MACHINE-SHOP MEMORIES

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 11:45

In 1926 I was an office-boy – employed by a local shipbuilding and engineering firm. It was my first job, for which the wages were five shillings a week.

When office-boys were sixteen years of age, it was customary for them to be drafted into the workshops to start their apprenticeships. My father was not too willing to let me go. He thought me incapable of holding my own in rough company. On my part, I was quite prepared to let events take a normal course. There were two reasons why I wished them to do so. Firstly, I realised that to become a draughtsman (my ambition at the time) it was essential to have workshop experience, and secondly I had heard the siren call of moving machinery. In years to come I was often to wish that I had plugged my ears against it.

On September 8th, I donned a boiler-suit, and placed myself under the counsel of Albert, chargehand and presiding genius of the machine-shop.

There are characters in Dickens whose traits are so accentuated that we are apt to regard them as caricatures. Albert, too, was an overdrawn character – a Bindlesque man, who phrased his swearing with blasphemous originality. He fancied his chances as a rhymester, and when he recited his verses he oozed self-esteem, and his blue eyes smiled with wicked humour. As a general rule his compositions were unprintable. To his great annoyance we used to sing (fortissimo, of course) his parody of Genevieve. It went thus:

O turnery, sweet turnery,
I’d rather be far out at sea,
Than I’d work in thee, O turnery.

What remained of his hair was visible when his cap was on. It was auburn, and he boasted that, when he was a child, Queen Victoria had seen and admired it. He came from Whippingham, so the story might have been true. A fine brewers’ bloom glowed on his cheeks. He chewed without cessation, and used the juice from his quid as a coolant for hot centres. As a craftsman he was superb, and possessed so true an eye that he could set a bar of metal centrally in a four-jawed chuck within one half-thousandth of an inch of dead accuracy. I used to enjoy watching him at work on jobs with which I was having difficulty. Throwing the machine into top gear, he attacked the metal with savage determination. Under his hand the tortured castings jumped and chattered alarmingly. The swarf peeled away in thick, discoloured fragments. Once I asked, “Why can’t I do that, and not pull the job out of the chuck?” He looked at me slyly. “It’s the difference between knowing and not knowing, William,” he said. William was not my name: it was a general appellation he gave to all apprentices who did not have it for a Christian name.

When I think of the numerous methods we employed to provoke him, I am thankful for his forbearance. I must have given his self-control a severe testing. In reply to an enquiry from my father, he once said I was no worse than any of the others. A not uncharitable statement!

One of our favourite tricks was to produce hooting by blowing across pieces of tube. Will-o’-the-wisp trumpetings goaded our chargehand to dreadful profanity. Albert on the warpath was rich entertainment!

Cold mornings gave us other opportunities for devilry. Before the machinery had time to warm up, our lathes were put into top gear. The consequent overload either blew fuses or caused the driving-belts to slip from their pulleys. If we were lucky we broke one of the main belts. Then we sat on our tool-boxes or, if at that early hour the heaters were not blowing out cold air, we huddled near them, and hoped the belt-man would take his time.

Surprisingly enough, when serious things were afoot Albert behaved quietly. His ranting was for general use. Having spent a day in turning a three-foot spindle for a sluice-valve, I misread the drawing and scrapped it. I expected blood-curdling curses. I was given a laconic maxim, and sent to the stores for another length of brass bar. This had to be removed when the storekeeper’s back was turned. Again, when an apprentice interrupted the flight of a spanner with his head, Albert lied like a trooper to save from dismissal the man who threw it. I have a vivid recollection of the procession that passed in front of my machine – the unconscious lad, with blood streaming from his wound, being carried by head and heels on his way to the first-aid post.

The machine-shop, as I knew it, was a world of moving belts. The machine tools therein comprised between forty and fifty lathes, some drilling-machines, two or three milling-machines, and various slotters and shapers. A vertical belt linked each machine with its counter-shaft. A trio of electric motors supplied power to three overhead driving-shafts, and long horizontal belts coupled the latter to intermediate shafting. The whizzing, hissing, and slapping noises of the belts, the humming of motors and gearboxes, and the floor-disturbing pounding of diesels in a nearby power-house, gave an impression of feverish activity. A medley of other sounds came from the closely wound steel swarf produced by roller-boxes, which gurgled and spluttered in streams of coolant, and from castings whose sand-toughened outer skins crunched and groaned in protest against contact with the roughing-out tools. Metal bars whipped and rattled in head-stocks. Intermittently, a scream from brass bar under a knife-tool ripped with startling effect across the whizzing, humming, and pounding. Several days had to pass before my ears became attuned, and I was able to understand everything people said to me.

