In February, David Marks sent me a draft of his recollections of his years growing up in our small town. It came to me as a continuous narrative but I decided to post it on this blog in nine parts.
Recently I have checked the viewing stats and a rather strange pattern has emerged. There are a lot of readers for Part I and an almost equal number for Part VI; the parts in between have not registered. I’m a bit puzzled by this. I can understand people reading the first part and not bothering to go on (and I expect David would understand this too) but it makes less sense for readers to rush ahead to Part VI without, apparently, looking at the intervening chapters.
So in case there are readers who would like to read the continuous narrative and couldn’t find it, I am posting the links here. Those of us who remember the “old” Wolverton will find much to entertain and nourish our memories.
Growing up in Wolverton – Part 1 Sunday Walks
Growing up in Wolverton – Part II Growing Years
Growing up in Wolverton – Part III School Days
Growing up in Wolverton – Part IV Romantic Interludes
Growing up in Wolverton – Part V Fun and Games
Growing up in Wolverton – Part VI The War and its Aftermath
Growing up in Wolverton – Part VII College Life
Growing up in Wolverton – Part VIII A Proper Job
Growing up in Wolverton – Part IX Adventures in the Car Industry
David Marks concludes this section of his life with an account from the 1970s.
1969 was an important year for me as I got head hunted by Chrysler who had taken over the old Rootes group at Coventry. They were setting up what was popularly called their think tank at Whitley, in Coventry the site of the old aircraft factory which had built the Whitley bomber and late carried out pressure testing on the comet after several crashes. I was appointed as organizational development Manager (No I can’t remember what it was supposed to involve either !) When I arrived on day one I was summoned to the bosses office (a rather fierce ex naval commander) who advised me that there had been a change of plan following discussions with Detroit (there were always “Discussions with Detroit”) and that as a result I was now the Training Manager. This was my first insight into how the motor industry worked (Or in those days didn’t work!) It is not difficult to imagine my concern when I was summoned to the office of the big chief, Head of Product Planning and Design.
He had apparently received a communication from the Director of Engineering of Pressed Steel Fisher (who at that time made car bodies for just about everyone).
He was apparently concerned about the shortage of good car body designers and believed that the “big for” shoul get together with a view to establishing an appropriate degree level course at some suitable academic institution. He was therefore proposing a meeting, to be held at the Vauxhall plant in Luton tow be attended by senior management of the big four together with the Chief Engineer, body in white (the term given to a basic, unpainted chassis) and the Training Manager.
The meeting at Luton was quite impressive, if only for the quantity of cigar smoke being puffed into the air. The outcome was that Ken Osborne (Director of Engineering at Pressed Steel) who had initiated the meeting, volunteered to lead a working party comprising the Chief Engineer (body in white) and Training Manager of each of the big for (BMC, Vauxhall, Ford and Chrysler) and the Professor of Advanced Automobile Engineering at Cranfield and his Senior Reader (who had somehow wangled their way onto the group to try and get selected as the most suitable academic body).
So it was the that yours truly who had no experience of either training or automobile design, who had never flown found himself on an aircraft heading for Hamburg.
The reason for this was that Ken assured us that the Germans had an excellent car body design programme at a college in Hamburg and that was where we needed to be. Looking back I reckon that he had all of this staked out when he fist proposed the initial meeting !
The plan was that we would be met by our German hosts for lunch then spend the afternoon touring the Wagonbaerschule. After this we would visit the Zillerthaal for an evening meal and return to the hotel for further discussions of the days visit. The following morning we would finish ou tou and the take our German hosts out for lunch before flying home.
Well, that was the theory at any rate. We managed the lunch and afternoon tour alright, then came the meal in the basement of the townhall. It was a simply enormous meal which lasted for an age during which quite a lot 9of wine was drunk. We were being treated as celebrities as by chance Hamburg was having a British week. We had already spotted models of London buses, policemaen and beefeaters in shop windows, not to mention one of the main cinemas which was showing the film Battle of Britain which had jusr been released. The main difference was that whilst at home cinemas had large models of Spitfires outside in Hamburg they had a large model of a Messerschmitt 109.
It was a splendid meal, presided over by a large, jolly, waiter. The only cloud on the horizon occurred when the time arrived for dessert and one of the Vauxhall contingent asked the waiter if they had any gateaux. The mans face immediately clouded over and has started mumbling something. It was only after careful discussion with one of our number who spoke a little German that it was discovered that he though we were enquiring about a Ghetto as in Warsaw Ghetto !
Following this marathon eat in it was decided that it was clearly too late to return to the hotel to do any serious work and so, as we were in Hamburg, We ought to visit the Reeperbahn. I, in my innocence did not know what the Reeperbahn was, but soon found out that it was the red light district. Rather like Soho but much, much, worse. Ken carted us off to some club that he just happened to know about and which he assured us had one of the more respectable cabarets. We were there for about an hour drinking Scnapps and watching an unbelievable selection of strippers, the last one of which was absolutely gross and turned out to be a man. We emerged from this place around midnight and the night being youg, as they say, We headed for what is an apparently very famous Bier Keeler. A huge hall filled with long wooden tables and benches and dedicated to drinking steins (litres) of lager to the accompaniment of a Lederhosen clad oompah band. I recall one of those odd coincidences occurred on the way to this pace when I jokingly remarked “ I guess since its British week they will be playing “Roll out the Barrel2 when we get there. Well, that’s exactly what they were playing and my companions thought I was some kind of psychic!
The standard routine at this beerhall was that the conductor would wander out into the audience and place his tyrilean hat on some unsuspecting drinker who was then dragged onto the stage and made to conduct the band. Immediatley one of the Ford contingent bribed the ban to come and seek out Prof Ellis from Cranfield. The prof was noted as a somewhat humourless character who could be rather prickly, but by this time he was pretty well pickled and put in a pretty respectable show of baton waving. Being British week we were treated as honoured guests and we were all dragged out to have our photograph taken with the Prof. He was worried to death for the rest of the project that we weree going to let a copy fall into the hands of his students.
It can be imagined what sort of state we were in the following morning for part two of our tour. When the time arrived for us to treat our hosts to lunch we took them to a restaurant we had been recommended on the fourth floor of a building which overlooked the Elbe. Our German guests were highly amused at the state we were in and knowing full well where we had been the night before. In fact as soon as they saw us one of them grinned and said “Reeperbahn ?”.
I had a most interesting conversation with the Prof sitting next to me. He pointed across the Elbe and showed me the location of the U Boat pens during the war. He went on to explain that the allies had advised the city fathers that they proposed to dynamite the U boat pens and the city fathers had objected on the grounds that it would cause the collapse of the important road tunnel which goes under the Elbe nearby.
Evidently the guy in charge of the occupying force, one Captain Dunlop then offered to stand in then centre of the tunnel during the explosion as a gesture of confidence that the tunnel would not collapse. “And so”, said the Prof. “The brave Captain Dunlop earned the respect of the city fathers by doing just that”. (and the tunnel didn’t collapse)
I’m bound to say that I would have regarded him as the rather foolish Captain Dunlop and wondered how we came to win the was !
Surprisingly after quite a few more meetings and visits to numerous colleges and Universities a new degree course in Automobile Body design was set up at the then Hatfield Polytechnic and ran successfully with the support of the motor industry for any years. In fact the now University of Hertfordshire runs several degree courses in automotive engineering and claims to have its graduates in most of the formula 1 teams. It would be nice to think that our little band had perhaps played some small part in this.
The only other interesting exercise that I got involved in during my very short stay there was the setting up of a training programme to convert engineering draughtsmen into automotive body design draughtsmen, something which had not been tried before. I signed up a car body draughtsman who was interested in the project and eventually we set it up and successfully retrained quite a few engineering draughtsmen. I had the excellent services at that time of a training officer who was a real “mister fixit”, he had worked for the company for many years and new everyone and everything. If Kev couldn’t do something then you could reckon it couldn’t be done. One afternoon just as we were equipping or new traing centre I happened to mention to Kev that it would be rather nice if had a cut away body of the latest car in the foyer. A few days later Kev wandered into my office and said “David, come and see what I’ve got. There in the foyer was a complete body of a Hillman Hunter, cut deatly in half right down the middle !
“Where the hell did you get that from Kev”., I asked. “It got accidentally damaged on the line a couple of nights ago so I got them to cut it up and respray it for me” said Ken with a knowing smile and a wink !
I did not stay with Chrysler for long as the place was a disorganized madhouse with quite an unpleasant undercurrent of politicking and backstabbing. Those were the days of massive union power and the slightest problem on the shop floor would result in a walk out. I recall a colleague who had the office next to mine who had been recruited at considerable expense from the British Aircraft Corporation. His brief was to set up and run a management development system (Glossy brochures were eventually produced but nothing ever actually happened !). He came back to the office one lunch time having been over to the Stoke engine plant. He had spotted a mass meeting going on outside the gares and had stood at the back and watched and listened. He reckoned that whilst the main speaker harangued the crowd it was easy to spot the professional agitatoirs who were facing away from the speaker, watching the crowd to see who voted for what !. The point that really stuck in my mind however was his comment that the speaker was explaining in some detail an apparently devious management plot to swindle the unfortunate work force. As my colleague pointed out “ There isn’t a manager in this plant with enough intelligence to have thought that out !
He was about right there. On one occasion during the regular wage negotiations the top shop steward of DATA (The Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians Association) who was an extremely militant firebrand had negotiated a pretty good increase for the draughtsmen. As soon as the agreement was signed he pointed out to management that all leading draughtsmen (about 20 or so) now had salaries which were above the level which entitled them to be on the official list for a management car. The Personnel Manager at the time pointed out to them that the dat before the agreement was signed the company had issued a notice advising staff that the level which qualified people to be on the list had been raised and that therefore the leading draughtsmen did not in fact qualify. The wily shop steward then pointed out that the award ahd been backdated (about a month I think it was) and that at the time the agreement became effective they had in fact qualified and that there was not in existence a mechanism for unqualifying them. So they were put on the list ! The most amusing thing was that at the same time a number of Chrysler Valiants had been imported from Australia for some reason and were surplus to requirements. They had therefore been put on the management car list at a greatly reduced rental. They were hulking great American style cars and quite a few of the draughtsmen chose them so the staff carpark sported quite a few of these beasts !
Quite a few of the management team had been rapidly imported from Ford and were mainly young, ruthless and unscrupulous and on more than one occasion I found that people who were smiling and complimenting you on a job you had completed for them, may well then go behind your back and complain about you if it suited their career objectives. Anyway after about 9 months there I was contacted by my former boss at Whetstone and invited to rejoin them as Chief of Personnel and Training. It was therefore with much pleasure that I wreaked my revenge. I had learned some lessons from the boy racers from Ford including some schemes that were afoot to unseat the top man on the site (Head of Product Planning and Development, a pleasant man called Cyril Weighall). The week I left I called his secretary and advised her that I had some interesting information about some current scheming that he would probably want to hear. I had met him on several occasions to discuss the body design project and we got on well together. The effect was immediate ! He delayed his departure for Malta where he was due to attend the launch of what was to be the Avenger and we had a lengthy discussion. Cyril was delighted and when I left I took about half a dozen boy racers with me !
Despite the chaos it was an interesting place to work and I had some fascinating experiences there. On one occasion I had been asked to go to to meet the Head of Engine and Powertrain development, a charming man called Leo Kusmicki. Leo wanted me to set up some training progamme or another. As I sat chatting with him I noticed a rather splendid diecast ashtray with a beautiful model of the Vanwall Formual One car which had been raced by Stirling Moss. Being something of a Formula One fan I asked if he had been a Vanwall supporter. “You could say that” he replied, “I designed the engine.” Bit of a show stopper that !. I later looked him up and found the he was Pole who came over to England to fly for the free Polish Air Force and stayed on to work at Norton Motor Cycles. It was apparently only after he had worked there for a while that the company discovered that he hed been a leading expert on combustion engine design in Poland. He then went on to design the engine for the Manx Norton, which in turn formed the basis of the Vanwall engine. One of the training programmes I set up was an induction course for the intake of graduate engineers. One of the sessions was to be on automobile styling and I persuaded Roy Axe who was then the Head of Styling to run the session for me. He started his talk by telling all these enthusiastic young engineers that engineering niceties did not sell cars but that styling did as most customers wanted to show off theit new acquisition to their non technical friends. To illustrate this poit he liked to tell the story of the Sunbeam Rapier which at that time was the companieds flagship car. It had been decide that a special version would be introduced with a Holbay tuned engine to provide more power and an embryo spoiler incorporated into the rear boot. This had been submitted to Chryser JHQ in Detroit who had made the comment that a couple of “Go fast stripes” shoul be placed arounf the bittom of the bodywork. The somewhat aloof reply from the UK design team was that the English public were a little moe sophisticated than that and were not going to be impressed by aflashy paintwork. Detroit’s reply was to insist that it was at leat offered as a no extra cost option. The compasnt never sold one car without the stripes. One nil to the stylists ! On the other hand when it was decided to present a courtesy car (for marketing purposes) to Princess Grace of Monaco the styling people decided that since it was to used in the south it waould be a good idea to cut off the roof and fit it with a “rag top” It was apparently only at the last minute before it was shipped that someone from body design pointed out that all the strength was in the roof and the first time her Royal Highness went over a large bump or hump backed bridge the car woul almos certainly fold in half! So the Princess never got her Rapier which remained in a small internal exhibition. And so .. after only 9 months my brief, glorious career in the Motor industry came to an end and it was back to Whetstone. Fortunately we had never moved so were still living in Newbold Verdon.
In this section David Marks begins his career in the Nuclear Industry. It is probably worth noting that this was a very new industry in the 1950s, as were so many. Several of my friends who went into engineering found themselves in at the ground floor of electronics, computer engineering, product packaging. Those who went into more traditional engineering occupations, such as mechanical and civil, found themselves working with revolutionary new materials – not all of which were properly understood at the time.
So now the time had come to get myself a proper job. Initially I worked as a packer for some weeks at Mc Corquodales at Wolverton whilst I looked around for permanent employment that was not too far from Nottingham. I eventually secured an appointment as a design engineer with the English Electric Company at Whetstone, near Leicester. They were at that time embarking on Britain’s new Nuclear Power programme and were engaged in the design of Hinkley Point, Sizewell and Wylfa nuclear power stations. My initial post was in the control and instrumentation section of the Reactor equipment Division where I was involved in the design and specification of radiation measuring equipment.
Soon after I joined the design team a lucky and interesting break occurred which gave me the opportunity to make enough money to pay for our honeymoon which was then imminent. Yes! ! I had finally plucked up the courage to propose and to my amazement been accepted. In fact the formalization of the event which comprised the choosing , purchqasing and fitting of the ring had recently taken place in Nottingham. We purchased the `ring from Poysers the Jewellers and because we thought that platform 5 at Nottingham midland station looked a bit sad we decided to brighten it up by becoming formally engaged there. So that was where the ring was duly fitted. Back at work the helpful event was caused by the rival Nuclear Power station building consortium (AEI John Thompson) had a serious shortage of qualified staff for the commissioning of the Nuclear station at Berkeley on the Severn Estuary and had asked their rivals for the loan of some staff on the grounds that it would provide them with invaluable experience in this new technology. This was a job that in addition to being very interesting would have large quantities of overtime so I immediately volunteered.
The site was at an interesting stage. A week or so previously the number one reactor had gone critical (i.e. The nuclear chain reaction had been successfully started) and work was about to commence loading the fuel (uranium) into the second reactor.
There was (or had been) a huge work force engaged upon the construction of the station which was a couple of miles out from the village of Berkeley and situated on the mudflats.
Many of the workforce stayed on site and there was a large shanty town of wooden huts in which they lived. By the time I arrived most of the construction work was finished and the majority of the construction workers still there were the tunnelers. These were an extraordinary group who dug the tunnels out under the Severn which drew in the cooling water for the station. In order to minimise seepage they worked in compressed air so they had dangerous, dirty and unpleasant work. They were paid large sums of money for this which they did not hesitate to spend! I was told that it was quite common for them to stop work for a weekend or at the end of a shift and then go and buy themselves a suit with which to hit town after which they would be back down the tunnel in the same suit!
The whole atmosphere must have been something akin to the Klondyke during the gold rush. I do recall that shops and houses in nearby villages were shuttered up when these guys were out drinking. Whilst I was there a staff dance was advertised and I was urged by the other engineers and physicists there to go along for a while as it was quite an experience.
I did and they were not wrong! It was like a wild west saloon. All these rough looking characters sitting in groups most of which had a bottle of whisky on the table. And a selection of extremely dodgy looking women who had apparently been bussed in from Bristol and it less salubrious suburbs. Needless to say I was off PDQ although not before being dragged onto the dance floor by one of our larger tea ladies with whom I was obliged to do the twist – A spine straining activity from which I count myself lucky to have escaped uninjured.
Work on the site was interesting and it was in many ways rather like a giant technological adventure playground. Perhaps I should explain. Each reactor was a large 200 foot diameter sphere made of 4 inch thick steel there were four six foot diameter pipes which entered the sphere horizontally about three quarters of the way up (They would eventually carry the cooling gas over the uranium with which the sphere would be filled out into the heat exchangers which produced steam and back in again at the bottom of the sphere.)
