FINDS HIS ENGINEERING NICHE
I do not know what my parents were thinking, as we made our final departure from Urmston to our new abode at Wolverhampton during late 1932. I could only hope I would be able to sort myself out and develop a career. I might meet a beauty queen and marry her!
Our three bedroom detached house, waiting to receive us, was pleasantly situated facing onto St. Chad's Roman Catholic School for boys. At the rear of the house, the garden backed onto a playing field belonging to a secondary school. Old Fallings Lane was now an established road leading to Bushbury Hill. Our house was approximately half a mile from this hill on the north side and about the same distance from Cannock Road on the south side. A large council estate, known as Low Hill, spread over a mile area located behind St Chad's College.
On the east side, a small community known as Wednesfield separated the local residents from Willenhall, about two miles away. I learned at that time, most locks and keys in this country saw their birth at Willenhall. One caught the No. 9 trolleybus from Cannock Road to travel to Wolverhampton, a distance of three miles if using public transport. We had a small front garden, around 15 feet long, whilst to the rear, the vegetable and lawned garden was twice the length of the front. To the side of the house, there was spare land assigned for a future entrance for motor transport to have access to the school at the rear of the house.
At first, mother could negotiate the stairs, so it was arranged that she would sleep upstairs. It took several days to sort out what went where. One item of importance was father's barometer, mounted on inlaid mahogany wood, which had been presented to him by members of Urmston Weslyan Chapel for his many years' service as organist and choir master. This took pride of place in the hall, to be treated like an heirloom and handed down to future generations in the family.
In my 17th year, I had still to find my niche! My employment reporting centre was an insurance office in Darlington Street, leading to Penn and Tettenhall on the west side of Wolverhampton. It was not until I opened the letter from the Port of Manchester, with my employment card, that I was aware that insurance employees had their own employment bureau. Unfortunately, this did not overcome the difficulty in obtaining employment in this trade depression.
In Germany, unemployment was up to 30% of the working population. A period of many months found me in the doldrums, or in the wilderness, as Churchill described his state after falling out of favour, following his Dardanelles disaster in the 1st World War. I cannot remember being depressed, I felt that something would turn up. It was not my fault that there was a trade depression.
My time was spent helping in the house and garden. I had plenty of time to explore the adjacent county of Shropshire on my newly acquired bike. Shropshire with its undulating hills, proved very tiring, but very pleasant scenery to view. Bridgnorth, situated by the river Severn, consisted of low and high town, with a funicular joining the two towns. From high town, a spendid view of the river reaches can be obtained. Bridgnorth was a favourite spot for the Midlanders to retreat to at weekends, especially young people, who would camp in the meadows by the river.
My furthest cycle venture took me to Wales, when I set out with little money and no camping gear. Cycling through Bridgnorth, I joined the A5 at Shrewsbury and continuing on this road, until I reached Betwys y Coed, where I changed direction to Porthmadog. My target was Harlech Castle, where I arrived at the golf course at the base of the castle, just before dusk. I was in no fit state to be exploring Edward 1st's military achievement, built between 1283 and 1290 using up to 950 impressed men from all over the country.
I looked around for accommodation and, not seeing any at hand, I decided to sleep in a sand dune on the golf course. I thought this would make a soft surface to lay on for the night. This was the first and only time I attempted to use a sandbunk for a comfortable sleeping surface. The night became extremely cold, with only my cycle cape wrapped around me to keep me warm. It was probably the longest night I ever experienced. I was, of course, fully awake at sunrise. To my amazement, in the distance there was a man pushing what looked like a cycle. I hurriedly rose and checked that my bike was where I had left it.
A closer look at this figure in the haze revealed that he was a greenkeeper, working on the putting green. As this was no place for me to hang around feeling very hungry I went in search of a cottage with smoke coming out of its chimney, to seek food of some kind.
Nearing Llanfair, a whiff of smoke
could be seen from a group of white cottages. My
cycling speed noticeably increased as I made a direct line for where I hoped I would find
my egg and bacon breakfast. I knocked
on the door at the cottage sending up smoke signals.
A very surprised elderly lady dressed in a long dark skirt and woollen
grey shawl came to the door. I
addressed her and asked, "Could you serve me with a breakfast, I am a cyclist on my
way to Barmouth." This very Welsh lady
with a sharp chin and nose said, "I can prepare bacon and sausages and tea." I replied, "This would be more than
I replied, "This would be more than welcomed."
