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Continuing the occasional series in which I record significant events from my life. This installment takes up a couple of months before the previous one ended.
For the first couple of weeks after Freda and Ian arrived, in September 1973, they joined me in the hotel which I had been staying in since my arrival. Soon we were offered a furnished house. A traditional colonial style bungalow with a tin roof and veranda, this cottage had been vacated by the owner who had a modern bungalow built at the back. At first it seemed quite romantic with its early twentieth century furnishings and decor. That was until the night Freda went into the kitchen to brew a nightcap – and screamed.
Anyone who knows anything about cockroaches will know that they hate the light. They come out to play after dark. If their playground is suddenly illuminated, by someone switching on a light for example, they scuttle back to their hiding places – in this case under the kitchen cabinets. “I’m not staying here,” was Freda’s verdict. When I explained the situation to the HR department, who passed it on to the owner, that lady insisted there were no cockroaches in her house, implying that we were impugning her reputation by suggesting such a thing. In that case, why were there several cockroach traps under various pieces of furniture? We wondered.
The company agreed to relocate us at the hotel for the time being. Construction, by a local developer, of a block of five terraced houses was almost complete and the company had taken a lease on two of them. One would be allocated to us. We were given an allowance to spend on furniture and textiles and told to visit an emporium in the inland town of Alexandria. “Ask for Smiley”, we were told.
“Smiley” turned out to be a very accommodating Indian gentleman and we selected beds, a settee and chairs, curtains and bedding from his overflowing warehouse. The day we moved in, the developer pointed out that a pair of Minah birds had constructed a nest in the eves. Should he remove it? No, we said. It would be a shame to disturb the birds, at least until after their young had fledged. Also, it would be interesting for Ian to watch the birds.
We got into the habit of doing our weekly shop on a Saturday morning in a new mall in the larger town of Amanzimtoti a few miles away on the road to Durban. We had become used to hearing the birds chatter but one Saturday, as we were having lunch after our shopping trip, they seemed especially noisy. “Those birds are inside,” Freda said.
“Don’t be silly, how could they get in?” was my response.
“I left the bedroom window open.”
With that she climbed the stairs – and, once again, screamed.
One of the birds had indeed come in through the window. Confused by the dressing table mirror, which was situated directly opposite the window, it had been trying to fly out of the reflected window. We succeeded in guiding it to the real window. There was now an awful mess to clear up.
All three of us developed itchy rashes which we put down to the change of climate. Several mornings we noticed accumulations of grit on the corner of the bath. Then one day I noticed that the ‘grit’ was moving. Once again we contacted the HR department and they sent along someone to have a look. “You have an infestation of bird lice,” was the verdict. “The birds’ nest has to be destroyed and the whole place fumigated.”
With the birds removed and the place fumigated we settled into a routine. The house was on a hill overlooking the estuary and the Indian Ocean, a view we never tired of. Ian was, by now in school. At that time in South Africa children did not commence school until they reached 7, unlike the UK where 5 was the usual starting age. At 8, Ian was therefore 2 years ahead of most of the children his age in the school and entered the 4th year alongside 10 and 11 year olds. Indeed, some were older because a grade system was in use which meant that children who failed to make the grade at the end of any year were held back. Ian, I’m glad to say, had no trouble keeping up, except with regard to the compulsory second language, Afrikaans.
Our son also joined the cub scouts. This was run by the wife of the factory’s Electrical Engineer, both of them German and both delightful to know. Over our time in South Africa we took part in various fund raising efforts for the Cubs and helped out at some events.
Before we knew, the spring of 1973 had metamorphosed into summer, the highlights of which were Christmas and New Year celebrations. These included an outdoor Christingle service on the village football ground and a factory Christmas party at which a group of the African labourers entertained us with their “Gumboot Dance”, a traditional African stomping dance performed in Wellingon boots.
By then the house next door to us had been let to a young couple. The husband was a Welsh Chemical Engineer. Having begun his career in one of the steel mills in South Wales, he had emigrated to South Africa to work for the South African Steel Corporation (SASCOR). From there he had moved to SAICOR with his Dutch wife. For clarity, when I say “Dutch” I mean that she was born in Holland, not that she was a South African of Dutch descent. As a new employee he was provided with temporary accommodation whilst he awaited the construction of his own house in the company’s staff village. This was an area of land owned by the company where employees could purchase a plot and have a house built to their own specification.
They brought with them twin boys about 2 years old, both as blond and pale skinned as their mother and each determined to play with the other’s toy despite having his own identical copy! The poor woman was forever having to break up fights between them, or so it sometimes seemed. To be fair, they were a delightful family and we quite often “babysat” for each other.
The summer climate was extremely hot and humid – or seemed so to us being more used to the British climate. Days would usually begin very hot with clear skies and brilliant sunshine. In the afternoon clouds would appear and the atmosphere would become very oppressive. There were frequent thunder storms with torrential rain in the late afternoon and early evening. One consequence of this was that the ocean in the vicinity of the estuary became red with the soil being carried down river from cultivated lands in the hills above.
The other feature of the portion of ocean visible from our windows was a long line of white surf about a mile off-shore. This, we learned, was a rocky outcrop known as the Aliwal Shoal. One Sunday, having taken Ian to a scouts’ event in a town a few miles down the coast, I noticed as we were traveling back without him, a tanker that appeared to be too close in. We stopped at a lay-by to take a closer look and it was obvious that the vessel was listing. Once back in Umkomaas we watched from our upstairs window as a couple of the ski boats operated by local fishermen journeyed to the stricken vessel to bring the crew to shore.
