First Steps

In the summer of 1948 I sat and passed the Cambridge School Certificate with credit in three subjects; English, Physics, Geography.  On leaving school that summer I pursued the idea of joining the Merchant Navy making application for cadet or apprenticeship to several shipping companies.  Some companies, such as British India, P & O and other high-profile passenger lines demanded that cadets pay a premium and work simply for keep until qualified.  Eventually, in the late summer I was accepted by the Anglo-Saxon Tanker Company as an apprentice deck officer.  I believe that Anglo-Saxon was a subsidiary of the Shell oil company.

While submitting applications and waiting for decisions I was briefly employed by Langcroft Radio who had a shop in Bridge Street St Ives.  I was relegated to a workshop which the firm rented off Broadway in the Rowing Club yard where I serviced and charged the 2 Volt lead acid accumulators which were much used in domestic radios at the time.

The job with Lang Croft undoubtedly stemmed from two local amateur radio operators, Cyril Whaley (G6WA) and Berkeley Rowell (G5RL).  Cyril was a friend of my brother Ted and it was through him that I met Berkeley, more commonly known as Ken.  In those days there was no off-the-shelf radio equipment and both built their own transmitters and aerial systems.  Cyril had achieved some fame when he worked a fellow Ham in New Zealand using CW or Morse code on a transmitter powered by discarded high tension batteries connected in series.  Both had been in the RAF through World War II and worked in radio.

Coincidentally, a new woodwork master at HGS was also a ham and set up a rig in the corner of the workshop.  He too had served through World War II and was recently demobilised when he joined the school.  I have forgotten his surname, but he was popularly known as Captain Ray.

Ken Rowell and his father owned a gentleman’s tailors and clothing store on the market Hill at St Ives.  I believe that they lived on the premises, but the radio shack was a separate timber structure to the rear.  I cannot recall how I gained access to the shack but I would arrive and find Ken in his workshop.  At this time, he was engaged in building a television set using a war surplus six-inch radar tube.  After some weeks he announced that the set was ready for the big switch on – the screen lit up to reveal a green picture, inverted, and covered in a snowstorm of static.  A few tweaks and the picture was the right way up and free of distortion.

At that time, commercial television sets were just appearing on the market and the first that I ever saw was a 12 inch Pye, black and white, owned by the parents of a friend, Keith Radford.  Don and Dorothy Radford owned a grocery store on Needingworth Road opposite Farthing Close.

Ken Rowell liked to contact fellow hams in Southern Africa and his aerial, a W8JK beam was oriented to project the maximum signal in that direction.  A general call, or CQ, would often result in a response from a D4 (American servicemen in Germany) or an I1 in Italy.  Back then, amateur operators in the UK were restricted to a maximum output of 100 Watts, whereas the Americans and Italians were able to use 1 kW which tended to blanket less powerful stations.

Ken later built a rotary beam aerial with which the direction of maximum output could be controlled from inside the shack.  I should perhaps explain that the term “shack” was commonly applied to the building used by an amateur radio operator and probably originated in the USA.

We often talked with a chemist in Nairobi.  When later I was in Kenya, I looked him up and subsequently bought from him a Bolex 8 mm cine camera.

Under the auspices of Anglo-Saxon in early November I travelled to Aberdovey on the Welsh coast and joined a course at the Outward Bound Sea School.  The first Outward Bound school was opened in Aberdovey, Wales in 1941 by Kurt Hahn and Lawrence Holt with the support of the Blue Funnel Line (owned by Holt).  Outward Bound grew out of Hahn’s work in the development of the Gordonstoun school and what is now known as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.  Outward Bound’s founding mission was to improve the survival chances of young seamen after their ships were torpedoed in the mid-Atlantic.

The course comprised about sixty boys, or rather young men, a large part of whom on this course were from HMS Conway.  Conway, a 19th-century, second rate, ship of the line was converted to a school ship and at that time lay in the Menai Straits off Anglesey.  On a shift to Liverpool for a refit in 1953 she ran aground in a storm and broke up, being destroyed by fire soon after.

Head of the school was Merchant Navy captain, discipline and athletics were in the hands of a sergeant Royal Marines who was aided by a Mr Zimmerman, the latter said to be a former German Olympic champion.

Outward Bound
OUTWARD BOUND: November 1948

GJW 3rd Row third from left. David Lewis front row center

One of the notable features of the training was that every morning the entire school departed for a 10-mile run which ended with thirty-second cold shower.  Being early winter, no one really relished the shower and some tried to avoid this delight by standing back against the wall behind the shower.  Anyone caught doing so was then subjected to a full one-minute shower.