I sat in the kitchen while she fried my bacon slices suspended on hooks in front of a grated open fire with a drip pan below. While I ravenously devoured my smoked bacon sandwich, this kind Welsh lady explained she was awaiting the return of her fisherman husband. Having paid for my breakfast, I bid my early morning hostess goodbye and thank you, I made my way to Barmouth and joined a fellow cyclist en route, sharing his tent overlooking the long stretches of Fairbourne Sands.
We managed to have a swim before the rain set in that night. There was no pressure at home about the time of my return, since I had no job to go to. My main thoughts were on how I could see as much as possible of Wales on these cycle trips.
After thanking my host for his hospitality and saying adieu the following morning, I set off on the return journey home. This took me through Dolgellau, Welshpool and on rejoining the outward journey route at Shrewsbury, I finally made home. The weather had been fine and cycling on roads free from motor traffic. I came back feeling the world was so much bigger, having seen more of the Welsh mountains such as Cader Idris and the Cardigan Bay coast line.
The main Wolverhampton public transport was the trolleybus services. These green double decker buses plied from the town centre to outlying districts of Bilston, Tettenhall, Bushbury, Penn and numerous other places such as Willenhall. The buses were silent running and they did not pollute the air, since they were propelled by electric power, supplied by overhead cables. At this period, there was no concentration of black people in Wolverhampton. In the years to come, the whole of this public transport, as well as taxi services, open market and many shops were taken over later by the coloured population.
It was not long before I became a fan of Wolverhampton Football Club attending Saturday afternoon matches at the Cowshed End of the Molyneux Ground. The manager at that time was Major Buckley. It was he that forged the Wolves into a world top-class team prior to the 2nd World War and early post war. Billy Wright, who was at first rejected by Wolves, later became their captain, as he did for England, obtaining a hundred caps for his country. It is said he was never booked for committing a foul during the whole of his professional football career.
If you were able to be in a helicopter over the Wolves ground just prior to a Saturday's game, you would have seen something resembling an octopus. All roads leading into Wolverhampton were choc-a-bloc with supporters streaming their way from outer districts to the centre of the town, to which the ground was closely located. So ardent were some of the supporters of the Wolves that I have heard one supporter declare that he would refuse a promotion if it meant being posted out of the area.
I was very much a loner, not having joined a youth club to make friends of my own age. Occasionally I attended Heath Town swimming baths and did become friendly with a few who were regular swimmers. I used to wonder why certain girls would be watching, when they looked fit. When I asked one, who lived opposite the baths, why she was not swimming, she just grinned, such was my lack of knowledge of the female's monthly biological function.
My father ceased to play the organ after one of his fingers became deformed and did not seek to join a local chapel. I became a fairly regular attender of the Sunday afternoon men's class at the Methodist hall, where they had many famous speakers. One such speaker, who was later to make his address was Ramsey MacDonald, after he was deposed as Prime Minister by Stanley Baldwin. So from being a Trinity of the Christian denominations, I had achieved the Tetrad. I had attended the Weslyans, the Baptists, the Church of England and now the Methodists.
One of my pastimes was listening to Germany on the radio. Radio had long passed the crystal set and valves, requiring wet batteries to drive them. World news was now more readily available, with Germany creating the most threat to future peace from the Nazi rallies, which could regularly be heard on the radio. The sound of 'Heil Hitler' at these rallies, which was chanted time and time again, was most chilling. These rallies increased as the elections drew near for the seats in the Reichstag in Spring of 1932.
The Nazis succeeded in polling 14 million votes and won 230 seats. Finally, that year, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Soon, Hitler was to set out rules for purifying the Aryan German master race. No German was allowed to marry a Jew or a person with a deformity such as blindness and this was indoctrinated in pupils at German schools. To gain Nazi Party funds, party members collected from each family across the whole of Germany, money that was saved by having one dish meal each Friday. Also the party members would involve each family with the national draw. These schemes enabled the Nazi Party to raise huge revenues to start rearmament.
I had at last been offered a job at Weddells, the wholesale meat purveyors. From the interview I had with the head of Wolverhampton Depot, I was replacing a person on annual leave. The job description mainly consisted in weighing meat carcasses sold to retail customers and making out invoices from prices supplied to me. Starting time was 6 am sharp. Needless to state I did not sleep much the first night, for fear of not arriving on time. I found myself man-handling large carcasses and not doing very much weighing. However, it was of a temporary nature and I was earning money for a change.