Ian was back in town in time to see the helicopter that landed to take the crew back to Durban. According to the newspaper the following day, the vessel was carrying molasses (raw sugar) from Mozambique. It had docked in Durban to refuel on the Saturday. It seems the Norwegian crew had a good night out in Durban and, after leaving the port on Sunday lunch time, had set a course due South before heading for their bunks, forgetting to allow for the Aliwal Shoal on their course.
Continuing the occasional series in which I record significant events from my life. This installment takes up where the previous one ended.
We had given up our membership of the co-ownership housing scheme and Freda moved back to her parents’ home in Herefordshire. It was the long summer break from school so there was no disruption to Ian’s education.
A week or so after I arrived in South Africa the small team was joined by an electrical engineer. A week after that he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalised in Durban. In the circumstances his wife was flown over to join us.
I had not previously met any of the team members. Walter, my fellow Mechanical Designer, although based in Coventry, had been engaged on another overseas project – this one in the Soviet Union. The team leader and the Electrical Engineer were both from the company’s Derby facility, where the former held a senior management post. As a consequence his role as our team leader was part-time and he returned to the UK after a few weeks, to pay the occasional flying visit every few months.
Before he left, he was determined to demonstrate his driving prowess. Back in the UK Barry had built, and raced, a Formula Ford racing car. The team had been allocated 2 cars – necessary for travel from Umkomaas village to the mill and for personal transport at weekends. On his last weekend Barry decided we should have a group outing to Zululand, an area to the North of Durban characterised by spectacular mountain roads and beautiful scenery. The roads were, of course, unmettalled.
Not surprisingly, I can’t recall precisely who travelled with whom. I’m certain that Peter, the electrical engineer and his wife, Vi, were passengers in Barry’s pale blue Peugeot 504. And, of course, Freda and Ian were with me in a dark green Datsun (Nissan) 260 C. I am less certain of Walter’s position – if he was in our car, why was he not driving?
Walter was a widower. Whilst he was in the USSR his daughter was cared for by his mother but he was determined to have her with him in South Africa. About six weeks after Walter and I arrived in South Africa, Walter’s mother delivered the daughter to Freda in Hereford, from where she, Freda and Ian were picked up by a company driver and taken to Heathrow. Walter and I were permitted to fly from Durban to Johannesberg in order to meet them and accompany them on the final leg of their long journey.
As for the weekend motoring tour of Zululand; I think Barry thought he was taking part in the African Safari Rally. I do recall Vi telling us that he scared her witless whilst pointing out various interesting features of the landscape with his eyes averted from sharp bends above sheer precipices ahead. As for me, I did my best to keep up as we raced along rutted dirt roads in the cloud of dust thrown up by Barry’s car.
The mill is located – yes, it is still operating all these years later, though now owned by SAPPI, the world’s largest producer of dissolving wood pulp as well as paper and board – a few miles upstream from the point at which the Umkomaas River enters the Indian Ocean. Originally a project created jointly by the South African government, an Italian fibre producer called Snia Viscosa, and Courtaulds, the plant was constructed by a team from Italy, many of whom had remained as the nucleus of the Engineering management and development team.
The basic idea was to establish plantations of fast growing eucalyptus which would be coppiced to provide the feedstock for the mill. The resultant pulp would be exported to Italy and the UK to be converted into viscose fibre by the two specialist corporations. Whilst Courtaulds had succeeded in adapting their process – which originally used pulp from Scandinavian soft woods – Snia had not, and sold their share in the mill to Courtaulds.
The project to modernise the raw material handling and storage for the mill had begun in the small in-house design office. Realising they lacked sufficient resources to handle such a large undertaking, they had turned to Courtaulds Engineering Limited to complete the job.
The production of pulp from timber is a simple enough process. Apart from wood, the only ingredients are Sulphur and Limestone, which are used to create an acid in which the wood, having been reduced to small chips, is dissolved to separate the celulose from the resin that holds it together in its natural state. The mill in Umkomaas also generated its own steam and electricity. A new coal fired boiler was being installed by Babcock and Wilcox when we arrived.
My first task was to complete the crane and conveyor system for transferring coal from the storage area to the boiler. Design for this had been partially completed, and construction of the reinforced concrete elements begun, already. I had to design the hoppers through which coal would be dropped onto a conveyor, evaluate tenders for their manufacture, and supervise the installation and commissioning.
Walter was undertaking a similar exercise for the Limestone and Sulphur handling facilities. The Electrical Engineer took care of the selection and installation of electric motors and wiring for all three. These were comparatively simple tasks and were completed by Christmas. The real ‘meat’ of the project concerned the complete reorganisation of the timber handling facility which would occupy us for the whole of 1974.
I’ll reveal more about this part of the project, my role, and our experience of living on the South African coast, in the next installment.
Continuing the occasional series in which I describe significant events in my life.
Despite my long hours at the pub, we were still struggling financially. Freda wanted to make a bigger contribution and it occurred to us that a small shop, of the kind where we would live on the premises, would enable her to use her training and experience in retail over a greater part of the day. Moreover, instead of working at the pub at weekends I would be available to work behind the counter of our own shop. We began looking at the property advertisements in the local paper and found just such an enterprise. It seemed to be within our capacity to purchase if we sold our present home.
We arranged a viewing at which we were told the place was already under offer. If that offer fell through then we would have a chance. Meanwhile would we like to put our house on the market?