The operation of a reactor is pretty simple. When enough of the fuel (in this case Uranium 238) is assembled together (known as a critical mass) the nuclear chain reaction starts automatic and rapidly increases in power until something slow it down. In these reactors that “something” was a series of boron steel rods which were lowered into the reactor. These absorbed the neutrons which cause the chain reaction and cause it to slow down or stop. The steel cable which held these rods were fixed to the rods by electromagnets. This meant that in the event of a power failure the rods would be released and automatically drop into the reactor, shutting it down. My reasons for providing this boring technical explanation will soon become apparent.
When the fuel was first loaded into the reactor the technique was to ascend about four floors by lift and then via several trapdoors and vertical steel ladders to reach the side of one of the 6 foot steel pipes where a large access hole had been temporarily made. By clambering through this hole and walking along the inside if the pipe one entered the main pressure vessel (sphere) itself. The roof was one giant matt black dome with holes in the roof which would eventually be used for the standpipes through which fuel would be loaded when the reactor was running at full power. The “floor” which one stepped out on was the top of thhuge mass of graphite buit up from blocks and containing hundreds of vertical holes most of which were for fuel and some for the boron steel control rods.
The uranium fuel rods which were contained in magnesium alloy with lots of cooling fins were about 3inches in diameter and 3 feet long and were lowered into the vertical holes in the graphite by small battery operated winches. The crew of men who were carrying this out were casual labourers employed by one of the civil engineering contractors. This was adeadly boring job and it wasn’t long before these workers had discovered that by surreptitiously kicking one of the many pieces of measuring equipment to be seen in the reactor they could initiate an alarm which meant evacuation of the reactor whilst checks were carried out , during which they could retire to their rest hut for tea and a smoke !
The technique for commissioning involved loading an amount of fuel specified by the chief reactor physicist whilst all the control rods were fully inserted. The reactor vessel would then be evacuated and the entrance sealed. I (who would you believe was designated Assistant Shift Physicist !) would then (if it was on my shift) go up in the lift to pile cap (this was the concrete floor about 30 feet or more above the reactor vessel). Since the reactor building was pretty high this was like a vast technological cathedral full of fuelling machines and all sorts of other complex apparatus. In the middle of all this and directly above the centre of the reactor was my little patch. It consisted of several racks of instrumentation connected to radiation measuring sensors in the heart of the reactor below. This instrumentation was there purely for the commissioning period and was very much more sensitive than the permanently installed instruments which all had their dials in the turbine hall (nearly a quarter of a mile away as I recall).
There were two sets of instruments one simply measured the radiation level in the reactor whilst the other (which rejoiced in the name of a vibron electrometer measured the “doubling time” this one only became relevant when the reactor had gone critical and measured the time in which the nuclear power from the atomic reaction going on down below was doubling. I would have a headset and microphone linked to the control room back in the turbine hall. As soon as I informed them that I was ready they wouls start to wind out the control rods whilst I took reading of the radiation (whilst there was still a sub critical load of uranium the vibron electrometers of course showed no reading and would only do so when we had a critical mass loaded and the nuclear chain reaction started. Thing that worried me ‘though was the fact that those vibrons looked to me to be extremely dead. Yes I know that they should be reading zero but instrument usually twitched from time to time to show that they were alive. I had mentioned this concern to the chief together with the comment that they had been lying around in a shed since ther had been used on reactor one. I was assured however that they were OK. When I had taken my readings the chief physicist would plot them on a chart from which it could be fairly accurately calculated when we would have a critical mass loaded. The reactor would then be opened up and the whole process repeated. I went through this cycle several times and the one day I was advised that it was expected that the fuel being loaded that evening would produce a critical mass. I would be on call and it was expected that I would need to be up on pile cap at around 2 a.m. This turned out to be pretty accurate and just before 2 I arrived on pile cap set up the equipment and called the control room. There was quite a lot of excitement as you can imagine and evidently the main control room was full of spectators his was after all only the second commercial reactor to go critical. I remember sitting on my stooltalking to the control room as step by step they slowly wound out the control rods each time asking if the vibron electrometers were showing a reading which would indicate that we had gone critical. Each time I had to report negative and reiterated my view that the bloody things weren’t working. The rods started moving again (they made a distinctive humming sound). Then suddenly Over my headset I couls hear a whole load of jabbering and what sounded like a cheer followed by a loud rumbling noise and a series of muffled thuds. I immediately recognized this as the control rods dropping – an emergency tip – and asked the control room what was going on. “Nothing to worry about” they said “Come back to the control room”. When I got there they rather sheepishly informed me that I had been right! The electrometers were not working. Observers in the control room had spotted the installed low power indicator slowly rising and it was realized that the chain reaction had started so they tripped the reactor just to be sure. Quite an exciting night all in all. I did cause one piece of excitement all on my own one day when after working inside the reactor core I was having a cuppa and a Mars bar when I realized with alarm that a filling had come out of a tooth and was greatly alarmed in case I was about to get a nasty toothache. The physicist with me however was alarmed in case the filling was still in the reactor since the mercury from which it would undoubtedly be made was almost as good at absorbing neutrons as was boron. Fortunately the filling was still in a piece of Mars Bar and their panic (if not mine) subsided. In fact I didn’t get a toothache anyway.
One other event I recall from my time at Berkeley was an evening when one of the temporary huts used for changing into the mandatory white suits caught fire almost certainly a cigarette end. To avoid unnecessary damage the local fire brigade were summoned and despite the fact that the emergency phone was not used sent every engine they had. National TV programmes were interrupted for a news flash to sat there was a fire at a nuclear power station ! Unfortunately this type of over the top reaction always dogged our industry and produced all sorts of quite unreasonable fears about the safety of nuclear reactors. For the record, if they didn’t look so ugly (which is why unlike wind generators` they can be placed in remote spots) I would have no problem living next door to one .
I returned to the design office at Whetsone somewhat the richer for the Berkeley experience (in more ways than one) and quite soon after that Rosi and I were married at St Mary’s at Lowdham with a splendid reception at Hoveringham. We spent our honeymoon at Saundersfoot in South Wales which we reached by train since I had not passed my test and in any event the elderly Austin 10 which I had become the proud owner of would probably not have made it that far. We stopped en route for the night at The New Inn in Gloucester.
It was a wonderful honeymoon, over all too soon and we returned to start married life together. In those days of course “cheating under starters orders” was not so acceptable so we had lived in our own homes until our return from honeymoon. I had however managed to rent a rather nice little old cottage at Church Nook in Wigston Magna on the outskirts of Leicester which I had moved into some weeks earlier. I was able to travel to Whetstone easily each day and Rosi had secured a teaching appointment at a primary school in Oadby a couple of miles away.
We had a pleasant and fairly uneventful couple of years there settling into married life. We had acquired a fairly large screen (black and white) television and I clearly remember early one evening watching in horror as a clearly shocked newsreader announced the assassination of President John F Kennedy. One other international event I clearly remember one afternoon was the nerve wracking drama of the Cuban missile crisis when, as we sat in our office listening to the constant news updates as Kruschev’s missile ships continued to approach Cuba with the promise from Kennedy that if they did not turn back they would be fired on. Fortunately for the world of course, they did !
We had managed for our first home to rent a cottage in Church Nook, Wigston near Leicester in which we lived for the first three years whilst our financial reserves built up. Rosi had obtained a teaching post at the primary school in nearby Oadby and relatively quickly by todays standards we saved enough money for the deposit on our first house.
Whilst we were at Church Nook I continued to run the old Austin 10 and used to travel the 5 or 6 miles to work in it every day. It was not without it’s problems however ! It was parked on the piece of land immediately in front of the cottage in all weathers , which, in winter, gave me problems. There appears to have been some water in the fuel pipe where it ran under the car and on cold mornings this would freeze, blocking the fuel line. As a result of this I could often be found lying underneath with a hot water bottle trying to thaw out the fuel line !
Initially it had no heater so the journey we often made from Leicester to Lowdham along the A46 was a slow and, in winter , very cold journey. Rosi used to wrap herself in car rugs with a hot water bottle for the journey ! On foggy days, things got worse, with no demister or heater it was necessary to wind the front window open (it was hinged along the top and could be wound open several inches at the bottom) I then had to drive very slowly peering underneath the open window ! … Not very warm !
The brakes were of the old fashioned Bowden cable type (no such thing as hydraulics or discs when that car was built !) so stopping was quite an event. I can still remember going down a hill near Loughborough straining against the seat and pressing the brake pedal as hard as I could whilst the car gradually slowed down. I just managed to stop it at the crossroads at the bottom of the hill.
1963 was quite a busy year for us in terms of weddings. .Rosi’s life long friend from Lowdham, Dawn Pitchford married Nigel at Lowdham. CVousin Ann married David at Leeds and Rosi’s old next door neighbour Caroline Dawson was married at Lowdham. That latter was quite a “do” with the reception held at Lowdham Mill. It was very much a Rugby enthusiasts wedding the bridegroom being from oxford and playing for them at the time. By the time that even the vicar had joined in by giving the latest score in some international that was going on that day at Twickenham, I was getting a bit tired of Rugby chat (not knowing a thing about it) so when it was time for the speeches I slunk off to the room at the rear where champagne was to be had!
There was another apparent refugee from Rugby already there having a quite swig. He was a big chap with a broken nose so I should have probably avoided saying that I was a bit bored with all this rugby chit chat. However he agreed with me and we had a pleasant chat about things non rugby. The following morning we were invited around to the brides parents for coffee and during the course of the conversation the brides grandma said to me “ I see you were having a good chat with Richard yesterday.” “Richard ?” I said not realizing who she was talking about. “Yes” she said “Richard Sharpe”. “Oh” I said rather foolishly “Who’s Richard Sharpe then ? “He’s the England Rugby Captain” said about 6 voices simultaneously.
I think I was pretty much a spent force with that family after that ! Still we can’t all be sporty types can we?
Late in 1964 I learned from colleagues at work who were also looking for houses that a new estate was being built in the village of Newbold Verdon, about seven or eight mile on the other side of Whetstone. We went over to have a look and put down a deposit on what was to be our first house. The selling price was £3,850!! When studying the builders map of the proposed estate I discovered that he was proposing to name the road in which our house was to be situated Marks Way ! Wow, I thought, that’s going to look good .. Marks of Marks Way !
Unfortunately the parish council intervened and having decided that the builder had already used too many of his family’s names (His son’s name was Mark) they decided to rename it Jubilee Road after the village pub.
I did write a rather stroppy letter to the Parish council asking if they also intended to have a Coronation Street, but I’m afraid my vested interest was all too obvious and so we started the next phase of our married life at 12 Jubilee Road ! We moved in early in 1965 just before Sarah was born (Rosemary attributes hormonal effects of the pregnancy to the absolutely dire choice of curtains and other fittings which we then had to live with for quite a time before we could afford to change them !
In those days of course we didn’t have a ‘phone so the plan was when the time for the birth arrived I would dash down the road to the old red phone box in the square and notify the nursing home that we were on our way. Yes I did say nursing home! Being in a highly nervous state at the impending birth of our firstborn I had thrown caution to the winds and booked Rosi into the St Francis private nursing home in Oadby. Trouble was, the nursing home was now a good ten miles from home and my current mode of transport was a Morris Minor sidevalve a totally gutless vehicle which didn’t so much accelerates as gradually increase speed. I am unable to verify the 0 to 60 figure as it never ever reached 60. With a fair wind and running downhill it could just about exceed 40.
To make matters worse when the happy day arrived the front wheel bearing was emitting a very ominous and terminal sounding knocking noise. I further managed to disgrace myself when Rosi woke up in the early hours of one morning to proclaim that her labour pains had started. Since I appear to have gone into what must have been some sort of sympathetic labor I am alleged to have dismissed the aforementioned labour pains with lots of griping about the pain I was in. I can only, gentle reader ask you to believe that I am really not the heartless and that the whole episode has become grossly exaggerated. I do not suggest for even one minute that dear Rosi could have so exaggerated thing in normal circumstances And cam only imagine that some kind of hormonal imbalance has led to this unfortunate piece of historical inaccuracy. When the time came for the dash to the nursing home the front wheel bearing was in full song and clanking away like a steam hammer. In fact it was so bad that on the way home I stopped at a garage in Blaby who advised me that in all probability it would shortly fall of and kept it in for immediate repair.
The following morning Sarah Louise Marks made her eagerly awaited arrival in the world and life would never be the same again. Milton sterilizing kits and buckets of Napisan became the order of the day (No pampers in those days !). That year we took her on holiday to Sheringham in Norfolk with Rosi’s mum and dad. They were always an absolute delight to have with us. They really loved to help look after Sarah as indeed they always did for all of the children and we all had a great time at this somewhat windswept seaside town. So much so that we returned quite a few times. The following year however we went to Whitby for our holidays, staying in a delightful house on a hill above the main street which looked out across the estuary to the castle. We had a great time watching some rough seas and Sarah delighted toddling down to the waters edge. The following year Richard arrived in the world so it was off to Sheringham again. benefiting greatly from the kindness always shown by Rosi’s mum and dad to all the children. That year we also went to the wedding of Christopher Beard, Rosi’s cousin, to Isobel. In 1968 we went back to Saundersfoot for our holidays but this time with two children. Rosi’s mum and dad joined us again, but not without some worry at the start of the holiday. Rosi’s dad had become quite ill with angina and they had to join us later in the week.
Meanwhile at work things were developing. I had enjoyed my time in the design offices with the usual mad bunch of engineers. Our part of the design team was led by an interesting character called John Willment who was always known as John Willy. He was a Cambridge physics graduate and quite clever. Unfortunately he didn’t appear to be very interested in work and wasa frequentlky to be found after lunch, fast asleep in his office. John liked nothing better than an excuse for a beery evening with much singing of Rugbt songs which he accompanied on the piano and was occasionally supported by other low grade musicians from the department. One of the features of these occasions was to pen an additional verse to the departmental song which was sung to the tune of a then well known song called Much Binding in the Marsh (feature in a radio programme with Richard Murdock and Kenneth Horne). I can still recall one of our more outlandish verses which was written when Brian Smith left the team. Brian was responsible for all alarm systems on the nuclear station at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Many of these alarms could automatically shut down the power station, sometimes they simply advised local operators. A couple of weeks before he left Brian had got into a much publicized wrangle with the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB). One particular alarm was to warn the chap who was responsible for the turbines (aka the Turbine Driver) of a potentially dangerous problem. The CEGB were insisting that a repeat of the main alarm should be installed in the turbine driver’s toilets ! The verse which celebrated this went:
At Cambridge Road, Whetsone, Leicestershire.
Our alarm king from the group today is leaving.
At Cambridge Road , Whetstone, Leicestershire.
Some of his alarms are past believing.
He’s put one in the turbine hall that’s bound to be a hit.
It hangs above the place where turbine drivers often sit.
And it blacks out most of Somerset, every time one has a sh..
At Cambridge Road, Whetstone, Leicestershire.
Another one was written to celebrate the arrival of an engineer from South Korea who worked on the system which scanned the fuel cans for radiation leaks. At that time there was a whole series of highly politically incorrect jokes which inferred the a certain part of the anatomy of oriental ladies was at right angles to that of western ladies !… hence the verse:
At Cambridge Road, Whetstone, Leicestershire.
Burst can detection’s really quite hilarious.
At Cambridge Road, Whetstone, Leicestershire.
With neutron flux detectors multivarious.
The complex runs of pipework really make one boggle eyed.
And our South Korean engineer just sat right down and cried.
‘Cos all the pipes ran up and down instead of side to side.
At Cambridge Road, Whetstone, Leicestershire.
I remember that one of our number, a very quiet chap called Neil Aspinall used to attend these “dos”. Unfortunately Neil was one of those chaps who simply couldn’t take his drink and always got into a terrible state. His wife eventually and not surprisingly , banned him from coming out with us after the Christmas event at which Neil got paralytic and when he arrived home was actually sick on his mother in law who was visiting. He never lived it down.
At about this time for reasons that I don’t recall I joined the Staff Committee. This was a fairly toothless organisation which met with the Personnel Management team to discuss problems. ( Most of these were at the level of complaints about the cold sausages in the canteen. I must have made a nuisance of myself in some way because I was sent for by the Personnel Chief who asked me if I had considered a career in Personnel ( I never did figure out whether this was because they thought I might be good at that or that I was a bloody awful engineer !) At about this time for reasons that I don’t recall I joined the Staff Committee. This was a fairly toothless organisation which met with the Personnel Management team to discuss problems. ( Most of these were at the level of complaints about the cold sausages in the canteen. I must have made a nuisance of myself in some way because I was sent for by the Personnel Chief who asked me if I had considered a career in Personnel ( I never did figure out whether this was because they thought I might be good at that or that I was a bloody awful engineer !)
