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Thread: Memories of a Smiths man

  1. #1
    Moderator Revo's Avatar
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    Aug 2014

    Default Memories of a Smiths man

    Herewith, some reminiscences from Val Carr, a former Smiths employee.

    My Time at Smith & Sons.

    I left the Roan Grammar School, London in 1950, at 16, to become an apprentice of Smiths. My main interests at school had been football and art, and the modest passes in School Certificate subjects meant academic prospects unlikely.

    Since I lived with my parents at Blackheath and the Smiths factory, to which I was assigned, was not far from Wembley, the task of getting to work and clocking in by 7.30am was a challenge. The journey involved cycling, running, SR railway, underground and finally a bus. I don't think I was ever late.

    The opportunity to see how clocks and motor car instruments were mass produced was an invaluable experience. However very early on I was made aware of the discipline and hard repetitive work that was required. I was asked to drill a small hole in a clock plate and I did this satisfactorily. Next I was told that a batch of 34,000 plates needed such a hole and it was to be done at piecework rate. After the first 1000 I began to question whether I had made the right career decision! I wondered how I would learn anything while repeating a simple operation thousands of times.

    At that time most machines were driven by a counter shaft running the length of the workshop and this was driven by an external engine. The noise was such that conversation with even an adjacent worker was almost impossible. In order to alleviate boredom we were subjected to half an hour of 'Music While You Work' often featuring Troys and his wretched Bandoliers.

    There was some respite from the tedium such as being required to take machined parts or tools to other parts of the factory or a batch of components would need taken through the Tricoethylene shed. This was a very efficient cleaning method but was quite strange that when you emerged from the huge poorly ventilated area, you found you were feeling very lightheaded and unsteady on the feet.

    Any break from the routine was most welcome and one such was to conduct groups of elderly people around the factory; on one occasion I stopped at the nearest place outside of the auto shop to say a few words to the group only to find they thought the purpose of 50 automatic lathes was to produce the huge bins of swarf for Christmas decorations.

    Piece work tended to keep people busy and minimise their idle moments but a strategically placed 100 ton press, very close to the loo, used to deep draw clock cases and having an impact that affected a local seismograph, was enough to let you know that it was no place to dally in.

    I found myself working a workshop mainly occupied with pivot burnishing on Swiss machines capable of holding a tolerance of about 1.5 microns. A lady setter showed me how to operate the machine by putting my hands on the levers and her hands on mine so that I could gauge the required sensitivity. I was almost the only male in the fifty people in the shop, and having spent so long in an all boys schools where girls were absent but talked about, I thought - here was the practical at last. I was wrong of course, discipline and work ethic saw to that. But come Christmas with the help of a little alcohol (strictly forbidden) smuggled in, the atmosphere became more friendly and I did learn something even if extra curricular. I had a birthday in that workshop and was told that it was usual to buy cakes for everyone that day. I think it cost me 3 weeks wages!

    I was approached by a shop steward demanding 3d. for my membership. I pointed out that apprentices were not allowed to join the union but he persisted, I paid and became a member though I never paid again. I wondered why Smiths were obliged to employ a man who did no work for Smiths but enjoyed trips to Warsaw and Moscow where the underground stations were built with marble and gold, apparently.

    The MA2 factory had a large 'Jaeger' styling and though it was not confirmed to me I felt that there must be a connection with Jaeger LeCoultre when I saw the wonderful automatic machines making escape wheels for platform escapements and smaller. It was the first of much Swiss influence I saw.

    A group of Swiss men settled in the UK to help us establish Swiss auto turning production. One of them, Mr. Teash, worked at MA2. (I used two of these men, Zurcher and Thalmann as turned parts suppliers when I later set up my own company.)

    We had a weekly change of scenery provided by Smiths, a 'school' at MA1 where where the general education of apprentices was catered for, and it also included the use of a gym where we enjoyed some exuberant indoor rugby. It was after one of these sessions that I was given a kindly lift back to MA2 on the back of another apprentices motor bicycle. After he dropped me off he collided with a bus and was killed - it still haunts me.

