Working Lives

The changing man. Sopwith apprentice to sports lecturer (2016)

Location: Norwich

John shares the story of his working life of change beginning with his early career as an apprentice in the motor industry with Armstrong Siddeley. John had a strong impetus to pass on skills and knowledge as evidenced by his activities in sports as a participant and as a coach. His desire to train others led him to an unexpected career at Great Yarmouth College.

I left grammar school at 16 and like most 16 year olds I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do. Everybody did apprenticeships but it seemed you had to know somebody to get on the better ones. My uncle was finance manager at Armstrong Siddeley Motors in Coventry and he managed to get me a place on their apprenticeship scheme. I went in as a provisional apprentice draftsman and went into the design and drawing office and started work. We spent one year in a training centre, although I was used to a reasonably strict regime at grammar school this was a complete change. It was a big training centre because the company itself was quite big, as far as I’m concerned.

I think there were dozens of apprentices under a strict regime of a training officer. Workers actually trained people in a very, very big workshop. The first year of the five year apprenticeship was spent in that workshop. They were very, very strict. Very strict on how we looked: clean overalls; everybody wore the same overalls. You didn’t have to lose much time before you were told to either go or buck up your ideas. We began on minor engineering projects learning how to use tools, machines and that sort of thing. It consisted of producing workable tools of our own; I’ve still got mine in my shed in a tool box which my father made so I could keep all my things in.

At the end of the first year, we had all these different things we made and were graded on them. These grades went to top management who decided who to keep, who they didn’t think would be worth it. It was decision day. I don’t know if I was lucky but I managed to get through the first hurdle. I can always remember it because the actual training officers were standing over the top of you waiting for you to make a mistake, and hopefully they went away when you did it properly. It was an enjoyable time but it was quite a strict year. It was every working day of your life, five days a week in those days, under strict control.

I was going to be a draftsman in the drawing office. Unfortunately things changed quite rapidly. I was never really very good at exams. At grammar school I was in the top three or four in my group but didn’t gain one O level, or whatever they were then. I failed the exams I had and it happened when at work as well. During the first year we attended Coventry Technical College for one day a week. I didn’t get very good results in my first year and neither in my second year, it affected where I was going from then.

Once we finished in the training centre we started going round various parts of the factory doing various jobs. During this time I was told they didn’t think my exam results were good enough to gain a place in the drawing office. They were happy with my mechanical skills, so they offered me a place as a tool maker. I’d been in the tool room in the first year for a short period so I knew what it entailed: manufacturing tools for the manufacturing of cars, tool maintenance like sharpening and things like that. That was fine. I was quite happy with it and it proved to be right because my exam results at the end of the second year were abysmal, so I thought they made the right decision for me.

Armstrong Siddeley was quite an interesting place in those days because it was one the high class car manufacturers. It was owned by the Sopwiths who most people think of as the aeroplane people but Tommy Sopwith, the son, was a racing man and he used to have all his engineering done for his race cars in the factory. I remember working on the engine assembly point alongside the testing bays. He came in like a lord and master, as they were in those days, and told everybody what he wanted; he wanted this done and that done and the other done, and it was done – no arguments. So it was a little bit different from life in industry now-a-days; the owners were the owners and that was it.

I carried on going round the company doing various jobs: jobs I would not normally do like going into the tin smiths where the bodies were made, designed and built. It wasn’t my forte but it was good experience. The apprenticeship was to give you as much experience as possible in those five years. So at the end I got a job as a grinding tool maker working on surface and cylindrical grinding and things like that in 1958.

When I finished my apprenticeship, settled into a life in industry, things were slightly disrupted because of National Service. It was October when I finished my apprenticeship and went to do it for one and a half years. Because it was the last of the National Service it was cut down from two years.

