James Henry Green (1876-1967)
Alexander Victor Green (1897-1955)
The following is a typed copy of a transcript from a 1937 BBC Radio broadcast, looking at the craft of ships block-making, and one of the last block-making families in Appledore – the Green family.
Provided by David Carter 2018
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Father to Son
The Pulley-block makers
J. H. Green, A. Green, E. J. Plaistead.
Broadcast in the West of England Programme on Sunday 14th March, 5.25-5.45pm. 1937
Mr Plaisted: This is the last of the Father to Sun series.
You’ll remember that we’ve questioned a number of people who are engaged in our older occupations, which still have an air of tradition about them.
It has appeared that handcraft and tradition go together. As soon as power machinery comes along, the traditional aspect of things begins to weaken.
But even the oldest of them have changed in some way or other. The Farmer, the Tin Miner, the Lace worker, have told us of a sort of compromise between the old handcraft and modern mechanical methods. They do some things in exactly the same way as their forefathers, and other things by means of machinery. There seems to have been a place in the development of the environment of the craft where a compromise between two modes has had to be arranged.
And so, with all the changes of modern times, we are not without some interesting survivals. For all that we know, one of those survivals may yet be used as a model for some student of economics who try to arrange a similar compromise between supply and demand in the interests of human welfare.
But tonight we are going to the shore, to have a glance at those who go down to the sea in ships. I suppose many will be like me in this matter. Being a landlubber, I'm afraid my notions of ships and the sea are a bit indefinite, Anyway, we can add to our knowledge of at least a part of a ship by listening to Mr. James Green and his son, Mr. Alex Green. Mr. Alex Green will set sail, and well go with him - but not out too far.
Mr. A. Green: In the days of the old sailing ships, or ‘windjammers’ as they were often called, after a vessel had left the stocks, it was the block and spar maker who became the person of importance.
It was he who made the masts, yards, and other spars, turned the deadeyes for setting up the rigging, fixed the pumps, built the steering wheel and bored the scuppers.
It was the blockmaker who furnished the wood turney for fife rail stanchions, poop deck rails, belaying pins and mast head trucks.
But what is more important just now, he made the pulley blocks for running gear. When you have seen a picture of a full rigged ship, with her sails opened like beautiful white wings, have you ever asked the question "How is that tremendous spread of canvas hoisted and held in position - and how are those long yards braced home and that network of ropes and rigging made to serve its purpose?" The answer is, by means of pulley blocks.
On the same principle that a housewife hoists her clothes line, so by using scores of lines and hundreds of pulley blocks, a ship is rigged to catch the wind.
The number of pulleys depends of course upon the size and rig of the ship. One of the old wooden battleships, carrying 74 guns, took fifteen hundred blocks. The Cutty Sark, nearly a thousand, a schooner about two hundred, while a small fishing craft manages quite well with say twenty to thirty.
The pulley block in olden days was little more than a clump of wood with a small wheel or sheave as we call it - the whole thing being hung on the mast or spar by means of a clumsy rope strapping. Even in the days of the great Tea Clippers, the pulley blocks were often rough, illshapen, and not easy running. To-day, the Lignum Vitae wooden wheel has been superseded by Gal. Iron or brass sheaves, with gun metal roller bushes, almost equal in smoothness of run to a cycle hub.
Instead of the old rope strapping, iron fittings or bindings are accurately made to Board of Trade scale and regulations, while the requirements of the modern luxury yacht has brought blockmaking almost to the level of a fine art.
Mr. Plaisted: That is an interesting background. Now, Mr. James Green, tell us about blockmaking in your family.
Mr. J. Green: My father began his apprenticeship as a ship's blockmaker over eighty years ago, at the age of twelve. He had already worked for two years with a boatbuilder, but I suppose he wanted more scope for his capabilities and decided on blockmaking.
The hours were long, six in the morning to seven or eight at night; the work was hard, but he served his seven years and later rose to the proud position of working foreman, drawing the munificent wage of eighteen shillings a week.
