‘Yard Memories 1956 - 1964
I had no idea what I would do when I left school; I had attended the Portsmouth Southern Grammar School for Boys but it turned out that the school and I had different ideas about what was important in life, so it was with great relief when, at the age of 16 (after playing truant for the best part of the last term), I was legally able to never darken their doorstep again. The school did have a rudimentary careers counselling service but in my case it was a waste of time. No matter, I just revelled in the fact that I was free to please myself what I did and when.
In those days, one was considered to be something of a social outcast if one didn’t have a job. Having a strong conscience, it was soon upon my mind that I needed a job – and soon! A chance conversation with a lad I’d been at school with, during which he told me he was going to sit for the Dockyard Apprentice Entrance Examination, prompted me to also apply and in due course I received the necessary information requesting my presence.
Exams at school were things I hated, I was hopeless at them and dreaded them so much that I almost made myself ill with worry, even so, I did manage to get a couple of G.C.E. O levels. The time came to sit for the Entrance Examination – I don’t remember anything about it apart from the sheer relief that it was all over. In due course I received a brown OHMS envelope and fearfully opened it, fully expecting it to be a rejection. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I had passed and was required to attend the ‘Yard with my Father, for the purposes of an interview and to choose a trade.
En route to the ‘Yard, Dad and I were discussing what trade I should try for. I had always had a very strong interest in electronics and had built several wirelesses and other contraptions, so my goal was to be an electrical tradesman. However, Dad advised that I ought to have a second choice ready, just in case. “How about being a plumber?” said Dad. “Then you can make a few quid on the side”.
Dad and I sat facing the interview panel, both of us in our best clothes and me trying to look intelligent. There was some discussion about the exam and the fact that I had done reasonably well, except they were puzzled about one question I had answered very well, but erroneously, which was “Draw and describe the construction of an electric cell”. My heart sank to my boots as I realised that I had misread the question, thinking it said ‘electric bell’! During the interview I had expressed my interest in things electrical, but now they were bound to think I was a complete dunce so when they said all the electrical trades were full and asked me what trade I would like I recalled Dad’s suggestion and innocently parroted what he had said about being a plumber and making a few quid on the side.
There was an awkward silence for a moment but luckily the interview panel saw the funny side of it and quietly suggested being a Shipfitter. I had no idea what a Shipfitter was (Fitter and Turner), and neither did Dad, so the M.C.D. (Manager, Construction Department) representative on the panel explained, and the rest, as they say, is history. Dad and I had a laugh about the plumber thing later on but I bet he had wished at the time that the ground would open up and swallow him.
Here is a photo scan of my Indentures:
September 17th 1956 was the day I started my apprenticeship. I remember walking through No 2 Shipfitting Shop, wide-eyed at the whirring, noisy machinery. Some of the machines were huge and were carving great ribbons of blue, smoking metal off intricately shaped metal objects. Driving a lot of the machinery was a system of overhead belts and pulleys on a long shaft that was driven by a large electric motor. I was to later learn that the belt and pulley system was only driving old machinery that was fast becoming redundant due to modernisation of the R.N. fleet. The rats used to like it though, they could be seen from time to time as they ran along
the main rotating shaft; I was told they ate the grease that lubricated the bearings, but whether that was true I have no idea.
After settling into the ‘First Year Flat’, where we were issued with a large, empty (i.e., no tools!) wooden toolbox- I still have my toolbox, nearly 60 years later here in Australia - and given a Dockyard number (mine was 22462). We spent the first weeks learning how to do basic things like hold and use a file correctly. Part of our early ‘instruction’ was to paint the premises and the stairs leading down to the No 2 Shipfitting shop floor! Needless to say, being young lads we ended up with most of the paint on our new overalls and ourselves.
Our academic education consisted of two days and two evenings (I think) at the Portsmouth Royal Dockyard Technical College each week where we were schooled in Engineering Drawing, Electrical Engineering Science, Mechanical Engineering Science, Practical Mathematics and English. We also attended classes occasionally somewhere in No 2 Shipfitting Shop where we were taught how to use a micrometer and various other hand tools of the trade and other ‘need to know’ things. The rest of the time was taken up with making test jobs.
