Working Lives

A technical life: from an RAF instrument fitter to a secondary school technician (1947-1994)

Location: London; Norwich; Suez; Australia; Thorpe St Andrew

Ronald went to schools in London and Norfolk before joining the RAF as an apprentice at the age of 16. He qualified as a navigational instrument fitter and spent the next 12 years in the RAF, with postings including RAF Marham and to Adelaide in South Australia. After working for several years as a technical writer in Norwich, Ronald completed his working life as a technician at Thorpe St Andrew Secondary Modern School and subsequently Thorpe St Andrew School.

Early days in London

I was born in July 1935 in Hayes Hospital in Middlesex. Coincidentally, a lady of about my age lives in this road who was born in the same hospital.

First of all I went to school at home because my mother was asked to start up a kindergarten. People had been taken in for war service and some parents found out that she had been a governess. So it was just a matter of coming downstairs; the two rooms had been made into one.

Then I went to prep school in Ruislip, and then a primary school, similar to Hillside Avenue School in Norwich; a similar layout. I can remember they detonated an unexploded bomb while we were out in the playground. We rushed in, going through the build-in cupboards which had been emptied for such an emergency in a bombing raid.

And then I went to the elementary school in Fulham, because my father transferred from Perivale Telephone Exchange where he worked to Kensington Telephone Exchange. He was installing and maintaining the automatic exchange equipment. Perivale was one of the first telephone exchanges to be automated as it served the factories such as Hoover in that part of Middlesex.

I went to another school where I took my eleven plus, which was an elementary school right next to Putney Bridge, so I had to walk all the way along the New King’s Road in Fulham down to Putney Bridge. Then I went to a school near the White City Stadium, Du Cane Road. We had our sports day at White City Stadium, now the Television Centre. But I was only there for a year, for health reasons and because of the fact that all our relations were up in Norfolk.

At school in North Walsham, and a decision to join the air force

And so we came to live here, having been able after the war finished to visit relations; decided that it would be better to go away from the smog and everything of London and to live in Norfolk. I went to North Walsham School and then when I finished my O-level exams I had already put my mind to joining the air force. I had national service looming ahead of me, and having watched the aircraft testing the radar defences zooming along the beach where we lived, was interested in engines and aircraft. I volunteered to go into the RAF; they had an apprenticeship scheme.

Apprenticeship at RAF Halton, and graduation as a navigational instrument fitter

Anyway, the prospects of work were in the country. I wanted to travel and that sort of thing so I decided to go and live and work in what I deemed a civilised part of the country! Having been brought up down near London in the Middlesex area I’d lived at High Wycombe on one of the many occasions we had been bombed out. My apprenticeship was in Buckinghamshire, a place called RAF Halton, in the triangle between Aylesbury, Wendover and Tring. It was once the Rothschild estate. I was there for three years.

The RAF was my first job. I was just 16. I’d put down that I wanted to work on engines, but when I went to the interview they said, ‘Oh no, your results of exams are such that you are more suited for electrical or instruments.’

I had just found out in Physics lessons that I was slightly colour-blind, and they confirmed that, so I was not suited for some trades. No chance of going aircrew at any stage, and so electrical or instruments was the option I was given. There was a basic introduction to the air force. They teach you to be a serviceman, which came fairly easily to people who had been in the Air Training Corps or the Combined Cadet Force, as I had been, at school at North Walsham. Yes, it wasn’t too bad, just rifle drill and that sort of thing, and basic workshop practice.

They then decided you had to be electrical or instruments, so I plumped for instruments, because I thought it was more interesting, the mathematical side of things. And then they subsequently put us into either general instruments or navigational instruments, so I opted for navigational instruments.

A visit from German officers: ‘We don’t know how you won the war!’

When we were at Halton they were setting up this NATO thing. They had several officers from Germany come over just to see how we worked and how NATO would work together, to be unified, so that NATO could work as a group. They were looking around and shown how we would get equipment and suchlike from stores, depots and all that. They were completely bemused and said, ‘We don’t know how you won the war, because you don’t seem to know what you’re doing.’

‘Well yes, that’s how we won the war. You knew exactly what you were doing, so we could find out what you were doing. But we didn’t know what we were doing, so there was no chance you could find out!’

