Oral Histories

George Piggott

My Uncle George Piggott worked at Accles & Pollock for the whole of his working life.  Some time before he died, he gave me a copy of a story that he had written about his first day at work there in 1928.  – Jacqueline Forge (nee Piggott)

My First Day at Work, July 1928.

by George Piggott (10th May, 1914 -11th November, 2005)

Having called at the Time Office the previous Friday, I was told to report for work the following Monday morning and that I should stand outside the department where someone would be waiting to “pick me up”.

I arrived with time to spare just turned 7am and stood outside the department where, through a door and by leaning sideways, I could quite easily see the full length of the building. I was immediately taken aback with the size of the place and began to wonder where in that huge building I would be working.

After about half an hour, which I must say seemed like half a day, I again looked in through the doorway and saw someone who appeared to be waving his arms about, but I paid no attention to this. After waiting a short time I looked inside the building again and to my surprise saw the same person still waving his arms and shaking his head, but in addition there appeared to be another man doing exactly the same sort of thing. However, the second man started to hobble towards the door where I was standing, and as he reached my side he was completely breathless. In fact, he could not say a word. He started to make signs with his arms, which was all double Dutch to me. Eventually he gasped, “He’s been calling you for the last 10 minutes.” I realised at last that he was addressing me and his next sentence was more explicit, “The gaffer has been shouting you to go up to his corner, he wants to tell you what to do. Get cracking. He doesn’t like to kept waiting.”

I slowly began walking into the murky atmosphere of the building and as I neared the foreman’s corner, my legs began to falter. This condition was not improved by the cynical smiles on some of the men’s faces as I passed them and got nearer to the foreman. There he stood in the middle of gangway, arms folded, feet apart, a slim sort of a fellow with a thin pencil moustache and jet black hair parted down the centre, wearing a khaki coat. The man was completely different from what I had imagined, as I had always associated foremen with being the big powerful type. Hence my thoughts “Oh, this won’t be too bad.” So I quickened my steps, and with my long trousers - which were a pair acquired by my mother from some relative (neatly patched at the knee), covering the whole of my legs for the first time ever - I approached the gentleman with a lot more confidence.

“Good morning, Sir,” I remember muttering as I came up to him, but his greeting was not reciprocated, his crisp reply being, “What are your eyes like sonny?” I was about to say brown when I thought it was my sight he was concerned about. “Oh, very good,” I said. “I don’t have to wear glasses.”

“Well, you should,” he replied sharply. “I’ve been beckoning you for the last ten minutes and all you’ve done is look this way and then vanish behind the door.” He turned round and told me to follow him. “Have you brought any overalls?” he said. We moved away from his corner and walked an imaginary path between machines of all descriptions with overhead shafting and belting almost lashing my face as I walked by. “No, not yet,” I replied, being too afraid to tell him that I was unable to have these until I had started earning. “My Mother is getting some as soon as she can.” I concluded without committing myself too much but making him feel that matter had not been overlooked.

“Tell your Mother not to bother, no need for overalls yet, your job to start with will not be very dirty and I am not very happy with workers who wear overalls just to keep themselves warm. I expect the exercise from the job to do that.”

“Now then, let me tell you your priorities: every day you will have to sweep all the workbenches clean and sweep the floor afterwards. At 9am, noon and 3pm you will make tea for the men. If the weather is hot, you will have to make a bucket of oatmeal water a couple of times a day in addition to the tea (this helps to keep the men cool). Part of the afternoon you will have spare, and so I will arrange for you to spend some time with the bench and machine operators to get you familiar with the articles that we make.”

I was then put in the care of another youth who was not long in telling me he was relinquishing these duties to me having had about 12 months at it and was looking forward to his new title of bench hand. It was about a quarter past eight when I finally started work and, although I was not very familiar with the area I had to sweep, I had some experience with the sweeping brush, having many times swept out the kitchen at home. The first half an hour went very well, apart from some of the men offering all sorts of confusing advice. At 9 o’clock my predecessor came up to me and caught hold of the broom saying, “You won’t be needing that for the next 15 minutes, it’s time to make the tea.” I think he enjoyed the next few minutes. He said, “Pick up them tea cans from the end of the bench and follow me.” I moved towards the end of the bench and picked up 7 or 8 cans and was then directed by the youth to the far corner of the workshop where he said the tea urn was located. He then vanished with a grin on his face.