Initially we drew our tools from the store, were given a drawing and the necessary raw metal and then, under the guidance of the resident instructor (whose name I cannot recall), we set to. A short time later we were able to buy hand tools at a reduced price from the stores to call our own. The test pieces started off being fairly simple, such as a ¼ inch thick 3-inch square steel plate with a square hole in it, into which a square of ¼ inch steel had to fit. The male part had to fit into the female part any way it was oriented and had to do so with minimal clearance; every part also had to be perfectly square in every way and to precise dimensions as per drawing. As if that wasn’t enough, each test job was timed and had to be finished within a set number of hours and had to be polished so you could see your face in it before you handed it in for marking – and woe betide any individual who handed in a job with sharp edges, if the examiner cut his hand it was an immediate loss of marks!
The only tools allowed were basically a couple of files, a scriber, a steel rule, a hacksaw, an engineer’s square, a centre punch and a hammer and chisel. We had to saw and file to get one edge flat and square to the face of the plate and then use that edge as the reference for everything else to mark out to dimensions. The hole in the plate was made by marking out its location and then a series of small holes close together inside the square hole were drilled (called chain drilling), the hammer and chisel was then used to cut through the webs between the holes so that the scrap material could be released from the plate. Before we did that though we made the square male insert to dimensions to a tolerance of one thousandth of an inch, the square hole was then carefully filed so that the male piece would fit the hole whichever way it was oriented.
Test jobs were sent to the second year flat to be marked by Bert Ward, the examiner. He took great delight in jamming feeler gauges into any gaps he could find and also used them to see how square and flat things were – measured by holding an engineer’s square and/or a steel straight edge against the edges. Marks were lost according to the total number of ‘thou’ (thousandths of an inch) he could fit into the gaps as well as how much the job deviated from the required dimensions (in tenths of a thousandth of an inch!). The final mark also took into account presentation (how good it looked) and the number of hours taken to finish it (marks were subtracted if the job went over time).
And so time passed until 12 months of academic studies and precision fitting were up, during which time I became adept at the required manual skills to the point where I could scribe a dimension line on a piece of metal and quickly file it flat and square by eye to within five thou. It was then a case of carefully filing that five thou off to the required dimension as measured by a micrometer.
One particular job stands out; it was a square of ¼-inch steel with an equidistant triangle brass insert in its centre, I started in the morning and finished it before it was time to go home – at least half the time allotted. It was such a good job that it got very high marks and was put in the showcase in the second year flat. That showcase was reserved for jobs that exceeded a certain level and a job would stay there until beaten by the same job that earned a superior mark.
And so, after the first year final passing job, (we were required to do an end of year test job for each year of our apprenticeship – if you didn’t pass that you stayed where you were until you did pass it!) I progressed to the second year flat, still attending college - although by then I was rather fed up with it because the subjects covered were not up to the level I had studied at Grammar School and I was very bored with it.
The second year continued with us producing quality test jobs, but as time went on of course they became harder and harder and the allowed times shrank. The only concession was that we were allowed to use a mechanical hacksaw and a shaping machine to get rough metal down close to the finished sizes rather than have to spend a lot of time filing bulk metal.
I did well with the test jobs there too and succeeded in getting another job in the showcase. My Dad, who also worked in the ‘Yard came in to have a look at the showcase – he was chuffed to bits to see my two fitting showcase jobs in it.
And so we continued producing test jobs by hand, but by then we were getting bored and playing up a lot of the time and creating merry hell with our instructor (Bill Prior) who could only take so much of it before punishment was handed out. Punishment consisted of having to saw a six-inch steel round bar in half using a hand hacksaw, since the hacksaw blades of the time were only 12 inches long it took a lot of work to get through the bar because we could only use very short strokes of the hacksaw. The added punishment was that the time allocated for your test job continued running, so that it was in your interest to get the steel bar cut in half as quickly as possible.
If you were particularly obnoxious (such as the time I lobbed a stink bomb to break on the floor behind somebody) you were given a six-inch square steel block to saw through; that was a real task! Of course, being young and fit we thought nothing of those punishments and a few of us would sometimes deliberately play up so that we would get a six-inch round bar and then have a race to see who could get it done first! Poor old Bill, he must have despaired at times, but he was a great bloke and we all respected him – I can see him now, with a hand-rolled fag in his mouth smoked down to the very last shreds of tobacco.
