It was my first day in the real world of work. I was just fifteen and was lucky enough to secure a job in engineering; I was not going into the profession I would have wished for, that would have been to join the police force, unfortunately they would never have accepted me, for it would be impossible for me to take statements from people nor was I to get a job where I could have used my artistic flare. However I felt lucky, so I put this behind me, there were no more worries about school. I was to do one year’s probationary period, and if I was to do all right I was to sign up for a five years indentured apprenticeship in mechanical engineering with W. T. Avery Ltd.
Avery’s, was a weighing, counting and testing machine maker, whose main factory, was in Soho in Birmingham, it was a long established company whose history dated back to James Watt’s time, they had one of his preserved steam beam engines in the factory premises. When one starts to think about weighing, every product in the world or its ingrieance or components has been weighed somewhere along the line, the history of scales dates back over the centuries to the early great civilizations, but my new place of work was a narrow street in Derby town which only dated back some six hundred years. Sadler gate, I think the name gives it away; the Bell Hotel an old coaching Inn started the businesses off at the top of the street followed by butchers, bakers and candlestick makers all the way to the end. Avery’s service workshop and showroom was half way down this narrow street.
As I stood in the doorway waiting for someone to arrive, I was pleased with myself I was early and had figured out the time of the bus I needed to catch but was apprehensive too as I did not know what they expected from me. There were numerous young people rushing around the shops and business premises preparing for the days trading. Most of the businesses had three or four young people not much older than I. The butchers shop across the road had three lads and two master butchers. These big men were ordering around the three lads. One simple lad was being told off for wiping his nose on his sleeve, the butcher cut a piece of mutton cloth off a big roll, gave it to him then clipped him round the ear, then handed him a brush and instructed him to sweep the pavement outside the shop, with in minutes the butcher was outside chastising the lad again for not using the sweeping brush properly, he took the brush off him, demonstrated how to use it, he handed him the brush back with one hand then clipped him again with the other hand. You could see the lad was simple but at least he had a job, I wondered how long he would stay working for this bully. I thought if that treatment happened to me in this job, I wouldn’t last five minutes. My physical punishments were behind me. I need not have worried, as the first person to arrive was a young man of eighteen years of age. He introduced himself he said he was pleased to see me, as he was the youngest apprentice, he had been waiting for three years to pass his job on to someone else. Colin shook my hand unlocked the door saying he would get me a key before the day was out. We walked through the show room into a scruffy mechanic’s workshop, with numerous weighing machines on rows of benches which stuck out at right angle from the walls, on one wall was racking with drawers and shelves that held all the spare parts for a great variety of machines. Colin flicked the light switch on which made little difference to this darkened workshop, Christ, I thought of the next three years in here a daunting prospect. He went through the workshop then up a couple of steps into the back room, to one side was a coke forge and an anvil, the room was full of scales piled up on top of each other, Colin pointed to them he said that they were trade-in’s, he explained,
“ When the salesmen sell a new machine the customer gets a trade in price for their old one.”
To one side I could see an old type range fire. I figured this must have been someone’s kitchen once upon a time. Underneath the window was an old brown pot sink with a little water heater above it. There was a narrow passage through the old and ancient machines to the back door.
“ The bogs out there.” he pointed then opened another door to the upstairs,“ This is where we keep the new stock of the smaller machines.”
The whole of the floor upstairs was stacked with large thick cardboard packing boxes with strange numbers on.
“ You will soon get to know the type numbers of each machine,” he told me, as we turned around to go back down.“ The heavy machines are kept in the entry down the side of the shop.”
We went downstairs and walked out of the backdoor into an old overgrown walled back yard, there was a huge pile of scraped machines broken in to small pieces.
“ We smash all the trade- in's so they don’t get back on to the market. That will be your job now.”
He showed me the covered in entry where they stored all the new large machines, which were in large wooden crates and along side rows, and rows of 56 lb. test weights.
