An Apprenticeship (1942)

Location : Norfolk

Roy describes his apprenticeship in the builder’s trade in 1942.

Not having been of exceptional academic ability I was at the age of 14, like many others at secondary modern and elementary schools, told to pack up my books and go to work, My efforts were sorely needed to help win the war. It wasn’t going too well at the time.

I had had a spare time job for some time before I left school helping out the local butcher, I continued this full time for a few months. As a possible fifth generation of woodworkers my father thought I should have more ambition. The family business, Wheelwrights, Carpenters and Undertakers was fully staffed by my father and his two brothers, so with my fathers help an apprenticeship in carpentry and joinery was arranged.

As it was sixty years ago readers may be interested in the virtues and vices, triumphs and tribulations and general situation at that time. On November 2nd 1942 I left home at 7.00am for the seven mile cycle ride to work, complete with sandwich lunch, to start work at 8.00am, I arrived ten minutes early. Home again at 5.00 pm. This was the main pattern of my transport to work for the next five years, for 5½ days per week. As my skill and stamina increased the journey time was reduced to just less than 40 minutes. I was not alone in making journeys of this length; there were 1,000s of workers doing the same thing. Summer starting times was 7.30am; a 48 hour week.

The Builders Business

The sole proprietor acquired the business soon after the end of the Great War after an architectural training. The office was fronting a major thoroughfare and then ran back through to a minor street at the rear where the yard entrance was. The main building (the machine shop and joiners shop over, plumbers shop and paint shop over) were all in place and working at this time. What was added between that time and when I started work was difficult to tell . It was considered to be the best building business in the area. When I joined the firm the labour force was decimated by the conscription of all able-bodied staff. Leaving only between 15 to 20 older ( 40 + years) construction employees. And with all non-essential new building work stopped the business was quietly just ticking over.

The Yard

On entering the yard a clockwise tour would reveal an air raid shelter, the sand and gravel pits, the scaffold and ladder store, containing the longest pole ladder (56 rungs) in town and mainly wooden scaffold poles and boards .The glass shop, very essential after an air-raid.

The timber racks contain a great variety of first class deals, planks, and boards. The plumbers shop, which contained the only portable electric drill that the business had and the paint shop over, where in early days most paint would have been made and mixed by hand. The machine shop and joiners shop over, the original form of power was a 12hp town gas single cylinder engine. At the right hand side of the entrance gate was the garage for three vehicles (original use unknown)

The Joiners Shop and the Machine Shop

These areas, together with the paved area between the machine shop and the timber shed was my working domain .The joiners shop was laid out with six 12 foot long benches mainly with a vice at each end allowing 10 joiners to work in the shop with the foreman occupying a wall bench for his sole use.

In my time there was no more than 5 joiners and the foreman working in the shop and machine shop. Often a lot less. There was a Factory Inspectorate operating at the time but his requirements were very meagre by todays standards. There was no dust extraction; the only heating provided was a slow combustion, potbellied stove, with wood waste the only fuel. This in its self could cause blowbacks when refuelling. The only entrance to the first floor JS was up an open tread stairway on to a cantilever landing .The only alternative exit was a trap hatch down to machine shop, which had no guard rails. The necessary liquids for the smooth running of the business, 40 Gallon barrels of creosotes, oils, paraffin etc, were stored under the stairs. The machine shop did have two entrances. The lavatories (toilets is far too posh) were very basic and did not have dedicated cleaners. A the junior member of staff, it was my job to sweep up and clean the machine and joiners shops, chippings and shavings were bagged up and sold for poultry litter. The joiners shop waste was dumped or burnt. There was not a facemask in sight, goggles ( as in tear gas goggles) were available , ear defenders were a hat with ear flaps. Helmets ( Tin Hats) were for combatants and civil defence personnel. The bowler hat that may have offered some protection had gone out of fashion years before .

The Machine Shop

The machines in the machine shop were put down about 1900, and were all powered by a 12 horse power single cylinder engine fuelled by town gas through a main and secondary shaft with flat belts, each machine having a fixed and a free pulley with a disconnecting lever.

