Taleweaver (1960-2022)

Chris gained his commercial pilot’s licence when he was 20. After eight years as a flying instructor attached to the US Air Force, he worked for Air Anglia, based at Norwich Airport, and qualified as a helicopter pilot. He spent more than 20 years flying helicopters in Nigeria, mainly for the Pan African company, before returning to Norfolk. He then spent five years skippering passenger vessels on the Norfolk Broads for Broads Tours. Chris is a prolific author who is best known for his Jack Fellows stories, which are set on the Norfolk Broads.

Early days

I was born in Yorkshire in 1944. When I was four years old, my father’s job moved to Suffolk, and so I grew up and went to school in Leiston in Suffolk.

Thank you, Biggles!

Then, at the age of eight, my sister bought me my first Biggles book! Biggles in the Blue it was called and my imagination was absolutely caught by this character who went around the world with his mates on wonderful flying adventures. I knew from the age of eight that flying was what I wanted to do. And I started learning to fly the week after I left school at the age of 17.

Potato-picker turned professional pilot

I had O levels, but I hadn’t really done very well at school. I’d been a bit lazy. I didn’t actually have the qualifications to go into the military and learn to fly. But just down the road was Ipswich Airport. At that time Channel Airways operated an airline from there to the Channel Islands and throughout Europe, so every day there were scheduled services in and out.

They also farmed the land between the runways. In fact, the senior pilot at Ipswich Airport managed the farm as well. When he wasn’t flying a DC-3 he was on the tractor ploughing up the fields!

I got a job on the farm, and by picking potatoes all week they’d give me some flying instruction at the end of the week. I was living with my parents in Leiston, and I got into Ipswich on the bus or the train.

In a year and a quarter I got my private licence. I built up my hours, and got my commercial pilot’s licence, and then I started flying commercially. I think I was 20 when I got that, which is quite young.

Thoughts on training

Before that I’d been in the Air Training Corps. In fact, I’d learned to glide in the ATC when I was 16. So I first went solo in a glider when I was 16 years old, and then progressed on the powered aircraft at the airport. We trained in Auster aircraft in those days. Old army Austers, yes.

To a certain extent it was unusual to be getting flying instruction at the age of 17. Some trainees, of course, were cadets that came through the Air Training Corps on a scholarship.

But learning to fly wasn’t an expensive business. Actually, in those days, sixteen years after the war, the government still subsidised flying instruction. There was no fuel duty, for instance, on fuel that was used for flying training. So back in those days it was only £3 an hour for learning to fly.

I can remember the first time I went solo. I was 17. I went solo in 6 hours 35 minutes. It was wonderful. Wonderful.

First paid job: training others to fly

My first paid job was as a flying instructor, actually, at Biggin Hill. On open cockpit biplanes in those days as well. I did a flying instructor’s course at Cranfield, which is now the Cranfield University, I think, but it was the Institute of Technology in those days.

Training pilots who went to Vietnam

For eight years I was a flying instructor attached to the US Air Force, who were using civilians for training on light aircraft. That was at bases in this country. RAF Bentwaters, RAF Woodbridge, sometimes at Mildenhall, sometimes at Lakenheath, but mainly Bentwaters and Woodbridge. Everything we used was sent over from the States. Nothing was bought in this country, so everything was done through the air force.

I was 20, and I was instructing people older than me. A lot of them were starting from scratch. They were perhaps in ground jobs in the air force, and the air force thought it would be good for them to learn to fly. Also, pilots who were on ground tours keeping their currency going. They operated light aircraft for that training.

At that level, there wasn’t a major check before they started training, only just a talk. As it is in light aircraft, you would soon know whether they were going to hack it or not. There were some hairy moments in training. You have to let the student go as far as you dare let him go before you take over! So, yeah, that could be exciting.

The Vietnam War was on and some of them were training to go out there. A few I knew were killed, but others went on to other careers in aviation.

Crop dusting: flying under the telephone wires!

After I got my commercial licence I did a variety of jobs. I was a crop duster for a while, flying specialised single-seater aircraft. Aerial spraying isn’t allowed any more, but crops used to be sprayed by aircraft, top dressing and spraying of crops, in single-seater aircraft. Quite an exciting life. We used to actually go under the telephone wires to do it. I did that for one season.

I was also a charter pilot for a while, but I had no ambitions to fly big aircraft as such.

My licence allowed for all this. The air force put me through all my American licences, so I had British licences, then American licences, and eventually I had Dutch and Nigerian licences as well. Four different countries’ licences!

