Thursday, 1 March 2012

I become an engineer

Volume 1 – Chapter 15 –Part 1

My long association with North Wales and Rhyl in particular, now appeared to be coming to fruition. My affairs were looking good and from where I was standing, life could not have looked rosier. I was free from the industrial midlands, living by the sea in country that was fair to look upon to say the least. I also felt good about myself because I was actually wanted and had a part to play. Uncle Bill had asked for me to go and work for him, and he was willing to spare me the time it would take to teach me to become a fully fledged auto engineer. I was never to discover anything other than my initial impression, which remained with me until I was summarily dumped back in the Potteries some 12 to 18 months later. It would have been about June/July of 1949 when I moved to Rhyl and about August 1950 when I returned home as surplus to requirements.

What I know now is that my Uncle had never recovered from the death of his business partner Mr Noble whose belligerent wife had demanded her share of the auto engineering business. Finding the capital to pay her off had crippled him, and eventually he had moved from the garage he rented at the rear of the West End Hotel, to the White Rose Garage which was at the East end of the promenade not far from the top of Bath Street where their guest house was situated. When this move was arranged my uncle became in effect, the manager of the workshop in which he owned the major part of the machinery. He had to employ and pay his own staff, and because he could not afford any, he hit on a plan to pay his landlord for the use of mechanics to remove engines to be reconditioned, and then to reinstall them after the work had been done. For the reconditioning work itself he was a one-man band, and because he could not do all the work himself, he decided that he would train me to do some of it for him. I knew nothing about all this at the time, and I doubt that my parents knew the true situation either. They would not have known for example that I was unpaid, but I must add that I received pocket money, and the necessary cash to buy things that I wanted.

For me life became just one long holiday, we started work late, took time off when we felt like it, and we sometimes spent time helping my aunt to run her guesthouse. There was plenty of work to do but I did not mind it at all, I had so much to learn that every day was interesting. The variety of work was broad, with nothing being turned away or refused. We had small jobs, which were often a challenge, not much profit but interesting work. There was one customer who would come in to see us several times a week, who was putting all his time and money into converting a motorcycle into the fastest machine possible. My uncle would spend hours discussing different ways of doing this, and we attempted all sorts of things that took a great deal of time and money, though our customer had limited money to spend.

Then there was marine work we did, mostly for the commercial fisher-men who wanted all sorts of jobs doing, some being very small and profitless. There was the occasional big job which paid well, like the installation of a big new marine diesel engine which took us several days to do. It was a Greys 60 horsepower unit which required a gear box and propeller shaft, which we installed at the same time. I can remember standing knee deep in mud at low tide doing the outside work, on the stainless steel shaft which proved a tricky job for a number of reasons.

Another marine job, which was a challenge, was the installation of a Standard car engine for a boat owned by the local police sergeant, another challenge with little profit. His name was Bryn Jones and he was a big intimidating man, and it was my impression that he expected something for nothing. Maybe he got what he wanted, but having no involvement in the financial side of my uncle’s business I was never to discover the answer to that question. I do remember one benefit that came from working for Sergeant Jones, and that was his turning a blind eye when we were caught drinking at the nearby Pier Hotel a few nights later. Often we had jobs that had to meet a deadline, and to achieve this we would work far into the night. Knowing that at the same time some of his cronies would be drinking far into the night, my uncle would quite regularly down tools to join them, with me in tow of course. I was under age for the consumption of alcoholic beverages, but that never seemed to worry him or his friends. To begin with I did not like the taste of beer, but it did not take me long to acquire a liking for it. So, when I found myself in the basement bar of the Pier Hotel, with a pint of Worthington’s best bitter in front of me, at close to midnight I can’t say I was unhappy about it.

