I soon slipped into the life of the workshop, extracting interest and amusement, as well as enduring boredom. Up in the woodwork shop we boiled cans of tea at breakfast time on the gas jet used for heating glue, and sometimes we fried sausages. Reid, a thick-set, clumsy young man, who was the workshop humorist, gained general applause one morning by cleaning the greasy frying-pan on his mop of hair. Another jest of his was to pour out grey paint from a bucket on to the newly made wooden shutters, then-instead of a paintbrush - he seized a broom and painted vigorously.
I wore a leather apron now - black and shiny with oil - and with my sleeves rolled up, I ran every morning to the corner shop for "a penny tin of skim milk" for our workshop breakfast. The grocer asked me one morning if it had to be "skim," but I saw no humour in this. About five-thirty a.m., on my way to work, I would buy hot cheese cakes fresh from the oven for a halfpenny at a coffee stall. Another halfpenny would buy a cup of hot tea. Thus fortified, the sleepy desolation of my morning journey gave way to a sense of well-being.
As a newcomer I passed the tests. They sent me to buy "belt oil." But I soon learned that if you poured oil on those hard greasy black leather belts they would slip on the shining pulleys, and the wheels would refuse to turn. I pushed the barrow, with its clumsy cartwheels, to and fro. I ran errands here and there. I liked to be out, for then it seemed that the pageant of life was spread before me. I envied the van drivers and the draymen perched in their high seats, seeing things happening all day. Once, on an errand, I passed the factory where my father was working. I felt a sudden pity for him and the others cooped in that grey building for most of their waking hours.
Mr. Stour was in his happiest mood in the smithy, an old straw sunbonnet stuck on his head and a worn leather apron tied round him. Hammer in hand, he worked away at the anvil.
" Bring the monkey! " he roared. "Bring the monkey!" With grizzled beard and red sweaty face he looked like a farmer. I soon found out what this mechanical contrivance was, and brought it to him as he shaped the white-hot metal ribbon that he held on the anvil. He could neither read nor write to any practical extent. Yet with a few movements of the bellows, a swift jerk of the tongs and deft strokes with the hammer, he could make all kinds of fancy, interlacing scroll-work, spirals and roses to grace gates and railings. On the office wall hung framed certificates recording his triumphs as a smith.
"Tell your bloke I brought this stuff!" a strange vanman said when he delivered a load of wood or iron, never dreaming that he was speaking to the "bloke" himself. Mr. Stour said nothing, for fear he would be asked to sign his name. Yet when he was dressed up in a silk hat and frock-coat - as happened on special occasions - he made a fine figure of a leisured gentleman.
He was sensitive about his illiteracy. I found this out when he sent for me one morning. I entered the office, and he stood looking at me.
"Hm, h'm," he cleared his throat irresolutely. " If you were spelling [?] malleable,' how would you spell it?" he asked suddenly.
I made a shot at the word.
"Yes - all right," he said, then - making up his mind - "I want you to go to the foundry and order some of those" - he pointed to some castings. "See, I will give you a sketch of one. If Mr. Hunt asks why you have not got a proper order, tell him there was no one here to give it you.You understand?"
To get to Hunt's foundry I had to pass through the Tottenham ghetto - a district crowded with Polish Jews, supplying the cheap labour in the factories on the adjoining marshland. Many families shared these houses, and half-naked children tumbled about the thresholds, while shawled and tousled women kept up a foreign chatter.
When I reached the foundry I went into a long gloomy shop like a huge shed with a sanded floor, and saw a knot of men standing at one end. A man walked towards me along the narrow pathway, and I saw he carried two pails from which came a red glow. A clamour of yells rose from the men at the other end, and I skipped out of the way confusedly. The pails were filled with molten metal ready for pouring into the moulds.
I spoke to Mr. Hunt, who answered in a gruff tone, and bade me follow him. We passed an elderly man with spectacles and a short grey beard, who looked benign as he stooped over his work. He was painting huge iron girders with dull red paint. As we passed, Mr. Hunt, who, with his burly form and drooping moustache, was fierce and mastiff-like, rasped out:
"Late again this morning, were you?" The old man looked up startled.
" No," he quavered. "I was in early!"
"Oh! And this is what you've done all the morning. I'll soon see about that!" and the mastiff man strode on, leaving the old man hurrying over his work with trembling fingers.
I thought to myself: "He works hard. He looks as if he had always worked hard, and yet this is how he is treated!" I was on the threshold; he was near the end of his work-worn life. I had matter for youthful reflection here.
Crossing the yard I saw the huge black furnace from which, when the men turned the tap, there poured a golden stream. Starlike sparks flew up only to fall, hissing and spluttering, to the ground. The workmen were quick to dodge these flying metal sparks. This furnace was a compound of beauty and ugliness.
Mr. Hunt grumbled incessantly about not getting a proper order, and snarled at everyone he met, including the bleak-looking lady in the office, who snapped out her replies. I was glad to leave the foundry.
