How I Learned the Nuts and Bolts of a Good Day’s Work.

Memories of an Apprentice Anthony R. Andrew

After receiving my exam results in 1962 and leaving Short Heath Secondary Modern, I decided I would like to be a draughtsman, the reason being that I had achieved a distinction in that subject. I went on a job search during August to many local factories but failed to get a job. I was beginning to get disillusioned and fed up with being rejected when my mother suggested I enrol for a college course, which in her words meant that "I wouldn't end up in a factory".

I enrolled for a full time pre-engineering course (electrical bias) and spent an enjoyable time learning new subjects and doing practical electrical tasks. I passed the course in August 1963 and left Walsall and Staffs Technical College to find a job but "not in a factory". After writing off for many jobs to complement my new knowledge and school exam results, I failed to achieve employment as a draughtsman so the only route left was to try for an apprenticeship in engineering. My quest for apprenticeship status began at John Harpers, Willenhall, then Wilkins & Mitchell, Rubery Owen, and Easiclean, but to no avail. Finally I was sent from the youth employment service to Charles Richards Nuts & Bolts Ltd.

Charles Richards' Imperial Works in Heath Road, Darlaston in the 1930s.


After my interview at Charles Richards I was offered an engineering apprenticeship. My father was asked to attend the second interview to sign my indenture documents. After the formalities were completed I was welcomed to Charles Richards Nuts & Bolts Ltd for the next five years. It was very strange, that first day at Richards's. The first feeling on entering the small wooden door off Heath Road was "Bloody hell, what have I signed up for?" (and wishing, in the back of my mind that I had worked harder for my Eleven Plus). We were in the Black Forging Department, with all sorts of massive, noisy, hot machines, banging and forming red hot steel metal bars into nut and bolt shapes.

We (the apprentices) nervously followed the chief instructor past workers who were feeding furnaces, loading power presses with steel billets, pushing trucks, pulling trucks and feeding automatic forging machines with long, round bars. The workers stared at our keen young fresh faces with a look that said "Why do you want to work in a place like this?" The main things you noticed upon this first "tour" were the noise, dirty floors, old doors and steel windows with glass that was filthy dirty, due to the smoke, heat and sweat of decades of hot metal manufacturing through two world wars and numerous recessions. There was also that "factory metal smell" that was always synonymous with any steel bashing establishment of that era.

We arrived at our destination, which was the apprentice training school situated within the "bowels" of the fitting and machine shops. The department was perched over a canal basin, which was to become very useful during the first year of training. After the formalities of health and safety instructions, time planning sheets and general works information, we were asked to introduce ourselves to each of the other ten apprentices who we would be working with for the next five years - all strange faces but friendly enough, some serious, some nervous, some funny and although some were tall and some were small, we all looked the same in our new baggy boiler suits.

Part of the bolt production line.

After a few weeks induction we began our training schedule beginning with machining of components to engineering drawings in the training school. This was when we realised the canal basin outside the window was to prove very useful.

If a particular part was scrapped, usually due to chatting to your mates and leaving autofeeds on, it could be ejected through the window into the cut when the instructor was out of the department. The main thing was to chuck it as far as possible to avoid a big pile of rusting metal parts which was up to the canal surface, this being left by decades of apprentices throwing their scrap in the cut.

The first year was OK, although we had to attend college for one day a week, which was a bit of a shock. But unlike school, we began to be treated like adults. Once we got used to going to college it was great - a day off work. It was this year I got my first scooter (a Vespa) which gave me freedom to zoom around the locality with my new apprentice mates, going to coffee bars and the pictures.


After the first year of training and college tuition it was time for us to be allocated to various departments in the company. My first move was to the maintenance area in the New Imperial Department. This was my first chance to obtain new skills of machine repair and servicing to achieve continuity of nut and bolt production.

This area was "over the road" and seemed a million miles away from the training school. I felt like I was a proper worker, assisting the fitters and mending machines. The people who worked on the shop floor were the salt of the earth and the maintenance fitters soon accepted me as the new boy and became my mates.

