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Monday Memories – Back in the Real World #3: More (and Less) Power.

As the end of the contract approached I learned the team was to be split, and each part augmented to create two full teams, one to undertake an identical contract on a second of Eggborough’s four boilers whilst the other moved to Ironbridge to repeat the work on one of that site’s two. The contract manager was going to head up the Ironbridge team and wanted me as his planner. There would be a lodging allowance and mileage for travel home every Friday afternoon and return on Saturday night/early Sunday morning. (The standard pattern of work on these contracts was Sunday – Friday with Saturday off).

After discussing this turn of events with Freda, we agreed that she would give up her job if we could find a holiday let in the area for the whole three months. The contract manager was happy for me to use my allowances in this way. We found a cottage in the village of Plaish, between Much Wenlock and Church Stretton. The proprietor had just finished modernising it and put it on the holiday let market, so was pleased to be able to let it to us for the whole summer. It meant that we had our evenings, Saturdays and August Bank Holiday to spend together exploring the Shropshire countryside. It was also near enough to Hereford for more regular contact with our relatives there than we usually had.

Image shows a small town nestling beneath green hills. In the foreground sheep are grazing.
The town of Church Stretton, in Shropshire, England. The photo was taken from halfway up the Ragleth Hill. Author=Dpaajones |Date=2010-08-3

Living in the country made us realise how much we had come to miss the joy of being surrounded by nature and creating a garden. Added to this was the long drive from Cleethorpes to the company head quarters or any of the power stations. We decided to look for a house closer to Snaith and the motorway system. We looked at the outskirts of Pontefract, a new estate in Goole, and a number of other places before we settled on a small development just coming to market in the village of Eastrington, a short distance from the ancient market town of Howden.

I was approaching 50 so needed a 15 year mortgage. At the time interest rates were very high by current standards. However, interest charges could be offset against income tax, as could the premiums for life insurance. The financial services industry came up with a scheme whereby the loan was covered by a life insurance policy which would pay out a lump sum at the end of the term – an endowment.

Later, many firms would be accused of miss-selling such products because they continued to encourage clients to take them on when the tax incentives were no longer available.

At the time, however, it was ideal for people like us for whom the capital element of any repayment would need to be relatively large in order to pay back the loan in such a short time. We moved in early in April of 1991.

The winter months in the company’s business were spent compiling estimates and plans for future work. The team was familiar with all of the routine tasks and knew from past experience how long they should take and what the resultant cost would be. The “Low Nox” installation was an exception, but now that we had completed three installations that, too, could be estimated and planned with confidence.

Up to that time contract plans had been constructed manually. A decision was taken to computerise the operation. The company purchased new PCs and a project planning software package called Pertmaster. One of the young software developers who had been a member of the development team at Pertmaster was recruited to oversee the introduction of the system and a group of us spent most of our working hours during January 1991 holed up in a hotel seminar room learning, not only how to use the software, but a good deal about the fundamentals of PC architecture at the time.

The work plan for the overhaul “season” in 1991 included a repeat of 1990 – two outages at Eggborough and one at Ironbridge. I should not have been surprised to learn that I was not required at Eggborough. When June arrived and we began work at Ironbridge with most of the team from the previous summer, the possibility of taking a holiday let was not a practical option. Unlike before, when we had friends in Cleethorpes who could, and did, keep an eye on our property in our absence, we did not yet know anyone in Eastrington well enough to do the same.

I spent my nights from Sunday to Thursday lodging in a boarding house together with most of the other team members, driving home on Friday evening and back again very early on Sunday morning.

With the contract ended, in the autumn, it was back to planning future work in head office. With major work now completed on many stations – ours was not the only company in the business – the future work load was likely to be less intensive.

For my 50th birthday Freda contrived to surprise me by inviting a group of our old friends from Cleethorpes Liberal Party. I knew nothing about it. They all arrived whilst I was in the bath and must have come in very quietly. I was completely taken aback when I came down the stairs, which led right into our living room, to find them all sitting there!

One morning, a couple of weeks after that, I was called into the manager’s office and told to pack up my things and go home. I was being made redundant. I could, if so minded, return on a temporary contract basis, next summer.

Meanwhile Ian had taken a job as a community psychiatric nurse in Surrey, working from a building attached to a large hospital where he was able to live in the nurses’ accommodation. There he had met an Irish woman who was working in the same hospital.

