The Apprenticeship

June 22, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

The Apprenticeship

The system of apprenticeship was first developed in the later Middle Ages and came to be supervised by craft guilds and town governments. A master craftsman was entitled to employ young people as an inexpensive form of labour in exchange for providing food, lodging and formal training in the craft. (Source: Wikipedia)


Having failed the eleven plus exam, my education over the next six years took place at Midhurst Secondary Modern School. It was a good education, I enjoyed metalwork the best as the classroom was well equipment with lathes and milling machines etc

Probably the most important event of my school days, was to meet an eleven year old classmate who would not only become my girlfriend at school but later become my wife - Jill Brittain

My first job after leaving school with a sole GCE in Metalwork and Technical Drawing at the age of 17 was, thanks to my Uncle Don, at the Rural Garage, Westhampnett, Chichester as a petrol pump attendant.

My Uncle lent me the £12 to buy my first motorbike from Gray and Rowsell, a BSA C10 250cc side valve to commute from my home near Petworth to Chichester, a journey of some fifteen miles.

The bike had starting problems, so Uncle Don gave me a large 6 volt truck battery which I strapped to the pillion pad. On the first corner it slipped off into the rear wheel and I had to take the corner with one hand on the bars and the other clutching the battery as it clattered against the spokes. The joys of motorcycling were learnt very early. That BSA blew a head gasket every couple of months followed soon by a burnt out exhaust valve.

My first job in the morning at the garage, was to fill up the glass bottles with engine oil from a hand pump and get them out on the forecourt and also to make sure that the Redex Dispenser was full. When I was not busy out the front I was down the pit brushing car leaf springs with old engine oil to stop them from squeaking.

After I had been there for a couple of weeks, the manager asked me if I wanted to do some more jobs in the workshop. Of course I said yes and the next think I knew, I was removing an engine from a Willys Jeep ! All very well but they were still paying me a petrol pump attendants wage, which just about covered the cost of the petrol to get to work.

Not happy with my career prospects at the Rural Garage, Uncle Don got me an interview at J H Sparshatt & Sons, at Bognor Bridge, Chichester and after a short interview, I was taken on as an apprentice.

My five year Apprenticeship commenced on the 27th November 1961 and the Indenture was signed and witnessed by Bill Hazelman - Master Baker & Grocer of Petworth & Frank Curnick - Farmer.

Looking back now after fifty years, it was a good apprenticeship where I learnt many skills. Initially we just had to do the mundane jobs like servicing trucks, which involved changing the oil and filters and then going round the chassis with a messy grease gun. I hated the term ‘Grease Monkey’ but that’s what some of the fitters called us lads.

Later we learnt how to remove an engine which would be sent to the engine shop for reconditioning.  The engine shop was out of bounds to us learners but after a couple of years we were allowed in and shown how to hone cylinder bores and to reface valves and eventually rebuild the engine.  Grinding crankshafts though was the sole responsibility of Dennis who commuted each day from Portsmouth. A stint in the Stores Department followed where we learnt about stock control and job sheet costing.

Every morning trucks had to  be moved out of the workshop and in the Winter this invariably resulted in lots of white, choking smoke as reluctant diesel  engines were given liberal doses of EasyStart which was ether sprayed directly into the inlet manifold.

On the subject of Winter I must tell you about the  heating system - or lack of

Our large workshop boasted just the one, oil fired heater - old engine oil that is, none of your modern stuff.. This one heater worked by injecting a mist of old engine oil by compressed air into a cast iron casing which was about 24 inches square and 60 inches tall.  We started work at 8:00 in the morning and it took at least an hour to start the heater.  By the first tea break at 10:00 it was glowing red hot and it was very warm when you were close but  freezing about 12 inches away. Many is the time that someone's diesel soaked overalls would start to smoulder through standing too close but we were cruel enough not to put the victim wise to his impending conflagration. 

I hated the Winter and an episode in 1963 perhaps sowed the seed to leave the country and seek warmer climes. ( See my story about The Winter of 1962 - 1963)

Of course there were some perks that came with the job. One was that after some work done on a customer’s lorry, a road test had to be performed. The usual route was to leave the yard and head for the top of the Goodwood Estate which was known as the Trundle.  On the way you passed the Goodwood Motor Racing Circuit and if you spotted any action, you knew where to stop on the way back. Sometimes there was racing by club members and if you had a furniture removal lorry from say Farr’s Depositories aka Bishops Move, you parked on the road overlooking the  Lavant Straight, climbed on top of the lorry and watched the racing for a while.  Eventually you had to get back to the workshop where the foreman Eric Robinson asked what took you so long.. Telling him  you had to  stop to bleed an air lock resulted  in a knowing smile.

