Monday 11 June 2012

Childhood Ramblings – Part Three

Living in the heart of a large agricultural area, the prospect of a 'job on the land' was an obvious if not an appealing one.  The two large breweries in Alton offered a more cheering prospect of employment, and a number of building firms of varying sizes struggled to exist in the pre house building boom period of the late 1950's.

Through my childhood I had always been good with my hands making models, generally of aircraft from balsa wood and the wonderful Airfix kits.  Many a night I went to bed on a ‘high’ from the glue fumes!   One of my favourite classes at school was woodwork and my father, believing that I would possibly become a carpenter; gave me a selection of woodworking tools that Christmas.  Not being a high wage earner I later realised just how much these had cost and felt very guilty when my chosen career turned out to be quite different. I do however still have many of those tools to this day! 

I had been transported daily to and from the 'big' school in town by coach during the four year period of my Secondary education.    These “Creamline Coaches” were owned by the same Mr Wilkins whose taxi had transported my mother to the Alresford nursing home for my birth.

During most of those coach journeys I had been unaware of a sign-board outside a factory gate near the station on the outskirts of the town. This sign proclaimed in bold signwriting, “Vokes Ernst, Scientific Surgical Appliance Makers”.  Below the main heading the sign also said “Artificial Limb Makers”. This rather lengthy title was in later years shortened to the acronym, “VESSA Ltd”.    Suddenly this sign set me thinking and I began to wonder if it may hold the key to my future.  If nothing else, it certainly suggested the prospect of a far from the ‘run of the mill’ occupation upon which I might embark.

A letter was composed, posted and subsequently an interview arranged.  On the appointed day, I arrived at the factory gate with my Mother, and was directed into a none too large room whose sole decoration other than for a table and chairs, were a number of shiny pink coloured Artificial legs, of differing shapes and sizes, supported in chromium frames or propped up in the corners.
After a few minutes, an elderly gentleman - well elderly at least to someone of my tender years, entered the room and introduced himself as Mr Robinson, the Workshop Manager.  I cannot now recollect the finer points of our discussion nor the time scale, although I do remember that he explained to my Mother and I, that I would initially be employed as a 'Shop Boy' for one year until I reached my 16th birthday,

Following that period, and if I had proved to be satisfactory, the company would then offer me the chance of an Apprenticeship as an Artificial Limb Maker, to learn the trade and all its mysteries in depth.  The Apprenticeship would last for five years until I was twenty-one.

I was accepted for employment and left school at Easter 1958.   School closed for the Easter break with three weeks holidays ahead of the pupils.    I was not so lucky, and on the Tuesday morning after the holiday weekend I started my employment as Shop Boy.

As I had to be on site at the factory by eight o’clock that morning, my only method of transport would have to be my bicycle as the first bus through the village did not arrive in Alton until 8.45am.  Having rather taken my coach ride to school for granted, the prospect of a five mile bike ride at an ungodly hour of the morning was not appealing!

Armed with a box of sandwiches and a vacuum flask of tea, supplied by mother, I left home on my bicycle at 7.15 am in the morning, to commence my first ride to work.  The worst part of the journey in prospect was Worldham Hill, which could be observed looming in the distance as I approached it from Green Street.   A long 1 in 7 gradient some half a mile in length up which I would walk, having dismounted after attempting the foothills at a rapidly decreasing pace. 
Once over the top, it was then a steady gradual descent of over two miles almost to the factory gates.  The journey home was of course the reverse procedure with the long slow climb followed by a very rapid descent when, if the weather and traffic permitted, I could flatten myself along the crossbar and go like the wind, not heeding the dangers which such reckless activity might generate.

I arrived at the factory gates at a quarter to eight, somewhat breathless as I was quite a plump young lad; and entered the gates along with a straggle of early comers.  Some were on foot, but most rode bicycles of varying vintage and stages of disrepair which they thrust with little or no ceremony into the cycle racks spread all around the perimeter fence inside the gates.  At that time, I had just become the very proud owner of a new Raleigh Lenten racing bicycle.  I was extremely loath for it to join the miscellany of decaying bicycles, which were being deposited all around me.  I chose with some trepidation what I judged to be a safe place for my shiny thoroughbred, which had hardly ever been out in the rain, let alone abandoned to fend for itself amongst the mongrels of the working class.  This accomplished, and with more than one backward glance, I made my way with the growing tide of workmen into a very large a rather vile smelling workshop, which I would come to know, love and often hate over the next few years.

