Strawberry Fields Art
Kevin Austin
Tel +44(0)1684 561486
Mob +44(0)7751 833575
E-mail : kevin@strawberryfieldsart.com

Apprentices
 

It was 8am on a damp and dark January morning 1962 when the new intake of sixteen or so 16 yr old would-be apprentices including me gathered in the gatehouse of the English Electric Co Netherton.

My first impression upon that meeting was just one of sheer shock horror as everyone else was wearing brand new navy blue boiler suits… except me… I was wearing my best Italian navy blue mohair suit and white shirt and tie on the advice and insistence of my mother. The stares and pitiful glances by my peers was excruciating. How come they knew what to wear and I didn't.

We were all led into the new world of Engineering, me in my best suit of course into the huge factory to experience and digest for the very first time that unique oily odour of highly audibly droning well lubricated machines together with strange rubber double doors everywhere. We entered the apprentice school, a compound with metal walls which felt comforting with similarities to the metal work room back at school with its benches and lathes. We all assembled into a side office where a welcome and inductance to the English Electric Company was given. This was quickly followed by a hard hitting safety lecture by the company safety officer with awful stories with graphic photos of industrial accidents which included scalpings, severed fingers and worse... like the 3 ft diameter 7000 rpm runaway grinding wheel!

The apprentice school was divided into sections each with its own instructor and designed to learn the basic skills of fitting, lathe turning, milling, capstan lathe setting and cylindrical grinding.

The fitting section was our first introduction of work since leaving school and our base for the next 3 months where each of us was allocated a bench with a vice and a few essential hand tools. At the top of the section sat our instructor behind a small desk by the name of Les Musker who bore a totally expressionless face, in fact a real picture of misery... ‘a face like a robbers dog’… but learnt later he was reputedly tortured in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and bore awful scars to his finger ends as testimony to his treatment. So in a way even as teenagers we held a sort of sympathetic respect for that non smiling persona. The important thing was we were there to be taught to use a file correctly… well some of us… we made small hand tools like dividers and vices working up to the highly challenging exercise to make a perfect 1 inch cube from mild steel which had to pass 6 ways through a perfect 1 inch square hole in ¼ inch plate.

That first 3 months was only probational and very important knowing that under performing could result in the sack and indeed 3 of our original group were dismissed. Decisions were made not only on fitting abilities but also on behavior, honesty and attitude. Discipline was also tight with punctuality where clocking in on time at 8 o'clock became almost paranoid where having 8.03 stamped on your card felt like a shameful offence. Of course we were still only mischievous teenagers and with new temptations all around in our new environment we liked to play practical jokes, albeit quite innocent and normal and in the main tolerated with a blind eye by our instructors. As the weeks went by we developed into a happy group where we learnt how to whistle songs of the day and friendships formed. Unfortunately the downside included a few who seriously let the group down who were nothing short of thieves and to be avoided at all cost. Indeed an incident when some hand tools and a micrometer went missing an investigation was held and sadly the wrong lad got the blame and was dismissed and yet most knew the truth but never said. However some of the culprits got their deserved comeuppance later.

And of course being young and impressionable there was always the temptation to emulate some of the pastimes of older apprentices and skilled men who worked in the Toolroom opposite the apprentice school.

We shared the same male toilets where one of the pastimes were on permanent exhibition in the cubicles. Being made from aluminium panels and painted a dark green colour was the perfect medium for displaying ones creative expression with a good sharp scriber. The walls were just covered with crude jokes and poems and somewhat imaginative cartoons. From ‘Charlotte the Harlot the cow punchers whore’ to artwork depicting ‘This is a Tool makers Clamp… and this is a Clamp makers Tool’ Dozens of variations of genitalia artwork some made to look like feathered ‘dickie bird’ species, snakes and others like the Mersey Tunnel. Therefore being young and impressionable this is what we thought we had to do and add to the galleries.

So recalling one tea break with a new friendship struck up with a lad on the next bench and with sharpened scribers at hand there we were giggling uncontrollably behind the locked door of a cubicle totally absorbed adding our own naughty contributions. We must have got so carried away with time forgotten when suddenly we were sharply interrupted by what must have been hammer blows on the cubicle wall and then to our astonishment a face appeared over the top in the form of Les Musker… We just froze with the thought of suspensions or worse… A minute later upon creeping back to our benches there was Les Musker sitting at his station who never gave us a look or said a word. Years later many of us had great regard for that man of integrity.

The sound of the midday siren was always such a welcome as we just loved the canteen. As ‘starvin’ lads earning a just a pittance we devised an ingenious plan to make sure we got fed well. The canteen produced home made meat and potato pies which were wonderful and a good size too.. but not quite big enough for growing lads ! The system was to buy a 9 pence ticket which after standing in a queue you exchanged for a pie. But for a quiet few we soon learnt to hang on a while until a pile of tickets formed on the counter. We just pretended to place the ticket on the heap of others whilst still crunched up in your palm and only added to the pile for that second pie…(If any left ) Years later I really think some dinner ladies knew but turned a blind eye to us ‘starvin’ lads.