Much time was spent sailing heavy, lug rigged cutters in the Dovey estuary.  Outward Bound owned a French onion ketch, but during our course this vessel was laid up for maintenance.

One rather boorish character, not a Conway hand, had formed the habit of picking on a slight and inoffensive Conway Cadet, one David Lewis.  It was never clear what this was about, jealousy, want of attention or a friend, I do not know.  Anyway, I took it upon myself to resolve this situation and told the individual that if he persisted in picking on David, he would have me to deal with.  To this day, I do not know what I intended, but he stopped hassling David Lewis.

The final act of the course was a two-day expedition to the 3000-foot summit of Cader Idris.  We were divided into teams of six and set off for the mountain.  All went well until the late afternoon when a thick fog descended and it soon became clear that we were lost.  As leader of my team I decided that we would descend diagonally across the face of the mountain until we struck one of the fences which I had noticed on a map.  This turned out to be a good choice and we finally made it to our rendezvous point.  I received a silver award for this expedition.

At the end of the month-long course I believe that I was fitter than at any time in my life, before or after.

In January 1949 I found myself at the King Edward VII Nautical School in London.  Accommodation and lectures were centred in Earls Court, whilst practical work in boats was in the London docks.  I do not remember a great deal about this period, possibly because my time at the school was short.

Some weeks after the course started, I was summoned to a Board of Trade eyesight test which was the most thorough that I was ever to encounter and included an additional session, recognising flashing lights of different colours in a darkened room.  The result was that that I did not have enough visual acuity for a deck officer.  It was suggested that I should return after six months for a recheck, but the gentleman conducting the test commented that it was unlikely that anything would have changed.  Why the eyesight test did not form part of the initial selection procedure, I will never know.  This issue was to later deny aircrew training in the RAF.

I returned to St Ives, my tail between my legs and set about rethinking my future.  Knowing that in May the following year when I turned eighteen, I would have to register for National Service did not help this process.

By the end of February 1949, I had three choices.  One, was to become a clerk Cadet in the Huntingdonshire Constabulary.  Two, was a position as a cadet reporter at the local newspaper, the Hunt’s Post, and three, as an assistant to the Inspector of Weights and Measures for Huntingdonshire.  Curiously, I opted for the last of the three.

The office consisted of the chief inspector, Archibald Edgar James, an inspector, Mike Givens and to senior assistants, Tony Dighton and John Geeson.  Mr James was an elderly gentleman who had been recalled to the position when the incumbent left to join the Navy during the war.  He did not return.

The local standards, weights and measures, were kept in a relatively airtight glass fronted cabinet.  Once every five years they had to be reverified by the Board of Trade in London.  They were removed from the cabinet, which I believe was called a Press, only when it was necessary to recalibrate the local working standards.  Between times, every few months they were lightly wiped using a soft rag and a smidgen of Three in One oil.

Thereby hangs a story.  I learned that my predecessor, Bernie Thompson, who I had known at school and who was something of a character, had taken to the local standards, shining them up with Brasso!  Doubtless he had reasoned that being made of brass and copper, the standards would have benefited from a shine up.  Using an abrasive, even a mild abrasive, was inimical to the veracity of the standards.

As well as weights and measures, the office was responsible for administering several other pieces of legislation including elements of the Food and Drugs Act, the Explosives Act, fabrics misdescription, and the Shops Act.

Verification courts were held in towns around the county each year when traders were obliged to submit their scales, linear and liquid measures for verification of accuracy against the local standards.  These were usually uneventful affairs.

Repairers were present on these occasions and were able to deal with any under or overs.  When the items were deemed to be accurate the date and a crown were hammered into a lead insert using a die.

Between times, I would join Mr James for expeditions around the county when we would check sacks of coal on carts in the process of delivery.  In those days these were invariably horse-drawn four wheeled carts.  One trick used by the merchants was to soak the sacks of coal in water to gain a few pounds in weight.  All the lifting and hauling on these expeditions was carried out by the deliveryman.

We would sometimes stop milk home delivery vehicles to take samples of milk under the Food and Drugs Act.  The samples, selected at random, were divided into three 8-ounce medicine bottles which, on being corked, were secured with sealing wax.  One bottle was handed to the purveyor, one we kept and the third was sent to the Public Analyst in Cambridge.

Occasionally, when analysis suggested that the milk had been tampered with, we would carry out what was known as an “appeal to cow” which entailed an early morning visit to the relevant farm as cows were being milked.  The samples would again be divided into three and sealed.  Actual cases of adulteration were rare, but water was sometimes added or milk solids removed.

