Johnstone History Museum
Johnstone History Society • Scotland

John Lang & Sons May 1960 -- Wickman Lang March 1973
An Apprentice’s Personal Journey
John Lang a long established machine tool Manufacturing Company was founded in 1873.

Responsible for the expansion of the Company and its rapid growth and development was the son of the founder, also named John Lang, who was, I understand, a Provost of the town of Johnstone in the1920/1930 period. Now established as John Lang & Sons and Managed by 4th generation family members under the leadership of Managing Director Mr John T Lang a very professional man who was highly respected by all. MR “J T” was assisted by several close family members also Company Directors. In my time Langs was the largest employer in Johnstone with approximately 550 employees. Paisley Fair Friday saw a boilersuited invasion of the town centre at the start of the annual two week summer holiday with many celebrating with a few beers on the way home. Some undoubtedly had more than a few.

I learned later after I had left that Mr “J T” had served as a Captain in the Royal Artillery throughout the 2nd World War serving during the entire North African Campaign amongst others. At the most recent anniversary of the battle of El Alamein I read, and had confirmed on line, that leading up to this famous battle he led a group to check on the progress or otherwise of the enemy forces, unfortunately they inadvertently came too close and had to entrench themselves in the desert and take cover under camouflage for more than two days till the enemy group had passed and they could safely return to base and report.

John Lang & Sons Apprenticeships

The process to become a John Lang apprentice was to apply in writing, take a Maths & English written test on a Saturday morning in the works canteen and if successful up to this point be invited for interview by the Apprentice Training Supervisor Mr R T Crawford from Beith and the Works Manager Mr Andrew Archer from Johnstone.

Langs hired 10/12 apprentices each year to whom they provided extensive hands on training, day release further education at the Reid Kerr College in Paisley and later and ongoing if appropriate at the Paisley College of Technology.

I was fortunate enough to be offered an apprenticeship and after leaving the Johnstone High School in May and before starting my formal apprentice ship on my 16th birthday in November at the age of 16 I was employed as a gatehouse message boy earning the grand sum of £2- 17s- 6p /per week (£2.87.5p in today’s money) From memory this rose to £3 - 7s when I started my Apprenticeship in November that year. My duties here were varied and introduced me to the Company workings – amongst others I had to deliver messages daily as required throughout the factory, take the mail to Johnstone Post Office daily, weekly to polish the Company brass nameplate at the main entrance and on Mondays deliver two large leather holdalls to the local Bank of Scotland – these bags were uplifted early on Friday mornings by the wages supervisor, George McCaig from Cochrane Castle, who returned with them by taxi with the funds for the weekly wages. The wages were paid to the employees on Friday afternoons – the works staff and tradesmen paid in cash with the office and works staff members issued their wages in sealed envelopes

I started my formal apprentice training on my 16th birthday in November that year – irrespective of position at the end of your apprenticeship whether it was a machine tool fitter, machinist or indeed as a draughtsman/designer all certificates listed completion of apprenticeship as a machine tool engineer and listed the individual specialist training received.

The first year of your apprenticeship was spent in the dedicated Apprentice Training Department, the ATD, where for the first 4 months you received a solid grounding in mechanical fitting practices under the watchful and experienced Andy Gibb who was a long experienced fitter and a good teacher. We learned to use the basic hand tools and were tested on our ability and progress made by being tasked to produce test pieces. For the rest of our first year we were taught to operate the broad selection of machines located in the ATD. Here we were taught by John McKeeman a very experienced machine operator - he was a hard task master and demanded nothing but the best from us. One time I fell foul of his demands and was given a very serious and public dressing down – I never ever erred and fail to follow his instructions again believe me. We were given a very thorough grounding in this first year.