Having just left a school of some 900 pupils, many of whom I knew by name and most by sight, over the last four years,  I also knew all the Staff members, and some had more than a passing reason to remember me!  Here I was now a total stranger surrounded by deafening noise, in an asbestos clad workshop containing row upon row of benches and something approaching one hundred workmen, none of whom had I laid sight on before. 

The first thing I had to do was to ‘clock in’.  I was given a ‘clock card’ which bore my name and payroll number which I believe was ‘Two hundred’.  This card had to be inserted into the top of the time clock and a vigorous downward motion was applied to a handle on the side. This was accompanied by a bell ringing and when the card was removed it had a neat round hole punched in it.   This action took place when finishing work for lunchtime and again when starting the afternoons work. Finally you clocked out when you finished for the day.   There was nothing like this at school but then again one didn’t get paid to go to school!

Having started work at eight o’clock, I would not finish until six in the evening. A long day for one so young and there was still the matter of a five mile bike ride home!

My first few hours in the aptly named “Limb Shop”, were overwhelming and filled me with great bewilderment, as Alan, the 'shop boy' of the past year, attempted to pass over to me with great relish the onerous tasks with which he had been burdened.

After about two hours, which seemed to me more like an eternity, there was a perceptible reduction in the volume of noise, and I became aware that the men in one section of the workshop had ceased their labours and were now sitting down at their benches, pouring steaming cups of tea from vacuum flasks and eating sandwiches taken from their lunch boxes.  The first 'tea break' of my working life had begun!  At one end of the workshop stood a young woman with a battered looking four wheeled trolley who was selling bread rolls and dispensing tea from a rather elderly looking urn to a group of workmen who had quickly gathered around at her approach. 

Slowly, she and the trolley progressed through the workshop's various 'sections' until eventually a blissful quiet descended as each member of the workforce settled into their precious moments of solitude, fortified by food and hot drink. Not for long though, as from the far side of the workshop where this phenomenon had originated, a solitary hammer began striking metal, followed almost immediately by others until all the occupants of that section resumed their labours, whilst the rest of the workers vainly attempted to block out the sounds and remain undisturbed by the increasing noise level.  Eventually they were unable to withstand the unequal struggle a moment longer, and as quickly as it had started, it was over. The tranquillity of the 'tea break' had become a pleasurable memory.

The first day of my working life dragged on as Alan gladly unloaded his duties upon my very bewildered brain, with me trying to remember my way about what seemed to me to be a rabbit warren of buildings of all shapes and sizes spread over a considerable area.  Would I ever be able to remember who everyone was, and which department was which?

From my elevated position as a school leaver with four years’ experience of the daily life of a large school behind me, here I was, once more at the foot of the ladder as far as my importance in the pecking order of factory life was concerned!   It was quite evident, even on that first day that the 'shop boy' was there to be at the beck and call of all and sundry, and to perform all the menial duties that could legitimately be passed to me, and on occasions some that were not.

An irksome duty that came under the latter heading was the purchasing of cigarettes for the work force from 'Bill', in the Machine Shop.  He would daily bring in with him to work a small rather battered suitcase, which he secreted beneath the large 'fly press' of which he was the operator.  This suitcase contained a selection of the popular brands of 'smokes' from Weights and Woodbines to the more expensive Senior Service and Craven A.   As smoking in the workplace was an accepted thing in those days it would be necessary for me to visit him perhaps a couple of dozen times a day.  All these transactions had to be carried out in a rather furtive way, with quick glances over the shoulder in case the Foreman was nearby.  Although the Foreman was fully aware of the suitcase, and actually purchased his 'fags' in the same way, he could not be ‘seen’ to condone such illegal trading, so I had to get in and away as quickly as possible. 

The suitcase would be spirited out from beneath the 'press', the sale concluded and the case returned to cover in a quick, almost fluid action. The Foreman of the Limb Shop would also use my services to purchase his cigarettes whilst at the same time, frowning upon my activities every time I disappeared from the workshop to collect supplies for the others!

Another duty, which I quickly learned to hate, was the re-filling of the workforce’s vacuum flasks if they were to work overtime.  This was a particularly burdensome task which assumed fairly gigantic proportions when the whole 'shop' rather than a 'section' was working overtime.  As many as thirty or forty vacuum flasks would have to be collected, taken to the canteen, washed, filled and then delivered back to their rightful owner.      On more than one occasion things went wrong!

With so many vacuum flasks to fill, trying to remember and identify them would tax me sorely. I remember once being accused of trying to kill one of the workers who was a diabetic. I had mistaken his flask for another and generously filling it with very sugary tea.  Another time I received a bat around the ear for dropping and breaking a particularly old and battered flask.  The workman was adamant that I should pay for its replacement, and I was only let off the hook when one of his mates took pity on me and made him see reason.  It was always a thankless job for me to perform, and many a time I would be out of pocket, having wrongly calculated the change.