Armstrong Siddeley changed to Bristol Siddeley, which was the beginning of the aero part of the company, and then to Rolls Royce when the car manufacturing was removed. I went back to Rolls Royce in the tool room and worked on various projects. We were then building aero engines for Rolls Royce and it was a good time. I was earning more money which was a change from earning pennies during five years as an apprentice and two and nearly two years of National Service; that’s what wages were like in those days. I was on £1 something a week during National Service and I saved half of it. As an apprentice you had your parents; you couldn’t survive without them. It was fine working for Rolls Royce but I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do; I wanted to go into training education.

I applied for a job at B.O. Morris, who were part of Bell Fruit – the fruit machine people. Amongst other things we made the flexi-drives people use now-a-days on their electric drills. In the car industry we used them for looking at engines and for taking all the rough parts out of them where you had to get down inside holes and things like that. Three of us ran this small training centre and we had students from all over Coventry. It was quite a big development because I was making big decisions of my own rather than doing what I was told. It went very, very well and I was really pleased with it at the time. It was a nice firm to work for: they looked after you, the work was interesting because the actual procedure wasn’t different but the process was. Because I had to demonstrate things to the apprentices it was quite a pleasing time.

Rolls Royce had their own training centres; smaller firms with one or two apprentices would send them either to other companies or colleges. This is what happened in Coventry; it was the engineering centre of Britain. Apprentices went to Henley College and a number of firms started their own training centres and took apprentices. I knew I had no chance of getting into the Rolls Royce training centre because that was a bit out of my league, and also unlikely they needed new people. I applied for the educational centres and competing against lots of people.

I kept my eyes open for various opportunities in the papers and things like that. Great Yarmouth College put adverts in the Coventry paper, Birmingham too (the engineering centres of the country); there was a job there. I thought it was a long way but I applied and got an interview. I drove all the way from Coventry in the morning, had the interview, got the job and drove all the way back in the evening. Wrong thing to do because I drove the car off the road on the way back! I must have gone to sleep because it had been such a long day. Everything was all right; I wrote the car off but I was okay. It was another change in my life because I was married since I was 21 before National Service and my wife refused to go. ‘I’m not going all that way out to Norfolk. I want to stay here.’ So my marriage broke up at the same time and I started at Great Yarmouth College at their training centre.

It was another big step because I moved away from family and everything like that, but it was what I wanted. I knew if I could at least get into the system on the training side then it would be a first move; maybe two or three years to return to Coventry and get a job with the experience. This didn’t happen because I stayed at Great Yarmouth College until I retired. It was quite an interesting change in the way I worked: moving from a big city way of working to a small college, as Great Yarmouth was at the time, and their way of working.

Although I lacked the educational qualifications it was basically the same work. The process at B. O. Morris was exactly the same as the process at Great Yarmouth College; it just happened to be in a college of further education rather than in industry. I think the letters from management at B. O. Morris and somebody at technical college, who I had known all the way through, helped me get the job; so the educational qualifications weren’t that important as far as they were concerned.

We had a head of department who was more of a disciplinarian than any of the people in management I worked with previously. I was called into his office one day. ‘John, I’ve actually said something to you before but you’re not wearing a tie. You’re in an educational establishment.’ ‘No and as I’ve told you before, then, I won’t either.’ ‘You have to wear a tie; you’re in an educational establishment.’ ‘No, I’m not. I’m in a workshop and there are two things you don’t wear in a machine shop: ties and rings. I’m not going to strangle myself, thank you.’ He never mentioned it again but he didn’t like it. That was the sort of person he was.

We had apprentices from all over Yarmouth; some from Richard Ship Building, Erie electronics, Allison Engineering, small companies. Some of the firms don’t exist now. We even had one or two apprentices from Birdseye. It was basically the same procedure: taking apprentices through. The first year was off the job training where we had them for a complete year: day in college, four in the training centre. There were two of us in the training centre, others on the electrical side and others on the welding and construction side within the college. So there was half a dozen who did this off the job training. That went on for four years, I think.

I’d always been a sportsperson in my private life. In Coventry I was a semi-professional footballer and been a member of the company cricket team. I began coaching in Coventry and got a coaching badge for football. In the National Service I played football and cricket for two years; did little else. When I went to Great Yarmouth College I ran the college football team, played cricket for the College and for Great Yarmouth cricket club. I was also coaching at Gorleston football club. So my involvement in sport was quite strong.