In the latter stages of my first year Langs had been experiencing some severe problems with the uneven loading on their larger Lathes. Mr Bert Lucie, the head designer a clever and modest Johnstone man was asked to come up with a solution to this problem, he did this by designing a very novel cam system to dissipate the excessive loading. I was approached by our Supervisor Mr R T Crawford who, armed with preliminary drawings of this new design components, asked If I could manufacture the parts using the training Department Machines. I enjoyed the freedom to do this using all my newly gained skills, Mr Lucie, satisfied with my work , took me to the main assembly point and had me fit the parts to a machine being built. The design proved to be a success and was fitted to all new machines of this type.

In the second year of your apprenticeship you were introduced to the main works and in my case to an area building sub assemblies which would later be combined in the final assembly of the lathes. Here we worked under the supervision and watchful eye of an experienced journeyman. The journeymen had a bonus system and were allocated additional time to compensate for the time they spent with their apprentices. Apprentices were not on a bonus system but were made aware of the time that should be taken to complete the assemblies. After a few weeks when I hadn’t taken up much of my journeyman’s time I noticed that my time allocation was being somehow reduced. I questioned the area foreman, Roger Austin from Bridge of Weir, why this was the case. I was told by the arrogant and highly self important foreman that he was transferring some of my time allocation to my journeyman as he was falling short on his own schedule and needed the extra to compensate for his shortcomings. I was simply told - tough that’s how it is.
Thankfully a few weeks later for the next stage of my development I was transferred to the final assembly section where Lathes capable of turning parts of relatively short lengths and up to 5ft in diameter were built. Lathes for much smaller diameter parts but for lengths up to 60ft were also built. Lathes of this latter type, I am told, were used to machine parts for submarine periscopes before, during and after the second World War. One of these Lathes was used in Barr & Stroud (now Thales) in Glasgow others throughout the UK, some could possibly still be in use for this purpose today. A photograph of this Lathe is currently on display in the Museum.

A key essential for these Lathes to produce long components within a .0005” tolerance over the whole length was that the main machine guideline had to be perfectly straight and flat. To achieve this critical part both an Alignment Telescope and an Auto Collometer were used to establish datum lines and measure any deviation - both high precision instruments. The Alignment Telescope is currently on display in the Museum Later when I was attending Paisley College our Metrology Lecturer knowing that I was a Lang Apprentice took great delight in telling the class how often he had to visit Langs to teach them how to use the Auto Collometer and how to interpret the results correctly.

I learned a lot in this area from my Journeyman, Rab from Cochrane Castle in the town, Rab was a brilliant craftsman and excellent at passing on his knowledge. Rab’s daily ritual was with pipe in mouth, Daily Record in overall pocket he retired to the works toilet shortly after 11.00am to remain there till our dinner break at 12 noon.

Now entering the 3rd year of my apprenticeship I was assigned to the works maintenance dept for further diverse training. In all I spent 6 months in the maintenance dept. A highlight of this placement was that as I was now 18 yrs old I was eligible to work overtime – a lot of the maintenance work was carried out on Saturday. I was asked to work most Saturday mornings which I gladly agreed to do. How could I refuse to work 4 hours at time and a half hourly rate -- brilliant I was rich.

We carried out maintenance work throughout the factory including the overhead cranes 20 ton SWL capacity – mostly pre 1920 vintage - which had to be tested and certified annually by the Company Insurance Inspectors.

A vital job carried out on Saturday mornings was to ensure that the precision Horizontal Boring machines, American made, were fit to carry out their vital processes. We did this by adjusting the machine horizontal guides to be perfectly level and the vertical guides had to be perfectly aligned at right angle to them. To do this we used a precision box spirit level– a very precise tool - this instrument is currently displayed in the Museum.

