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Memories of working in a reserved occupation Part One - Working at W. H. Allen's, Bedford

by bedfordmuseum

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Archive List > Working Through War

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Hon. Alderman Ronald Sharman
Location of story: 
Queen's Park, Bedford
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
13 September 2005

Memories of working in a Reserved Occupation Part One — Working at W. H. Allen’s, Bedford.

Part one of an oral history interview with Hon. Alderman Ronald Sharman conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.

“I was born in 1919 which makes me 85 in 2004. I was 20 when war was declared and I had been on holiday down in Yarmouth the week before war was declared. I was 20 then and I’d only got one more year to serve of my apprenticeship then. I did an engineering apprenticeship at W. H. Allen’s in Bedford. I was a ‘Turner/Fitter’. Some people were just ‘Fitters’ but I wasn’t just a ‘Fitter’, I was a ‘Turner/Fitter’. I went all the different machines in the factory to get experience. I remember after I’d been on a lathe for about five or six weeks - they’d got a left handed lathe, all the handles turned the opposite direction and of course they had this machine to make you think what you were doing. I know all the lads that went on it in turn, all the others used to stand out watching because they knew it wouldn’t be long before you turned the handle the wrong way and up shot the metal, could be dangerous. It was done to make you concentrate you see.

You had to work at night, and then you had to go out perhaps in the week to Home Guard and on Sunday mornings as well. You put some hours in - it makes you wonder how you kept awake sometimes. But there you are, there were chaps who were in the Army who were a lot worse off.

I got called-up for the Army and I was going to an Anti-Aircraft Unit in Devizes and I packed up work, brought all my tools home and everything home. And the morning I was due to go I had a telegram come telling me to return to work immediately as my work was regarded as essential to the war effort.
I was disappointed really because I saw my friends going and you know you always have in your mind that people are saying, ‘oh, he hasn’t gone’ and it’s not really a nice feeling. My brother volunteered for the Royal Air Force but he got in, he was alright! He went with a lad a boy named Don Clark that lived in Maitland Street and they joined the Air Force together, they went and volunteered together and they were at the same base for a time. My brother went to the Far East, all over the place.

I carried on and finished my apprenticeship. Then I got transferred at one stage, during the war to what they called the ‘Admiralty Repair Department’. It was in that Section that we used to get machinery that we’d built come back that had been half sunk and submerged. We had to clean it all out and repair it. That’s where we did the ASDIC or a part of the ASDIC. I wouldn’t think it is secret now. I mean look at all the things that went on out here where the stuff (an Enigma machine) got stolen, the secret code place (Bletchley Park) that all came out and they even told people how it worked in the end. But I couldn’t tell anybody how the ASDIC worked.

I can only say that there were two parts that we dealt with. One was steel and the other was the shape of a milk churn. Just like a milk churn and it had a little opening in the bottom of it and I should imagine there was probably a spindle went through it and we had to fit gear wheels into it. Gear wheel that meshed into one another and turned around and everything had to be worked out to the ‘thou, a 1000th of an inch, it had to be spot on. We fitted the gears that were on spindles, we fitted them in and then we put the lid on which had to be water tight, that all had to be dead flat, had scraped that until it was level and that all had to be water tight. But you didn’t really realise until you weren’t doing them anymore how important it was that you’d been doing! We didn’t make all that many. We made a few, probably a couple of a dozen that I can remember. Unless I got moved on to something else and somebody else did some. One thing in Allen’s, they had on the wall in W. H. Allen’s in the main erection shop, ‘Near enough is NOT good enough’ that was one big thing up and another one was ‘Allen quality necessitates the best workmanship’. And I always remember those two, they stick in my mind. But they are good sayings, the time you hear people saying, ‘ooh, that’s near enough!’ but at W. H. Allen’s ‘near enough’ wasn’t ‘good enough.’ It had got to be spot on. They had some jolly good fitters there.

We were repairing parts from the engine room because Allen’s had machinery in nearly all the Royal Navy’s ships, Allen’s machinery was world wide. It was parts of turbines and parts of diesel engines. When we’d repaired them they got sent back, yes. Dirty job, a filthy job with all oil everywhere. You couldn’t touch anything without it being all oil. Some of the things were in a very bad state. But you see if they had been part of the part that had been smashed, well it all had to be checked. Yes, but they didn’t take any risks on anything. If there was any sight of anything not being exactly right it had to be put right - men’s lives were at stake. And silence was golden. People were very good like that, people did keep silent. Well it was to everybody’s advantage.

I’m not sure but I believe that even today there are pumps and steam engines working in Iran from years and years ago. In those days what firms like Allen’s did, heavy engineering sort of thing, things were built to last, not to last for five minutes, throw away and get another one. Well you see you’d get a diesel longer than this room, today they can build the same thing to do the same work in less the size than that table. Technology has moved on. Heavy engineering I don’t ever think will ever come back.

During the war years the ladies went to work where it was safe for them to be. All the ladies in the factory had to wear a hat, like a peaked cap to keep their hair in you see. If you were near a machine you could have had your hair dragged in, they all wore overalls.

I remember the air raid shelters all the way up Allen’s yard. I do remember using them lots of times. Yes, we had to use them quite a lot of times because at one stage I think that there were some bombs dropped near the County Theatre. In fact there were air raid shelters in this school field at the back of here.

We started at seven thirty and if you were three minutes late you lost a quarter of an hour’s pay. If you were late more than twice in a week you were sent home and you were sent for when the foreman decided he would have you back. We worked longer hours and would start work at 7.30 in the morning and finish at five then you would have a short tea break, quarter of an hour, 20 minutes something like that and then you worked on until 7 o’clock. And of course it was mostly bicycles in those times, the bicycles used to flood down Ford End Road bridge. Oh, yes we had lamps and we had them shaded. Allen’s works yard, the road leading up in Allen’s works there, there were bicycle racks on one side from top to bottom. The only people’s cars that were in there that I can remember in those days were the Pupils and Students, they were allowed to bring a car in. They were privileged! But they were the only cars that there were.”

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