Anyway the idea of a people orientated job appealed to me and I accepted. My first role was that of a job analyst with a remit to prepare job descriptions for all clerical staff and then to grade them for salary purposes. This was quite successful and I went on to do the same thing for the vast army of technical staff on the site. Whetsone was quite a hi – tech site. The organizations on site included the main nuclear design organization m, The central metallurgical labs and the mechanical engineering labs for the group and last and not least the gas turbine division and the small (marine) steam turbine division. This meant that there were large numbers of engineers and scientists of all persuasions on site ( the total number of employees was over 3000). This eventually led to my appointment as Technical Staff Officer with responsibility for the recruitment of technical staff. One of the tasks I became involved in therefore was the annual “milk round” as it was known. This involved personnel from all of the big companies traveling round all the universities trying to lure the better graduates into their companies. In the case of English Electric this was carried out by headquarters personnel based in The Strand. The application papers which resulted from all of this were then initially sifted by HQ and sent out to those parts of the company most likely to be interested. We certainly had some interesting applications ! One that I recall was a bulkier than usual file which contained a letter from the young hopeful’s father to Lord Nelson of Stafford (The company chairman). It went along the lines of Dear George, You probably don’t remember me be we were subalterns together in the blankety blank regiment. It went on along these rather servile and creeping lines and ended up with the immortal words. “I had hoped that my son would be going up to Cambridge, however it would seem these days that ne has to be almost undesirably intelligent to get in and he has had to settle for a lesser institution. There then followed a plea for consideration for a job in the company for this misunderstood young genius. There then followed a number of note written by personnel managers throughout the group who had called this chap in for interviews, all of which had been unsuccessful. There were a whole range of ingenious and somewhat euphemistic excuses which, reading between the lines would seem to indicate that the poor lad was thick ! The final letter from my colleague at Stafford who was noted for calling a spade a spade (or worse) simply said “ we have interviewed this lad and found him totally lacking the sort of abilities that we require, however in view of his fathers friendship with Lord Nelson we would be happy to take him on if Lord Nelson wishes ! Across the bottom of this missive was the hand written note “No further action !” I guess it was only still going the rounds for the amusement of the rest of us. Another young hopeful had filled in the application form OK and when he got to the bit that asked “Why would you like to work for the English Electric Company ?” had written “Your turbines turn me on man ! I sent him a reply indicating that we didn’t actually employ comedians and suggested that he apply to Chiswick Empire. So there is probably some distinguished former captain of industry out there looking back on his illustrious career and telling his fellow peers in the House of Lords tea rooms of the buffoon who turned him down.
David Marks writes about College Life.
My period of training as an electronic engineer with EMI was drawing to a close, National service was beginning to look a real possibility. I approached the training manager to se if they were prepared top sponsor me through a degree course.. they were not! I therefore made the decision to apply on y own initiative and seek a county grant to support me. I reckoned that through most of my time at EMI with living away from home and the diminishing grant I was unlikely to be worse off. Moreover if I was honest the idea of the student life as it was in those days appealed to me rather. So, after due consideration and bearing in ind that I had a higher National certificate but no A levels I thought that I would apply for a place at one of the newly created Colleges of Advanced Technology. Based on the experiences of another ex Wolverton boy, David Pollard who had already started at Battersea, which was one of the new colleges I decided to apply there for a place on the Diploma in Technology course. (David actually stayed on at Battersea and moved with it when it eventually became the University of Surrey at Guildford. He remained a lecturer there until his recent retirement.)
I was accepted for a place reading Electrical Engineering and started there in September of 1958 supported by a major county award from Middlesex. I qualified for this as my period in digs in Middlesex qualified me as a resident of that county and I qualified to have all fees paid and a subsistence grant towards the cost of living which was more than I had in spare cash in my final year at EMI.
Thus a new period in my life had stated, one which I would never forget although I have probably managed to forget most of the academic learning I acquired there !) Initially I stayed at the digs in Hanwell and travelled in daily from Brentford station whilst I considered where I wanted to live. First things first, I attended the “Freshers Fair at which a bewildering array of clubs and societies touted for new members.
Whilst at the fair I met Tony Clarke and started a friendship which took us through college up to his later becoming my best man. I recall that we both decided to join the boat club . Neither of us had ever rowed and were not likely to get another chance. I must have been stark staring mad as I cannot swim a stroke and a shell eight is a notoriously unstable craft which sooner or later most crews managed to turn over. We duly attended the University boathouse at Chiswick the following Sunday morning and to our delight (and considerable surprise) we found ourselves in the college’s second eight. In case this sounds rather grand for a seven stone nerd I should perhaps point out that the total number of member in the club was 18, which, remembering that each boat required a cox gave us a pretty good chance of selection.. We had but one ambition and that was to take part in the annual “Head of the River” race which took place over the boat race course but in the opposite direction (i.e. Mortlake to Putney. Quite early on Tony and I had decided to try to get a bed sitter together and succeeded in getting one on the North side of Clapham common. Prior to this, whilst I still traveled in from Hanwell, Tony had shared with another Tony (whose surname eludes me) in a tiny bedsit just off Queenstown Road adjacent to some railway arches. The only thing I remember about it was the astonishing variety of “souvenirs it contained. One of the more mindless activities of University students in those days was to “acquire” street signs, bus stops, red workmans lamps and pretty well anything else that wasn’t screwed down. I do remember that when they left the flat they had some difficulty in “losing” some of these acquisitions. The one which I recall causing particular problems was a cast iron name plate bearing the inscription Prince of Wales Drive SW11. In the end it was wrapped up in brown paper and abandoned somewhere on the Northern Line.
The house in which our “new” bed sitter was located was run by the retired matron from one of the London Hospitals and had an unexpected and unplanned advantage. It was about three doors from the Battersea College of Domestic science which had many connections with our college (both formal and informal. We soon found that by befriending the students and inviting selected one round for coffee and the behaving like gentlemen (which they were not expecting) they would take pity on the squalor in which we live and carry out the occasional tidy up. This didn’t carry on for very long I must confess as I suspect that they had rumbled us. Every Sunday during that first year we headed for the University boathouse at Chiswick for our weekly practice row. Sometimes we would have a brief warm up in the practice tank. This was a tank full of water with a fixed set of eight seats down the centre. It wasn’t much fun, but at least it didn’t list badly to one side or the other every time we carried out a “strike” (lifted our blades clear of the water at an angle of about 30 degrees).
We were not exactly a striking example of how a good crew should look. It was not the thing to wear anything on top of ones singlet except a college or club scarf, since it was bloody cold on the Thames in the middle of winter with the wind whistling round Chiswick Eyot, we all had extra long versions of the college scarf made and wound ourselves up inside them. This, of course did nothing for our performance… Towards the end of our year in the club as we approached the forthcoming Head of the River race we reckoned we were getting quite good. One Sunday morning we were out as usual and feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. When the sound of the blade of another boat were to be heard, rapidly catching up with us. Naturally, a crack (yes, I did say crack) team like ours wasn’t about to allow ourselves to be overtaken by some raggle taggle crew so our trustee cox called for a ten. Now in rowing at least in those days, “calling for a ten” meant that the cox would call out a much faster rate. i.e. one.. and two.. and three.. and…. so on. The crew would respond by giving it their all at this higher strike rate, thereby (it was hoped) burning off the opposition. Anyway we went for a ten to show this insolent mob what was what. Unfortunately the rhythmic chop of blades grew louder and this blasted boat came slicing past us as if we were standing still. What made it all the more difficult to come to terms with was that as we looked up to stare at what was obviously some team of superhuman strong men, we fond ourselves staring into the grinning faces of the Universities women’s ladies eight.
Rowing never seemed quite as attractive after that.
One of the great discoveries we made during this period was Chinese food. We had spotted a Chinese restaurant in a back street in nearby Putney one Sunday and feeling terribly brave we stepped inside. What one has to remember that in those days the common perception of Chinese food was that it entirely consisted of 100 year old eggs. Birds nests, sharks fins and other unmentionable stuff (not least dogs). A chinese restaurant outside London was virtually unheard of and there weren’t many there. So in we went and had the inevitable chop suey, sweet and sour pork and pancake rolls. Well, we thought we were in heaven. We had never tasted food like it. We explore all sorts of areas of London looking for other establishments. We had a favourite near South Kensington underground which was excellent. Then we discovered to our delight that there was one just along the road from Clapham Common Underground run by the indomitable Mrs Lam whom we grew to know quite well. They did some brilliant food, some of which I have never found since. The chef was her husband and a splendid sight he was too. He was an extremely large man (especially for a chinese and his uniform, which never changed was the regulation chef’s apron and Check trousers worn well up the calf to reveal a huge pair of army type boots. This magnificent sight was topped off, not by a chef’s hat but by a flat cap which would have looked more at home coming out of a north country cotton mill. We spent many happy hours (and quite a lot of our grant in that place.
In fact in a fruitless endeavour to cut costs we tried to cook some of the stuff ourselves. We had found a sort of asian delicatessen which sold canned bean sprouts (which for quite a long time we had mistakenly though were bamboo shoots) and tried to cook them. At that time there were no books available on Chinese cooking so we tried fry the things rater as one would bacon and to our dismay they completely shrivelled up into a soggy mess. We even tried boiling the damn thing but that was no better (it was quite a few year later that I learned the gentle art of stir frying !.
Our other great discovery was Indian food which was also very uncommon in those days. Most peoples idea of curry was based on some yellow stuff made by people like Cross and Blackwell which tasted nothing like tradition curries.
Anyway Putney came to our rescue again as we found an excellent Indian restaurant in another backstreet near the river. There we were introduced to the joys of beef keema andimmediately became addicts. This time our DIY efforts met with more success. We had already noticed similarly delightful smells wafting down the stairs in or first floor bed sitter on North Side. We went up and introduced ourselves to the Indian students who were living there and they introduced us to the mysteries of Garam Masala. Haldi, Dhanya and chilli powder. Their recipe started a habit of making a curry on a Saturday night that has lasted all my life (The Keema they showed us is still one of our favourites).
Not being able to afford non stop Indian and Chinese food we sought other alternatives. Like most students at the time we could knock up a passable spaghetti Bolognese (even if we couldn’t spell it ! ) Once again we were greatly assisted by the kind hearted Emilio Scala the proprietor of Scala’s café underneath the rail bridge next to Battersea station. A good late night alternative which we discovered was Len’s pie stall just along from Clapham Common station. It was worth visit just to watch Len in action . He could have taught work study tp work study experts ! The menu comprised a huge range of different combination of egg, bacon, beefburger, sausage, saveloys and lord knows what else which Len would be knocking out for the milling throng which always seemed to be in attendance. He moved with lightning speed and with unbelievable memory handling dozens of orders at a time. Not only that, the food was bloody good. I have little doubt that some wretched health and safety beaurocracy would close him down instantly today, but he certainly never did us any harm that we were aware of !I cannot leave the subject of food without at least a brief mention of the Green Café which stood in Battersea Park Road just along from the college. The owner was an ever cheerful Cypriot lady who was known to all and sundry simply as Coz. One of her undoubted masterpieces was a delicious Mousaka. One glance at it however, told us that it was way too complicated for us to try and make so we stayed with the Keema and the Spag Bol!
During the first year at Battersea came the life changing event for me and probably most of the people (i.e. family) that will read this. The event was the annual “Head of the Lake” race in Battersea park boating pool. The lake had a number of rowing boats for hire during the summer (these were the days when the famous Battersea fun fair was still in full swing.) The boats were battered aluminium things which had already seen better days. The head of the lakes was a no holds barred rag event which involved bribing the park keepers to turn the other way and then removing the seats from all of the boats. A number of teams from within the college took part along with invited teams from other colleges which naturally included a number of training colleges.
One of those nearest to us at Battersea was the Streatham based Phillippa Fawcett College. Which I sorry to say was always known to students at most other colleges as Phillipa Foreskins. The race was basically a question of reaching a marker buoy at the opposite end of the lake by whatever means one chose. The normal means chosen being to sink anything or anybody that stood between you and victory. During the course of this shambles we (Tony Clarke, myself and another friend whose name at present escapes me) had rather ungallantly scuppered a ladies team from the aforementioned establishment, an event recorded for posterity (or used in evidence) by a watching cameraman.
To show the depth of our remorse at our outrageous (albeit totally predictable) behaviour we invited the muddied survivors of our attack over to our local hostelry, The Grove Tavern, for drinks. I was immediately attracted to one of them…. One Rosemary Adams and immediately invited her to partner me at the “Going Down “ Ball at the end of the summer term. To my amazement she accepted. Since we were still some weeks short of the end of term I decided that I couldn’t wait that long and took my courage in both hands and rang to ask her out to the cinema. What was it we went to see I hear you cry ? The Hound of the Baskervilles (the only thing approaching a frightening film to be found for mile.. I do learn some lessons. The going down ball proves to be a great night out. It was an all night affair with conventional dance band in one hall and a jazz band in another, there was also an all night continuous cartoon theatre running.
Towards the end of that first year I had been elected to the post of Arts Chairman on the executive of the students union. Those who know me will by now be reeling back in astonishment … ARTS ! Him !!
I can only say that Battersea was very much science and engineering biased with a bit of catering and health visiting thrown in, so I guess it was a case of the “one eyed man in the kingdom of the blind”.
Being on the Union executive automatically qualified me to bring a partner to the going down ball and attend the President’s Reception. It was customary to invite the presidents of all the other London Colleges for free drinks and nibbles at the beginning of the Ball so we were able to have a pretty good time, although Rosemary didn’t drink very much then (she has told me to say ) Things progressed steadily from there. I shall draw a veil over all the details dear reader, not, I hasten to add that there was anything to hide ! Sadly of course Rosemary was leaving at the end of term to Return to Nottingham to take up her first teaching appointment. We were therefore not able to see each other anything like as much as I wished. It meant that the remaining two years at Battersea were somewhat monastic to say the least, but at least I was not removed from beer and general rioting.
Actually the post of Arts Chairman mainly concerned supporting and encouraging the numerous clubs and societies which came under the general banner of arts, ranging from the debating society to country dancing and the International society. The International Society was something of a jewel in our crown. We had one of the most racially mixed group of students of any of the colleges of the University. To celebrate this each year saw the presentation of our International evening which consisted of a dance and an international cabaret which lasted a couple of hours or more. Every national group put on an act representing their culture. Invitations were sent out to the embassies of all of those taking part, almost all of whom sent their cultural attaché. There were polish dances, French Can Can’s (courtesy of one of the ballet schools), African tribal dances and usually something daft from the English contingent. Of course the realities of life used to mean political shenanegins between any nation who were currently at loggerheads. There was quite a row when the Indian Contingent threatened to put up a bigger fag than the Pakistani group. One of the big problems I had that year was curbing the natural enthusiasm of Emile Jussy, the Egyptian born chairman of the society for that year. Emile was determined that everything would be bigger and better than ever before. That was Ok but he was also very keen that his part of the world were better represented than any other and he tried (and eventually succeeded) to get the Ambassador to the United Arab Republic to attend in person whilst everyone else had to make do with mere cultural attaché.
His next big campaign was to try to get messages of good will from the three major world leaders of the day, namely Kennedy MacMillan and Kruschev, by writing to them and telling them of this great piece of international student cooperation !. We all thought he was mad ! Come the night, Emile in his capacity as chairman opened the proceedings and explained his actions in writing to the worlds leaders. You can imagine our surprise when he read a message of goodwill from the secretary of the PM’s office at 10 Downing Street. Still more admiring gasps when he read a note received the previous day from an administrative officer at the White House wishing us success on behalf of President Kennedy. But wily old Emile had kept his major coupe until last as he announced that only a couple of hors earlier the Exchange telegraph and the news agency Reuters had been in touch to say that a personal message had been received that morning from the Kremlin with a glowing full page of praise which had been personally signed by Nikita Sergei Kruschev Dear old Emile was on cloud nine for weeks – a personal communiqué from Krushchev.. we never heard the last of it.
One of the activities I greatly enjoyed throughout my time at Battersea was the soon to become notorious Battersea Band. A group of us who aspired to an assortment of musical instruments decide to deliberately play for laughs whilst collecting for various charities. It was triggered off by a request from the Mayor of Battersea for help from the students in raising money for World Refugee Year. We reckoned that by busking, deliberately badly (not that we found that too demanding ) and with some nice young ladies rattling collecting tins we could do quite well. We were certainly right there.
We found that we could average something like £60 to £70 per hour which was a lot of money back then. We had started out along Lavender Hill. We the graduated to the West End usually starting at Marble Arch, marching along Oxford Street and the down Regent Street to Piccadilly circus. We used to get way with it for about an hour, after which the Police usually appeared and threatened to lock us all up if we didn’t vanish a bit smartish. We even tried Piccadilly Circus underground.. echoed wonderfully but failed to impress the London Transport Police.
We decided to give central London a rest and headed one Saturday morning for Brixton Market which we reckoned would be pretty crowded and good for a few quid. We were trudging along in the gutter wearing our trade mark top hats and playing as I recall “I do like to be beside the Seaside” when a policeman appeared on a bike and enquire what we were up to. We explained and he said “fine, just keep in the gutter and don’t cause an obstruction and you’ll be OK. Well , we carried on for another few hundred yards giving it some stick with Colonel Bogey when the policeman suddenly reappeared. The guvnor wants to see you he said. When we enquired why he pointed out that the large building which we had just passed in full cry was the headquarters of the South London Police and the Guvnor was in charge of it all. Well, in the circumstances it would have seemed churlish nor to have accepted his invitation. So we dutifully followed our friendly constable into the hallowed presence . We explained what we were doing and why. Then he expressed his admiration for our good works and added “but you don’t have a license do you ? When we confirmed that we didn’t he said “which is why if you blow one more note you are going to be nicked”. Rather put out by this we said that in that case we would return to Battersea and play in the market there. “ “No you won’t he said “that’s all part of my patch too”. We played our trump card. “We are friends of the Mayor of Battersea and have his personal approval to play in his borough” we said. In that case I shall no doubt have to nick the Mayor of Battersea as well he replied … and that was the end of that.
