Crabtree's Engineering Works, Southtown Road

Recollections of my time at Crabtree's

By Brian Sones

Crabtree's Engineering Works, Southtown Road

Recollections of my time at Crabtree's

By Brian Sones

In October and November 2003, The Yarmouth Mercury ran some articles about apprentices and tradesmen who had worked at Crabtree's. I submitted an article for publication on my experience at the firm which, unfortunately, was not published. The following observations are taken from this article, which could be posted on this site in the "Work" section under "Other Occupations".

"I served my time from age 17 as an apprentice Fitter & Turner at Crabtree's from August 1956 to August 1961; I continued for a few months longer, until joining the Everard fleet as 4th Engineer on the MV Sanguity, from November 1961.

I returned to Yarmouth after a stint on this vessel and, during 1962 worked at my trade at Webbers engineering shop at Cobholm (now closed), and then at Jewson's timber mill until I migrated to South Australia in August 1962.

My first job in Australia was at the Adelaide Steamship Co, building tugs at their yard at Port Adelaide. I later moved on to jobs as a maintenance fitter in various factories, until I got a job with the State Government as a maintenance fitter at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

I remained in the Government Service for almost 30 years, until my early retirement in December 2000 while an Inspector of Occupational Health and Safety and also an Inpsector of Dangerous Substances.

Roger Hubbard's 2003 "Mercury" article appeared to have sparked interest in Crabtree's, unfortunately, no dates were given for his time there and I do not recall his name.

I do recall  some tradesmen’s names mentioned in this article, Ken McKinnon worked on the tail shaft lathe, Frank Watson on the Ward capstan lathe, Percy Pearce did maintenance on machine tools and jigs, Alfie Hewitt was a younger apprentice. Trevor Smithdale, who I knew at trade school, must have been a later arrival, presumably replacing Jim Matthews on the horizontal borer.

Derek Thompson and "Nig" Brown were among the many apprentices at the firm, looking back it seems that the place was run largely by apprentices. By contrast, in Australian engineering workshops it was mandatory that there be only one apprentice to three tradesmen.

Crabtree's machine shop was old fashioned by even the standards of my time there; the machinery was driven from three overhead line shafts, one each side and one down the centre of the main workshop.

These line shafts were driven by Tangye horizontal gas engines located in a meticulously clean engine room with a tiled floor, located at the western end of the machine shop.

These engines were fuelled by coal gas, from anthracite coal gas producers, tended by Les Gurney. Les had to start work earlier than anyone else, in order to fire up the gas producers and start the gas engine; when the flat drive belts broke, the machine tools stopped until Les did hasty repairs.

About 1959 or early 1960 a large electric motor was installed to drive the line shafts, the gas engines were retained as a standby, Les was given other work at regular hours. About this time some machines were provided with individual electric drive motors, the line shafts continued to drive much of the machinery.

I have often wondered what became of these gas engines which reflected a now bygone era of Yarmouth's industrial history!

Crabtree's in past years also had a shipbuilding slipway and associated heavy machinery, located on the north side of the workshops which in my time at the firm had not been in use for many years.

Thes facilities had been used for building cargo ships up to 900ton and tugs trawlers and drifters, (according to the firm's letterhead).

Unfortunately I do not have any photographs of the firm's workshops; though the "Mercury" may have some on record.

I will be very pleased to hear from Derek Thompson, Roger Hubbard, "Nigs" Brown, Lesley Allen, Michael Haines or any of the other former apprentices who would have known me during my time at the firm.

They could expand on my recollection of events now a long time ago!"