    The Smiths school suggested that I had the potential to do the NCH course and I accepted the sponsorship with alacrity. I appreciated the generosity of Smiths as well as the opportunity to enjoy the civilised 9am start and simple trip to Northampton Square.

    After the 3 year NCH course I had a spell in the MA2 shop. Where are some obvious dangers with presses even with safety guards and I was told of one operator who had lost a finger. When he had recovered he was invited to return in order to show how the accident happened. His demonstration involved placing a blank under the press but he had to utilise another finger. He then operated the press which removed that finger as well. It was evident such accidents occurred and the unfortunate operators were given jobs as security staff.

    Each department had a well-used and generously rewarded system for any bright suggestions to improve efficiency.

    The next department for a few months was the clock assembly. My task there was to identify any faulty clocks and correct them - this was reasonably interesting and I did what was required. Smiths had acquired the Westclox brand name and this name appeared superior for some, Smiths and as a result identical smiths clocks were sold, some having a Westclox dial. One day a senior figure approached me to point out that a Westclox clock had gone missing. I promised to keep an eye out for the missing clock though I was sure that every clock that I had handled had been passed along the line. The demand for the lost Westclox became frequent and I felt my integrity was being questioned. As this problem persisted a I resorted to asking a friendly storekeeper if I could have Westclox dial. I fitted this to the next Smiths clock that came my way and then placed the clock not too conspicuously near to my statistically-minded tormentor. Later, to my relief the man returned to tell me that I could stop looking - the clock had turned up. What I hadn't reckoned for was a further visit from my friend a week later. "We appear to have an extra Smiths clock, have you any idea how that could happen?"

    During the summer breaks from the National College I was sent to the impressive plant at Cheltenham where I met Ray Kelly. Mr Kelly greeted me by being told that he had enough to do without having to find field work. However he thanked me profusely for the work which I did in testing aircraft clocks lubricated with various oils and subjected to low temperatures, and also some help in making screws for a prototype watch. A lovely place to work.

    On completion of the NCH course I worked in the clock experimental workshop at MA2. Here I met several engineers who had good taste in music and all were opera fans. One of them cycled to work and kept his cycle clips on all day!

    In this department I was asked to make a balance staff for an escapement that was being converted to a shockproof version. After the NCH training this was routine and the people in the department were quite impressed. Other work involved the bomb fuse and the work involving Smiths timing of the show jumping events. The man in charge of this department, and much more, staggered us all when naively asking a man working on some blued steel hands if the steel was blue all the way through . . . .

    While working in clock experimental I heard about R A Fell running an R & D group that had moved from Colindale to Great Sutton Street, appropriately in Clerkenwell and I joined this group.(R.A Fell had been the head of NCH until the year that I joined.)

    Gt. Sutton St.

    The R & D group were almost all ex-NCH trained people and under the leadership of Major Fell who applied his many brilliant ideas with great enthusiasm and the work was quite enthralling. No expense was spared in providing us with the latest high precision equipment.

    I worked on Fell's point of attachment springing, designed to takeout much of the rare skills involved in watch adjustment. I also made prototype parts for a new navigator's watch. A torsion balance, partly automated, to weigh balance screws to a microgram and helped work on a mainspring dynameter.

    I also made some parts necessary in improving Captain Scott's navigational watch. (All original pieces were preserved so that it could be returned to original state). It was given a Hamilton ovalizing balance and spring in order to improve its performance. Sadly the watch disappeared when returning from a commemorative expedition, never to be seen again. Other interesting watches handled there by Dick Good *and Peter Amis included H5 and the Larcum Kendal K2 carried by Captain Bligh on the Bounty.

    Sadly at the height of this fascinating work I was dragged off to do my National Service. At the end of National Service (a mind-broadening experience) I applied to Smiths to see what position they could offer me and also R A Fell, who had by now set up his own company with some of his ex-NCH men. It was with a very heavy heart that I opted to leave Smiths and join the charismatic R A Fell. I cannot recall exactly what Smiths offered me but I chose to join Fell and do some work on semiconductor engineering.