My first Pay Day was an event worthy of record.   All new employees had to work a 'week in hand', which meant that I did not receive any pay until the end of my second week of employment.
At about midday, the lady Pay Clerk would enter the workshop carrying a large wooden tray, rather like a pie tray, except that in this case it contained rows of small buff coloured envelopes.  Taking up her position just in front of the Foreman's office, the ceremony would commence.

Workmen would be summoned forward, a row at a time to collect their wages from the clerk.  Having collected it, various reactions by individuals could be observed taking place.  Some would open the packet at their bench and after a quick count of the contents, the packet would be put into a back pocket, others would take pencil and paper to calculate whether the contents matched their expectations of what they thought it should contain.  Still others would simply place it un-opened in a pocket, presumably for their wife to open for them, whilst the occasional individual would take the money out of the envelope, throw the envelope away and stuff the money into a pocket.  Presumably, their wife would never know how much had been earned that week or any other perhaps!

For reasons long since forgotten, new employee’s had to work a ‘week in hand’ so my first pay day was after I had worked for two weeks. This first pay packet contained the princely sum of Two pounds, Thirteen shillings and Two pence, (roughly £2.65 in today’s money) or not much over One Shilling per hour, a fantastic sum for forty-four hours of work.  A thought did occur to me at this moment, when I realised that one hour spent cleaning the Vicars new Rover on a Saturday morning earned me Two shillings!  Discussing this one evening with my mate Tony, who had gone to work on his father’s farm, I felt even less happy upon hearing that he had collected over five pounds for his first weeks work.  Was I in the right job I remember asking myself?        Having counted the money in my pay packet, studied my pay slip and re-counted the contents just in case of an error, I put it in my pocket and handed it to my mother when I got home.

After a fairly short discussion as to how the spoils should be divided, she took Two pounds ‘towards my keep' and gave me back the rest.  This was a bit of a shock as it would appear that I had apparently been kept for nothing until that time!
The essential tools of my chosen trade had to be supplied mainly by myself, and the favoured method of collecting them was to join the companies Sports and Social Club.  Membership of said Club entitled you to gain a small discount on tools purchased at Messrs Kingdons, the local ironmongers, and at various other shops in the town.  In this way over a period of time, I would obtain in some order of priority, the basic items needed for my tool box, itself as yet to be purchased. 
On Friday lunchtime, you could find me gazing at the array of shiny new tools in Kingdons window, deciding which I could afford to buy next, and being conscious of the need to pay Mother as the number one priority.  Transaction completed, I would return to work, the proud owner of a new hacksaw, ratchet screwdriver, steel ruler or some other small tool.

These were to become my proudest possessions, which Alan very magnanimously allowed me to place for the time being in his tool box, until the day when, assisted financially by my Father, I was able to buy a tool box and padlock of my own.  How smug and self-satisfied I felt walking back into the Limb shop that afternoon carrying my shiny new blue toolbox.  This proved the wrong thing to do, as I was to find out later!

As 'shop boy', it was traditional that I became the butt of all manner of pranks and jokes, usually because I had become over confident or cocky which necessitated my being brought down a peg or two. So it was that when certain people saw my new toolbox, it immediately became the target for a new round of activity.  My precious toolbox would regularly disappear whilst I was out of the workshop on an errand, and on at least one occasion, I returned to find it had been glued very firmly to my bench.  The threat, oft muted, which struck the greatest fear into my heart, was that I would come into work one morning, after others had worked overtime, to find my toolbox suspended high in the roof girders.   To bring this threat to be, I would have had to be particularly obnoxious to certain persons during the previous day.  Glad to say, and to my everlasting relief, the deed was never done, the threat having been the best deterrent.

The last week of July and the first week of August was the traditional annual factory holiday ‘shut down’ period.  At that time, the workforce in the artificial limb making industry enjoyed only two weeks holiday per year, plus Bank holidays.

On the 'pay day' preceding the annual shut-down, all the work force received their weeks wages plus two weeks holiday pay, but not yours truly much to my consternation.  Enquiries as to the apparent deficit in my pay did not improve my humour, as it was explained that as I had only been in the employ of the company for four months, I had not accrued the necessary points to qualify for any holiday money.  With no extra holiday cash to play with, I could only resort to joining up with my old school mates who were enjoying their six weeks school holidays.

My next instalment deals the trials of being an Apprentice and engaging in a romance!

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