We had a big rebuild at the college; a sports hall. The idea was to employ two new members of staff, male and female, to run the sports hall. The government cut back on education so they didn’t employ these people. They came to me and another member of staff, a rugby man, and asked us to help out for a few hours at lunch time for something the students could do; otherwise the sports hall would be doing nothing. So I did a few hours at lunch time. I said we could run some evening classes now we got started. They said if I was happy to do it then it’s fine. So I started evening classes for badminton and things.

It gradually grew and it went from a few hours of my time table to a quarter and then half. So I spent half my time table in sport and half in engineering. I was paid half my salary for the sports and half for the engineering. I enjoyed it; I was working with students like I did in engineering. The head of the section department, or something, asked if I was happy doing this, and wanted me to do the sports full time because I knew what to do. They had someone else who could do my job in engineering; a technician at the college who was also interviewed when I got the job. I went to see the principal and was told my engineering job would always be there if I decided I didn’t want to keep doing the sports. I was guaranteed the job and they would keep employing me. So I said yes and I moved completely over to leisure and recreation in 1976.

I ran the sports hall and the academic side of it. I knew it all because of my coaching career. I took a member of staff and soon there were five of us. It went very, very quickly. I developed this side of the college as best I could. We were working with qualifications for the students for sports and leisure. I ran lunch time and free time activities for students as well as evening classes for the community. It was fine until we had an inspection. We had inspections before but this particular inspector evidently didn’t like the situation and reported it to the principal. He couldn’t let me be in the department anymore because I didn’t have the academic qualifications, though I had the coaching qualifications. All the PE staff went to PE college and were trained but I didn’t.

The principal was quite upset about it because we got on really well and didn’t want me to go. He came to me to talk about it. The inspector wouldn’t allow me to carry on teaching without a formal qualification. I could return to engineering or something could be sorted out. I didn’t want to go back to engineering; I put a lot into the sport. So I went on to the CertEd which was the teaching certificate for further education at Norwich City College. This confused matters because you had to go to Huddersfield for a certain part of the training. When they saw I was lecturing leisure and recreation it threw them because it hadn’t been done before and they needed something they could quantify. I did a lot of work with special needs in the sports hall because we had a fairly large group of special needs students within the college who came from the training centre just up the road. So my CertEd was for working with special needs students. They evidently contacted the inspector and they agreed that it would be all right. I got my CertEd which would be a qualification to allow me to continue work. My job was secured. Work carried on and we developed and did different things. It took two or three years, I can’t remember exactly.

A group of us from different further education colleges did a week at Norwich City College; mainly from industry and moved into education. Although they had industry qualifications they didn’t have teaching qualifications which is what the CertEd was for.

I was the first one to run an archery class in the classroom! They asked what we were good at and I said archery. ‘You can’t do archery here.’ I said it’s all right, I’ll make it safe. I went and took all the equipment in the college to do this archery demonstration. It was quite funny. At the end of the year we had to go to Huddersfield for two weeks, I think. This was the examination side so it was demonstrating and teaching things in a classroom situation. That went all right.

I had been head of the leisure side for a few years by 1995. As all people who teach will tell you the more experience you have the less teaching you do; it becomes office work. I’m a practical person and I was getting a bit fed up sitting in the office doing paperwork and things for other people who were enjoying themselves doing the practical side. So I got a bit down, things weren’t going my way and I was informed there was some early retirement and it would be the last of them, because it was a change in government working. So I applied for early retirement at 58 and got it. That was fine; I was quite happy with it. Elaine was still working so she was out at work all day, but I had plenty to do here. That was summer. I was asked to stay on until Christmas because they had to advertise for new staff and it wouldn’t be sorted until Christmas. ‘Fine, that’s no problem.’