Another part of the bolt production line.

Many things happened during my six months in this area. Once, when I was on a lunch break, I decided to toast my sandwiches on a small electric fire with a home-made wire fork. The work that morning had been particularly arduous and while doing my toasting I fell asleep and my fork touched the open element waking me up with an electric shock up my arm. I tried to let go but at first couldn't. After a lot of yelling and shaking I finally broke loose, ran outside and dived in a pile of snow, which being January had fallen the night before. After lying there for five minutes or so I looked upstairs to big "G" and said thanks. Fortunately it was only 240 volts and not 415 volts. The rest of my time in this area was enjoyable and completed with no more "shocking" moments.

The next move was back to the fitting shop where I would be working with the machine tool fitters for six months, stripping down and rebuilding various machines used in nut and bolt production. I immediately enjoyed it in this department and felt at home with the tasks I was asked to do. The machine tool fitters were great blokes who were mostly friendly and helpful to the "new apprentice". There was Fred Hampton, Jack Williams, Charlie Bailey, Jimmy Rogers, Bill Griffiths and Arthur Bettley. Some of these were workers who had helped keep the company production going through the war and since then I have often wondered if their efforts and that of other similar workers were appreciated by the government of the day, which contributed to the defeat of Hitler through their hard work.

Having begun my six months working in the fitting shop I found out some of my fellow apprentices were in there as well, which was great and meant we could have a few laughs during the following months, which we did. The first thing you were told by the foreman was to listen to what you were told by the fitters and learn from them. I was assigned to work mainly with Fred Hampton who, I had been told, was one of the best engineers in the shop. Fred was very instructive and taught me all the skills he could in six months.

Large diameter coils of steel are threaded into machines, possibly to be cut and threaded for studs.

I moved on from the fitting shop for six months in the laboratory. This was the department that tested the quality of the products that were "heat treated" for greater tensile strength and quality. The lab was hidden away up an alleyway by some toilets and upon first entering, it was reminiscent of the science room at school. The main machine was for tensile testing of bolt samples taken from the heat treatment process, which were then turned down on a lathe to a defined cross sectional diameter before being fixed in the machine tooling and pulled under hydraulic pressure until it fractured. The result was then recorded and logged before testing the next sample.

At first this was very new and in those days "hi tech", but after a few hours of "bosting" bolts it became extremely boring. After my six months confinement in this place I was finally transferred back to reality into the Bright Shop maintenance area. Great! A chance to get my hands dirty and have a laugh with some of my mates. The fitters in the shop were down to earth and hard working. The chargehand was George Lees and the fitter was Bill Foulkes. In this department you were taught to think for yourself and get on with the jobs.


Any problems were soon rectified by Bill or George, who were always willing to help and teach you all the tricks of the trade. Day-to-day maintenance was supplemented by Saturday morning overtime, which came in very useful for a chap who now had an A35 van to support. I was then moved back to the fitting shop to do six months of machining. Having spent the majority of my time in this area I was immediately at home with my surroundings and began, after initial instruction, to work on the planning machine.

The corner of a machine shop, possibly in the maintenance department.

The time had come for my next training period, this time in the Drawing Office, the move I was looking forward to, although I was a bit nervous of the works engineer.

The next Monday I started at 8.30 instead of 7.30, wearing my best suit and shiny shoes and reported to the chief draughtsman, Les Foulkes. He was another nice bloke who had worked his way up from the shop floor. I was introduced to the manager, works engineer, and the girl who was the drawing tracer and another girl who was the junior tracer. The change from shop floor to an office environment was amazing. You were treated like a person, not just another worker, and I felt quite at home.

My first task was to learn how to print off large drawings on the ammonia print machine, then to trim them on the guillotine. This was OK, but sometimes you did get a lungful of ammonia which certainly cleared your sinuses.

The following months passed with great memories. The office was a happy place, with Les having his daily apple, always peeling it then slicing it to eat, followed by a cigarette. This was usually smoked in conjunction with the junior tracer, who also smoked and used to launch a fag over the drawing boards to reach Les at the back. This was repeated in reverse at tea break. Being in the drawing office was another world from the factory floor and if I had to go out to take some measurements for a drawing my mates would say "yow'm dressed up a bit posh, ain't ya". I would reply that they would have to "dress up" as well when they went into the Drawing Office.

