British mechanical engineering in the ’50s and ’60s – a unique perspective

Woolwich Arsenal ROF - British mechanical engineering
The original main gateway of Woolwich Arsenal ROF (Royal Ordnance Factory)

The “Chief Clicker” has invited me to contribute recollections of my mechanical engineering experiences during the 1950’s & 60’s. Being his father, I suppose I qualify through being a soft target!

Do not expect tales of engineering grandeur from those far off days as my experience is limited to that of a five year craft mechanical engineering apprenticeship and four years as a time-served, City & Guilds qualified, skilled man. In 1965 I embarked on an entirely different career, giving up mechanical engineering for good.

My motivation for becoming a mechanical engineer was not particularly high-minded, in that it arose through default rather than desire. At school I was “selected” to do metal work instead of carpentry, I half-heartedly owned a Meccano set and our next-door-neighbour (my Godfather) was a skilled fitter at our local Royal Ordnance Factory, Cardiff. These slim indications of destiny resulted in my applying for and securing against the odds, a craft mechanical engineering apprentice ship at ROF (Cardiff). None were more surprised than my “inspirational” secondary modern school careers master, who had previously advised me that I was wasting my time because they only took high school boys. Thank you “Cav.”

On 3rd September 1956, compulsorily equipped with two pristine new, blue boiler suits and a six inch steel rule, aged just 15 years, I enthusiastically embarked upon my craft apprenticeship at ROF (Cardiff) – with about 30 other craft apprentices and one student apprentice, the latter being my first ever encounter with anyone brainy. For the first 12 months, we were confined to the apprentice section workshop, earning the vast sum of £2..3s..11d (£2.20p) for a 48 hour working week. Of this pittance, 3s..11d (20p) was deducted at source and my parents took £1.50 for board & lodge. This left me with the grand sum of 50p for a 48 hour week! My chances of getting rich quick seemed a long way off.

Primitive Health & Safety

My first impression of factory life was that of constant, horrendous noise levels. I wondered just how I would be able to cope – and didn’t. As a result of being exposed to such noise during the formative years of my life, my hearing was damaged. Much later in life I learnt that the higher end of my hearing range was non-existent and now wear two hearing instruments to compensate. No “Elf‘n Safety” in those days.

On the subject of “Elf‘n Safety,” we were all strongly advised not to wear ties because revolving things had a tendency to throttle machine operators, turners in particular. We were also strongly urged to resist any temptation we might have to inflate one’s fellow workmate with compressed air line via anus. It seems that this had previously been tried and the victim had either floated away and/or burst. Our foreman did not elaborate. The value of applying barrier cream to the hands before commencing work was also stressed. Some years later I was to (insignificantly) burn an eye-lid with hot swarf from a lathe, resulting in my opting to wear goggles for similar tasks. It was only by doing so that I discovered we had our very own “Elf‘n Safety” manager. His curiosity had got the better of him and he had boldly ventured onto the shop floor from his comfortable (fortified against all eventualities) office to ask me why I wore goggles so often. This proved to be my only ever encounter with the species homo elfnsafety. I’m not sure how much he was paid, but I would have readily swapped places with him.

After 12 months cosseting in the apprentice section we were moved out to various engineering departments to broaden our experience. I spent six months in the millwright section making tools for myself because nobody, including the foreman & his assistants, wanted anything to do with apprentices. I then spent six months on capstan lathes. Why this should be was never explained to me. Capstan lathe operation was said to be semi-skilled work, the “Setter” contributing the skilled aspect. I never encountered the species homo setter so it is just possible that they originate from the same source as homo elfnsafety. Colourful images of the elusive “Yeti” spring to mind.

The move to ROF (Woolwich) – The Royal Arsenal, London SE I8

As the end of the 2nd year of my apprenticeship neared, the dreaded word “redundancy” crept into my vocabulary. With others, I was given a choice – either quit my apprenticeship or complete it at another Royal Ordnance Factory. As a result, in September 1958 (aged 17 years), I found myself working in the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London SE I8 – now prestigious upmarket flats. It was here that I was to complete my five year craft mechanical engineering apprenticeship and attain my final City & Guilds Certificate in Machine Shop Engineering at the Woolwich Polytechnic. It was at “The Poly” I encountered young students of recent African descent, studying for higher qualifications than myself. If it hadn’t been for their scary, facial tribal markings I would have probably related well to them because we were each a “long” way from home. It was said that the tribal markings had been inflicted during their childhood, their parents cutting their cheeks and infecting the wounds with dirt. They sported two or three such scars on each cheek, a practice yet to evolve in my native Wales. The expression “sharp learning curve” seems most appropriate.

Whilst undergoing my craft apprenticeship at Woolwich, I was accommodated at a Government Hostel in Chislehurst, Kent with about 60 other apprentices, mostly student apprentices studying for higher qualifications including mechanical engineering degrees. We apprentices originated from all parts of the British Isles and a night in the local usually resulted in numerous regional & bawdy songs being exuberantly sung with pint in hand. The culture clash with my background was enormous, but I coped and enjoyed “Student” life to the full, without the onerous burden of having to swot for an engineering degree. Utopia, indeed! At the end of the day we all wanted to be mechanical engineers, as was evidenced by the constant miracles we achieved keeping our old, decrepit, pre-war bangers on the road. (No M.O.T to worry about in those days). You could always tell a hostel car by its numerous bright and shiny chrome fittings (don’t ask).

