Fraser-Mitchell recently came across a copy of 'Aces, Erks and Backroom
Boys' by Edward Smithies (published by Cassell PLC in their Military
Paperbacks series), now out of print, and noticed that it contained
material of great interest to Association members. Harry has obtained
permission for extracts to be quoted in the Newsletter. This a second
instalment (see Newsletter 17)...
Tom Clare joined Hawkers at Kingston as a metal-worker in
"Conditions in the
factory in those days were pretty rough. The tooling was very bad. All
these young lads were doing their little jobs, bits and pieces, and
there was no planning as we know it today, no paperwork. There was
nobody to show you anything unless you had a word with the chap next to
you; if he knew anything about it; if he would tell you! Nothing big
about it at all. At one point they had a clear-out and there was only
eight people left on the plane floor!
And Backroom Boys
When I went there, the only aircraft was rag and string. That was the
pattern of it. I remember Tommy Sopwith, with a blooming great cigar,
come round smoking, overcoat and mac on, asking us why we were cold!
Ooh yes, Tommy Sopwith! They had an old car. When Sir Frank Spriggs and
HK Jones, who came in when Tommy Sopwith went into liquidation, wanted
to go out up to town, fitters off the bench used to have to rush
downstairs, put on their chauffeur's hat and drive them up. That was
how poor it was.
shop was nothing but belt-driven machines; no automatics. If you was
within range when a belt broke you caught it. Old Sawbone Nightingale
was the bloke who came round with the adhesive to stick on the belts
when they broke. I've never seen hands like it. He didn't clean 'em, he
just put them on the grindstone. I've seen him go up to the forge,
upstairs where the blacksmith was, and he'd got the old coke fire like
a blacksmith would have, the old bellows. Sawbone'd come in there and
pick a bit of red hot coke out and light a fag, his fingers smoking
with all the grease; they were black with thick callouses.
No craft distinction then; you did what you were bloody well told
unless you wanted the sack, because plenty of people outside wanted
your job. That was the big incentive, the sack! They didn't want to
over-labour at all. In the early days it was nothing for them to come
round on a Friday afternoon and give a couple of dozen people an hour's
notice, or two hour's notice. I was looking at that one time. We were
very shy of work and the charge hand hadn't got a job for me for a
couple of days.
In 1935 we
started building the Hurricane. I made the first rib for it. They put
it in the first test rig that was ever made; and that was a funny old
thing. None of the paraphernalia that there is today of gauges and
God-knows-what; it was just weights and stuff stretched on it; loads
put on it. Very elementary.
When I first went there was no smoking allowed in any shop; they used
to go down in the toilet. You were booked in. Archie was a one-armed
bloke in there and if you slipped him a fag through the window when you
gave your number - he had to write it in a book - he'd let you smoke.
There were stable doors, half doors. Later on when I became Assistant
Foreman you were allowed to use three other toilets. They were locked,
with full doors, and you had a key. That was class distinction!
There was always somebody up to a lark; always a bit of
devilry among them. If you'd got caught you'd have got the sack. But
today they lack, I dunno, the spirit that was there. Anybody would have
helped the other one. If a bloke was in trouble somebody would help him
out. There was always a lark going on, a joke, somebody playing a trick
on somebody - putting spurs on the back of their heels or a notice on
their back, or painting their heels. Some blokes would go up the road
and find their heels were painted bright yellow. But there was always a
good spirit among us! It was always friendly; nothing vicious about it.
You weren't allowed any breaks in the mornings; you weren't even
supposed to have a drink though we used to take flasks and they knew we
did - we used to keep it out of sight - and perhaps a jam sandwich, or
marmalade, or whatever you could afford, and you had that somewhere
about tennish, on the quiet. Look round and make sure - put it in the
drawer away somewhere, put the cup down there and hide something over
it. And that'd be the way it went.Then they agreed you could have a tea
break for ten minutes and they came round with barrows. Of course the
milk cartons on there were handy things to roll up and throw.
When I had a five-pound in my pay packet, it was out of this world.
That was for working weekends and two night's overtime a week and
Saturday and Sunday."