Ken learned heavy engineering with an apprenticeship at Ransomes and Rapier in Ipswich and after national service became a pioneering work study man there, managing the process for projects such as a walking dragline excavator for the Canadian mining industry. He moved to Norfolk to work in the civil engineering industry in North Walsham, in management, design and control of processes. He spent many years at Utting Engineering, who provided the main internal steelwork for the Lloyds Building in London – one of the biggest such projects ever done in Norfolk, using highly specialised welders.
I was born in 1932, in Coronation Road, Ipswich. During the war I started school in Ipswich, then when the bombs fell on Ipswich, my father evacuated me to Forncett in South Norfolk and I went to the school there. I was more or less the dunce in the class, but anyway, when my Mother came out of hospital in 1942 we all set up home again in Diss and I improved and eventually got to Diss Grammar School, which was the secondary school in those days. I didn’t pass the scholarship first time, so the second time I passed the entrance exam and my father had to pay £3 10s for the first two terms. And after The Education Act of 1944 he didn’t pay anything and I was top of the form for five terms out of fifteen.
The Butler Act – probably – I’m not a historian – OK and when you left school, did you go straight to work?
Yes, I left school with a good School Certificate in 1949 and I hadn’t really much idea what to do but my father suggested I was good with my hands and I should go into engineering.
Engineering Apprentice in Ipswich
So I started an Apprenticeship at Ransomes and Rapier of Ipswich which was that very heavy engineering company.
What sort of things did you learn in that apprenticeship?
I started off in the machine shop and worked on some rather poor lathes. In the meantime I was going to Night School, which I was quite good at, and then they deemed that I had made enough progress to go on a tour of the works – a Student Apprenticeship.
I did that, and quite enjoyed it, but didn’t really get too much satisfaction until the last year when I worked in the moulding shop, or the foundry, as you would probably know it – where I worked on metal control. Perfectly clean in the morning, but hell in the afternoon when we poured metal, and I poured metal myself sometimes.
After that I left and went in to National Service.
So you were pouring metal into moulds, to make what kind of things?
A very wide range – concrete mixer parts, small stuff, machine frames for mobile cranes, which probably weighed a couple of tons – that sort of thing; but I was involved on the metal control at the cupola, which is the melting furnace at the far end.
Was that a physical job, then?
So there was an element of judgement involved in controlling it?
Yes, we had to assess what was being moulded that day; what grades of iron were being used, then work out the charging programme for the cupolas. Then towards the end of the time you had to then work out whether you’d got enough metal left to pour the last moulds, and if you hadn’t, you’d got to put a bit more on.
Sometimes you’d put a bit too much on and then they’d be filling up the pigs with molten iron which was more or less waste.
What were some of the other skills that you learnt in that apprenticeship?
Well, metal turning, fitting; I was a reasonably good general engineer – but I felt that I was not a specialist in anything, which disappointed me a little bit.
And then after that you did National Service?
National Service yes – I surprised myself and became a 2nd Lieutenant in the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers). I went to Officer Cadet School at Eaton Hall, near Chester, home of the Duke of Westminster. Just before I went, two cadets committed suicide, so I had to go back home to Ipswich the previous weekend to assure my Mum and Dad that I would not be committing suicide! As it happened, I went into the company, under the Sergeant Major who had made the remark that sent these two lads over the top!
But it didn’t manage to finish you off?
No, no – I used to laugh at him – not that he’d see me laughing – but it was comical, I thought.
The pioneering Work Study man and Project Officer
So, after your National Service, where did you move to then?
I came back to Ransomes and Rapier and became a pioneering Work Study man. Time studying and things like that.
What did that involve doing, then? Were you observing other people?
Well, observing other people, but it was also a fairly new concept at the time so we had to be sort of ‘spreading the gospel’ if you like. I can’t really say I enjoyed that too much, but then they picked me out of there to act as a Project Officer on a huge walking dragline excavator that was going to Canada.
What does a walking dragline excavator do?
Well, they strip off the overburden so that the mechanical shovels can get down deeper to dig the iron ore out – or coal.
So, it’s for mining?
It’s to do with mining, yes.
So they are heavy machines?
Well, we did make the biggest one in the world, actually.
How heavy would that be?
1400 tons. A monster.
And that was sent abroad?
That was for Canada, yes. We had to make that in fourteen months and that was my first – trying me out as a future manager and I’m not going to say it was entirely due to my efforts, because it wasn’t, but we did make it. It was built up complete – in fact I’ve got a photograph somewhere – in a huge workshop; stripped down into big units and then sent off on barges to load onto a cross ocean vessel.
Ah, so it was built and then taken down.
Yes, built and then taken down.
… and then built up again there [In Canada]. And then, after a while, you finished there.
