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An introduction to engineering in the UK - 1960's

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  • An introduction to engineering in the UK - 1960's

    Really really long, go get a coffee and book a day off work.

    I have always been interested in engineering, taking things to pieces but never managing to get them back as a kid Where we lived when I was young was reasonably industrial. There was plenty of work for adults, most worked with 8 miles of home, many within 2 or 3 miles.
    Buses were used to get to work or push bikes, quite a few people had motorcycles, some with sidecars for the family and the occasional car but it was expensive to own and run a car.

    When I left primary school in 1959 aged 11, because I had managed to pass my 11 plus exam, I had a choice of schools. Anyone not passing this exam was sent to the nearest comprehensive school.

    I had a choice of 5 schools, 4 grammar schools where the accent was on literary and languages [ Latin amongst them ] or 1 technical grammar school where the accent was on trades, I chose the Technical grammar school.

    Besides the usual lessons in maths, english etc., this school had two large woodworking shops, two large metalworking shops and a large room for technical drawing. In the first 3 years you had a half day at alternate woodwork and metalwork plus a half day at technical drawing. In the last two years you had to choose between woodwork or metalwork which then became weekly.
    There were also after hours classes for various subjects as most of the kids were reasonably local and could get a later bus.

    The woodworking and metal working classes were both run out of hours. Whilst I was there the woodworking class built two sailing dingies from plans bought by the school and a sailing club started.

    If you built anything for yourself all you had to do was pay for the material, as most of the metalworking articles were small this was usually pence.

    This school wasn't unique as at that time there were a lot of trade schools part funded by industry.
    Nottingham at that time was a big lace produced, possibly 50% were employed in it in some way. My father was a warp knitter who used to run anything from 1 to 7 large lace machines on 12 hour shifts, he wanted my elder brother to go into the trade which he did but I didn't want to.

    At 11 my brother went to a school in Nottingham that catered for the lace trade, Theirs had a workshop containing about 5 or 6 large lace machines, 30 odd foot long and weighing upwards of 12 tons which they learn the basics of warping and patterns on. Heath and Safety would have a baby nowadays.

    I left school at 16 having gained certificates in glue sniffing, grievous body harm and ice cube rolling. No seriously I got all the practical subjects but not many of the others. During the last 6 months at school we were visited by prospective employers for a 2 hour lecture with slides on why we should go and work for them, we were graded so you only saw the ones you were interested in.

    I went to the ones presented by Raleigh bikes, Boots the chemists, Stanton Ironworks, John Player cigarettes, Royal Ordnance Factory and 38 Base Workshops REME who maintained armoured vehicles for the army.

    After much deliberation on all these various employers as to their various future advancements I chose REME because it was at the bottom of ower street.

    All these places had a 2 part entrance exam, meant to weed the dross out, half theory, half practical and I'm sure I could have gone to any of these companies it was that easy to get an apprenticeship in those times.

    So on the 3rd of August I became employed although I had been working part time at a local motor cycle dealers doing simple repairs. We were taken round the base which was enormous. The main shop had bays lettered A to M, all were specialised like the machine shop and electrical shop but the build shops at the bottom could hold 20 tanks each.

    Initially the tank would go into M shop, the turret shop and have the turret lifted off as that shop had the only 25 ton crane,
    then the tanks came into the shop around K shop, were stripped down and all the numbered parts / trays of parts were sent to the cleaning bay, then examined and then sent to whatever bay was responsible for their repair. The hull was then cleaned up with scaling guns, primed and painted ready for the part to go back on it.

    These were Centurion tanks powered by a detuned version of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine as fitted to the spitfire called the Meteor.
    Everything was stripped to the last nut and bolt.
    As apprentices you moved round the shop in stages, no matter what trade you had signed up for everyone had to do this 2 year shop tour. Some stages were only a week, most two weeks but some were a month.

    Because engines were complex they were classed in stages as instead of say just 2 weeks on engines which is impossible to learn anything the engines were broken down into units, cylinder heads, connecting rods and crank, carburettors, wheel box [ auxiliary drive gearbox ] etc.

    At the end of 2 years you then went on to do your specialised trade, they were fitting, machinist, electrician, welding and sheet metalwork.
    This dealt in deeper into what you had seen on your shop tour.