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Monday Memories – Back in the Real World #2: Planning for Power.

I attended a selection day, held in Leeds, for a company specialising in power station overhauls. At the end of the process the consultant informed me that he would be recommending me for both positions, those being Planning Engineer and Sub-contract Manager.

The next stage was an interview with a company representative at their head office. When I was offered the Planning Engineer role I asked “what about the other job?” and was told I was being offered only the Planning role. I accepted and began work on the first Monday of March 1990.

Power stations do not generally operate at full capacity during the summer in the UK. Their operators take the opportunity to shut some of them down in order to carry out major overhauls. Most consist of two or more generating “sets” so the whole station does not shut down, only one set at a time. On a four set station, two sets will be shut down over a six month period, each for three months.

Image shows a large coal fired power station. On the left a group of concrete cooling towers, on the right a large flat roofed building with a tall chimney rising from its centre section.
Eggborough Power Station – recently closed after almost 40 years of operation. Image from Sky News.

The first shut down is usually scheduled for late March/early April. That year the shut down of one of the four sets at Eggborough was brought forward because of a breakdown – the operator decided not to restart for a 2-3 week run but to commence the planned overhaul right away at the beginning of March. That is where I was sent on my first day.

In 1990 all UK power stations were still operated by the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board). The government had decided to privatise, dividing the enterprise into two businesses, National Power and Powergen. Neither privatised company wanted to takeover an enterprise that was not efficient, so the CEGB was investing heavily, on behalf of the government, ensuring the plant was in good condition, as well as installing modifications to make them less polluting.

This mostly concerned the boiler element of the set. All of the work had to be accomplished within 90 days. There was a penalty clause under which the contractor would have to compensate the operator for loss of revenue in respect of every day by which the restart was delayed. The role of the Planning Engineer was, therefore, an important one.

A power station boiler is the size of a city apartment block: 160 feet (50 metres) high, 80 feet x 40 feet in plan (25 x 12.5 metres). Access is provided at 40ft., 80ft. and 120ft. above ground. The inner chamber up to 80 ft. is constructed entirely from thick walled steel tubes containing water under pressure which is heated by the burning of powdered coal blasted in through 24 nozzles each about 4 feet in diameter.

One of the jobs being undertaken during this round of overhauls was to replace those nozzles with new ones designed to eliminate the production of nitrogen oxides (Nox), a principle cause of acid rain. The tubes in the front wall are shaped to surround the nozzles. Because the new nozzles were a different size to the original this whole wall had to be cut out and replaced.

Elsewhere the extent of erosion and corrosion on the other walls was measured. Where this was found to be excessive the defective sections of tube were cut out and replaced. All of these tubes are embedded in refractory cement, outside which is a sheet steel case, then a layer of insulation and an outer cladding of sheet aluminium, all of which has to be removed to provide full access to the tubes, and then replaced after all tube welding has been completed.

The nozzles are supported within a steel structure on the front of the boiler. The old nozzles have to be unbolted and lifted out and the new nozzles lifted in. A difficult operation that has to be co-ordinated with the removal and replacement of the matching tube wall.

At Eggborough that March it soon became apparent that this sequence of operations could not be completed within the permitted time. I was charged with the task of devising an alternative sequence that would meet the time constraint. This proved successful.

Meanwhile there was much other work taking place. In the upper section of the boiler chamber a series of “U” shaped tubes hang down, also filled with water under pressure which is heated by the hot gases rising out of the chamber. All of these required inspection, as a result of which many were shown to be in need of repair.

All of the tubes emanate from a series of large bore tubes, or headers, located above the chamber roof. These too are subjected to inspection and repair as required. All around the boiler valves are repaired or replaced. All of the large ducts conveying air and hot gases to and from the boiler are cleaned out and, where necessary, their walls repaired.

The coal pulverisers are stripped down and worn parts replaced. The turbines, too, are subjected to an overhaul. Progress on all these tasks has to be monitored to ensure that nothing prevents the re-firing of the furnace on the contract date. Additional labour is recruited if needed, and additional hours worked, more than the usual 60 hours per week.

The sub-contract manager’s role is to liaise with the many specialist sub-contractors – scaffolders, refractory and insulation specialists, cleaning and inspection teams – to ensure that they have sufficient resources allocated when and where needed.

