My father was born in Little Albany Street, N.W.1. When first married at the beginning of this [20th] century, he managed a small shop at Hampstead, plus being a part-time postman. The income from this was not enough to live on. He came to Stratford New Town like thousands of other men to seek work on the expanding railway works called the Great Eastern Locomotive Carriage and Wagon Building and Repair Works. Unskilled men were taken on and started by sweeping the shop floor, then after a time, applied for a semi-skilled job to get more money. My father became a holder-up in the boiler repair section of the locomotive department.
I was born in 1903 and started going to school at 3½ years, walking from Chandos Road where we lived then, to Queen Street, St. Paul's Church Infant School. Colegrave Road School was nearer but the boys were rougher. At the age of seven, it was up into the big boy's school, in Maryland Road. The Headmaster was Mr Heather, J. P. On arrival at school in the morning, about 400 boys lined up in the playground in four rows. Mr Heather walked behind the rows of boys to see if they had washed behind their ears and cleaned the backs of their shoes. Being a church school we had about an hour's scripture - R.E. - every morning, also for homework we had four sums to do and a painted heading on the top of the page of the exercise book each night. Friday was assembly, when Mr Heather gave a talk and we did part-singing which I enjoyed.
At the age of ten I was having a piano lesson once a week after school and doing an hour's practice each day on the second hand piano which my father had purchased. In addition to this, I needed some pocket money so I became a milk boy with the Co-op Dairy •. I got up about the same time as my father, about 5.15 a.m. and walked about half an hour to the dairy. If we got there before 6 a.m. there was a free cup of hot milky coffee for us. Each house on the milk round was visited twice a day. I worked about 2 hours, 6 a.m. - 8 a.m. each day, all day Saturday until 4 or 5 p.m. and Sunday till about 2 p.m. for 3/6d [about 17p] per week. For tea about this time, my two sisters and I could have jam or margarine on our bread but not both on the same slice!
During my latter years at school, I was becoming familiar with the Railway Works and the men who worked there. I left school in 1917 aged 14. If one's father worked on the railways his son could get a free apprenticeship to a skilled trade. These free apprenticeship boys had to take their place in one queue, as there were also premium apprenticeships of £50 and upwards for fathers who could afford to pay this. These had priority over free apprenticeship boys. My father put my name down for free apprenticeship as a fitter and turner when I was 13 years old and I was fifteen years old before I started.
To fill in the time of waiting, I got a job at Saville's Brewery bottling department called Taplow's. Taplow's bottled beer, wines and spirits and delivered the same to pubs all over London. Saville's was later taken over by Charrington's. Deliveries were made by horse and van at first. I was put on the beer bottling machine, which had 10 pipes in a row pointing downwards. I had to put a 1 pint bottle on each pipe for filling. As I put the 10th one on, the first one became full. One couldn't leave the machine as all the bottles would overflow. Taplow's supplied an apron and clogs for this work and the clogs made a noise on the pavement as I went to work at 6 a.m. After about six months of this, I went on the vans as van boy on a pal's van.
On the first day of this, my carman said to get one of the horses out and clean it. I didn't like going into the horse's stall in the stable to untie its halter as the horse might have leaned on me and squashed me against the wall, or kicked me. I learned later that one talks to the horse to make him look round and know you are there.
I had to ask other boys how to clean a horse, a curry comb and a brush was used, but I was so short I had to stand on a wooden box to do this. One also had to clean the brasswork on the horse's harness. This was done before breakfast as well as loading the van. After breakfast harness was put on horses and horses coupled to loaded vans. My carman brought his horses half a pound of chocolates each morning.
At the age of 15 I had a letter from the Railway Company saying I could start my apprenticeship [on] 13.5.1918. The railway works kept one week in hand as regards pay. I worked 2 weeks and received 15/3d pay [about 76p]. There were apprenticeships to many skilled trades and the Mechanics Institute in Store Street for day and evening educational and literary and pastimes etc. Each course passed meant refund of fees. About 6 top students each year were awarded Directors' Scholarships ' for full time attendance for 2 years at an approved college.
I progressed through the machine shop for turning and the fitting shop for fitting; I was then transferred to the locomotive erecting shop to work with the skilled steam locomotive erecter to learn the job. About every two years a steam locomotive was stripped right down by semi-skilled men, parts repaired by skilled men and the locomotive was re-erected in the erecting shop. This could be repeatedly done for maybe upwards of 100 years. About 48 steam locomotives would be under repair at anyone time. 54 hours work per week. We were all given a numbered disc somewhat larger than a half a crown. We picked these discs called checks, upon entering the works and deposited them on leaving the works. One could be late three times a day only 1 minute and lose a ¼ an hour's pay each time. These checks were in racks in steel kiosks about 5 feet square which were placed outside each shop, and so one sometimes had a long walk after one entered the works, to get one's check. Boys were paid 2/- (10 pence) a week extra for coming in early to give the checks out and for staying late to put the checks away.
I spent most of my adult life erecting steam locomotives and although I did well at studying and ended up with a diploma for civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, there were few chances of better jobs. This was the year 1927 and the big slump was on with millions unemployed. My father and I and many thousands of other men worked at the Stratford Railway Works. Work commenced at 6 am to 5.30 pm. 6 am to 8.15 am then breakfast, 9 am to 1 pm then dinner, 2 pm to 5.30 pm finish. Saturday's 12 o'clock finish, making a 54 hour week. We had about 10 year's short time working during this time we had to accept a reduction in pay or hundreds would be sacked. The pay at the time was after 7 years' apprenticeship, £2 per week. For comparison, West Ham Council dustmen were getting £3.17s 6d [£3.75] per week. In 1963 I was made redundant and nine months after I was away from the works, I received a letter from the railway company to say my gold watch was ready: awarded after 45 years.
Newham Heritage & Archives: from an occasional series of local studies notes, first published by the Council's library service.