Woolwich & Districts
this is an apprentice tale, let me say at the outset, that the
title ‘lad’ is misleading since the word was applied
to a particular type of apprentice, as will be explained in
story starts as a seven year old at Foxhill
School, the family home being at the top of Fox Hill, adjacent
to the public house - The Fox and Hounds. Nowadays Fox Hill
is part of Plumstead Common Road.
failed the ‘Scholarship’ examination (but not by
too much), my secondary education was undertaken at Woolwich
Central School in Sandy Hill Road, later to become Woolwich
Polytechnic Boys' School. I believe that most, if not all, London
Boroughs had Central Schools, intellectually somewhere between
the Elementary and Grammar Schools.
first two years were the same for all pupils, but at the end
of that a choice had to be made between ‘technical’
and ‘commercial’. The latter would lead to the world
of economics - banking, money etc., while the former was directed
towards science, engineering and industrial activities. Unluckily,
my father had died before I was born, he having worked as a
turner in the Royal Arsenal. My mother tried to persuade me
to choose commerce and a nice clean job in a bank. I said 'no'.
Since I had my first Meccano set, augmented in due course to
set number six, one lower than the top set (this last was used
in many engineering, drawing and design offices). I had no doubt
where my future would lie.
specific carrots were dangled before the 'commercials' I cannot
remember, but the technical side offered three. The most glamorous
was ‘Naval Artificer’. Only one boy achieved that
during all of my five years at the school. Slightly lower on
the glamour scale was ‘Aircraft Apprentice’ in the
RAF and, completely unglamorous, ‘Engineering apprenticeship’
at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. This last was to be won by open
national examination and was contested by people from all over
Great Britain, the apprenticeship being held in high esteem
in the engineering world.
I had thoughts about marine engineering, I was not academically
able enough to try for the Navy. Eventually, I sat examinations
for the other two and worked hard towards both.
result of the Arsenal exam arrived first. I had achieved tenth
place in a field of over two hundred! In that year (1932) twelve
places were available.
The family situation was somewhat shaky and I felt it right
to take the plunge into starting work. My ‘reward’
was my first bicycle, a Royal Enfield, (built like a gun!) costing
three pounds, fifteen shillings, and bought at Blackett's, next
to what is now ‘The Tram shed’, in Woolwich. It
served me well for many years - although the front wheel was
such a good fit in the Plumstead Road tramlines that I sometimes
had visions of ending up in the Abbey Wood Tram depot. It was
my transport for exploring Kent, including an annual camping
trip to a farm on the Romney Marsh.
transpired later that I had also succeeded in the RAF exam but
it was too late. I still sometimes reflect on what 'might have
been', particularly as the war ensued not long after.
September 1933 I presented myself at the ‘Main Gate’
in Beresford Square, in downtown Woolwich, and was conducted
to the Central Office, which still stands as Building 22.
implied earlier, there were two types of Arsenal apprenticeship.
Firstly the ‘Trade Lads’ whose training was basically
in one field of engineering practice, all trades being available
in such a place as a national Arsenal.
of these lads, in fact, started as messenger boys, and rode
about on bicycles delivering messages, documents etc. I am not
sure how they were selected for apprenticeship.
the Engineering Apprentice had spells in several workshops with
various activities, usually including one of the drawing offices.
from my indenture my own apprenticeship covered: -
Fitting and Erecting - 15 months
Turning and Machining - 26 months
Moulding (Brass Foundry) - 3 months
Forging - 2 months
Tool design - 6 months
Drawing Office (Jig & Tool) - 6 months
was accompanied by schooling for one and a half days at Woolwich
Polytechnic, now swallowed up by the Greenwich University complex.
schoolwork was very exacting. The required yearly examination
result in all subjects was 65% and was rather rigidly enforced.
Chemistry was a big trial for me and in one year I scored 50%.
I had done reasonably well in other subjects, so was warned
to obtain the pass mark next time or ‘else’. ‘Else’
meant loss of apprenticeship or ‘downgrading’. I
managed to get 64.5% next time and was allowed to carry on.
Two of the people in my year forfeited their apprenticeships
in this way.
abiding memory of the Central Office corridor while awaiting
further instructions is of the typing pool outside which, I
stood. As an impressionable sixteen year old, I beheld a roomful
of goddesses of surpassing beauty! That fleeting glimpse was
soon displaced by the sight of the workshop wherein, I was to
start my career, at twelve shillings (60p) per week, less deductions,
leaving not a lot to take home.
shop, at that time known as C.58, was part of the Royal Carriage
Department, and was devoted to producing parts for gun carriages
of all types.
Perhaps I should explain that complete artillery weapons under
the generic term of 'guns' have two principal components. The
barrel, more correctly called the 'piece' is, of course, the
component from which the missile - be it ball, elongated shot
or shell etc. - is projected. The carriage is the structure
on which the piece is supported. It may be static or mobile.