We looked at a few other potential retail opportunities before we discovered that the size of mortgage available for such properties was less than that for a house. ‘Goodwill’ was not something that could be used as security. How would we finance the purchase of stock?
The plan began to look like a non-starter. Then we saw a leasehold property where the remainder of the lease was being offered for a relatively low price. Our offer was accepted, subject to the approval of the landlord. We received an offer for our house from a couple who did not want to take possession until after their marriage in March, six months away. This, we fondly supposed, gave us plenty of time to find something if the landlord did not approve our proposal – and why would he not?
We were, I now know, incredibly naive. The landlord strung us along throughout the winter. He even came to discuss our plans whilst I was at work in the pub, but still would not give us an answer.
Eventually, one morning in February 1972, when we were becoming increasingly desperate to have the business concluded, I took a call at work from our solicitor. The vendor’s solicitor had contacted him to say that the landlord had foreclosed on the lease, for non-payment of rent, and that, the vendor, no longer had anything to sell.
In answer to my question he indicated that we would have to negotiate directly with the landlord. Unsurprisingly, he was not available that day. When we did make contact it was to be told that he had let the property to someone else.
Looking back, it is impossible not to conclude that we were nothing more than a back-up plan to him. The tenant to whom he let the place, a small bakery chain, was the one he wanted and they wanted the premises without having to pay anything to the outgoing tenant. As she could not pay the rent, all the landlord needed to do was to delay until the point when he could legally end her tenancy. Only if the bakers became impatient would he need to find an alternative. He could have turned down our offer at the outset but it suited him to keep us ‘on ice’, stringing us along until he achieved his intended outcome.
We, now, had to be out of our house in a matter of weeks. House prices had started to rise rapidly since we had agreed our own sale, so buying was no longer an option for us. We would have to find somewhere to rent.
What we found was a small co-ownership apartment block on the West side of the city. The apartment offered two bedrooms, a decent sized kitchen, living room, bathroom and a garage in a separate block. The rent was affordable and, if we stayed for five years, we could claim a share of the equity on leaving. As it happens, we did not stay for long because, within a year and a half, I was offered an opportunity much too good to refuse.
Meanwhile I continued working at the pub, painted the Corsair yellow, and watched unbelieving as Hereford United achieved unprecedented success in the FA cup, beating
Newcastle United and drawing with West Ham United in the 3rd. and 4th rounds respectively. On August 19th 1972 I attended their first home match in the English Football League Division 4 in which they beat Reading 3-0 having previously lost in away matches to Colchester (Div.4) and Aston Villa (League Cup). They would go on to win promotion to the 3rd Division at the end of that season. [For those whose memories don’t go back far enough, League Div. 4 was equivalent to the present EFL Div.2, Divisions 1 and 2 having been superceded by the Premier League and Championship, respectively.]
In another attempt to increase our income I went to Brmingham one evening to attend a presentation from a multi-level marketing organisation that involved selling Unit Trust investments. Although I did buy into the investment, cold selling was not for me so nothing came of this.
One day my boss called me into the office. Our subsidiary had been asked to assist with a project in a pulp mill in which the parent company had an interest. The mill was in Swaziland, a small country sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. I would need a passport and several inoculations – Yellow Fever, Typhus and a Small Pox booster, among others.
I had the ‘jabs’, got a passport – and then was told the job was cancelled. I continued with what I was doing – I can’t recall precisely what that was at the time. One important project undertaken around this time was the detailed design of the first production scale manufacturing plant for ibuprofen at the Boots pharmaceutical facility in Nottingham. All we were told about the product at the time was that it was “a new arthritis drug”. I suspect that even Boots would have been surprised at the way in which their invention has become ubiquitous as a pain killer and remedy for colds and flu.
In the summer of 1973 I was called into the boss’s office again. This time the project for which I was being recommended was in South Africa. Expected to last for between 18 months and 2 years, the team would be accompanied by our families. We would be provided with accommodation and basic living expenses whilst our salaries would continue to be paid into our UK bank accounts.
Ian was 7 and attending a primary school in Coventry with children of assorted ethnic origins. I wondered how a period living in a country in which people of colour were treated as second or third class citizens would affect him. After due consideration we, his parents, decided that it would be advantageous to see for ourselves whether conditions were as bad as the UK media portrayed them.
I tried very hard to get the company to allow us to travel together. To no avail. I don’t know the reason, whether it was to do with South African visa regulations or the possible cost to the company should a situation rise in which I did not fit in with the team and had to return.
I left the UK, together with another mechanical designer and the team leader, on 3rd August, 1973 aboard a Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” operated by the then newly formed British Airways.
An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past. This one picks up from where ‘Into the Seventies’ ended.
I sometimes struggle to get this next sequence of events in the correct chronological order. There was ‘spot-the-ball’, a mini spending spree and the ending of overtime at work.
I’ll begin with ‘spot-the-ball’. This weekly competition, run by the Coventry Evening Telegraph, involved the publication of an action photograph, taken at a soccer match, with the ball blanked out. Contestants were asked to ‘use their skill and judgement’ to estimate the position of the ball.
Had the man with his feet off the ground already headed the ball? Was the goalkeeper about to catch it or had it passed over his head? Those were the sort of judgements one was supposed to take into account before marking the centre of the ball with a cross. Suffice to say that one week I won a runner-up prize of £250.
To put that into context, it was the equivalent of about two month’s earnings at the time. It meant, among other things, that we could afford to purchase a car. I perused the ‘for sale’ columns in the same newspaper and, after viewing a few of the motors on offer, agreed to pay £80 for an old Hillman Minx.