In 1871 my father went into business on his own. There was a great deal of competition. Blockshops were numerous. There were already six in the town before father opened, and there must have been scores in Devon, Cornwall and the Bristol Channel ports. This can be easily accounted for - there were hundreds of coasting vessels, ketches, schooners and smacks, besides briggs, barques and full rigged ships all relying on the block makers to keep their running gear in order.
After the voyage almost, and particularly after a storm, there was a demand for renewals, repairs and readjustments. Why, in our own small seaport more than a hundred coasting vessels could often be seen lying alongside the Quay, to say nothing of six or seven foreign ships waiting their turn to enter dry dock. Alas, of the many blockshops to be found sixty years ago it would be difficult to find six in the whole West Country.
My father became an acknowledged master of his craft. His splendid workmanship gained for him a wide reputation of which he was justly proud. Slipshod work was to him intolerable, and when during the war it was suggested to us that war finish, which meant second or third rate finish, would be quite good enough, he still persisted in attention to detail and accuracy that often made us, I'm afraid, impatient and irritable.
Mr. Plaisted: I suppose in these days work was done mainly by hand. But I take it this is not so to-day, Mr.Alex?
Mr. A. Green: No, and I'm glad I didn't live in those days. I prefer the more or less elaborate machinery of to-day. Circular saws for plank work, band saws for shaping, sensitive drills for boring, sandpaper belts and discs for smoothing and oven riveting machines for small work.
Mr. J. Green: In early days there was no machinery for blockmaking outside the Royal Dockyards. In Greenwich museum there are models of machinery for making pulley blocks but they were owned by the Government, who on occasion paid a man twelve thousand pounds for his invention.
Generally speaking, in all the outside shops, from tree to finished article, everything was done by hand, except the wood turning which was often done by foot in a treadle lathe. Orders came to father's shop and he soon needed help, but with a sagacious look into the future he decided to keep the thing within the family as much as possible. First his younger brother was employed, then a nephew was apprenticed. In 1889 at the age of thirteen, I was taken in, followed later by my younger brother. In 1919 my eldest on came back from war service at the age of 22, and began his apprenticeship, and last summer, my youngest boy decided to settle down in the blockshop. This exclusive family selection probably accounts for the fact that we are now almost the only firm in our sort of job in the West Country district.
I came into the business, as I said, in 1889. Except for the turning lathe there was still no machinery. The lathe was driven by a wooden fly wheel six feet in diameter, turned of course by hand.
The driving belt was a length of manilla rope, which was frequently passed through a tub of water to shrink it tight to the wheel. It was no uncommon thing to spend three or four days a week continuously turning this lathe, and so frequently was I to be seen at it that an old ship owner nicknamed me "The Gas Engine" and I did my best to warrant the title.
Mr. A. Green: Sawing Lignum Vitae sheaves wasn't much easier. This West Indian wood as some of you know is almost as hard as iron. The saw was a double handed cross cut with very fine teeth; after ten hours of this every day for a week, believe me, one felt ‘Tired and weary, Life all dreary’.
Mr. J. Green: All this sounds very monotonous, but in ships blockmaking there is infinite variety. There are so many different shapes and sizes. One day a man may be making pulleys not more than an inch and a half long for small boats, and on the next day perhaps an order will come in for tackle blocks twenty to thirty inches long and weighing nearly a hundred-weight when fitted with ironwork and sheaves. Not many weeks ago I was making a Fiddle Block, so called because it is shaped like a violin, and I switched from that to a five sheaved pulley with special fittings for Pilot cutter channel racing. This week the requirement maybe clumps, cheap, crude and clumsy; next week the responsibility of making the highly specialised runner blocks for Life Saving apparatus and Breeches Buoy.
Mr. Plaisted: You have talked about tackle blocks. Aren't all ships blocks tackle blocks.
