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
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
Coming out at the far end of the ‘aisle’ I was directed to a cotton-mill type building and told to see the foreman on the fourth floor. Climbing up the perforated steel stairs with my dinner sandwiches in my hand, I wondered what form of authority the foreman would turn out to be. I soon found out. He sat behind a long, burdened trestle table clad in a starched white dust-coat. In front of him were rows of small machines and benches attended by about one hundred men and women: the men wore khaki dust-coats and the women green ones. I surveyed the scene disappointedly; it was like having been taken past Armageddon and put to work in the cookhouse. Calling a chargehand over, the foreman warned me ‘not to lark about with the girls’, and ‘to keep my nose clean’ and he would give me a ‘good report’. The chargehand was a patient, worn-looking man of middle age. He took me to a small machine with a rotating abrasive belt, and indicated a box containing small brass plates. He said each had to be polished by pressing them against the belt. He demonstrated how to start and stop the machine and how to polish the plates, and with a word of warning about keeping fingers out of the ‘works’ he left me.
As soon as he had gone the workers near me extended the unforgettable claustrophobic comradeship of the factory. It is a friendship generated of common experience, common income and common worktasks. Out of this shared pattern of experience grows a common culture of the workplace. And like other cultures it can never be fully understood by the outsider. For no matter how hard the would-be swimmer seeks to understand the experience of the people in the pool, he can only ever grasp the quintessence of the water by jumping. The same applies to any circumscribed culture. On that first morning at work I began to learn all the expected patterns of response, all the rewards and sanctions, just as an infant learns its native tongue. I quickly learned the harsh language of aggressive friendship; the need to identify myself with the workgroup in opposition to all forms of authority from the chargehand up. Nothing must be allowed to threaten the cohesion of the workers, for only through this ‘sticking together’ could we solve the problems facing us. It was the instinct upon which all formal trade unionism is based.