GOWLLANDS LIMITED

 

Some memoirs of Eric Jeans.

 

[Eric Godfrey Jeans MBE, the author of these memoirs, joined Gowllands Limited as an apprentice tool-maker in 1939.  He completed his apprenticeship in 1943 and was called up for military service.  He rejoined Gowllands Limited after his demob, and remained there for more than forty years.   Firstly he writes about his apprenticeship; and then about an episode of which he had a very vivid memory from the early part of the War].

 

I left school in October 1938, aged just fourteen years old; and began employment with Gowllands Limited one week later, for a possible surgical instrument maker apprenticeship.

 

A condition of employment was a six-month trial period working in the instrument department.  During this period, most of my work entailed long periods of hand soldering, hand filing, simple sub-assemblies and production machine work.  The six-month period certainly gave Management an indication of (a) an early skills level, (b) the boredom threshold, and (c) the concentration and interest of a prospective trainee.  It also gave Management the opportunity to build up stocks of components using cheap unskilled labour. 

 

For those who survived the six months, trainees were confronted with a choice between being offered an apprenticeship, being offered employment elsewhere in the factory, or having their employment terminated.  I was offered an apprenticeship, and this is the Apprenticeship Deed, dated 26th April 1939.

 

 

Most of the apprenticeship was spent in the Instrument Department, which was equipped with the complete range of small machines, and benches for sub-assembly and final assembly of finished instruments.  Certain instruments were made virtually by hand  -  for example, the Berger Loupe [illustrated below]  -  marking out the shape using a template, cutting and filing to shape, forming by hand, drilling, riveting etc, and finally sand-blasting and enamelling, prior to fitting the lens-holder and lenses, and the headband.  [In later years, a moulded plastic body was used - far less labour-intensive]

 

 

The department was staffed with about 6 -8 skilled instrument makers: each was responsible for one particular instrument, from start to finish.  Their salary was based on a low basic wage, with an additional bonus for each instrument completed.  The entire production was geared to this end.  Each new apprentice was placed with one of these men, who was therefore responsible for most of the training. It was not unusual for an apprentice to stay with the same man for most of the four years.  There were no formal training plans, schedules, or monitored progress records, and certainly no "off the job" training, within, or outside, the Company.  The weakness with this informal arrangement meant the effective level of training relied upon the development of individual relationships.  In some cases the skilled workmen genuinely tried to pass on his knowledge and expertise to the youngster placed with him; but very frequently he did not.

 

Instrument Department in the 1930s

 

I cannot remember any Health and Safety awareness.  This became more of a factor in the following years when the old system of assembly by a skilled craftsman (who was expected to take elementary safety precautions which had been instilled into him during his own apprenticeship) was gradually replaced by mechanised mass-production procedures using unskilled labour (generally female, and frequently part-time).

 

When I started we worked fifty hours per week  -  from Monday to Friday from 7:30 to 12:30, and 1:30 to 5.30, with a ten-minute break mid-morning and mid-afternoon; and on Saturday from 7:30 to 12:30. [These were still the working hours in the 1960s].

 

By way of personal comments  -  the conditions described above were, I believe, general amongst all firms in the Gowllands category.  They may appear harsh; but we enjoyed our working life and had fun; and we gained enough practical experience to make our way in life.

 

I also had the added bonus of meeting my wife Peggy, to whom [at the time of writing, December 2005] I have been married for nearly sixty-two years.

.

 

[Eric Jeans' second memoir relates to a particular episode in the early 1940s of which, as will be clear, he retains a particularly vivid memory.  The “Mr Gowlland” mentioned was Egbert Gowlland [1872 - 1957]: he was nominally a joint managing director with his son Geoffrey but, as will become apparent, on this occasion it was he who took the initiative].

 

It was in 1940 or 1941 that a small number of instrument-makers made contact with a Trade Union (regretfully I can’t remember which one) for advice and help to become members and for recognition.  I was about 16.1/2 years old and, as an apprentice [at that time there were about half-a-dozen apprentices in a workforce approaching two hundred], was not involved in any way; but all of the apprentices knew what was going on, and, out of all of my early memories of Gowllands, I remember these details very clearly.

 

There had been a great deal of dissatisfaction with the wages and conditions within the firm: wages were certainly below the norm outside and, although this had been accepted before the war, Gowllands’ wages fell further behind as other firms in the area went more and more over to war work, plus overtime and bonuses.  We did a small amount of work for the Ministry of Defence, but not enough to make any difference to our money.  It was this situation which, I believe, triggered the Union initiative.