Jobs in the second year flat became quite difficult and complicated; I think one we had consisted of a series of interlocking dovetail joints that had to fit any way you could think of, they also had to be made from progressively thicker steel. Another job I remember well was a 1-inch thick square of steel with a 1-inch square hole in it. We had to firstly make a 1-inch cube of brass by hand and then hand file the hole so that the cube fitted perfectly irrespective of which way both parts were oriented. I still have that cube of brass to this day, I’ve just measured it with a new, good quality micrometer and it measures 1.0005” by 1.0005” by 1.0005” and is perfectly square and flat on all sides with the corners and edges still perfect – why it is ½ a thou oversize I have no idea, maybe the micrometer I used when I made it was a bit worn, or the temperature at the time was low?
I can’t remember how long we were under Bill’s guidance, it was either three months or six months – I think six, then we moved on to six months (or was it three?) of learning how to be a turner on the old WWI clapped out lathes there. Our instructor (whose name escapes me) for lathe work spoke with a strong north country accent and my main memory of him is that he would creep up behind you when you were engrossed in a test job, look over your shoulder and quietly mutter “Eee, that’s rough, son, rough as a bear’s arse!” But he knew his job and showed us how to make specific tools for specific test jobs and how to use them and, more importantly, how to produce quality work from the clapped out lathes.
I well remember a test job that I was nearly all the way through; it was a two and a half-inch diameter left-hand, two-start ¼ inch square-thread nut and bolt with decorative knurling on both. I had made the ¼-inch tool and done a splendid job on the screw, complete with very smart knurling on the ‘handle’ as per dimensioned drawing. I then commenced making the nut and was getting very close to finishing the second start of the thread when suddenly the thread-cutting gearbox dropped out of mesh while the chuck continued rotating. Disaster! My carefully made tool was smashed to bits and the nut ruined! I reported the incident to Eee-ba-gum man (apologies to his memory) and was told “well, son, things like that happen so make another tool and make another nut” – well of course he would say that – but he also told me that the clock was still ticking for completion of the job!
There was nothing for it but to do as I was told. Suffice to say that I just got the job done in the required time, and got high marks for it too – high enough for that to go in the showcase as well. I was very proud of that job. Once again, Dad came in to see it, chuffed even more.
At the end of the second year there was the mandatory test job to pass and I gave up any further tertiary education as I’d had enough of it, then I was sent to work with a fitter and his labourer in No 2 Shipfitting shop for three months. He showed me the sorts of things to do and, more importantly the things NOT to do. We all got on well and I learnt a lot, my eager brain sucked up his advice and stories. Part of the learning process was how to work “on the Note”. My understanding was that the Note was some sort of convoluted financial encouragement to get a job done within a certain amount of time, I was to encounter Note jobs for the rest of my time in the ‘Yard but I never really understood how they worked and never bothered with them. If I did get any financial reward from any of them it was an unexpected bonus.
Next on my training was ‘going afloat’. Going afloat meant that you were allocated for three months at a time to various sections of the Shipfitting organisation. My first section was ‘Yard Machinery. ‘Yard machinery included things in the ‘Yard infrastructure such as that for flooding and draining the dry docks (penstocks). Those three months were during a very cold winter and we had to work in the most diabolical conditions that wouldn’t be tolerated today. We had to work in machinery spaces in the ground that were usually part filled with water – as often as not frozen – the three of us (fitter, labourer and me) barely managing to move without getting in each others’ way, and as for swinging a sledge hammer (which we quite often had to do), well, you can imagine.
The penstocks were driven by pneumatic engines, which were geared to lift the large sluice gates to admit or release water, depending on whether a flooding or a draining was required. Being air-driven the engines would often grind to a halt due to the condensation freezing up their innards. So we had to scrounge firewood and build a nice little bonfire around the engines to keep them running. Needless to say, a bonfire was very welcome so we could thaw ourselves out too! Although it was a lot of hard, cold and dangerous work I enjoyed my time there with Harry the fitter, who was a great bloke and taught me lots.
