Forty-nine years ago this summer I was getting my first taste of paid employment at the Kenwood factory in Havant. One of their production managers had been hospitalised in Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital earlier in the year and ‘Bloody Mary’, the pathology lab phlebotomist, had distracted him from the incoming needle by inquiring whether there was any chance her sixteen year old son might get a holiday job there after his A-Levels.
At this point in my life I was in theory a year ahead, the result of an educational experiment that had crashed me through a two year O-Level course in a single year. A year later and my teachers’ faith in my abilities – or more truthfully in my level of application – had stalled, the advice being that I should defer my application to university for a further year. On reflection, I was persuaded and tore up my half completed UCCA form.
So while my peers were celebrating leaving school and preparing to embark on their university courses, I was left high and dry with three satisfactory A-Levels, Plan A cancelled and no Plan B. I wrote to Arthur Jeal and when the time came was duly assigned to the new Kenwood Mini production line under the watchful eye of his son, Ray. As an introduction to paid employment, it was indeed an eye-opener.
Kenwood was at a crossroads, a family firm much loved by Havant’s loyal West Leigh workforce which had recently been taken over by Thorn Electrical Industries. The story on the shop floor, possibly apocryphal, was that Mrs. Wood had sold her shares to Thorn in a fit of pique, passing control of the company from her husband Ken to the electrical conglomerate who were already a minority shareholder.
Thorn brought change, with inevitable impact on both quality and morale. In an attempt to take the brand to the mass market, they introduced the low priced Kenwood ‘Mini’ hand mixer. The product was still in the early stages of production by time I joined the line and Ray Jeal was struggling to keep up with a production run which, if memory serves me well, was planned to hit one thousand units per day.
My first position was on the motor test carousel. This slowly rotating circular table comprised around twenty bays in which the small electric motors were cradled, buzzing away at full speed for the couple of minutes that a full rotation of the carousel took. My job was to take a newly built motor from the production line, clamp its bare leads to the live terminals in the carousel and watch it through its entire two minute cycle of testing. For each motor taken from the production line for testing, a successfully tested unit had to be put back, ensuring continuity of production.
Unfortunately, with a failure rate in those early days of something like one in thirty, production line stoppages were regular daily occurrences. Those motors that had failed were boxed up and collected by Bert Cave, whose role of ‘production line troubleshooter’ was one I soon aspired to. After a few short weeks of flicking live 240 volt terminals with a technique which had little regard for what we now understand as ‘Health and Safety’, I was moved up the line to work with Bert.
Working with Bert moved me away from the inexorable monotony of the production line. While his job was to fix any of the mixers that failed to complete the final testing stage before being boxed up, I was brought in to diagnose and fix the increasing backlog of motors that had not made it past that wretched carousel. As a normal teenage kid with an inquiring mind, I’d long since migrated from fixing clocks to meddling with electrical items as a hobby. Stripping down and fixing Kenwood Mini motors was second nature to me and being paid for the privilege was something of a novelty.
Production volumes struggled and the quality issues had rattled the management sufficiently that a twilight shift was set up, adding further production capacity from 6:00pm til 10:00pm. With the overtime rate at ‘time and a half’, this was music to my ears.
Even with the extra four hours in the day, it was a struggle to keep up with the lost production caused by the motor failures. A little more research seemed a sensible idea. It seemed to me that the test regime of just two minutes of motor testing and less than a minute of final product testing was not exactly comprehensive and so my natural curiosity got the better of me. I clamped a Mini hand mixer to the side of a large drum of the Shell Alvania grease that we used to pack the little gearboxes with. Plugged into the mains, its tiny beaters making a valiant attempt to stir forty gallons of grease, my first ‘long term’ stress test failed in a puff of smoke after less than five minutes, providing me with yet another motor to fix.
When Ray realised what I was up to, word soon spread up the line to his father. If these mixers were failing after a few minutes of production use, then maybe Thorn had a problem; the product itself was sound, but the motor failures were unexpected and the potential risk to the Kenwood brand was high.
Stripping down the failing motors it was easy to see what the problem was. To keep the product costs down, the motor armatures were formed from re-heated and compressed waste plastic from the ‘plastics shop’ in the next building. I could appreciate the design, but my informal testing proved that a number of these armatures were failing under load, breaking up at high speed and causing the motors to seize and burn out. Despite calling the issue out, with good grounds, I was soon reminded that quality comes at a cost and designing to a budget dictates sacrifices. That was not, my West Leigh team mates agreed, a sacrifice that ‘Mr. Wood’ would have countenanced.
Life that summer as part of the Kenwood ‘family’ in New Lane provided an education that stood me in great stead for the next fifty years. There were motherly ladies who took me under their wing and tried to pair me with their daughters who, younger than I, were already working full time in other parts of the factory. My team leader, Bert, had a useful side-line moonlighting as a ‘landscape gardener’ – more accurately an amateur chainsaw massacrist – and heaving logs and building bonfires earned me additional cash at weekends.
Life on the ‘Twilight shift’ also demonstrated the more enterprising side of the workforce. Ten minutes before clocking out time, the line would be wound down and readied for the following morning. A small number of overalls would be turned inside out, sleeves knotted, then turned out again. With a mixer down each sleeve, a pair of beaters and a guarantee card in each pocket, a number of Minis left the site each night unchallenged. The rest of us, technically accessories to the act, said and did nothing; it was as if it were viewed as a legitimate tax on Thorn for buying out ‘Mr. Wood’, the father of the company.
This form of innovation was not exclusive to the Mini line. I soon became aware of the legendary fellow with the brown lab coat and the nerve of Old Nick who drove his van round to the loading bay every afternoon at the end of the shift, to pick up ‘the dishwasher for testing’. The West Leigh workforce were the salt of the earth, no crime was committed, they were simply ‘testing security’. That it was found wanting was Thorn’s problem, not Ken Wood’s.
That community taught me more about life in the workplace than any formal education ever did. Anybody who’s ever worked on a production line understands the true value of teamwork.
At four o’clock in the afternoon on the last Friday of my summer contract, Ray did his round of the line with the wooden tray containing the weekly brown cash envelopes. Catching my eye, he said quietly “Don’t open it until you’re off the site”. That envelope contained not one, but two weeks pay.
Needless to say, when I finally bailed out of school in the following February to earn some cash to fund the first of my Travels with Tilman, I put pen to paper and wrote to Arthur again.
But that’s another story…
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