At the beginning of the year we printed photographs showing Joe Webb of Oldbury undergoing the traditional ‘truss-o’ ceremony. Joe was an apprentice cooper at the Mitchells and Butlers brewery in Cape Hill, Smethwick, and the ceremony marked the end of his training in 1954. The story was read by Mr E. Simpson of Felixstowe, Suffolk, who recognised his old pal Joe. Mr Simpson was also an apprentice cooper at Cape Hill and he had put pen to paper to record some of his happy memories.
Mr Simpson writes, “I was an apprentice at the same time as Joe and got to know him very well. He was about three years older than me and was so much further up the pecking order. He had a wicked sense of humour and was always getting up to all sorts of pranks and playing practical tricks on the unsuspecting, mostly without serious consequences. I say mostly, but dare I mention the time when an empty rail truck left the track on the brewery’s own line? No one was injured and he was a very likeable rogue.
“In the photograph on the front page of Bugle 1013, the man on the left is Tommy Dowse, who was Joe’s tutor, then between him and Joe is myself, and on the extreme right is Malcolm Parsons, who had not long returned from his National Service. I recognise most of the other people in the other photographs but, sadly, with the exception of Malcolm and me, all of the other people have passed on.
“Our apprenticeships lasted six years, until we qualified as journeymen coopers. My wage for a 44 hour week was £2.9s.1d. When we reached the age of 18 we went on piecework and were paid one half of what we earned, with our tutor getting a quarter and the firm getting the other quarter. When we reached 19 we got twothirds of what we earned and our tutor and the firm one sixth each. How things have changed these days.
“At one stage, I remember I was one of six apprentices and looking back we must at the time have been a bit of a headache to our foreman. Joe was a very good footballer, not just with a football but with anything that was lying around; he could shoot or dribble with anything from a rolled-up newspaper to an off-cut of wood from the cooperage floor. We played football wherever we could find the space and would spend most of lunchtimes on the oval sports ground; I don’t know where we got the energy from.
“The recent article in Bugle 1027 headed “Stinkers, Smellers and Bung Finders at Cape Hill Brewery” brought back memories of my early days there. Part of our job as coopers was to sometimes work in different departments, servicing the casks before and after filling with beer. As mentioned in that article, when the casks were stored outside they tended to dry out, which resulted in the hoops becoming slack and even falling off. We would be kept very busy replacing the hoops and giving them a good tightening- up, or in brewery speak, coopering-up.
“The casks were kept outside until needed in the washhouse and then they were rolled down an area called the barrel race. We have all seen film of lumberjacks logrolling on tree trunks in the river; Joe did his own version of this but on casks! I tried just once and came a cropper and I never had the nerve to try again.
“Another memory of Joe comes to mind, when one lunchtime we were on our way to the canteen and had to walk down what was called the Nile; this was where the casks were stored prior to going into the racking room for filling. The kills (18 gallons) were always stacked five high and on this occasion Joe couldn’t resist the temptation of running up the end of the stack, along the top and down the other side. Joe’s luck ran out as he finished up in the arms of Billy Bradley, who was waiting for him at the other end. Needless to say, Joe had a real good rollocking.
“Because of the dangers in the brewing industry the brewery had its own fire brigade; I think this helped them to reduce their insurance costs. The fire station is still there and a really fine building it was, well equipped with a full time staff and a good complement of full timers. As apprentices, it was assumed that we would be working at the brewery for some years and so we were encouraged to join the brigade as part-timers, Joe being one of them. He was always reliable and trustworthy.
“I can recall several times when we were called out to fires in the town by the borough brigade, sometimes Joe and me on the same crew; he was good to have around. Most of us stayed in the brigade for some years, I can’t recall when Joe left but when he did, I think it was because he had started courting, and who can blame him for that? “I enclose a photograph taken around 1954. Joe is missing from this, I don’t know why; perhaps he was away on National Service.
“Sadly, most of those fine fellows in this photograph are no longer with us but I still have many fond memories of those happy times. It would be interesting to hear from anyone who recognises any of the faces.
“On the back row, from left: Billy Soden, Ernie Davis, Teddy Gillies, Bob Gerard, myself, Maurice Coley, Rodney Hill, Alan Turton and Vin Thaker.
“On the middle row: Bob Hawkins, Alfie Woodward, Malcolm Parsons, Reg Stimpson, Albert Davis, Ivan Styles, Vic Stanworth, John Billingsley and Bert Collins.
“Seated at the front: Alfie Owen, Fred James (station officer), Fred Woodrow (second officer), Bert Fisher (chief officer), Mr Davey Cole (works director), Ralph Ford (third officer) and Mac Plenderleith (sub officer).”