I’ll diverge here for a little aside about going afloat: Toilets around the ‘Yard were in some places a bit ‘rudimentary’ and consisted of a series of individual in-line stalls where you could sit down and do your business. Nothing strange about that – but they didn’t have flushing cisterns for each seat. A long trough underneath the seats that started at one end of the first stall and ended just after the last one carried the waste away by means of a continuous stream of water. It all worked quite well but some bright sparks used to have lots of fun by soaking cotton waste in flammable liquid and setting light to it, then dropping it into the water at the first stall. The
ensuing panic as people had their backsides singed was enormous and many, many swear words were thick in the air.
I think my next move was to Small Ships. As the name implies they were H.M. Ships below a certain tonnage, but I can’t remember what ship it was that I worked on – all I remember is that I was working on the rudder and had to climb over the ship’s stern to clamber down the ladder and staging to get to it in the bottom of the dry dock. Working on the after deck at that time was a welder, cheerfully wielding an oxy-acetylene torch and creating a huge shower of sparks and molten metal over the stern where I wanted to be. I asked him to suspend operations so I could climb over the stern and get down to the rudder, which he did. However, I had only just started down the ladder when he started up again and I was showered with molten metal from a great height! Holy cow! I couldn’t look up to yell at him or I would have got my face full of it so I just had to move as fast as I could out of the way. Luckily the only damage was a bit of singed hair and holes burnt in my donkey jacket (‘Yard issue, cold weather, short, thick woollen coat).
After Small Ships I went to Big Ships and joined up with Johnny, the fitter whose job it was to recondition the rudder of the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Victorious. After Small Ships the Victorious was huge and it was easy to get lost in the myriad compartments and passageways until I got familiar with the layout.
The tiller flat on Victorious was a very long way down in the ship and (of course) right as far aft as you could get and, as was the case with H.M. Ships, no space was wasted, consequently there wasn’t much room to work and by the time we all got in there with our gear it was pretty tight.
The engine fitters drew back the massive hydraulic rams that drove the rudder and our first task was to get the crosshead off, it looked an easy thing to do and in theory it should have been, but that thing was well and truly stuck on the rudder shaft and proved to be one heck of a job to get off. We managed to get the two locating keys out of the crosshead fairly easily with sledgehammers and wedges but when we tried to jack the crosshead off the shaft it just would not budge! We tried everything and were at it for ages until we decided that the only way was to throw more hydraulic jacks at the job and heat the crosshead with oxy torches at the same time.
We arranged two 50-ton jacks underneath the crosshead and applied a fair amount of pressure, and then the welders fired up the oxy torches and played them around the crosshead. Remember I said that it was pretty cramped in there? Well, you can imagine the scene, with Johnny and myself on the jacks, our labourer standing by, two welders playing oxy torches on the job and two sailors standing by with fire extinguishers – all crammed in a very small space with no headroom and hydraulic oil everywhere with the fumes off the burning paint filling the room.
That crosshead still refused to budge despite all our efforts, so we worked the jacks more and more and were rewarded with the crosshead slowly moving upwards – we were ecstatic! It took us a while to realise though that the 50-ton rudder was being lifted up with the huge crosshead! Nothing daunted, we continued pumping the jacks until the rudder was jammed against the ship’s bottom and the welders continued playing their torches on the crosshead. Suddenly there was a tremendous “CRACK!” and we all cheered like crazy, thinking that the crosshead (it may have weighed about the same as the rudder) was on the move, but when we looked we found that one of the jacks had succumbed to the extreme pressure and had split right down the middle, adding more hydraulic oil to the mess! We eventually did get the crosshead off of course and watched as it was lifted up by one of the huge dockside cranes through openings in all the decks to the sky above and landed on the dockside.
With the crosshead gone we had to jack out the massive bronze rudder bearing. To facilitate this we had to put a hydraulic jack under the trailing edge of the rudder and very slowly jack the rudder up until there was no pressure on the bearing. This started off well and we managed to get the bearing moving until it was time to knock off for the day. Next day we continued trying to lift the bearing and found that it wouldn’t budge another inch, so, being dumb clods, we applied more and more pressure to the bearing and got a crane to lift from above as well until there was so much tension on the crane’s wire strops that one of them snapped. You can imagine the scene as the steel wire whipped around in that confined space! Luckily we were well used to keeping clear when such operations were in progress and escaped any injury. So, we sat there for a while scratching our heads until we realised that the jack supporting the rudder had leaked overnight and the 50-ton rudder was putting all its weight on the bearing – duh! After fixing that little problem the bearing easily slid upwards and was sent it on its way skywards too, and then it was relatively easy to remove the rudder from the hull by skillful use of crane and several slingers and lay it down on the bottom of the dry dock (slingers were the men that secured wire strops to things to be lifted and, as the crane driver couldn’t see what he was lifting, gave the crane driver hand signals – no two way radios in those days).