The Queen’s Colour

I hadn’t been long into my apprenticeship when the King died. The new Queen decided to take on her first official engagement by giving the Colour to the training school, which her father had promised to do. Unfortunately he was too ill. Prior to that he was supposed to have come to our school at North Walsham, but the Queen as she was then, Queen Elizabeth who was to become the Queen Mother, she came, and we all sang ‘Here’s a Health unto His Majesty’.  Anyway, the new Queen, her daughter, came to Halton to give this Colour.

The Coronation, and a voluntary RAF Band: ‘They asked me to learn the bagpipes!’

In ’53 there was the Coronation and by that time I’d joined the voluntary band which they had at RAF Halton.

Originally there were three wings, different areas of the place. One Wing was for engines, Two Wing was for airframes and Three Wing was for electrical and instrument people. One Wing had a bagpipe band, Two Wing had a military band, although anyone who could play a band instrument could join it, and in our wing we had a drum and fife band.

When the Queen came to give the Colour, someone said, ‘Well, this is a bit strange, having a drum and fife band, because there is nowhere in the air force you’ve got drum and fife bands, only in the Guards.’

So they decided that they were going to form a bagpipe band in each wing as well as having this military band from all three wings. I had volunteered for the drum and fife band. When people had graduated, they would need to replace them so some of my mates went in as drummers and I played the fife. My grandfather was very musical and I had learnt to play the violin at school, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll take up the fife.’ And then they asked me to learn the bagpipes!

We had someone come who had transferred from the Marines. He’d been on the tour down to South Africa with the Queen prior to that. And as Marines bandsmen they have to play every instrument possible: music in the evening for dance, and they played the bugles for all the different calls during the day. When they leave port they have to play the bagpipes on the bridge. And so he took over and I was playing bagpipes! We had some fun.

Taking part in the Coronation: ‘We were providing the entertainment!’

I was part of lining the route for the Coronation. You sent the tallest and smartest to line one part of the route, you see. You had other servicemen lining all the route. We just lined one part of it. There were many of us in our entry, as it was called, in this voluntary band, so we were down there as well. We all went down in the coaches together and afterwards we were going around the West End. People were on their balconies drinking their champagne and we were providing the entertainment, marching around!

It was an amazing day, especially when a chap in our entry (he is now living at Litcham), he wasn’t anything to do with the band but he just took over because he was one of those chaps who took charge of things. Do you know where the museums are in Kensington, there’s a pedestrian subway under the Brompton Road area? He took us down there. Well, there’s a bend in it. And we were marching along playing these bagpipes and a flight lieutenant came the other way! An air force officer. He must have wondered what on earth this noise was. And he came round this bend and was confronted with us. And the chap who was leading said to give him a salute. Hilarious things like that.

‘The RAF band is cheering for Ipswich!’

On another occasion we were asked to go to a speedway meeting in Islip and Ipswich was riding. We got there at the start and we were due to play during the interval. And we realised there were very few Ipswich supporters, because in those days not many people had cars and couldn’t afford fares. We were all cheering Ipswich on, Ipswich Witches. The commentator was trying to chivvy up the local supporters because he said, ‘The RAF band is out cheering for Ipswich!’ So we thought that by the time we got out there to do our bit they wouldn’t be very keen on us. But they were alright, they took it all in good fun.

From RAF Marham to Australia via Wiltshire and Manchester

After three years training I graduated as a navigational instrument fitter. I was restricted to the East of England. Because I had chosen navigational instruments I was confined to Bomber Command and I was posted to RAF Marham near King’s Lynn in Norfolk. They were just about to be equipped with the first jet-propelled bombers made by English Electric.

I went on a two-week course to RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire about these aircraft and met up with one of my best pals during the apprenticeship, stationed there, and two of my classmates who were doing their national service. They were jealous of me because they had gone through sixth form and hadn’t been earning any money and I was well-off compared to them at the time. But they went on to better things in later life. They were cousins actually and lived in the North Walsham area. Anyway, I carried on at Marham.

Breaking the sound barrier!