What I was unaware of at the time was that many of the advertisements that purported to be ‘private sales’ were in fact dealers operating out of private residences. Some of these individuals had few scruples and would indulge in various tricks of the trade in order to make a vehicle appear, and sound, much less decrepit than it really was. That seems to have been the case with the two-tone blue and cream Minx. It was not long before I realised that it was using far more oil than it should.
By then Freda’s brother was in an informal business partnership with an older chap who restored and resold cars. When I shared my Hillman Minx story with him he asked why did I not go to him? When I did just that, he showed me a Ford Corsair on which the paint finish was deteriorating. Having begun life in dark green livery, the car’s previous owner had decided to re-spray it silver. This second coat had not adhered too well – perhaps the original surface had not been properly prepared. My brother-in-law offered me a tin of bright yellow paint which he assured me was easy to apply with a brush.
Meanwhile we decided also to purchase a heating system for the house and a chest freezer which was supposed to save money by enabling bulk buying of various food products. This particular deal included a number of vouchers that had to be spent in a wholesale warehouse in Dunstable. Additional vouchers could be purchased but no actual cash changed hands at the warehouse. We made a couple of trips, before we figured out that the cost of fuel for the journey, plus the interest we were paying on the purchase price of the vouchers, exceeded any saving made on the goods we were buying.
I mentioned the ‘Jumbo’ nylon production facilities at Aintree. When the design stage of ‘Jumbo 6’ was completed there was no new project for the team involved to move on to. Contract draughtsmen were the first to be let go but there came a morning when long serving individuals were called into the office to be informed that their services were no longer required.
It was a worrying time. I had recently been assigned to a project for the manufacturer of anti-knock additives for motor fuel. As a relatively recent recruit I fully expected that I would be given my marching orders and that a long server would be re-assigned to my role. My relief, when it became obvious that this was not the case, was tempered by the knowledge that colleagues with years of loyal service were discarded.
For a long while I had become used to my income being boosted by regular overtime. Now that was no longer available. Freda could not increase her hours because of the need to be at home outside of school time. I found a job as barman in a nearby pub, working three weekday evenings plus lunchtime and evening on Saturday and Sunday.
I enjoyed the work. It was quite straight forward with a limited range of products with prices that were easily remembered. There were three bars: the ‘public’ which was mostly male; the lounge, where beer prices were 1p dearer, and the ‘snug’, a small room patronised by an exclusive clientele who were happy to pay an extra 2p for a pint of their favourite tipple in the company of a few close friends. There was also an ‘outdoor’ counter where people who preferred to drink at home could purchase bottled ale or bring their own jug to be filled with draft beer.
We did not have the benefit of an electronic till with each product allocated its own button. When someone ordered a large round of drinks we had to memorise, and mentally add together, the individual prices before presenting the customer with the total. We’d then ring up the total before taking any change from the drawer to hand to the customer.
The landlord and the other staff were a friendly crowd, as were the regular customers. We were paid for a half hour for clearing up after the doors closed at 10:30. After that the landlord would buy everyone a drink and we would play darts, sometimes for a further hour.
No food was prepared or consumed on the premises – apart nights when the darts team were playing a home match. Then the landlady would produce a tray of roast potatoes for both teams and their followers.
I don’t recall ever witnessing a fight, nor were there many arguments. I do remember the music that played frequently on the jukebox: Rod Stewart’s Maggie May, Olivia Newton Johns’ cover of John Denver’s Country Roads and the same artiste’s Banks of the Ohio, Joan Baez’ The Night We Drove Ol’ Dixie Down and Cher’s Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves. It’s impossible to listen to any of those songs now without recalling my days working at The Convoy.
And it was there that I heard something that for me came to epitomise the attitudes of certain members of the working class, especially those in public service, during the 1970s. I already knew that the individual concerned worked for Coventry City Council. I’ll call him Bill. The conversation went something like this:
Cutomer: Hi Bill. How are things?
Bill: Fine. Enjoying a nice break.
Customer: Annual leave?
Customer: Oh dear, what’s wrong?
Bill: Nothing mate. I get 4 weeks sickness entitlement every year so I’m taking it.
I was shocked to discover, when I looked on-line for a photograph of The Convoy, that it has been demolished to be replaced by eight houses. It was, in the 1970s, a friendly local venue where neighbours socialised. I guess it’s a sign of the times that such places have fallen into disuse.
An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past. This one picks up from where 1968 ended.
We settled into our new home and I into my job. All the residents of the Stadium Estate were young couples like us, most with children. There was a residents’ association and, before I knew it, I found myself elected chairman, a role no-one else wanted.
Courtaulds had, not long before, successfully defended itself against a hostile take-over by another large and successful British company, ICI. The two firms had been joint owners of a nylon yarn producing business, British Nylon Spinners. As part of the settlement of the take-over battle, Courtaulds gave up its share in that business. It could afford to do so because it had been working on its own version of Nylon fibre.
Originally developed by a Dutch company, this process was already in small scale production at Aintree. Courtaulds bought the plant and a parcel of land alongside whilst the Chemists and Chemical Engineers in Coventry set about upscaling. The new, much larger, facility was named by the company ‘Jumbo’.
The market for the fibre must have been expanding because, by 1968, the office I was assigned to was working on ‘Jumbo IV’. I, however, did not spend many weeks with that team. Soon I was asked to work on the layout of equipment for a solvent recovery plant destined to be installed in the company’s rayon fibre production facility at Carrickfergus, just to the north of Belfast.
