Apprenticeship At T. Norris & Son


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NOTE: The following article was originally written back in September 1988 as part of W.J. Yarranton's memoirs. Mr Yarranton worked at T. Norris & Son from October 1939 to April 1943.


Memories of my apprenticeship days working for T. Norris & Son, specialist plane maker, established 1860.

By W.J. Yarranton.

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of my starting a career in the toolmaking/engineering industry. It was in the year of 1939 that I left school at the immature age of 14. At the start of the school term previous to this I well remember the head master of New Malden West Central School, Mr J. Thomas Crowson, gathering us together one morning in the school hall and warning us that if we didn't do well during the coming term we would leave school at 14 years of age with a poor academic record which would result in us finding difficulty in getting a job and that this in turn would affect the whole of our working lives.

My achievement during the school years was not particularly good. I remember I was delayed in starting school as the school was full and I remember being away from school on various occasions through illness; at one stage I was even sent away to stop with my Auntie Alice in Great Yarmouth because the doctor, Dr. Colonel Pettit, of New Malden suggested to my parents that my health would improve if I could get some sea air in my lungs. However, the Headmaster made his point on that particular morning and left me worrying about my future. The result was that at the end of the next term, for the first time in my life I came top of the class and actually received a prize for English; it was a book entitled King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table.

Looking back over the years, my education on leaving school was very limited. I could read, write and do simple arithmetic although I did shine in the practical subjects of woodwork, drawing and gardening.

I left school at 14 years of age not really knowing what I wanted to do. My father was a good simple and practical man who thought quite correctly that my working future would have to be in something practical. In those days everyone thought the real achievement was to get a trade behind you with this in mind, my father almost decided for me that I should try to get a job in toolmaking. Armed with this decision my father and I put on our best suits and went to the labour exchange in Kingston and asked if there were any vacancies in the field of toolmaking. At that point in time nothing suitable was available and we returned home with my father wondering what to do next. I was so inexperienced in life that I didn't understand fully and I was wondering what all the fuss was about.

After about a week had passed, a green labour exchange card came through our letterbox in Fleetwood Road telling me to go to the firm of T. Norris & Son in Sycamore Grove, New Malden for an interview.

My dad and I put on our best suits again and after a lecture from my dad on how to stand and what to say, we arrived at the firm of T. Norris & Son, makers of fine English planes for cabinet makers.

We approached the factory entrance down a long driveway covered with loose shingle which made a lot of noise when you walked over it. To the right of the drive was a large Victorian house which was all part of the premises but partly separated by a hedge.

We entered the door at the front of the factory and my dad asked to see the Manager. During the interview, the Manager asked me a few questions about my hobbies etc. and I do recall being a little shy and my father doing most of the talking for me. Anyway, the Manager decided that he would give me the job and said that the wages would be 12/6d per week. I thought this was a very high wage because some of the lads who left school at the same time, and who went to work at the Brush factory in Kingston Road, New Malden, only received 10/0d per week (equivalent to 50p in todays currency). The manager went on to explain that the hours of work were 48 hours per week and that they started at 7 am and stopped for 1/2 hr. at 9 am for a breakfast break. I would need to take along each week a clean khaki overall and I remember my mum taking me into Kingston to buy 2 button-down-the-front khaki overalls which she had to alter on her hand-driven Singer sewing machine. I remember having to walk to work the first week or so because I didn't have a bicycle. After the first couple of weeks we went to the cycle shop in London Road, Kingston and dad got me a Raleigh roadster on Hire Purchase. I think the idea was to pay for the bike as quickly as possible and every week I had to go to the shop with 10/0d of my wages.

My mother was quite worried about me because she thought that the hours of work would make it a long day for me. The other men in the factory went home for breakfast and for dinner, they lived quite locally to the factory and I well remember being left alone in the factory during meal breaks and feeling quite sorry for myself.

The other men in the factory were Mr Bill Ratcliffe, the working manager, Mr Bowley who everyone called Bow and the other man was called Stan. Stan worked continually on a Turret Lathe and as I understood he was the only one on War work. The director associated with the company was Mrs Norris, a tall upright lady who must have been in her 80's. Mrs Norris lived in the big Victorian house on the right of the factory. On the odd occasions when I met her she was always very pleasant to me and I remember thinking how nice she was. I sometimes met her on a Friday when she brought the wage packets over from the big house.

