At the start of the tour I go through the companies heritage and at one point I refer to Owen’s indenture (apprenticeship) – his papers are on the wall in our canteen – it is a binding 12 year contract between my grandfather Reginald and Edwin Robbins the man who would become Owens “Master”.
Then as we were walking around the workshop Mr Heappey was talking to Mike Whitehead our senior cutter about the skills of his job – Mike’s dexterity and knowledge of his trade oozes from every fibre of his being. I have been doing these tours now for 3+ years and I can assure you that every person who is truly interested in what they are being shown will ask Mike the same question:-
“How long have you been doing this” – I could bet my mortgage on that question – it has now become a “smiling point” between Mike and I, because we both know it is coming – and it is absolutely lovely that is subliminally evident to the viewer that Mike has this skill and knowledge that has been amassed and honed over years of working in the industry.
Mikes answer? ; Somewhere between 45 and 50 years depending upon how young he is feeling that day.
Then as the tour progressed Mr Heappey asked about our “youngsters” - 20 & 23 year olds and asked whether they had joined as apprentices, I explained that no they had both joined with an understanding of leather factory work – but had been and were still being trained in the various skills and nuances of the job that were particular and specialised to OB
This is the point where I bit my tongue, swallowed my rant and refrained from telling him we had tried apprentices two years before – unsuccessfully, 3 young people – so called wanted to learn “Leather working skills” – cutting, prepping, machining & utility.
Of course none of them actually did – it was an excuse to “earn some money”, which you can’t blame them for - the apprenticeship deal was the easy scheme that was being offered.
However, I do think these young people wanted to do as few hours a week as possible, the maximum any of them attended was 23 hours out of the 40 they were expected to do – and that was over a period of 8 months , so please don’t think it’s because we weren’t patient – 32 weeks and immediately the probation period (4 weeks) had been completed and the forms filled and the obligation undertaken by OB, they dropped from 40 to somewhere less than 23 every week – week in week out. – some weeks zero attendance!
And during those 23 hours – did they try? No not really – they couldn’t stand up all day “their legs hurt”. They couldn’t do the repetitive work necessary to learn the skills and method of a job because it was boring and refused to try or in several cases refused to carry on.
The list is endless, the patience, help and support given the OB team in encouraging and cajoling them undeniable- but in the end we all felt hurt that they could be so disrespectful of skills that we are all so proud of and the help and guidance that we were trying to impart so worthless, that in the end their departures were a massive relief all round.
Yesterday Mike was telling Mr Heappey that for the first 6 months of his apprenticeship/training he wasn’t allowed to even put knife to leather, he had to pretend with chalk (in place of the knife) thereby demonstrating to his tutor that he had matched the skins and positioned the patterns skilfully and economically enough, before he was allowed to start cutting.
Further back from that, my father was expected to “his Master faithfully serve, his secrets keep, his lawful commands everywhere gladly do, and he shall not damage his Masters property, nor see it done by others. He shall not waste the goods of his Master, nor lend them to anyone. He will not buy or sell without his Masters licence. Nor shall he play at card, dice, or any unlawful game, he shall not haunt taverns or ale houses. – And on.
In other words and as specified – “he will not absent himself from his Masters Service night or day unlawfully, but in all things as a faithful apprentice he shall behave himself towards his Master and all His (great catch all) during the said term”. The term originally 7 years had to be extended for a further five as Owen had to go and serve in the army throughout WWII.
Well there you go, how different things were 70 years ago – but, Owen thoroughly enjoyed it – he was never one for looking back – but on the odd time he did, he always spoke very kindly and respectfully of Mr Robbins, the skills that he had learnt, the patience and knowledge that had been extended to him.
Owen didn’t feel hard done by, and neither did Mike some 35 years later they were happy to be learning the expertise from their “Masters” and that know how has served them so well in enjoyable careers of creating sublimely beautiful products that the world wants to buy.
So tell me please; how we are going to encourage the young people to embrace those traditional skills and become our craftsmen and women of the future. Craftspeople, who take pride in their creations and provide the world with beautiful heritage pieces to treasure!