By the time we re-entered the workshop the rest of the workforce had arrived, I was introduced to each one as they all shook my hand. Harry was the working Forman the boss of this small band of men, I had met him before during my interview, Harry was also new to the Derby branch workshop, he was a Sheffield born man and had been promoted and moved here. Ernie was the oldest guy in his late fifties he had been with the company all his working life. Sid was the next eldest, he had been a recognisant pilot during the war, he was to return home to find his own house had been bombed and had recently moved to a council house from the ex-army tin huts built in the Marketon Park, which was home for such families, he had lived there for several years some reward for fighting a war. Tom was a young man in his thirties, Richard followed close behind, then David in his early twenties then Colin an eighteen year old, I liked them all, I think the feeling was mutual, so was a lucky lad, and had escaped being the fodder to big industrial companies of Derby, where I suspected a lot of my school friends to be. There were three other folk who worked here on the sales team Stan and Malcolm and a dizzy secretary Shirley who had a hand shake like a wet lettuce.
Colin said he would show me how to do the first job; we went into the backroom,
“ You will have to make them all a cup of tea or coffee, here’s a list on the wall what everybody has and how many sugars they take, I will do it today and you will take over tomorrow.”
The blokes were sorting out there work for the day and discussing problems and generally chit chatting. They had their brews and were soon gone; they were out on service contracts throughout the whole of Derbyshire, from chemist shops to quarries, from pin makers to aero engine builders from Gold Smiths to Power Stations.
“ Your second daily job,” Colin said, with a smile, “ is to clean the workshop.”
He handed me the broom. I did not need to be told how to use a brush so started sweeping around the benches, I soon realized that this had not been done for some time, but what the hell, it was a job that needed doing.
“ I’ll get some overhauls for you, as my spare pair will not fit you.” Colin stated.
Colin was a short stocky guy, his upper body was muscular, but he wasn’t very long in the leg I was well over be a foot taller than him, he had black curly bushy hair and a great sense of humour. Another brew and Colin said he would show me and teach me how to repair dead weights, dead weights were coal merchants weighing machines, coal was king at that time, there must have been a few hundred coal merchants feeding the fires of every household in Derbyshire, central heating for most, was not installed. Every merchant had to by law to carry one of these machines around with them on the back of their lorries or drays. It would seem that the weights and measures inspectors had a running battle with them, chasing them around the streets of Derbyshire to test their weighing equipment. The coal merchants used to cuss and swear about the inspectors, they told tales of how they had been cornered in dead end streets by the inspectors who had tested their scales and rejected them. Every legal weighing machine carries a lead plug on which is stamped the year of inspection and testing and a royal crown to show it is an accurate measure of weight, should they reject and condemn them the inspector obliterated these marks with a star. Many machines also fell off the back of the lorries sometimes when in hot pursuit by the inspectors. There were always twenty or so machines waiting in the workshop for repair. Colin for the last three years had the job of keeping the pile as low as possible. He had got this job down to a fine art.
Colin told me. “ You can book twelve hours on these for the first six months of your training then they expect you to repair them within nine hours.”
The thought of spending three years repairing these seemed even more daunting. At that time one worked a forty-eight hour week, but within a few months the working week was reduced down to forty-four hours, most in the country were grateful and delighted.
I soon learnt about engineering and how much pressures to apply when tightening up machine screws, at first I broke off several heads then had to learn how to extract the broken bit re- drill and re- tap the thread. With in a short time I learnt how to repair these machines and became known as the two a day and paint them apprentice. Colin was now of out of the workshop working along side one of the other lads. I was getting more time in than I needed and kept the pile as low as possible. This gave me lots of time in hand, so set about cleaning the workshop up, starting with cleaning the windows, painting the walls and finally painting the floor, we all now had a bright workshop in which to work. On occasions mechanics would bring in a machine to repair, slowly I got to know the men personally, they taught me about the other machines. The average wage for a top mechanic was around fourteen pounds a week; my wage was one pound eighteen shilling and six pence.
I was yet to meet the area manager a seven foot three man by the name of Mr. Whitaker, we were at the point in our history were we had slowly started dropping peoples titles, we always showed what I suppose one could call respect, our elders did that also even to their next door neighbours, it would always be Mister and Misses Smith, today it is Tom and Mary.
The day he came in he towering above everyone and everything.
“ How you getting along laddie?” he bellowed.
“ Fine thanks.” I replied.
He went round the back to the toilet; he came back in and stood at the top of the steps up to the backroom, his head was thirteen feet from the workshop floor.
