Getting The Message
My first week at Newport was very tough. It was a 20 minute walk from the Newport station to the workshop. About 10 minutes from work the noise generated from the place nearly knocked me over and it got worse and worse the closer I got. I guess every factory doing metal fashioning riveting, hammering etc was the same. Some of those big ship building places with a few hundred people riveting would create enormous noise. But I had never been near any place like that. The first week the constant noise was almost unbearable but a strange thing happened about one week in. Suddenly I realised the noise had gone. I know it sound silly but the noise was still there but I did not hear it any more. What a relief.
The workshop did not impress me either. An absolutely huge building probably covering 5 or 6 acres with a steel frame clad with corrugated iron. Very rusty corrugated iron. The boilermakers section was three bays. Each approximately 80 yards long and 50 feet wide. A dirt floor, smoky with soot and dirt overlaying everything. But surprisingly, the place had a really good feel.
I was placed with two men. Cecil the boilermaker tradesman and Frank the labourer. They were very nice to me and went out of their way to make me feel welcome. The first couple of days either Cecil or Frank walked me around the different section showing me the locomotive repair section fitters and turners welding upholstery etc. The Frank took me to see a carriage just being finished. All done here, every bit he said. He showed me how beautifully finished it was. We do world class work here he said. I could see he was very proud of Newport Workshops. And so was everybody that worked there. I was impressed. They only did first class work. They were a team of experts that looked scruffy and untidy but turned out very beautiful work.
Cecil, Frank and I were doing sheet metal work cutting on a huge guillotine riveting with soft iron rivets that were heated in coke furnace. One day Jim the foreman asked me to cut a few thousand metal plates. He showed me a guillotine at the end of the workshop to use. This job will take you until 11 o’clock to finish.
“Right?” He said, looking at me keenly. “Bring the trolley back to the office when you are finished.”
The plate was 1/8th inch metal. I had seen Frank cutting 1 inch plate on the guillotine so I thought I would try two at a time. Perfect. Three, then four, then five. The big guillotine sliced them all like butter. I checked them all as I finished. Beautiful. I had the job finished by 10 am. I took them back to the office.
“I have finished Jim.” I said proudly.
Jim looks at the clock on the office wall, frowned a bit and said.
“Didn’t I tell you 11 o’clock? They cannot be done right. Go back and do them again and be back at 11.”
I took the trolley and walked through the workshop. Just outside was the shunting yard for the old locomotives waiting to be broken up for recycling and scrape. One of these old locomotives was “Heavy Harry” a really big locomotive that had spent its days in service on the Melbourne to Sydney run. I climbed up onto the coal bunker, stretched out in the sun for an hour and then walked back to the office.
“I have finished these plates Jim.” I said.
Jim looked at time. He never even looked at the plates.
“That is a really good job Robin. He said. “Now you know that if I say 11, I do not want to see you before them unless you have trouble. Do you get the message?”
“Yes, I think I did.” I said.
Once a week the apprentices had what they called chipping. Six hours of hammer and chisel work. It was very hard. Each apprentice was given a 4 foot by 1 inch piece of flat metal. We were in special room with reinforced windows and were issued with reinforced goggles, a 2 lb hammer, chisel and a large flat file and a straight edge. Our job was to cut two 45 degree angles apposing along the top of the flat metal. Then when this was completed perfectly we were to cut these off and make the plate absolutely straight again. When I heard this I did not believe it could be done with a hammer, chisel and file. No way. But it could and after many, many weeks every apprentice finished the job to the exacting satisfaction of the supervisor.
I had only been chiselling for a couple of hours and my hands were really sore. I could feel a million blisters coming. The supervisor stopped work and walked around looking at our hands.
“OK.” He said. “All of you that have sore hands go and pee on them.”
He is mad I thought, but my hands told me I should do something. So out I went with everyone else and we peed on my hands. I peed one my hands every day for a week and never got a blister. How about that!
After we had finished the flat iron I reckoned we could not get anything as hard as that but I was wrong. We were each given a big piece of one inch flat iron with a 12 inch by 8 inch oval cut trough it with an oxy torch. Another oval was to be fitted into this hole with a 45 deg flange on both pieces. We were to make up what was virtually an inspection hole in a boiler. With only our trusty hammer, chisel and this time a large half round file. This was hard exacting work. Very slow, but everyone finished after a lot of swearing, blood and nearly tears.
Every Wednesday, the apprentices went to the Newport Railway Technical School near the station. One day the teacher had a verbal fight the one of the apprentices, John, who gave him a mouthful of extremely foul language and was told to get out and go back to work. About a half hour later the teacher had a phone call and left us for a while. We all thought John would be finished as an apprentice but one hour later John slipped into the room and sat down. The teacher took no notice. I thought that was very strange. But next morning, Jim, our foreman, was telling a couple of fellas from our section about how this teacher sent John back to work so I rang him up and told him that swearing was the first thing we teach our boys here so I am sending him back to School. Don’t send anyone else back here or I will come to see you and you will really hear some bad language. I guess he got the message, I said. He sure did, said Jim with a big smile.