Anther perk was a trip to the body shop in Portsmouth where the coach work was done. You were given a set of Trade Plates and about ten shillings to pay for your train fair to Portsmouth.  Well, the ten bob was quickly pocketed  and you took the trade plates out on to the Chichester bypass and hitched a lift.  Sometimes you only got a lift just to the Black Cat Café in Emsworth where you could pick up a bacon & egg sandwich before getting back on the road to thumb another lift.

Arriving  at the bodyshop in Pompey, I was shown around the brand new Leyland Octopus eight wheeler truck I was to be entrusted to bring back to Chichester. (See photograph) All gold leaf signwriting and every coach bolt’s square nut was in perfect alignment with its neighbour. Perfection reigned at the Sparshatts Body Shop.

I climbed up into the cab and made ready to leave but was told by the foreman  to wait. So I waited.  Eventually after about an hour of waiting , the foreman looked at his watch which was approaching 4 o’clock and told me I could now set off.

So I left the yard just as the siren at the Dockyard signalled for the dock workers to knock off for the  day.I found myself for the very first time driving  an eight wheeler through Portsmouth’s narrow streets, surrounded by hundreds of dockers on bicycles.  This I learnt was part of your initiation  to becoming a qualified heavy goods driver.

On returning to the workshop at Chichester everybody including Eric the foreman and the Manager Ron Barrow, crowded around the truck inspecting it for scratches and looking for parts of bicycles or even parts of dockers.

I survived my apprenticeship and with exam passes  taken at both Chichester College of Further Education and Bognor Tech, I became a fully qualified diesel mechanic with experience in welding, cutting, body building, chassis straightening and most of all, surviving  working alongside the most cantankerous industrial blacksmith - Vic Stentiford.

Following the end of my apprenticeship , I was called into the managers office  who congratulated me and praised me for sticking out with the hard working conditions and low pay. Then he offered me a pay increase of a penny ha’penny an hour. I bit my lip and didn't tell him where to stick it but I was tempted.

By this time most of our customers were employing there own mechanics and work started to dry up. The inevitable came one day when many of us mechanics were made redundant in May 1967 and were given our cards, P45’s and our Redundancy Pay

I received the grand total of £27 0s 0d and for a while I was ‘Jack the Lad’ in Chichester spending my time in the El Bolero coffee bar in South Street and in the evening in The White Horse Pub.

By this time I was living on a house boat on the Chichester Canal but that’s another story. See Roger and the Rolls-Royce

Soon my funds were getting exhausted, and in those days if you were looking for a job you went to the Labour Exchange.

I no longer wanted to be a mechanic and wanted to try something different so the guy at the Exchange got me a job at a yacht chandlers in Chichester. I enjoyed working in the shop but then they wanted me to deliver Calor Gas bottles to Butlins in Bognor. Now these weren’t the small domestic gas bottles but the big industrial ones. I asked where the fork lift was or did the truck have a tail lift. Nothing like that lad, you just have to load them by hand.  Blow that for a game of soldiers, so back to the Labour Exchange I went.

The next job was at Chichester Festival Theatre where I was to become Danny Kaye’s dresser.  Can’t the man dress himself I thought but I never found out as Mr Kaye cleared off to Israel to entertain the troops fighting in the  Six-Day War (5–10 June 1967)

Back to the Labour Exchange I went and they got me a job as a trainee manager selling fridges, TV’s, radiograms etc at J & M Stone (Civic Stores Ltd) in East Street Chichester. I started on the 10th July on the grand salary of £2,00 a week - Wow!  But I didn't last long as I couldn't  see myself selling washing machines for the rest of my life.

Back to the Labour Exchange again

This time I said that I fancied working abroad and using my skills as a qualified and experienced diesel mechanic. They said they would make some inquiries.

About a week passed and I received a message to call in at the Exchange. They had found an un-listed telephone number of a company in Cheapside, London who were recruiting experienced diesel mechanics to work abroad.

The company turned out to be Lonrho headed up by a Mr Tiny Rowlands. I was interviewed by John Sangster who told me all about an operation in Africa called The Hell Run and I would be working for a company called Smith & Youngson.

I accepted the job and when I got home I fished out my old school Atlas thinking to myself  “where the heck is Zambia” ?

So, In October 1967, I boarded a VC10 at Heathrow and so began an exciting chapter in my life’s story.


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