C28 (West) Instrument Shop c1960 - british mechanical engineering
Work colleagues at C28 (West) Instrument Shop c1960. I’m immediately behind the bar and glassware (no tie)

In so far as the Royal Arsenal (ROF Woolwich) is concerned, I was first sent to the “Light Gun Factory,” where I was put to work de-burring various unidentifiable items. I never knew what these components were intended for, perhaps because I had signed the Official Secrets Act and would probably go to prison if I spoke of my work outside the factory. A day later someone in authority decided to transfer me to the “Heavy Gun Factory.” Was it something I’d said?

It was in the Heavy Gun Factory I had the dirty job of rough turning the casting skin from recently cast “Heavy” gun barrels and rough-drilling out breech blocks with 4” (100mm) plus drills. The vertical drill was so big that I had to climb on the work-table to reach the controls. Elf’n Safety would have had a fit! One intriguing aspect of working in the Heavy Gun Factory was that we were sited near the River Thames and pea-souper fogs regularly invaded the workplace. Elf‘n Safety would have had even bigger fits!

After one year in the Heavy Gun Factory doing monotonous work, I complained to the foreman that my apprenticeship was on hold, that I was being used as cheap labour and that this would never have happened had I been allowed to continue my craft apprenticeship in Cardiff. I meant every word of what I said and he knew it. This proved to be an excellent move on my part, because within days I was transferred to the “Instrument Shop,” a comparative haven of cleanliness, peace & tranquillity. I had secured a place in the 2nd most prestigious workshop in the Royal Arsenal, bettered only by that holy of holies, the hallowed “Tool Room.” I served the remainder of my craft apprenticeship in the Instrument Shop. We even had our very own student apprentice, my friend Robin B. from Northern Ireland. Things were looking up.

A primitive, but ingenious electro-mechanical computer

Throughout my time in the Instrument Shop we worked on a (then) secret electro-mechanical military computer, code-named “Yellow Fever” (don’t ask). This ensured that the word “computer” entered my vocabulary decades before today’s computer revolution swept the Globe. Most people in those days would never have heard the word “computer” spoken, leave alone know what one was. The purpose of “Yellow fever” was to work in conjunction with Radar and the Bofors Gun, precisely aligning the weapon with attacking enemy aircraft. It had a manual over-ride facility which could be used to rapidly bring the weapon to bear, the computer taking over from there. I’ve no idea how effective it was, but several years later saw one briefly displayed by the military at a Cardiff Tattoo. No explanation or demonstration was given. I do not recollect seeing an associated weapon.

yellow fever
Yellow Fever (image on left is © Mike Garland, image on right is © Stan Weeks)

“Yellow Fever” was enclosed in a large aluminium alloy box, containing yards/metres of mysterious wiring – and numerous “Ball Resolvers.” It was my job to fit and assemble Ball Resolvers, each of which contained a perfectly spherical 2” (50mm) ball bearing, rotating on several small ball-race bearings. It was said that the large ball bearing could revolve through numerous infinitesimal angles, enabling it to function as a computer (don’t ask). In this day and age, the whole thing would probably dangle on your key ring!

Engineering a museum piece

Many decades after finishing my craft apprenticeship (1961) and abandoning mechanical engineering for good (1965), I visited the Imperial War Museum at RAF Duxford and was astonished to see a well-worn example of “Yellow Fever” with linked Bofors Gun on public display. What had once been secret, cutting edge technology was now a museum exhibit! Not only that, but it was labelled “Yellow Fever” too – a term I had only ever seen printed on classified government engineering drawings and heard spoken of from the corner of one’s mouth. The expression “Time & tide wait for no man” seems overwhelmingly appropriate.



4 thoughts on “British mechanical engineering in the ’50s and ’60s – a unique perspective”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing that! And we think we’ve got things hard today… My father was 14 when my grandfather took him out of school and walked him down the main street. The first shop that had a ‘vacancies’ sign on it was a tailors. My grandfather took the sign off the hook and walked my father into the shop. And so my father became a tailor for the rest of his life.
    I’ll bet you had some fun though, without the watchful eyes of the safety gestapo upon you….

    1. The "Roaring Donkey" name originates from our Geordie foreman Tony Charles (not in pic) who had a turn of phrase that would make a sergeant-major blush. At the end of every official tea break he would loudly exhort us to return to work with persuasive comments like "Come on you lazy b******s, get up of your f******g arses and get back to f******g work, now!" Despite this, he was very popular and always attended our workshop social activities. (He'd be about 115 years old now). Needless to say, the person holding the sign was our shop steward…

  2. I see.  It sounds like you feel a lot more empathy for the shop foreman than the shop steward. I completely agree.  Unless you enjoyed standing around braziers outside the gates… somehow, I don't think you did.

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