Bob Croker: “Working Boy”

I was waiting for my fifteenth birthday, March 1945 to start work. It was the year the war finished, in two stages actually V.E. day in Europe 18th May and V.P. day in the Pacific 15th August. They are days I remember well as will anyone who experienced those moments, each in their very own way.

As I approached that time in my life when I would cease to be a school boy and was ready to grow up, it had never been suggested to me that I would be other than an apprentice to a trade, and that preferably in the building industry. My father had been a plumber in rural Victoria working for his father who had a Tinsmiths business in Charlton.

Their work took them on many travels across the country installing water tanks, windmills and general metal works on just about every farm they visited.

With this line of thinking I walked and rode my bike all over our locality knocking on the doors of every registered builder I could find. At that early time in 1945 Australia was still active in wars in the Middle East, Europe and the Pacific. There was little local building work available and no opportunity for an apprenticeship.

Our thinking then turned to the field of Mechanical Services, Engineering or associated trades. It was commonplace thinking in those days for families like ours when kids turned fifteen, get a job, start work. That was it !

We learned of an opportunity in a good sized workshop in South Melbourne needing a Coppersmith apprentice. That was me. There was no discussion what was involved or any explanation where it would lead to, just a rush to buy me a pair of overalls and work boots and instructions where I had to turn up at 8.00 am the following morning.

I pumped up my bike tyres and went to bed early in readiness for the ‘morrow.

With a cut lunch comprising two sandwiches, an apple and a brand new navy blue boiler suit in my bag I wheeled my bike through the big double doors of the factory in Park Street and asked for Mr … the supervisor. When I got to know him a bit better, after about one day, I understood why everyone referred to him as ‘ Nuts.’

In my first five minutes ‘ Nuts ‘ walked me down to the back of the workshop where an old bloke was standing next to the forge, with another bloke standing nearby, a large sledge hammer in his hand, ‘Nuts’ said ” Mick this is Bob, Bob this is Mick “. He then turned his back and walked away. That was my total introduction to five years of apprenticeship with Mick.

Mick was an older man about sixty plus I guess, all of the younger tradesmen were away in the services, and without children of his own he was not quite sure how to handle a fifteen year old. His uncertainty didn’t last for long however deciding if I was there to work with the men I would be treated as one.

Mick turned to the other bloke who was holding the sledge hammer and said ” go and do something else, give the ….ing hammer to the kid, he may as well start learning now.” Although that is more than seventy years ago today, I still recall that moment clearly in my mind. We were constructing a large ventilator funnel for a ship, the forge beside us and a chain block and tackle hanging from above.

Suspended on the lower end of the chain was a large piece of sheet metal cut roughly to the shape of a circle, about one and a half metres in diameter and 3mm thick. This piece, suspended by a hook on the chain allowed Mick to heat the metal to red hot over the forge then by holding it with long tongs swing it back over a large hollow circular base frame fixed just above floor level.

This was my moment of introduction to ‘work’ as Mick then pointed with the finger of his free hand to a spot on this circle of hot metal, now over the hollow base, and roared at me to swing the sledge, hit that spot and to keep hitting until he told me to stop. If I got too slow or did not hit hard enough he’d throw in a few adjectives I’d not heard of (at that time ) saying to myself if he doesn’t ease off me a bit soon I’ll hit his finger and he’ll really have something to yell about. I resisted that temptation.

This process went on for about three days until the section finally curved to shape and was ready to be joined up by riveting it to another section which had been done before I arrived on the scene.The riveting process was slow, matching, drilling and needing hand finishing until it formed as a funnel. Electric welding was not commonly used in those days as it is today.

We were knocked off at 9.50 am every day for a ten minute smoko, but I was that hungry after my first mornings sledging I ate my two sandwiches and apple then and had nothing left for lunch. Mum straight away next day loaded up my lunch box considerably.

What I remember vividly however on that first day was when I went to eat my evening meal at home finding my fingers had locked, curled into the shape of a sledge hammer handle and I could not open them to use a knife and fork. Mum had to feed me with a spoon. After completing my five year apprenticeship as a Coppersmith my fingers toughened up naturally but when I think back to that moment, I never forget the day I became a Working Boy.

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