Compared with Hunt, Mr. Stour seemed a model employer, but in spite of his good qualities as a smith he had other qualities not so admirable. He was mean in petty ways. If a boy was kept on an errand an hour or so after his working time, he thought it enough to give him a penny or twopence as a reward. Each employee had to fill in a time sheet. This was the only check, because Stour did not believe in spending money on office work.
On winter mornings men occasionally came in late - ten minutes, half an hour, even an hour. Sometimes Stour would arrive unexpectedly at six a.m. One morning, as I stood outside the gate, Stour sidled up. It was a cold morning and I had seen only a few shivering milk or paper boys and half-frozen workmen huddled in their coats as I hurried to work.
"It's very funny," said Mr. Stour, with a whine in his voice, "but they're all here at six when I'm not here!" He tried to find out from me the names of men who were often late.
Another morning when only a few workers had arrived early I saw him get up on the stool in his office and - at ten-past six - stealthily shift the hands back to the hour. This meant that those who had come in early would have to work another ten minutes. He had just done this when Mr. Boyd - the perky, self-satisfied foreman of the machine shop - came strolling through the yard.
"You're ten minutes late, Mr. Boyd!" said Stour complainingly.
"I'm not," replied Boyd.
"You are," persisted Stour. "Ten minutes exactly," he pulled out his watch. "I set it by railway time."
"I don't go by railway time," retorted Boyd. "I go by the office clock. That's what it's for!"
He nodded towards the big clock, whose hands had just been altered. Mr. Stour swallowed and choked. He was caught in his own trap.
He tried other measures. Men who came after ix found the door shut against them. He kept it locked till nine o'clock, and stopped their pay.
Once I arrived a few minutes past six and found the door locked. But I also found Boyd outside in a fury, his shoulder to the door, trying to burst it open. The small door and the massive wooden gate in which it was cut shook under his assault. He looked round as I came up.
"Get over the top! " he ordered. There was a gap between the arched brickwork and the top of the gate with railings on each side.
I was soon up on the railings, over the big wooden gate and down on the other side. All I needed to do was to slip a catch and the door opened.
Boyd walked down the yard with magnificent nonchalance, and I followed.
As we reached the glass office, Stour ran out, his mouth agape.
"How did you get in?" he cried, without concealing his amazement.
"The boy let me in!" said Boyd, casually, walking straight on.
"And how did you get in?" Stour demanded, turning his wrath on me.
"Over the top!" I answered, with simple truth.
"Who told you to ?"
" Mr. Boyd!"
He ran after the foreman.
"The boy says you told him to get over the top!"
"The boy says right! "
Stour could only mumble reproaches when he came back to me. The truth was he was beaten again.
Later he introduced a timekeeper, whose job it was to take note of the time each man came in and to shut the door on late-corners. But the times were never very accurately recorded. One day, to the joy of the shop, Mr. Stour himself arrived when the door was locked, and he had forgotten his key. He banged on the door and shouted till he was tired. Then he went round to the back and, peeping over the wall, called through the little window opening on to the machine shop.
"That's old Stour out there," hissed a workman to me. "Don't listen to him, and don't look at him. Give him a taste of what he's given us!"
He was left outside for two hours.
Stour & Loughboroughs' was a slipshod, easy going small shop of the pre-War type. Stour was a good smith but a poor manager, parsimonious and muddled. Loughborough, a big, muscular, clean-shaven man, never bothered. Everyone worked long hours for little pay, but had comensations in lack of rigidity, absence of methodical grind. The firm employed the lesser skilled unorganised workers. Once during a rush period one of the men brought his father out of the workhouse to help in the shop.
I carried pailfuls of "breeze" - small coal - to the forges and later swung a hammer at the anvil. I pushed the heavy truck filled with castings, iron or woodwork to and from the works. I learned to work a small drilling machine and helped the men generally. But underneath the workshop grime my face grew pallid. When I reached home - at about seven o'clock - I wanted to have tea without washing, and fell asleep over my evening meal. Those five silver shillings which I received each Saturday were earned hardly enough at the expense of youthful zest and happiness.
Perhaps it was a consciousness of this which made the three boys of the works determine to ask for a rise. Mr. Stour used to retire to his room upstairs each evening just before six, to have his tea. We knew this because one of us had to bring him his tea, to run for his half a haddock or whatever delicacy he favoured. One local cookshop - there were several greasy specimens - to choose from - objected to selling half a haddock, but Mr. Stour insisted that a whole one was too much.
Judging a time when he would have finished his tea sufficiently to receive us, we tramped upstairs in our thick working boots. It sounded like the tramp of an army. Mr. Stour came rushing out on to the landing, his mouth full of haddock, tea and bread, to demand the reason for this invasion.
George a pale, shortish lad of about fifteen, with freckles and prominent teeth, spoke first. He asked for more money. Mr. Stour said " No."
George explained that his grown-up sister, with whom he lived, insisted that he should get more or else leave.
"Very well," said Mr. Stour, "I suppose you will have to go."
I was next in the line. I stepped out and put my plea for more money.
Mr. Stour looked troubled. He could see all his youthful staff departing.