One exciting thing was that they had some fighter aircraft using Marham because their runway was being repaired. And one of them decided to go through the sound barrier one day and I couldn’t understand why everyone had dived under their workbenches. While I was away someone was towing a load of bombs and one of them touched one of the tyres on the trolley and it exploded … that’s something I missed.

Nine months in Wiltshire: a stunning part of the world

Then they decided that they were going to upgrade the type of aircraft, they were going to have four-engined aircraft, and they sent me on a nine-month course to Wiltshire. Having been posted to Marham, in the middle of nowhere, I was told by everyone at the time that the place is miles away from everywhere, completely isolated, and I decided that I must get myself a motorbike.

So I went down to Wiltshire on this motorbike. I had not been told at school about the Cheddar Gorge and that sort of thing, but to go from Swindon down the road to Avebury, having never been there, and suddenly there’s this huge stone right beside the road! The Avebury double bend, and you can see the standing stones and then there is this big hill on the main A4 as it was then, Silbury Hill. And just along the road towards Calne in the Chippenham direction there was this place where I spent nine months on this course, opposite one of the White Horses. And of course Harris bacon factory was there at Calne at the time, that’s where it came from. Anyway, from there back to Marham.

A royal visit

While I was at Marham for the second time, the Queen came to look around the new building that we were working in. Prince Philip was so impressed with the equipment we had (he was interested in technical things), they were still talking and he was being shown all the things about it, when the Queen’s equerry came and said, ‘The Queen’s in the car waiting for you!’

Subsequently, in 1977, they made her Honorary Commodore at Marham because she flew in there quite frequently to go to Sandringham. They used the railway line to Sandringham, but when that closed she used to fly in to Marham.

The Suez crisis

In ’56 there was the Suez crisis so I had to go and help with the preparation for that in Malta for a while. My father had spent many years in Malta in the Navy.

We were just packed into an aircraft and given equipment, you know, clothing, and sent out there in a converted military aircraft. Not a Richard Branson-type thing … and we got there and were all ready for it, it was likely to flare up. The French were with us as well. But the Americans opposed it, you see, and that led to Eden….

We had an American pilot came round to look at our aircraft. ‘Gee,’ he said, ‘where are the cannons?’ They weren’t armed…. ‘In my fighter aircraft I could get up there and shoot you down in no time.’

They said, ‘You wouldn’t, because we’re too high and by the time …’

We were actually relieved by another squadron from a different base about a week before it flared up, and they were there when it actually came about.

Adelaide by way of Manchester

I was posted, in 1957, to a place called White Waltham in Berkshire, and that was in the news at the time because the Duke of Edinburgh was learning to fly with RAF little training aircraft. Colleagues asked, ‘Why have you been posted there?’

I said, ‘Well, Prince Philip saw this equipment …!’

But it was just a paper posting because I was sent to a civilian factory in Manchester, Avro’s. They were making one of the V bombers. I was there for a while and the project involved going to Australia, so I spent two and a half years in South Australia, in Adelaide. One of these cousins that I mentioned, a school pal, I found out subsequently he was a professor at the university. But I don’t know if he was there then, I found out subsequently. He was there and his cousin last heard of was in New York with a Dutch company.

I enjoyed being in Australia very much. They’ve got the vineyards and beaches, things like that!

My time in the RAF: a summary, plus wages

You asked me about dates.

You had to sign on with the RAF for a period of 12 years from the age of 18, which was, by coincidence, exactly what my father had done. He had gone to HMS Ganges in Shotley near Ipswich as a boy, and served his 12 years’ service in the navy. And I came out of the RAF at the age of 30. That’s my air force career from the age of 16 through apprenticeship and then I finished at the age of 30.

In ‘51 I went in as an apprentice, ’52 the Queen’s colour, and ’53 we were lining the route for the Coronation and going around the West End with this voluntary band afterwards. I graduated in ’54, and then I was in Wiltshire 1955 to ’56. Of course in ’56 there was the Suez crisis.

And then in ’57 I was in Manchester, until in ’59 we went to Australia, and then I just came back at the end of ’62 in time for that very harsh winter, after living in Australia! They needed pneumatic drills to get the carrots out of the ground and the water pipes in Thorpe were frozen. That was very difficult.

I was at RAF Wittering near Stamford and followed the snowplough when posted to RAF Honington in Suffolk, where I completed my RAF career in ’65.

