Holman and sons the history part 3


Soon after the opening of Holman’s new garage in 1914, the Great War broke out, and a very difficult period of the firm's history was entered upon. Although Penzance was too far removed from the centre of things to have shared in the visible turmoil and danger, many of the younger employees of the firm volunteered for service in the Army or Navy on the understanding that their Jobs should be kept open for them on their return, and no artificer nor apprentice who so left was refused reinstatement if he desired it.

Penzance being a seaport, became an auxiliary Naval Base, and the firms block offices at the Dry Dock were commandeered for headquarters of the Naval staff, while the Company itself was declared a "Controlled Establishment”, which meant that the whole of its output was claimed by the Government for war purposes.

The directors were conscious of the honour so conferred upon them, and proudly flew the Union flag over their premises until the order to do so was countermanded by the War Office because of the air raiders' attention was attracted to munition factories by the flags, and so became objects of attack.

It was, however, an honour that had to paid for, for whenever a private customer wished to engage the firm's services, permission had to be asked from the commanding officer or the Engineer-in-Chief of the Base to divert labour from the war work, it was not always granted, with the result that many regular customers had to get their work done by "uncontrolled" competitors and were lost from the firm's Books.

The effect of these losses was not immediately felt, for week by week four or five patrol boats were laid up to undergo systematic overhaul, and a frantic endeavours had to be made to find skilled labour to carry the work through, for woe betide the manager or foreman if a vessel was not ready to proceed to sea at the scheduled time.

Gradually a staff of over military age men and others rejected as unfit for service was built up and towards the end the of the four years' nightmare, with a payroll more than double the length of the original, the firm was generally able to cope with the demands made upon it. The works were often running over week ends, and very frequently by night, muscles as well as nerves got sorely tried sometimes, but it is gratifying to record that there were no serious complaints much less disputes, between managers and staff throughout the whole great war period, but one can imagine that both tact and good temper were needed on each side when, after hard day's work, a squad of men required to remove a broken propeller and fit a new one, at low tide, in the harbour mud during a rough rainy night, and this had to be done on various occasions.

Only those who went through the job can visualize the misery of handling the heavy weight, wet through, with inadequate light, and knowing all the time that they were racing the incoming tide; whilst for all that, accuracy of fit and finish were necessary to ensure against losing the new propeller altogether during the next trip.

Night work in the shops gave rise to complaints because the light was seen through the roof windows, and until the glass was painted blue, the Naval Police use to complain that certain signals could be seen from the Bay, and the suggestion was that the firm might be holding communication with possible enemy sublines.

Such a drastic change from normal working conditions in the lives of those responsible for the continuity of the firm's activities, a change that might even be compared with the succession of a dictatorship in place of an easy-going monarchy in every-day life now took place, and the chronicler yields the temptation to place on record some observations on the reactions that followed.

This record traces the succession of the Holman family from father son in the of the business bearing the name N. Holman, its founder, and those who have read so far will have gathered that the active management was in the hands of the third generation of family whose word had been "law" in conduct of the business.

During the great war period, the Penzance managers were in daily touch with the officers of the Naval Base and the Naval Officers "controlling the works for the government. There were frequent changes in the personnel of the officers, which brought the managers into contact with "all sorts and conditions of men." Some of these were men whose whole life's training qualified them for their position some were those who had been transferred from peace-time occupations to temporary positions of authority. All men have their own way of "getting things done" and the task of "carrying on" so to earn the entire approval of constantly changing overseers, added a worry that had to endured to be fully realised. This was one of the war-time tasks that fell to those who had always been accustomed to run their own business in their own way, and at a time when every effort was needed and every nerve strained to wage war against an enemy that seemed to threaten national existence.

Difficult as were those days, the managers were happy to recall that they laid the foundation of lasting friendships, and in instances where there were inevitable differences and minor frictions, it was realised, in review, that they arose from an honest desire on the part of the individuals concerned to give of their best service to their country in time of need.

There was great excitement amongst officers and men working at the harbour one day, when by some mischance the crew of a patrol vessel undergoing a refit allowed a depth-charge to fall overboard. These depth-charges were cylindrical cases filled with high explosive, and were designed to explode through pressure exerted on them when they reached a certain depth. They were liberated by the patrol boat and motor launch crews over spots where a submarine or its periscope had disappeared, and the concussion caused the explosion often wrecked the enemies’ vessel or at least rendered it unmanageable and so make it an easy target. Fortunately, the water in the dock was not deep enough to exert the necessary pressure of the depth charge and was recovered by a diver.

Many tales were told by men employed in repairing these boats of marvellous failures of high explosives to "blow up" under circumstances and treatment to which they would never have been voluntarily subjected to. When one hears of a bomb weighing 400 lbs of T.N.T., slipping out of a sling and falling on to the bridge and then to the deck of a patrol boat, one can imagine the hearts of those in the vicinity missing a beat; and this actually occurred while one of the firm's men was approaching the boat with one of the engineer lieutenant.

The works at St. Just found an outlet for their services in the manufacture of 9-inch howitzer bombs which had to conform to exact shape, size, and weight Ration. Inspectors examined each before passing it. Naturally, a few from each batch were found which did not come up to standard in some detail, and they were ruthlessly thrown aside; but consternation reigned on one occasion, when practically the whole of a month's work was discarded. Happily, reassurance came later. Each controlled establishment was warned by the Ministry of munitions not to allow any unauthorised strangers to visit their works on account of spies who were supposed to be active at the time. So necessary obedience to their instructions seemed to the Ministry that the heads of the business were offered of an armed guard if they considered such was desirable. The offer was declined with thanks, and once again it was impressed upon the managers that unless any visitor could show his authority for entering the work-shop, he was to be denied admittance.

One day such a stranger presented himself at the St. Just offices, apologising for leaving his identity papers at Penzance claiming to a munitions inspector. He had to go back to Penzance for his authority, and on presenting it was taken to the store-room in which the bombs were awaiting dispatch. The result of his examination recounted above, and the bombs were stamped "rejected." This Inspector never came again. His successor having passed the next batch that awaited him, turned to the pile of "rejects" thinking they also awaited examination. When he was told that they had been scrapped, he expressed surprise, and out of curiosity, applied his tests and told the manager of the works that there was no justification for their having been discarded, and had they not been stamped, he would have had no hesitation in passing them. Like most of us, the former Inspector was more human than divine.

At the conclusion of hostilities, the executive and staff received a visit by a high official in the Admiralty, who expressed appreciation of the work done, and the firm was formally released from Government control and left to the task of salving and reconstructing what was left of its former business.
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