Once the layout was settled and agreed, the next stage was to produce detailed drawings of individual pipe and duct sections. A small team of contract draughtsmen were employed to do this and my role was to check the drawings they produced and make sure they fitted together correctly on a master drawing. Contract draughtsmen are freelancers who work through an agency on short term contracts – an early version of what, today, would be called the ‘gig economy’. It is, or was, a lucrative, if risky, career.
One day I was talking to one of these young chaps and remarked that, although his name sounded Welsh, he did not have a Welsh accent. That is when he told me that he had lived close to the Welsh border for a while as a child. Further discussion revealed that his parents had kept the general store in the next village to the one in which I grew up. This would turn out to be the first of at least two coincidences demonstrating how small the world – or at least the UK – really is.
In the autumn of 1969 I accompanied my Project Manager on a visit to the site where the plant was being installed. We needed to understand why some of the ducts wouldn’t fit together the way they were supposed to. It did not take long to ascertain why. A cable tray, which my master drawing clearly showed was supposed to be routed above the duct, had been installed in a straight line. For some reason the installation sequence had been changed – probably because the manufacture of the ducting had been delayed. To keep things moving on site the supports for the electrical cables had been installed before the duct and no-one bothered to ask why the drawing showed it following a rather tortuous route.
There had been rioting in Belfast that summer but things had calmed down. Even so, strategically important facilities like the water supply in the hills above the plant were protected by armed military personnel.
We completed that trip, there and back, in a day. When the installation was completed, in the early part of 1970, I went over again, this time with the young graduate who had been selected to commission the plant, and stayed for a couple of nights. I have written elsewhere about my encounter with a pair of angry young men during that trip, although it has not previously appeared on-line. For those who may be interested, there is an abridged version here.
Just a month afterwards I was assigned to a small team to spend a month in Dublin. Jacobs Biscuits had an ancient factory in the centre of the city. Following a merger with another, smaller, company, to form an entity called Irish Biscuits, and the acquisition of a contract to supply Marks & Spencer, they had decided to build a new factory. CEL won the contract to design and project manage the construction of this new factory.*
A lot of the machinery from the old factory would be installed in the new one and we needed to ascertain as much information as possible about it. We were given access to as many drawings and manuals for the existing machines as were available but all of the information they contained had to be checked by comparison with what was on the ground, because changes made over the years may not all have been recorded. Furthermore, there were some machines for which no record existed.
The staff at Jacobs at the time were very good to us – they, after all, were the clients and, traditionally it would be we, the contractors, entertaining them. But they were delighted to show us around various popular tourist spots during our first weekend off. We visited Glendalough and Bray Head – I distinctly remember climbing to the top of the Head with snow still lingering under the stone walls.
I was very definitely struck, too, by the difference between the two cities. Even then, Belfast’s industrial past was becoming extremely run down, whereas Dublin, never sullied by heavy industry, seemed to retain a more genteel exterior. I have since learned, of course, that that was no more than a veneer, hiding terrible poverty and all manner of cruelty.
Meanwhile Ian was due to start school – he was already at nursery – and Freda returned to work as an assistant in a shoe shop. We socialised with several of the couples on the estate. One family in particular introduced us to the Coventry Welsh Rugby Club which became our social hub. We even staged an estate Christmas Party in the clubhouse. And we went on holiday with them.
We had treated ourselves to a week at Butlins holiday camp in Minehead at the beginning of the summer. Ian and I came third in the ‘father and son’ competition wearing identical pink paisley print shirts and ties (it was the seventies,after all!). Freda, wearing hot pants, came second in the ‘lovely legs’ competition.
Butlins offered us another week, later in the season, for half-price, plus we could bring another family for free. We took them in September to Barry Island and the four children had a whale of a time. But rarely do such good times last for ever, as we were to discover in 1971.
*Footnote: This ‘new’ factory closed in 2008 and has since been purchased by Amazon.
One of the conditions of buying a house from Hereford City Council was that we were not supposed to sell at a profit, at least, not until we’d lived in it for five years. We could, however incorporate the value of ‘improvements’ within the sale price, with the agreement of the council. I’d built a few cupboards and shelves, we were leaving behind a new, Cyril Lord, fitted carpet and there was the garden that I’d created from nothing. We were, therefore, able to put the house on the market for around £600 more than the original price we’d paid, and had no difficulty finding a buyer at that price.
Finding a house in Coventry at the same price was not as easy. For a start you could only get a building society mortgage if you had been saving with the same society for at least 3 months. That was not a problem, nor was the imposed limit of 3 times annual earnings. However the notional 10% deposit required was. Any loan against a house purchase would be a maximum of 90%, not of the asking price, but of the society’s valuation and this was almost always lower.
To give a hypothetical example, a house on the market for £4,000 could, in theory, be acquired with a deposit of £400. The building society might value it at £3850, meaning that, unless the vendor was prepared to accept a reduced offer, the purchaser would have to find £535. And then there were solicitor’s fees and agent’s commission, not forgetting any redecorating that might need doing on a house that had been occupied for a number of years.
We made one or two weekend house hunting forays to Coventry. Freda’s brother drove us there on at least one such occasion. We looked at a number of prewar houses which, once we took account of the above factors, proved to be beyond our means.
Some of these viewings provided our first experience of families whose origins were in the Indian sub-continent. It was not unusual to find that only the children spoke English. The cooking smells, too, were a revelation to us. I can honestly say that we did not find any of this objectionable. Hereford, at the time, had only a handful of families of foreign origin so we had little experience of alien cultures*. Nevertheless, the presence of such diversity was one of the attractions of the move to Coventry. Hereford, by comparison, seemed backward.