I did, however, fail to arrive on time one morning and blotted my copybook. To ensure I did not do this again, I made doubly certain my alarm clock had been set correctly, and was in working order. Much to my horror, I woke up during the night and noticed it was daylight, which was not the case at 6 am. I got dressed speedily, bypassed my breakfast and as I opened the door to jump on my bike, I discovered it was a beautiful moonlit night and it was only 1 am!
At the end of my 3 weeks stint, I do not remember my boss asking me if I would be keen to return whenever they were short of staff. Neither do I remember that I had found a hidden urge to be a butcher. Nevertheless, I had yet another job experience - another string to my bow, you might say!
My patient father did not reprimand me in any way for not achieving a steady job. He was quietly building up a clientele of drapers in his West Midlands circuit. These district representatives of SJ Watts were very important members of the firm. They were the go-between of the retailer and the wholesaler. It was important that they struck up a relationship with each retailer. It was inevitable that friendships were formed of a personal nature. One such friendship was formed with the main draper, Mr Longstuffe at Willenhall. As a result of this friendship, I was asked to help out on the cash desk during their week's sale. Now, I do not know whether this was to have a look at me, before passing my name on to a senior staff member of the Yale and Towne lock manufacturer. I do know that the following week I had obtained an interview with the head of workshop, a Mr Webster. He had a clean face, looked you straight in the eye, a shiny forehead with a no-nonsense look about him. After giving me a tour of his territory, including machine shops and assembly shops, we then returned to his office.
All orders for manufacture in his department were monitored by use of promise notes. It was the responsibility of the post I was being offered to obtain promises from section heads and to keep an up to date state. It was agreed that I should start the following Monday after my wages had been settled. I know these wages were higher than I had received previously. This was my finest hour so far.
On my first day at work, I was introduced to Mr Webster to each of his section heads and finally to Miss Wood, head of the order department. I was warned that she was something of a tartar from time to time. We both returned to his office, where I was shown an annexe office. This would be my place of work, in which all orders to the factory were issued and monitored. Clipboards, containing delivery promises made by section heads had to be kept in an up to date state, hung on wall hooks, readily accessible for Mr Webster's personal use.
After Mr Webster made clear the daily routine in which I would be involved, I felt that he would support me if I had difficulties dealing with his staff. I was aware that the section heads of the various types of lock assemblies would know that I was green to the lock industry. I felt to gain knowledge of this industry was of prime importance if I was to have respect on my job, generally referred to as progress chaser. I was later to learn that factory workers consider this job as the lowest form of factory life. Now I regarded this task as a challenge and I set about studying the design of locks by dismantling various types whenever I had the opportunity to do so. I was fascinated by how the lock changes were affected by the specific selection of levers, which when correctly chosen, allowed the bolt to throw when using the appropriate key.
At lunch times, I had time to explore Willenhall, a small town made up of terrace type houses with small workshops in their back gardens. These workshops were formerly used by family lock firms as part of an ancient cottage industry. Mr Webster told me that many Willenhall families had intermarried, the Woods and the Walkers being the most common name. He also mentioned that many of the old locksmiths had developed humps on their backs. Most Willenhall pubs had recesses in the inner walls to allow them to sit comfortably. At lunch times, I saw other large lock factories, beside the Yale such as Legge, Gibbons, Parks and a few others. These mass producing lock firms had displaced the family firm and most of their locksmith skill was fast disappearing. One of these old locksmiths, a Mr Walker, was employed in the rim lock section at the Yale. I was tipped off by his section leader when he was about to hand make a special rim lock from an old one he was to replace. From time to time, I was able to watch him form the rim, cut out and pierce the side plates, file levers, bolts and keys. In building these specials, no drawings would be used, all that the locksmith required were knob spindle and key hole positions in relation to the edge of the door.
Yale and Towne, who had taken over HT Vaughan of Willenhall were an American firm, which had developed the cylinder lock. This cylinder type lock was being produced in a separate department not under the control of Mr Webster. I occasionally watched the specialised machinery boring and grinding the cylinders. These machines were in contrast to the heavy power presses in Mr Webster's territory. All presses were always fitted with hand guards and were carefully vetted by factory inspectors.
I had an urge to obtain technical knowledge to understand the manufacturing processes and contemplated taking a technical course in workshop practices and technical drawing. When speaking to Mr Webster on this subject, he informed me that a previous progress chaser who had worked for him had become a design engineer by attending technical college. Without further ado, I made enquiries at Wolverhampton Technical College and put my name down for the beginning of the autumn courses.
