|On being a Shop Boy and meeting shop floor characters|
Hawkers employed boys as young as aged 14 to do menial tasks around the factory – all newcomers were introduced to the colourful characters on the shop floor. ‘Coppersmith’ Steve, with the ugly nose, was ex-army and told tales of cutting the enemy in half with his sabre. Tom Nightingale was the maintenance fitter with the caloused hands.
And as a boy of 14 you are there until you are 16 when you take up the apprenticeship that you agreed to start earlier on. And from 14 to 16 you are classed as a ‘Shop Boy’. You do all the errands for the men, the running about, getting the teas. Just menial things in general – but an eye-opener as to what was ahead of you.
As a boy – as a ‘Shop Boy’ you are shown around all the different departments because you are running errands most of the time and you are also acting as a tea boy.
But I remember two people in particular. One of them was a very tall feller and he was reputed to be a guardsman. But under his bench were bottle upon bottle of something he called ‘red biddy’ which was a mixture of port wine and methylated spirit. Consequently to his drinking this, his nose was the most unbelievable sight you could imagine. But he was one of the characters that you could see there.
Another character worked in the Maintenance Department and he dealt with all the belt-driven machinery. And he used to use molten lead for various things and he would show us, as boys, how he could pick up a pot of molten lead with smoke coming off of his hand and he’d carry it from one bench to another. And if you looked at his hands, they were ⅜ of an inch deep in skin, like a rhinoceros hide. And of a Friday night you could see him with a Dreadnought file shaving off this skin to make his hands look presentable. Or he would cuddle the grinding wheels with his hands – and grind it off – most remarkable.