Not withstanding the cooking smells, there was no doubt the homes of Asian families in Coventry were clean, something that I could not say about some homes I’d visited on a regular basis during the preceding couple of years in my role as collector for a football based charity lottery. In the mid-fifties a producer of nickel alloys established its manufacturing base in Hereford. Over the following years the company’s old units in Birmingham and Glasgow were closed and a number of employees moved to Hereford where many were housed in the same estate on which we had purchased our house.
I recall being horrified by the condition of a few homes I visited; just a few years old yet the front doors were filthy. On at least one occasion I saw a front door with a large hole caused, like the muck, I suppose, either by a football or a boot. When the door was opened the person doing so would be followed by a blast of warm, fetid air ripe with the smell of dog.
After looking at several preowned homes it became obvious that our best bet would be to find a newly built house on a modern estate. One such was almost complete on a site previously occupied by Coventry’s greyhound stadium. The Stadium Estate was a relatively small development consisting of semi-detached and terraced houses and a couple of two story apartment blocks, between Holbrooks Lane and Lockhurst Lane on the North West outskirts of the city. There was a bus stop within comfortable walking distance, on Holbrooks Lane, making access to the city and my place of work easy.
The house we purchased was at the end of a block of 3 next to a junction between two culs-de-sac. There was very little garden at the front, most of which was occupied by a car port. There was, however, a modest area at the back which I could turn into a garden.
You will recall that I had given up on motoring upon getting married some five years previously. Working for Denco Miller I occasionally drove a car from the company pool. To get to Cambridge and Coventry for my interviews I hired a Mini. With its low centre of gravity, front wheel drive and innovative suspension, the Mini was especially good at going around corners fast. I remember boasting at how quickly I’d covered those two journeys, neither of which included sections of motorway. That network, in the UK, was still in its infancy.
For the first five months of working in Coventry I used the bus; departing Hereford on Sunday afternoon and returning Friday evening. But for the weekend of our move I needed a car to convey wife, child and those domestic essentials that we would need whilst unpacking the big stuff from the furniture van. The car rental company in Coventry didn’t have a Mini available but could rent me a brand new Morris Minor. Although new, this vehicle was based on outdated technology and was far less manoeverable than the Mini, as I was to discover to my cost.
One of the recent additions to the embryonic motorway network, the M5, crossed the road I had to travel. A new bridge had been constructed with a wide approach for maybe 50 metres either side, after which it reverted to its narrow, winding norm. It was November, dark, damp and, possibly, icy. I accelerated on the wide section of road and entered the first half of an ‘S’ bend traveling much too fast. This meant I was on the wrong side of the road approaching the second half of the ‘S’. I mounted the grass verge and was brought to a stop by the hedge.
I mentally sighed with relief and began to wonder where I could find someone to tow me out of the hedge. I felt the car start to tilt and at once I was upside down then the right way up, with the sound of water trickling somewhere.
The driver’s side door was jammed against a grass bank and would not open. I clambered across to the passenger door and exited the car. I had left the road on the right hand side so the road should now be on my left. The spin made me think the car had turned around to face the wrong way. So I climbed over the bonnet of the car to ascend the bank on the driver’s side and found to my surprise I was in a field.
When I eventually made my way onto the road I could see the lights of a building about 100 metres ahead. Somewhere, I hoped, where I might get help and access to a telephone. I realised that my back was wet. I could not sense any injury – later I discovered a graze on my left hip left by the seat belt. The building whose lights had attracted me revealed itself as a pub. I explained my situation and was pointed to a telephone from which I called the police to report the accident (necessary for the rental company’s insurance) and a neighbour to let Freda know I was unhurt but would be home late. Could she contact her brother to come and get me?
I was quite shaken by the experience and asked the pub landlady for a large whisky. She sensibly advised against alcohol until after the police had talked to me.
The following morning I had to hire another car in Hereford for our journey to Coventry. On the way we stopped to look at the Morris Minor and rescue some of my belongings from it. The back window had shattered as the car rolled into a deep ditch beyond the hedge. Everything was soaked in stagnant, evil smelling water.
There was no doubt that I was very fortunate: firstly that there was nothing coming from the other direction when I crossed the road and secondly that I was uninjured in the subsequent roll-over. The car was invisible from the road and, had I been immobilised, I could have lain there all night.
*I ought to add that one of my colleagues at Denco Miller, a highly intelligent and educated young Engineer, was Indian, having graduated from one of India’s universities before completing his Masters degree in London. As a Proposals Engineer he had set up one of the contracts that was handed to me to execute and I remember traveling with him to London for a meeting with the client and being introduced to some of his University friends at an Indian restaurant.
An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past.
Our first flat was on the first floor of a large Victorian house. It consisted of two adjacent rooms with high ceilings and no interconnecting door. We had to go out on to a landing shared with a couple of other tenants in order to get from living room to bedroom. We shared the bathroom with the other tenants on that landing and had a kitchenette not much bigger than a wardrobe at the far end of the landing.
