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Dockyard History6th February 2024

Apprenticeships at Chatham Dockyard

This week is National Apprenticeship Week (5 to 11 February 2024). It is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of apprentices and the positive impact that they have.

Whilst The Dockyard does not currently provide apprenticeships, it does have a long and proud history of apprenticeship training.

As part of our work collecting oral histories for The Dockyard’s upcoming 40th anniversary, our Public Engagement Officer, Vikki, recently spoke to three of the ships’ volunteers Dave Lawrence, John Salmon, and John Masters about their Dockyard apprenticeships.

When did you do your apprenticeship and which trade did you choose?

Dave Lawrence: I did a 5-year apprenticeship from 1960-1965. I chose Boiler Maker as my trade. I was based in the Collingwood Apprentice Training Centre on St. Mary’s Island, which had just started.

John Salmon: I did my apprenticeship between 1963 and 1968. Mine was a 4 ½ year apprenticeship – it changed length halfway through.
My trade was Engine Fitter and Turner. I was based at Collingwood, that’s where the mechanical and electrical fitters were.

John Masters: I did a 4-year apprenticeship between 1970 and 74. My trade was Fitter and Turner (Mechanical). I was based at Collingwood.

‘You won’t get a better apprenticeship.’

1960s Dockyard Foreman

Why did you choose to do a Dockyard apprenticeship?

Dave: I didn’t feel like I had a choice about going into the Dockyard. My family expected me to do a Dockyard apprenticeship. My twin brother Brian took the April entry exam and started in the September as a ship fitter apprentice. I took the September entry and started in the January.

My Uncle (Hector Lawrence) was the first Safety Officer in the Dockyard from 1948. He had just got an Inspector of Boilermakers as his assistant. My Uncle chose Boilermaker as my trade to impress his new assistant. I wanted to do copper smithing as this was around the time that central heating systems were starting to be installed in a big way and I was interested in this. Plus those were transferrable skills outside of the Dockyard.

John M: A senior Dockyard Foreman lived nearby to me and he told me; ‘You won’t get a better apprenticeship.’

The Careers Master at school suggested it would be a good thing to do. There were two entries a year into the Dockyard for apprentices. After you’d taken the Dockyard exam, you were invited to an open day in No.3 canteen with your parents; you were called up to select your trade depending on your exam score. There was a large board with the trades on and you were given a number, the lower numbers got what was left. Once you’d selected your trade, you had a brief interview to see if it was for you and then they signed you up.

John S: Schools in Medway encouraged you to take the Dockyard exam. Some expected it of you – for example, Robert Napier.
There was a large scoreboard with all the trades listed. The higher your exam score, the more chance you had of getting one of the higher trades. The highest-ranking trade was electrical. Each time someone picked a trade, they took a number away from the board. You were given a number depending on your school and got whichever trade was left on the board.

Morning tea break (known as ‘Beaver’) was from 9am-9:20am – sounded by the Dockyard klaxon.

John Masters – Dockyard Apprentice

Tell me about your memories of your time as an apprentice


John S: I took part in the apprentice raft race – we used empty oil cans with planks (possibly made by the shipwright apprentices). It was organised by the sailing club by Thunderbolt Pier. I was a Coxswain one year. We used to stop at the pub (The Ship in Upnor) when we were practicing for the race.
Unfortunately, one time we ran aground, we got out in the mud and they sent out a cutter and towed us back – this was about 1965/66.

John M: We didn’t have time for any sports or social activities inside the Dockyard! Although people often played Uckers (like Ludo), card games and darts during their lunch break (this happened in the ‘yard itself rather than the Apprentice Centre).

Dave: was not interested in sports but I became the Secretary of the first Apprentices Committee.


John M/ Dave: As apprentices, you got lunch vouchers – these were yellow and worth about 10p. These were only supplied during the first full year of your apprenticeship.

Dave: I used to do two nights a week at night school – you got fish and chips for tea every day (definitely warmed up from lunchtime!).
After my apprenticeship, when I was a Recorder in the Dockyard, Thursday was payday and you would go and order a roast dinner in the canteen.
There were new milk machines in the yard where you could get cartons of flavoured milk for 6p.

John S: I bought in my own sandwiches that my mum had made.

John M: I didn’t use the main canteens. Depending on where in the yard you were working, it was a long walk there and back, especially if you only had a short lunch break. Mobile canteens were used if you worked afloat and had a shorter 30-minute lunch break. If I hadn’t bought sandwiches from home, I sometimes used the mobile canteens dotted around the Dockyard – you could get a ‘dog roll’ (sausage in a roll) and a cup of tea.

Dave L: There were milk machines in the yard where you could get cartons of flavoured milk for 6p.

John M: Our sandwich bags (or ‘nose bags’) were often old Second World War gas bags. They were sold in Marcus stores on every high street. They were government surplus basic respirator bags – the right size for a sandwich tin and flask.