Apart from the owner of the hotel who was acting as barman, the group of 9 or 10 drinkers were all locals, regulars at this illegal pastime of drinking after hours. It was not the first time I had been involved in this drinking school; rolling home at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning with two or three pints under my belt was nothing new. My uncle was an easy man to get along with, but his moral values left much to be desired; what my father would have said about this if he had known I shudder to think. One thing is certain, my good times would have come to an end so quickly it would have taken my breath away, of that I had no doubt. In the meantime I was about to learn another of life’s lessons, though what that lesson was could have been described in different ways. It was somewhere between 11 pm and midnight when the door of the bar opened and in walked Sergeant Bryn Jones. You could have heard a pin drop as he stood there and surveyed us all with a jaundiced eye. He knew us all and all about us, and as he stood there he must have been reviewing the numerous charges he could have brought against us, if he so wished. After we had sweated for a few moments he finally said, in a loud voice: “I trust you good people are all resident at this hotel?” There was no doubt in our minds at that moment that we were all marked down in Bryn Jones’s little black book as owing him a very big favour. So, it is very possible that he got his boat fixed up for very little cost after all.

It did not take me long to learn how to be valuable to my uncle, though he was always willing to teach me what I needed to know. In no time at all I learned how to use his modern lathe, how to bore out cylinders on the vertical boring machine. I was using the hydraulic press to insert new cylinder liners, in engine blocks, and bench work became all part of the job, though some of the skills I needed required some practice. I enjoyed all these jobs, but the one I liked best of all was the use of the metalling plant. This became my main job and though I say it myself, I became very good at it. The plant included a facility where the white metal used for the re-metalling of connecting rods could be melted in thermostatically controlled pots. Part of the set up was a moulding rig where the appropriate moulds could be installed so that rods could be re-metalled. Afterwards it was necessary to machine the re-moulded big ends, and to cut lubrication channels where necessary, also part of my job. If con-rods were submitted for which we had no moulds, I had to make them on the lathe, the biggest ones I did were for some very large piston rods for a pump engine at a quarry. I re-metalled these successfully and earned some approval by doing so without supervision. While I handled this side of the operation, uncle would be dealing with the business side of things, and when working in the machine shop he was mostly involved with the operation of the crankshaft grinder. This enormous machine was his pride and joy, and the only one to be found in North Wales at the time.

There were few such machines available at the end of the war, so Uncle Bill had bought this Churchill-Redman Grinder from an aircraft factory at Coventry. Designed to grind the crankshafts of aircraft engines, the first thing he had to do was design new work heads for car engine crank shafts, and obtain a grind wheel for the smaller journals to be ground. He achieved this successfully, and soon had work coming in from all over the surrounding countryside. This machine even attracted large contracts from people like the Post Office, who sent their vehicles in to be reconditioned. These big jobs were the main source of income, though I later discovered that it was never enough. Uncle’s debts were enormous and growing all the time, the main problem was the agreement he had with the garage that housed us. They were taking most of his profits as their share of the arrangement; they had also lent him money to pay off his old partnership at a very high rate of interest. I was blissfully unaware of these financial matters at the time, and though such things affected me I was never told anything, almost as if it was thought what happened to me and my future was of no importance what so ever. Having no say in matters that affected me was a problem that continued to dog me until I finally managed some real independence, which was after I married and moved to New Zealand.

In the meantime, my assistance must have been helping my uncle to keep his head above water. While I was of some value to him he was going to keep me happy, and in a state of blissful ignorance regarding his desperate situation. To me life could not have been better, no rules, no discipline, and allowed to spend my time as I wished. I did not even have to wear overalls, but worked in my street clothes which mostly was a brown suit, or when the weather was warm, on old sweater. Naturally, they became very greasy and shabby, and this led to an amusing incident one day when I was leaving the house for work, looking I suppose like a homeless person. Before I had walked very far I found myself approaching a couple of elderly nuns who were on their way to the railway station from the nunnery, which was just around the corner from where we lived in Bath Street. They were small and frail and having a struggle with a large and heavy suitcase, so feeling some sympathy for them I offered to carry their case to the station. They were very pleased to have my help, and when I left them, with their case safely in the hands of a porter, they insisted, to my amusement, on giving me a shilling for my trouble.

It was understandable that I imagined money was not a problem for my aunt and uncle, who owned a seaside guesthouse, and an apparently successful auto-engineering business. They always had money to spend on enjoying themselves, and they even had a very impressive motorcar, which very few could afford just after the war. Uncle Bill had bought a Jaguar sports car, it was second hand being about a 1937/38 vintage, but it was in very good condition having been resprayed quite recently with a modern metallic green paint. It had an artificial folding roof, which was covered in leather, a long racy bonnet, and two large headlights. The engine was a straight six, which produced about 20 horsepower, and when we roared up the street in it all heads turned to follow our progress. Uncle Bill enjoyed cutting a dash in this classy motorcar, I also liked the feeling it gave you to be seen riding in such a posh vehicle. It was not until much later that I became aware that Bill Slater had a hankering for the high life, even when he could not afford it. He was always liberal with his money when buying drinks at the pub, and both my aunt and uncle cultivated other more wealthy business friends, who could afford to party and live an expensive life style. When they joined in with such people they were always spending more than they could afford, but I did not realise this when I became part of it all.