Working for Air Anglia, and becoming a helicopter pilot

After eight years training US pilots I went to work for Air Anglia at Norwich Airport. I’d been flying light aircraft for them on different contracts which they had, and then they got a helicopter. They put me through the helicopter course as well, which was wonderful, ’cos I’d always wanted to fly helicopters. So at Norwich Airport my primary job was flying the helicopter, and also as co-pilot on the larger aircraft there.

Filming from the skies

With the helicopter it was all ad hoc work. Filming, air taxi work, that sort of thing. I liked film work very much. You’ve got cameramen on board, and you sit down and pre-plan it all. I liked that aspect to it. Then there was a result at the end of it, and somewhere down the line a film emerged and you could actually go and see the results of the work you’d done.

We did have to cancel sometimes, due to weather or for other reasons you’d do the same take quite a few times.

Some of it was around here and, at other times, down in London. We also had a contract up in Southport for a while and on another I remember flying a group of executives all around the country visiting their installations. Yeah, great times.

Helicopters or airplanes?

Helicopters are far more sensitive to fly than a fixed-wing aircraft. You certainly need to develop a much lighter touch with helicopters. With a helicopter you’ve only got to think about what you want it to do and it virtually does it. A helicopter also is dynamically unstable, whereas an airplane you can take your hands and feet off and the thing flies itself. You take your hands off a helicopter and within seconds it’s out of control.

We started off with the Bell 47, which is a small, reciprocating engine helicopter. Then we went on the Bell 206, which is a jet engine helicopter. They could take four passengers. In a Bell 206, you could stay up about two and a half hours with a full tank. It’s not long. And if you had a full load of passengers, it would probably be less than that, ’cos you couldn’t take a full load of fuel with a full load of passengers. So it was small helicopters, and short trips.

Adventures abroad – ‘I’d still got this Biggles thing going round in my head!’

In 1979 Air Anglia was amalgamated with British Island Airways to form Air UK. The new airline was going to do away with things like the executive fleet, the helicopter and things like that, and be a purely airline operation.

I was given the choice of continuing as an airline pilot or taking my redundancy and leaving. I’d already worked out airline flying wasn’t my sort of flying. I’d still got this Biggles thing going round in my head! I wanted something with a bit more adventure!

So I took my redundancy, and joined a company called Schreiner, a Dutch company which operated about 80 aeroplanes and helicopters around the world, mostly in the Third World. They sent me down to Marseilles in the South of France to convert onto French helicopters.

Then I was sent out to Nigeria, to the Nigerian Air Force base at Port Harcourt, to operate in their helicopter operation there. Quite a change from Norwich Airport!

A life in Africa begins: ‘I loved it’

I loved Africa. Loved it. I’d always wanted to go to Africa, I’d always wanted that sort of adventure. And as soon as I got out there I realised I’d joined the sort of aviation version of the French Foreign Legion! We had 30 pilots at Port Harcourt, comprised of 22 different nationalities, so it was a real interesting group.

Our company was contracted to Elf, the French company, and to Agip, the Italian company. So we were working for Agip and Elf. We were mainly in support of oil operations in the Niger Delta, and that was our sole operation there.

Patrolling pipelines across Nigeria

We were moving people through the Niger Delta, which is all swamps, and also into jungle locations where they were drilling.

In my first year there I was put on patrolling the pipelines, in Nigeria, which involved flying the length and breadth of the country. It suited me just great, ’cos I was away from base. I realise obviously I got the job because I was the new boy. It was what nobody else wanted.

It involved being away from base for weeks at a time, sometimes six, seven hundred miles away from base. But that suited me just great. I liked being away from supervision, and doing my own thing. This was in Alouette III helicopters. French helicopters.

There weren’t airstrips, but we were patrolling the pipeline, and along the pipeline there were flow stations. At the flow stations they would keep drums of fuel, so if we needed to, we would land there.

I’d climb in the helicopter first thing in the morning at Warri, right down in the Niger Delta, lift up, over the swamps, over the jungle, up onto the savannah, up onto the Jos highlands, right up to Kano right on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and I’d do that all in one day, all at 60-foot low-level patrol. We’d be doing about 80 knots, 90 knots. ’Bout 100 miles an hour, yeah.

Chris and helicopter

Helicopter team

Three weeks on, four weeks off

Anyway, in the 42 by 42-mile operational area there we had over 300 platforms, rigs, ships, installations. We were moving people around all day, every day. It was a slick operation, and hard work.

But it was wonderful because we did that every day for three weeks, and then the end of three weeks we were sent on four weeks’ leave to anywhere in the world we wanted to go, so it was a great schedule. And a great life. Wonderful, and wonderful characters, too.

Natural disasters – and sabotage!

