It was obvious to me that I was not among the elite few who would earn the oportunity to remain at school for a further two years leading to ‘A’ levels. It’s worth remembering that, in the UK in the 1960s, only about 4% of school leavers went to university. Whilst rather more would take ‘A’ levels, many would go into roles that would, today, be described as internships: articled clerks in solicitor’s offices or accountancy firms, where they would study part-time whilst working full-time in order to qualify in those professions.
As for me, I would need to start looking for a job. Writing was what I most wanted to do. Could I get a job as a cub reporter with the local newspaper? Older and wiser heads said that would be a high risk choice – only the best achieved success in journalism. Better to get a trade. “You can always try writing later, then, if it doesn’t work out, you will have something to fall back on.”
There were 3 or 4 Engineering employers in Hereford at that time. One of the largest was owned by AEI (Associated Electrical Industries), a conglomerate that manufactured all things electrical. In Hereford it’s subsidiary company traded as Mazda Lamp and Lighting, manufacturing street lighting fittings. I attended for an interview during the Easter holidays but was turned down.
Next was Saunder’s Valve Company. I applied by letter from school and was invited to attend for an interview a couple of weeks before the end of term. The Head agreed that I could have the time off – the exams were over – and that I may as well not return for the last few days of term.
At the interview I learned that the company was not manufacturing electronic valves as I had supposed and as, they said, most people did. The valves made by Saunders were sophisticated versions of the kind of tap – or faucet – found in your kitchen or bathroom.
Saunder’s USP was the diaphragm. The inventor had worked as a Mining Engineer in the South African gold mines where he had become increasingly frustrated by the tendency of the valves to leak in use to control the slurries produced when refining ores. Grit would get into the system preventing the valve from fully closing and damaging the operating mechanism. He came up with the idea of placing a thick piece of soft rubber between the components. This rubber diaphragm would isolate the mechanism from the slurry whilst ensuring grit was enveloped by the rubber, so that the valve still remained sealed.
At Hereford the company produced a different type of valve – one with a ball that rotated through 90 degrees to turn the flow of fluid on or off. It still used the principle of the rubber diaphragm to ensure the operating spindle and bearing were separated from the fluid. All were destined for use in aircraft. The company boasted at the time that every valve on every British manufactured aircraft was made by Saunders, from the fuel system to the humble tap on the tea urn in the galley.
And, at the time, there were several aircraft manufacturers operating in the UK: De Haviland, Blackburn, Avro, Vickers, English Electric, Hawker, Gloster, Handley Page, Folland, Saunders-Roe, Short, Fairey, Bristol and others. In time they would all merge to form BAE Systems.
As an apprentice I would spend time in each of the manufacturing areas but, as someone with a proven academic bent, I could look forward to working in development or design at the end of the five year contract.
I was asked “When can you start?” “Straight away,” was my reply. “Why not make the most of the summer holidays, it’s your last chance!” It was agreed that I would start on the eighth of August. I spent the next 3 weeks working on the largest farm in the village. It was there that I met two young men, brothers, one a year older than me, the other younger. They introduced me to the “8 O’clock Club”, a small group of people interested in drama, and the Church bell ringers. Membership of both enabled me to integrate back into community life in the village.