With his desire to cut a dash, uncle not only wanted his car to look good, he wanted it to have a superior performance as well. Having a fully equipped workshop it was natural I suppose that my uncle would decide to upgrade his car, and doing the work himself, he made sure that there would be no better car engine than his. We got to work giving the SS Jaguar the full treatment, which included bigger cylinders which were fitted with pistons meant for an American Eagle Tractor. With such an increase in capacity it was decided to fit and synchronise twin carburettors, which I might add worked perfectly and never gave the slightest trouble. It was estimated that when we had finished the engine had been transformed into a power unit with approximately 30 horsepower, and you should have heard it when it was started up. It had the deep throated roar of an aircraft engine, and once it was run in, it had the power and acceleration of something designed for a racetrack. The work my uncle did was so precise the car could not be started with the usual starter motor. It was necessary to get one of the breakdown trucks to tow it out onto the road, and once it started it was kept running at slow speed for several hours, until everything had loosened up a little.


Uncle Bill with his SS Jaguar sports car of pre-war vintage

With such a fine car it was to be expected that trips around the countryside were the favourite pastime for my aunt and uncle. I enjoyed these trips as well, which usually included visits to all the best country pubs within an hour’s drive of Rhyl. We were familiar faces at some of the favourites, to which we returned frequently. One such place was the ‘White Horse’ in Saint Asaph, which was only about seven miles up the Clwyd Valley. We had many convivial evenings at this popular establishment, which had a large dining room serving excellent food. There were also trips to the poultry farm up in a valley some miles inland where good fishing could be had in the Clwyd River. Uncle Bill had been friends with the owners of this farm since the war years, and apart from the fishing, it had been agreed that I could go and shoot over the property if I so desired.

Shooting still attracted me greatly, so when I discovered I could roam the beautiful hills of North Wales, I became enthusiastic to do so. The farm was plagued with a large number of rabbits, and I believe the owner considered it a favour if I would go and shoot them. Seeing this as a chance to earn more popularity my uncle readily agreed to fund me in buying both a new bicycle, and a second hand rifle. The thought of a regular supply of rabbits free of charge created a great deal of assistance for me in my new project. The owner of the cycle shop agreed to look after my new cycle and keep it in good running order, if I was willing to drop him the odd brace of rabbits from time to time. The man that sold me the rifle also proved helpful with the same thought in mind, and the first thing he did was offer me the weapon at a bargain price. It was a pre-war BSA single shot target rifle, with a martini type loading system. Large and heavy, with a long thick barrel, it was not the ideal hunting rifle, nor did it seem desirable to have only a single shot when hunting an elusive target such as a rabbit. It was however, very accurate indeed, and the long barrel resulted in a very soft report when it fired. This weapon was simple and effective, and never gave me any trouble; apart from a basic problem I found when I first began to use it. Each round of ammunition slid down a scoop into the breach, and once it had been fired the empty cartridge case was ejected by a lever action. What I did not realise when I was new to the process, was that my .22 long rifle ammunition was coated with a thin application of light grease which was virtually undetectable. It was a big shock when after firing a few rounds the cartridge cases began to jam in the breach, but once I knew the reason the problem was easily solved. It became part of the fun to sit and polish my ammo before setting out on the hunt.

For quite a few months I spent the happiest time of my life wandering in glorious solitude over the hills and valleys of North Wales, shooting only what I needed and no more. I rarely saw the owners, being free to leave my cycle in one of their cattle sheds that they were using to store bags of feed for the chickens and turkeys. Off I would go to wander the countryside for most of the day, and I would never see another living person. With an accurate rifle and a sharp eye, I never failed to get a good supply of rabbits, which I gutted but did not skin. I would tie them in pairs to the crossbar of my bike, and return proudly to town delivering my bag to those who were waiting eagerly for the ingredients of their next pie. We also benefited from this regular supply of free meat, and I must say that it was very tasty and cheaper than going to the butcher.