I was very disillusioned with the promise note system, for it allowed Miss Wood every opportunity to raise her voice and cause a scene when there was failure to deliver the locks as promised. There were many occasions when Mr Webster would appear red faced after a visit by Miss Wood to his office. This would always be followed by an inquest with the section head with me in the middle. Causes of failure to deliver as promised could be a variety of reasons, tool or machine breakdown holding up components, or just that the section head gave me a wrong completion date. It was always a losing battle. There was an attempt to forecast future requirements and so build up stocks. There were no Gantt flow charts with a moving date line to ensure that all components were being produced to a preplanned date. The batch production system provided no allowance for sudden supply failure of components, be they produced internally or bought from outside. I felt I was always on a losing wicket, having no control on the state of the wicket. When the time came for me to be told that I was to be transferred to the main office, I looked on this as a blessing - new fields to conquer you might say. I could not claim, however, that I had conquered in my progress chaser's role, but I had been activated to take up engineering learning and practices.
My stay in the main office became short lived. My task, in company with two middle aged ladies, who had worked for many years in the firm, was to edit incoming customers' orders and prepare the corresponding invoices. The three of us had separate areas to take care of. These two ladies did a lot of whispering between them and to me appeared to resent my presence. I had no immediate boss, only the chief accountant, who was in charge of the whole of the administration. My routine work should have been straightforward, apart from having to acquaint myself with a range of cylinder locks. A problem arose in identifying the previous agreed discount for each customer. If I found myself with no alternative but to ask one of my co-partners for discount information, the standard reply was, "Look in the ledger!" Now, this ledger was the size of an old family bible. I am sure it originated at the start of HT Vaughan. One was almost frightened to turn the pages over, for fear that the pages would disintegrate. The information was always hand written, and in some cases, customers were given several discounts, one on top of another. I can only assume there were customers more favoured than others. In deciphering this hand written information, there were many chances of getting it wrong. There were two consequences if I failed to edit the order correctly, or it I got the invoice wrong. If the order was incorrect, I could have Miss Wood to see me with all the sound effects, whilst in case of a faulty invoice I could be invited to Mr Shortsman's office, the chief accountant. Whenever these occasions arose, I would point out that it was time all these various discounts were done away with and that a comprehensive list of all products with the corresponding prices should be issued to edit and price against. The standard reply I received from the accountant was that the other two ordering clerks could manage satisfactorily with the existing arrangement.
Following my move to the main office, a young lady called Tonia Chapman took over my progress chaser's job. It turned out that she lived on the Stafford Road, Wolverhampton, and when cycling to work, she passed the house we lived in at Old Fallings Lane. Her age was around 17 years and she had an outgoing personality with flowing fair hair when cycling. We cycled regularly together and I felt that she was getting rather fond of me. This was confirmed when she started to bring flowers to my mother, who was now housebound and slept downstairs. She told me that her father was a staff colonel at the war office and that both he and her mother spent most of their time at the Oxley Park Golf Club when he was on home leave. Now, I was still very nervous of the opposite sex, particularly when there is also a colonel to cope with. I am afraid our friendship remained at the platonic stage.
Many years later, we found ourselves sitting on the same bench, each with our own offspring, watching a cricket match in Bushey Park, alongside Hampton Court. There was much to talk about, especially as were almost neighbours. She married a flight officer, who turned out to be a rotter, and now she was friendly with a cricketer.
Ultimately, things came to a head in the main office. Pay rises had been given to staff, excluding myself. I felt immediately snubbed by the chief accountant, Mr Shortman. There was a loss of pride since staff close to me knew that I had been left out of this pay award. I could not contain myself and entered Mr Shortman's office. When I asked if there had been a mistake in not receiving a pay rise, he replied, "At this point in time, you have not merited a rise." It is said one should look carefully before making a jump, this did not happen in this case.
I responded immediately, "Mr Shortman, if I do not receive a rise in my next pay packet, you can take my notice." Thus our conversation came to an end. It was not until I got home that I realised the action I had taken. If the rise did not come through, not only would I be out of work, but I would not receive dole money.
I now had a dilemma as to how I should inform my parents of the action I had taken. Relations with my father had always been at a distance. I think this was due to the fact that he had to make his own way in life. I am told, by Auntie Min, that his father, my grandfather, was a loafer and that his mother of 9 children was left to manage their hat making business, in Luton. My father left home in his teens to work for his present firm in Manchester. He was also a self taught organist and choir master. Another reason for this distant feeling was the fact took over my progress chaser's job. It turned out that she lived on the Stafford
Road, Wolverhampton, and when cycling to work, she passed the house we lived that, I saw very little of him. His travelling kept him away most weeks from Monday to Friday and at each weekend he had his chapel organist commitments. It was understandable, if he should think that I should paddle my own canoe. My mother's illness had saddened home relations, for most of her time she was in pain from rheumatoid arthritis that had spread to most joints. Before this illness I never remember as a little child, being cuddled. Yet I was never in need of the essentials of life. I suppose in the case of both parents, little was given over to sentiment.