The next step was to get the pintle bearing (the bearing that the rudder pivoted on) out of the pintle bracket. We were working down in the dry dock on a high platform that had been erected by the scaffolders for us to get up underneath the bracket. After clearing the drain hole in the bracket we had to somehow lift the bearing out, but as it was recessed into the bracket somewhat we couldn’t get any purchase on the top of the thing and the only way was to poke it out from underneath. This again proved easier said than done and eventually I had to lay on my back with the head of a sledge hammer cupped in my hands, then brace my forearms against my bent knees and lever my wrists upwards until the shaft of the hammer pushed the pintle bearing up far enough for Johnny to stick some levers under the lip of it. It wasn’t easy, but I was very fit and had tremendous strength in my legs and wrists in those days, it was bloody heavy though!
Well, all was looking good; we had removed the crosshead, rudder, rudder bearing and pintle bearing, now to recondition it all. The Shipfitting shop skimmed the inside of the rudder bearing, made a new bearing sleeve for the rudder shaft and made a new pintle bearing while we set the caulkers to work with pneumatic chisels to remove the old sleeve from the rudder shaft and then set the rudder up so that we could machine the rudder shaft to suit the new sleeve. We attached an air driven cutting machine to the shaft and set it up to work its way around and along the shaft, skimming off the corroded steel until we got to the measurement that the Shipfitting shop had given us for the inside of the sleeve. So far, so good.
However, as is often the case, Murphy’s Law intervened when we went to fit the new sleeve on the shaft. The method was that we suspended the sleeve on a system of chains down in the bottom of the dock and built a fire underneath it so that it would expand with the heat while it was slowly rotated on the chains. When the experts decreed that the sleeve was hot enough the sleeve was to be lifted on wooden bearers by a team of men and they would run forward with the sleeve to slide it onto the rudder shaft, where it would cool and grip the shaft. All very well in theory, but what happened was that the chains put huge dings in the soft phosphor-bronze(?) sleeve, which was made even softer by the heat, and on top of that they had miscalculated the expansion because the sleeve ended up significantly larger than the shaft and went on with such a rush that it went too far and ended up way down the shaft! Needless to say there were a few red faces as there were plenty of onlookers, some of whom were quite senior naval officers. After much deliberation it was decided that the sleeve would have to stay where it was, and that was that, because time was running out and the rudder had to be back in the ship ASAP so that all the decks could be put back for other work to be carried out. Luckily everything went back together easily and we all heaved a huge sigh of relief.
I found a picture on the Internet of the rudder being put back in the ship with us watching from a safe distance, Johnny is in the left foreground and I am in the right foreground with our labourer in the middle. See the web site where I got the picture:
The caption under the picture is “The Rudder may not look very big”.
As you can see from the picture getting a 50-ton rudder out and putting it back again is no small task.
Then I went to submarines. Again, memory fails as to what I worked on, other than the D.S.E.A. (Davis Submarine Escape Apparatus), however as can be appreciated, that was a vitally important part of any submarine. One memory that is still strong though is when I was working on overtime, engrossed in what I was doing, and suddenly realised that I was totally alone! There was not another soul on that sub and while I was pondering the implications of that I became aware of an increasingly loud roar. It scared me rigid as I thought they were flooding the dry dock! I got out of the compartment as quickly as I could and scrambled on deck only to discover that the noise was a jet fighter with its tailpipe pointed off the end of a carrier’s flight deck – unfortunately, it was pretty well pointed right over the sub’s open hatches as well and was making the sub resonate, like blowing across the mouth of an open bottle.