Our visits to farms were not welcomed.  Mr James recounted that on such a visit when he was working in Cornwall, he had been chased off the farm by a knife wielding farmer.

In several towns in the county, weekly markets took place when traders set up stalls in the main street.  Sometimes I would be handed a small sum of money and instructed to visit a market stall to buy, say a pound of fruit.  I particularly liked it when the chosen fruit was grapes.  I would then return to the car when the purchase would be weighed.  If a discrepancy appeared, checks would then be made on the retailer’s scales.

The Weights and Measures Department was also charged with checking the weight transmitted to the highway by the wheels of heavy motor vehicles.  At selected spots on main roads, laybys were established and small concrete trenches constructed to accommodate wheel weighing machines.  Two machines were set in each trench so that the weight transmitted to the road by each axle on a vehicle could be measured.  Warning signs were erected beside the road in the approaches to the layby.

Selected lorries were pulled over and directed into the layby.  The position of the scales was adjusted in the trench to fit the distance apart and the size of the tyres on each axle.  This imposition was resented by many Lorry drivers and some were not slow to show their displeasure.  The wheel weighing scales were regarded as fair targets and it was not long before one set was wrecked.  The vehicles were directed up to the edge of the concrete trench and the scales were then placed to line up with the wheels.  Drivers sought to thwart this process by driving forward before the scales were properly in place, with predictable consequences.

This uncooperative attitude and the occasional drive by lorry resulted in an arrangement whereby it was decreed that each session would be accompanied by a police constable.

Another regular task was the checking of the petrol pumps at service stations.  The standard liquid measures were made of copper with brass bands.  At the top of each, about 3 inches below the rim, was a circular funnel-shaped lip with a small brass tap.  If a pump delivered more than the set amount of petrol, the over delivery could be measured by placing a measuring cylinder under the tap.  After necessary adjustments had been made to the pump delivery system a wire was threaded through holes in the nuts securing the cover to the mechanism which was then secured with a lead seal.

One inspector, not Mr James, surreptitiously took any excess petrol in the glass measuring cylinder and emptied it into a small petrol can kept in the boot of his car for this purpose.  Petrol was still rationed at that time, but I often wondered whether the small account of petrol accumulated in this way made much difference.

Under the office was a small basement room which was damp, airless and with minimal natural light and used mainly for brewing tea.  A hand operated and geared centrifuge used for local milk analysis stood on a small bench.  Water for tea was boiled on a single gas ring in a large aluminium kettle.  Fancying a cup of tea when once alone in the office I set the water to boil and it was only a couple of hours later that I remembered.  I found the kettle a heap of melted aluminium under the gas ring.  I was able to find an identical replacement to the kettle in a local hardware store and none were the wiser.  The office was saved from a conflagration because the gas ring stood on a brick shelf under a thick glass skylight let into the pavement at the front of the building.

I continued in the employ of the Weights and Measures Department until conscripted into the RAF in 1950.  Whilst in Aden I received a message from Mr James through my brother Ted, who was at this time a constable in the local constabulary, asking when I would be returning to the department.  Employers were obliged to keep open places for those conscripted into the services, but I had entered a three-year engagement which I suspect nullified this requirement.

After Outward Bound, I had kept in touch with David Lewis and learned that his family lived in Durban, South Africa where his father was a master mariner with Railways and Harbours.  Having no close relatives in the UK this meant that he typically stayed on board Conway during holidays.  Just before Easter 1949 I hired a two-berth sailing boat from Banham’s at Cambridge for two weeks and invited David to join me.  The “Harmony” was just over 20 feet in length, gaff cutter rigged, with a small Stuart Turner engine under a box in the cockpit.  The large wooden mast had a lead weight bolted to the bottom to act as a counterbalance when the mast was lowered to transit under bridges.  A very neat arrangement which worked well.

The spring weather was kind and we had a leisurely sail the length of the River Cam.  Just above Denver Sluice we saw another rental sailing boat ahead of us and were immediately puzzled by its lack of forward progress.  The wind was across the river and we were on a broad reach making good progress.  As we drew near to the other boat, which was on the weather shore, we could not but notice that its sails were close hauled and that two figures were on the bow with a quant pole attempting to prevent it from luffing-up.  We luffed and sailed toward it.

A figure at the tiller called and ask how we were able to make such good progress through the water.  We suggested that he should loosen the mainsheet, secure the quant pole, and then haul in the main until the sail stopped flapping.  A miracle, the boat started to move forward.

Just below Denver, the other boat secured to the bank, dropped its sails and we tied up alongside.  The figure who had been at the helm appeared to be in his mid-20s and introduced himself introduced himself as Crowe-Robinson.  The crew, introduced to us, were four others around the same age as ourselves were all students at Charterhouse School in Surrey.