Both rooms had gas fires. There was no central heating; that was uncommon even in new houses in the 1960s. It was not unusual, as autumn gave way to winter, for us to go to bed early in order to keep warm. We would take our transistor radio with us and listen to Radio Luxemburg. I will never forget the night when programmes were interrupted to announce that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
By Christmas we had found a much better apartment at the same weekly rent. The whole ground floor of an Edwardian semi-detached house, it was almost self-contained, consisting of living room, bedroom, good sized kitchen and bathroom. We shared an entrance and hallway with the tenants who lived on the two upper floors. As the foot of the stairs was close to the front door this was never a problem. By a remarkable coincidence, both houses had the same number – 17 – although on different roads.
We got on famously with the landlady of number 17 St. James’ Road. She allowed us to bring in our own furniture as we acquired bits and pieces in readiness for the house we knew we would have one day. She was putting together a portfolio of similar houses which she converted into flats and bedsits. Freda, on her day off from work, would sometimes accompany her on trips to auction houses in search of the crockery and small appliances with which she equipped each flat. We acquired several items in this way. Freda would also assist with painting and decorating, for which she was paid.
We got to know the other tenants fairly well, especially David and Marie who lived on the first floor. David was a semi-professional singer who also claimed to be an expert at paper hanging. The landlady agreed that our kitchen needed re-decorating and allowed us to choose wall paper which David hung for us. When he had finished, quite late one evening, we were more than a little concerned to see the many wrinkles and bubbles adorning his handiwork.
“Don’t worry,” was David’s parting comment. “The paper will stretch as it dries and it will look fine in the morning.”
Needless to say, it was not “fine in the morning”. I tried slitting the bubbles with a razor blade in order to get the paper to lie flat but that didn’t help; if anything it made things worse. The land lady agreed with us that it was not a satisfactory job. I didn’t think that, after that experience, she’d be willing to let me have a go but she did. So I set about stripping and re-papering the walls myself, which I managed without a single bubble or wrinkle.
With my apprenticeship completed I was faced with a choice: continue with evening classes to enhance my engineering qualification or settle for the adequate qualification already obtained by part-time and evening study. I still had ambitions to become a writer so embarked instead on a correspondence course. A colleague loaned me a portable typewriter. I remember a short story and a radio play that I produced during this period but I never completed the course. Life, as they say, got in the way.
About this time our local authority was building houses for sale and several colleagues had bought semi-detached houses under this scheme. It was our ambition to do the same, although we knew it would be a while before we would be able to afford to do so. Then a block of terraced houses became available to purchase. The story was that, because the back gardens of these houses adjoined the gardens of some large detached houses whose occupants had objected to the prospect of council tenants in such close proximity, the council had compromised by agreeing to sell them.
Being priced lower than the standard semi-detached houses they were within our budget and so, in August of 1964 we signed up to purchase one. It was completed, and we moved in, in March of 1965. We had a 100% mortgage at a little above the standard rate of interest charged by banks and building societies at the time, financed through the government’s Public Works Loan Board, and repayable over 30 years. At £5/5s a week, including rates*, it cost around 1/3 of my weekly income.
Meanwhile a small flat on the top floor of 17 St. James’ Road became vacant and the landlady allowed us to take advantage of the lower rent and move upstairs for the 5 months whilst we waited for our house to be completed. It was there, sometime in December, that our son was conceived.
The six months between moving in to our new house and the arrival of our child were occupied with all the little jobs that need doing even in a new house – erecting shelves, constructing additional cupboards, preparing the smallest bedroom for its role as nursery. And there were the gardens at front and back to cultivate and plant.
Men – even husbands – were not permitted in the delivery room in those days. And there was no way of determining the gender of a child before its birth. Freda went into hospital several days before the birth, believing the child to be over-due. She went into labour in the early hours of Saturday morning, 11th September. When she was moved to the delivery room, at around noon, the midwife told me to go for a walk and not come back for an hour or two.
By the time I did get back it was to find my mother-in-law also waiting in the corridor for news. I think I probably offered her a cigarette and we both stood there nervously smoking until someone came out to tell me “You have a son, Mr Parker.”
Freda remained in hospital for a further 4 or 5 days at the end of which my colleagues decided we must go out to ‘wet the baby’s head’. We had formed the habit of weekly nights out at the local football supporters’ club where we would consume a couple of drinks and enjoy a friendly game of darts. This particular evening, because a celebration seemed in order, the number of drinks consumed was rather more than usual.
I’m fairly certain that someone had the clever idea to lace my beer with spirits. Whatever the reason, I remember waking around 6am the following morning to feel my sheets and pillow sticky with what I quickly realised was vomit. The colleague who had brought me home had agreed to come and collect me in time for work the following morning. Before that happened I had to get busy washing sheets and pillow cases so that they were clean by the time wife and son arrived home later that day. I learned my lesson from that event and have never since got quite that drunk.
Freda was 20, I not yet 24, and we were parents and home-owners. I can’t help thinking how very fortunate we were. Very few people of that age today can afford either to own a home or to rent privately.
*Rates were a UK local government tax based on the notional value of the property, payable by all householders, now superceded by the Council Tax.
An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past.
Younger people may be surprised to learn that as recently as the 1960s one did not become an adult under English law until one reached the age of 21. I passed that milestone in November 1962. It meant a second pay rise in 3 months. Prior to that my wage had increased each year on the anniversary of my starting my apprenticeship – 8th August. I treated myself to a block of driving lessons and took my test in January. The main advantage of having a car, and a license to drive it, was that my girl friend and I would no longer have to rely on public transport, our bikes, or lifts with friends, to get to town for work and entertainment or to the dances in village halls which we enjoyed.