I can’t remember much more about being afloat except that I was again sent to Victorious to work with Jack. Jack was an old fitter who knew all the wrinkles of how to do just about anything; he was also a storyteller par excellence! The job was to install 1-inch steel rod, with universal joints everywhere so that the bridge controls, such as engine-room telegraphs could be operated from the M.C.R. (Machinery Control Room) or the after emergency steering compartment, should the need arise. There must have been miles of the stuff snaking all over the ship by the time we had finished! Needless to say, it all had to operate with minimum friction so that it would turn easily – not an easy job considering the numerous watertight glands, compartments and passageways it all had to go through.
Once we got started the first thing we did every day was to test what we had installed the day before. As often as not we found that some of it wouldn’t turn or had got mysteriously very stiff. Culprits could usually be found, such as the sailor who decided to hang his washing on one section of it, or the shipwrights who disconnected part of it and left it hanging so they could install a new part of the ventilation system - there was nothing for it in those cases but to install more rods and universal joints to go around the new trunking (but, boy – didn’t we say naughty words…).
One of my parts of the job was to hold the supporting bearing brackets to the deck-head overhead so that a welder could tack weld them in place; I was just tall enough to do it with my arm at full stretch. As long as I was wearing a hat (to keep sparks and molten metal off my head) and the deck was dry it was no problem, but it was a different story if it was raining and the decks were wet as I got electric shocks from the welders’ electrodes! I soon learnt to have a leather glove handy in those circumstances.
At some stage of my apprenticeship I was allocated a lathe In No 2 Shipfitting shop and given various strange jobs that required quite a bit of thought as to how to hold them in the chuck as they were very odd shapes, and they weren’t just one-off jobs either – there were heaps of each. I made them to the required dimensions and they were sent away for zinc plating. I was disgusted when they came back after the plating for rework as some twit had miscalculated the effect of the zinc plating and they wouldn’t fit the intended mating part. So I had to do the whole lot again to different dimensions. The only saving grace was that the lathe was a brand new one; I was like a dog with two tails when I saw it, after having to cope with the clapped out ones in the second year flat!
And so, after being mostly afloat for a couple of years I entered my fifth year. Fifth year apprentices were paired off together and sent out as a two man team, the charge-man used to keep an eye on us to make sure we were O.K. in the early stages but he soon got tired of that and then, provided the job got done we pleased ourselves as to what we did and when. Naturally, being on our own we revelled in our newfound freedom and got up to some larking about, one of our favourite tricks while on our way to or from a job was to stop someone we knew who was walking towards us carrying something heavy. We would engage the poor sod in conversation and see how long we could keep him there with the heavy load on his shoulder. Quite often we could keep that going for ages and it amused us greatly to watch the unfortunate target stand there and shift the weight from shoulder to shoulder. Why they never thought to put it down still mystifies me.
One job that was given to my partner and me was to report to a ship and re-pack a watertight gland. So, off we went to H.M.S. whatever it was and strode up the gangway where the duty sailor asked what we wanted. Not having much information we told him what we knew whereupon he summoned the officer of the watch. After listening to us relate the same story about a gland he got on the ship’s telephone and spoke to the engineer officer and said, in a posh voice, “Hello, I’ve got two Dockyard Mateys here who are delightfully vague about what it is they have to do…” It was all we could do to stop busting our sides with laughter at the puzzled expression on his face.
The engineer officer arrived and showed us where the gland was. Unfortunately it was on the shaft of a small steam turbine, which, by rights, was the domain of M.E.D. (Manager Engineering Department) and the job should have been given to an engine fitter! As we were there and had been told to do the job we just set to and re-packed the gland anyway, but because we had no idea what we were doing we put so much packing in the gland I’m sure that it would have taken much more steam power than was available to get the turbine running! However, the engineer officer seemed satisfied when we reported the job done and off we went.
Another job we had was something in the confined space of a tug’s tiller flat, where we had to drill a hole to install a fitting on the aft bulkhead. There was only just enough room for the pair of us to get in there and work, with about two feet of height, so we had to wriggle in on our stomachs. We got a large electric drilling machine from the stores and put a big diameter drill in it and started drilling. Due to the large size of the drill it didn’t rotate very fast but it sure had loads of torque, as I was to find out when the bit jammed as it was breaking through the hole and stopped dead, with the drilling machine still trying to turn it. Newton’s Third Law says for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. You can guess what happened. The drilling machine twisted in my hands and jammed my arm up against the deckhead before I could let go of the trigger. Luckily I wasn’t hurt, but I had a hell of a job getting untangled. However, that was a minor inconvenience compared to what we had to put up with right over our heads. There was a caulker using a pneumatic chipping hammer on the deck above, about six inches from our faces. The noise in that confined space was so bad it made our ears hurt.