"I will consider it," he announced.
Bert, who was older than either of us-he was sixteen, a Cockney, with a big greasy lock hanging over one eye-was also promised consideration.
George departed at the end of the week. Bert and I secured another shilling.
I was growing more proficient at wielding the hammer in the smithy, where sparks and bits of red-hot metal were flying. One big, curly-headed, young man had lost an eye through a flying metal spark. I came near to losing some fingers on my right hand when I unwittingly rested my hand on the blades of a machine that was chopping off lengths of metal as if biting sticks of celery. A workman who saw my danger gave me a blow in the chest which sent me staggering backwards just in time.
The one-eyed smith was very fond of a confection that we called "asphalt." This was a dark, thick, solid substance resembling bread pudding, with a layer of white icing on it. When I ran out at breakfast or dinner time I usually had to bring one or more lumps of "asphalt."
At the back of the machines was a row of small windows - facing the windows of a synagogue across a narrow space. The end one opened near a wall, on the other side of which ran another passage alongside the works. By wriggling through this small window it was possible for a boy to drop over a wall and bring cans of beer in for the men. After dropping down into the passage I had to be careful not to run into Mr. Stour or Mr. Loughborough on their way to or from the firm. And, coming back, it was just as important to put the cans carefully on the wall above my head, before scrambling up and tapping at the window for them to be taken safely in. In the meantime if Mr. Stour asked for me it was the task of the others to head him off till my return.
I have mentioned the synagogue opposite our row of windows, but we never really noticed this until one morning when - on the celebration of the feast of Yom Kippur - we heard the longdrawn wailing of women with a response of lamentations in a deeper key. By standing on the bench and craning necks we could see all the women at one end and the men at the other. Between them stood a rabbi in an embroidered robe who seemed, to our uninitiated eyes, to be urging each side on whenever there came a lull in the wailing.
Soon - as an accompaniment to the wailing workshop humorists began to beat plates of sheet iron with hammers and spanners. The Jewish caretaker poked his head through the window.
"You wouldn't think it funny if I came round and told your boss how you're working!" he threatened.
"We don't have to work now! It's our breakfast time!" he was told triumphantly.
The humorists grew more boisterous. The rabbi, chanting and swaying from side to side, was made the target for small screws hurled through the open window. He had his back to the workshop but, during a pause, he turned his glittering dark eyes, pale face and long straggling beard towards us. In that face was all the mournfulness of persecuted Israel. The only man who had a word to say on his behalf was a quiet old German workman.
" All religions are funny to those outside them," he muttered solemnly. "You should respect every man's belief!"
He might as well have talked to a horde of savages as to these boisterous young men cooped up all day in a narrow workshop cage.
Soon I began to regard myself as a grown-up workman, as hard-bitten as any of them. One morning Mr. Stour pointed to a sack filled with heavy metal fittings. "Take this and deliver it to that address," he said, giving me a piece of paper.
"It is heavy, and you'd better get a penny ride on the tram."
I pushed the paper into my pocket abstractedly and set off. The sack was very heavy, as I soon found. I got off the tram at St. Ann's Corner, on the edge of an area of dismal slum streets. Then I hunted for the address. I went through every pocket, but it was gone. Plunging into the narrow streets I asked for any firm where they would be likely to have ordered the fittings. I was directed to a big factory on the top of a hill and, as I toiled up, I was glad I had found the place so easily, but when I reached the gates I discovered it was the wrong place, and wearily I dragged my load down again. I could not face going back and saying I had lost the address. Kindly, if slatternly looking, women, lolling at the street doors, advised me where I could sell my scrap iron for a few pence. Up and down I wandered, the burden growing heavier and more hateful. I thought I was doomed to carry it for life. At last I asked an old woman standing at a gate. She turned a wan pathetic face to me, and answered in a gentle faded voice. Then I saw she was blind.
Dispirited I turned back, prepared to face my humiliation at the workshop. I reached the point where the tram started, and decided I must ride back as I was staggering under the load. I fumbled for a penny. Suddenly I felt a crackling in the corner of my coat lining. The paper had worked down through a hole. In no time I had it out, and there was the address I wanted. I had been walking in circles round it all the time. I hurried back and delivered the sack. With a weight off my mind and body I started again for the workshop, but - unluckily - walked straight into Mr. Stour and Mr. Loughborough. Stour stopped and smiled. "I see you've delivered the fittings!" he said. Yes I had. There was no need for me to say anything or explain anything. But the heat, the weariness, the hopelessness of the morning overcame me. I was all wrought up inside, and suddenly I burst into a flood of tears. They were both startled. Mr. Stour told me to get on a tram and take a good hour for dinner. Perhaps they thought the sack was too heavy for me. I never knew what they thought. But I was overwhelmed with shame at this exhibition of childishness. It never happened again. Perhaps that is one reason why it left an indelible mark was too heavy for me. I never knew what they thought. But I was overwhelmed with shame at this exhibition of childishness. It never happened again. Perhaps that is one reason why it left an indelible mark.