    This involved utilising watch production techniques (and materials in the production of transistors which was quite an exciting new field of work). I enjoyed this work until I set up my own company in 1966.

    I will forever be indebted to Smiths for the training that they gave me and which served me well for all my working life- and retirement.
    "Early this year I saw ex-army watches exhibited in a showcase at a little under 4 each. A week or two later I succeeded in buying one of them for 5. Recently their price seems to have risen to 8." (George Orwell, "As I Please", Tribune, 29th November 1946)

  2. #2


    Wonderful! Was this through personal interview or an article?

  3. #3
    Super Moderator dave's Avatar
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    Jul 2008


    that's an excellent read; thanks for posting..

  4. #4


    What a great read, thanks.

  5. #5
    Moderator Revo's Avatar
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    Aug 2014


    Thanks. He is still around has spoken to both Owen Gilchrist and James Nye. I asked him for some memories of his time at Smiths and he very kindly emailed me this, with permission to share.

    I believe this is what historians call "a primary source". Having worn CWC, Rolex and Omega over the summer months this has reminded me of my first love and certain Smiths have been getting some well-deserved wrist time. The mid-50s "Expedition" watches in their Dennison Aquatite cases are just fantastic time-capsules of that period (Everest, austerity, the Coronation). And from the other end of Smiths' production run I still think the W10 is possibly the nicest watch ever and capable of incredible accuracy (I sold recently that was +/- 2secs a week.)
    "Early this year I saw ex-army watches exhibited in a showcase at a little under 4 each. A week or two later I succeeded in buying one of them for 5. Recently their price seems to have risen to 8." (George Orwell, "As I Please", Tribune, 29th November 1946)

  6. #6


    Tea break over!

    If anyone is wondering what MA.1 and MA.2 were, these were Smiths 'Motor Accessories' factory complexes in and around Cricklewood. All divisions came under Motor Accessories until 1944.

    Smiths occupied their first factory in Great Portland Street, central London in 1913 for speedometers. At the beginning of war they built a new factory on the Edgware Rad, Cricklewood just below the massive depot primarily for aircraft instruments and 'munitions' - this became their The Central Works and then MA.1. In 1930 they built the Chronos Works (British Jaeger speedos/ABEC escapements) on their new sports-ground alongside the newly built North Circular - then is open countryside - today's Staples Corner concrete jungle!

    MA.2 was a new factory for Sectric clocks built in 1935, just below Chronos, but Chronos was never an 'MA'. Sectric clocks were developed at MA.1 and then transferred to MA.2 and in 1936 a new factory was built alongside for aircraft instruments (also part of MA.2) at which Great Portland Street ceased as a factory. To the south east of MA.2 was the new sports/recreation/canteen (laboratories behind) MA.4. When I was at Smiths Medical there was an MA.3 there but no one now recalls exactly where! And course Sectric House offices, nearby!

    Between MA2 and MA.1 was MA.1a (the former Bentley car works), primarily motor accessories overspill and Services. MA.1b was further west at Elvenden Place (product development/engineering services). There was also Humber Road and Trio House...., Jackall, Witney, Carfin....

    To the north, at Carlisle Road, Colindale, was Production Services (my field) and the watch laboratory but my notes have it they moved from Great Sutton Street to Colindale!
    Smiths was forever moving stuff!

    The Anglo-Celtic watch factories (Empire/Ingersoll) at Ystradgynlais was only named AC.1 and AC.2 after Motor Accessories took over in the late 1970s.. but why not MA.6 etc? Sadly of these many factories, only Great Portland Street remains unscathed as offices.

    Val mentions Westclox; Smiths may have contract-built some for them but they never bought the brand. He is I am sure thinking of lngersoll.

    One felt very proud being a part of Smiths - its a fascinating history still full of grey areas! They're still going - and pay my pension... but no gold watch... :-(

  7. #7


    Wonderful read, deserves a wider audience. Many thanks.

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