The machines were a 12inchdepth of cut circular saw, overhand planner, thicknesser, spindle and a range of sharpening stones to allow the making of spindle cutters. It was possible to run some machines in tandem, but not the circular saw. The band saw was added much later and had its own electric motor. The gas engine was redundant, and replaced with a 3 phase electric motor, with a unique starting routine.

There was no mechanical cross cut saw and all timber-requiring cutting in length was done by hand.

There was no electro/mechanical tool available for use. Morticing was done with a hand-powered thumper; there was an electric glue pot.

Production Method

The actual flow of materials from the timber shed to the finished piece of joinery was, by today’s standard, quaint .The machine shop being on a different level to the joinery shop did not help matters.

The production process was as follows: –

The foreman joiner or a bench-hand would go out and measure up the requirements (say a completely new window frame and sashes) taking details of sill, frame, sash sections, mouldings and fenestration. In the joinery shop he would set out the details on a setting out board as full size horizontal and vertical sections, from which he would prepare a cutting list and the frame and sashes would be set out from the board later.

The wood machinist would get the timber from the racks and cut it to length and size and plane to net sizes leaving it in the square, and pass it up into the joiners shop. Here all the timber members would be set out, mortised, marked and cut, tenons slit by handsaw, tenon shoulders marked by knife cut. All moulding and rebate edges were marked by gauge cuts, which were left in by the machinist to allow for cleaning up. Each piece had its finished section marked on the inside face, the whole lot was then returned down into the mill for rebating, grooving and moulding. Then up to the joiners shop again for cleaning up (removing machine marks) cutting tendon shoulders and haunches, scribing moulding, fitting, knocking up and finishing. Priming or first coat decorating took place in the dusty joiners shop.

Work Experience

The work carried out in the early days of my career was very varied, The very first job was to assist in the making and erection of Black out shutters at the local Working Mans Club. This included full light proof louvers for ventilation. Another task was to provide shelving in a medicine store at the hospital. Here the supports were timber but shelves were ASBESTOS.

The town was subjected to numerous air raids and flying bomb damage and all this had to be attended to. It involved hard work and long hours and many dangerous moments. I stood next to the carpenter on a pair of steps when a loose roof slate was blown off the roof and hit the steps. Fortunately neither of us was hurt.

I had only been at work a few days when I became a member of the ladder gang. The 42 footlong, 56-stave ladder was the longest in town and safely reached to the eaves or parapet of every building in the high street and so was in constant demand by many specialist contractors. The business was pleased to supply on an erect and remove basis. It took a gang of four to erect or remove the ladder, taken to site on a builders truck by two men. It also required two men to control the traffic, some street corners required a double shunt, the regular hands knew each move by heart. All four hands were required to raise and lower the ladder. After about six months I was able to sharpen my own saws and this was among others a field in which I excelled.


Building trade wages were as agreed by the Joint Negotiating Council at the time. Tradesmen’s rates were 1s/10½d per hour (approx 9.5p), my rate for the first year was 10% of this. The rounding up process gave me 8s/0d (40p) per week for the standard week of 46½ hours week. I was entitled to one weeks holiday and no loss of pay for bank holidays. All adult workers worked per hour with no pay for any holidays. I applied for and received a £5. grant from a local charity to assist in buying my own tools. Best saws were £1, steel smoothing planes £1, chisels 1/9 to 3/- according to size.


There were many jobs that I did not experience because of the new build restrictions but there were many jobs that I did that I would not have experienced had more qualified tradesman been available. So all in all it equalled its self out.. During my apprenticeship time I able to attend evening classes in Building Construction, Geometry, Mathematics, Science, and later Book keeping, Quantities and Estimating, all of which I was able to easily understand.

I was most grateful to my very experienced Mentor and to my Tutor at Evening Institute. I followed my tutor’s career almost to the letter finishing my career as he did as a Surveyor for a Local Authority. Their names were CP & AG. After fifty years and five months in the Building Industry dealing with all aspects of Speculative House Building, Contracting, Design and Build and Property Management I have enjoyed nine years of retirement and am still in good health. Its only me.


This article was first published in a Norfolk Industrial Archaeological Society News Letter in 2005

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