RAF wages

My wage started off at 17/6 (if you understand that! 17 shillings and sixpence) per week. Ten shillings was held back and we were given 7/6 actually over the counter. We had to go and salute and be paid by the paying officer. One chap who’d been elsewhere before going there (because they had a scheme he could join) had overspent his clothing allowance and they only paid him 2/6, half-a-crown. So instead of three half-crowns he only got one! He used to salute smartly and pick up his half-crown and bite it to see if it was real!

When I graduated I was being paid five guineas and my classmates who were doing their national service were on about 49/6 or something like that. They were very envious.

We didn’t consider it a good wage, you know, but of course you had to put up with all the restrictions of having to do what everyone told you to do. Living in camp and that sort of thing. Everything was provided otherwise. So it couldn’t have been too bad. But when I left it was well under £1000, I’m sure, a year. Because we were looking for jobs that were in the £1000 bracket.

Thoughts on a military career and on entering civilian life

The experience of being in the forces was worthwhile. When you’ve been in these places… If I hadn’t done that … Of course there was national service, but I wasn’t sure whether I’d be selected for the air force or not and I didn’t fancy going in the army.

It was very strange being out of the military. Being in the military is very restrictive in some ways. There is more freedom in civilian life, but then you’ve got to find the way yourself. You don’t realise at the time, you’ve been fed, clothed and housed for free and you take it all for granted at that stage. And then you come out and you realise …

As youngsters we were better off than they were, but they had to find everything for themselves. We were very envious of the Teddy-boys etc, who seemed to have money to throw around and we weren’t allowed to do that sort of thing.

Work with an electronics company, and as a technical writer

When I was 30, in 1965, I learnt that there was a position in Harlow with an electronics company, Cossor Electronics. I was there only a very short while. I’d found that job for myself. It was installation and planning of the air traffic control training school. They were involved with training air traffic controllers at this school.

The resettlement people in Norwich contacted me to say that there was a position in Norwich with a firm of publishers and illustrators at the bottom of Harvey Lane. I thought it would be better to settle down in Norwich having been brought up in the place and I decided to take that on. My manager tried to talk me out of it because he said, ‘We’ve got this contract just come in’, and so on.

Anyway I was taken on as a technical writer with Ives Perspectives, they used to publish handbooks. And one project they were involved with was Laurence Scott’s and it was handy to go down there, and I got to meet one of my wife’s cousins who worked there. I hadn’t met my wife that at stage. It was while I was there that I met my wife, and then at our wedding there was this cousin whom I had already met at Laurence Scott’s and there was another cousin who had started his RAF apprenticeship before the war and he had gone through the air force on a similar scheme before going on to Rolls Royce afterwards.

A different life from the air force

It was very different being a technical writer. I had a room of my own. There was just one other writer who had been there some time and there was a drawing office where all the illustrators worked. A couple of part-time secretaries and the managing director. It was very, very quiet. Outside my window robins used to nest. Bullfinches in the woods in Harvey Lane there, completely different from being in the air force.

The pressure of cutbacks

I did wonder what the prospects were. There were various projects, a contract with the navy as well. That was combined with Laurence Scott’s. Everything was being cut back. The reason I came out of the air force was because there had been a cutback and the next project I was due to go on had been cancelled by the government. Which was a new type of aircraft. And then of course the cutbacks were affecting other big projects that we were involved with as publication writers.

They managed to pick up one contract with the Central Electricity Generating Board. They had relied on just the drawings and suchlike that they got from the factories. They decided that they wanted a nice handbook so that the manager of the power station, instead of having to work from all these drawings, could have a handbook. We were well into working on that when they decided they couldn’t carry on with that, they’d had to pay so much for another handbook from another company.

A new job, and marriage

When I met my wife I asked them what the prospects were and they said not very good. So I had to look for something else and it was at that time that I took a position at Laurence Scott and Electromotors in 1967.

My wife and I married in ’69. I was in the 69th entry at Halton, I was married in ’69 and the church was founded in 1669 … and my wife used to work at 69 London Street!

A school science technician: looking after the science labs

In 1972 I saw an advert for a technician at the secondary school in Thorpe and I applied for that in the Science Department.

