut to split the prop into more manageable pieces for ease of transporting the valuable phosphor bronze to be melted down. I did all this on a very big boring machine, when I say big I really mean big, it was huge, a cricket pitch could have been laid out on its bed. But I will admit a fast bowler would have shorten his run up, for it would be a lie to infer that it was as large as all that.

In ship repairing mechanical drawing were very rarely used, if, for instance, a valve stem had to be made you would be given the worn out stem and told to make the new one from that. A  man's experience as a marine fitter and turner told him what clearances were needed and as a skilled man, he would not allow anyone to tell him how to do it. There was a case of a fitter working outside on one of the ships in the dock, who, on direct instructions from his charge hand, had fitted a set of unsuitable water pump rings to a boiler feed pump. The ship nearly blew up its boiler when raising steam to sail and when the cause of the fault was found the fitter was sacked. The chap’s attempt to enlist union help to get his job back failed, for it was universally thought by his fellows that he should never have obeyed instructions to do something he knew to be wrong. I can recall, when apprentice, drilling the shuttle of a Weirs shuttle valve on a pillar drill in the fitting shop. Something went wrong and another fitter, seeing I was in difficulties, told me how to put it right. This friendly help made things worse and when I pleaded to Ernie that is what I was told to do, he burst out. "You don't do everything you’re told, you wouldn't stick you head in the gas oven if I told you to would you."

The last spell of my apprenticeship was spent working outside the North Woolwich site on the ships engines of the many vessels that crammed the Royal group of docks in those days. Here again there was no suggestion that you should work on your own, even though we were on our last year, we would be put to work with a fitter and his mate to be given instruction, not as cheap labour. Many years later, I was a labour officer within a large organisation, my work took me a lot into our apprentice training school, sitting on interview panels, advising on disciplinary matters, negotiating with the trade union, selecting the next year's intake of apprentices etc. I had to listen to a continual complaint from the lads, and the unions, that the boys were being used as cheap labour. They and the union were so effective in this that eventually the school was closed down, I feel sure there is a message there somewhere. Over the negotiations for the closure of the school the dreaded hand of accountants and their mentality hang, they produced figures which proved that the school was not cost effective, based on the ground that the firm did not receive any benefit from the money spent, as the lads, when their apprenticeship was completed, left. But Messrs Harland and Wolfe gave you the sack when yours was over, go and work as a Journeyman with other firms, the apprentice expected to be told, and if, after a couple of years you want to return, we will consider re-employing you. Which to my mind is a more profound way of approaching apprentice training, they did not want a man who only knew their way of doing a job, but, quite rightly, wanted a more rounded employee.

However, to get back to my year of apprenticeship spent working on merchant ships in the Royal Docks. The organisation of the outside section was that the foremen were at H & W's number nine site, which was where City Airport's main building is now; perhaps, over a mile away, the tradesmen on the ship would be working under a charge hand. Of course, there were many other services milling around the ships engine room while it was under repair. A heavy gang who did the rigging and lifting the weighty lumps of machinery that makes up a ships engine. Scalars, whose unenviable task was to climb into the boiler to chip away at the scale that had built up on its tubes and wall. Laggers who maintained the asbestos pipe lagging, invariably small men racked with consumption, (no one had told us of the dangers carried by asbestos fibre, we apprentices regarded it as a great joke when working on a boiler to drop a lump on a fellow apprentice working below). There were the riggers, a holdover from the sailing ship days, whose once important trade now whittled down to rigging barriers around potential dangers. Boilermakers, electricians, plumbers all these adding to the confusion of a ships engine room under repair.

Harland and Wolfe had built many of the ships of the Union Castle Line, whose run was carrying passengers and mail to and from South Africa, most of these ships had Burmister Wain diesel engines, made under licence in Belfast, and the bulk of my remaining time was working in the docks on these 'Castle' boats. A ship’s diesel engine is not to be confused with the engine of your motor car, it is a lot bigger for one thing, an eight cylinder B&W would be about 20 feet high and 45 feet long and many Union Castle liners had two of these. I found working on a ships engine was a hard, dirty, uninteresting job, the memory of perhaps 40 men queuing up to wash their oily hands in a solitary grease encrusted bucket of hot water is still with me. On one occasion, an old fitter was vigorously rubbing at the dirt and grease that covered his hands when I, to be friendly, said. "That's right, Ted, have a good wash now, it'll save you having another one in the morning." Old Ted went spare; it took him ten minutes at least to splutter out his procedure for cleaning up when he got home, leaving me with the impression that Ted had no sense of humour.

A while ago, I was on a conducted tour of the Tower at Canary Wharf and the guide enthused about the new vitality brought to the deserted dockland areas of London and gestured to the derelict buildings below. I think we both saw different scenes below us, in his mind was the exhilarating prospect of money being made. In my mind though, those building were teeming with the ghosts of the many characters with whom we worked. How sad is the scene to anyone who had worked in London docks in their heyday, now the sheds and wharfs are empty, a lifeless shell, like the remains of a crab cast aside when its meat has been extracted.

These were the days of national service and as an apprentice you would not be called up for your turn until you had completed your 'time', but a matter of two months before mine ended I re- ceived notice to go before a medical board at Blackheath Drill Hall. In almost a blind panic I enlisted the full cooperation of Harland's management and to avoid doing National Service I ended my apprenticeship at sea, as a Junior Engineering Officer on the MV Trevelyan, one of the Haines Steamship Company ships, on a trip to Australia.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My Dad worked forH&W in London Docksdurin