The former are exemplified by coastal defence and ship borne
weapons, the latter by field weapons, which are wheeled and
towable, formally by horse, now by special vehicles.
then C.58 was a machine shop and contained various types of
lathe; centre, turret, capstan and automatic - all for making
cylindrical items. Further, there was a range of machines for
producing items of flat shapes - these being shapers, planers
and vertical slotters.
most interesting group however, I found was that comprised of
types of gear cutting machines. It would be wearisome to explain
the various types of tooth applicable to gearwheels for different
applications. Suffice it to say that if tooth shapes are not
accurately made on both wheels in a pair, jamming, rattling
and lack of correct transmission will result. For this reason
I found the measuring of finished teeth as interesting as the
machine shop such as I have described required a small auxiliary
workshop for its own maintenance, and I was placed under Mr.
Tom Acaster, who was in charge of it. The small range of machines,
therein were all familiar to me from the school workshop in
Maxey Road behind St. James Church. The Central School for girls
also had its cookery and housewifery centre there.
a side benefit of experience in the school workshop, I was able
to dodge some of the tricks played on new apprentices - such
as being sent to have a lead centre punch heat treated, and
the coin nailed to the staircase leading to the foreman's office.
(i.e. operating the lathe) and other machining processes as
listed formed the bulk of the apprenticeship and in the fourth
year we were given a practical test on lathe work. In my own
case an inch diameter item was to be 'turned' parallel and to
an accurate finished size, and to have a screw thread at one
end, again to a specified diameter and 'pitch' (the distance
from one thread to the next). A fairly straightforward task,
except that the screw thread was a metric size and the machine
performance secured a prize in the form of a four inch bench
vice, which I still use. My schoolwork also was not too bad
and I still have a prize for that - a six-inch adjustable setsquare.
final year came under the heading of ‘Fitting and Erecting’.
The tolerances in the machining of various parts which, when
put together form a mechanism, were quite demanding. Nevertheless,
much hand tool work - filing, scraping etc. was needed to produce
a smooth working result.
‘erecting shop’ was part of the Royal Carriage Dept.
and still stands. Among the weapons on which I worked were the
famous 3.7 inch Anti-Aircraft gun, Coastal Defence guns of 9.2
inch, 6 inch and 6 pounders (which mounted two guns in one housing).
Other calibres were, the 2 pounder anti tank gun and a ‘mountain
gun’, which came to pieces for transporting by mule. This
last was some times referred to as the 'screw gun', the barrel
breaking down into two parts. Examples of most of these may
be seen in the ‘Firepower’ Museum now sited in the
Royal Arsenal they were previously exhibited in the ‘Rotunda’
on Woolwich Common.
During the apprenticeship visits were made to places of technical
interest. These included Ford Motor-works at Dagenham, Frazer
& Chalmers at Erith (Steam Turbines etc), W. Allens at Bedford
(Diesel Engines), Bryant and May, East Ham (Matches & Boxes)
and Monotype Printing Works, Redhill.
'time' ended at this point (I was 21) and I was 'made up' to
full standard as a fitter and paid the corresponding full rate.
It was 1938 and war clouds were gathering. Life went on, football
on Saturday afternoon - either playing or watching Charlton
Athletic. In the evening queuing at one of the seven Woolwich
cinemas, with the girl I was eventually to marry.
the war on September 3rd 1939. Everything closed and blackout
was imposed. Digging shelters on Plumstead Common, with notices
“Dig or Die”.
Within hours of Chamberlain's Declaration of War came the first
air raid warning. Everybody held their breath, especially the
elderly with memories of 1914-18.
The system of ‘reserved occupation’ applied in the
Royal Arsenal but did not initially apply to fitters, except
those employed in ‘tool rooms’. I should explain
that ‘tool room fitters’ were considered the elite
of the fitting trade, perhaps because their work called for
accuracy several times that of normal fitting practice.
happened that a vacancy arose in the RCD Tool room at this time.
Three of us were invited to contest it and we were each given
a genuine task to attempt. I managed to do best.
this time, however, I had resolved to bypass ‘reserved
occupation’. 'Call up papers' arrived and after a somewhat
blistering row with the RCD management I walked out, determined
to join up.
back, I realised that I had been partly influenced by a practice
I had noticed in the erecting shop towards the end of my apprenticeship.
From time to time soldiers of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps
appeared and were set to work on a task, which I learned, was
a test to gain promotion to Armament Staff Sergeant. This would
result in the rank badge of three stripes surmounted by a brass
crown and ‘hammer & tongs’ badges. The hammer
and tongs were derived from the original arms of the Board of
Ordnance, and reach back to the time of Agincourt and further
back to the mythology of Vulcan. A fellow apprentice and I had
in the past, discussed joining the Corps.
I duly reported to the training depot at Chilwell, Nottingham
for square bashing and was placed in the Royal Army Ordnance
that, as they say, is another story ...
to the, Greenwich
Industrial History and Jack Vaughan, for their kind help
and permission for this story.