While I was there we had loads of good times. I hoped that I could stop in there and when an interesting task came up I thought I might be asked to stay on permanently.

This was the time in the mid-1960s when nuts & bolts companies were changing their logos to refer to "fasteners" instead of the old fashioned "nuts & bolts". My directive from the works engineer was to modify all existing signs and wall letterings. The next few weeks I spent climbing ladders, painting out "nuts & bolts" and painting in "fasteners". I also had to draw all the walls to scale, showing every brick and every letter change for contractors to do the external lettering modifications. The engineer was satisfied with my efforts and I was hoping he would offer me a job in office, but sadly the offer never came.

It was a turning point in my career and I knew my ambition to be a draughtsman would never be fulfilled, at least not at Charles Richards. Maybe it was that secondary modern stigma again. I'll never know. The powers that be then transferred me to the General Toolroom for three months, which was noisy and full of comedians and jokers, all great working people. The work was interesting but not really what I wanted so after three happy months I went back to the fitting shop to finish my apprenticeship.

Part of the packing department.

Working in the fitting shop was my last placement before completing my training and I was assigned to the machine tool bench, being given the vice and bench area formerly used by Jack Williams, a top class engineer who had recently retired. I had a lot to live up to, but luckily it was next to my "mentor" Fred Hampton, who was approaching retirement in the next few years. Although I was still an apprentice I was given a "proper job", machine rebuilding, the first one being a "5/8" Van Thiel hot nut forging machine, which usually took four to six months to complete.

Fred taught me the correct procedures to begin a machine refurbishment. It began with a general stripping down of parts from the main machine body, each part having to be cleaned with paraffin and rags, ready for inspection for wear and replacement of bearings, fastenings, oil pipes etc. The main body was then cleaned down.


There was a great feeling of satisfaction six months later when the machine was finished and ready for production. The best thing was being presented with the first nuts produced on the machine for a keepsake. As soon as one Van Thiel machine went out another one was taken off production and brought in to the shop for rebuild. This time I knew what to do and got on with it. I was nearly a machine tool fitter.

Life in the shop wasn't all work and no play, we had many distractions from the daily grind, especially at lunchtimes. In winter we had the darts school in the welding shop, when we would all become "Eric Bristows" for half an hour, throwing our bespoke factory darts in a sort of in-house league. In the summer we used to have a "kick about" in the loading bay after going up "Darlo" to get some "orange" chips from Middleton's chip shop. Most of us now had cars and a new lunchtime venue was on the car parks where we would suddenly become expert mobile mechanics.

Christmas festive celebrations were always one big booze-up with the last day spent cleaning up and generally housekeeping in the fitting shop with an air of expectancy that we would be told we could all finish at lunchtime, which always happened. When the hooter went off there would be a stampede of apprentices through the door to see who would be the first in the pub, usually the Why Not pub. After the first hour or so some of us would go "on tour" to a few more of the local pubs, The Bush and The Glamour House.

A few of the firm's many products.

In August, 1968, the end of my apprenticeship had arrived and one afternoon I was called into the boardroom and presented with my indentures by the managing director in the presence of my training manager and supervisor. After a short speech and a handshake I received them - not much of a ceremony after all the grafting I had done in five long years.

I stayed on, having been "half promised" promotion in a few years, but on reflection I think it was a mistake to stay on because all I used to hear was "you won't get promotion, because you are too useful on the bench rebuilding machines", and they were right. So after a further seven years as a machine tool fitter, and becoming "part of the furniture" at Charles Richards's, I decided to leave and get another job in 1975.

I feel privileged to have known the people who were my workmates and friends in the 1960s and early 1970s and who were hard working, dedicated Black Country folk. My time as an apprentice taught me to respect people and to do a "good day's work for a good day's pay".

The remains of Imperial Works in 2008.

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