North Woolwich: Work that had value and an East End Community.
It was a pleasure to go to the Guildhall Library in the City to listen to Len Taphouse, a former apprentice in Harland & Wolff shipyard, formerly in North Woolwich. Len was from a time when a young person could leave school, and with a bit of effort get a job, become skilled and have prospects. Obviously, in a company as big as Harland, there was every type of person, but if an apprentice chose well or was lucky, he could find a mentor who took pride in passing on his knowledge and giving a young man a start in life.
Len remembered the people who lived in North Woolwich as a close knit community but he found them easy to get to know and friendly in their ways. He recalled that in a street by the docks a young girl lived who had been badly scarred in a childhood accident. In those days, at the end of a shift the hooter would go, the gates would open and thousands of people would flood out to go home. If this young girl was outside, all the children nearby would stop what they were doing and gather around the girl, to warn off prying eyes and cruel comments.
Within the machine shop, no-one had to lock up their tools, and life was quite secure and comfortable. For many outside in the dock, they were literally “on the stones”, queueing for casual work. The rule was “never steal off your own” but against the dock owners anything went. Len told us of a man who came to work in a top-hat and tatty tails, until a gust of wind blew off his hat to reveal a tin of ham. Of the man unloading a shipment of lead roofing, who stripped off, wrapped lead around his body, got dressed and tried to cycle out. He was ok until he reached the cobbled stones, where, because his tyres were so flat under the weight, the metal rims skidded on the smooth stone and he was thrown off and could not get back to his feet.
His best story is about a docker and bales of hay. One evening a man tried to pass the docks police with a wheelbarrow full of hay. Inviting suspicion he was stopped, the load was check and the police found nothing but hay. On the second day the same thing happened. On the third day they let the docker through, followed him and he went to a piece of wasteland spread out the hay for some horses and went on his way. On the fourth day, the police got a call from a shipping agent complaining that his recent cargo of wheelbarrows were being pilfered.
Len’s final point was quite serious. If we do not fund any apprenticeships and allow older people to pass on their skills, then those skills are going to be lost.