Well, I then ran the progress office for five years. Then I decided I wasn’t getting anywhere and if I weren’t careful I would be there until I was 65, so I moved to another firm down the road – Manganese Bronze.
Progress Office – that’s like a Project Office?
No – to make sure all the stuff was flowing through for the various products. They made about five or six different product lines and I was in charge of the office that checked if things were going properly.
And did people report to you what their stocks were, or their throughputs were? Is that how it worked?
Something like that, but that isn’t quite right, but it was keeping tabs on everything, and if … and make sure that for each group, or batch of products, that all the stuff we had to manufacture was manufactured on time. That’s really it.
And then you moved to another firm.
Yes, a much smaller company Oilite Bearings – does that mean anything to you?
They made bearings out of composite metal. That is a trade-mark really. I mean some of them were half inch long, quarter inch hole – that’s quite typical but there were some quite complicated shapes, but I never settled there. So then after another 18 months I went and got myself another job at Ransomes Simpson Jefferies, the lawnmower people.
OK – was this in Ipswich?
Oh yes – well I had four and a half years there, but again it wasn’t my sort of firm – it was too divisionalised. At Rapiers I was used to being able to go in anywhere, seeing the foreman and saying ‘what could we do about this …?’ There I had to do it all through sub-offices all the while, and that weren’t my style.
Anyway, eventually then I decided I’d had enough. I think I disappointed them – I think they were a bit disappointed with me but I didn’t get the push or anything like that. In fact they tried to hold me to three months’ notice, which I couldn’t quite understand – but anyway, I got this job at Crane Fruehauf, so I was there for two and a half years.
Engineering in North Walsham
So you moved up here.
To North Walsham – this house – thirty-eight and a bit years ago!
There I was Material Controller – that was the job. But all the time I was getting away from the technical basis which is what I really liked, and eventually I got a bit fed up there. Then moved on to some other new department, but the new department didn’t survive very long and I was made redundant. Perhaps I asked for it, I don’t know, but I don’t have any regrets about any of those things. Then I went and worked in Norwich for a firm who made hydraulic cylinders; commercial vehicles and heavy vehicle axles, and things like that. Again, I didn’t settle there and they had a slight down-turn and I got made redundant. Had six weeks on the dole, got fed up and then went and saw Trevor Utting.
But you were taken on at Uttings on a different basis?
Oh yes …
How did that work?
Well, I didn’t want to feel under too much pressure, so instead of going back on the skilled rate, which I was entitled to because I had served and apprenticeship, I went back as semi-skilled. I’d been so long away from the nuts and bolts of the hand effort that I didn’t want to be under pressure. So I worked there on that sort of rate for a year or eighteen months I suppose, eventually said to them ‘how about it?’ because they realised that I was quite good – so I got made up.
So most of that work was working with your hands, rather than organising?
Oh yes – there was no organising at that stage, no. Mostly on machines and a bit of fitting. That was like serving my apprenticeship all over again, which I was really chuffed to do. I wasn’t being paid very well, but that satisfied me. Then eventually as I say we built that first machine there and then they eventually got me onto staff, initially to do estimating for the subcontract side of things.
Just describe the machine briefly for us so that we’ve an idea of what that was you were involved with.
That is what is known as a Metal Cutting Band Saw. You’ve got a tooth blade which is ten feet 6 inches long, inch wide and that is run between two wheels and then that is brought down onto a bar of metal which is held with a vice and that controlled descent – is sawn through that – and that is known as a metal cutting band saw.
So it’s a controlled process.
It is a controlled process, yes.
And that was, if you like, your introduction to project work with Uttings?
And then you did estimating … what was involved with that?
Well, a set of drawings would come along and you’d have to assess by looking at them, how long the various operations would take and then work out the cost of the material involved; put on profit margin and then come up with a figure which I felt was right for the job. The boss then would have a look at it and he’d either agree or disagree and that would be submitted.
The next thing that would happen was the customer would say ‘Can you sharpen your pencil?’ – so with the boss we’d have to decide – can we do it for less than I’d said or not?
Most of the time we did do it for less than I’d said.
So that was the phrase – can you sharpen your pencil? To make it cheaper.
Oh yes, there was a particular man involved every time I think of that and I curse him, even now.
So this was one particular customer who …
That was a particular man at the concrete works – that was him.
So you were estimating the length of time it would take to make something and the amount of material which together gives you cost.
So what was your next move after that, then?
Well, I still did a bit of estimating but in the meantime the boss had decided we were going to have one of these Computerised Numerical Control machining centres. I think that’s the correct expression. That involved going then on a course at Beaver Machine Tools in Norwich, because that was where it was coming from, to learn how to programme the machine by means of a tape, in those days, to do the various functions, which are horizontal and vertical.
