Working Lives

The Carpenter’s Apprentice (1922-1986)

Location: Wales & Norfolk

Fred learned his trade as a carpenter’s apprentice and went out to work at 14. He worked on the railways in the West of England until moving to Norfolk, where he’d met his wife after the Second World War.

Starting Work

My first job was carpenter’s apprentice. I started work at 14 years old. I started with another boy and our first job between us was to look after glue pots. That was our first job ever. Everything was glued together in those days, rather than some of the fixings they have now. That’s a long job sometimes and that had to be exactly right because our last job of the day was to empty out all the glue that hadn’t been used during the day and leave the pot full of water so that soaked overnight.

When we got there in the morning we had to clean them out, fresh water, fresh glue, which in them days was a slab, I should say, about nine inches square. That had to be broken with a hammer and put in the glue pot, water in, and gradually brought up to the level. And every now and again one of the carpenters would come across and he’d dip the brush in and he’d test it by letting the glue run off the brush, and if it was all right to use we were ok. If not, we had to start again.

In them days, when I actually started my apprenticeship I had to do a year without any pay. My father had to actually pay for me to become an apprentice. After the first year I started getting some money. I think, if I remember rightly (I’ve got to think back a long way obviously), it was less that 10 shillings a week, and I saved up those few shillings after the first couple of weeks to buy myself a saw. And that was the first tool that I actually ever bought.

I was living at home at the time. I was at school a complete dunce – everything arithmetic, handwriting, and everything else. I was at school for the last couple of years in Caerleon in Wales and the headmaster, as he was then, decided that he would get rid or me, and the last six months of school I spent in the woodwork centre, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In a way I became so good the schoolmaster that used to run it used to let me teach the other boys how to use tools. So that was me. I thought ‘This is I want to be, a carpenter’s apprentice.’ Every morning in assembly the headmaster would say ‘Jenkins, Woodwork Centre.’

We started with very simple things, obviously, but we gradually got more complicated and I thoroughly enjoyed it. That’s what I wanted my trade to be. My one memory was showing other boys what to do when I was at school, and I was highly delighted when the master used to say ‘There’s a group of boys here. You can show them how to use a plane or a saw and all that kind of thing.’ That was some of the happiest memories of my school days.

When I actually started work, as I said, the glue pots were the thing. And then you were given a piece of spare wood and perhaps somebody had a plane to lend you and you would learn how to plane wood up properly or how to make a saw cut properly. They were all the sort of guide things, to start with. And then, of course, like everything else, you gradually built up as you went along.

We had quite a range of work in the workshop I was in, which was quite a big place, We had an upstairs workshop and a downstairs workshop. Now the upstairs work was where all the joinery was done: door, windows, tables, chairs, anything you can think of in that line. Downstairs was gates, fencing, wheel barrows. We used to make everything we needed there, sack barrows for on the platforms and all the other barrows used on the platforms. Everything you can think of.

I worked for what was to become British Rail. It was GWR until after the war.

We suffered sometimes because we were young, and the carpenters there were full of big ideas as to how they would show us the work. They would give us a piece of wood and say ‘We want that planed, and we want the edges true and we want it cut to full length,’ and someone would watch what we were doing. Perhaps we were half way through planing a piece of wood – ‘Oh, that won’t do. Start again.’ And we had to start again. But the atmosphere was good.

I think, if I remember rightly, there was one particular carpenter took an interest in me and another particular carpenter took an interest in the other boy, and we spent quite a lot of time with them two carpenters. I think they were probably the oldest skilled workers there. And the chap that was with me, I was with him until I got called up for the Army, he was very good. He was a really skilled man.

I enjoyed all my working life, right from the beginning to the end when I retired. I enjoyed my work, very much – making things in particular, and when it was finished I could say ‘There, that’s my work.’

The Severn Tunnel

In them days practically all windows were sliding sash windows. Everything was turned out for the station work and that sort of thing. Funnily enough, it was one of the things I really got into. Toward the end of my apprenticeship jobs like that were all passed my way. I enjoyed it. When I was getting toward the end of my apprenticeship, not very far from Newport, where our base was, we had the Severn Tunnel. Now there used to be a gang go into the Severn Tunnel every weekend on a Sunday when trains were few and far between and that was all fitted up. There used to be brick layers, carpenters, a blacksmith and all that sort of thing. And it would start one end of the Severn Tunnel, and go through.

It was all dripping wet in them days, terrible. There was an ex-goods freight van and that was fitted out with a section that you could put together, and that was arched at the top like the brick work of the arch, and that used to be slowly towed through , and that would mark out where bits of brickwork had fallen. And you had to stop, and we had to make wooden shapes for the brickwork that had to be held in position while they took out old bricks and put new bricks in. I think that was one of the worst jobs because we were only working on floodlights, but they weren’t anything like the floodlights you get today and it was half dark most of the time. It wasn’t very enjoyable. It was very cold in there.

I’m talking about days back before the war, you see. The hours then were from half past seven to five. There was no restriction on working hours then. In the latter days of my apprenticeship we used to go out and do work which covered a lot of the Welsh valleys and all down to Cardiff, so sometimes you wouldn’t get home until seven o’clock at night if they were a long way away.

In my time off I was a very keen cyclist. We lived seven or eight miles away from Newport where I was based and I cycled there every day. I was very keen on cycling and I actually joined up with a friend of mine who lived three or four bungalows from us and every night we’d do 25 , 30 miles. We used to do track cycling.

That was the main thing I used to do. And of course then there was the cinema and the theatre. I used to go quite a lot to the Theatre Royal in Norwich, if I remember rightly.