Both roles require the incumbents to spend large parts of the day in the thick of it, clambering about in confined and dirty spaces as well as attending meetings with contract supervisors and the client’s team and, in the case of the Planning Engineer, time spent at the desk assessing where delays are occurring and coming up with possible strategies for correcting them when the original strategies for preventing them have plainly failed.

Goodbye to the Seventies Part 1

When I began commuting to Derby in 1976, I travelled on a number of occasions with another Coventry based Engineer I’d not previously met who was running another project at Derby. That project finished in 1977 several months before mine. Back in Coventry in early 1978 I learned that he had been transferred to Grimsby. Meanwhile I had no substantial task. A couple of the projects I assisted on took me to the noisiest work places I have ever known – fortunately for only a brief visit – I can not begin to imagine what it would be like to spend eight hours in such an environment.

A Rayon weaving shed – this one at Courtaulds plant in Cornwall Ontario. Image found at https://cornwallcommunitymuseum.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/artifact-of-the-week-original-painting-advertising-tenasco-cord-for-tires-courtaulds-canada-ltd/

One was a weaving shed in Skelmersdale where I went to investigate a problem with yarn breaking because of the air conditioning system not maintaining optimum humidity. I recall a vast shed filled with looms as far as the eye could see and a noise that I can only liken to what it might be like to be inside an aircraft engine.

The other noisy environment was a wire winding shed. One of the principal markets for the company’s original product, rayon fibre, was as tire cord. By the seventies rayon was being replaced in many tires by steel cord. Courtaulds had purchased a steel tire cord manufacturer and we were asked to look at some proposed improvement or other. Again my recollection is of a vast shed filled with machines that took thin strands of brass plated steel wire and twisted them together to form the cord. And, again, I recall a thunderous roar that vibrated in my chest, never mind its effect on my ear drums.

These memories remind me of the many different products that Courtaulds had in its portfolio at the time and might be worth mentioning before we leave the 1970s. I mentioned in a previous episode that in the mid-sixties Courtaulds had fought off a take-over bid from ICI. The resistance had been led by a director who was a Chemist.

ICI’s interest was in gaining access to Courtaulds’ considerable reserves of cash resulting from the forced sale in 1941 of it’s American subsidiary as part of an agreement, called “lend-lease”, under which the USA supplied the allies with war materiel and other goods free of charge. With the battle with ICI won, the Chemist became Chief Executive and used that cash reserve to embark on a series of investments.

One facet of this strategy was the purchase of companies whose businesses complemented Courtaulds’ own. In particular they adopted a policy of ‘vertical integration’. Put simply, this involved the taking over of businesses that used Courtaulds’ raw materials, so it included weavers, spinners, worsted mills and garment manufacturers, many of them with household name brands such as Wolseley, Lyle and Scott, Bear Brand and Contessa among many others.

In effect they were tying these companies in to buying their raw materials from Courtaulds at the expense of the enemy, ICI. At Courtaulds Engineering one of my colleagues headed up a Materials Handling section where conveyor systems and packing lines were designed and installed in many of these factories. Often branded products were produced alongside those bearing the labels of well known chain stores.

Under the second element of the strategy, the Research and Development teams were funded to investigate new products using the same basic techniques as used in the manufacture of synthetic fibres. One such was KESP – spun soya protein as a substitute for meat. It featured on an edition of the BBC’s technology showcase “Tomorrow’s World”.

Versions of the product appeared in the company’s shop and we tried it. As an alternative to stewing meat, the chunks were acceptable but needed a good seasoning of herbs and other flavourings. The pilot plant and manufacturing license were sold to a food processor in East Anglia but the product never achieved significant commercial success. Interestingly similar products are once again being offered for sale, no doubt in response to an upsurge in vegetarianism and veganism.

Another attempt to introduce a new product into an established market concerned tobacco. I have no idea of the process used to manufacture Courtaulds’ tobacco substitute. Employees were offered the opportunity to blind test samples of different compositions. This must have been before I left for South Africa because I gave up smoking a few months after our return. I do remember that the particular formulation I was given to sample tasted horrible. The best way I can describe it is by reference to an occasion when I inadvertently lit the wrong end of a tipped cigarette.

Another business that Courtaulds purchased at this time was International Paints. This once again brought them into direct competition with ICI who owned the Dulux paint brand. International’s specialty was anti-fouling paints used by shipping world wide.*

I remember once creating the script for an imagined TV commercial demonstrating, via a series of short clips, how every activity during an ordinary day in someone’s life brought him or her into contact with a Courtaulds product. The strap line or slogan would have been “We are all around you” and it certainly seemed at the time that Courtaulds had such a huge variety of products and brands that it was indeed impossible to avoid contact with the company, although most people would have been unaware of the ultimate ownership of those brands.