My first machine was a small capstan lathe – very old, and very erratic. The screw-cutting gear was missing, and its automatic feeds would not work. On a much bigger machine at my back a senior apprentice was making some large bolts. These were handed to me, and I was shown how to ‘face’ and chamfer the heads of them. Later I was to have an attack of ‘spillitis’ – a mythical complaint one was said to contract when given the job of making hundreds of rungs (known as spills) for iron ladders and gratings.

Day after day I built up a vocabulary of terms: some peculiar to the trade, some peculiar to the firm, and others of more universal application. Authority’s pets were called ‘blue-eyes’; a ‘nice bit of stuff’ referred to neither cloth nor fabric; and a ’contract’ was something one made illegally to take home. Candlesticks, powder-boxes, and pokers with tri-coloured handles of brass, aluminium and red-fibre, were popular items. These were made surreptitiously. If Albert saw them, he battered them with a hammer. This was to prevent people from making them to sell. He placed no restriction on making tools. I still have scribing-blocks, callipers, depth-gauges, and a variety of other tools I made when there was a shortage of work.

I had been warned to expect some of the more common practical jokes, and in consequence I refused to set out on fools’ errands to ask for such improbable things as a sack of half-inch holes, a spirit-level bubble, a putting-on tool fro work machined undersize, or a left-handed clout. I was not prepared for some of the indignities novitiates were occasionally called upon to suffer, and, when I heard about them, I armed myself with a steel bar, and made it known that I would brain the first aggressor.

Of ordinary horseplay I could take my share. There were so many ways in which a victim could be baited. I was once subjected to an electric shock when a naked lead was flicked over the back of my machine. The lead then ignited a piece of oily waste, and we had quite a blaze. The handles and levers of my lathe were smeared with a sticky substance normally used to prevent belts from slipping. Jacket pockets were filled with scrap-metal, and the sleeves wired up. A toffee that was offered to me looked somewhat the worse for wear. After taking off the paper and putting the sweet in my mouth, I knew why. It had been cut, hollowed-out, and then joined again – with a piece of tobacco in the middle!

A more infuriating trick was played when the lads knew that I was working against time on a ‘Rush-job’. The moment I switched on, and commenced a cut, someone came behind me, reached up for the wooden lever, and stopped the machine. My tormentors were too big and too numerous to fight, and it was useless to plead with them. The trick was repeated until our chargehand or foreman reappeared. At times I nearly went berserk.

Another joke involved the coolant pump – a piece of mechanism which drew a milky oil (we called it ‘slurry’) from a sump, and piped it to the top of the machine, where a tap controlled its flow over the work-piece. On my first capstan the pump was inefficient. If it stopped pumping, the only way to make it start again was to create a vacuum in the pipe by sucking at the tap. A short draw produced no result; a prolonged one not infrequently gave me a mouthful of slurry. It needed very little leverage to separate the pump-belt from its pulley – a thing made to happen four or five times a day.

The novelty of my new environment soon wore off, and it became increasingly evident that I was a most angular peg in a very round hole. Too many years have passed for me to analyse accurately all that I felt. I know I had no interest in becoming a skilful turner, and that I did not envy those who had done so. As the years pass, although we may not learn to keep pen from paper, we do learn when to keep our mouths shut. In youthful folly I opened mine not once but many times. In those days I expatiated on the ‘higher things of life’. One senior apprentice objected to my being a non-smoker. He used a lot of cunning arguments to show why I should try one of his cigarettes. I am glad that my obstinacy outmatched his persistence. With less pride I recall an occasion when I spoke too freely, and took the consequences. At the time, I possessed a foot-rule that was graduated in sixty-fourths of an inch along its entire length. People often borrowed it. One day it disappeared, and when I found the man who had taken it I gave him a lot of cheek. For this I was laid over his knee, and beaten with my own rule!

