Much concern was being expressed at the turn of the century about the worrying numbers of school-leavers who, it seemed, were ending up in blind-alley jobs. Modern technology had outdated many traditional craft skills, which had been reduced to a series of repetitive processes on the production line. Prolonged training was seen to be on the decline and, as Spencer J. Gibb put it in 1911, young lads were becoming ‘‘‘loom-boys”, “doffers” or “shifters” in weaving factories; rivet-boys in boiler shops; oven-boys in bakeries; drawers-off in saw mills; packers in soap works; machine minders in furniture factories; labelling bottles in mineral water factories; turning the wheel for rope spinners, and the like’. 1 Robert Roberts, who was born in 1905, recalled his first job in a Salford engineering works where his so-called ‘apprenticeship’ amounted to a process he was taught in 3 minutes; and this he did for the next 2 years for 8 1/2 hours a day. 2
The fears were for Britain’s future industrial competitiveness, and the prospect of a society made bottom-heavy with a great sump of dead-enders and delinquents. Several causes were blamed for this. Schools were blamed for being cut off from the world of work and making children learn by rote to achieve their ‘Standards’ (grades); this turned youngsters off any desire to further their education after leaving at 13 or 14. J.H. Whitehouse observed: ‘In the two years between 14 and 16 a boy forgets most of what he has learned at school.’ 3 Arnold Freeman in 1914 praised schools as character-builders, civilizing youngsters’ behaviour—but there was too abrupt a break between school and the world of work, and school-leavers were left to drift on their own.
The habits of moonlighting were said to carry over into adolescence, and school-leavers were reportedly glad to snatch any