A couple of weeks later we had a splendid opportunity to march again. The college Rugby Club were playing Brighton Tech (now the University of Sussex) and some bright spark had also suggested a scooter race from London to Brighton (Children’s scooters not the sort with engines) The band were asked dif we would like to join in . Would we ? I’ll say we would. We joined the Rugby Club on their coach and enjoyed a splendid journey to Brighton. It was such a beery trip with so many pub stops en route that I quite forgot to feel travel sick. When we arrive we set up and marched through the centre of Brighton and were doing quite well financially when the local police arrive and told us that if we played anywhere other than thefish market (a concrete slab sticking out onto the beach) we were going to get nicked.
We retired to a local hostelry to lick our wounds and have a few more tinctures and then headed for the fish market. Unfortunately our musical enthusiasm got the better of us about half a mile short of the market (well we were nearly there. An extremely large policeman with a motorcycle escort suddenly appeared from nowhere and proceeded to advise us of the exact location of the fish market which, we assured him we thought we had already reached. We parted amicably and headed for the beach. We had a most enjoyable afternoon playing to a small crowd on the beach, both of whom appeared to enjoy us and the headed back into town in search of a hostelry.
We were very lucky to find one who was quite happy for us to set up in his back bar and blow to our hearts content. We had all bought tickets (at some considerable expense) for the end of match dance to be held at the Tech. At about 9 we wandered down, only to be told that it had been assumed that we were not coming and our tickets had been resold and no we couldn’t come in nor could we have our money back, in fact “clear off”.
Now it can be imagined that we were less than pleased at what we regarded as devious and dishonest behaviour, Just what we expect from an outfit like Brighton Tech. I regret to say (although I certainly didn’t at the time), that we collected our instruments from our coach, reformed just up the road and then just marched straight in with a pretty impressive rendition of Colonel Bogey. They got the message and we stayed on in a peaceful state for the remainder of the dance. The journey home is just a blur. I remember a lot of Rugby songs being sung (and I’m told that I apologized to a female student who insisted on joining our bus, for what she was about to hear. Actually she knew more verses than most of us did! From that time on quite a few college events enjoyed the doubtful privilege of the band’s attendance.
Those that know me will not be surprised to learn that I tended to take a greater interest in rag type activities than in my studies ! At that time there had been no official London University rag day for several years since the student community ad fallen out with the Metropolitan Police after a somewhat unruly Guy Fawkes night several years earlier. During my first year it was decided that we would have an official London carnival week with numerous events at the various colleges of the University, a parade of floats in Regents Park and an official rag magazine.
An initial meeting was duly arranged at the University Union (ULU) headquarters in Mallet Street which was attended by delegates from all of the London colleges. I attended this on behalf of Battersea. When the time came to discuss the production of the magazine the delegate from Imperial College, David Irvine, proved to be very well versed in the production of magazines since he informed us that he had been involve in a similar task before. He had a number of useful ideas and suggestions and he was consequently given a free hand to get on with it. Over the course of several meetings he fed back details of pretty satisfactory progress and we were all rather impressed with progress.
It was only when we received the first proof copies of the final product that we realized what we had let ourselves in for. It turned out that David Irvine was a devoted member of the young Fascist movement and the magazine was peppered with advertisements for various fascist activities which we had to have removed, leaving some rather untidy blank spaces. Irvine, of course went on to become notorious for his views on the Third Reich and the holocaust and ended up losing a substantial and widely publicized libel case after someone had attacked him on his views. That experience made me rather more cautious. When involved in any committee now I am never agreeable to allowing any individual to have complete freedom without any checks !
There was at that time great rivalry between us and the student from Northampton Engineering College (NEC) as to who could win the prize for the most ingenious mechanical float in the carnival and we made several concerted, but unsuccessful efforts to win. We built one contraption described as the Penny Gum Machine (can’t think why !) which contained large numbers of rotating wheels and other moving parts. The float, naturally, included the band, playing at full blast, fuelled by a barrel of beer which we had on board. When the time came for judging which was being carried out by Brian (now Lord) Rix the actor we were all pretty well incoherent and climbing down backwards off the lorry, I trod on him, which probably did nothing for our chances. Matters were not helped when the NEC float arrived. It was late and we had hoped somewhat ungallantly that they had got lost (something we were frequently advising them to do). However when they did put in an appearance (in the nick of time) the reason for their lateness became apparent. They had constructed a huge missile in the shape of a giant carrot (Their mascot was a large carrot). Even in a near horizontal position this thing was sufficiently high to ecessitate planning a route with no low bridges. When they stopped for the judging they started up an on board `Austin Seven engine which powered the hydraulics system which elevated this monstrous object ‘til it towered above the trees in Regents Park and carried away the prize. I recall that it carried a large notice claiming that it was the largest ever British built rocket, being several feet longer than the Blue Steel Rocket.
Our final attempt at winning took place in my final year (and nearly put paid to my finals) and involved constructing an extremely large robot made of angle iron covered in cardboard with articulated limbs. The limbs were driven by electric motors the power for which came from an old generator scrounged from the electrical engineering laboratory. This was in turn driven by an engine which had been removed from an old Vauxhall Six which was languishing in the students car park. Like NEC the previous year we had to plan our route to avoid low bridges and attracted more than a little attention as we progressed from Battersea to Regents Park.
We were pretty confident that this beast would bring the prize home to Battersea. Unfortunately we had badly underestimated the opposition. When we arrived in the Park they were already there with their huge model of Big Ben, built with a telescopic design which, using their tried and tested hydraulic system could be raised to a towering height, revealing a highly complex “clock mechanism” constructed mainly from bicycle wheels. So we never did win the damn prize !
Speaking of the NEC carrot reminds me of the endless attempts made by the various colleges of the university to kidnap each others mascots. The Battersea mascot had originally been an eagle called Oscar. By the time I arrived there it had disappeared during some kind of kidnap attempt whilst being filmed by the BBC. I gather that the Beeb had wanted to produce a brief documentary on student rags and had asked for the cooperation of Battersea and Chelsea colleges.
The idea had been to stage a flour fight on Chelsea Bridge. It had rather predictably gone wrong and the BBC crew lost their trousers and Battersea lost Oscar. All of this had produced a certain determination to remove mascots from other colleges. A number of us decided to have a go and regrettably chose what we thought would be a “soft” taget, namely the previously mentioned Phillippa Fawcett training college for women at Streatham. Their mascot was a large wooden rocking horse named Phred which sported their college scarf fixed around its midriff. We had been given to understand that it had pride of position on the sage in their great hall. We also understood from espionage activities that the entire college all went for dinner at 7.00p.m each evening. We therefore got a volunteer with an old Ford 8 of the variety which had front opening doors and duly parked up outside their college at a few minutes before seven. Sure enough we could see them all streaming out of the building where the hall was and heading for their dining hall. As soon as there was no further sign of movement two of our number were sent in to get the horse whilst we remained in the street with the engine running and the door open ready to receive the trophy.
Our colleagues duly appeared carrying Phred and had just reached the car when a lone female emerged from the dining room earlier than anticipated (damn woman must have been on a diet or something) and spotted us. She was seen to sprint back into the dining room to raise the alarm, so we had no time to get the horse into the car (we couldn’t get it through the door). The only thing for it was to throw the horse into some large bushes in the dive of the large mansion next door a nd jump in after it a bit smartish. We weren’t a moment to soon. There was the most fearful howling sort of war cry and hundreds of females came pouring out of the gates looking for us. We hardly dared to breath in the relative safety of our bush but we got away with it and thinking that we had left the scene of the crime they all trooped back in. We dragged the horse out of the hedge and tried again to get it in the car.
This time we removed the front passenger seat and hid it in the bushes. I climbed in an crouched on the floor and one of our helpers (Tony Pinder as I recall) managed to jam the wretched horse about halfway in the door so that I could straddle it and brace myself against the door frame with the horse and part of me hanging out of the door. It was at this delicate stage in the proceeding that a loud shout was to be heard and a huge horde of women once again poured out of the college gates. This time it was all too apparent that they had seen us and were out for serious vengeance. Acting with unusual speed the driver and I and the back seat passenger made a cowardly but prudent executive decision to get the hell out of it and we took off at speed.
So it was that an ancient Ford 8 with a wooden horse hanging out of it’s open front door was seen by the local population careering down Streatham High Street en route to Battersea. The last we saw of poor Tony he was running for his life (or at any rate his trousers). As soon as we arrived back at Battersea we dragged the horse down into the bowels of the college and secreted it in the boiler room. We then went upstairs for what we considered a well deserved rest. As we approached the great hall we noticed that the Film Society had an evening showing of some classic film or other and we strolled into the back of the hall to see what it was. We had only been there a few moments when the projector suddenly stopped, the house light went on a several Phillippa Fawcett females appeared on stage with their wretched horse and an even more wretch and trouserless Tony wound in one or two of their college scarves. We really had to give them best. Moreover we never tried on any more mascot raids after that !
The somewhat embarrassing punishment of trouser removal often featured in acts of retribution in those days. We had one student in our year whom I shall call Bloggs to protect the guilty (different Bloggs from the one of woodwork fame). He was an old Etonian and a thorough going pain. He was always trying rather too hard to be “one of the boys” his behaviour could often be embarrassingly stupid even by our somewhat juvenile actions. We were on one accession attending a lecture on law in the College’s Putney annexe from Doctor Douglas. Doctor Douglas was an unusual and interesting character who had a doctorate in chemistry and was also a barrister at law who had once been married toone of Winston Churchill’s daughters. He was an extremely witty and popular lecturer who always wore a black pinstripe three piece suit and addressed is audience whilst pacing about with his thumbs tucked in the sides of his waistcoat as if addressing a courtroom.
On this particular occasion Bloggs had been behaving in an irritating manner throughout the lecture and the whole group was showing very clear signs of being fed up with him , as was Dr Douglas. About ten minutes before the end of his lecture late on a winters afternoon he suddenly said, “ I think we will finish early today gentlemen, I imagine you have other things you will wish to do.”
This was the signal for the immediate seizure of Bloggs and the removal of his trousers which were promptly hoisted up the flagpole above the front door of the college. The timing couldn’t have been better as immediately opposite was a large queue of women from a local factory waiting for their bus. I think in the end Bloggs managed to persuade a member of the caretakers staff to get them down for him.
He was however a slow learner, not long after this event we were having a lecture on Electrical distribution from one of the Polish lecturers, a burly and genial individual called Angerer. We didn’t know at the time, but someone who knew what Bloggs was like had said to him something along the lines of, ( If you want a bit of a laugh you should try to get Angerer on the subject of the Russians) This was obviously regarded by Bloggs as another chance tp be a bit of a star. Sure enough his thin reedy voice was heard to pie up wit a questioning SIR?. “Yes Mr Bloggs” replied Angerer. “Can you tell us if the Russians have the same voltage standard as us !” asked Bloggs. I have rarely seen a mans demeanor change as fast as Angerers did that day. Looking like thunder he strode down the aisle of the lecture theatre` where the unfortunate Bloggs was sitting on an aisle seat. When he reached him he lifted him bodily out of his seat and stood nose to nose. “Mr Bloggs” he bellowed. “I spent several years of the war in a Russian prison camp as I am sure you realized when you asked your foolish question. It will no doubt come as a surprise to you learnt that the Russians were not in the habit of allowing us out to study the fucking electrical installations with which he released the wretched Bloggs to slump back in his seat.
I have mentioned the Putney annexe. This annexe was a converted swimming baths in aroad close to the river which had been the Polish University College. It had been set up at the end of the war to provide the opportunity for the many polish citizens who could nor readily return hom to continue the education which had been interrupted by the war. When the college had completed this task it was absorbed by the then Battersea Polytechnic and most of the lecturers had stayed on. They were a wonderful group of men and I was, like most of my colleagues very fond of them. There was Bilinski a tall short sighted man who wore thick pebble lend glasses and “Teddy Boy style thick Crepe soled shoes. His control of student was not too good and he was often played up rather and could be seen smiling, wagging his head and murmuring “Bad boys – bad boys !”
Kontowtt who I recall being told was an ex Spitfire Pilot lectured us in Material science and engineering drawing. His introductory talk to new student on the selection of appropriate equipment for engineering drawing was legendary. He would commence by demonstrating a magnificent tee square all beautifully inlaid with ebony and ivory, then he would show several alternatives to this masterpiece working his way down market and final saying “But for you gentlemen this will be sufficient” at which point he would produce an unimpressive looking object available from the college bookstore for six shillings and sixpence. He then proceeding to do the same for drawing instruments stating with a magnificent set of gleaming instruments that would have done justice to a surgeon and ended up with a cheap and nasty looking set from the college bookshop for about ten bob.
The most fascinating of all of the Polish lecturers, although none of us realized it at the time was Henryk Zygalski who was one of our mathematics tutors. He was to us of course Mr Zygalski, a short thick set figure with a thick mane of grey hair who alwys wore a brown suit with somewhat short trouser legs. He was a gentle and genial man and (unlike a lot of his English colleagues) a brilliant teacher. He was responsible for teaching us three dimensional coordinate geometry and matrix theory – and a very good job he did too. It was not until about three years ago during a visit to Bletchley Park that I discovered that he had been one of the three poles (now quite famous around the world) who had first broken Enigma codes and at the outbreak of war had handed all of their work to the Allies.
It is now universally recognized that their contribution gave Bletchley Park an advantage, without which the war would have probably been prolonged by two years. Such was the secrecy maintained about what had been done at Bletchley Park that it was many years after his death that the enormous contribution made by this quiet and charming man was recognized. In fact the treatment of all three Poles was pretty disgraceful. When they escaped from France to this country they were virtually treated as a security risk and set to work on some pretty routine code work at Berkhamstead, and action which was later described by one of the leading code breakers at Bletchley (I believe it was Gordon Welchman) as using race horses to pull carts. The record is gradually being put right and recently commemorative stamps for the three men have been produced in Poland and a small memorial erected at Bletchley Park. As I read of his activities it is still difficult to reconcile them with that quiet, smiling figure.
Although it might be difficult to believe we did not actually spend the whole time eating drinking and generally behaving badly. We actually had quite a lot of work to get through. The major gripe of all those students who were reading for Engineering degrees was the v vast amount of laboratory reports which we had to write. Some of the experiments were quite complex and it was extremely difficult. We had a particular problem with an experiment in thermodynamics which required us to carry out extensive tests on an old steam engine in order to determine its efficiency. Inevitably we did what students had been doing over the years and scrounged a report from a second year student whose measurements appeared to make sense (Ours had provided dreadful efficiency figures). I recall the lecturer when he handed back our reports after marking them making the comment. “ It really is amazing you know gentlemen how this engine which should be thoroughly worn out continues to produce almost unbelievably high efficiency figures year after year !” They didn’t actually miss very much, our lecturers !
Whilst I was in my first year I heard from my mother that Dad, who had been for a hernia operation earlier in the year had been diagnosed with bowel cancer. Poor dad really suffered, pain control was rather less effective in those days and visits home, which had become less frequent could be quite distressing. Sadly we had never really been a close family and I had never got to know Dad really well as an adult, so although it was, of course very sad, it was not as traumatic to me as it would be to many people. He died later in that year just as Rosemary was traveling down from Nottingham so she had only met him on that first visit. By that time he sat very quietly in his chair, obviously in some pain and pretty heavily sedated, so she never knew the rather jolly, jokey man that he could be. I have to say that Middlesex County Council who paid my grant were very understanding. The manager at McCorquodales where dad had worked all his life up to his illness wrote to them earlier that year explaining that Dad was unlikely to survive and would certainly be unable to return to work. They had immediately increased my grant to the maximum without any further query. I thought that was pretty good of them. I can just imagine the beaurocratic hoops one would have to jump through today to achieve the same result.
We were of course pretty lucky in those days with all of our fees paid and quite reasonable maintenance grants. I suppose it was inevitable with just about every town in England havin a University and practically the entire output of our schools leaving home to study horse riding, Media Studies, Tourism and God knows what else. I always think it’s a bit of a shame as I am sure that many students capable of successful results on proper degree course will not be able to afford to go (Just pop my soap box away now !)
As the second year dawned I was on my own again, romantically speaking, as Rosemary was now in her first teaching appointment in Nottingham. Since I have never been able to “two time” anyone I never sought female company other than on a platonic basis (I do not claim this as a virtue, it’s just the way I am). This meant that, coupled with my role as Arts Chairman I was often invited to the hall of residence l of the Women’s Domestic Science College which was associated with our college to chair debates. I got to know many of them quite well and when they discovered that I was “harmless” and without ulterior motive I was frequently invite to parties and other social activities. It did the power of good for my reputation amongst my fellow students who were always trying to wangle their way into the pace for less gallant reasons and largely without much success!
Their hall of residence was located in Cadogan Court, not far from Sloan Square underground and I remember one excellent party there which had been arranged by one of the girls. She had been given a new room at the start of term which had an en suite bathroom (the only room in the entire student accommodation which did !) and had as a consequence decide to hold a “bath warming party. Invitations had been sent to a number of us requesting our attendance in “suitable attire”. This resulted in a number of us traveling from Battersea to Kensington on a 137 bus clad in bathrobes and carrying loofahs and sponge bags. The 137 bus must have seen some odd sights during the years` that the college was in Battersea Park Road. I do know that on the occasion of one of the International evening which I described earlier the Bantu students had decided to do a ceremonial war dance and about ten of them who were living somewhere in South Kensington had boarded the 137 in grass skirts with full war paint, carrying some nasty looking spears and knives and emitting fierce war cries.