    Hang on 2 years shop tour, 2 years specialised but it was a 5 year apprenticeship ?
    That was because in the first year you went into a self contained apprentice shop with sheet metal, fitting, machining, welding and electrical units just so you got a grounding before you went out into the big bad world.

    Four full time apprentice masters were on hand to teach the subjects, they were all specialised in one and all taught fitting to make the 5 subjects up. There was the head shed who looked after everything, Sturmbanfuhrer Marshall.

    No expense was spared, all that mattered was you learnt your job.

    On top of this we had to go to the local college for a full day and an extra evening for Technical Drawing, incidentally taught by Myford's chief draughtsman.

    OK that's it for now I may post later if there is a demand but this was the situation back then, I know other will have different experiences but the whole basics will be the same, possibly where my came out better was that being run by REME and hence the government of the day they didn't have shareholders to account to.

    In my apprenticeship year we had to modify the fitting benches we used. They had a tubular steel column with a welded on plate top, the mod was to cut the column and insert a piece of 4" square thread and a screwed ring to make them adjustable for hight, everyone had to do their bench.
    One guy couldn't get his head round screwcutting, he was taught time and time again but couldn't get it.
    To save the rest of the class falling behind they took a turner out of the main shop and put him with this lad full time just screwcutting.
    After a week he managed to do his bench. I asked our machine shop guy what would have happened if after a week he still hadn't got it. He just replied they would have left the turner with him until he did. What private industry could afford to loose a skilled man for 2 or 3 weeks on something this trivial ?
    Last edited by John Stevenson; 12-27-2008, 09:06 AM.

    Sir John , Earl of Bligeport & Sudspumpwater. MBE [ Motor Bike Engineer ] Nottingham England.

  • #2
    Excellent post. When do we get the rest of the story?


    According to my calculations, that makes you just a year older than me.
    Last edited by HSS; 12-27-2008, 09:15 AM.


    • #3
      Fantastic. There are those of us that have never had that type of experience. Every job that I have had I had to jump into and go. Training?.?.Only the basics to keep a fellow safe followed up by the foreman walking around yelling at you if you did something wrong.

      To imagine, a shop that would take a worker in, properly train them (for more than 2 weeks!) before sending them to a specific job where the employee would get more training AND you were given time to do it right.

      I could go one about how industry has changed and that industry has pulled away from things that were good but..... That would take away from the story.

      Which, by the way, is unfinished. I cant wait to read more. Thanks Sir John for sharing.

      Civil engineers build targets, Mechanical engineers build weapons.


      • #4
        Yes, nice beginning John. Incidently, how much did the turret weigh on the Centurion tank? IIRC, the Abrams unit weighs right around 25 ton.
        I bury my work


        • #5
          Great to hear about your past training!

          You know there is a book to be written and soon!
          ps I want the first signed copy
          please visit my webpage:


          • #6
            Waiting for the next installment. Things sure have changed. After my education every thing has been, figure it out your self. That would explain why most people don't understand craftsmanship. That why I try to hang around and learn from the old hands.
            Thanks for sharing.


            • #7
              Just think....if you'd gone in the RAF you could have done all that in six weeks and have been turning Spitfires out by the dozen.



              • #8
                Post two

                Post two.

                Going back to the school.
                The woodworking shops were mainly manual, about 15 to 20 double sided benches in each shop, in fact other than a wood lathe in one shop they were identical. In the stores space between the shops was a saw and planer that only the staff used, that was to prep work for the students. The old type heated fish glue pots on the window benches and the usual hand tools in the cupboards, all very basic and simple.

                The after hours club in woodworking was restriced to making the boats, you couldn't go in and do your own thing

                The tech drawing shop was very light, full length windows along one wall. long benches with 4 drawing boards and a tee square, you had to supply the rest of the gear.
                You could get away with a rule, about 4 pencils and a set of compass's if you were cruising or go the whole hog if you were really interested. Funny but it split this way about equal, some lads were totally out of their depth in 'seeing' projected views, others had no problems.

                I used to do others homework for sixpence [ 2 1/2p nowadays or about 4 cents ] a go, it got quite popular and in the end I could do 8 or 10 homework assignments all in different styles and I never got caught out That used to earn me 4 to 5 shillings when my pocket money was only about 2 shillings.

                The metal working shops were totally different, one caters for the younger boys being mare manual and the other had more machinery.
                The first shop had a forge, casting equipment, brazing hearth, two Boxford lathes, three bench drills and two buffing wheels.
                there were equipment cupboards with drill, taps and other equipment.
                There was a stores with a power saw and metal racks.
                Everything in this shop was used by the second year with the exception of the casting equipment which never figured in the syllabus ?

