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An Arsenal Lad

By Jack Vaughan.

Since 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 due course.

Fox Hill Pub which my Vaughan famiy lived next to.lMy 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.

Having 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.

The 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.

What 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.

Jack Vaughan at thre Romney Marsh campAlthough 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.

The 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.

It 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.

In 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.

As 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.

Many 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.

Secondly, the Engineering Apprentice had spells in several workshops with various activities, usually including one of the drawing offices.

Reading 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

This was accompanied by schooling for one and a half days at Woolwich Polytechnic, now swallowed up by the Greenwich University complex.

The 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.

Central Office, Woolwich ArsenalMy 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.

The 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.

Basically 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.

The 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 actual cutting.

A 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.

As 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.

Turning (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 was English!

My 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.

My 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.

The ‘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.

My '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.

Came 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.

It 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.

By 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.

Thinking 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.

Anyway, I duly reported to the training depot at Chilwell, Nottingham for square bashing and was placed in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps.

But that, as they say, is another story ...


With thanks to the, Greenwich Industrial History and Jack Vaughan, for their kind help and permission for this story.

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