The first 3 months of 1963 turned out to be one of the coldest for a very long time with snow that hung around until well into March. And local authorities did not salt the roads back then, either. They applied grit which was meant to provide a degree of adhesion on compacted snow. It’s not surprising that I failed a driving test in such conditions. I booked a second test for some time in March. Meanwhile I was looking for a car. For the equivalent of two weeks earnings I purchased a prewar Morris 8. I came to an arrangement with the farmer who owned a shed near our house and stored the car there. I took additional lessons with a friend in his van. Nevertheless, I failed again at my second attempt.
Whilst waiting for my third test, scheduled for early June, I took the engine apart and ‘decoked’ it. This involved removing the accumulation of carbon on the cylinders and cylinder head, cleaning and adjusting the spark plugs and the carburetor and then putting it all back together again. With my test passed we were able to take full advantage of our new mobility through the summer. Except that one part of the car I’d not expected to let me down, did.
The lever that operates the clutch when one depresses the clutch pedal on these old cars pushes the clutch disks apart via a carbon pad which, over time, wears out. If not attended to promptly the matching surface quickly becomes rough. This roughness then causes the new carbon pad to wear out very quickly. Without a clutch it’s not possible to change gear. As a result we had several embarrassing incidents wherein we had to push the car into the kerb in order to carry out running repairs.
By the last weekend in August the engine was starting to make worrying noises, over-heating, and generally becoming a cause for concern. I knew the agricultural engineer who maintained the tractors and other machinery at a big farm where I had often worked at weekends and during holidays from my main employment.
I asked his advice
“Your big-ends have gone,” was the verdict.
“Can it be repaired?”
“Needs to be stripped down, the cam shaft ground and new shell bearings fitted.”
“Can you do that – and how much will it cost?”
“I can, but a less costly alternative would be to purchase a re-conditioned engine. Cost you around forty quid.”
At double what I’d paid for the car that seemed to be beyond affordability. How were we supposed to save up to get married with expenses like that?
By then I’d had another raise in pay – a surprisingly big one. At the end of my apprenticeship my employer was not obliged to offer me a job, but he had, and on terms that exceeded the rate agreed between the Employers’ Federation and the Trade Unions. Even so, £40 was a big expense. I conceived a plan which I put to my girl friend later that Saturday.
But before I explain that I need to backtrack to 1962. I had ‘popped the question’ (“How do you fancy being Mrs Parker?”) around 1:30 on the morning of December 27th 1961, as I wished her goodnight outside her home after the boxing night dance. I’d explained that she should have an engagement ring for her 17th birthday present the following June and that for now it would be our secret. We would not be able to get married until a year or two after I’d finished my apprenticeship as it would take a while to save up enough money to set up home together.
Courting during that long cold spell at the beginning of 1963 was not something either of us wanted to repeat. Being alone together inside somewhere warm cost money. Outside, we froze. And negotiating the road between my home and hers on my bike on frozen snow was extremely hazardous. Now the failure of the car to offer a solution made it seem imperative that we tie the knot as soon as possible. We had agreed to each take one of our statutory weeks’ holiday in mid-September. The plan I put to my fiancee that Saturday at the end of August was that we get married the weekend before that ‘holiday’ (we were not planning to go away) and use the week as our honeymoon.
I’d looked at advertisements in the local paper for flats and apartments in town and it seemed that we should be able to get somewhere to live quite cheaply. The notion was financially viable when one took account of the cost of daily travel to work and the amounts we each contributed to our family budgets. And we would not need to spend money on ‘going out’ in order to spend time together.
She accepted the idea and we swung into action, making appointments to view various flats after work on Monday and to talk to the vicar about booking the church. That’s where we came up against the only snag – the banns (formal announcement of the marriage) had to be published on 3 consecutive Sundays. There were only two before the date (Saturday 14th) we had chosen. So we decided to hold the ceremony in the middle of our holiday week.
It was a frugal affair, arranged, as it was, in such a hurry. The young man who had allowed me to get driving practice in his van and who frequently accompanied us to dances agreed to be my ‘best man’. We each have two sisters who took on the roles of bride’s maid although there was neither time nor money to dress them in anything other than their usual ‘Sunday Best’. The bride wore a navy blue suit and a pill box hat. I wore the same suit I wore to dances. The reception was held in the bride’s home – booze in the garage, sandwiches in the kitchen.
Before that, of course, there was the ‘stag night’. Equally unusual, this requires me to backtrack briefly to the summer of 1958 and my attempts to re-integrate into the village community after 6 years at boarding school. Among other things, I joined the bell ringers at the village church. We practiced once a week and rang on Sundays for evensong which was held fortnightly at 6pm.
On weeks when evensong was not held there was matins, a 10 o’clock service for which it proved impossible to muster a team of ringers. Fortunately the tower was equipped with something called an Ellacombe apparatus. This enabled each bell to be rung from a single array of ropes by a single operator – usually me. It was possible to ring some hymn tunes on this apparatus and I did, as well as a few ‘changes’.
We would ring for any weddings that took place in our church, usually on a Saturday morning or afternoon. When it came to my wedding, however, that was held in a different church, the one in my fiancee’s parish which did not have a ring of bells. So it was agreed we would celebrate our wedding, and my leaving the team after 5 years service, by ringing a quarter peel. This was, of course, followed by an adjournment to the village pub for a small libation.
More than a few of our friends and relatives assumed a very different reason for our haste to get married – after all some of them had been forced into marriage in order to avoid giving birth outside of wedlock. How times have changed!
Footnote: the subject of ‘change ringing’ and the definition of a ‘quarter peel’ are dealt with here.