“ Laddie” he bellowed again, “ next time I speak to you, you either call me Mr. Whitaker or Sir,”
“ Yes Mr. Whittaker.” I replied.
He added, “ You can call me what you like when you are twenty one.”
“ Thank you very much Mr. Whittaker.”
He turned to Harry who had just stepped in to the workshop.
“ You have done a grand job here Harry.” he said as he looked around.
“ Its all Roger’s doing.”
“ Well done laddie, get him booked in for college Harry.”
My heart sank not more schooling.
“ Right laddie come with me and bring the sledge hammer,”
We went up to the backroom he started to read the names of customers off his list, I had to find their label on the machines that had been traded in. I asked why they did not send them to undeveloped countries as most weighed perfectly well.
He said, “ We sell them new ones too, Avery’s is developing new ones all the time, we in return can buy as a country off them, what they are good at producing.”
I think he was right. Today that simple kid in the butchers shop could no longer get a job or apprenticeship, as we knew them. The young man who lives down the road from you gets at least fifty pounds a week from the job centre he doesn’t know a great lot except how to use a computer but he is a part of our wonderful flexible work force.
I feel sometimes that the powers that be got it all wrong in the Thatcher years and that greed instead of common sense took over. They sold the whole of the manufacturing base to companies operating overseas, instead of smashing the machinery up, the whole greedy world joined in. We buy today virtually everything from overseas, weighing machines now mostly come from Hong Gong and our Electrical goods from all over and so on and so on, sorry what did you say there is a world recession.
“ What is that Mrs. Thatcher, they don’t want our newly developed looms because they have just purchased a whole factory full of old ones in Manchester at the same price, “ Oh what a surprise.”
The greedy got greedier, the yuppies had a ball. Avery’s were eventually bought out by G.E.C. and the company was asset stripped. Maggie Thatcher called them Captains of Industry and encourage everyone to buy shares in the sold off Nationalized company’s, today most are owned by foreign firms and we are told they are not really foreign as they are part of the European Union.
Out of the forty five kids in class 4B many went into apprenticeships for five or six years with the large local companies, Rolls Royce took the cream, The Loco Works and Carriage Side, Fletcher’s Brothers, Atone pipe works, Parker Foundry, Qualcast, Leys Castings, Brown’s Foundry, The Combustion and many more engineering companies big and small took us on. Their owners were the true captains of industry. The lads knew full well at the age of twenty one only the best were kept on while the others walked out of the gates with a bag of tools as skilled tradesmen. Today the government boasts we have 250,000 apprentices in the country in 1950 and 60 we had that many in Derbyshire alone. MacDonald’s is hardly an in-depth apprenticeship in catering. They said of us comprehensive kids we were near the bottom of the barrel and cheap labour; so it was of interest when visiting friends reunited on internet recently, one-third of class 4B kids had held down some pretty high powered careers in engineering and the like around the world, some turned out to be self-employed creating new work then employed others. Now the cheap labour is not in our country, the corporate companies have transferred the manufacturing base abroad at a great rate. I just heard a toothpaste company has just transferred everything to the Far East that results into the fact we can’t make even something to clean our teeth with. I clearly believe no country can survive economically on service and financial industries alone. The money people believed London would be the hub of European Economics, they got that wrong as well as we aren’t. If we were that good at it British Investment Companies would own German Power Stations not the other way round.
Clearly also the cheaper labour overseas will demand a greater income and the cost of that and higher fuel prices will be past on to us as we import goods into the country. We now have a job finding the engineering skills within the country as less are being trained. In our senior schools today I hear they have a hard job to make a selotape dispenser which incidentally you can get free with Christmas paper let alone good metal work or any building craftwork, but good news I just heard from a teacher at a special needs school, he tells me they are now teaching 12 year old kids how to lay bricks, what’s all that about, a skills catch up program? We are now watching America very slowly struggling with their balance of payment as the world dominating financial and industrial power slowly transfers from the West to the East where they already have more reserved funds, but enough of my cynical old mans ramblings!
In those days I felt, let me smash another trade-in machine into pieces and weigh it in for scrap for beer money, Macmillan is in power, we’ve never had it so good. It’s Friday night, I’ve just got paid and rock and roll is in town tonight. I’m fifteen and want to loose my virginity.