If Fred was deadly serious about anything, it was rivets!
If you ever drove Fred about, which I invariably finished up doing as he wasn't that keen on driving, feeling that cars we new fangled. When driving under an interesting railway bridge or Victorian structure he would comment: "Just look at those rivets," followed by a sermon about those wonderful men who hammered them in. Everybody who drove with him waited for it. He would eulogise about rivets. He was passionate about them. One day, quite out ofthe blue, he phoned and said: ”D’yer fancy doing a bit of riveting, Rog?”
I couldn't decide whether this was a magnanimous Fred gesture, or he just needed some help. Whichever, I felt quite honoured as Fred’s riveting reputation was beyond question. When he made the new boiler for his roller all those years ago, before he even had a shed, the boiler inspector first of all condemned it, as he would not accept that Fred could possibly have had the skills, certainly without all the tools and equipment. He couldn't work out how Fred had even managed to roll the steel for the boiler but after Fred’s protests it went up the hierarchical ladder for further inspection and it passed with a commendation, as it was such a highly professional job. Fred was an absolute perfectionist when it came to this ancient skill.
It was a wet, grey, miserable morning when Iturned up for the riveting job in Fred’s back yard. I think he only had a single shed over the roller at the time, so everything was to be done outside in the rain. We were to rivet the new boiler of an Aveling tractor he was rebuilding. He had a little open coke fire smoking away on a raised grate supported by some bricks with an old fashioned set of hand bellows to roar it up as a kind of furnace. I was to squeeze into the boiler with a contraption called a jammer and, as its name implied,jam it up against the red-hot rivets as he poked them through the holes before driving them home. If I twisted round in this narrow, wet cylinder I could just see the action outside through the inspection hole. Icy cold rainwater was dripping down my neck from the two lines of exposed rivet holes above my head.
Fred had thrown a handful of rivets on the fire and was pumping like mad on the bellows as the coals became nearly white-hot. "Watch those rivets, Rog” he shouted. "Once they start to give off sparks they are ready.” They were glowing red and I was worrying now about being confronted by a red-hot end being poked through the hole so close to my face. "Which hole are you going shove it through, Fred?" I yelled, wanting to be fully prepared for the event. "I’ll poke my finger through,” he shouted back. His dirty finger poked through a hole immediately above my head and he gave it a wiggle. It wasn’t the hole I was expecting as I thought he was going to start further down. "Can you start with the lower ones untilI get used to it?" I yelled back. "Poke your finger through the one you want,” he shouted in reply.
After a succession of poking fingers at each other we finally settled on a hole. Evidentially certain holes are more strategic than others in which to start thejob, in this the black art of riveting. "Are you ready?" he hollered, nowin a more impatient tone of voice. I gave the affirmative, feeling very tense, watching through the inspection hole as Fred, armed with a big pair of tongs, selected a sparking red-hot rivet out ofthe fire and came charging over towards the boiler and me. Jammer at the ready, and peering through the gloom at the designated hole, I noticed a glow appearing at a different hole with the end ofa red- hot rivet popping through only inches from my ear. It illuminated the interior of the boiler and sizzled in the wet. I could feel the heat. "Have you got that bloody jammer on?" he shouted. I fumbled and quickly shuffled myself around in the narrow space to get the jammer into position for the new hole. "OK, it’s on,” I finally yelled back.
It was so long ago that I can’t remember the exact sequence of how we did it. With some of the rivets Fred had to squeeze into the boiler shell and poke the red-hot rivet through from the inside while I tried, on the outside, to secure the end poking through the hole with some tongs. Fred then had to dash back outside and hammer it through with me jamming it on the inside. Then all hell seemed to be let loose. The din was excruciating. It sounded as if I had been thrown down a flight of stone steps in an oil drum. The rat-tat-tatting seemed to amplify inside of the boiler, becoming an unbelievable, ear-shattering din with sparks flying all over the place and accompanied by an acrid smell. When it stopped I was questioning whether I really wanted to learn to rivet. After all, I only wanted to drive traction engines down country lanes.