A technician was like being a modern-day teaching assistant. You had to get all of the equipment out for the science classes: Physics, Chemistry and Biology. All the apparatus. And of course you had to service it in between times. You had to have it all there ready to use for that particular lesson, then clear it away and get it all out ready for the next lesson. Although normally they are double periods, aren’t they, science.

I enjoyed it there, yes, at that stage it was very good. Head of Science at that time was an ex-submarine commander and the biology teacher lived just round in Meadow Lane there. She was very good. Actually I said Chemistry, but there was just Physics and Biology and General Science. The General Science teacher was a local boy. He’d been brought up in Thorpe, went on to Wymondham. He was one of the first to go to Thorpe Grammar School. They had to go to Wymondham College to start with. And then because he knew the headmaster there, once he’d done his teacher training and he’d been working in another school in Norwich he had heard there was a vacancy and so (that was before my time) he got the job there.

Thorpe Grammar School and Thorpe St Andrew Secondary Modern School combine: terrific changes

During my time, the secondary school and Thorpe Grammar School were combined into a comprehensive so things really changed terrifically. My job changed in the way that when it became comprehensive there was a complete new way of teaching and suchlike. There was a complete range of teaching.

And then I was asked to go to the Grammar School site to work in the Chemistry Department. I jumped at the opportunity because I knew that the senior technician who worked in the Physics Department was due to retire. But unfortunately I didn’t get that job because there was a scheme at the time where unemployed people were given priority to take a job. When someone volunteered to retire early someone who was unemployed would be given the opportunity to take that job on.

Running around between three departments!

So someone came in who had been made redundant from May and Baker, I think it was. And anyway they asked me to help out with the Physics Department at times, because they were setting up a new resource thing and he had been involved in that quite a bit. To do with printing and recording and suchlike. School programmes and so on. And then the Craft technician in that site retired, he had to leave. They couldn’t afford to take anyone else on, so I was asked to do Craft as well. So I was running around between three departments.

I didn’t do too much in the Art Department, only perhaps when they had exams, make sure they had all the equipment available. It is mainly in Craft, sharpening the tools and suchlike in the Woodwork Department. And Metalwork – there was Woodwork and Metalwork.

Chemistry on a Friday afternoon: louder than jet engines!

It was very different working at school from being in the air force. The last two periods in the Chemistry Department on a Friday was absolute pandemonium because the kids, they just weren’t interested. They wanted to get away, you know. Thankfully there was a very good disciplinarian there, but even so the noise … even jet engines weren’t as loud as that!  Because you’re in a confined space. The room where I worked was in between the two laboratories and you could sort of shut yourself away a bit from the noise, but you had to go in and get things. Well, the best part of working there, was when there weren’t any children there!

But we had some fun at times. When they were going comprehensive, there were a lot of things in the secondary school … This school here was the main school for this area. And we knew that there was someone in the choir at my wife’s church, I met him, who had only gone to this school. He left school at the age of 14 having been to this school only all his school life.

And then when they set up the secondary school they took a lot of the books and some of the equipment. Some of the equipment had been donated to the school. I don’t know where it came from but it was quite good, very good quality equipment and we had it in the secondary school. Then the grammar school had been equipped through the Nuffield Scheme, you know, Lord Nuffield who had got involved with education at some time or other having made his fortune in making cars: Morris, Austin group. It was all sort of plywood stuff and that sort of thing. When the teachers came over to see what we’d got at the ‘secondary school’, they couldn’t believe their eyes. I was in my element, because we had stuff there that was really good quality equipment and they sort of pinched it all and took it all away and I was left with all this plywood stuff.

Retirement: ‘too much to do’

I was just 59 when I retired, on medical grounds, in 1994 and we just found there was too much to do. I usually spend my time round and about the house. Seeing after things, and the garden. My wife’s not very keen on going to the supermarket so I go down there. Walk down to Sainsbury’s and back! You get to know people, so I walk. I take the dogs. You get to know people that way. I’m involved with sporting activities and church and suchlike. I don’t know how it was I found time to go to work, you know!

Ronald  (b. 1935) talking to WISEArchive in Thorpe, Norwich on 7th June 2011

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