                The second shop was more industrial, 4 lathes, a 5" Little John, two 6" Harrison's and a 6" Colchester Student, [ all centre hight BTW, Double up for swing ]
                There was a 10" Alba shaper, Elliot universal miller, cylindrical grinder, tool and cutter grinder, brazing hearth, oxy-acetylene welding equipment and a sheet metal folder and guillotine.

                After year two you could use any of this equipment except the cylindrical grinder and tool and cutter grinder which didn't fit into the syllabus again.

                The after hours club allowed you to make anything either singularly or as a team.
                The school was building a Tich steam loco but I wasn't interested. I stayed behind to build a small petrol engine from scratch and got to cast my own crankcases and timing cover. I never got this finished before I left school and sadly it disappeared over the years.
                A fried of mine was building a spray gun which he still has.

                The library used to subscribe to any magazine that there was a demand for, sadly not Playboy. They were already taking Model Engineer when I got there so I never missed an issues whilst there.
                If you showed a genuine interest in anything the 4 teachers we had who moved about from subject to subject in the workshop section would go out of their way to help you. Our tech drawing teacher would bring in books from his own colection to get you to look at different ways to approach things, possible that has helped in later on.

                All in all it shows a view of a past teaching era that will probably never be repeated and I was probably there at the hight of it's success.

                Two years ago there was a reunion for pupils from this era. I went up paid my entrance fee which was a damn sight more than sixpence, bought a coffee and mingled. Unfortunately there was no one there who I was close to in my year, later as we did the tour the main workshop now held a computer and silly little plotter, models made from straws and felt and in the small workshop was a Harrison lathe, 3" deep in dust with a big sign on it in childish printing that said Lathe on it.

                I stood my cup on it and left.

                Sir John , Earl of Bligeport & Sudspumpwater. MBE [ Motor Bike Engineer ] Nottingham England.


                • #9
                  thanks for the account. I'm struck by the investment the company made in their people and what a loss our current reality is. That could only happen if worker and Co. were getting married. In this world of just dating, who is going to train like that? No one i suppose, as we slip further into the abyss of a culture of investment bankers and burger flippers. I guess the "lathe + styrofoam cup" sculpture is testimony to that - hey maybe the Tate Modern would be interested?


                  • #10
                    That is the world before the mandatory minimum wage, health benefits, and runaway tort law. It won't happen again because it is unaffordable. It's been replaced by globalization and out-sourcing which is another way of saying the work is done where there are no tort laws, minimum wages, and health benefits. And precious little training.


                    • #11
                      Very interesting, John. Thank you for your excellent posts.

                      So many projects. So little time.


                      • #12
                        Post three

                        Post three.

                        Now coming onto the first job, REME which officially stands for Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers but in later life came to be known as Rough Engineering Made Easy something I have stuck to all my working life so the training must have paid off
                        It was run by the military with mostly civilian workforce, all the foremen and supervisors were civilian but had to jump when the Colonel's said jump.

                        Twenty apprentices were selected each year from the various trade schools around, some of these had better training than other but that didn't matter as they took it you had none and started from scratch.

                        Started of doing all textbook stuff, our bible was the Chapman books, very similar to the Moltrech ones in the US, after 8 weeks of filing we were split up into 5 groups of 4, one group stayed fitting, one went welding, one went doing electrical, one sheet metal and the last one went machining.
                        We had 6 weeks on these subjects and then changed round, then back fitting until the year was up.

                        Welding was only gas welding, stick was taught only if you chose welding as a trade and then in the main workshops. I chose machining but asked if I could learn to stick weld and our welding master took me into the main workshops at night on his own time.
                        he also taught me to alloy weld on his own time. You finished up making your own tool box but ironically you couldn't keep this out of work as it was forbidden to take anything out the depot on pain of the sack and prosecution, security was very tight, the MOD police were a law unto them selves and would think nothing of stopping you, doing a full pat down search and nigh on stripping your vehicle.

                        Sheet metal was folding bending forming projections, tubes into tubes. I didn't care for this as I have always found sheet metal to be hard, a cross between wall papering and trying to bend biscuits added to this the apprentice master was a bit of a creep.