 

When approached, the Union explained that, if more than fifty per cent of the employees were Union card carrying members, the Union officials would inform the Company and arrange a meeting to obtain Union recognition.  So began a concentrated recruiting campaign.  Membership cards were issued and subscriptions collected.  Everyone was approached, with the exception of the managers, the foremen, the apprentices and, I am sure, a few other members of the staff [considered to be] too close to management.  It took about 6 – 8 weeks to reach the required membership, and the whole exercise was carried out in complete secrecy.  It was to the credit of those who were approached, but did not join, that they kept the secret.  With a workforce approaching two hundred, this was a remarkable achievement; and I am sure that no-one on the Management or Directors’ side had any idea of what was happening until the Union officials made contact.

 

Having recruited the required 50% and more, the Union officials were duly informed; and then it was a question of waiting for the Company to be approached.  I can’t remember how long the wait lasted, but I do remember the mixed emotions those Union members went through during the period of waiting  -  some with confidence, the majority with apprehension and a few with downright fear.  It must be remembered that nearly everyone in the Company, from the Management down, worked in an atmosphere of fear.

 

The waiting was over when one morning, immediately after the ten o’clock break, everyone was told to assemble in the canteen.  This room remained unchanged until the demolition of the factory in 2001.  It was not built to accommodate 100-plus people.  We ended up standing upright packed in like sardines, and waited very uncomfortably.

 

The door leading from the Assembly Department across the bridge [this bridge was one of two links between the two separate buildings comprising the factory  -  this configuration originally having the risk of fire in mind, but during the war becoming appropriate also for the risk from bombing] opened, and Mr Gowlland, with his Managers and Foremen behind him, stood on the step in the doorway, and from that position he could look over the assembled employees.  There was complete silence as he slowly scanned the faces in front of him, as if memorising every face; and then he spoke:

 

“I have been told by some Union official that, unknown to me, over 50% of you have joined the Union and therefore I have to recognise the Union and its members.  I do not believe that you would do that behind my back  -  they are lying.  Anyone who has joined a Union  - put your hands up and show me!”.

 

Up went the hands of the hardcore, followed somewhat reluctantly by others, until there was, if not a majority, certainly a large number with their hands raised.  Some who had joined did not move, maybe because they were packed in so tightly they could not move, or perhaps because they “chickened out”.

 

Mr Gowlland repeated his scan of the whole assembly, his eyes moving across the room; and, after a period of seconds without speaking, he turned, brushed past his Managers, and returned, presumably, to the Board Room.   The stunned look on the faces of the Managers showed that not only had the whole recruiting exercise been carried out without their knowledge, but neither had Mr Gowland informed them of the Union approach until he spoke in the canteen.

 

Everyone returned to their departments, but very little work was done for the rest of the morning.  In the afternoon, Mr Gowlland walked into and around the Instrument Shop, and then stopped by [the side of] Arthur Bardell, one of the instigators, to tell him that through a shortage of work he would have to be finished up [made redundant].   The next day this was repeated with two more being finished, both of them having been involved in setting up the Union.  This went on for some days, except that occasionally Mr Gowlland would just walk round without stopping.  The same thing, I believe, happened on the ground floor [where other departments of the factory were located] but I did not see it.  During those days at least ten were dismissed on the top floor, and in that period the Union activity completely disintegrated and collapsed.  All the ringleaders had gone.  Things slowly settled down and a sense of relief spread throughout.

 

The apprentices were the only people to gain any benefit because we had the opportunity to cover and help out with the skilled work:  for myself it was an opportunity I grasped with both hands. 

 

Looking back objectively, the tactics of creating fear and uncertainty to break the Union membership in its very early stages was morally unacceptable; and yet from the sidelines, and not involved, I had and still have admiration for the way it was carried out.  What has always intrigued me is firstly how were the ringleaders identified so quickly by Mr Gowlland, and secondly if the firm had been unionised, where would it be now?

 

Some years after the war, when I was in charge of the top floor Machine Shop, Mr Gowlland came along to speak to me during the tea break.  “Oh, Jeans, you read the News Chronicle”.  “Yes, sir”, I replied: “What do you read?”.    “The Times and the Daily Herald”: he replied.  Seeing my astonishment, he continued: “It pays to know what the other side is doing!”.

 

[Eric Jeans wrote this memoir in the early 1990s: evidently the events of fifty years earlier were still crystal clear in his memory]

 

 

 Eric and Peggy Jeans in March 2004

 

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