World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                          Frank Copley

My War Work...Pharmaceutical supplies and Photography

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Frank Copley
Location of story: Nottingham
Background to story: Civilian


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Frank Copley.


My War Work...Pharmaceutical supplies and Photography
By Frank Copley

I was born on the 3rd of February 1914, into a family of metal workers, in Sheffield.

My Father, then in his thirties, volunteered and enlisted for the army, serving in WWI. He was wounded and returned to Blighty, recovered and went back to the front with the Black Watch regiment. Again, he was invalided out and spent the final months of his service looking after POW's on the Curragh, in Ireland. I was invalided out too, hospitalised during my early years, with pleurisy, as a result of double pneumonia, a serious thing then.

Too young to appreciate the significance of my Father's absence, I now realize how hard it must have been for Mother, with two growing boys in their teens, me poorly, and expecting another child, my sister, born 1916.

They were tough times. My father came back to his job in the foundry. He spoke little of his wartime experiences but his love of music, especially opera, and walking in the countryside, became firmly established then, as if to erase the memories. We grew up, my sister and I, happily enough. I was considered 'delicate' until, in my teens, I acquired a bicycle. Cycling was the 'making' of me, my sister maintains. Indeed it did build up my strength, both physically and spiritually. I do recall, it was a bit later though, we'd think nothing of cycling to the coast and back, from Sheffield I mean.

I had finished school at fourteen and been employed for two years as an office boy for a firm of printers and stationers. I rather enjoyed it, but as soon as you got to sixteen you were too expensive. You were finished and they'd start again with a younger boy.

And so at seventeen - I had energy and enthusiasm in abundance, but no work. The queues at the Labour Exchange in the late 1920's and 1930's were legendary; I joined them. Father knew one of the officials in the Employment Office. He lived nearby.
The prospect locally was bleak, he admitted to my father, ".....however, there is a chance of work for lads your Frank's age, if they're prepared to leave home."

Of course, any excuse for an adventure. I packed my bags and travelled, with other boys, down to London by rail. My 'chance' was a government-sponsored scheme for young men, from areas of the country where unemployment was causing economic and social deprivation. Regions like the industrial Midlands, the North East and Wales.

We were given board and lodging and began an induction course at a designated training centre. From there, we were individually selected for a variety of 'trades', where young labour was needed.
I went into glass; to be specific, glass for neon lighting, at that time an innovative science. We learned how to heat, blow and bend glass tubing, into words and images, and then to fill it with various gases, to give the different colours. It was mainly for the advertising industry.
We used to compete among ourselves to see who could make a "Burton's" (the tailors) sign the quickest. They were great days. I made some good mates of the lads I was set on with.

Of course London was quite something. I loved exploring. Later, I would pride myself on acting as an expert tour guide for visiting friends and relatives. And I'd be sure to show them, in Piccadilly Circus, a big neon clock on one of the buildings, all lit up at night. I had a hand in making that!

Then the War came. Naturally there was no call for neon. Total blackout was the thing. We had to re-think, 'diversify', I believe, is the modern term. We had the skills, to cut, mould and finish glass tubing. We had the will, to work for the War effort. The answer? Glass pipettes, ampoules, and a 'dropper', for medicines needing to be administered in minute quantities. A disposable dispenser with an easy snap off top, essentially, light and portable, for the administering of a measured dose of liquid, usually to be injected. Speedy and trouble free access to necessary drugs was to be imperative in the theatre of war.

Up until now, these goods had been imported from Germany and France. They had been made by hand in relatively small quantities.
The industry needed a manufacturing home base. It needed a means by which to produce these things in quantity, without losing quality. I had always been inventive and this notion was a challenge to which I rose with enthusiasm. I designed and built gas-fired machines to cut, heat, shape and finish glass pipettes and ampoules, from long lengths of glass tubing. Two of us, my partner on the clerical, myself on the practical side, established a going concern, supplying the pharmaceutical companies with these items.

We were then in Portsmouth, increasingly threatened by enemy bombardment. This, and the fact that Boots of Nottingham was our biggest customer, persuaded us that to re-locate there would be to our advantage. It was a good move. The business grew. We rented factory space in the Swiss Mills, an old lace mill in Beeston, on the outskirts of the City, and employed a team of cheerful local women to operate the machines and pack the produce. However, that wasn't our family's only contribution to the war effort. The front room of our home in Beeston became a temporary photographic studio. I had always had a keen interest in photography and began in a small way, offering a service to POW's billeted nearby. They wanted pictures of themselves to send to loved ones, back home.
We set up a little venture, my wife, my sister and I.

I took, developed and printed the photographs. My wife Nellie and sister Ida finished and mounted them onto card. Sometimes they would hand colour them.
It was hard work but rewarding, the men were so grateful. On occasion we would continue well into the night to satisfy demand.

Ida recalls the nightmare of transcribing the unpronounceable foreign names, for the necessary paperwork. She would ask the prisoners to write them down. Most of them spoke not a word of English. Most were bemused and bewildered. We had been extremely fortunate to escape direct involvement in the War (Ida had been in the Sheffield Blitz but that's to be her story).

They were ordinary men, with families, just like us. We were pleased to be able to offer in this small way, a facility to enable them to re-assure their people back home that they were alive and well. The photographs of course came to an end, at least in that context. I continued with amateur photography, enjoying the advent of transparencies and cine.
The business continues to this day (December 2005), my sons and grandson have, in their turn diversified, into electronic laboratory equipment for the testing of pharmaceutical products. Their horizons are now global. My modified (many times over the years) machines for manufacture have gone, but they lasted well into the 1990’s!
It's true to say that little bit of 'war effort' had long lasting influence on our lives, indeed was the basis of our subsequent livelihoods for at least three generations.

I'm ninety-two next. Times have changed, some aspects for the better, some not. My daughter assures me that stories like mine have a place in history. You didn't think you were making history at the time but it's all part and parcel of where we are today.