From spanner to ‘scape wheel (2013)

Location : Norwich Letchworth

and garage work

Yes, I went to the local council school,
infants, and then I took the 11-plus and went to the Paston Grammar School,
that would have been about 1945. I finished in 1950 and started work at Hannant’s
Garage in North Walsham, the first day – January 1st in 1951 as what
we used to call a grease monkey, serving petrol, oiling and greasing cars and so
on. But I learnt to drive there, although I wasn’t of age. I was on the

I meant
to ask you, did you take any exams at the Paston Grammar School?

I took the 11-plus to get there.

after that, before you went to work?

I left before I took my exams to get to
university – because my parents couldn’t afford the uniforms and all that sort
of thing. My mother, who cleaned the offices at Hannant’s, got me that job
there. I was there for 18 months, and I picked up quite a lot of mechanical
stuff. I wanted to be a motor mechanic. As national service was in at that time
I volunteered at seventeen and a half and I didn’t want to go into the infantry
and kill people, I wanted to mend cars and things. I got into the REME (Royal
Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and that was that. I got called up – well
I volunteered – and ended up in basic training.


How old
were you then?

Seventeen and a half. Basic training at
Blandford in Dorset, and then I moved on to Devon where they did extensive
training. I was in an officer training unit for some time but as I knew my
parents couldn’t afford the mess fees I decided not to continue with that. I
then was posted up to Elsmere in Shropshire with a vehicle mechanic course. I
ended that after about six months I think it was as a VM3 – vehicle mechanic
third class. I was then posted to Germany as a vehicle mechanic and was there
for two years, in Germany as a motor mechanic. But not on tanks. Although I was
in an armoured division – the Eleventh Armoured Division – I was with a brigade
headquarters an mended their lorries and jeeps and things. I was moved around
quite a bit, being in the REME. I was with what they called a light aid detachment
first, and then I was in a complete tank recovery service with lots of REME and
such. Then I went to the headquarters of the 33 Armoured Brigade and I was
looking after the lorries and things there. Plus there was a military police
unit on that camp and I looked after their vehicles and there was a signals
squadron which I helped to look after along with others, we looked after their
vehicles and so on. We went on various manoeuvres in Germany, especially along
the Russian border where we were trying to keep the Bolshevik hoards at bay
(laughs) – me and a few others! Was based at at least six different units and
eventually got demobbed after three years. Although I was a regular soldier I
got out after three years. What they called a three-year reenlistment.

mechanic in Norwich

I came back as what they call a semi-skilled
motor mechanic and went to work for Mann Egerton’s. [Norwich]

So what
year are we talking about – how old were you then?

Came out in 1955. Well, I was twenty –
something. I was there for 20 months at Mann Egerton’s working on their
vehicles, their commercial vehicles, lorries, vans and things, at Rose Lane.


Rose Lane in Norwich, yes. I was still living
in North Walsham and was courting and got engaged to my wife. She lived in
Stalham, she moved to North Walsham. I used to commute to Norwich on a motor
bike with my wife on the back. It was Triumph Speed Twin! It was a bit too
fast, really, for me. It was just before Christmas in 1956, on a very foggy
day, that I bashed into a lorry and was out of work and in hospitals for
treatment for about four years, well three years that and one year training. I retrained as a watchmaker in
Letchworth for a year.

Into watchmaking

made you think of retraining as a watchmaker?

Well, I first started getting interested in watch
making when I met a soldier in Germany. He was in the REME and he was a
watchmaker and used to mend watches and other small mechanical things for the
army. He was from Norwich, trained at Ames, as an apprentice, and I used to go
in his van, which had a lot of equipment, and we had little chats. He said we’d
meet in the Star, which was at the end of Lower Goat Lane. I said, fine, but of
course I then got moved to another unit, then I got demobbed, and I had this
motor-bike crash and in hospital and so on. When I came out I was a bit
disabled, I couldn’t lift heavy mechanical things; I did try for various jobs
but when they found I was disabled they didn’t want to know. So I went on the
dole, I was on the Club first and then on the dole. Then I met this chap, he
had a little shop in St Stephen’s. He said, “Why don’t you come and work for me,
I can do with some help. Watch what I’m doing and take a few tips.” And I did
that for several months. We stayed in digs just off St Stephen’s Square
together (well not together, we had our own bedrooms!). Then he had to move.
Can we just stop there?

