Retro: School taught Doncaster’s world-class rail engineering skills

Doncaster Works Apprentice Training School intake 1968-69
Doncaster Works Apprentice Training School intake 1968-69
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Doncaster’s Railway Works, known locally as the Plant, has a history stretching back to 1853.

It was the birthplace for a number of noted steam locomotives including the Flying Scotsman and Mallard.

Many lads often flocked there from school, eager to learn one of the many trades alongside their dads, granddads and uncles. It was often stated this created a harmonious, family-like working environment.

In August 1965 the works took a significant step forward in its apprentice training when it established the apprentice training school formerly occupied by the light machine shop, near the main office block.

This was initially designed for the instruction of 80 craft trainees at any one time. It comprised a completely self-contained training workshop and two classrooms.

Staffing and operation followed the standard British Railways workshop pattern, with approximately one third of the boys’ time being spent on theoretical studies and the remaining two-thirds on practical training in the workshop section.

The apprentices spent one year in the school before continuing their training in the main workshops.

This facility was opened when the job market, particularly in the manufacturing and heavy engineering industries, was buoyant in the town and the rest of South Yorkshire and when school leavers had a number of options for beginning their apprenticeships.

In March 1966 Doncaster Works was honoured with a visit of Rail News Queen Christine Weatherspoon, who popped in to say hello to the apprentices.

After the school’s first intake of apprentices had completed their course they all lined up outside the building for a group shot. The group photograph then became a regular occurrence during the apprentices’ first year at the school.

Photographs also exist of the Rail News Queen in the Apprentice Training School in May 1967. But the most newsworthy event in the history of the school occurred in July 1975 when the Queen dropped in on the apprentices whilst touring the works with the Duke of Edinburgh.

The Queen’s parents had actually visited the building when it was a light machine shop some 34 years earlier. Works manager W M Begg accompanied the Queen and Duke on their tour.

Training school instructor Arthur Shaw was asked by the Duke if he found the work rewarding.

Mr Shaw was himself an apprentice and saw the late King and the Queen Mother when they made their wartime visit to the Works.

As the Queen and Duke left the school, 17-year-old Paul Johnson of Herrick Gardens, Balby, Doncaster presented Her Majesty with a model of Stephenson’s Rocket on behalf of the apprentices. The model, made in copper and brass and mounted on an ebony base bearing an inscription plate, took 18 weeks to make and 15 apprentices had a hand in its manufacture.

No original drawings of the locomotive were available, so Paul turned draughtsman and, with the help of a plastic replica and old photographs, he produced a series of scale drawings which were circulated to the team.

The final assembly of the Rocket took place under the supervision of the fitting instructor, Roy Fox, and at the same time a presentation casket in the shape of a cabin trunk, complete with brass handles and decorative fittings, was made in polished oak.

Paul was introduced for his big moment by the chief instructor Colin McCollin of Brierley Road, Bessacarr, who conducted the royal party around the school.

“The Rocket model is the only one in the world,” said Paul proudly, adding: “The Queen asked me where I came from and what I was going to do when I came out of the school.”

The Duke looked keenly at the brass and copper model and raised a laugh among the apprentices when he pointed out that part of it looked like a whisky barrel.

On December 19, 1979 the apprentice training school was modernised and extended to cater for 140 first-year apprentices. It was opened by British Rail Engineering Ltd’s managing director, Ian Gardiner.

The existing school was redesigned and extended in order to give a further 3,000 sq ft of floor space at a cost of more than £100,000. That enabled the works to increase its apprentice intake by more than 50%.

Speaking at the opening, Mr Gardiner said: “The modernisation and extension of our training facilities here is an important part of a comprehensive programme we have to enlarge the capacity of craft training at five of our works.”

Mr Gardiner then went on to explain the reason for the expansion: “The increasing demands being placed upon us to manufacture and maintain British Rail’s fleet of locomotives and rolling stock, as well as our growing export business, mean that we need more skilled staff. As there is a national shortage of such staff we must increase the number we train ourselves.”

For the first 20 weeks apprentices were to gain an insight into the 13 different trades required by the works, including machining, vehicle building, welding, fitting, painting, electronics, fabrication and electrical work.

This was followed by a specialisation period of 26 weeks when each apprentice was taught his particular chosen craft.

At this time the increase in skilled staff at the works was required to cater for the demand beginning to be placed on Doncaster to manufacture Class 56 locomotives and major refurbishing programmes for diesel multiple units and Class 50 locomotives.

Sadly, with the privatisation of British Rail Engineering workshops in the late 1980s, the Doncaster Works site was split into three and the apprentice training school closed. The site was initially occupied by RFS Industries but is presently part of Wabtec Rail Ltd.