Crowe-Robinson told us that they had had the same trouble since leaving Cambridge five days before and could not understand why they were making such slow progress!  One would have thought that anyone would have caught on by noting how the boat responded to various sail settings, but we kept that thought to ourselves.

We kept company and left the Cam at Denver and sailed up the Great Ouse as far as the pool beneath the lock gates at St Ives.  We had hoped to pass through the lock and sail up to the quayside below the town bridge, but there proved to be not enough water to allow us to enter the lock.  Afterwards we made a leisurely return to Cambridge and parted.

David and I returned to St Ives and as I took him to the station the following day for the journey back to North Wales he said, “You are so lucky”.  Questioned, he said that he meant that I was lucky to have a family home with my mother and father and family all around.  Food for thought.

Later, I heard from one of the boys on the other boat, John Brooke, who said that he and the others were keen to hire a boat from Banham’s at Horning on the Norfolk Broads before Easter in 1950 and wondered if I would be able to join them.

We met on the appointed day and time at Banham’s Horning boatyard.  Captain Crowe Robinson was much in evidence, his usual, rather eccentric, self and rearing to go.  The others were the same as the previous year’s adventure on the River Cam and Great Ouse, but apart from John Brooke, I cannot recall their names.  The boat, to accommodate the six of us, was slightly larger than those of last year but with the same layout and gaff cutter rig.


The crew at Horning – John at left, self at right.

Gear stowed, we set out immediately downstream toward Yarmouth.  I had learned that the traditional Broads trading vessels, the Wherries, transited bridges by lowering the mast and sail on the approach and re-hoisting the rig on the other side.  I was keen to try this manoeuvre.  I briefed the crew and as we came up to the first bridge below Horning, we were on a broad reach – that is, the wind was across the river and the boom was paid out to port – and we were burbling along at a good pace.

Everyone had been allocated a job and stood by at their posts.  On the order “let go” the block and tackle on the forestay was loosed and the mast began to lower.  Predictably, being well out to port, the belly of the sail joined the end of the boom in the water and the boat broached and stopped – much to the amusement of two gentlemen fishing from the bridge.  Much embarrassed laughter as we fetched up in the reeds by the bank.


The Staithe at Horning

The boom and the sail were hauled in and secured.  I was kicking myself for not having foreseen the consequences of lowering the mast whilst on a broad reach.  I concluded that one could only successfully carry out this manoeuvre when the wind was on the bow and one luffed up to the bridge with enough way to carry the boat to the other side.  We resolved to practice on suitable stretches of the river.

We reached Yarmouth the following day and entered Breyden Water in what can only be described as half a gale.  We should probably have reefed the mainsail, but the boat was stiff and we crossed the open water in a series of tacks with the lee deck under.  Notable on this crossing were flurries of snow – no wonder that it was cheaper to hire boats before Easter.


The Charterhouse crew – Crowe-Robinson on the right.

At the end of Breyden was a sort of a marina beneath a hill with a gap in a breakwater through which boats could enter.  At this point the wind was on the stern and we passed through the opening at some speed.  When I gauged that we had enough speed to reach the breakwater I luffed up and coasted up to the mooring with the mainsail flapping.  As we approached the mooring a gentleman on the hardstanding said “well done Captain”.

A hot drink and a change of clothes was called for.  One of the crew open a drawer beneath a bunk in the main cabin to find everything soaked!  Predictably, the hard heel on the crossing had caused the bilge water to flood the drawers.  The rest of the cruise past uneventfully and we did finally manage to shoot a bridge on lowering the mast and sail.

I kept in touch with John Brooke for several years, visited him in Stamford and on one occasion joined him on a trip to Silverstone in his Austin 7 Nippy.  Once, at his home, we were talking about the teacher, Crowe Robinson, and I learned that his mother had nicknamed him “Cocky”.


The Austin 7 Nippy and proud owner

Unusually for a Charterhouse student, John joined the merchant Navy as a deck officer cadet.  A few years later in a change of direction, he was accepted by BOAC for pilot training.  I wrote to him before one of my long leaves from Kenya and suggested that we should meet up in London.  When I arrived home, I found a letter from his mother with the news that John had been killed in a traffic accident in London.  Driving his Lotus sports car, he had been hit side on and thrown from the car against the wall and had died at the scene.

I spent a weekend with Mrs Brooke who in the meantime, had moved to Malden in Essex.  By this time, both John’s two sisters were married and she had become a grandmother.

A few months after our Broads trip I received my calling up papers and a railway warrant to report to Padgate in Lancashire for basic training in the RAF.