As mentioned previously, at the end of each year we had to return to the second year flat to complete, and pass, the mandatory test job before we moved on to our next year’s apprenticeship. And so it came to pass that I had to face the final test job to pass as a fitter and turner and become a Craftsman. That job was deliberately very hard and the time available not generous, I saw several apprentices in previous entries do that job a couple of times before they scraped through by the skin of their teeth.
That test job required using nothing but hand tools, we were not allowed to use any machines apart from a pillar drill to chain drill the slots in it, and of course a lathe. Lots of manual hacksaw, hammer and chisel work was necessary to rough out the raw material followed by heaps of hand filing. The lathe part of the job wasn’t so bad but because the fitting part took so long it was common to go over the 42 hours allotted in order to finish the job and hand it in for marking. I still have the examiner’s marking sheet for that job, with a pass mark of 66.75%, taking all of the 42 hours.
Here’s a photo scan of my final passing test job marks:
Interestingly, my indentures show 18/9/61 as the end date of my apprenticeship (a Monday) but my final test job wasn’t marked until 25/9/61 (the next Monday), so I assume that we started the final test job at the end date of our apprenticeships.
During my final year I thought quite a lot about my future. It had come to my notice that the ’Yard seemed to be full of people who didn’t have any work to do, they just wandered around and kept a low profile. My pet saying was that management could sack half the people and get twice as much work done! I just couldn’t see myself staying in the ‘Yard for the rest of my days so I decided to join the Royal Navy as an Artificer Petty Officer (P.O.) and see a bit of the world. Unfortunately, my plans were dashed when the recruiting P.O. told me that I would have to sign on for 12 years! That was too much for me so I thanked him and declined the offer and joined the Merchant Navy as a seagoing engineer officer with Esso tankers instead, joining the Esso Winchester on 21st November 1961 and moving to the Esso Exeter on 24th March 1962.
After the Esso Exeter, where I had never, and to this day, worked so hard in all my life I had had enough and resigned on 28th October 1962. After the novelty of being at home with nothing to do except go to the pub had worn off it was time to get another job. Unfortunately there were none to be had that were suitable, until I saw an advertisement in the Portsmouth Evening News for engine fitters in the ‘Yard. Right up my alley I thought, and duly applied and was accepted, starting in December 1962.
I was given the job of installing hot water (or steam?) overhead heating panels in one of the boatyard shops, near the Main Gate. Why that fell under the job description of an engine fitter I had no idea, I suppose it was because it involved steam – but my previous experience with superheated steam at 800 degrees Fahrenheit and 800lbs/sq. in on Esso tankers didn’t help at all and I had no clue what I was doing, but did manage to get it all done. It was a real pain in the backside and I suspect it was a job that nobody else wanted and, as the green new chum, it was given to me.
I don’t remember much about what I did after that except the powers that be decided I needed training on gas turbines and they sent me to Birmingham to General Electric’s factory for a week’s training on the type of gas turbine that was being installed in destroyers and light cruisers for fast departures from port without having to wait to get steam up. The week was very enjoyable and interesting and I got home with loads of course materials and factory manuals and diagrams of how to service one.
After the Birmingham experience I resumed my daily task of trying to look busy, wondering when I would be told to get cracking on a ship with gas turbines. Well, in true Government fashion, nothing happened and I became resigned to the fact that I was going to spend the rest of my time as an engine fitter just wandering around the Dockyard carrying out mundane tasks. But then those same powers that be decided to send me over to Gosport to see how the Naval Air station repaired helicopter gas turbines.
I spent three or four days with the resident fitters, learning all sorts of interesting things and spending a lot of time standing in front of gas turbines running at full throttle on the test bed. If you have never stood close to a running gas turbine of that era then you cannot imagine the noise! Most of the noise comes from the front (where we were standing) and is an ear-shattering scream. In those days, like the Merchant Navy, nobody wore ear protection. (What was that you said?) Needless to say, I never did get to work on any gas turbines!
