To be taken abruptly from school at 15 and thrust into a mammoth factory is a second weaning. Leaving a secondary school system which offers little more than a taste of the fruits of intellectual civilization before being thrust into the relative barbarity of the industrial system, ensures that personal development inevitably depends on the occupation and the social culture of the workplace. Fortunately, some industrial workplaces do provide environments where full and humane personalities can develop.

I was just fifteen when I left secondary modern school to start an apprenticeship in a heavy engineering factory. The vividness of the transfer left an indelible imprint. One day I was a boy among boys—and girls—the next I was a boy among men. The school had been small and within it I had established my identity and pattern of relationships. The factory was immense and strange. Within its one square mile, perimetered by high wire and company police, 22,000 men, women, boys and girls spent a considerable part of their conscious lives. The noises of the school had been the human sounds of endless chatter and the movement of bodies: the sense of space was confined to classrooms and playing fields. The crescendo of the factory was mechanical: the cacophony of machines and of the disintegrating brotherhood of metal molecules, was only punctured by the irrepressible screech of the buzzer regulating the working existence of so many people. As the notes of the buzzer descended the decibel ladder the sounds of the mechanical world were replaced by those of the workers intermingling, uncontrolled for a short interval by work discipline.

Because in many ways its demands were similar to those of school, where periods of classroom were punctuated by play periods, I fell relatively easily into the pattern of factory discipline. But I never fully accustomed myself to the fundamentally alien world of machines, and patterns of production not involving intimate human participation.

This huge plant which was to be my daily horizon of experience, and within which much of my personality was formed, employed 1,100 apprentices. Such a large number had created the need for a special administrative department dealing with all aspects of apprentice training and welfare. And it was into the hands of this department that I fell on my first day of work. We—that year’s crop of chosen 15-year-olds—were assembled in a small hall at 7.30 a.m. Drawn almost exclusively from working-class families we huddled together, half expecting that our first working day would, after all, begin like school with the managing director reading prayers. Instead, the head of the apprentice training scheme introduced us to the religion of factory discipline: we were now men, he told us, and we must work hard and diligently not only for the good of the firm, but also for the good of our own souls. Our satisfaction in life would come from acquiring the status of modern craftsmen; we were the fortunate few who would escape the ‘dead end’ jobs and the ignoble fate of the labourer. And with this message locked in our hearts we were assigned to different parts of the plant.

I was instructed to report to the foreman of a small workshop which produced components out of which electrical instruments were constructed. My future place of work lay on the far side of the plant, in that part which dated back to the firm’s origins in the late 19th century. To reach it I had to pass through sights as alien to my past boyhood experiences as the moon’s landscape will appear to the first men to tread it. On every piece of open ground lay metal shapes; some mere bars and sheets straight from the steelworks; others gigantic welded constructs covered in a deep brown rust. Besides these objects in the open spaces of the plant were small huts reminiscent of building site ‘cabins’. Then I entered the great main workshops. Each chamber, or ‘aisle’ as they were called, was about 150 feet across and anything between 500 and 700 yards long. Several of these great vulcan halls lay parallel to each other. Within them the huge steam turbines which drove the equally massive electrical generators were built. Overhead rolled the girdered cranes capable of carrying weights of more than 200 tons. As I made my bewildered way through this strange place one passed over my head. At once I understood the instinct which makes small creatures freeze as the bird of prey encircles overhead. My startled attitude to the crane’s passage amused the men at work upon the turbine shells. One glance revealed my newness and a series of catcalls followed my passage down the ‘aisle’. Mostly the shouts were good-natured advice to get out of the plant while I had the youth to do so. Such advice never even penetrated my outer consciousness, for how could anybody abhor this great masculine domain with its endless overtones of power and violence? During my short journey through that place of steel and power my memories of school and all it stood for were largely erased. It must have been an experience similar to that of young country boys recruited from the old English shires, and then thrust into the trenches of the Somme.