"Great," he shouted. "Next hole down now!" He never enquired if I was all right. No such thing as health and safety in those days. Today's safety inspector would have had a blue fit if he had seen what we were doing. Fred came dashing back towards the boiler clutching the tongs loaded with the next red-hot rivet and on it went until we had done the whole row. My head felt like the inside of a church bell after it has stopped donging. It just kept on buzzing. "Come out, Rog, and have a look," he shouted with his head through the inspection hole. I slithered out like a wet dishcloth and gazed at the extremely neat row of uniform rivets. He scrutinised the detail of each one closely. ’Hmmm,’ he mused rubbing his chin. "That one'll have to come out - it’s got a nebbed cap.”
I looked closely at the one referred to, wondering what on earth a 'nebbed cap’ was. It looked a perfect specimen to me, but Fred’s eagle eye had spotted a very small imperfection. There was the slightest suggestion of a flattened lip right at the edge -like a very thin neb on a rounded flat cap, as he explained. Every rivet had to be a mint specimen, perfectly smooth and rounded, and in a dead straight line with all the others. Otherwise, out it came. This was for those inside the boiler as well and my handiwork was to be inspected next. By this time it was pouring down and the bottom of the boiler was collecting water, but this didn’t deter him and in he went. One had to come out. Otherwise they passed his scrutiny.
It was back in the boiler for the second row, with an interval of about half an hour when he sent down the road for some hot pies. We sat in the shed surrounded by belts and pulleys connected to ancient machinery. It was like an Aladdin’s cave and could have only have been conceived by Fred. Above us,nailed to a supporting telegraph pole was a large, dusty, framed picture ofthe Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh which seemed to add probity to the place, and next to us, in all its glory was Fred’s shiny green steam roller, Alison. When later his marriage to Alison came to an end, he renamed it to carry his mum's name, Betsy. He felt it was safer that way. As we tucked into the hot delicacies from the pie shop his wife, who had just returned from shopping, came in with some mugs of tea.
”Fancy a go at banging a few in yourself?" Fred asked me, I suspect out of kindness rather than expedience. I did a few dry runs just with the tongs trying to shove cold rivets into the holes. That was more difficult than it looked and worse when we got to the red-hot ones. I even dropped one on my foot. It was a matter of getting it in quickly, grasping the riveting gun and holding it square on to the rivet head as firmly as possible while, at the same time, pushing hard and slightly rotating it to give a nice rounded finish. I felt like a jelly baby on the end of a pneumatic drill, but I did finally manage a single reasonably good one, surprisingly passed and approved by the master.
It was much more skilled and difficult than it looked but Fred made it look as if he was merely bobbing icing on a cake. He was the first to admit that it was nothing like as skilled as when the hard men of those bygone times used to hammer the rivets home just with muscle and sweat instead of the soft way with this modern pneumatic stuff. He pointed over to some of the rivets on the roller where he had used the old-fashioned method. I have always felt proud those two rows of rivets, especially my one! Should have had my initials engraved on it. There was something very permanent about them. Maybe in a few hundred years’ time that engine could be preserved in some museum and those beautiful rivets could still be on display and the visitors would marvel at the skill of those hard men in the old days.
It took years for Fred to finish that Aveling steam tractor. In fact he only had it completed a year before his death. The Aveling & Porter convertible (tractor/road roller) was there at Fred’s funeral, all polished and magnificent, ready to take him on his last Journey. He had never got round to cladding the boiler so all her rivets were exposed. I looked especially at the two rows we did together with a sadness of heart but with the certain pride of knowing thatl helped him put them there for posterity on that rainy day so long ago, the day I learnt what a nebbed cap was!
When dear old Fred was working on the firebox of his steam roller he paid a visit to a mate of his who happened to be the boss of a local ironworks. He needed a bit of help so he asked the guy the burning question "Have you any good riveters left?" The boss of the works replied: "All the good riveters are dead." As quick as a flash Fred said: "Do you know of any passable ones still living then, cock?"
Roger's Reminiscences - Once they give off sparks, they're ready
Copyright © 2011 Roger Murray