In all the time I was present when all types of turbines were run I was never offered any hearing protection and I didn’t see anyone else wearing any either! In those days there was no such thing as Health & Safety. The noise was horrific, I remember standing in front of one at Gosport as it was started and run at top speed behind a wire cage to stop personnel being sucked into the intakes. I couldn’t hear myself think for hours after! I was used to the noise of screaming steam turbines after my time with Esso tankers but that was a whole different ball game! It’s a wonder that I’m not stone deaf now, although I do have hearing loss in both ears – Industrial Deafness they call it.
And so the months passed with my time taken up doing mundane things, which I now cannot remember, although I do recall one time being on overtime working on something or other in the engine room of an aircraft carrier. Whatever it was only required myself to be present, as I never had a labourer assigned to me so I could please myself as to what hours I worked. The job wasn’t in the least onerous and needless to say boredom quickly set in and I discovered that two large warm steam pipes adjacent to each other at the top of the engine room made an ideal place to have a snooze. I made that job last quite some time.
Eventually I was asked if I’d like to sail on a carrier when she went off for a few days on sea trials. I jumped at the chance. I can’t remember what ship it was - maybe H.M.S. Albion? My accommodation was right under the flight deck, near the arrestor mechanisms, I used to sleep like a log so that wasn’t going to bother me and I soon settled in to life aboard one of Her Majesty’s Ships. The food was really good and there was plenty of it so I was as happy as Larry.
My job was to take turns at monitoring the main engines’ gearboxes lubrication systems and change the oil filters as per recommended timetable. When I wasn’t on shift I was free to wander around all parts of the ship and enjoyed it immensely. It was rather interesting to see that every conceivable piece of machinery had at least one ‘Yard Matey carefully watching over it – even the potato peeler in the galley!
Although free to wander around we had of course to obey any orders that the ship’s officers issued, so we were warned off the flight deck quite often when something was going on up there, for instance testing the steam catapults by firing huge wheeled dollies off the ship’s bow. One night they had a flight of Buccaneer jet aircraft doing ‘touch and goes’. They would come in as if to land, thump down on the deck then immediately hit full throttle and afterburner to scream off the deck again. I was in my bunk at the time and the loud thump as they hit the deck and the noise of those jet engines at full bore was quite something to experience!
Another time the ship’s PA system announced that all personnel were to leave the quarterdeck immediately, I was on the flight deck at the time and wondered what was going on. I soon found out as the ship’s engines went to full speed and the wind whistling past my ears increased, I looked aft and was very impressed to see a huge rooster tail of white water being thrown up behind the ship as she powered through the water at maximum speed. It was a sight to see.
The experience of being at sea for a few days on one of Her Majesty’s mighty ships was a highlight and I just could not settle down after that; the call of the sea was strong and in April 1964 I duly joined Cable & Wireless Ltd as a fifth engineer officer. I was being shown round the engine room and the engineers’ workshop when I saw two lathes, a Myford and a larger centre-lathe. I commented that it was nice to see a couple of good lathes whereupon the fourth engineer asked if I knew how to use them. When I told him yes and that I was a fitter and turner he said that it would be good to have somebody with experience, as nobody really knew how to use them! I had no idea if that was true but for the couple of years I was on the ship I did seem to be the one that everybody turned to if anything needed machining. I thoroughly enjoyed getting stuck into the tricky problems I was given to solve.
And so, I remained with Cable & Wireless for a total of five years at sea, serving on three cable ships and rising to the rank of acting third engineer, until I decided that as a newly married man I needed to swallow the anchor and get a shore job. Thanks to the excellent training I received during my apprenticeship I had thoroughly enjoyed seeing the world, courtesy of Cable & Wireless.
The variety of employment and senior positions I held for the rest of my working life, in all sorts of businesses (mainly computer engineering), would not have been possible without the confidence and skills learnt as a shipfitter during that five years apprenticeship. I finish this memoir with a big ‘thank you’ to the ‘Yard and all those in it who shaped my life.
Copyright - David Howard 2016