I enjoyed my time in the maintenance department especially when working with a new journeyman Jimmy McGuire from Johnstone, Jimmy was particularly good at identifying problems and fixing them. I met Jimmy some years later when I went to work in Chrysler, Jimmy was there before me, he worked in the maintenance department where his skills were rewarded by being assigned the more difficult problems to solve

After this placement at a time when Langs was very busy and it’s machine shop was in danger of being overwhelmed Management decided to sub contract machining work to alleviate this problem. I was asked if I would carry out this task which I agreed to do. My days with the tools were over. I now worked within the Production Control Office. collar and tie job, where I was tasked to audit companies who had expressed an interest in this work, select work to be sent to them, monitor on time progress and the part’s return to our premises. Then I had to liaise with the incoming inspection department and thus approve payment.
A part that I liked about this job was that although I had passed my driving test I did not have my own car so to carry out visits I was allowed to use my new boss’s company car.

To carry out the administration associated with this work Sheila Murdoch from Kilbarchan was assigned to assist me, Over the months we developed a close working relationship - Sheila has now been my long suffering wife for almost 49 years.

This placement lasted for just over a year and took me into the early months of my 4th year apprenticeship when I was transferred to the Jig & Tool Design Drawing office to continue my training.

This was a new experience for me none more so than now working staff hours 37 ½ per week down from the 40 hrs I had previously worked. With the imminent partnership with Wickman, an Engineering Company based in Coventry, we had to prepare to manufacture the parts required to be able to build their machines in Johnstone. It was a very busy period there were four of us in this design team and believe me we were kept busy.

Soon after the business merger was confirmed, and now towards the end of my 4th year, I was approached by our new Works Director Mr G P Archibald, a long time employee of Wickman and now based in Johnstone. He explained to me that many new machines were required to meet our new objectives and would I be interested in preparing the factory layout for these additions. He gave me a list of the new additions, quantities, installation requirements, specification brochures and left me to get on with it.

I discovered that the original building drawings had not been updated to include the many extensions added over the years – the extensions were not standard shapes so I had to spend my time surveying the site, checking the dimensions of the new sections and producing updated drawings of the current factory footprint, this took about two weeks.

No CAD designs in those days, so I was assigned the help of a lady in the main drawing office to produce scale sized cut outs of the new equipment ( a bit like Blue Peter actually) scheduled to arrive soon. When I had all the models (I think around 30 of them) I looked to where I could free up enough space to accommodate them. Once done I proceeded to place them in a revised and productive layout.

Mr Archibald, without requiring any alterations to be made, presented my layout to the first Wickman Lang Board Meeting where it was accepted.
It would clearly be a major project to carry out this installation work and I was transferred to the Works Engineering Department to assist with this. The Works Engineer at this time was Mr Bill Sorley already with a heavy workload overseeing the entire maintenance of the works, he very much welcomed my assistance.

We cleared space for the new arrivals where the medium and smaller sized machines would be installed – they were to be mounted on new innovative cushioned anti vibration pads to isolate each one from any unwanted disturbance from their neighbours. The larger and more precise machines, required for final stage processing, were another matter. As per their spec they had to be installed on solid isolated concrete bases. To do this we had to have Wilson Bros, a local carrier, come in on Saturday mornings with their digger to excavate to a depth of no less than 4ft 6ins to accommodate the concrete base. Once excavated the hole was lined with 4” thick cork slabs to isolate the base from any external vibration and then filled with ready mix concrete. We must have had upwards of 15 of these bases, of all shapes and sizes created.

Now entering the final year of my apprenticeship and with many new installations still to be carried out, Bill Sorley moved to another job in the organisation and I was left as Works Engineer. I felt important in this role and was given a master key which would allow me to open any door, padlock or office on site if at any time access was required.

The 5th year of my apprenticeship was no less busy than the 4th, during this time Langs was made aware of an almost new reconditioned machine that would satisfy their expanding needs. I was asked to go to London to asses this potential addition. Being a Johnstone country boy of 20yrs, I had never flown before nor had I ever visited London where the machine was located. I was nervous on my first flight on the noisy B A Trident aeroplane, but made it safely to the centre of London. I knew Glasgow underground well enough but never ever came across anything like the London Underground network and I had to find a way of getting to the suburb of Acton. After several line changes I made it phew !