To recall some of the foolish things that were done in that shop, and taken as a matter of course, makes me wince. I have seen an inch whitworth bolt, six inches long, thrown straight at someone’s face at less than five yards range. The target ducked. I asked the thrower what he would have done if the bolt had not missed. He replied quite airily that he knew the apprentice aimed at would get out of its way.

The anecdote just related reminds me of my own providential escapes from injury. It is almost impossible to dissociate metal-turning from a certain amount of danger. Familiarity with machinery breeds an indifference to its potential power to maim. I know we took unnecessary risks with moving belts. To change the position of a driving-belt on its speed-cone, we were supposed to stop the machine and use a belt-pole. More often than not, we let the lathe remain in motion, and flicked the belt from one pulley to the next with our bare hands. During my apprenticeship only one lad made the mistake of letting the running belt trap his left hand. It broke every finger, some in more places than one. A fraction of a second saved my hands from a similar fate. I was chatting with one of the older apprentices (I did a lot of talking in those days) and watching the way he worked. My position by his left side brought me directly in line with his driving belt, which, luckily for me, was on the largest, and consequently the slowest of the three pulleys. A passer-by gave me a playful shove. Automatically I put out my hands. They went inside the belt, and were carried down towards the pulley. It was over in a flash. As my fingers touched the metal I snatched them from danger. The reflex action must have been instantaneous.

Two years later, by another stroke of luck, my hands again escaped mutilation. I was using my chuck-key at the time, and the machine was in neutral gear. For safety’s sake the driving-belt should not have been running. Nine people out of ten never bothered to switch off. I was one of them, and on the day in question when my elbow accidentally knocked against the gear lever, the machine started at top speed, and the still-engaged key with my fingers underneath was driven against the slides. It happened in a split second, giving me no time to release my grip. Only the intervention of the tool-post preserved my hands from being crushed. It arrested one end of the chuck-key, and held it off the slide. With the exception of a small cut I was none the worse for my carelessness.

Another experience, more frightening because of its duration, was connected with my second machine. It was similar in size to the veteran upon which I started my life as a turner, but was complete with screw-cutting attachments and self-acting gear. At the back of the machine there was a metal tray for holding finished work. I was making mild-steel studs that morning, and had one partly finished in the collet when I reached with my left arm across the machine to remove something from the tray. The machine was turning slowly, and what I failed to notice until it was too late was the fact that the rough thread I had cut was hooking the sleeve of my boiler-suit. Very gradually it was twisting the material above the elbow into a tourniquet. I tried to straighten up, and could not move my arm. From my captive position it was impossible to reach the controls. I yelled: “Stop the machine – I’m caught up!” A lad who worked near me seemed to think I was joking, and ages passed before I made him realise the truth. He soon stopped the lathe, pulled the belt in reverse to unwind my sleeve, and the net result was one torn boiler-suit and one badly scared apprentice.

After being transferred to the other end of the shop, I had yet another narrow escape. I was kneeling on the floor, adjusting the jaws of a self-centring chuck. All at once something heavy hit the ground about a foot in front of me. I looked up, thinking that some humorist had dropped a lump of lead. I saw an iron hook which, dislodged by workmen on the roof, had fallen from above. It weighed ten or twelve pounds – quite enough to produce a nasty headache!

On my twenty-first birthday I conformed to machine-shop tradition, gave cigarettes to all smokers, and even exceeded my obligations by providing chargehand and foreman with cigars. Having kowtowed to custom, I was entitled to a ‘banging out’ – a two minute ceremony during which my colleagues used spanners and metal bars to produce the utmost din from partitions of corrugated iron.

Three weeks later I was dismissed. During that period I had drawn a mechanic’s wages – about three pounds a week. Albert had a set speech for such occasions – a mild ‘pep’ talk. On my last day he called me to his desk, and told me that, having been trained by him, I had nothing to fear. In any machine-shop I should be more than capable of holding my own. The reference I was given was not eulogistic. It stated that I was a fair turner within the bounds of my experience. That same day I made a rash prophecy. “I shall never work in this shop or at this job again.”

A friend was scornful. “Don’t talk nonsense. Of course you will – what else can you do?” The truth jolted and angered me.

I replied: “I don’t know. Anything apart from this.” That was seventy-four years ago, and I have never touched a lathe from that day to this.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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