As I got nearer the corner of the workshop, I became aware of a hissing noise that grew louder as I approached my destination. I soon realised that the noise was caused by steam escaping from a tank, which I was soon made aware was the so-called tea urn. The tank or ‘tea urn’ was standing in a shallow tray with room at one end for the cans to be placed before filling with boiling water. But, by the time I got there, the tray was already filled with cans brought by other youths, who were standing around, waiting their turn to fill up. I looked for somewhere to rest my cans and was fortunate to see some low work bins close to the urn which, by the amount of sugar scattered on the top, must have been used for the purpose many times before. How glad I was to be last in the line, for as I took the lids from the cans to fill each with hot water, I was shocked to find each can was as black as coal inside and each one had a crumpled up piece of newspaper inside. Not knowing what to expect I pulled out the paper from the first can, unwrapped it and found it contained tea and sugar mixed together and concealed in the middle was a semi-solid mass of what I later found out was condensed milk. A lot of care and skill must have been used to present it in that state, with not a sign of milk contaminating the newspaper. I did the obvious thing by rolling the contents into the can and putting it on one side ready to fill with boiling water. Two more cans were repeats of the first. Having got over the surprise of the paper bundles in the cans, everything seemed to be going well, or at least I thought so, until I opened the fourth can.

Looking outwardly the same as the previous three paper packets, I emptied the contents into the can. Only the tea and sugar left the paper, the milk that had not been mixed thoroughly with the tea and sugar clung to the newspaper. I tried shaking the paper, but to no avail and in desperation, with time ticking by, I scraped the paper on the side of the can. About half of the milk came away into the can, and the remainder I threw away. The next can also had its problems, the milk having stuck to the newspaper and dropped into the water. The two remaining cans proved to be no better, and by the time they were all filled up the men were already shouting at me to hurry up. It was very difficult trying to carry the cans filled with boiling tea and in fact, many of them spilled over the floor. As I carried them back to the men I was very conscious of the variation in the contents of the cans, some were very milky whilst others didn’t seem to have any milk in at all. Others had fragments of newspaper floating on the top. How I survived the wrath of those men as I walked back to the work area I will never know. Fortunately, the two or three cans which were OK belonged to the fellows who seemed to have the most to say. When they realised this they were more interested in taking the mickey out of the other unfortunate lads and I was finally comforted by one of them who told me that this happened to all young lads. He suggested I keep a piece of hacksaw blade with which to scrape off the milk from the paper.

All tensed up, I resumed my duties with the sweeping brush. This seemed to relax me, weaving my way around the various piles of cycle handlebars. I felt I had done a good job as I looked back at the area I had just swept. At that moment the foreman, with a grin on his face, came up to me, looked back across the rows of bends and said “When your Mother sweeps the rooms out at home sonny, does she sweep round the furniture or does she move it?” Without hesitating, I said, ”She moves it, Sir.” “Well start again at the beginning and move those piles of bends and sweep under them.” “Yes Sir,” I said. I put down my brush and started handling the bent tubes from the pile stacked in front of me and piling them up on the floor in an area that I had already swept clean.

I carried on almost afraid to lift my head. I felt the foreman’s eyes on me, assessing whether his instructions had been fully understood. It must have been a full hour before I reached the bottom of the pile, only to find that the floor where the bends had stood was as clean as the floor where I had swept. I stood up and straightened my aching back, thinking “What a waste of time.” I perceived the foreman standing looking at me. He must have read my thoughts because as he made his way towards me, he said, “I know what you must be thinking, but it is necessary for you to be taught the right way. Those bends have been there a couple of days only, and have, therefore, not collected much dirt, but some jobs are likely to be held up and hang around the shop for some time and so encourage dirt and vermin. You will now know it is vital to move work from time to time in order to keep areas clean.”

I am sure I understood the points he was making, but just at that moment, slowly recovering from the exertion of moving all those bends, I didn’t quite respond the way he expected me to. Just as I was thinking he must be thinking that I was a bit thick there was an almighty noise from above my head which I thought was the fire siren, but the foreman, seeing my startled look, informed me it was the klaxon for starting the lunch break. Before he left me, he asked me to collect up the rubbish before going to my dinner, as it may be kicked about during the break.

As the foreman walked away there was some shouting going on from the direction of the workbenches “What about the tea?” I suddenly realised the cans should have been collected five minutes before the break. A little confused and completely shattered, I quickly collected the cans and made my way towards the tea urn.

With the experience of the 9 o’clock break and the advice given by some of the men, plus a broken hacksaw blade, I seemed to get the tea back to the bench area in a reasonable time. I then went to collect my lunch packet from my coat and was beckoned by one of the men to go and sit with them. The speed with which they ate their sandwiches was only overshadowed by the rate they worked all morning. By the time I had opened my packet of sandwiches, two of the men were finished and already preparing a table to play cards. Two more men joined in and they proceeded to play, what I later found out to be, a game of nap. I watched for the rest of the break, but not understanding the game, or least of all the language they seemed to be talking, I didn’t seem to have achieved much by the time the break finished.

