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Two Rooms And A View: 55 - The Factory Apprentice

...In all the years I took a packed lunch to work, I can never remember taking an apple, orange or banana, or indeed any other fruit. Nor did anyone else except perhaps for the occasional apple. Fruit was not on sale in the canteen and, apart from Christmas or when somebody was ill, we rarely had any in the house. It was seen as an unnecessary luxury and not associated with the diet of a working man...

Robert Owen recalls his training days as an engineering apprentice.

All new apprentices at Reyrolles in 1951 started their careers by attending a twelve-week Pre-Apprentice Course at selective technical colleges. I was detailed to attend South Shields Marine and Technical College.

Because the college was short of suitable accommodation, the Pre-Apprentice Course was held at Prince Edward Road Youth Centre, which was used as an annexe by the college during the day. The Centre was built between the two wars and used to re-train people during the economic depression of the nineteen thirties. I believe it became known as the 'Dole Centre'. In addition to social facilities, it included classrooms, an engineering workshop and a hall that was used as a gymnasium.

There were five other Reyrolle apprentices on the course, but only two came from Shields. I quickly recognised one of them. He was Ted Humphrey, a small dark-haired lad who had played for Cleadon School football team. We teased each other for the next five years over who had the best team.

The other was a tall, well-built lad from the St Peter and Paul School, named Vince Carrahar. We served our apprenticeships together but I never got to know a lot about Vince except that he played the guitar and was a keen boxer. Two other trainees came from Sunderland and one from North Shields.

Of all the engineering and shipyard companies on South Tyneside, I was amazed to find only apprentices from Reyrolles on this course. The other dozen or so members were unemployed youngsters who were seeking work as engineering apprentices. This immediately designated the Reyrolle apprentices as a privileged group who had both a job and a wage; they never let us forget it!

Again we were told nothing in advance by the Apprentice Training Officer at Reyrolles about the course. This neglect resulted in acute embarrassment for me, and more financial problems for my mother.

At the end of the first day we were told by Mr York the course tutor, "Bring your boiler suits tomorrow as we will be in the workshop." This assumed that everybody had a boiler suit. I certainly didn't.

I remember going home that afternoon and asking my mother, "Can I have a boiler suit for tomorrow morning please?"

Her reply was unprintable. She was so annoyed she wanted to write to Reyrolles to complain and ask why we had not been told in advance. Although always very short of money, she had never let me go without essentials. However, asking at 5.30 p.m. for a boiler suit for the following morning was impossible. Even if we had the money, the shops were already closed.

It took an extra 24 hours. The following morning I had to lie, and say I had forgotten my boiler suit. When I got home that afternoon, the next best thing awaited me. It was a new bib and brace, a sort of three-quarter boiler suit usually worn by joiners or plumbers. I do not know yet where the money for such an unplanned purchase came from; perhaps it was another shilling-a-week club. The bib and brace would suffice, but for the first twelve months, I think I was the only apprentice at Reyrolles without a proper boiler suit.

The curriculum for the course was very workshop-orientated and included the use of hand tools, introduction to machines, mathematics, liberal studies and physical training. The mathematics and physical training lecturer was John Ward, who was captain of South Shields Cricket first team in 1949.

He trustingly sent us on a five-mile cross country run one afternoon with instructions not to return in less than an hour. We didn't, but we certainly didn't run for five miles either. The following year, John left Tyneside for a college in Kent where he eventually became Principal and a local Magistrate.

The weekly highlight of the course was when someone from Reyrolles arrived with our wages on a Friday afternoon. This was also highly embarrassing when the wage packets were distributed with the other unemployed members of the course looking on.

One of the members on the next course was Andy Kinelato, my colleague from school. Being three months younger than me, he followed me around Reyrolles for the next five years!

The Pre-Apprenticeship Course was soon over and then it was back to the real world. This meant a 7.30 a.m. start at the Apprentice Training School (A.T.S.) at the New Town Works. To get there on time meant getting up at 6.15 a.m. and leaving home before seven.

Such early hours were completely new to me and I had great difficulty getting out of bed at that time, never mind riding five miles to work. We did not own an alarm clock and used to ask the lady downstairs to 'knock us up.' This was done by knocking with a brush handle on the downstairs ceiling. I was expected to acknowledge by knocking down on the upstairs floor.

Arising at 6.15 a.m. in the summer was bad enough, but during the freezing cold and dark winter mornings, it was near impossible. The only heating in the house was the coal fire and this had always burnt itself out during the night. I used to light the one ring gas burner and use it as an improvised source of heat as it boiled the kettle and I got washed and changed for work. On very cold occasions, there was a covering of ice on top of the water pail and frost on the inside of our two windows.

We normally finished work at 5.15 p.m. but three nights a week apprentices going to evening classes got out early at 4.45 p.m. On such occasions, I got home about 5.30 p.m. and had to be out again at 6.45 p.m. for two and a half hours' evening class. Arriving home about 10 p.m., it was then a light supper and off to bed to start the same thing the next morning.

Each week was highly prescribed with night classes on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, football training on Wednesday and Boys' Brigade on a Friday. Saturdays were taken up with 'down town' in the morning, football in the afternoon and pictures in the evening. Sunday was devoted to church and homework from night classes.

The long days were very fatiguing perhaps partly caused by my having little or no breakfast. This meant that when the tea lady arrived at 9.30 for the ten-minute break, it was the highlight of the day. Two of my four sandwiches for lunch disappeared while sitting on the bench and reading the Newcastle Journal.

Lunch consisted of a quick dash to the canteen, a mug of tea, and a sit down, rest and a chat to fellow apprentices, Ted Humphreys, Jim McDowel and Derek Seymour, with whom I shared a table. If it was a fine day and if we had enough energy, we used to have a walk around the shops in Station Road and Glen Street.

Another favourite lunch-time occupation was inspecting the cars of the limited number of people who were rich enough to use that mode of transport. Workers could be heard arguing the pros and cons of the Ford Popular v the Morris Minor or Austin 35 v Standard 8. It was rare to find a non-rusty vehicle in the car park.

Extremely few, if any, women drove cars during the nineteen-fifties. Most married women would be at home looking after the house and children and ensuring a cooked meal was ready for when her husband returned from work.

In all the years I took a packed lunch to work, I can never remember taking an apple, orange or banana, or indeed any other fruit. Nor did anyone else except perhaps for the occasional apple. Fruit was not on sale in the canteen and, apart from Christmas or when somebody was ill, we rarely had any in the house. It was seen as an unnecessary luxury and not associated with the diet of a working man.


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