I had now decided to defer explaining to my parents my action at the Yale. My immediate action was to send a standard job application letter to a few Wolverhampton firms. One such firm was the Ever Ready company, having been informed by a student at College that they were good employers to work for. So now I set about preparing this application with the following wording, viz, 'I wish to apply for any suitable vacancy that you may have, etc etc.' I was also able to add that I was a technical student, for now it was autumn season and I had commenced my practical workshop training as well as engineering drawing.
I was most impressed when Dr Fisher, the Principal, welcomed each student on the first session and told us that the course could enhance our career. The Wolverhampton Technical College did indeed play a very important role in years to come in shaping my profession.
I had an almost instant reply from the Ever Ready company requesting me to attend an interview with Mr Terry, the manager, at my earliest convenience. I was able to arrange this for Friday of the same week I sent my application. Mr Terry explained at the interview that he was looking for personnel with 90% personality and 10% perspiration. He told me that staff were trained in works management, whilst working in the efficiency department and later allocated works management posts. I was asked a number of psychological questions, which I did not feel that I had done very well. It came as a great surprise when he offered to take me on at a higher salary that I was at present earning. I told him I could start after I had given Yale a week's notice.
During the summer works break at the Yale, I cycled to Sandersfoot, near Tenby, Wales, where I rejoined the scouts and rovers of 2nd Urmston scout troop. Immediately, when I arrived at the camp after this journey of about 130 miles, I put my swimming trunks on and attempted to swim across the bay to show them how fit I was. To my horror, I was caught up in a mass of seaweed and literally had to be fished out. There were many new faces and of course, old ones, like Sam, the Crosses and Sheppards. Most of our time was spent playing beach games, rambling and having camp fire songs at night. I assisted with cooking and scored a great success, with a spotted dick suet pudding. The weather was fine during the week's camp and more importantly, on the return cycle journey home. This was my last connection with my former scout troop.
During the year 1934, after I had returned from camp, Hitler, as Chancellor of Germany began to flex his muscles by reclaiming the land taken from Germany with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Daily papers were now giving prominence to Nazi threats to world peace. Dollfuss, Austrian Chancellor was murdered by Austrian Nazis. The following year, he reclaimed the Saar, brushed aside the constraints of Versailles, by proclaiming conscription for an enlarged army and air force.
On a happier note, my sister Edith, then aged 22, wedded Les Roston, the grocer at Bushbury Church, Wolverhampton. Unfortunately mother's illness prevented us from travelling to Davyhulme, Manchester, where they lived and where the wedding should have taken place. It was the smallest wedding of the year. Only my father and myself attended on Edith's side. Les, his mother and sister, Bob, his brother in law arrived by taxi. We had a get-together at home, so that mother could bless the wedding couple. I still acted as the naughty brother, as I said to Les, "Good luck, you will need it" as they were leaving for their honeymoon. Les always remembered this and his eighties reminded me of what I had said, and with a Lancashire grin in front of Edith, said "How right you were."
My father drove us to and fro from the church. It came as a surprise to Edith, as it did to me when we arrived at Wolverhampton, that he had a car. A car was essential to take his samples around to his customers. We are still both ignorant as to where he learnt to drive, and did he ever pass a driving test?
Now that I had secured a post with the well-known firm, the Ever Ready company, my task in telling father that I was leaving the Yale and Towne was simplified. Again, there were no recriminations and I am sure he hoped my career would stay on course. At evening classes, I was gaining skill in handling lathes and shapers in making a scriber. My drawing work left very much to be desired, more experience required!
In joining the Ever Ready company I was looking forward to new challenges and of course, increased pay. I had been impressed with Mr Terry, a smartly dressed middle aged man, wearing a tooth brush moustache. His upright bearing gave evidence to his former army background, in which he served in the 1st World War as captain. Most important to me was his outward approach in welcoming new suggestions. Would this really be my finest hour? I am aware that I quoted this when I joined the Yale, but in justification for this firm, it triggered off my interest in engineering. Year, 1935 and fast approaching 20 years of age.
© Alan Rayment 1998
Last revised: January 14, 2001