We had by now moved on from our North side bed sit and acquired accommodation in Larkhall Rise, Clapham. This was a large house not far from Clapham Common underground which was let out to a constantly changing assortment of people. We had one of the rooms in the basement (there were two) which we shared with a stove of some kind. The room next door to us when we first move in was home to an interesting character called Johnny Vasher. He was a rough diamond who worked, so he told us, as a ticket inspector at Clapham Junction station. Often he would come to borrow a few bob “Until pay day on Friday” he always paid us back. On one occasion we met up with him at Len’s pie stall late at night. He was with one of the dodgiest looking characters I have ever met. He was a thin man wearing a long drape coat (teddy boy style) with thick crepe soled shoes and a thick mane of longish hair with heavy sideburns.
When we had finished our feast we walked back to Larkhall Rise together and this character walked part way with us. When he left us Johnny told us that he was an old school mate that he had kept in touch with. “He’s a bit of a wrong ‘un “,he told us, “He’s really a Peter man (Safebreaker) but he’s just done a stretch on the Moor (Dartmoor) for armed robbery”. He assured us however that this chap was a loyal friend who “looked after his mates”. We would now be safe in that area Johnny explained. “ Now he knows you’re mates of mine he’ll look after you if you have any trouble with the local Teds (Teddy Boys). They give you any grief he’ll put a stripe (scar) on ‘em. He always carries a chiv (cut throat razor). That wasn’t exactly the type of support and friendship we were looking for and we hoped fervently that we wouldn’t meet him again (we never did !).
Johnny was always at great pains to explain that although he had dodgy mates he didn’t reckon there was any future in their activities. He had always been “straight” he told us.
At the beginning of the following term we signed up for another session at 97 (Larkhall Rise). The landlady was a German who had married a British soldier at the end of the war and they had settled in this house in Clapham with their teenage daughter Crysta. We noticed immediately that Johnny’s room was empty and we enquired as to his whereabouts. This provoked an immediate and fierce outburst from Frau Malleson who said she would aso very much like to know where he was. She had apparently gone for a holiday and left Crysta in charge. During her absence Johnny had evidently legged it owing a large amount of rent arrears and taking all his goods and chattels and some of hers with him. To add insult to injury she had received a visit from the local constabulary who were also interested in his whereabouts since, apparently he was wanted for desertion, housebreaking and living on immoral earnings. We never saw him again !
I remained at 97 for the remainder of my time at Battersea, although my final year was spent alone as Tony left to follow a different academic course. He had, as they say, a difference of opinion with the examiners. It was a great pity really as he stayed involved rather more than I did in engineering and I am sure was a better engineer than ever I was. When I say I was alone I actually ended up sharing with an interesting variety of passing guests, often German student on holiday and for a time an interesting Norwegian who was opening a branch of a Norwegian glass and china shop in Regent Street. He had a rather pleasant habit of pouring a large nip of brandy for each of us before we retired at night. “Our hot water bottle” as he called it.
Notwithstanding my generous grant, like most students we used to constantly run out of money. The usual trick was to get down to the bank towards the end of summer term just before the account went into debit and draw a reasonably (but , hopefully not suspiciously) large amount out to keep us going. When this ran out we had to seek some form of employment. One that was quite successful was in Battersea funfair. We had heard (I can’t for the life of me remember where) that there was an opportunity to make and sell popcorn, American style which was about to be introduced into the country.
We went for an interview in Oxford Street with the chap who was importing the electric popcorn machines and who wanted someone to man one in the funfair in Battersea Park. ( The Battersea funfair was an extremely large and famous attraction which had been built for the 1951 Festival of Britain and was retained for some years after that.) This type of popcorn (as distinct from the toffee covered variety) attracted quite a bit of attention and was one of the better casual jobs available in the funfair.
I did briefly try an alternative which was operating a rifle range which used compressed air to fire pellets at tin cans. The owner of this stall would appear unexpectedly at intervals during the day, lurking behind a nearby roundabout (also manned by one of our number) to ensure that I was being an effective barker (In other words` that I was constantly shouting myself hoarse with the roll up roll up stuff to attract the punters).
I had soon had enough of that and went back to the popcorn. We were quite well regarded as we ran the stall effectively and were honest (which is more than can be said for most of the casual labour at the funfair who were busily fiddling their employers).
Because of this I was invited to spend the Easter bank holiday running his stall on the promenade at Southend from which he had just sacked the previous incumbent for stealing. This involved the additional reponsibility for selling Neilson’s Ice Cream. I had one assistant to work with over the bank holiday weekend, a friendly Singhalese whose name escapes me. We had a great time running the stall, flogging ice cream and popcorn to holidaymakers and listening to the dubious activities of the mock auctioneer immediately behind us who was separating the more stupid holidaymakers from their cash (he was good at it too !). The only problem I had was a serious weakness (which I still have) for ice cream wafers. This resulted in us running out of wafers and necessitating me persuading a rival concern to sell us a box.
The most interesting of the vacation jobs came in the first year when Tony and I successfully applied to Butlins Holiday camp at Skegness for casual work. We arrived one Sunday evening early that summer to take up our position (I think we were employed as assistant cooks or, more likely, kitchen porters) We carried out an immediate recce of the camp with a few other new arrival whom we met at reception. After we had dumped our stuff in our staff chalet we went out of the camp and walked around it on the seaward side. What surprised us was the high , barbed wire topped , chain link fence which surrounded the place. As one of our number remarked “They don’t intend to let anyone out of here until they have enjoyed themselves”. It was a hell of a walk round the camp and it was getting late so we found a quiet spot where we unzipped a piece of fence at the base and broke back into the camp. Not the most law abiding start to our six or eight weeks at he camp !
Our main job was in the kitchen of “The glorious house of Gloucester” where our main task was to plate up the meals prior to the arrival of the happy campers for their meals. The dining rooms were huge each holding many hundreds (it may even have been thousands) of happy campers at a time. The meals were prepared on a sort of production line with a pile of hot plates at one end and a row of five or six of us. The first would wack a portion of meat on the plate and each of the others would b in charge of potatoes or other vegetables, gravy etc. At the other end of the line they would be stacked five or six high and place in “Jacksons” which were large steam heated containers on wheels which could be trundled into the dining room when the hungry hordes arrived.
The aim was to have all the food prepared, plated up and into the Jacksons before the happy campers were allowed in. When we had finished we would come out of the back door of the kitchen and wander around the front past the huge queue which was forming outside the dining room door. One of our favourite tricks was to stroll around there on says when something like Kate 7 sidney pudding was on the menu when the three servers who had been at the pie end of the line would, due to speed of work and carelessness be absolutely covered in Gravy. We would stroll happily past the boggling queue of happy campers say “Kate &Sidney today and enjoying the looks on their faces at the ghastly spectacle parading past them. On one occasion whilst coming out of the kitchen at the end of a shift I got a hellof a shock when passing the dustbins (which were full of surplus bread) when this huge grey object swung around the corner and grabbed several loaves. It was the camp elephant ! Uncle Boko who was in charge of it used to bring it round the kitchen to supplement its diet. It was an elderly and somewhat moth eaten looking elephant which was destined to make the headlines the following year when it was found dead in the swimming pool. Apparently no one was exactly sure whether it had had a heart attack and fallen in, of fallen in and had a heart attack as a consequence. Whatever had happened it was extremely dead and occupying a lot of swimming pool. I gather that they had erected suitable screens so as not to upset the children and hoisted it out with a crane.
Working in the kitchens meant that we did not have to eat in the staff canteen (for which we used our staff passes) as we could help ourselves to anything we fancied. This came in quite handy when one of our colleagues moved his girlfriend into his chalet for the season and gave her has staff pass so that she could have free meals in the staff canteen.
It was also quite convenient if we set up impromptu parties when we would smuggle chicken and steak etc. out of the kitchen in our folded aprons or balance on our heads inside the chef type of hats which we had conned out of the clothing store (they were more socially acceptable than the official pancake” hats).
It was possible to supplement the basis earnings by signing up fro evening jobs. These include bar waiting, glass collecting and chalet patrols. I, rather foolishly signed on for an evenings chalet patrol since it was the most highly paid at fifteen shillings per night. .
They obviously saw me coming and I was signed up for the Friday night patrol from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. at the Ingoldmells end of the camp. Behind these basic fact lie a reality unrecognized by me at he time. First of all the Ingoldmells end of the camp was known to the staff (particularly the chalet patrols) as “the jungle” due to the fact that it was the area where any groups of single young men were always placed. Secondly the 10 ‘til two shift was the one when the late night parties , drinking and generally disruptive behaviour took place. Thirdly and worse of all I had got Friday night when the leaving parties would be under way and there was very little use threatening to send people home as they would be going in the morning anyway.
Anyway I had signed up so on Friday night just before ten I reported to reception and was introduced to Dave, my partner for the night (So we operated in pairs .. that was a sign of things to come !) Dave was a pretty powerfully built character who was a member of the full time security force and wore a smart blue uniform with peaked cap. I, on the other hand had been kitted out with a long white coat, several sizes too large with blue and gold epaulets and a blue peaked cap which rested on my ears. I looked like something between a refugee from Gaumont cinemas and Spike Milligan on a bad night.
I asked what the form was and Dave explained that we would just stroll around the area for a bit, up and down the chalet lines and advise any individuals or groups making a lot of noise that we would overlook it until midnight when we would expecting silence and would be returning to ensure that we got it. The usual response to this was a somewhat menacing “Oh yeah” said in a way leaving us in no doubt that they would stop when they felt like it and not before , and that was unlikely to be before twelve.
When I asked Dave how we were expected to deal with this situation he simply responded with “Oh, don’t worry about that, we’ll have the reinforcements by then”. When I asked what he meant, he just smiled and said “You’ll see !”
As midnight approached with no sign of the festivities slowing down we headed back to reception to meet the “reinforcements”. As soon as they appeared I felt at peace with the world (perhaps not the best choice of words on reflection). They comprised Pete, Dave and Trevor. Pete and Dave were both professional wrestlers. They had cropped fair hair, broken noses, cauliflower ears and appeared to have no necks. This had the effect of making them look like twins and not the sort of twins you would ever want to upset. They were actuall a great pair of characters whom I grew to like. They were frightened of no one and were both immensely strong. The third member of this murderous looking trio was Trevor. Trevor stood about 6feet two and was broad with it. He had a heavily pock marked face and a large scar disfiguring one side of his face. This gave him a sinister appearance which turned out to be entirely justified. It became very clear that his hobby was hurting people and that this was the job that enabled him to do it.
We headed back towards he festivities with yours truly feeling a great deal more positive about the outcome. With good reason as it turned out, once the revelers caught sight of this lot approaching them, once they had stopped laughing at the sight of me and taken a good look at my companions they tended to evaporate PDQ.
One hapless youth staggered up to us enquiring “Have you come to put me to bed chalet patrol ?” “Certainly” replied Trevor. He escorted him back into his chalet pushed him onto his bed and thumped him, – poor chap went out like a light. We had absolutely no trouble at all, the mere sight of his lot subdued any trouble almost instantly. Nevertheless I decided not to push my luck and I never did another chalet patrol !
I did on several occasions work in the Pig & Whistle, a huge bar which could hold several hundred customers. Most times it was collecting glasses. Bar waiting was more difficult to get as it offered opportunities for tips and there was often a waiting list, but I did manage to get it on one or two occasions. On one of those occasions there was a spot of trouble developing in the centre of the Pig & Whistle. A group of three or four lads were pretty drunk and becoming aggressive. This was something that was likely to upset family groups and could not be tolerated. Acting on instructions issued to all waiters I spoke to the head barman who rang security. “That should do the trick” he said when he had finished speaking to them. “They’re sending Pete, Dave and Trevor, have you ever met them? When I told him that I had done a chalet patrol with them he said “Well you’ll know we’re in for a treat then !”. I went to the door to greet my former chalet patrol colleague. “Hello David, got a little job for us then said Trevor” I explained the situation and led them to the offending table which was by now getting very noisy and then stood back at a discreet distance to watch the outcome. It was all impressively fast. The security men spaced themselves around the table and Trevor addressed the lads “Looking for trouble are we then lads “he said in an extremely aggressive manner. “What if we are” said one of them trying not to lose face in front of the girls they were with. “Good, well you’ve found it “ replied Trevor – “Outside. Now” Before they knew what was happening the lads were hustled outside – almost like sheep being rounded up by dogs. I followed at a respectful distance to see what happened. They took the lads outside and into an alley between the Pig & Whistle and the next building. Pete and Dave stood on either side of them and Trevor faced them. “Right, I’ll take the biggest” said Trevor. He just lifted this lad (who was not small ) bodily of the ground then let him go , hitting him between the eyes as he fell. The remaining lads took off as if their life depended upon it. That was the end of that, no more trouble and a quick “Thanks for the fun” from Trevor and that was that. So if you ever wondered what the secret of maintaining behaviour at Butlin’s was you now know ! It certainly worked pretty effectively.
Life in the kitchens was not without its moments as we were a very motley crew indeed. The chef whose name escapes me was a quiet, gentle elderly man (actually almost certainly a lot younger than I am now !) The head cook on the other hand was a petty tyrant called Tommy who was extremely fond of throwing his weight around and was rumoured to be a public toilet attendant in London in the off season. The only thing that prevented him from being ducked in the soup vat (a potential fate that was seriously discussed on several occasions by his mutinous staff) waqs the fact that a large proportion of our diminutive wages were held back until we were about to leave (I think it was officially described as a good behaviour bonus). There was a fairly quiet veg chef who kept himself to himself and three cooks. The three cooks were rather more interesting. Two of them were large, muscle bound men who were apparently navies with Nottingham County Council during the winter. The largest of the two had a mop of long greasy hair and a habit of working stripped to the waist with a small row of cucumber and tomato slices along each shoulder like military epaulettes. He would then march up and down the serving benches shouting “I’m in charge” (The catchphrase of Bruce Forsyth at the time).
The third member of the trio was Roman, a very unpredictable Ukrainian with a violent temper. On one occasion someone inadvertently bumped into him and caused him to drop a tray of eggs. His practically reflex action was to grab a huge chefs chopping knife and lunge at the offender. It took several people to hold him down until he became calm. It was our lucky day when a female Ukrainian student joined us and was able to chat with him in his own language which made him generally much calmer and well behaved.
All in all it was a fascinating experience which was relived when the BBC screened “Hi de Hi” which was a remarkably accurate portrayal in many ways of life in a 50’s holiday camp. Tony, in fact went back the following year (I believe he was there when the elephant died !). I decided that enough was enough and so that I could see Rosi had in fact managed to get a job at Bendix Ericsson in the Basford area of Nottingham. The rest of my student days passed fairly uneventfully and I even managed to do enough work (despite the robot building) to collect a second at the end of it all.
The War and its aftermath
As I was only just two when war broke out my early memories of it are limited. I grew up not knowing the taste of ice cream or banana. What you have never had, however, you don’t miss, so I didn’t even know what I was supposed to look forward to when the war ended. I do clearly remember the maps pinned on the wall which dad had cut from the daily mirror which showed the relative positions of armies. I also recall him being pretty annoyed when I said to him with somewhat faulty logic “If Hitler is on their side does that mean that Himmler is on ours ?” – Dad was not impressed. Wolverton area saw relatively little actual action during the war. My personal recollections are few. I do remember going down into our cellar when the air raid siren went and of hearing the desynchronised throb which was the characteristic sound of Junkers 88’s on their way to bomb Coventry. One night a Lancaster with an engine on fire circled and I believe crashed in a field near Haversham bridge. The bridge itself made headlines in 1939 when it was swept away in floods and Lord Haw Haw claimed that the Luftwaffe had bombed it. Lord Haw Haw was of course the name given to the traitor William Joyce who broadcast propaganda messages from Germany. I remember dad tuning in to him and hearing his nasal tones claiming “last night our bombers bombed at random and tonight they will bomb again” He used to special in demonstrating how well the German were informed about us by observing that a particular village clock was so many minutes slow. The Haversham bridge collapse was probably an example of that which was designed to frighten people. As far as I can made out people simply thought of him as a figure of fun. When he was captured at the end of the war he was hanged for treason so I suppose the British public had the last laugh.
Dad took me for a walk one day to the top of the allotments were from the gate (at which a sentry box had been quickly erected) we could see the tail of a spitfire sticking up above he corn.
I suppose a lot of memories relate to the things we couldn’t obtain both during and after the war when food was still rationed. For a time dad kept chickens at the bottom of the garden so we had eggs. This was not always the case however and on one occasion my enthusiastic sister had obtained some new and greatly improved kind of dried eggs (or so it said on the packet). It was claimed that three spoonfuls of this miracle mix were the equivalent of one fresh egg. Accordingly Gene dug out a recipe from the faithful Mrs Beeton for Angel Cake, which started out with the words “Take 8 eggs”. Well that was pretty straightforward .. multiply by three, that’s just twenty four spoonfuls of the miracle mix.
The result of this recipe when it emerged from the oven was a disc of about eight inches diameter and about two inches thick. We never did find out what it tasted like as it defied all attempts to cut it. We tried just about everything except a diamond cutter … and that was only because we didn’t have one. Not that I think a diamond cutter would have stood a snowballs chance in hell against that cake.