Bill Ratcliffe, the manager, was a man of my father's age; he wore big heavy boots and a peaked cap and he rode a large upright cycle and I always called him Mr Ratcliffe. Bow, who seemed to be his understudy, I thought at the time was rather a cocky person: like the rest of us he wore a brown khaki overall but it was too long and came almost down to his ankles. I never really got on with him from the word go, he always seemed to be finding fault with me, not like Mr Ratcliffe who seemed to encourage me and teach me. I never really had a lot to do with Stan, the turret lathe operator, he was always quite pleasant and always had a kind word for me. All three of the men in the factory seemed quite old and I would imagine they are no longer with us mortals. I suppose that I am really the only surviving member of that band of merry men.

The factory was rather large for the number of persons working in it. The main building was oblong in shape with a lot of large windows down each side. Stan's turret lathe was positioned just inside the entrance door and benches were positioned down the right hand side against the wall with good daylight from the windows. The vices on the well worn benches, I recall, were the old-fashioned type that went all the way down to the floor.

In the centre of the shop was a large surface table with finished planes on it. Right down the other end of the shop was another extension to the main shop. At the end of this other workshop was a large power press and just adjacent to the entrance to this shop was the large, "could be 6 ft. diameter" whet stone running through water and driven by a large belt from a countershaft. I particularly remember this whet stone because they had to build me a plinth to stand on because I was too short for grinding the plane irons. Through the side door to the left of this building was a pathway alongside the factory which led to the one and only outside toilet. You were obliged to walk the length of the main factory, past all the windows so that everyone could see where you were going.

My jobs in the factory were varied. I used to sweep up and keep the benches clean but never got involved in making tea. Everyone seemed to take a flask to work with them. I was tried on various aspects of making the now famous Norris planes. I learnt with some accuracy how to use a file and this has stood me in good stead all my working life. The most common plane ma at that time was the dove-tailed coffin sided smoother with the sides dove-tailed to the sole plate, all of these were filed and fitted by hand which made it essential for accuracy with a file. I became particularly proficient at making the rosewood plane handles, these came to the factory rough sawn to shape. I can still smell the rosewood and the subsequent coatings of "sanding sealer" which smelt like the pear drops that we bought at the local sweet shop.

I made quite an impression on the large whet stone in the extension shop, in fact after I had finished grinding the plane irons all that had to be done was a slight rubbing on an oil stone for a final and really keen cutting edge. I remember Mr Ratcliffe telling me I had a fine eye for concentricity and squareness during the various hand operations I got involved in. Another tedious task on the coffin sided smoothing planes was burnishing the radiused section adjacent to the pivot point of the gun metal lever. I say tedius because it was not a quick operation; it firstly involved filing a perfect radius around the sides in two planes of direction. This then has to be followed by fine filing followed by about three grades of emery and finally by flour paper. During each of these operations of course it is very easy to deform the original shape and make the job second-hand looking. The final operation necessary was the task of burnishing with long straight strokes with a burnishing tool. The burnishing tool was made from a ground-down triangular file with the edges and surfaces oil stoned to a ver fine finish. The end result of a perfectly burnished job is that it should look like a chromed finish. During the whole of my engineering career I have never had the occasion to burnish any other job other than the Norris planes.

As my tuition progressed through the various aspects of the metal work it soon became apparent that I had "Rusty Fingers", so called in the engineering trade because one leaves a perfect finger print of rust on steel which if left for any length of time would etch to quite a depth. It is quite common with boys in their teens and is caused by too much acid in their perspiration. Of course, Bow made a great song and dance about it and at the time made me feel quite guilty. However, the problem was soon overcome because under the suggestion of Mr Ratcliffe I always wiped the jobs over with an oil rag when I had finished them.

As mentioned previously most of the planes made were coffin sided smoothers and the occasional panel plane and gun metal violin planes. I feel that at that stage the company was in a run down state, only three men and one boy employed; probably previous to this the work force was larger. It seemed that it was only Mrs Norris, previously mentioned, who was running the operation.

I volunteered for the RAF in April 1943 and came out of the RAF in 1947. By this time I understood the company was no longer in Sycamore Grove and obtained a job nearer my home at High Speed Service Tool Company, still in toolmaking but the type of tools involved here were press tools.

When I was employed by T. Norris & Son I never took the opportunity of purchasing any of the now sought after Norris planes, and two years ago, getting a little nostalgic in my mature years, I decided to make, in the traditional manner, a 1920 A4 model Norris Coffin Sided Smoother. The result was quite satisfactory and I have been commended on the finished article by cabinet makers and engineers of good standing. (see Fig. 1.)

When I left T. Norris & Son, Mrs Norris gave me a reference which reads:

William Yarranton has been with us since Oct. 10th 1939 and we have found him most satisfactory in every way, he is a good worker and time keeper.

We are very sorry to part with him. Signed H.E. Norris, Director.

I was very proud to have received this testimonial. I still have the original and I have tried to live up to it during my working life. I think I have succeeded.

W.J. Yarranton,
September 1988.