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As a boy aged 14 and a half years old in September 1942 I had just returned, by Terence Crowley


As a boy aged 14 and a half years old in September 1942 I had just returned, as an evacuee to North Yorkshire (West Riding), to the front line town of Brighton to commence work at the Southern Railway Locomotive Works. I reported on my first day to the works entrance at 7:30am clad in new overalls. I was met by the Build Shop Foreman and led into what can only be described as 'Hades'. The noise was horrendous and was compounded by the foot that I had come from a quiet rural village. Speaking over the din, my guide warned me not to mention the work I was soon to undertake, not even to my mother.

Proceeding past the partially build and repaired locomotives, I was shown into another workshop only to see a machine that resembled a Great War 1917 tank, 'We call this Churchill's secret weapon,' he remarked, 'and you will be working with a gang of fitters assembling these monsters.' So started my first day. Keeping very busy fetching and carrying for the men. This was a god way to learn where stores, canteen and other workshops were located. Lunchtime saw me running home for a mean to be back within the hour. Afternoon finish time was five o'clock. By the end of the week (48 hours duration including Saturday mornings) I proudly took home my wage of 14 shillings 2 pence (75p equivalent of today's currency).

I could not have wished for a better charge hand that guided me day by day increasing my skill all the time. This was fortunate indeed and stood me in good stead for the remainder of my working life. A boy of 14 years in my work capacity was known as a 'Shop Lad' up until one reached the age of sixteen years. Then, provided you obtained a good report on your skills, education, and attendance, you were indentured as a Locomotive Fitter Apprentice. Thus during the Shop had period I attended intermediate night school to improve my mathematics and learn the rudiments of technical drawing. It must be said that regularly this vast engineering complex was subjected to 'Hit and Run' attacks by German fighter-bomber aircraft. These raiders would fly at nought feet across the English Channel directly towards Brighton Railway Station and drop a bomb or two as well as firing their rapid firing cannons into the railway yards and machine gunners of the highest roofs, it was difficult to give adequate warning to take cover. Thus, one experienced the zip, zip, zip of cannon shells coming through the workshop roof. This telltale noise made personnel dive for cover. The 'all clear' siren would then sound and labour was resumed.

At 15 years I received a wage of 15 shillings. At 16 years as an apprentice, as far as I can recall, this doubled to 30 shilling (1.50 new money). The effort for the war in this workshop was frantic. The workforce numbered over 1,000 people, men and women and the great number of locomotives and carriages were built at Brighton. Similar efforts were mirrored at other Southern Railways factories along the south coast. Additionally, the war [shelling] yards had to cope more and more for the build-up to the invasion of Europe (June 1944). Arriving at work in the morning, the yards were choked with tanks, lorries, guns etc, but at lunch time the yards were clear and all this war equipment was moved to the South Downs for the troops that were hidden in tented cities awaiting and training for the big day. Now that I had reached apprentice status I was advised to join the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). Contributions for apprentices were I believe minimal and it gave that sense of team camaraderie, which had been nurtured in my gang of fitters. At this time the Southern Railway paid for me to attend Technical College. No days off, but 3 nights a week walking to college in the black out using only a small torch to help you on your way. Subjects included mathematics, practical machining, mechanical science, and technical drawing. Absence was reported to the Sr. engineering manager together with end of term reports. Apart from now participating in assembly work an apprentice was expected to make many of his tools using the forge in shaping tools required.

Up until the 'war end' locomotive building went on a pace. For instance, a contract for 100 utility class (L.M.S) configuration weighing 120 tons were required for work on the UK network and abroad for Persia (Iran) to carry supplies to Russia. The contract was for 3 years, but was completed in 18 months. A stupendous effort rewarded by the government by bonuses to all concerned. My apprenticeship took me through various stages i.e. fitting shop, machine shop, boiler shop and drawing office. At 17 years of age my wage increase to 2.10 shillings and despite fighter attacks, flying bombs (which thankfully either hit the South Downs or flew on to Surrey and London) we continued working hard and playing hard. The year 1945 saw the end of the war in Europe and the Far East, but all heavy industry workers were required to stay in their occupations until the middle of 1946, no excuses accepted. That year was my eighteenth birthday and a wage rise to 3.10shillings and incarceration in the Drawing Office and eventually Test Fitter Apprentice. A much sought after appointment entitling one to accompany the test fitter on the foot plate of a new locomotive, carrying out test runs to London (Victoria Station) and back to Brighton, very exciting for an 18 year old.

As a postscript to this narrative I eventually managed to join the Royal Air Force as an Aero-Engine Fitter. After ten years service and becoming a crew chief on a fighter jet squadron, I moved on to civilian life and used my skills to good advantage.