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When the Steel Went Through
Apprenticeship in Glasgow


ON THE 4th of January, 1877, I became apprenticed for a term of five years to the firm of Kyle, Dennison and Frew, Civil Engineers and Land Surveyors in Glasgow. I was then seventeen years of age but bordering closely on eighteen.

With a view to obtaining suitable living-quarters I had, previous to this, written to an Ayr Academy classmate Tom Hyslop who had procured a position with a firm of merchants in Glasgow, and was living alone there in lodgings. I told him of the position I had at last obtained, and asked him if I might share his rooms with him. His reply was to the effect that that was just what he would like me to do. So that settled the question of my living-quarters, and on my arrival in Glasgow I at once took up my abode with him. The rooms we shared consisted of a fairly large sitting-room and a bedroom, on the top floor of a tenement building in Sauchiehall Street, directly opposite Charing Cross. But of life in lodgings, more anon.

There were two partners in the firm of Kyle, Dennison and Frew: William Dennison and Alexander Frew. The staff consisted of four qualified assistants and seven apprentices; and the book-keeper. The apprentices particularly the junior ones were at the call of the partners or of any of the assistants who had outside work to do, such as surveying, or levelling. So, being the junior of all, I spent the early days of my apprenticeship, for the most part, in manipulating the measuring chain, or the levelling staff. I was not altogether a novice with the chain, as my father had already taught me to measure land. Levelling, however, was something new to me; but I readily picked up the technique.

Surveying was the main work of the firm, and the surveys we made lay in all parts of the city and the surrounding country, reaching out to Loch Long, Loch Goil, and the Western Isles.

Much of this work was done for the Clyde Trustees, a body charged with the maintenance and development of the navigation of the Clyde, and of its docks and harbours. On one occasion a whole summer was spent making a survey and taking soundings of the river from the Broomielaw Bridge as far as Dumbarton. So I came to know Glasgow well, and every dock and shipbuilding-yard on the Clyde.

During the first half of my apprenticeship, Glasgow was flourishing, and there was plenty of work for all of us in the office. The failure of the City of Glasgow Bank, however, came like a bolt from the blue and completely changed the situation. The liability of the shareholders was unlimited; and as calls on them were made by the liquidator, many, even although they might own but a few shares, were completely ruined; for, as long as they had any means at all, they had to pay until the creditors' claims were satisfied.

The directors of the bank were tried in court and found guilty of neglect of duty, and were sentenced to a term in the penitentiary.

The law relating to the liability of bank shareholders was afterwards amended so as to limit their liability. But the damage had been done, and business became stagnant, and remained so for a considerable time. Under such conditions I found it very depressing to have to go to the office and put in my time there, with little or no work to do. So I asked to be allowed and was given permission to attend a class at the University for an hour in the mornings. I had already been attending and still continued to attend evening classes in Mechanics and Chemistry at the Mechanics Institute. These classes were conducted by competent instructors, and were considered to be quite on a par with classes at the University. But I wanted to have some experience of University life; and to hear Sir William Thomson who afterwards became Lord Kelvin lecture on Natural Philosophy. So it was to his class that I went.
There were some 200 students in that class, and Sir William had their names all on separate slips of paper which he kept in a wide-mouthed jar on his lecture table.

Before commencing a lecture, he would put his hand in the jar, pull out a slip, call out the name on it, and question the student on the previous lecture. Whatever the answer, he would make some notation on the slip and preserve it for record. Two, or perhaps three students might be thus questioned at each lecture. The uncertainty as to when my turn would come gave me some anxious moments at the beginning of each lecture. But my turn never came at all. Yet I got a certificate to the effect that I had attended that class with much regularity, from November, 1879, to May, 1880, and had shown preparation in both oral and written examinations. The slip bearing my name must have been still in the jar at the end of the session.

Although the knowledge I gained from these lectures was valuable, the certificate, in itself, was of no importance. The Universities were not then equipped, as they are now, to give a practical course in Engineering. The apprenticeship method of training was considered superior to a University course, by those who employed engineers. So much so, that a student who had taken a University course might also have to serve an apprenticeship before he could secure a lucrative position.

Of my various activities during the time I spent in Glasgow, I may cite three years' service in the 1st Lanark Rifle Volunteers, a body officially designated as a corps, but habitually spoken of as a regiment. It was composed of two battalions, each made up of several companies. The Government supplied the rifles; but we got no pay. On the contrary, we had to pay dues, and provide our own uniform.

I joined as a private and rose to the rank of lance-corporal. One of the duties imposed on me through holding this high rank, was to collect dues from those in my section.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experiences as a volunteer; the drills in the summer evenings; the field days; and the shooting matches at the rifle ranges on Saturday afternoons.

As my apprenticeship was nearing an end, I was giving serious thought to the question of my future. Finally, I made up my mind to try my fortune in Canada. One of the other apprentices in the office, Tom Mather, who had already finished his apprenticeship, was of the same mind; so we agreed to go together to Canada, and made our preparations accordingly.

As I have mentioned, it was through Uncle Hill that I got my start in my profession. I had kept in close touch with him, spending now and again a quiet, but pleasant evening in his home in Dowanhill a residential district in Glasgow's West End.

So, as soon as I had decided to go to Canada, I called on him to let him know of my decision. I was pleased to find him entirely favourable; and after talking over the matter for some time, he told me to call again before I left Glasgow; and that in the meantime, he would endeavour to get me letters of introduction from friends of his who had business interests in Canada.

When I did call again he gave me two letters of introduction which were to stand me in good stead, later.
They were to two directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway: Mr. R. B. Angus and Mr. Duncan McIntyre.

My social life while living in Glasgow was to some extent just what I chose to make it. I had uncles and aunts, and cousins, within easy reach of Glasgow, with whom I was welcome to spend enjoyable week-ends; at Rothesay, Blairmore, Coatbridge, Linlithgow, and Edinburgh. So, besides having a wide circle of relatives, I had a wide range of places to visit.

I generally spent my holidays two weeks at home with my father and my brother, Robert. Occasionally, I might have a week-end with them too; but the distance from Glasgow was too far to conveniently make such short visits.

In the winter, I indulged in skating if there happened to be any ice to skate on. There were numerous small lochs in the neighbourhood of Glasgow to which the railway companies ran special trains for skaters, whenever the ice was bearing. One of these was Gartcosh Loch near Coatbridge, and it was to it that I most frequently went. I was joined there by my Coatbridge cousins, Turner Wilson and his sisters, Ellen and Janie, who were generally my skating partners on these occasions.

Among events of a social nature, I may mention occasional dinners given by G Company of the 1st Lanark Rifle Volunteers. These were always enjoyable.

There were other functions which contributed to the enjoyment of my social life. The partners of the firm, Mr. Dennison and Mr. Frew (there was no Mr. Kyle) each gave a dinner in their homes, annually, to all the members of the staff. These dinners were generally followed by a dance. So they were looked forward to with much eagerness.

My apprenticeship ended on the 3rd January, 1882. I got an excellent certificate from the firm as to my capabilities; so we parted in perfect harmony, and with the best of good feeling.


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