To be entirely fair to the manufacturers of the miracle mix, Gene’s culinary abilities in those days were not highly developed. She once made a bowl of porridge into which one could just about force the spoon and then lift up the entire pot.
Come to think of it her serving skills weren’t too good either as she once gave a good vigorous shake to a tomato sauce bottle without having first ensured that the top was screwed on. The result was a highly satisfactory (to me at any rate) column of tomato sauce which erupted upwards, hit the ceiling and the descended to liberally coat the initiator. I seem to remember that it was me that got into trouble for overdoing the hysterical laughter. Sometimes there was just no justice !
Dad and I don’t come out of the culinary stakes with an entirely clean record. One Sunday when mother and Gene had gone to mass (something I used to try and avoid by lying in bed and hoping they had forgotten me until it was too late) Dad discovered a recipe for crunchy toffee in the Sunday People which involved the use of baking powder to produce all the little bubbles (we worked that out for ourselves) so in an attempt produce super light crunchy toffee that would rival the stuff that Fry’s made we upped the baking powder content (doubled it in fact if memory serves me correctly). The stuff was duly mixed up and put in a large saucepan on the stove. It started to rise… and rise…. and rise. It soon became apparent that the saucepan was not going to be able to cope with this stuff, so another one was produced and some mixture `poured into it, where it continued to rise …. And rise. before long just about every flat surface in the kitchen was covered in an assortment of pans and dishes full of this stuff. When the ladies arrived home from church you could tell that they weren’t entirely happy from the outset. I can record that they were even less happy when we tried to chisel the stuff out of the pans. Still, unlike the angel cake we did manage to chop it up and it did taste OK so we weren’t entirely ashamed of our mornings work. Neither did dads serving skills greatly exceed those of Gene with the sauce bottle. He used to pop over to the off license on the corner of Oxford Street and Green lane and buy draught bitter in a tall white jug which must have held about a litre on one Sunday he had collected his beer and whist he had gone mum served up the grub which include the rather thin gravy she always used to make in a tall white jug ……
O.K. you were ahead of me there ! Dad did seem to enjoy his roast doused with half a pint of good Phipps’s ale, although I don’t recall him doing it again.
I have mentioned the absence of ice cream during the war. Not long afterwards the Woodwood family set up a general grocery shop in the square. Not long after they had opened there was a freak whirlwind which blew out the upstairs front wall of the house. The local residents rallied round and a fund was started to help the family to repair the damage. The fund appears to have been quite good since soon after this an ice cream factory was built to the rear of the property. Soon Woodwood’s ice cream van and a small fleet of tricycles made their appearance. They had a reputation for being very astute. At the time that in the event of a fire (usually in those days a chimney fire) the fire siren would sound to summon the volunteer firemen to the fire station in the “Stratford Road” to turn out the fire brigade and it was generally reckoned that by the time the brigade arrived at the fire there would already be at least one of Woodwood’s bikes and quite probably the van as well serving ices to the crowd.
One of the bicycles was for quite a time manned by a very well known character known as “Banger” Atkins I mention this fact for the record and to stimulate the memory of any older readers who may remember him. As to the reasoning behind his soubriquet I shall leave that to your imagination !
Food rationing of course continued until long after the war so the variety and quantity of sweets we could obtain were very strictly limited. I have therefore a very clear recollection of the day that rationing came to an end. The shops, in particular the one at the bottom of our gardens set up their window displays with a dazzling array of multicoloured sweets to tempt us in when the great day arrived. I think their must have been quite a few kids sick that night – although I am proud to record that I was not one of them (damned close thing ‘though).
Whilst I am on the somewhat charmless subject of making ourselves sick, sweets were not the only way. Another excellent method was smoking and since it was strictly forbidden and actually illegal this gave it an added attraction. I suppose in fact that if you want to make something attractive to the young you first make it illegal which makes it exciting and daring. If you then tell them that it’s dangerous as well that makes it even more so. I guess I was lucky that no-one told us how dangerous it was – probably have made us worse.
Anyway most of us had to try it out. Trouble was in those days pocket money was insufficient to justify going out and buying tobacco so we had to seek alternative sources. We used to go out in teams searching for dog ends, the ash trays in the pavilions at the Osborne Street Sports club were a particularly rich source. I feel quite ill just recalling all this, but we never gave it a thought !
Once we had removed the tobacco from the dog ends we made it go a little further by adding the dried tendrils drawn from the leaves of plantains which according to legend was a good tobacco substitute. When it came to smoking the stuff there were two schools of thought. One was the obvious one of buying Rizla cigarette papers and rolling our own. To make up for our poor dexterity we even acquired a cigarette machine to roll them. The alterative, considered by some to look more manly was to use a pipe. Since these two were generally beyond our pocket we developed a manufacturing technique. First one obtained a wooden cotton reel (still in plentiful supply) and using a large diameter drill bit drilled out a bowl. We then drilled on airway into the side with a smaller drill so that we could push a pencil into it. Finally we would split a pencil open, remove the lead and then stick it together again, insert into side of bowl and hey presto – a pipe !
Serious pipe smokers (or ex-pipe smokers) will immediately spot the disadvantage of this type of pipe. The real thing has hard cherry wood bowls which withstand heat and even when the wood charred during the running in period the taste was (relatively speaking) acceptable. When the stuff that cotton reels are made of starts to burn it produces fumes that practically take the back out of your throat. The pipe smoking craze did not last long.
We actually had a smoking den which was situated in a hollow hedge at the top end of the new rec. and on one never to be forgotten occasion whilst returning from a dog end collecting expedition to build up our supplies as I approached the camp I spotted an adult crouching down and peering through a gap in the hedge. As I drew nearer I realised that it was Trevor Hobson’s dad. Trevor’s dad kept the off license at the top of Oxford Street and was none to pleased with Trevor. We learned later that he had taken Trevor home, sat him on a beer crate in the yard and made him smoke a whole packet of Woodbines. Trevor evidently puffed his way enthusiastically through the lot and just said “Thanks dad”. Perhaps he should have given him Capstan full strength or Abdullah – that would probably have cured him. Wonder if he still smokes – I must ask him the next time that I see him.
All too soon the schooldays came to an end. I say all too soon because I actually enjoyed my days at school and look back on them with considerable affection.
One of my more harmless interests in those day was the building and flying of model aircraft. There were several of us during the ”tech years” that used to pursue this hobby together. “Nobby” Leighton from Oxford Street, Keith “Porky” Reed from Stony Stratford and “Tubby” Saunders from Newport Pagnell .Tubby enjoyed a certain respect from the rest of us as his brother was a Pilot Officer in the RAF. Our friendship extended into the years after school when, not having had much success with girls we discovered beer. Tubby was the first to get his hands on a car. It was an ancient Singer Saloon with the battery on the running board. Unfortunately the clutch was shot almost from day one . Consequently when approaching a hump back bridge such as the black horse bridge on the Newport to Wolverton Road the car would gradually slow down as the clutch slipped more and more. The trick was for the passengers to jump out as it slowed to walking speed , nip round the back smartish and push like hell. As soon as it cleared the brow of the hill we had to run like mad, jump on the running board and climb back in.
In those days there seemed to be nothing wrong with drinking and driving. Amazingly it just didn’t seem to be related to accidents. I suppose there was a lot less traffic about, most of it moving a lot slower. Nobby’s car wasn’t much better. It was an old Ford 8 which had a bad habit of spluttering to a standstill without warning. The cure for this problem was to produce an old tyre pump and blow vigorously into the carburettor. Nobby was ,by this time in the RAF and we often used to meet at weekends for pub crawls in these unlikely vehicles. On one occasion Nobby turned up as the proud owner of an MG no less. Unfortunately it was not one of the glamorous sporty types but a large black lumbering saloon. I say lumbering as when we got it onto a fairly straight stretch of the Northampton to Stony Stratford Road and opened it up, it was only with considerably difficulty that it reached the mind boggling speed of 40 mph. As I recall it died altogether not too long after that.
By this time of course I too had left school and still having an interest in electronics I sought and apprenticeship at EMI at Hayes. Since there was no suitable employment of this type anywhere in the area I qualified for a Youth Employment grant to pay the cost of my lodging with (theoretically) 15 shilling left over for pocket money. Unfortunately it was assumed that the maximum cost of lodgings would be Two pounds seven and sixpence a week (it was actually three pounds !)
My starting wage was Two Pounds three and tuppence a week and the grant I received ended up leaving me with about 1 5shillling per week pocket money. Every time I got a rise the grant was reduced accordingly so on 15 shillings I stayed.
I tried to get home at weekends when possible which you will have gathered was something of a financial strain.
This was when I had the big idea ! I clearly couldn’t afford a motorcycle but it had come to my attention that EMI for reasons I have never fathomed were the manufacturers of the “ Cyclemaster” 24 cc’s of roaring power which one fitted into the rear wheel of an ordinary pushbike. Accordingly I raided my saving and bought one which was at the time on special offer at the factory shop for £24. I managed to get it home on the train and duly fitted it into my pushbike. Suitably taxed and insured and with shiny new L plates on I pedalled through the streets of Wolverton to the cycle track on the Stratford Road. I pedalled like it was going out of fashion and letting in the clutch I waited for the satisfying surge of power from my first motorised vehicle. It never came. With the throttle wide open and the slope of the road in my favour it gradually crept up to a hair raising 25 mph.
Anyway it was going to have to do. Thereafter, each Friday after work I would don two pairs of trouser a heavy coat and, if it was raining, plastic overtrousers and a yellow cycling cape. With a fairly substantial portion of my worldly goods in a small cardboard case strapped to the luggage carrier I would set off. The route was along the Uxbridge Road through Hillingdon and the Uxbridge to Denham. Down a most enjoyable hill (almost 30mph) through Chalfonts St Peter and St Giles, Wendover, Aylesbury, Whitchurch, Winslow and then onto the home straight through Great Horwood (whatever would my ancestors have thought ?), Nash, Beachampton, Stony Stratford and (finally) Wolverton. The whole journey took about three and a half hours. I even had my own version of cruise control which consisted of having a cycle spanner in an accessible pocket with which I could lock the throttle in the wide open position.
This epic journey was not without its hazards. As you can imagine it got extremely boring sitting on a bicycle saddle for three and a half hours not to say rather uncomfortable. It was therefore necessary to stand up on the pedals from time to time and stretch myself by leaning back from the handlebars. The danger inherent in this activity had not occurred to me until on one particularly dark and wet winters night chugging up the hill into Whitchurch I felt it necessary to carry out this procedure.
Unfortunately the rain had got under the rubber of the right hand grip which promptly came off. The predictable result was that the handle bars were pulled immediately sideways and I went straight over the top and came down with a hefty thump in the road. I must have been pretty well stunned and not thinking too clearly as I staggered to my feet and tried to lift the bike back up. Since the engine was still under the control of my patent cruise control and the clutch engaged the rear wheel was rotating at a considerable speed as I soon found out when the whole thing reared up in the air and knocked me down again. Mercifully everything was more or less OK and I was able to carry on home, but it was a pretty sorry figure that arrived at Wolverton that night, with torn trousers, a bloody knee, scratched face and number plate tied on with string !
My next attempt at improving the transport situation was to hot up the Cyclemaster. I had by now made contact with an extremely helpful chap who worked in the Cyclemaster workshop at EMI and who for the odd packet of fags could obtain bits and provide advice. The Cyclemaster had been upgraded to 32 cc and I acquire a new cylinder and piston to convert mine with. It would have probably been alright if I had left it at that but I figured that if I fitted the 32cc cylinder but with the 25 cc cylinder head I would get more compression and hence more power !. Well, it seemed to work and I set of for Hayes on that Sunday night and was fair bowling along (speeds of almost 30 mph were being reached. Everything was going a treat until I reached Aylesbury, when, right outside the police station the damn thing just blew up ! Well, that was the end of that. I went into the police station and explained that my landlady would be very worried at my non appearance and could they possibly get a message to her to the effect that her lodger had had a breakdown and would not be returning until the following day. The message she actually received from the local police was that her husband (who had been dead for best part of 15 years) had had an accident on his motorbike and would be very late !
She evidently sat up until the small hours and was less than impressed !
I, on the other hand was less than impressed with the digs which to my horror on arrival still had gas lighting. The landlady was a bit of a gorgon with god knows how many rules and complaints who insisted that I was in by 9.00p.m. and refused to let me have a key. Being a bit of an innocent with no previous experience of digs I stuck it for a couple of years before I escaped. One of my less happy memories was my first day at work at the EMI plant at Hayes. Having walked there from the digs (about 1 mile) I was advised along with all the other new trainees that our first 8 weeks would be spent in the companies training workshop at Feltham which would necessitated a twenty minute bus ride each morning and evening. I have already alluded to my travel sickness problem so it is perhaps not surprising that each morning of that first week I could be seen staggering off the bus and throwing up in the conveniently handy Feltham churchyard ! I went to see the training manager shortly after arriving one morning and having taken one look at the pale green youth in front of him, he made arrangements for me to receive my initial training back at Hayes. It was during the period I spent at those digs (in Central Avenue) that I was introduced to traditional Jazz. A fellow lodger for a while, Paul was a keen net player who was keen on traditional (he worked in the car radio department at EMI ).
He took me along to the White Hart pub at Southall where Chris Barber had recently started up his Jazz club on Wednesday evenings. I was immediately hooked and became a great fan of Monty Sunshine who played clarinet and Lonnie Donegan who played the banjo. At that time it was normal for the band to take a long break whilst Lonnie entertained on the guitar. He introduced us to Skiffle which of course no one had heard of. It was an immediate success, in particular his renderings of The Rock Island Line and Cumberland Gap were extremely popular. I well remember one week not long after he had started playing these numbers that a few of us were chatting with Lonnie after the show and he told us that Decca had asked him to record Rock Island Line. That was the last time we met him ! We little realised at the time that Lonnie was to go on to inspire the Rolling Stones and The Beatles and many other groups and is widely regarded in the business as having been the inspiration for rock and roll in the UK.
The apprenticeship at EMI consisted of the usual “Cooks tour” of many of the laboratories at Hayes and was accompanied by day release to Southall Technical College to study for the higher National Certificate.
Many of the departments I worked in were extremely interesting. I worked on Loudspeaker design, capacitors and a wide range of classified government electronics work. (At one time whilst working in the companies Springfield road site I was working on the proximity fuse for the 60 kiloton Monte Bello Islands Atom bomb).
One thing could be said with certainty; most of the electronic engineers I worked with in those days appeared to be mad !
In one of the labs everyone had busied themselves making weird electronic musical instruments. Bear in mind that this was still the day of the valve and was before electronic organs were commercially available in any numbers. All of these devices had different tone circuits and were connected to home made keyboards rigged up out of old post office relay contacts. The sounds of the test gear lab orchestra had to be heard to be believed. One of the highlights of the week in those days was the broadcast of the Goon Show. This anarchic programme was entirely in keeping with the general behaviour of the engineers and only served to encourage them to greater excesses.
There was often great rivalry between one lab and another and even more so between laboratories and drawing offices which frequently led to some rather risky practical jokes. A huge deflated meteorological balloon was discovered in the loft of one of the labs, this was clearly too good an opportunity to miss. It was painstakingly inflated to enormous proportions and then manhandled into position above the partition which divided the lab from the drawing office and launched onto the unsuspecting draughtsmen beneath, practically asphyxiating them. A favourite trick involved connecting a low voltage electrolytic capacitor to a length of wire, lowering it into the lab next door and then deliberately overloading it with a high voltage. This would produce a satisfyingly loud bang and spray the immediate vicinity with hot wax. There was a considerable interest in producing explosions of various sorts which at one time made use of aluminium powder with a suitable oxidant which produced a near commercial grade explosive. We filled a steel tube full of this stuff together with an electrical detonator then launched it onto the Canal which ran behind the labs. The resultant explosion caused a huge waterspout and was accompanied by a large number of dead fish. Still not satisfied with this performance, Roger, one of the engineers had obtained a large stainless steel canister with a screw top which he filled with ammonium nitrate and a detonator fired by Jetex fuse ( a throwback to our model aircraft days. Roger was the proud owner of a BSA Gold Star, and one dark winters evening he went out into the fields of rural Buckinghamshire with his home made bomb where he lit the fuse and “retired immediately” on his motorbike. The resultant bang was evidently heard several miles away in Slough and mad a pretty impressive crater. I think it rather scared Roger and he never made any more bombs. Some of us however were clearly slow learners. It was our ambition at the time to turn up in Trafalgar Square on bonfire night and producing a bigger and better bang than anyone else without actually injuring anyone in the process. By this time I had escaped from “the digs from hell” and was living in Grove Avenue, Hanwell with the charming (and elderly) Miss Taylor. who lived with her 90 odd year old mother and four lodgers. Three of us were engineers (or trainee engineers) at Emi and the fourth, Malcolm was an industrial chemist at Fairey Aviation (also at Hayes) with a doctorate in Chemistry. This was too good an opportunity to miss ! Malcolm was asked for his advice on our explosive project. Curiously as it happened Malcolm had an idea. He recalled some yellow powder which a colleague had made up for some reason which was highly explosive .. he would bring some home to demonstrate ! The demonstration was impressive.. a small cigarette ash sized pile of the stuff made a pretty good bang without even being confined. Malcolm agreed to make us some more of this stuff the following Saturday morning whilst doing a spot of overtime at Faireys.