The machine was OK, I recommended it’s purchase and made it home safely, seasoned traveller that I now was.

As the 5th year of apprenticeship progressed towards an end, I was faced with the thought of completing my further education at the Paisley College of Technology and having to attend evening classes to do this. Mr Archibald, who I now worked closely with, heard of my dilemma and kindly allowed me, although my apprenticeship would be over by then, to attend day release for an additional year to complete my H N D studies.

As we continued our installations, often having machine maker’s Technical Reps on site to complete the machine installation and commissioning, I noticed a strange anomaly which I encountered several times.

One time we had a very large German milling machine to install and commission, the German company sent over 3 engineers to do this work. Coincidentally we had a high precision cylinder grinding machine being commissioned by an English Engineer.

All 4 visitors stayed at the Lynnhurst hotel for the duration. The German Engineers arrived when the factory opened in the morning, complete with packed lunches from the hotel, immediately changed into their working clothes and worked with few breaks taking their lunch on site. On the other hand the English Engineer arrived shortly after 9 o’clock well dressed in collar and tie, donned a white coat overall then proceeded to his machine commissioning site. He enjoyed breaks morning and afternoon and dined in the senior staff canteen at lunchtime. What a contrast in work ethic. I witnessed this difference again seldom times later in Langs and again when in my next employment.

A major and much needed upgrade was a new heating system for the factory, the existing system was by two old oil burning boilers which required much maintenance to operate and even then had little impact during the winter months.

The first sign of this upgrade was the arrival of two rather large pipe fitters from Birmingham who installed a new pipe network and fan heaters throughout the factory. I had never known before then and since two such hard working individuals. The heat was to be supplied by a new boiler powered by a Hamworthy rotary cup burner. This sounded like a jet engine when it was powered up and in operation. It made a significant difference to the factory heating.The boiler was huge and having the reinforced base prepared for its arrival we even had to remove the boiler house roof to lift it into position. As no one had experience of this new boiler system I was flown down via Southampton to Hamworthy a suburb of Poole Dorset, to attend a week’s training course where I learned a lot about this new burner. I enjoyed my time in Poole, a beautiful town.

We were also tasked with creating a “clean room” inside the factory where intricate electrical control panels for the Wickman machines could be built free from the engineering atmosphere at large. Nobody at Langs had experience of air conditioning requirements for clean rooms so I was sent to London once more to visit an H & V exhibition to learn and select the appropriate equipment.
Quite a World Traveller by now.

As the expansion and the installation of new equipment was mostly complete, the role as Works Engineer was now returning to routine “done it before” activities – I decided to go for pastures new and Joined Chrysler in March 1973.

Some years after I had left Langs, while in Bridge of Weir one Saturday morning, I was hailed from across the street – it was Mr J T Lang, my old M D, who crossed to talk with me. We spoke about my time at Langs. Considering how many staff he had employed and how many apprentices he had over the years I was surprised that he remembered me and how much detail of my projects he recalled. We spoke about my current employment and parted wishing each other the best.

I was real chuffed.

An interesting story – Langs had their own iron foundry where all the castings for their machines were made. The Foundry was a large building separate from the main works and located across the road from the playing fields in Miller Street.
The Foundry was managed by Mr W B Buchanan, A Johnstone man never seen without his brown hat and cigar, his office was adjacent to the Foundry where he was located along with his Lab Technician who carried out all the quality tests on the castings in a very well equipped Lab.

One time, while I was still at Langs, we had a problem with the casting quality and Mr J T, being frustrated with the time being taken to find a solution, wrote to the British Metallurgical Society asking that they send their U K expert to assist.

A short time later Mr Buchanan requested a meeting with Mr J T, when they met he was asked why he had requested the meeting. Mr Buchanan produced a letter from the British Metallurgical Society asking him to help Langs solve their problem. Mr Buchanan was the Society expert – Langs own employee was the U K expert. A true story.

John Steel
April 2019