Engineering is a dying craft
Tim Leech, a friend of ours – indeed a friend of many boating enthusiasts – very sadly died recently. Tim ran the dry dock at Dutton stop lock, right at the top end of the Trent & Mersey.
However, to say that is what he did is not even to hint at his skills and knowledge, for he was a hugely knowledgeable and masterful engineer especially in the world of what you could loosely call vintage machinery.
I actually only met him three or four times when I had call for his services to help with our Lister JP3 engine but, as is the way in this internet age, I already knew him as a ‘virtual friend’. Not through Facebook but via one of the canal forums where he was always ready with sound advice and comments, even to those many people who were never likely to be able to offer him paid work in exchange. Incidentally, I’ve generally found that this willingness freely to share knowledge is a hallmark of people with specialist skills like his.
But a column isn’t the place for an obituary, though Mrs B and myself feel a special sadness over the passing of this genial bear of a man, working amid his delightfully chaotic surroundings.
No, his passing makes me realise that yet another of a declining breed of traditional engineers has gone. Engineers who work with oily fingers, Whitworth spanners and feeler gauges rather than diagnostic tuners and Snap-on tool chests. Who know clearances, tolerances, wear rates, stresses and strains based on years of experience and a knowing look rather than blindly bolting on a replacement from the parts department.
When you have an old engine, as we have had in all our boats, you rely on people like these. Way back, we had a 1933 Norfolk Broads cruiser with a Morris side-valve petrol engine that needed a rebuild. I took it to a local specialist; they gave one look and called from the back office this ancient chap (the firm’s owner and well into his eighties as it happened) who walked with crutches and wore bottle-end glasses. He identified it immediately, knew every element and took personal charge of the
‘I mean old boy in a cowshed. Yes, literally, I had to shoo the cows out of the way to find the entrance to his workshop’
rebuild. Who there could do that now I wonder?
On our last boat, Star, we found a back street engineering shop in Tipton who could machine a new shaft for our broken (and irreplaceable) water pump. They did it overnight.
And during the rebuild of Harry, I travelled several times down to the local machine shop for jobs. When I say machine shop, I mean old boy in a cowshed. Yes, literally. I had to shoo the cows out of the way to find the entrance to his workshop. Inside, he was working alone in an Aladdin’s cave of machine tools. A few years earlier he’d been made redundant when the Birmingham car industry took yet another downward lurch and set up on his own. When he retires – or worse – who will do what he can?
I first came across Tim in the flesh when I discovered exactly why our complicated JP3M water pump was leaking. It was knackered. The pump is like a mini engine with a piston, con-rod and bearings. And, basically, everything that should be round was oval. Tim bored it, sleeved it, made new bits and, generally, returned it to ‘as new’ condition.
A few months later I was desperately seeking another ‘hen’s teeth’ item; the engine’s unique fuel filter. “I think I may have one of those lying around,” messaged Tim. He did: not just one, but two.
People with the skills, resources and patience to do a job that probably doesn’t pay as well and certainly doesn’t keep your hands as clean as a cosy office number are, sadly, but truthfully, a dying breed.
Will there be a next generation to replace them? I doubt it. I was in an Aldi the other day and saw an advert for ‘apprentice store staff’. When you can do something called an apprenticeship in supermarket work, what chance anyone tackling the long, demanding traditional apprenticeships in craft skills like engineering?