We stopped
for you to remember a few events. When you were with the watch mender that you
met in the army and were working in his shop in St Stephen’s as a dogsbody – he
was showing you the ropes – and you were living in digs with him. And then what

had to move from his shop because they were widening St Stephen’s Street. He
went off to set up his own workshop, and I went off to be a dogsbody at Ames
jeweller’s shop in Goat Lane. I went from there, I got married in the meantime,
and I went from my marriage home in Brunswick Road in Norwich to Letchworth,
which was a government training centre and I did a year’s course on horology –
or watch and clock mending. When I “passed out” on that (we had a special test
to pass out, and I got the right percentage in both practical and written) and
then I went to join my ex-army friend in his workshop as a semi-skilled
watchmaker helping him out and indeed learning quite a lot. I was with him for
several months. He had to move for personal reasons and I was looking at a job
in Coppings the jewellers in London Street as their watch and clock mender. It
is now a coffee shop! (Laughs) Up in
the third storey mending clocks and watches. I was with him for eight years. It
got to the point when I was about 35, I wanted to go on my own and I had a
little shop in Elm Hill. I was there for 30 years, roughly. I retired from
there on the last day of the twentieth century. (Laughs). The very last day. I
remember that! And then I retired. That’s it, really.

The shop
in Elm Hill

business good enough in Elm Hill?

No, it was very seasonal really. You did
better when the tourists came along. But I was repairing clocks and watches all
the time behind a grill in the shop. And I used to do my own work from the
shop, and I did what they call trade work. I worked for people like Coppings,
Windsor Bishop, several others, can’t think of the names at the moment.

added the names: H. Samuel; Albrow & Sons; Pololsky; Jacby Jems; Jans of
Bethel St.; Timgems and others in the Hill!]

So I was able to make a living, just about.
Sometimes it was touch and go, but I managed to survive with the help of my
wife, who looked after the children, went to work and everything.

Did you
really enjoy it in the shop?

Yes. It was interesting really. No two jobs were
the same in watch making and clock making. But it can be not very profitable
because you spend a lot of time sorting out the problems and everything. And of
course I met people coming into the shop. Sometimes not many, but the regulars
used to come back for their clocks and watch repairs. I got to know several of
them as friends. They sent me postcards when they went out and so on. And I got
on well with my neighbours and they gave me a send-off when I left them after
30 years. In fact I was the longest one there really. All the others were quite
new. That photograph there with the print they gave me and some money, which I
brought a book about Norwich with. So that was that really.

there anything else you think would be interesting for people to read about
that? Did you miss the engineering? Ideally would you have liked to have stayed
with the engineering?

Well, it was very difficult because my eyes
were going. I got glaucoma and I found it very difficult, especially with small
ladies watches and stuff. I managed to sell all my gear to a watchmaker and
jeweller and gave my other small spares to a friend down the road who is a
watchmaker. But later I gave a lot of my stuff and photos of myself at the
bench to Bridewell Alley. I went in and asked him if they wanted some old watch-making
tools and some old watches and things like that. He said, “Fine. And any papers
and stuff.” I gave him my training books and photographs. Had a professional
photographer come in and said he was taking photographs of trades that were
dying out because of the battery watches were coming in at that time and he
took a very good close-up of me at the bench etc. I gave that to Bridewell

So you
are already down for posterity?

Well, they may think it is rubbish and not
bring it forward.

revamped Bridewell.

Yes, one of the curators from the museum
seemed very keen – or he was very kind – said that any papers and photographs
and books, we’ll put your name on it and stuff like that.

that’s a nice rounding off of working. It must have been very interesting in
Elm Hill with the tourists coming in. Do they break their watches and come in?

Yes, I had some people from the Theatre Royal
pop in. they used to stay at the Maid’s Head, you see, and wander through.
People who used to work at John Oliver’s, the hair people; the ladies used to
pop in. And the little Chinese lady used to come in. And the man next door at the
stamp shop, I used to do his watches occasionally. Dealers used to come in.
Tried to flog me things, expensive, which I didn’t have any time for. Wheeling
and dealing – I didn’t like that bit at all. Working behind the scenes I used
to like. And some of the regular customers who used to bring me work.

That was quite good. My wife worked with me,
and did a bit of bookwork. And my son used to run some errands for me when he
was not at school. He went to the Norwich Cathedral school, the other Nelson
School, by the way. And a young school-leaver used to come on Saturday mornings
sometimes, used to go and deliver some of my stuff and bring stuff to me.

So you
were an employer as well?

She was a little girl and I didn’t pay her
much money. But she was very nice and she wrote me a letter when she left. I
was a good boss, that sort of thing! She was a very nice girl.

very interesting that it finished on the last day of the twentieth century.

I think we’ve covered everything.

very much.

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