My first day as an apprentice at Wilsons & Mathiesons Ltd. started off with a safety induction course in the personnel department. It was run by the Training Officer Mr. Geoff Muhl. He was a large chap with a bulging waistline and had a red face and was either chuckling or grinning. I was to later find out that he was nicknamed by many of the workers as ‘Jethro’ which was a play on his surname likening it to a 1960s rock band by the name of Jethro Tull. Some of the foreman knew him rather disparagingly as ‘Laughing Boy.’ I was the only apprentice in that day’s intake with the others being operatives who would take their places in the various departments. We were advised of starting and finishing times and of the dire consequences should we happen to clock in or out any of our colleagues. The most memorable warning we were given was to never play around with compressed air guns. A story was related about a worker who thought it would be a hoot to stick the nozzle up the posterior of a colleague and pull the trigger. We learned that this had resulted in the death of the poor victim. After the pep talk a couple of foremen arrived and escorted my fellow inductees to their posts.
Jethro escorted me to the tool room to meet my foreman, Vince Edwards. Vince was a roly-poly chap with a gravelly voice, no doubt honed by an ever present cigarette in his nicotine stained fingers. I instantly liked Vince as he showed me around the tool room machining section. All eyes were on the new boy and I returned smiles from some of the old hands. I noticed that there were a couple of apprentices like me in green overalls and they too seemed friendly. My first job was to be under the watchful eyes of Eddie Mawson. He was a short chap and his expression immediately reminded me of a bloodhound with drooping jowls. Vince introduced us and Eddie gripped my hand in a strange handshake that seemed to be rubbing my palm. “You’ll do for me” said Eddie and went on to explain that one of the apprentices before me had the sweatiest hands known to man, and had made a mess of all the marking off equipment which ended up covered in rust. Eddie pointed out the guilty apprentice, a tall red haired lad called Steve who worked in the fitting bay. Steve and Eddie exchanged hand signals which would be highly inappropriate in public. I later learned that it was just shop floor banter and there was no real animosity.
Eddie sat me down on a stool in front of a cabinet at about desk height and revealed the top by removing a wooden cover. The marking off plate had seen a lot of use and yet was shining under the fluorescent lights above. The cabinet doors were opened and an array of marking off tools, mainly a height gauge and sine bar were placed on the table. A wooden box was brought out and opened. Eddie said they were called ‘slip gauges’ but gesturing to the machinists said “but this lot call them Johnny Blocks.” I was instructed to make a copper sulphate solution to colour small steel die blocks and how to scribe lines on the faces using the height gauge. Eddie asked if I knew anything about trigonometry and was pleasantly surprised, perhaps better to say he was shocked, that I had passed A-level mathematics. We digressed and adjourned to his makeshift desk, covered with drawings and a book of tables. He drew a few triangles and set me the task of working out angles and side lengths. I seemed to pass muster and Eddie simply nodded. We returned to the marking off bench and I was instructed in the use of the sine bar and ‘johnny blocks’ to mark the components with angled lines.
The nearest machine to my perch at the marking off table was a vertical slotter operated by George, who smoked long slim cigars and wore a grey dustcoat the same colour as his hair. Occasionally I would look up and catch George glancing across in my direction through the corner of his eye. He would immediately start his head bobbing up and down in sync with the slotter, then turn and grin in my direction. Across the aisle was ‘Boothy’ (I never knew his full name) who operated a Butler shaper. He was a fussy little man with a length of string around his neck, attached to his safety glasses. In between brushing away swarf with a hand brush he seemed to be scanning the workshop in a way that reminded me of an owl twisting its head listening for sounds. Being the new boy I was often sent on errands by Vince, the foreman. He called me over and immediately took me by the shoulders and turned me. For a second I was puzzled until he explained. “I need to tell you something about Boothy…” “He can lip read and he is in every conversation in this shop, so be warned.” I returned to my perch and with this newly acquired information watched Mr. Booth as he busily scanned the shop looking for the next interesting conversation. The first day drew to a close and I looked forward to being let loose on the many machine tools in the coming weeks.
Gordon Toulson – May 2021