Through the railway, in one way, that was how I come to get married to my wife, just after the War finished. The carpenter I worked with, he was a bit on the spiritual or psychic side. The day I left to go for the Army he gave me a First World War clasp knife and he said ‘Fred, carry this with you all the time’. Then he said ‘I want to tell you something. You will never marry anybody from Wales. You will marry somebody from right the other side of the country.’ The railway actually in a way brought me down here. Because I met a girl in Norwich who worked in the NAAFI in the Nelson Barracks Canteen. That’s where I met her.

So eventually I joined the railway down this side of the country. It all worked out right for me, if you know what I mean.

Here’s a funny story. I was always one for the girls. I think every week there was a different one, In them days my mother was very severe when I was young: you had to be in by nine o’clock; if you were in after that they threatened to lock the door; and that sort of thing. I used to bring a girl home and leave her at the gate and when I’d go in my mother would say ‘Who’s that you’re with, this week?’

I’ve always been a great lover of socialising anywhere. Like now, I belong to all sorts of things and go out and meet people and give talks. I’ve always been like that. I think actually I took after my father. He was very much like that.


I retired in 1986 and after that I lived then in another part of Wymondham. I lived near to Bartram’s. The cottage I lived in then was one of his and I had a really big garage at the back, big enough to hold about three cars. So I turned that into a workshop. Then I used to take on work in there for different people and I had a man come to me one day – he lived over at Barford, actually. ‘I’ve heard about you,’ he say. ‘I’ve bought an old farm house over there,’ he say, ‘and I want to renovate it.’ And I spent three whole years over there with him and we stripped it completely out, rebuilt it. I made all the windows and all the doors and everything for it. Even fitted out the kitchen, all the fitments, airing cupboards, cupboards upstairs. And in the course of doing that the lady of the house, she wanted a sewing room, and the only place she could have it was in the loft. So we went up one day and rigged up electric lights in there and had a good look round and we decided that would be all right. So we reboarded it and we put a partition up, because that was a very big loft up there, you see, and a door in there, and that sort of thing, and repaired the stairs because they were a bit bad, and she took over that as her sewing room. And I had to put a window in there as well.

And then he said to me, he said, ‘Well, what about the other end of the loft?’ and I said ‘What do you want to do with it?’ and he said ‘I’m thinking about a store room.’ So the floor was very bad in there, or the ceiling boards, as you might say. So I started getting some up to see what it was like underneath and we discovered a hidden staircase, and we found out that it spiralled down through the first floor to the lounge and it came out beside his fire place in the lounge. That must have been years and years old and had been boarded up all that time. I thought it was interesting, because it could at one time have been one of those priest holes. They did have them years ago, didn’t they? That was very fascinating, that was.

And this kitchen, he wanted it made all in yew, hardwood. And it took me some time that did because it’s a very hard wood, hard to work and hard to clean up. Months and months on that I was. He was an interesting man too. He’d been around the world and had done all sorts of odd jobs and by the time he met me he was a representative for the company who did all the oxyacetylene gas.

And then I took up wood turning. I’d already done woodcarving. So they were two things that interested me afterwards. I had two lovely lathes. My eldest son has got them now. Then I got asked to do shields and bases for cups and all that. I did that for the shop in Wymondham next door to Clement’s the ironmongers. I had a go at everything, I think. Dollshouse furniture, watercolour painting.

And now that’s all gone except the writing. I do write stories. I do four talks and I’m getting number five together. One of them stories is ‘My Childhood Memories’ and that brings me up to the time I started on the railway. That’s a fairly popular one.

I’ve not regretted any of my life at all, even when I was in the Army. I don’t regret that. I met some wonderful people, wonderful mates and went all over Europe and in the Middle East, places I never thought I would ever visit. So I think I’ve had an interesting life. And I married a lovely woman. Unfortunately she’s not with me now.

The Toolbox

I’ve just thought of something else. Back when I was a child. I was born in a basement flat in Islington and we had two rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen and sitting room all in one. And when you went outside the road was above you and facing you there was a coalhole. And one of the highlights of my week before I started school was watching the coalmen pull up the iron plate there and emptying the coal down.

And then, I don’t know how that started, but my father had an old stool. Well it was a chair, once upon a time, and he gave me a hammer one day and a handful of little nails and I used to hammer the nails in the wood and then he’d say ‘hang on a minute,’ and he’d get the pinchers and pull the nails out. And I kept hammering nails into this old chair. And I suppose that was my first introduction into handling a hammer. I’ve still got that hammer in my toolbox now. So that goes back nearly 80 odd years. It’s just as I had it then.

And I’ve also got a steel smoothing plane, which is nearly 150 years old. The carpenter I worked with, he had this lovely smoothing plane. And he said to me ‘I shall be retiring when you come back out the Army. When I retire you can have that.’ But when I got back from the army, because I spent another year and a half down in Wales until we moved down here, he’d passed away suddenly. Obviously he’d said something to his wife about it because I want to see her one day, she lived not far from me. And I said, ‘Ted was going to give me that plane of his.’

‘Yes’ she said, ‘I know all about that.’

And she went out into the shed and fetched it and I’ve got that in my shed now. And it still works as good as new. And the thing about it is, it was made in Islington by a firm called Slater. And, actually, it’s cast-steel, not cast-iron like the modern planes. Drop that on the floor and it won’t break. But cast-iron, you drop that on the floor and it breaks. So that is still with me. And I’ve also got my father’s old saw in the shed. I’ve got most of my old tools there.

And one of the things they used to give us to do, they used to get us to make our own wooden planes. They used to find us the beech and tell us how to do it. I made my jack plane. I made what they called a badger plane, a wooden rebate and a wooden smoothing plane and they’re still out in the shed there.

Fred (1922-2013) talking to WISEArchive on 13th November 2006 in Wymondham

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