Most boys in my class were together for all of our nine years schooling. All mixed ok and I never remember any problems in or out of school even as it was a lower working class area. All of us went home for lunch. Not a lot to significantly remember about day-to-day activity. My friend Alfie Ward and I often ran little races together in the playground but as he was smaller than me I always seemed to win. A singular memory!
The normal school leaving age was 14 but in September 1939, when war had broken out, all boys who would become 14 before Christmas were called together and explained the new situation.As my 14th birthday was in November I was included.
"Your schooldays are now over," we were told. "Factories here need extra labour urgently and you will straight away be directed to your new jobs."
My new job was with Armstrong Siddeley, a company situated not too far from the city centre that had switched over their main production from cars to aircraft engines. The main metal working area in this factory consisted of lathes, grinding machines, drilling and milling machines. I was allocated to the latter. These machines were equipped with revolving cutters designed to cut and shape metal down to the required size. The metal in question here was mainly cast iron. But in my case it was steel, specifically threaded steel screws.
My job, or rather the machine's job, was to cut a screwdriver slot in the top of the screw. In the world of unfantastic endeavour I would rate this operation as pretty high. Under the watchful eye of the foreman I placed a screw in a chuck mounted on the machine's movable surface, then pulled a lever. The screw was propelled under a cutter so producing a slot. "There you are," said the foreman, "you've learnt a trade, carry on." Boxes of freshly minted screws arrived and I carried on!
I don't know if there was any air-conditioning in this building but I doubt it. From where I stood the far wall was obliterated by a foggy haze made up with mostly cast-iron dust, oily smoke from the turret lathes and particles thrown up by the grinders. Plus almost everyone smoked, continually by many.
Most of the men were unskilled but were needed for high-volume repetition work. They came from many parts of the UK and Ireland. The machines were set up by local skilled engineers and with a minimum of tuition could be operated by the newcomers. Everything was geared up for maximum production to meet the needs of the war.
The toilets, for want of a better word for these smelly hellholes, were always busy. After a visit to the crowded bare wall urinal, men would stand and natter as long as possible to eke out as much time as they could away from their work station. Bookies' runners were always available throughout the day and betting slips were passing around continually. Also making fun of and handing out hurtful comments to us boys seemed to hearten them considerably. The rows of cubicles were not cubicles at all but merely toilet bowls separated by waist-high boards. No doors. They were always fully occupied. After a while I tried to avoid using the toilets as much as possible. To this end I took my midday lunch break sandwiches outside to eat and find a quiet spot for a pee undisturbed.
1939 drifted into 1940, which is when Germany's bombing offensive hotted up. My Dad had constructed an air raid shelter in the back yard and he, my Mum and I just sat the raids out as well as we could. Not only were bombs howling down but small incendiary devices were interspersed with them. They needed a bucket of sand pouring over them if you had the nerve. A particularly horrific raid took place in November 1940. A large part of the fine old medieval city centre was flattened. Surprisingly my factory didn't suffer major damage and those who outlived the night were at work next day, with tales to tell of course.
In 1941 Germany invaded Russia and later that year Germany declared war on the USA. By 1942 I'd been transferred from screw slotting to milling cast-iron. I was also smoking, the combination of both no doubt lead to my constantly emitting much dark phlegm and having a permanent cough.
1943 August, aged 17, I joined the Navy.
Private Alfred Ward was killed in Europe in 1945.