I suppose the fact that I found time to indulge in such exercises as devising a TV commercial confirms that I did not have enough to do. That was changed by a phone call from the man who had occasionally given me a lift to Derby.

General view of Courtaulds’ Grimsby plant. Image by Alan Hilditch on Flickr, found at https://hiveminer.com/Tags/courtaulds%2Clincolnshire/Timeline

He was now head of the capital projects department for the company’s Courtelle Division at Grimsby. Courtelle was the company’s acrylic fibre and the production facility at Grimsby had been steadily expanded over the preceding fifteen years. They had an annual budget for modernisation and improvement projects, one of which consisted of the complete overhaul of some of the older production lines. Each would be shut down for three months at a time, stripped down, major repairs carried out and new equipment incorporated. I was seconded for an initial period of six months to manage the work.

*For more on Courtaulds history, see http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/courtaulds-plc-history/

Monday Memories – 1968 Part 2

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.

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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.

Monday Memories – 1968.

An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past.

At work, after completing my apprenticeship, I was designing components for eventual incorporation into the ill fated TSR2 defence project and the highly speculative super-sonic airliner Concord (Concorde if you are French). TSR stood for ‘Tactical Strike and Reconnaisance’. I’ve no idea why it was designated ‘2’. I suppose there must have been an earlier version of this aircraft. In any case it was cancelled, being deemed too expensive at the time.

There were four of us ex-apprentices within a couple of years of each other, each of whom got married in 1963 or ’64. As well as watching Hereford United football and socialising in the club’s Supporters’ Club we organised a couple of events of our own. One ‘initiative test’ involved lads being dropped off at various points on the outskirts of Chester. This was at 10pm and the task was to make our way back as quickly as possible. In another we set off at 8pm with the objective of getting as far away from Hereford as possible and back by 6pm the following day. This demanded judgement as well as initiative, determining when and where to commence the return journey so as not to be disqualified for being late. I and my partner achieved creditable results in both.

In the second we made it to a village called Misson in the northern corner of Nottinghamshire, not far from Doncaster. I remember a friendly policeman who stamped our form to confirm we had been there and treated us to a breakfast of tea and bacon butties in the kitchen of a factory making cattle feed pellets from grass. Apparently this was part of his morning routine.

At some point the company recruited a young draughtsman to augment the team of design draughtsmen. Originally from Lancashire, he was quite ambitious and would prove to have a significant, if indirect, impact on my future career.

He quickly found a better paid job with another firm based in Hereford, Denco Miller Ltd. The parent firm, Denco, had begun life just after the war manufacturing lubrication systems under licence from an American company. At some point they were approached by a refrigeration engineer called Alan Miller who saw an opportunity to use the principle of refrigeration in various industrial applications.

Denco Miller was the result of this collaboration. The company produced air conditioning plants for the burgeoning computer industry, and compressed air drying systems for manufacturing plants that used tools powered by compressed air. The company had just begun selling gas drying equipment to the nationalised regional gas companies who were converting from coal to oil as the source for gas production.

Marketed as ‘High Speed Gas’, this was a precursor to the yet to be discovered North Sea Gas. Delivered under pressure via a nationwide network of pipes, it replaced the low pressure distribution of coal gas which was stored in large tanks, or ‘gasometers’, which could be seen in every town of significant size. The nation’s town and city streets were being dug up to install these new pipes to deliver High Speed Gas to homes, and a programme was underway to convert domestic appliances to use the high pressure supply.

Denco Miller’s business was booming because of this and my former colleague was appointed as the new Chief Draughtsman and set about recruiting other colleagues. I succumbed to his felicitations, not so much a promise of higher earnings at once, but a near certainty of early promotion as the business expanded. So it was that, in February 1966, after a total of seven and a half years at the company where I had served my apprenticeship, I left to join Denco Miller.

Sure enough, within a few months I was promoted to the role of Contract Engineer. This meant I was put in charge of supervising the delivery of various projects from conception to commissioning.