And it wasn’t as if we really were ‘starvin’… just growing. Typically I always had bacon and egg breakfast before catching the bus to work. Mid morning the tea trolley would arrive with sausage rolls etc, then midday lunch of 2 x meat and potato pies, then more food on the afternoon tea trolley with buns and cream cakes and then more food again for evening dinner at home and then usually on payday Thursdays, finish the day off with pie or scallops and chips after a few pints.

 

TOOLROoM

After the training period in the Apprentice School I was transferred to the East Lancs factory which produced a wide range of products and employed several 1000 people. This included Electrical Switchgear and Fuse gear and a number of domestic appliances such as Fridges, Washing Machines and ovens. The same site also produced the famous Napier Deltic engine first introduced into British Rail locos early 60’s.

Central to the main plant was D Shop with 100’s of machinists operating every conceivable machine producing all the components necessary for the company product range…There were drilling machines, threading and tapping machines, an oil drenched auto section which produced 1000’s of small turned components, capstans lathes, millers, grinders, even the first NC machines were starting to appear. Through large rubbers doors was a separate press shop with dozens of pneumatic presses pounding away at a deafening level.

Central to these areas was the Toolroom with around 100 people to support and maintain all aspects of manufacturing tooling with new build of jigs and fixtures and press tools and a cutter grinding section and even a heat treatment section. At that time as with many large companies almost everything was produced under one roof with ‘Sub Contracting’ an almost unknown at that time,

D Shop Toolroom contained some just amazing characters ranging from the normal to the almost insane. And to some of us it seemed as more important than work was the endless practice of practical jokes and piss taking. Quiffs and D.A’s in the early 60’s was in then and some of us had nicknames like mine… Mr Ed after the American tv talking horse with its long mane. Minto was another after Nuttall mints. The Duke and The Dog, The Poison Dwarf, Bang Bang, Foxy, Clackie, The Kink, Stan the Plan and Greenie were others.

From the most accident prone man on earth and the most bad tempered man on earth… to an opera singing labourer with the most disgusting habits they were all there… There were scabs , bang outs, raspberry outs, strikes, football slaggings, disappearing/ reappearing personal property, sewn up sleeves, explosions, orange lodge marchers and freemasons.

Some of us younger ones wore white overall coats stylishly taken up by at least 12 inches or more and drainpipe kecks and winks with crinkled up toes.

Classic jokes were the speciality of some of the older wise ones… and masters of their art they were too.

 

THE EYEGLASS TRICK… OR ‘BLUED UP EYES’

One of these old jokers would say ‘eh lad, come ere and check this will yer.. me eyes are not so good these days’… He had marked out a template with scribed lines which needed to be measured and told me to measure the distance between 2 impossibly close parallel lines and I really struggled. So the old git said ’try this’ holding an eyeglass magnifier. ‘Never used one before’ I said… ‘Ah well you have to screw it into your eye like this’ I had a go and he said no, like this and took it off me and then gave it back to me... or so I thought and proceeded to screw it tightly into the eye socket and successfully measured the gap and told him the size. Are you sure lad because one eye is always stronger than the other… so screwed it into the other eye and carried out the check again... ’thanks lad’ he said and resumed his marking off. I carried on with my own work for must have been a good hour but which was punctuated with lots of giggles and laughs and strange looks as I went about my normal duties. What's going on I asked… ’Oh nothing!’ I knew something wasn't right so immediately rushed off to the bogs and looked at myself in the mirror and horrified to see a neat blue ring around each eye. I then realised it was that ‘cunning old dog’ with the eyeglass which was switched for one smeared with engineers blue!

 

THE ONE MAN BAND

Aerial View

‘Ever heard of a One Man Band?’ my ears pricked up as the subject was raised at tea-time by one of a group of around a dozen men sipping their mugs of tea in silence. ‘Of course I have’ I said… All heads turned to me and one called Sid said…’narhh... no-one can play more than one instrument at a time’..

‘Yes they can’ I said adamantly… ‘how can they, what do they look like, tell us how its done then’ said Sid. ‘Well’ I said ‘he’s a sort of busker who can play both a guitar and a mouth organ attached to a rail at the same time and has a big bass drum attached by straps over his back where the drum is operated by his elbows via a pivot arrangement onto the drum stick… ’You are jokin’ said Sid again… ’No I'm not’… ’in fact he also plays symbols too between his knees’ I retorted ‘and has a kazoo and sometimes a small accordion and horn…

’Now your takin the mick’ said Sid once more… who then said… ‘How can you do all those things together… come on, show us’ I was determined to show that group that One Man Bands are true and stood up to mime it all.

By this time the whole group with serious eyes and faces like dollops of mortal sins was focused on my forthcoming performance. So there was I plucking away on my air guitar with my mouth going left to to right on the invisible mouth organ then switching to kazoo together with elbows flapping fully synchronised with my knocking knees all at a slow forward strut.

…Then after a long pause! that intensely serious group suddenly let out one huge howl of laughter… I had bit hook line and sinker and got well and truly Knobbled… even I laughed.

 

 

 

 

Aerial View

Aerial View

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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