I carried on until Christmas and was finished as far as I was concerned. In February I had a telephone call from my head of department asking me to come back. ‘I’ve seen too many people retire and come back to work and do part time and all that. No. I’ve finished. If I had wanted to carry on I would have carried on and not took early retirement.’ It was a different role: The College didn’t have a good student union for years and they wanted me to run the student union because I had the most contact with students. So I started again. Elaine wasn’t very happy because I was earning clerical assistant money rather than lecturer.

I ran activities in the sports hall at lunch time and dealing with all the other things they had problems with. It worked out quite well and I was quite happy with it. I was working about 12 hours a week on flexi-time. Outside I was involved with the sports council: local, national and everything. So I had a lot of meetings to attend so flexi-time fitted the programme quite well.

I was doing that for two years and there was another change. The vice principal wanted me to take on the grant scheme, which was to help students who couldn’t afford to pay for fees, equipment and things like that, as part of my student union role. I would get extra hours for it. I asked who was doing it at the moment and it was the vice principal. ‘Woah, hold on. You’re asking me to run it on the salary I’m on, taking over from you on a vice principal’s salary? No. If it’s that important then I want…’ So they agreed to pay me more. The grant started at £3,000 and when I left it was over £70,000. I had a secretary and an office to run the grant scheme. So I went from an apprentice tool maker and draftsman, training, then into education, running a department and finished as a financial advisor which I never thought I would ever be!

When I was in leisure and recreation, we had students come down to the sports hall for sports and activities; both special needs and students in nursing, catering and such. I decided one of the things of benefit to some of them would be a residential experience. So I contacted some people in North Norfolk and we used a self-contained house in Mundesley. I took the students in a college mini-bus I managed to acquire. They had to do everything themselves; they had to plan, purchase food, prepare, cook and feed everybody. It went very well. We had some good times up there with different students; my own students needed something a little extra. We used to go up to Weardale in Northumberland, which was a YMCA hostel, I think, for the Sunderland area to do outdoor activities like walking, exploring places, sleeping out overnight, preparing food, climbing, caving and things like that.

I did it for a number of years and then other members of staff came to me and asked if I could run residentials for them because they didn’t have the experience. I said we’d have to sort things out concerning pay and everything. My head said it sounds like a good idea I wanted to do it. I was all right as long as my time table wasn’t messed up. He assured me it could be covered.

The first one was taking a group of nursing students over to Scaveningham on the boats from Yarmouth in those days. Two boats went from Yarmouth, which weren’t very big and was for transporting stuff rather than passengers. The idea was to study the facilities for the disabled in Holland compared to the facilities in this country. They were sick going over and sick coming back because these boats went up and down unlike the ferries now-a-days. This was the first trip with other students rather than my own.

It gradually developed. I took a group of students to New York two or three times; another group to Barcelona. I think the fashion students went to New York and the art students to Barcelona… There were other members of staff who came with us, but they didn’t have the knowledge of what to do. So I became known as the residential man: the man to go to if you wanted to run one and wanted advice about it.

The biggest one was the college link – the Norfolk colleges: King’s Lynn, Norwich and ourselves – with Handwerkskamer in Koblenz through the Norwich and Koblenz twinning. The idea was we went there one year; they came here the next year. It was students like hairdressers, carpenters, electricians, motor vehicle and they had three weeks: a week at college, a week’s work experience within the German set up and a week of holiday of sorts doing other things.

I made great friends with my German counterpart; we’re still friends and visit when we can in Koblenz. That was another completely different thing I was doing at college; one I enjoyed although there were lots of worries and things. It was an area I am really passionate about because you find out so much about the students. You don’t realise there are students who don’t know what the dark is; never been in a non-lit environment. Take them up to North Norfolk and at night time there were no lights; no street lights, very little housing lights, so it’s black. It took a long time for them to get over that shock. It’s little things like that, you know. Students losing passports: how many passports were stolen in Barcelona and having to go through all the consulate things to get them home. It was another change.

John White (b. 1937)  talking to WISEArchive on 18th October 2016 in Belton.

© 2020 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.