My skill as a marksman continued to increase as I slowly learned the best way of approaching my prey. There was one spot for example where I could approach certain scree at the head of a valley where numerous rabbits would sit amongst the rocks keeping a sharp lookout. Using a bank as cover I could get within fifty or sixty yards of my target and carefully take my aim. Sometimes the noise from my shot was so slight, the other rabbits would not be scared enough to take cover. Quickly I would open the action of my rifle and slipping in another .22 long rifle cartridge, from a small bandoleer I had fastened around the rifle just in front of the loading scoop, I would take a second shot and bag a second rabbit before they knew they were being shot at.

The best shot I ever made was over a distance of maybe 70/80 yards, when I had crawled up to a fence line and looked over into a large field. It was the sort of place where rabbits should have been but I could see nothing, so I lay and waited, knowing how well they could camouflage themselves. In one corner of the field was an area of longer grass, and looking at it I suddenly became aware that a pair of ears was showing among the long blades of growth. Slowly I gauged the distance and took careful aim at a spot between the two ears just where they disappeared into the grass. I fired and the ears vanished, and I felt some disappointment believing that I had missed. Not being used to missing I just had to walk over to the place where the rabbit had been sitting, and to my delight I found it had been shot dead and not moved an inch. On examination, I discovered that my bullet had drilled a hole through the base of the left ear before entering the back between the front shoulders. Driving its way through the entire length of the body, I found the bullet sitting between the flesh and the skin of the hindquarters.

I enjoyed the hunt but sometimes I would be lucky and find a rabbit right under my nose, which was no sport at all. Then there were the days when I had no need to shoot anything, having all the rabbits I wanted for that day. There was other game which I shot on occasions, and I did see foxes which were to be shot being a menace to my host and his poultry. One day I was on the edge of a steep sloping field, and looking down from my place of observation, I saw a flash of movement at the base of a large tree, which was within firing distance. Because of the colour I was sure it was a fox, so I lined up my sights and waited for it to show. When it did move again I realised I was mistaken and what I was looking at was a red squirrel, which I had square in my sights. Not long before I had read something about how our native squirrel was under threat from an imported grey squirrel which was bigger and stronger. So I decided I had no reason to shoot, and sitting at the top of the field I watched the antics of the little animal as it scampered up and down the tree.

With the experience I was getting I was by now a very good shot, and I also gained much understanding in relation to handling firearms. It was an instinct to take great care to avoid accidents, but even so I had the odd alarm. The fellow who sold me my rifle had replaced it with a modern .22 calibre semi-automatic carbine, which was small and light and used with a telescopic sights. Because I gave him rabbits from time to time he invited me to borrow his weapon, which he imagined would make the hunt so much easier. So on a couple of occasions I tried this latest new rifle, and quickly decided to return to my old one. First of all I found the telescope was too narrow in its field and when a fast shot was required my elusive quarry had disappeared before I could zero in on it. The next thing I discovered was that though it had a magazine, which held maybe ten rounds, there was seldom time to get off more than one shot at each target. If you missed on your first attempt, there was little point in firing again, because your target would be gone. Another disadvantage was the noise it made when it fired, it was so sharp and loud that everything with a mile would have been running for cover.

Gone was my ability to move and shoot without detection. Finally, the more complicated mechanism of a semi-automatic gave me a fright that I never forgot. Returning to the feed shed one afternoon, I carefully unloaded the rifle, taking the rounds out of the magazine, and cocking the movement to eject the round that was in the breach. I squeezed the trigger which resulted in the click of the firing pin falling on an empty breach, but being such an ultra careful person I cocked again and squeezed the trigger a second time. To my amazement and great shock the rifle fired, and a bullet buried itself deep into a sack full of chicken feed which was part of a stack alongside which I had been standing. Afterwards I discovered that a feed claw had held the top round in the magazine when I emptied it, and when I had re-cocked the weapon after emptying the breach, this remaining round had been fed in. how easy it would have been to accidentally shoot someone I thought, it was a lesson I never forgot. It made me aware of the reasons my father hated firearms.

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