This page was added by Brian Sones on 19/04/2011.
Comments about this page

Hi Brian & thanks for your contribution on Crabtree's. Yes it seems that you had gone on to pastures greener as I started in 1964. I left what was then Oriel Technical High in the summer of 64' fully expecting to have a summer holiday before taking up gainful employment, but my mother had other ideas & arranged for me to start work on the following Monday ha ha! Yes Crabtree's was certainly old fashioned & I believe the only machine shop in Great Yarmouth at the time to still be running machine tools on overhead line shafts. The gas engines had been removed by the time I started, I guess as the electric motors were deemed to be reliable enough. I started work assisting Graham Newson who was building Newbury Diesel generators, but I was soon bugging Percy Pearce to be let loose on a lathe as I had operated lathes at Technical High. I was put to work on the Herbert Turret lathe, for ever known as The Big Erbert, mostly doing tank bolts & wing nuts, but of course other lathe work also. Nevermind being old fashioned, Crabtree's was also poorly tooled for the machine tools we did have. Dickerson tool holders were unheard of when I started, tunsten carbide required you to go begging to Percy & if you broke well don't think about going back for another. Packing for the lathe tools was in very limited supply as were boring bars, centre height gauges & dial test indicators. One had to walk the shop looking for the last guy to have used it. The Turrets & Capstans were extremely poorly tooled & generally only a drill chuck, a centre, a drill & a Coventry die box were used. Roller box's, auto release tap holders, Knee tool holders, boring slides, all in common use elsewhere, were just not available, either that or I didn't know what I was looking for at the time perhaps they were in the stores & nobody knew what we were looking at. Parting off tank bolts was a particular nightmare as no rear tool holder was available on the cross slides, although the sound of yet another parting tool breaking always raised a shout from the shop floor generally led by Geoff Carver et al. Frankly a well set up & tooled Turret lathe should have turned out 100 tank bolts & wing nuts in no time at all. Lathe chucks was another matter. In the years I was there I never saw a chuck changed out & frankly never knew how to change one out, hence a three jaw chuck was expected to handle everything we through at it from black bar, through to castings & was then expected to run true for second operation work, of course an impossibility. Most of the lathes never had graduations on the cross slides & carriage, hence machining to size really was hit & miss. Screw threading, well the capstans & turrets had the venerable Coventry die box, but the dies were years old, never sharpened & many had chipped teeth. As to single point threading on the other lathes, well I was taught at day release how to calculate the gearing, but nobody ever taught me how to calculate thread depthing & I generally cut until it looked right! Of course the question is, was it a good apprenticeship? The basics were there of course & the opportunities were there via day release & night school to gain qualifications, but my father had died when I was 11 & there was nobody to push me. I expected to be taught everything & really never sought out the technical books that were available in the libraries. Never the less Crabtree's did give me a solid engineering basis & indeed working ethos that has served me well throughout my career. It also gave me some great memories & at least one friend by the name of Barry Banham who has remained with me for the rest of my life. Whilst the pay was small, I would give anything to spend one more day in that old workshop warming my backside around an old coke brazzier! Making tank bolts, maching wing nuts for Ginger to file up, parting off the sprue from a propeller, machining up flanges for another boiler re tube....yes it all brings back great memories. During my last year at Crabtree's, some newer, but second hand machine tools were purchased & an arrangement was made with Grant Oil tools to manufacture oil field cross overs. A new lathe & tooling was purchased & a seperate workshop set up in a sealed area. Frank Watson was to run this lathe. The blanks for the cross overs were bored out on one of the old Dean Smith & Grace lathes using a spade drill. Just as soon as I finished my 5 years, as was the custom I left Crabtree's to move onto Brooke Marine in Oulton broad, then Ross Foods, Birds Eye & then moved on to work for one of The Seven Sisters in the oil Industry for the remainder of my working life. Crabtree's was closed down within months of my departure, when ironically it was ideally placed to pick up a great deal of work from the Oil Industry, with just a little forethought & investment it could have still been running today. Frankly I left Crabtree's believing I was Gods gift to Engineering. It had been drummed into me that after five years I would be a skilled man, capable of almost anything & on joining one of the Seven Sisters I was surprised to find that one could be called an Engineer without serving an apprenticeship. How short sighted I was, quickly finding out that Engineers with a University degree were advancing much faster than I was ever going to do. I guess I'm slow catch on, but I finally gained a Masters Degree in my early sixties, oh that I had tried harder when I was in my teens eh! In my fifties I decided that I wanted to get back into machine tools, I guess as a second fiddle, as the oil industry was going though one of its down cycles again. So I set a machine shop, really as a hobby. I now have a total of 6 lathes ranging from 32 inch swing with a 3 1/2 inch hollow mandrel down to two Myfords, one a Super Seven & the other an ML7 with a capstan head. Having been so poorly tooled at Crabtree's I was determined to set up a well tooled capstan lathe & purchased a new capstan with all tooling from India. With the exception of the Myfords all my machine tools are either Chinese, Taiwanese or Indian, & frankly they lick anything we had at Crabtree's. I machine up all sorts of stuff from model steam engines through to doing some work for boat yards on The broads, As I operate my turret mill, one thing that always makes me smile is the way I remove the draw bar, I undo the nut, then on tip toe I give it a sharp tap with the end of the spanner.....just like Alfie Hewit used to do on the vertical mill at Crabtree's. Alfie was always a little short in the height department ha ha! I still have some of the old stuff from Crabtree's, I have & still use some of the lathe tooling, I still have some old Tangye shafts that I have used as drifts over the years, I still have one of the old stores book of chits, I still have one of the name plates & for some reason I still have the large set of inside & outside calipers that were the only set in the shop. They must have been in my tool box when I left. The nought to one & the one to two micrometers that I had at Crabtree's are still turning in Sterling service....& yes I still prefer to work in Imperial units ha ha! Photographs from this period are indeed in very short suppy, remember that Digital was to be some 50 years off & frankly we at Crabtree's just couldn't afford a camera. Still, I do have one or two pictures, especially one of me on the tail shaft lathe....one that I treasure & use as a letter heading! I believe that that this picture was taken by Barry Banham on an old Halima camera that I found left in a telephone box along the sea front. Talking of the sea front & money, most of the lads from Crabtree's had second jobs in the summer months, pulling pints as Tom Pearson.... used to say. Shooooooo what are you laughing at Sheave! OK all for now & would like to hear from other lads from this era at Crabtree's & Fellows.

By Roger Hubbard
On 12/09/2011

How interesting to read about life at Crabtrees.  My mother's family owned and run Burrells next door also making steam engines.  They also ran there machines in the 50s from line shafts.  Burrells took over Crabtrees machine shop shed when it closed. Burrells closed in 1991 and the yard is now part of Richards Shipbuilding & Engineering.  Crabtrees built a lot more engines than Burrells engine 618 made in 1930 is fitted to the Lydia Eva.  As you say they also had a shipyard and built 41 steel drifters from 1903-1930.  The Lydia Eva was built by Kings Lynn Slipway Co part of Crabtrees due to a strike at Southtown but had engine fitting in Yarmouth.

By Richard Burton
On 08/10/2012

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