                        Electrical was a hoot, it was taken by this small fat Welshman who was mega strict. he used to shout and rage, smack you round the back of the head if you got anything wrong but a good teacher.
                        We had our own small classroom that could hold the 20 of us and you had lectures all the while on your subject. In one lecture we had to explain to the class various psrts of a vehicles electrical system, this one guy had to explain how a voltage reulator worked. [ We used to call then FADE boxes because the Lucas ones were markes FADE, Field, Ammeter, Dynamo, Earth ] so this guy explains :
                        "and as the voltage increases to 14.4volts it tends to pull the points closed an................................]


                        Big smack round the back of the head with large book

                        In thick Welsh lanuage he explaind that there is no such word in the english language as tends, it either does or it doesn't............
                        Always remembered that, must be the training.

                        Once we were out of our first year and in the shop this guy became totally different, you could go to him for help,have a laugh and joke with him but never disturb him whist he was torturing his class

                        Electrical was being given a big board with lights in each corner various connection boxes that represented the dynamo etc and switches, basically a vehicle on a board. We had to wire this up from a reel of wire, make all the cables follow a track, crimp the terminals and them wrap the harness with that old canvas harness tape.
                        When it was finished it was connected up to a motor driven dynamo and the who lot had to work or you had to stay in break times and dinners to unwrap it and make it good.

                        Machine work was on Harrison lathes doing turning boring screwcutting etc and some milling although milling didn't get a lot of attention both at school and work.

                        It was a strict regime, larking about wasn't tolerated, there were no first name terms it was all Mr to us and Sir to them.
                        They had a unique way of dealing with bad behaviour. Because the apprentice shop was a way from the main shop you couldn't hear the bell so they ran a wire from the main shop to put a bell in but the bell system was 110 volts and they only had a 24v bell so taffy put a set of resistor in series and it worked.
                        One day in the queue waiting to clock off i spotted these so next night before the bell went off I bypassed these resistors with a piece of wire and two crocodile clips.

                        When it went if it went crazy and vibrated the bell off the mounting and it went spinning down the hall only to land at sturmbanfuhrur Marshalls feet ..... gulp

                        So next dinnertime I'm held back to saw a slice off a piece of 6" x 4" steel bar. Twenty strokes of the saw and ooops the blade broke, "Sir the blade has broken" hand comes out the store window where they have their dinner with a new blade.
                        Twenty more strokes and oops the blade broke.
                        "Sir the blade has broken" hand comes out the store window with another new blade.

                        Twenty more strokes and oops the blade broke.
                        "Sir the blade has broken" hand comes out the store window with another new blade.
                        They will soon get fed up of me and tell me to bugger off.

                        Twenty more strokes and oops the blade broke.
                        "Sir the blade has broken" hand comes out the store window with a packet of 100 blades and a voice says "Come back when you have broken all them"

                        I realised at this point that there was no way I could buck the system, they would have throw a 1,000 blades at than one piece of metal until it was cut.


                        Sir John , Earl of Bligeport & Sudspumpwater. MBE [ Motor Bike Engineer ] Nottingham England.


                        • #13
                          Very interesting and entertaining read, indeed.

                          It reminds me somewhat of my first year in apprenticeship to become a car mechanic.
                          This first year (popularly called "the filer" because of the boring filing work) was a basic course to teach machining (lathe & mill work), welding and sheetmetalwork among other things.
                          Maybe I shall show some of the items I made during this year. I have a bench vise I made, some simple tools made on the lathe and a tool box.

                          BTW, who/what is "taffy" you speak of in the bell episode, John?


                          Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by hitting back
                          - Piet Hein


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Thomas Staubo
                            Very interesting and entertaining read, indeed.

                            It reminds me somewhat of my first year in apprenticeship to become a car mechanic.
                            This first year (popularly called "the filer" because of the boring filing work) was a basic course to teach machining (lathe & mill work), welding and sheetmetalwork among other things.
                            Maybe I shall show some of the items I made during this year. I have a bench vise I made, some simple tools made on the lathe and a tool box.

                            BTW, who/what is "taffy" you speak of in the bell episode, John?

                            Taffy is a nick name for a welsh man "mick" for an irish man ..and "jock" for a scots man ..wonder why they didnt have a word for an english man's his electrical teacher .

                            all the best.markj


                            • #15

                              Thanks a bunch, Mark.

                              Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by hitting back
                              - Piet Hein