Mr. J. Green: Just now I said responsibility: many people do not realise how much the safety of a ship depends upon the condition of her running gear.
I am certain that in the days before the law was tightened up, many a ship has foundered because her pulley blocks had been neglected. I have seen
fittings, worn to the thickness of hoop iron, and pulleys calculated to stand a strain of half a ton in heavy weather so rotten that a child could have picked it to pieces. I have never been able to understand some sailormen in this connection. I have known them take pains prevent a rope from chafing, carefully mend a tear in a sail, be particular to a nicety over a chain link, yet never bother to examine the blocks, with the result, that caught in a gale, sails have been blown away, rigging has come clattering to the deck, even masts and spars have gone by the board, because pulley blocks at vital points have been allowed to rust or rot.
Mr. A. Green: Yes, I remember grandfather telling me a yarn about that. A captain came into the shop and said that his mainsheet block was rather poor, but he would make it do for another voyage or so. Three months after he came in and said "Better I'd taken that new block we talked about, the old one gave out in a gale and I lost my mainsail and nearly lost the mast."
Mr. J. Green: Such a thing as that ought to be almost impossible to-day - for the Board of Trade, realising the importance of tackle, set out elaborate regulations and demand in many cases that the blocks shall be tested to bear emergency strains and officially stamped.
There have been many changes in the class of work down through the years. Fathers business opened up interestingly. An English firm in Prince Edwards Island was building sailing ships for the American timber trade I believe. They launched them and sent them across the Atlantic to be fitted out with blocks and sails. They came to our town and father got the orders. Later he sent hundreds of blocks across to Newfoundland for coasting and fishing craft. By the time I came into the business, steam ships were already beginning to oust the sailing vessel, but we found a trade among the North Sea Fishing Fleet - quite a different class of work, and later when my brother arrived we were making blocks for London River barges.
Mr. A. Green: By the way, you used to make the pump gear for the barges, didn't you?
Mr. J. Green: Yes, we made dozens of sets, and I remember once that an order for several dozen sets fitted with iron handles was changed to wooden handles, the reason being given that iron handles would make the bargees hands cold in early mornings.
Mr. Plaisted: To what do you attribute the fact that your firm survived the many dozens of blockmaking firms in the west country and Wales?
Mr. J. Green: I would answer that a very young and ambitious London traveller laid the foundation of our future business some fifty years ago by starting in business for himself as a shiphandler. He pushed the Block trade both at home and for export. Having known father as a customer many years he gave him all his orders for Blocks and anything else in our line. This really meant we were wholesalers, and when there was no local business left to speak of, and Blockmakers in the West Country, and Wales in after years, were gradually falling out of line, we were kept very busy. It may interest you to know this shipchandry business grew and is to-day, and for many years has been one of the best known of its kind in London, and although the head has passed out of active service, the business flourishes still under his name, and we still continue to be there, only Blockmakers, receiving orders sometimes every-day of the week. This means fifty years of trading with one firm alone, for which we must have made many many thousands of blocks.
During the war outfits for mine sweepers occupied our time. Drifters and trawlers were being converted into sweepers, and this meant an alteration in the running gear. Once more the class of work changed.
You will have gathered from this talk that a smithy forms part of a blockmaking business. The blacksmith differs somewhat from the general or ships' smith. He is expert at making block fittings and very rarely touches other ironwork. We haven't been able to keep this part of the business in the family, as none of us wanted to be a smith, but when I tell you that from fathers early days until now we have only changed our smith twice, you will understand that they became almost a part of the institution and the relationship has been most intimate.
Mr. Plaisted: Now let us hear more about your side of it, Mr. Alex.
Mr. Alex: I came into the business late in life. I served 3 years as a boatbuilder before the war, but joined up in September 1914 and spent four years in India and Mesopotamia. I came back with no inclination to finish my apprenticeship, but I was attracted to yacht block making and decided to follow the family tradition - so at the age of 22 I started on this job. Machinery, of course, had been installed by then, but I still remember long hours of cross cut sawing, as grandfather never cared to take risks on the circular saw with Lignum Vitae the iron wood. I took risks, and soon I took off one of my fingers.