Many of the new Synthetic Natural Gas production facilities were constructed as an integral part of an oil refinery and there were, at that time, a number of such projects underway in Britain. Such vast projects were managed by large companies using American project management techniques which could quite easily make mincemeat of small enterprises like ours working as sub-contractors. I was certainly not up to the job of negotiating with their Project Managers. Contracts tended to be priced low to ‘get a foot in the door’ in the hope of getting future business. My job was to screw as many concessions and payments for ‘extras’ as possible from the client, theirs to screw as much out of us as possible without paying more than the originally agreed price.

After one particularly difficult contract that lost money for the company I was ‘redeployed’ back to the drawing office. This made me determined to look for employment elsewhere – and I was in no doubt that it would have to be away from Hereford.

The first alternative opportunity I explored was as a Technical Journalist with a weekly publication called, I think, Engineering News. I went to their offices in London for an interview and was offered a job, but it would be at the same salary as I was already earning. The idea of trying to live on such a salary in London with its inflated housing costs simply did not appeal. I had responsibilities and we were managing reasonably well in our rural backwater.

It was not just the cost of living that deterred me from moving to London – traffic noise and fumes, over-crowded buses and Underground trains, and too many people crammed into poor quality housing seemed like a bad idea by comparison with our little house and garden a stones throw from open country.

A few months later I travelled to Cambridge to an interview with the electronics company Pye. They wanted someone to design equipment enclosures and manufacture prototypes. I would have access to a small workshop but would have to do the prototyping myself. Memories of some of the mistakes I’d made whilst working in various machine shops as an apprentice made me have second thoughts about that job.

I can best illustrate this by recounting an incident from my period in the so called ‘Short Order Department’. This was where small batches of components were manufactured, quantities that did not merit the expense of creating the tools and jigs required to produce large numbers of a particular set of components. As well as a number of basic machine tools, the department had a bench were certain items were hand made by a craftsman. Geoff was one of the nicest men I met during my apprenticeship or since.

A Scotsman, he had been mechanic to the Allard motor racing team after the war. He was not only a master craftsman but also a wonderful mentor and teacher for those of us apprentices fortunate enough to work alongside him. Upon my arrival in the department and introductions, he Christened me “Squire Parker from Peterchurch”. From then until the day I left the company I was known as “The Squire” or “Squire Parker”.

There is a technique for using a pillar drill which is one of the first, most basic things, a user learns. The object to be drilled needs to be supported so that when the drill bit exits the object it does not enter the table of the drill. Despite this, many of the old pillar drills with which various departments were equipped were peppered with holes left behind by individuals who had ignored the rules. One day the Short Order Department was treated to a brand new pillar drill. A few days later I was allocated a task which necessitated drilling a hole in a piece of aluminium. Everything was going fine until I noticed the silver coloured alluminium swarf from the drill had been replaced by dark grey slivers.

I felt the heat rise from my neck to my cheeks as I realised the error of my ways. I can well imagine that some of the craftsmen and supervisors alongside whom I had worked previously would have been unable to hide their anger at such incompetence and the spoiling of a new, expensive, piece of equipment. Not Geoff. Of course, he gave me a well deserved lecture. But he also set about finding a suitable piece of steel bar and then creating a deliberate hole in place of my accidental one. This new hole was a tight fit for the piece of rod which Geoff drove into it, filing and polishing until my mistake was completely erased.

One of Geoff’s favourite remarks was “Bloody hell’s bells (name) what d’ye think ye’re doing?”. A phrase he used that day, accompanied with a lesson on taking the trouble to do things the right way.

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The Foleshill Road, Coventry, offices of Courtaulds Limited, now a listed building. Image found at heritagegateway.org and copyright Coventry City Council. Permission sought

To get back to my job search, the day after my trip to Cambridge I went to Coventry for an interview with Courtaulds Engineering Ltd. The textile conglomerate was undertaking a massive investment in its many plants around the country and further afield, as well as offering the services of its Engineering subsidiary as Project Manager and Design Specialist to other organisations.

I was offered both of these jobs and chose the one in Coventry, not least because it was not too far from our original family homes in Herefordshire. It also meant a higher salary at a time when there was a government imposed cap on wage increases. I began work at CEL in June of 1968. We sold our house and purchased one in Coventry which we moved into in November. I was to spend the next 18 years as an employee of Courtaulds Group, in various locations and capacities.

Monday Memories – September 1965

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.

Monday Memories – September 1963

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.

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My painting of Turnastone church in Herefordshire where we were married on 18 Sept. 1963

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.