When working afloat, we had ‘tea boats’ with tea, coffee, sugar, Fussells milk (concentrated). Whoever was first in would make the tea. You had to punch a hole in the Fussells milk twice and blow in it to get into it.

Working Hours and Breaks

Dave: Standard start time was 7am, with the working day finishing at 5pm. If you were 3 minutes late, you would lose 15 minutes pay. Doing this too often got you put on ‘prompt muster’ and had to get in by starting time. If you were late, they would take your clock card out and you had to go home until the afternoon.

John M: I worked 7:30am-5pm as standard hours. Certain trades started earlier e.g. if you had to get the boilers going first thing in the morning. Apprentices started at 7:45am and finished at 4:45pm. Morning tea break (known as ‘Beaver’) was from 9am-9:20am – sounded by the Dockyard klaxon. Unofficial afternoon break was at 3pm.

John S: I remember being in what they called ‘The Factory’ (where the Odeon cinema is now) on the lathe section and turning rowlocks for boats. This was what we used to call a ‘rabbit’ job or unofficial job in the Dockyard.

When it was home time, the Dockyard police would do searches – you never wanted to make eye contact with them, especially if you were making things using Dockyard material during work time!

I remember a story of someone who had so many spanners hidden inside his clothes that he couldn’t get off his bike!

As a Fitter, you also got to work on the Weapons Section. One of the highlights of my time in the Dockyard was working inside a torpedo tube on HMS Onslaught. I was small enough to fit inside!

If you had a skilled trade, you definitely had a better chance of getting other jobs outside of the Dockyard.

John Masters, Dockyard Apprentice

What did you do after your apprenticeship?

Dave: After my apprenticeship, I stayed in the Dockyard. I was briefly in No.1 Boiler Shop at the light plate end, then I got an office job as a Foreman’s Writer. I went on to become a Progress man – recording all the jobs in the Boiler Shop, chasing jobs, making sure they finished on time, issuing drawings and ordering materials.

My twin brother had recently become a Recorder, I also put in for it. I got the Job of ‘Recorder of Work’ that involved clock-in duties, recording the work and time (clocking on and off), and issuing pay boxes/packets. Because I was young, agile and keen for overtime, I did a lot of recording afloat – with people working on the ships. I was also given a bike to get around the Dockyard.

I carried on working as a Recorder, including 5 years in the Nuclear complex until I was made redundant towards the end of the closure rundown period on 1st November 1983.

After 3 months of unemployment, I started working for Gillingham Council, as a rent collector and housing officer on 1st March 1984. All in all, I did 25 years in the Dockyard (starting my apprenticeship at 15) and then 24 years at Gillingham Borough/Medway Council before retiring at 64.

John M: After my apprenticeship, I also carried on working in the Dockyard as part of both Ship Fitting and Propulsion gangs. I worked on lots of ships and submarines during my time in the yard, including Triumph and Opposum. Also, the Nuclear submarines Churchill, Conqueror, Courageous, Valiant, and Warspite, when I was based in the Nuclear complex.

I carried on until I was made redundant on Friday 19th August 1983 during the run down to the closure. This had been postponed slightly due to the Falklands conflict.

Post Dockyard, I did a government retraining scheme in agriculture engineering. I was going to do this when I left school but went into the Dockyard instead. I started at Haynes Agriculture in Maidstone on a one-month trial and ended up doing 37 years until I retired.

If you had a skilled trade, you definitely had a better chance of getting other jobs outside of the Dockyard.

John S: I stayed for an extra 4 years after my apprenticeship – so I did 9 years in the Dockyard in total. I briefly worked in the Nuclear Complex when it first opened and then for Yard Services Manager (YSM) on the steam heating section mending leaking radiators.

Once I left the Dockyard, I briefly worked for Betterware, I only lasted a week and a half as you used to have to carry round big suitcases full of the products!

I then worked for a quantity surveying firm, H W Calver & Partners in Rochester, as a Quantity Surveying Assistant from 1972-1976. From there I moved to All Saint’s Hospital to work as an engineer in the boiler room, then Walkers Steel in Strood. I joined Kent County Council as a Highway Technician on the strength of my work as a quantity surveying apprentice before moving on to Southern Water as a technician until I took voluntary redundancy when the company was privatised.

At the age of 50, I retrained as a gardener at Hadlow College between 1997 and 1999 with the view to becoming a self-employed gardener. However, it was very solitary work and I was used to working with people. I then joined Bexley Council as a Highway Technician followed by Swale Council as a Highway Inspector. This was to be the final chapter in my working life, taking voluntary redundancy at the age of 64.

Share your story

This year The Historic Dockyard Chatham is celebrating its 40th anniversary. We would love to hear your stories of when the dockyard was a working site.

Were you an apprentice here like volunteers Dave, John M, and John S?

Did you win the Miss Chatham Dockyard competition?

Whatever your story, we’d love to hear from you.

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