That following Sunday I returned to the digs in Hanwell after a weekend at home to be met by the other trainee engineer. He explained in somewhat anxious tones that there had been a big explosion in the lab at Fairey on Saturday and that Malcolm was in Hillingdon Hospital.
First thing the following morning we both went to Hillingdon to see Malcolm. He was sitting up in bed looking pretty sorry for himself . His face was black with gauze patches all over. “I suppose you guessed what happened “ he said to us. It seems he had made to half kilo lots of this stuff and was powdering it down with a pestle and mortar when it just went off. He had actually been quite lucky as there had been a 10inch cubed block of glass between him and the explosion which had blown the glass at him with considerable force and left him with a square, black bruise in the middle of his stomach. Naturally we were very apologetic for getting him involved in what was all too obviously with hindsight a very dangerous escapade. Malcolm was actually very good about it all. “I’m the chemist” he said “ I should have known better” He reckoned that his pride hurt more than the flash burns. It seems there were several children in the same ward who had suffered firework injuries and he had overheard two of them laughing and saying “ That man over there blew himself up making fireworks”.
Whilst we were visiting Malcolm, one of his work colleagues arrived to see him and updated him on the results of the explosion (he couldn’t remember a thing about it himself). Apparently the blast had broken all the glass in the lab windows and blown a whole load of jars of chemicals off their shelves. This apparently included to Winchesters full of fuming nitric acid which had burned a large hole in the concrete floor. Fortunately for Malcolm his colleague new what he had been up to and had removed the evidence (another 500 grams of the stuff ). So at least in that respect Malcolm had been fortunate and nothing more was said. I guess if we did it today we would all have been charged with conspiring to cause explosions and got a line in the local paper.
That finally brought an end to my pyrotechnics career or perhaps I should say almost. It so happened that at Wolverton at that time David “Daisy” Gowland, something of a character whom I got to know very well had taken up a post as pupil teacher at the my old school in Aylesbury Street prior to going off to training college. He was anxious to provide the pupils with a few chemistry lessons and was anxious to do something a bit more exciting than watching litmus paper change colour. This, of course was an immediate challenge. It was summer holidays so the school was empty. I was, of course, at EMI during the week so we met at the school on a Saturday morning and began to experiment. For some unknown reason the school had a few interesting chemicals which were capable of producing rather more dramatic effects than the average boys chemistry set (which were always next to useless with stuff like alum and logwood chips, which did nothing exciting at all ).
One interesting thing they had was ajar containing Yellow phosphorus in Naptha. (this is the stuff, in case you didn’t know that is usually used for making napalm incendiary bombs.) We had already made up a few brews in the class room and lit them with varying degrees of success. When we added phosphorus it really did go, emitting dense clouds of whitish smoke, causing us to open the windows and dash out into the playground, only to be met by an anxious resident rushing across the playground and declaring his intention of calling the fire brigade. We managed to assure him that every thing was OK and returned to the scene of the crime to pack away our gear before going home. The following weekend we agreed to go and do some more experiments. As soon as we opened his classroom door we were met with a very acrid smell. We tracked it down pretty quickly to the drawer of his desk just beneath where we had been carrying out the experiments. At the front of the drawer where it must have rolled in unnoticed was half of a stick of phosphorus which had turned black and was slightly smoking. Now phosphorus is normally kept under naptha because of a tendency to spontaneously combust – how it had survived a week like that heaven only knows. That, I am pleased to record did bring an end, not before time you may well think, to my chemical misadventures (unless you count the attempt to blow up a wasps nest some years later but that’s another story !
Not all of the misadventures in the laboratories of EMI were of a chemical nature. One of the more eccentric characters amongst the engineers was “Hick” who in addition to being a member of the lunchtime orchestra and a talented cartoonist was very keen on motorcycle scrambling (as were several others amongst the engineers) One day Hick came in with news that he had obtained some of the new miracle adhesive “Araldite” which, he assured us, was used to glue together parts of aircraft. It was his intention to make up a new pair of forks for his road bike (He came to work on this every day) He duly appeared one day with his new set of forks with which he proceeded to whack the bench like a tuning fork to demonstrate the sheer strength of the stuff. We were impressed! It was however to yours truly that befell the satisfying opportunity of being in Blyth Road in the morning rush hour a few days later when there was a sudden commotion. In the middle of it was Hick trying to drag the remains of his motorbike complete with disintegrated forkd, off the road. That was the last we heard from him about Araldite.
Some of the practical jokes were less hazardous. Following a reference on the Goon Show to “Steam Radio” we dug and old valve radio (actually they were all valve radios then) removed the valves and snipped off the top caps under water. We then reinserted the valves and connected up their heaters (don’t try this at home whatever you do ) Gradually they came to the boil and there was our radio standing on the bench with satisfying plumes of steam hissing out of the valves. It was just a shame that the head of the laboratory chose that moment to show round some visiting dignity. When he inevitably asked what it was, to be told it was the original steam radio he went away looking a little bemused. The boss unfortunately was less amused.
When I come to think about it most of these activities took place in the test Gear Laboratory where I spent quite `a bit of time and which probably had `the maddest engineers of the lot. They were a pretty close knit bunch and had an organisation called the worshipful company of test gear engineers. They had a n annual dinner at which they paraded with various ceremonial objects in a mickey take (not the actual phrase they would have used !) of the Freemasons. One of these items comprised about 15 feet of waveguide tube as used on radar aerials with an old gramophone horn on one end and a trombone mouthpiece on the other. It made the most horrendous racket and was known as the zacrophone. The prefix ZAc had been dreamt up for use rather as the term Acme is often used in Warner Brothers cartoons. The term used to crop up everywhere. My main memory is of a superbly drawn (by “Hick”) poster advertising an imaginary medicine which bore the immortal words “Zachroids for Haemorrhoids – The world’s finest pile drivers “
One of the more interesting laboratories that I worked in and which in hindsight was historically significant was a small section comprising two engineers (Ken and Roger)and two trainees (Mike and myself) under the leadership of Godfrey Hounsfield, who were working on data storage using rotating drums coated with an oxide film (in effect the first hard drives) and memory composed of hundreds of tiny ferrite beads through which yours truly had to thread extremely fine wire using a standard fine sewing needle.
Godfrey was a great chap to work for, he was always known simply as “H” and had brilliant intuition for all thing electronic. In many ways the typical absent minded boffin he was very likeable and I was not entirely surprised many years later to learn that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for his work developing the body scanner. Mind you H was by no means the only eccentric in the team. I clearly remember Ken, one of the engineers explaining to me that he knew that he had started to have a nervous breakdown when he found the he could see the water boiling in our kettle through the lid ! .. nuff said!!
By this time my years at EMI were drawing to a close. I had completed my Higher National and signed on for an extra year to study advanced radio engineering and design. If I didn’t do so my exemption from national service would be ended and I would be hauled off to serve Her Majesty.. something I was not at all keen on. It will have become apparent by now that I was something of what we would today call a Nerd and Nerds tended not to fit into military environments very well.
So, advanced radio engineering and design it was and I made my last move within the company to a newly formed department which was working on radiation measuring equipment. The things we were working on were hand and clothing monitors for use at places like Harwell. They used a block of special phosphorescent material which emits a tiny flash of light when struck by a sub atomic particle. This light is then detected by an electronic gizmo called a photomultiplier. Since these tiny flashes of light would hardly show up against normal background light levels the things ad to be covered with melinex. This was a bit like cling film which had been coated with aluminium (rather like the stuff they wrap post marathon athletes in) Unfortunately this stuff always had lots of tiny holes in it, so it was yours truly that got the really high tech job of placing it on an underlit glass table, looking at it through a hood and blanking out the holes with blackboard paint.
One of the interesting characters I met in that laboratory had just transferred to EMI from the United Kingdome Atomic Energy Authority – the UKAEA more usually referred to as the UKELELE.
He had been working at Windscale when the number one reactor caught fire and knew a great deal more about it than the press did at that time. I remember him telling me that he lived with most of the other trainees in a hostel block about a mile or so from the reactors across the moors. On the morning in question they had been driving in an old Austin 7 owned by one of the other trainees when one of the passengers said “Isn’t that smoke comin2 out of number one pile” Too bloody true it is the driver allegedly replied and turned round and headed back to the hostel. Since this fire was a serious incident (one of the worst three along with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl) which is often used as a reason for not building Nuclear Power Stations I will take this opportunity of setting the record straight about what happened at Windscale. Technophobes may wish to skip the next bit which is taken from the Web site of British energy with some additional bits in italics by yours truly. It would be nice however if people tried to understand some of this before we finally bury all of our moorland under monstrous and largely useless windmills !
A further chapter in David Marks’ memoir
Naturally since the school was mixed it wasn’t very long before most of us started to develop an interest in the fair sex. I have to admit that even in those far off days of innocence I was about as successful in this direction as I was in games.
I did manage to date one girl who lived in Olney and who attended the grammar school (then located in Moon street) I had met her through her friend whose parents kept the grocers shop at the end of Green Lane and just opposite our back gate. The shop was Mitchell’s and I was the grocery boy who trundled around the district delivering boxes of Groceries. Hence I knew the daughter of the household (Diane) quite well and hence got introduced to her friend Jane. Due to pathological shyness on the part of yours truly (honestly!) the relationship went absolutely nowhere but it did lead to a very embarrassing experience. I used to cycle over to Olney to see her and on this particular occasion we took a packed lunch with us and set off for a country walk up from Moors Hill. Not far up the road we went into a field with a haystack and sat down beside it to eat our lunch (I told you I was an innocent). Anyway during the course of the lunch a small green caterpillar appeared adjacent to my sandwiches and I flicked it out of the way, squashing it in the process. A few minutes later I started to feel a severe prickling sensation all over my face and Jane rather alarmed informed me that I had broken out in a rash of small livid red spots. We packed up our picnic and headed for home but by the time we reached her house the rash had entirely disappeared and been replaced by what appeared to be a seriously black eye ! It had puffed up and completely closed with a myriad of purplish red colours all around .. a real classic shiner ! You can well imagine the interpretation that was put on this phenomena … Chance would have been a fine thing.
I wasn’t aware of the cause myself until whilst being quizzed by the local doctor, the caterpillar incident was revealed as the almost certain cause. This ill fated relationship caused me one further embarrassment before it finally fizzled out. I had taken to the (as it turned out) extremely unwise habit of sending notes to her via the grocery shop. As notes go they were scarcely torrid tales of passion but they were struggling to express the feelings of a timid and rather daft little boy. I still clearly remember after all these the horror I felt when I was advised one Friday night after school by another friend that my most recent epistle had fallen into the hands of the enemy. The enemy in this case was John Smith, grammar school pupil, confident extrovert and most likely of anyone in the Wolverton Urban district to make damn good use of it.
I spent a very uneasy weekend,to say the least of it trying to remember what I had written and wondering what was going to happen to it. I didn’t have to wait long to find out ! When the time came for English with Joe Richards he flourished my note and stated that a interesting epistle had fallen into his hands that very morning. Turning in my general direction he beamed as I tried to crawl under my desk and then delivered a critique of the English used. At least he didn’t read the whole damn thing out so it could have been worse. All the same it was bad enough and certainly brought my note writing career to an end.
My next attempt at romance was initiated by offering to take Kathleen to the station to catch her train ( I certainly new how to treat a girl). To my surprise I was advised the following morning that she had “Packed me in”, to use the vernacular and that my presence on further exciting visits to the station would not be required.
Eventually I achieved what (to me at least) was the ultimate success. I had got to know another girl (relatively new to the district) to whom I was greatly attracted but who was, unfortunately going out with another local lad .. general good egg, all round sportsman etc. (You get the drift …). Although by dint of carefully contrived lurking on my bike along her homeward route I managed a few hesitant words here and there, the future didn’t look too rosy. Then one Friday night after school (Why did things always happen on Friday nights ?) I had lurked myself subtly (I told myself) into her path home and was immediately advised by her that she had “packed in “ the sporting superman. Well, perhaps surprisingly, the wimp turned and in a totally unparalleled burst of reckless courage asked her for the pleasure of her company at the local cinema (the Empire to be precise) where the horror film “King Kong” was showing. Actually the invitation was perhaps a tad less polished than I describe more of an incoherent, red faced mumbling in truth, but it had the desired effect and off we went to see King Kong. Perhaps it would be fair to reveal my simple strategy, such as it was. The idea was that the sheer terror induced by King Kong would drive her into the arms of her shining knight in the back row of the local fleapit and I must say it seemed to work. We went out together for some months, covering the period from just before finishing school for the last time and leaving in the September to take up an apprenticeship in electronics at EMI at Hayes in Middlesex.
It was an idyllic summer albeit one of complete innocence and soon after I left for Hayes the great romance ended. Lessons were learned however and some year later when I met my dear wife Rosi in the lake at Battersea Park (Yes I did say in the lake … more about that anon) the first date I suggested was a trip to the fleapit on Clapham Common to see ….. wait for it …. The Hound of the Baskervilles ……. Nuff said !!
In 1942 it was time to start school and I was duly carted off down Cambridge Street and along Aylesbury Street to the Infants, Junior and secondary school. For the first few weeks my mother along with large numbers `of other mums would appear at the school railings in the back-way behind Windsor Street with biscuits sandwiches and/or other goodies. I recall on that first day being allowed to play with some rather splendid toys.
My recollections of actually learning anything are pretty vague although I must have learned something ! What I do remember only too clearly was within the first week or so being brought out to the front of the class for talking too much (Those who know me will realise that it didn’t actually do much good !!). Anyway I was so horrified at the thought that I would be found out when I got home and be in more trouble that I well remember rushing up to my bedroom and looking in the mirror to see if I was blushing!
I have rather more recollection of the junior school which was at that time under the redoubtable headmastership of Mr Herbert Lunn. To say that he was an old fashioned disciplinarian would be a monstrous understatement. He was what we would call today a teaching head and used this position to share his two great loves with us. One of these was music, in particular choirs and the other was poetry.
When I say poetry I am assuming that this is the case based on the fact that he would regularly inflict large helpings of Hiawatha upon us as a result of which I developed a deep and abiding hatred for the wretched poem. This was probably explained by the threatening atmosphere which pervaded the room. Whilst Hiawatha was being read we were expected to keep our eyes riveted on “Lunny” in order that we might more deeply enjoy the experience. Anyone who failed to maintain this degree of concentration would receive an immediate visit from the narrator, who, whilst still narrating, would deliver a blow on the back of the unfortunate victims head with his book which was calculated to knock him clean out of his desk.
Singing as I have said was his other great passion one of the manifestations of which was to conduct the whole class to ensure that the choral quality was being maintained. A favourite of his was a piece which started;
“In Han’s old mill his three black cats, watched the bins for the thieving rats.
Whisker and claw they crouched in the night their five eyes gleaming red and bright”
Now, in case you should think that my arithmetic is as bad as my English I should point out that one of the blasted cats turned out to have only one eye. If I had anything to do with it at the time they would all have been put down (although I like to think I have mellowed a little with age!).
Of course today when we consider events of this type words like sadistic, disgraceful and lawyer get bandied about and we should perhaps remind ourselves that Lunny was a man of his time. A man who enjoyed enormous respect in the community and became much loved by many who were taught by him (usually after they had left school)Anyway on one memorable (to me at any rate) occasion whilst the aforementioned cats were watching the bins etc. I had managed to get a good position in the back row. When Lunny was conducting positions in the back row were hard to come by as that was exactly where every single member of the choir had a burning desire to be. Anyway I had made it to the back row and I can only suppose that this must have imbued me with a greater than usual sense of confidence, utterly misplaced as it turned out. Just as we were in full cry another pupil (probably a little girl that I rather wanted to impress) walked through the hall in which we were singing (several classrooms opened off this hall) and I turned sideways and smiled at her, rapidly realised the enormity of the risk I was taking and turned back to face Lunny. Too late ! He was already on the move walking rapidly around the choir and leaving me in very little doubt as to where he was heading. I could sense him coming up behind me when I received a terrific blow across the back of the head from the very large, heavy music book he always carried which knocked me clean out of my place ! Never did it again — never sang about Han’s bloody mill either when I didn’t have to !
One day when we were having a particularly heavy dose of Hiawatha one of the teachers (Miss Illing I believe) arrived with a terrified pupil in tow whom we will call Bloggs to protect the guilty (I believe he still lives in Wolverton). Bloggs it appeared had committed some misdemeanour which Miss Illing evidently felt had to be referred to higher authority and she had accordingly sent him to “see Mr Lunn” a euphemistic phrase wich more or less meant handing yourself over for a damn good of a hiding. The enterprising Bloggs (not a characteristic he was noted for) had decided to bluff and accordingly hid behind a door instead of handing himself in. Unfortunately for the hapless Bloggs he was discovered by another member of staff who grassed him up, as they say to Miss Illing who then decided to personally conduct him to Lunny who, as I mentioned was in full throat with Hiawatha.
Miss Illing explained that she had sent Bloggs to see him and that Bloggs had failed to do so. Lunny looked at the wretched Bloggs who was already crying and appeared to have wet himself for good measure. “Why didn’t you come to see me boy ?” he asked with an air of quiet menace that was all to familiar to all of us. “I was too frightened Sir” sobbed Bloggs.