Of course I commenced at the beginning, and learnt the whole trade, but my fancy was always for yacht block making. This, in many ways, differs from the ordinary ships block making. The wood used is ash instead of elm, and must be very dry, clean and white. Copper is used for fastenings instead of iron or stool to avoid rust; all fittings must be galvanized, and the wooden shell smoothed and varnished equal to the finest cabinet work.
A first-class yacht block is really a work of art, and there is still good prospects for the man who can handle this part of the trade and ‘deliver the goods’.
Mr. Plaisted: What about the future of blockmaking?
Mr. A. Green: The future of blockmaking? Well, of course the demand for blocks isn't so great as it was say twenty years ago, but then, neither is the supply. How many blockmakers are there in England. It would surprise you to know how few there are. I doubt if there are more than a dozen firms actually manufacturing ships blocks. Sailing ships have almost gone, but yachts remain.
Mr. Plaisted: How many?
Mr. A. Green: Steam ships too require some tackle blocks.
Mr. Plaisted: What for?
Mr. A. Green: Quite a number would be on a tramp steamer, and on an ocean going liner. It is difficult to judge things at present, because shipping hasn't yet revived from the slump of the last five years.
The use of pulley blocks isn't confined to ships. Some little time ago we sent a consignment to South African Gold workings, and quite recently we received a repeat order for special pulleys required in a large Electrical Power Station. Even timber fellers, farmers and butchers are glad to find a pulley block maker at times. So why despair!
Anyway, my younger brother is taking a plunge. May he live to see better blocks, and brighter days, and I hope he will keep the business going for another sixty years.
Mr. Plaisted: A few moments ago I referred to the astonishing vitality of some old crafts. And here it is again. In spite of the tremendous changes in sea going vessels, here is this craft of block making finding an outlet in new ways. Timber fellers, farriers, butchers, all needing its help occasionally.
It all raises the question of the value of craftsmanship to the human being. Are we losing something of physical and moral value, in the gradual decay of these old occupations. We are hearing a lot of talk in these days of campaigns for physical fitness. Is the nature of our modern industrial life making for an unfit physical condition?
Craftsmen and labourers are fit as a rule. At least, unless they have unhealthy conditions of work.
And what are we gaining by their decay? And their replacement by all sorts of machines, driven by mechanical power. We certainly gain in terms of material wealth. The craftsman couldn't run the modern world. No, not even if we were all craftsmen. But the question still abides. What is the profit and loss account? It's easy to ask questions, isn't it? And I don't propose to try to answer in a way that would suit everybody. Only to comment at the end of this series, that I've found every one of the people whom we have interviewed [was] vividly interested in their work and in life itself. And further, they've been more eager to talk about their work that its material rewards. None of them have been rich. None of them have been too poor to take a lively interest in their future. And all of them refuse to believe that their craft will come to a quick finish. So we may just as well share their optimism, and part from them with the hearty wish that many a year will pass before we come to the end of the crafts that are passed on from Father to Son.
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The British Broadcasting Corporation
Head Office. Broadcasting House. London W1
Broadcasting House, 23 Whiteladies Road, Bristol 8
Telephone and telegrams: Bristol 33052
Our Reference: T/FJ/JH
4th March 1937
We invite you to prepare and broadcast a talk(s) as detailed below upon the conditions printed overleaf.
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23 Whiteladies Road, Bristol
Title: “Father to Son"
Date(s): 14th March, 1937
Time: 5.25-5.45 p.m. Rehearsal: 3.30 p.m.
Fee: £3.30.0 inclusive.
Yours faithfully, THE BRITISH BROADCASTING CORPORATION
For West of England Regional Director.
A. V. Green esq
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