This is another cutting machine, is it?
No, this is the machine for drilling, tapping and milling.
This was to do this in metal – sheet metal, or tubes?
Not sheet metal, not tube – metal bar or metal castings.
And what might those things be for … what would they be produced for?
Some of them were being produced for the metal cutting band saw as I’ve already mentioned, but also again subcontract – and in fact one of the jobs we did was aluminium castings for petrol pumps. That was quite complicated, but quite enjoyable, and we did that for Gilbarco.
This is the external covers for the petrol pumps, or …?
No it isn’t actually, it’s the inside. I don’t really know what they did, but I can visualise them quite accurately – a flange, a tube and then another flange. Part of the pumping mechanism.
In addition to that work you became involved in the buying process?
I did become involved in the buying process and in the end I did virtually all the buying – there was some of the heavy expensive stuff perhaps that I didn’t actually buy but I was involved in the negotiating of prices for all the stuff, basically for our own products which, in the main, were the band saws. Prices of the castings that we had to machine; prices of the electric motors that we had to use to drive the bands and that sort of thing. I quite enjoyed that and in fact I had a reputation as a hard man.
On one occasion I was in the Car Park in Holt and a lady came up to me and said, ‘Aren’t you Mr H. of T. J. Utting?’
I said, ‘Yes I am’.
She said, ‘I think you should be ashamed of yourself – my husband left in tears after his last visit to you!’
He had obviously tried to sell me something … but I bought, I wasn’t sold!
So, for example, the electric motors – you bought those in from another company for the bandsaws? And the casings, similarly? How much of the bandsaw was bought in and how much was made at Uttings?
I should think about a third of the cost of the bandsaws was in the proprietary articles and the steel … yes, and the castings – something like that.
So, for the buying, did you have to go out to other companies or was it mainly by correspondence or telephone? How did the process work?
Well basically, I suppose in most cases, I mean, the reps would come in … like the steel reps – we’d already more or less settled on the castings supplier, so that was just a question of me keeping up with that and altering suppliers if necessary – if they wouldn’t give us a good price.
Electric motors are a fairly common thing, so every now and then a rep would come round and said could he have the chance to quote next time. We would say yes, go through the motions and perhaps if they were cheaper or I judged better value than our current supplier, I would change.
Gearboxes, we tried to make them – but that didn’t really work so we used one firm of gearboxes for quite a long while; then we had problem with the shafts shearing so we changed over to another, which we’d decided was a better gearbox, and I was involved in that.
I should say, perhaps – the odd one or two occasions at Christmas I did in those days do rather well – the odd case of wine and things like that … but I was totally incorruptible! I often said that if I looked after my money like I looked after Trevor Utting’s money I might be a little bit better off!
Anyway – that carried on until 1994, when we were struggling financially – and it was a bit difficult to buy when you hadn’t got any money – but eventually I decided I would finish at 62 because we thought my wife might be in a wheelchair so I packed it in, and happily my wife has never been in wheelchair.
The Lloyds Building and other projects
Earlier on you were saying that Uttings made part of the components for the Lloyds Building – I don’t know if you’d like to talk a little bit about that because obviously a famous and major project.
We missed that completely, didn’t we? Yes, one of the biggest projects that the company did, probably one of the biggest ones ever in Norfolk that have been done, was the internal steelwork for the Lloyds Building in London. That all had to be welded to a very high specification indeed – the main vertical tubes in the inside of the building … our directors went to British Steel in Corby to order the tube, which was something like twelve inches diameter; two inch wall thickness – and they really were a bit shocked insofar that British Steel were not that interested.
Anyway, eventually the steel was bought. Then we had to have girders which had to be a special grade of steel – I think it was BS5350 50D – with a high impact steel. This was really for the big brackets. All the welders had to be tested and then they were then coded, because the welding was a key aspect of it. Early on we had terrible trouble in meeting the welding standards, but eventually we got there, and we were told by the people who finally did the inspection, that the work was worthy of a nuclear power station. They might be glad of it now, but I think those welders have now all retired.
There was a lot of documentation to be done on that job and in fact I looked after the storing of those documents.
So what was made are the main vertical components of the Lloyds Building …
The main vertical components and the brackets. Yes, apart from the steelwork for the Lloyds Building, again through Anglian Building Products at Lenwade, we were responsible for producing the moulds for the terraces of Twickenham Rugby Ground and both the racecourse new stands at Newmarket. We did the balustrades for the Ramada Hotel at Brighton, just before the Labour Party Conference was due to be done there, and I think that’s just about all I can remember at the moment.
Interesting to hear of the things people can see and recognise that were made by Uttings as well as all the components that go to build things that are not so recognisable.
Well yes, that’s absolutely true.
Thank you very much for sharing your reminiscences with us.