More memories of a ROFapprentice
by John Day
Some of the jobs required entry to the Danger Buildings. These were a series of wooden huts of relatively light construction surrounded by high earth banks and joined by wooden walkways a couple of feet from the ground. These walkways were known as a “clean” area whereas off the walkways was the “dirty” area. Access could only be attained through the dirty/clean building where all smoking, snuff taking and metal articles had to be left and one had to put on special nailless overshoes as one stepped one foot at a time over the barrier from dirty to clean. One step off the “clean” walkway, one became “dirty” and was not allowed back. During my time there was an explosion in one building, the walls embedded themselves in the earth banks and the roof fell back to the floor. Unfortunately there were some deaths.
My next move was to the mechanical test house for a month. There was little for an apprentice to do here apart from watching slinging ropes and chains being tested for load bearing, odd samples of metal being broken and tested for hardness on a Vickers diamond machine - we were only allowed to watch not to be involved. After one had finished ones homework there was a drawerfull of western magazines. One day, an apprentice (who shall remain nameless) had an idea to brighten things up. In the middle of the wide roadway between the Test House and the Power Station was a toilet built from corrugated iron and flushed, continually, by a stream running underneath into a sewer emptying into the river. First thing every morning the toilet was full of newspaper readers, so the apprentice had the idea of making a paper boat, putting some paraffin soaked cotton waste in it and floating it, alight, in the stream. Irate men and corrugated iron in contact gave a good illustration of pandemonium.
At the end of the month I moved to the erecting bay of the Main Machine Shop, where I spent most of my time building Mk.1 Dragons. These were gun towing tractors that held a gun crew of six , powered by a 4 ½ litre Meadows engine driving through a Wilson preselector gearbox to a front axle having two steering clutches. They were full - track vehicles with a top speed, unloaded, of about 30 m.p.h. Holes in the hull were drilled with air powered drills having four cylinders in V formation, they were quite heavy and to get faster drilling it was the practice to slip a plank into a rope loop, tied to a convenient point , and to lean on the other end giving a leverage of around 4 to 1 on the drill. Owen Stott, a large Welshman, was the ganger and he took the finished Dragons out on test with an apprentice as mate. Between the Danger buildings and Plumstead Road was a tank testing area with built - up single figure gradients and crossed by a railway line. Owen’s joy was to spot a rabbit and chase it full speed over the testing ground, one soon learnt to hang on tight when this happened. Owen gave me another lesson I have never forgotten. The Meadows engine had a ducted radiator at the rear that included an oil cooler. One leaked and I was given the job of replacing it. After the new cooler was installed I was running the engine to see the cooler was not leaking and concentrating very near the unguarded fan. Owen saw the danger and tossed a scrumpled sheet of newspaper into the fan. This produced a white explosive blur and I shot out over the three foot high hull side in one bound. You won’t find me near an unguarded fan again.
Another job in the erecting bay was using a hammer and chisel to cut flat surfaces on the sides of the cast iron pintle mountings of 6 inch coast defence guns for the addition of the , then, new - fangled predictor gear. There was also the scraping of the flat surfaces on the saddles of 2 pounder anti - tank guns, a nice little gun that was too weak for it’s intended work.
A lightweight tank was interesting in having two A.E.C. bus engines on their sides under the floor and as much of the interior as possible made in light alloy. Securing armour plate to magnesium alloy framework with red - hot rivets was worth watching; it took three men, one to hold the rivet gun, one to hold the rivet snap and one with a lump of sacking to put out the fire! All the joints had to have at least two right angles, since a lead bullet would squirt through one right angle joint. That’s why tank armour is all one piece or welded together without joints.
Pattern making made a change from dealing with metal. My mentor was Tom Hammet, a craftsman of the old school with only a few years to go before retirement. He had three ex - Arsenal interests, making string musical instruments, playing his homemade double bass in a local orchestra and being a Methodist lay preacher. To Tom, Picture Post was utter pornography. He had the honest pride in his craftsmanship, once he made a small mistake in 2 inch diameter core box, some eight inches long, cutting too deep less than a sixteenth of an inch, over an area of about a square inch. Although he was on piecework, he neatly cut out the offending area and inserted a new piece even matching the grain, though it would have several coats of paint and varnish over it.
Piecework was a system of payment whereby each job came with a card bearing the price that that job would earn. That price was set by the “pricefixer” who was supposed to know exactly how long a job should take, thereby began a number of arguments. There was a minimum wage that a man was expected to at least equal by adding the prices of the jobs he had done during the week. If he consistently did not, there was a fair chance of his “getting his cards”. A reasonably skilled man could exceed the minimum and he could be paid for all the work he had done up to a set limit. This limit was, I think, about one and a half times the standard wage. A good man could exceed this and Saturday mornings would see men shuffling the cards to get as near the maximum as possible and leaving the remaining cards for following weeks. This caused problems if a man left, as he probably had several weeks work done and the cards for it that had not been counted. Apprentices were not on piecework, though occasionally one of the more senior, on a repetitive job, would go on to earn a little more money. If a man had an apprentice, adjustments were made for either instructing time or money earned for him by the apprentice. Most of the time it probably balanced out.
This appeared in the GIHS newsletter in October 1999