Lunny responded to this admission by seizing him by the shoulders, lifting him off the floor and shaking him like a rat whilst uttering the immortal words: “There’s (shake) no need (shake) to be frightened (shake) of me (shake) then releasing him to fall into a crumpled heap on the floor)
Lunny’s wife often used to come into school to help out. She was a charming and gentle lady who used to read stories to us which we loved (Five on Treasure Island and The Just William stories were favourites of hers (and ours). Other teachers at that time included Mr Llewellyn who taught art ( and whom I was to meet many years later at a somewhat alcoholic sing song in Trafalgar square on New Years Eve).
Another favourite was Miss Faux whom I also met many years later when I moved to Potterspury.
A really unforgettable character was the woodwork teacher Mr Murphitt, affectionately known throughout the district as Spud. He doesn’t appear to have been too keen on this however as when one of the more unruly elements in the school painted the words “The Spudworks” on the woodwork shed door he immediately summoned us all together.
Spud always used to attract attention in the woodwork class by striking a small shop bell with a button top and shouting in a high voice “Gather round boys !” He was quite a small man with rosy cheeks and on this particular occasion he was puffed up and red with indignation as `he informed us that “Someone has written something extremely rude on the woodwork shed door.” If he could see the sort of stuff that gets written on it nowadays the poor old fellow would have a coronary!
Spud had a little Austin Seven of which he was inordinately proud. I was told some years later that to avoid it being bombed in the event of Hitler having a go at Wolverton (It was on his hit list because of the railway works) he had had his little wooden garage camouflaged.
It was, of course in the later years at the school that we took the eleven plus. All I knew about the eleven plus was that it was an exam which one had to pass to go to the local grammar school. My somewhat inaccurate understanding of the grammar school (because of its name) was that it was the sort of place you went to if you wanted to be good at English and “things like that” whilst the Technical School was about all of the things I was becoming interested in. accordingly I failed the eleven plus! In fact I seem to recall that for some reason they let me take it again … and I failed it again ! Eventually I took and passed the thirteen plus which qualified me to attend the Wolverton Secondary Technical School which was situated in Church Street (and was later burned down …. Not by me I hasten to add ! although I did nearly burn down one of the other schools in Woverton… but more about that later !)
.In those days it was more or less the tradition that boys wore short trousers up until the time they started at the Tech (or in the equivalent class at the secondary modern as it was by then known). Consequently the day I stated at the Tech was the first time I appeared in public in long trousers. It is difficult to comprehend today just how embarrassed boys were at this change, mainly because others took the mickey. I still can’t quite understand why we dreaded it so much but we certainly did (Or I did at any rate).
We certainly felt pretty grown up now. We even had a sort of tuck shop which consisted of Mr East from the Brighton Bakery (opposite the school) selling splendid cream buns ( I don’t doubt that in today’s world he would pretty soon be escorted off the premise by the food police).
The emphasis was very much on technical subjects such as woodwork, metalwork, chemistry, physics and biology. Although the school was mixed the girls were segregated from us in assembly and immediately afterwards disappeared through a mysterious door by the side of the main staircase and were more or less not seen again for the remainder of the day.
Metalwork was taught by Charley Castle who was pretty much of a hero to all of the boys as he was the proud owner of a Vincent Black Shadow – the ultimate motor bike (and still sought after today). According to school legend this monster, when in top gear only fired every third lamppost and for many years it was asserted that he had given a boy a lift from the school playing fields and accelerated away with a violence that left the breathless youth standing in the road with his legs apart like a cowboy without a horse (well it made a good story anyway).
Woodwork was the province of “Jake” Rainbow a kind and patient man whose mission in life was to start at least some of us off in life as craftsmen. I only ever saw Jake ruffled once. On that particular occasion one of the less gifted members of the class (at least from a woodwork point of view .. come to think of it from most other points of view too)) had been making a small bedside cabinet, a process which had already taken some weeks and was beginning to look like a lifetimes work.
The whole thing was clamped together and “Bloggs (we will once again disguise the guilty) the embryo carpenter in question was desperately trying to get it square in all directions. “For heavens sake Marks give him a hand” said Jake. I struggled for about ten minutes and when Jake returned he said with some exasperation “Here let me !”
Anyway he struggled with this thing for about another twenty minutes until he was happy that the whole thing was square. As he was about to walk away he looked closer at the masterpiece and said “ You really should have been a bit more generous with the glue Underwood, it should be oozing out of the joints.
“Oh”, said Underwood “I haven’t actually put any glue in it yet, I was just trying it all out” To his credit Jake never said a word he just delivered one mighty blow sending clamps flying in all directions and walked away. It was some time later that I believe he just quietly said “I think we’ll call it a day Underwood” and the project was duly scrapped.
Mr Wenban universally known as “Whizzbang” taught us history he was the proud owner of a bright red Hillman Saloon inevitably referred to as Whizzbang’s fire engine. My main recollection of his class was being caught sending a somewhat incriminating note about a girl to someone else in the class and having the damn thing read out to a hysterically amused class.
A J (Ajjer) Pyne taught chemistry and physics in a room at the top of the building with a glass roof which had been painted green. Whilst not in the same league as Lunny he was certainly a disciplinarian with clearly held views about the importance of remembering certain things word for word. I can in fact still recite with just about one hundred percent accuracy both Boyles’ Law and Archimedes Principle ( I will not bore you just to prove this point but a pint will always produced a faultless recitation).
The hapless Bloggs (he of the bedside cabinet) managed to annoy Ajjer on one occasion (I can’t for the life of me remember how but he was pretty good at it)). His reward came before the end of the lesson in which we were being shown how to make Chlorine gas by electrolysis of salt water (just so you know I remember other things) and as soon as we arrived at the bit where we had to identify properties. Underwood was immediately selected to test for smell and never being one to do things by halves took a good hefty sniff. Not surprisingly in view of the fact that Chlorine has a very nasty smell and is extremely poisonous Underwood was almost immediately sick.
One of the more enjoyable moments was when the Kipps apparatus blew up whilst making hydrogen and sprayed the front row with hydrochloric acid. (and no, Underwood wasn’t in the front row) The site of poor old Ajjer panicking about burnt clothing filled us all with a rather unkind delight. Nothing like seeing someone in authority fouling things up !
Our other teachers at the Tech included Bob Fleming who taught geography. Lofty Williams, the headmaster who taught us English and Joe Richards who also taught English. Joe was famous amongst the boys for his risqué remarks and not many weeks went past without a new “Joism” being passed around the school. A regular example of this was when we filed into the classroom. Joe would stand by the door and to any boy with his hands in his pockets he would boom “Leave it alone boy”.
In those days of course, sex education in schools was non existent so one can imagine the anticipation on one never to be forgotten day when we were told that Toddy (Mr Todd) was off sick and that as a result our “bilge” (biology) lesson would be taken by Mr Richards. We were not to be disappointed. Joe decided that we ought to have some sex education and conducted a questions and answers session in which he used the vernacular language more often found on the walls of the boys toilets. That lesson was talked about for weeks after (And here am I, over 50 years on still talking about it !!) Many years later when I came to buy the house in which we now live in Potterpury Joe turned ouy to be the owner ! He had been appointed headmaster of the village school and the “School House” went with the job. Evidently Joe the persuaded the Count Council to sell it to him Then ran off with his new girlfriend leaving his wife (Heidi) behind. Sadly Heidi committed suicide and the house went on the market where it was purchased by yours truly.
For games we had to cycle down to the Stratford Road down station hill and along the old road. The playing field was about halfway along on the left hand side. It was a pretty run down sort of place with an extremely rickety old pavilion and changing room. There was no fresh water or proper toilets and the drinking water was brought along by the groundsman, Mr Adams who seemed to regard all schoolboys as something of a menace (often not without reason !). The surest way to upset him was to leave a water bottle around with the cap open (he used the old Corona type bottles with a captive, clip top. He would come stamping into the pavilion bellowing “How do you little buggers expect to keep the water sweet and clean if you leave the tops off !” We were somewhat amused by this since a lot of the bottles which had been in use for some time, had a distinctly greenish tinge at the bottom !
We played football and cricket and in the summer, tennis, although the tennis courts were a pretty sad sight with sagging nets which had been patched and mended over many years.
I was never a sporting type personally and would frequently resort to such tricks as hiding in the boot locker to escape from football. I was the sort of player that you really didn,t want on your team ! if there was an own goal or a hit wicket you could bet on it that I was involved in some way !
For this reason I never seemed to hit it off with games teachers whom I regarded as bullies who were committed to trying to cause me severe physical discomfort. When we had a cross country I would be one of those who completely ran out of puff and ended up walking. When Toddy decided to organise a boxing competition in which all boys would have to participate I had little doubt what was in store. When the draw took place for the first round I found myself drawn against Bob Wade. Bob as I recall was the champion boxer at Fegan’s Homes, the orphanage in Stony Stratford (Currently the Mogul Palace Indian Restaurant). Fortunately Bob was a gentle boy who was a friend to me and promised to ease off. Unfortunately I was so bad that I didn’t know how to look convincing as I took a swing at him, and accidentally thumped him. The result was immediate and predictable Bob swung back in what must have been a reflex action and split my lip. The fight was stopped (Bob apologised later as did I ) and that I am delighted to say was the end of my boxing career. I was always convinced that Toddy regarded me as a wimp (which I was ) and set out to make life difficult for me. I suspect it had more to do with my own paranoia to be fair, and later when he also took us for biology in which I was interested and consequently quite good, the relationship improved.
David Marks, who grew up in Osborne Street in the 1940s and 50s, has shared this memoir with me to publish on this blog. it will be posted in several sections.
The early part of the year 1937 had been quite eventful. The coronation of King George 5th and Queen Elizabeth had taken place in London on 12th May. Earlier in the month the world had been stunned by the pictures of the great airship Hindenburg bursting into flames as it landed in Lakehurst, New Jersey somewhat overshadowing the announcement on the same day of Neville Chamberlains appointment as Prime Minister. Important though these world events were, it would be nice to think that an event due to take place in August at 3 Osborne Street Wolverton was rather more important to Frank and Adelaide (Addy) Marks who were expecting their second child. Their first child Eugenie (Gene) was already approaching ten, so this was to be quite an event. Eventually on August 19th I made my appearance to the delight of all (I like to think !). David Frank Marks had arrived !
My father Leonard Frank (always known as Frank) was the son of a Stony Stratford postman, Eli Marks who hailed from Great Horwood and a Stratford girl Annie Marlow. My mother was the daughter of James Francis Garside a railwayman from Manchester and Mary Anne Haycock a local girl whose father Thomas like many at that time had moved from the world of the agricultural labourer to that of the railwayman at the local railway works.
Wolverton in those days was something of an oddity, surrounded by the green fields of rural Buckinhamshire it was a small industrial town dominated by the railway works of the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) and McCorquodales the printers (Often referred to as Mc Crocodiles and the ‘Ell of a mess).
The railway works had been established in September 1838 as the Grand Central station and Depot for the London and Birmingham Railway. It had been the company’s original intention for the line to pass through Northampton where they would build their depot but local landowners had opposed this and Wolverton was chosen instead. The works and the town had flourished and grown and at the time of my birth the railway works dominated the town and employed over 4000 workers. It was the general assumption that if you were of working age that you worked “Inside” as the works was always known. The boom of the steam siren at starting and finishing times was a familiar sound to generations of Wolvertonians as was the site of the power house chimney which could be seen for many miles around the town.
My earliest recollections of childhood were the Sunday walks with my parents. I still have a clear recollection of two irrational fears which I had when we walked around the “old road” The walk involved setting out from our home at 3 Osborne Street along Green Lane then down Ratcliffe Street to The Stratford Road (which was always referred to as “The front”) this route is of course now blocked by the Agora Centre (Don’t start me off !). From there we would walk along the Stratford Road towards the station and take a short cut through the park. Wolverton Park was built by the railway company and has seen many major events in its long history.
There were many major sporting events, not only cricket, football and bowls, but there was considerable support for athletic events. The park boasted a magnificent cycling track, traces of which may still be seen today and the grandstand (the oldest of it type in the country.) It is, at the time of writing undergoing restoration. The massive structure of the old lifting shop towers above the western side and has now been declared a listed building which is eventually to be restored and put to use in some way for the community. The Whitsun gala which was held in the park was for many years a major event for the town.
At the northern end on the old road stands Park House which I recall during the war being struck by an accidentally dropped practice bomb (or so dad said) and we walked down to gaze at the damaged guttering which was the sole evidence of this drama.
Through the park we would walk and on to the Old Road. Turning left and under Stephenson’s skew bridge we would emerge alongside Tilley’s Wood Yard on the right and it was here that fear would strike me as I cowered in my pushchair. What was this object of terror which so frightened this small child ? It was an electric lamp on an inverted U shaped bracket with a glass dome shaped cover. This cover was broken and I used to shut my eyes and asked to be told when we were safely past the “Broken bottle” as I remember calling it.
Before we had proceeded for more than a couple of hundred yards we arrived at terror number two which old dead tree on the left hand side of the road !
After that the remainder of the walk held no further terrors. Along past the technical school sports ground which would one day become so familiar to me. Turning left and passing the ”pancake hills” on our left we crossed the canal bridge and walked along the “black boards” to the Stratford Road and back home.
The pancake hills were a series of grass covered mounds which I believe were created when the canal was first excavated and which were later to provide an exciting cycle speedway track (It was actually much more like a modern BMX track!).
The black boards footpath was so named because of the high, black wooden fence which hid the mysteries of the west end of Wolverton works from prying eyes. As I recall, that particular canal bridge (according to Dad) was once known as suicide bridge having often been the site of some unfortunate and depressed soul ending their torment. I cannot be certain, but it could have been this story together with the ominous warnings of the danger of falling into the canal and drowning which led me to the childish belief that the canal was bottomless ! A notion which appeared to amuse my parents when I confided it to them !
On other occasions the walk would continue along the old road to the Galleon pub. In those days it was still frequently referred to as “The Loco” from its original name of The Locomotive. From there we would often walk along the canal towpath and across the Iron Trunk, the aqueduct which carried the Grand Union Canal over the river Ouse (pausing to explore the mysterious and often muddy tunnel under the canal. The river on that side of the canal was known as the twenty foot (its alleged depth) and was for experienced swimmers. The stretch of river on the other side of the canal was known as the five foot. Then we would arrive at Cosgrove locks and if we were lucky we could watch one of the many Fellows, Morton and Clayton coal boats working the lock. In another of my childhood misunderstandings I though that the men who owned the company were Morton and Clayton and that Fellows was their style of address (as in For he’s a Jolly Good Fellow ! ).
The Grand Union Canal looking from the Galleon towards the Iron Trunk and Cosgrove
Little did we know then (and probably couldn’t have cared less if we did ) that just along the towpath of the Buckingham Arm in the adjacent field lay buried what was described at its discovery as one of the best example of a Roman Villa between London and Leicester. The Buckingham Arm was a branch off the main Grand Union Canal which wended it way (surprise, surprise) to Buckingham. In those days it was still complete but almost completely overgrown and its towpath provided a good walk ending by scrabbling up the bank at the bridge which carried the main road from Stratford to Northampton (now, I believe simply known as Cosgrove Road).
Sometimes our walk would take us from Osborne Street, up Western Road to the New Rec. (recreation ground) across into what we then called the “first fields” along toward the Stratford Road into the “second fields” and finally just before we reached the Stratford Road through a field which was always known as “The Happy Morn”.
Occasionally before we reached the second fields we would turn left across the fields which led to the London Road South of Stratford and near to the reservoir. Along the way we would go and examine “The big pond” in the far corner of one of the fields always a good habitat for moorhens, tadpoles and newts.
If we were feeling very energetic we might cross the London Road (perhaps seeing the occasional car !) and follow the footpath to Calverton. More excitement here as Dad would once again tell the story of the robber who was hanged on a tree by the side of the long stone wall and where there was carved a gibbet and some initials and a date. To my recollection, by that time, there were several gibbets and sets of initials which had doubtless been supplied by the local youth which somewhat reduced the credibility of the story although I believe there may have been some truth in it.
Another popular walk on those seemingly endless summer Sundays was down the steps opposite Wolverton Station (long since demolished) down to the canal footpath and along to Bradwell where we could make a small diversion onto the footbridge which crossed the Nobby Newport line (Not Newport Nobby as I recently heard him called !)
A glance up at the remains of the old windmill (which as I recall was worse then that it is now) onto the road and back up the station hill to Wolverton.
One other walk which I always enjoyed was past the cemetery and across the fields, down the hill to the Braddle (Bradwell) Brook and under a small tunnel which carried the main railway line. On the railway embankment on the far side of the railway was the pumping station whose job it was to pump water up from artesian wells which filled the two water tanks which stood at either end of Osborne Street and which supplied the towns water. Our main interest in those days was that the embankment at that particular spot was extremely good for wild cowslips. Of course I would also enjoy watching the steam trains thundering past along the main line and if I was really lucky might even see the Royal Scot. It is sad to think that our children will never witness the sight, sound and smell of those giant steam engines (often “double heading” a long train) roaring past at well over 100mph belching steam and smoke and not infrequently with the driver leaning on the footplate ledge and waving to us. I recently heard an American Country and Western song which was bemoaning the fact that:
“The drivers don’t wave from the trains any more..
Not like they did back in nineteen fifty four. They’ve got computers and diesels and things .. and the drivers just don’t wave from those trains any more.”