Almost before the klaxon had faded away, the shafting that carried the pulleys which powered the machines had started to revolve, and the lads, having finished the last hand of cards, were walking to their workstations and, heaven forbid, the foreman was walking towards me. He beckoned me and as I went towards him he said, “I want you to leave the sweeping up until about 3 o’clock and go and stay with the operators of the machines and get a little familiar with what they are doing?”

He took me to three people with whom I was to spend the next one and a half hours trying to understand what the machines and men were producing. I tried very hard to look intelligent as I spent half an hour at the first machine, but found it impossible to formulate, what I thought might be a sensible and relevant question. In any case, the person was so engrossed with what he was doing that he hardly noticed I was there.

After what seemed an age the silence was broken by the man working the next machine. He called me over to him and as I went towards him he said, “You won’t get much out of him, he’s not one for talking.”. He then continued telling me about the machine the first fellow was working at and followed on by explaining the workings of the one that he himself was operating. He finished up giving me the low down on the machine worked by the third person I had still to visit. It’s as well he did because by the end of his explanations the time of one and a half hours allocated was at an end, and I was feeling very confused. What I learned from the lecture I was not sure. I knew I had been watching a drilling machine, a miller and a special purpose machine, but at that time I am sure I could not have identified each one separately. To my surprise the operator continued with further explanations of the capabilities of the machines, using shop jargon and assuming I knew the workshop terms he was using, but never giving me the chance to ask a question he carried on relentlessly. He only stopped when he realised it was coming up to the 3 o’clock tea break.

Having learned the pitfalls from the morning session and putting them right at midday, I almost seemed to have a routine as I completed the tea making for the afternoon.

As I started up after the break, I was wondering where I was to continue sweeping, but I need not have worried because there he was coming towards me – the foreman, beckoning. “I want you to spend the rest of the day cleaning off and around these work benches,” he said. As he pointed to them, I could see several benches with workers employed around them. As I got close I could see they were engaged in filing joints of tubular frames which, as I found out later, was necessary before going in for polishing and plating. At that moment, someone called the foreman away and I was left to carry out his instructions the best way I could. I started at the end of a bench where no one was working cautiously worked my way across. I found things slightly different when I got to the benches where work was being carried out. This meant that with a hand brush in my hand I progressively had to stop men from working as I went up the benches brushing off filings and dust from and around the work vices. Having cleaned the tops of the benches, I changed from a hand brush to a sweeping brush in order to do the floor, but although I exerted great pressure on the brush, it seemed to have little impression on the piles of steel filings that lay on the floor. I worked vigorously as I dragged the filings from under and around the workbenches to an area that would not interfere with the workers, at the same time making sure I had not skimped the cleaning. Still remembering the lecture from the foreman earlier in the day, I carried on and did three more benches in a similar way.

I know at the age of fourteen years I was carrying what I later found out was called ‘puppy fat’. I am sure it was due to the effort I was putting in to the sweeping, not my weight, which made me realise my brow and shirt were wet with sweat. I quickly dried my brow and tried to hide it from the workpeople around me. I need not have worried. The fact that I may have been sweating did not affect them because the job they were doing needed so much physical effort they were sweating continuously themselves. In fact, they had permanent sweat cloths around their necks. moved to the fifth bench not knowing the time, only aware that my arms were aching as never before and that there must have been an easier way of keeping the place clean. I moved slowly down the fifth bench, each man stepping back as I reached his workstation.

Whilst I was busy cleaning one area I heard a voice shout, “What are you waiting for?” It was the foreman addressing the man who was waiting for me to clear his bench. “Nothing,” said the man. “I was only wiping the sweat from my brow.” “Well, get cracking,” said the foreman. “If you will work a bit harder there will be no need to wipe the sweat off, it will drop off of its own accord.” He continued, unaware it was me the man was waiting for. Then, realising his mistake, he walked up to him. He stood silent for a few moments and then out it came “You won’t do very well with that brush,” he said, taking it from me as he spoke. “It’s too soft, no good at all for steel filings, you need a hard brush. It’s in the corner by my desk, go and fetch it.” The brush I had been using was quite new but I must confess was on the soft side. I returned with the hard brush and the foreman took hold of it and demonstrated how much easier it was to work with. He handed it to me and with a satisfied grin on his face said, “Use that the next time, you’ll do the job in half the time.” I had to agree. If only he had told me in the first place. With only a few minutes left before finishing time I was able to complete the area. What a day!

After walking the three miles back home, I walked through the door to be greeted by my mother who said, “Well, how did you get on, on your first day?” My reply. “Great.” It had been a hard day. The three mile walk home had seemed endless. However, that did not deter me from having a good wash and then walking from my home in Whiteheath to the Kings Theatre in Blackheath to see ‘Sonny Boy’. That indeed was a great finale to a very tiring first day at work.

Footnote:

After years of loyal service, which began on that memorable day in 1928, George was promoted to the position of Manager.

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