Boat Building in Shepperton

  1. My third job in the three weeks after leaving school aged 14 and having had two accidents at work in the first two was my best job ever.

My mother told me to find a safer job. The labour exchange sent me to Shepperton, about 3 miles from home, to work at Kenneth M Gibb’s, a small boat-building firm on the Thames.

One look at the boats being built in the workshop is all I needed to think I had found my perfect job.

The shape of the hull of this sailing boat looked so exciting, even to me, who had never seen a boat out of water.

Mr. Gibb’s told me what my job was to be and that I would be paid 18 shillings and sixpence—95p— 47 hour week, Monday to Saturday.

My bus fare on the 237 red bus was tuppence—1p—each way, I gave my mother 15 shillings—75p—and kept the rest.

I saved two shillings a week in a tool club at the local ironmongers.

The craftsmen building the boats would never allow anyone else to use their tools, so I was only permitted to help them or to do the painting.

All the work was done with hand tools except for an electric drill, they had made most of their own planes and spoke shaves, and even some long drills made from various sized steel rods, which were given a cutting edge.

The standard of work was very high, similar to that of a cabinetmaker.

Several boats were being built, the biggest one was a 30 footer motor sailor called Freebooter, and my main job was helping who ever needed me.

Working on my own with the very expensive timber was out of the question, even if I did have any tools.

I was given the job of painting and varnishing, at first it was so boring, but after being able to see the result, I started taking great care to have the best possible finish.

The winter of 1946 was very severe, with continual power cuts, there were candles everywhere, it was my job to keep them burning, I even had to hold a candelabra with four candles for the more difficult work.

Mr. Gibb’s, wrote an article for an Australian sailing magazine with a drawing of me holding the candelabra.

The bad weather continued into 1947, Freebooter was almost finished apart from some interior work.

In the following March there was a sudden thaw, with heavy rain, the ground was frozen and could not absorb the large amount of water.

This caused the biggest flood in living memory, ‘The Great Flood Of 1947’.

The boathouse that was the workshop was about six feet above ground, as in most years there was some flooding.

This time the flooded water came into the workshop to the depth of several inches.

Mr. Gibb’s decided to just push the boat out onto the flooded bank, and with a lot of pushing and shoving she was finally launched, with lots of cheering and clapping.

Luck was not on Mr. Gibb’s side that day; as soon as the cheering stopped we could hear a loud hissing noise, and through the portholes could be seen several fountains of muddy water.

Although great care had been taken to make sure the boat was watertight, the bolt holes for the lead keel—that sailing boats have—had been overlooked, about twenty of them.

The men jumped in to try to plug them but the boat sank very quickly. And all that could be seen was the top of the cabin.

Then the 237 bus could not pass the flooded roads so I was unable to go to work for a couple of weeks.

When I returned, Freebooter looked a sorry sight, all the stopping and caulking had been pushed out—boats are not intended to have water inside them.

The 1947 summer was a very hot one, I had job of cleaning the boat out and redoing the paintwork, this was lovely, I was out in the open, wearing just my swimming trunks, when it was too hot I had a swim.

In July, Freebooter was sailed down the Thames and round to the owner, Mr. Woodhead, in Lymington.

She looked magnificent, glossy black paintwork, vanished topside and red sails.

Sadly, I had to leave my job at the boathouse in1948, the bus fare had gone up to tuppence each way, and my mother thought I should work nearer to home.

Although Mr. Gibb’s was always on the verge of going broke, I heard, that in 1950, he backed the Grand National winner at high odds, the horse was called Freebooter.




Author: madeinchertsey

Born in 1932, this is a collection of stories of my childhood growing up in Chertsey, and some stories of my later life.

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