And looking for all sorts of things on the pipeline. Natural things like washouts, but also mainly checking they weren’t being sabotaged. The local villages along the pipeline would try and dig down to it and extract the oil, usually ending with the thing blowing up and wiping out the whole village.

Flying a £1m helicopter!

Then after a year I was put onto offshore operations at Warri, flying out into the Bight of Benin to offshore operations we had out there. Did that for a year.

Then after a year, I was still on the same operation, but we started re-equipping with new helicopters, the Aerospatiale Dauphin AS235. It was the state-of-the-art helicopter in those days. Big, much larger helicopter. Carried 14. Twin-engined. Two pilots, auto-pilot. Full instrumentation.

But the thing which impressed me most about is, it was the first aircraft I’d ever flown that cost more than £1,000,000. That really impressed me more than anything!

Changing companies: government permission needed

I was with Schreiner, the Dutch company, for three years. ACN it was called out there. We got the Dauphin, which was a lovely aircraft to fly, but like anything that’s complicated, the whole operation of it became complicated. Every take-off had to be calculated, and to me it started to become like the airline operation I’d wanted to get away from.

So after three years I got permission to change companies. Out in Nigeria at that time, if you were an ex-pat and wanted to change companies, you had to get the government permission to do so. I think it was to stop companies stealing each other’s personnel. I think the companies were the ones that actually inspired it.

Starting at Pan African

I got permission, and I moved over to Pan African, which was an American operation. Very different to ACN. I was back flying Bell 206 small helicopters, which is what I like, at a place called Escravos. This was an oil camp on the mouth of the Escravos River.

They had, I think it was ten helicopters, and we had 20 pilots comprised of 12 different nationalities, so it was the same multi-national thing. But it was a very different operation.

Early to bed, early to rise, day after day….

It was the most intensive helicopter operation in the whole world. We’d get up at 4.30 every morning. Quick breakfast, we had to be up on the flight line for 5.30, for briefings. First take-offs had to be at six o’clock. We flew all day ’til six o’clock in the evening, during which time we’d fly an average of 100 take-offs and landings a day.

Another danger: malaria

Our operational area was virtually all offshore, some of it in the swamp, but mainly offshore in the Bight of Benin, which was regarded as the unhealthiest place in the world! It was known as ‘White Man’s Grave’.

In fact, the British used to have a little doggerel: ‘Beware and take care in the Bight of Benin, ’cos only one come out for every 40 goes in’!! It wasn’t that bad when I was there, but we did all get malaria.

Writing as well as flying: Thank you again, Biggles!

As I said, I was inspired to become a pilot by the character of Biggles, when I read my first Biggles book at the age of eight. My imagination was also caught by the author, Captain WE Johns, who’d been a pilot in the First World War. And I already had this idea that I wanted to write as well.

And I thought, ‘Well, this is a wonderful way, have a wonderful career of flying and then write flying stories afterwards as an author.’

And so, right from the start, even when I started flying, I started writing articles for magazines, usually aviation magazines. My main ambition was always to write fiction, write a novel, but I felt, really, I hadn’t had the sort of life experience for that.

‘All I need is a piece of paper and a pencil’

But when I got out to Africa and started having adventures out there and lots to write about, I thought, ‘Right, this is it, I need to start writing fiction now. It’ll be a good hobby to have out there anyway. All I need is a piece of paper and a pencil.’

Getting in touch with Commando magazine

I remembered that, when I was an ATC cadet, we went on summer camps, and the thing we all enjoyed was reading these boys’ picture-script magazines, war stories for boys. There were about half a dozen different publishers that published four of these every month.

I remember the one which I always thought was the best, was Commando magazine, published by DC Thomson up in Dundee.

So I wrote to Commando magazine and said, ‘Do you take stories from freelancers?’

And they wrote back and said, ‘Yeah, we do, and if you’ve got a story, send us a synopsis. If we think it’s worth turning into a Commando, then we’ll commission you to do it.’

Writing fiction the Commando way

The story’s written out as a script, laid out two or three frames to a page, and the story has to be told in exactly 135 frames.

They had some very strict rules: the key character must be either British or British Commonwealth; it had to be Second World War; all the technical aspects of aircraft and weapons and everything had to be absolutely correct; and the enemy must never be shown as ill-disciplined or inefficient.

And although it had to be action, the basic story had to be a personality conflict between two men fighting on the same side.

Those were the rules they had. In a sense it was writing every story to order.

Write about what you know!

They always say you should write about what you know. I was flying helicopters out of the jungle at the time, so the story I sent them was about a midget submarine in the North Sea: totally illogical!!

But they wrote back and said, ‘Yeah, we like this story. Go ahead and write it.’

Which I did, and at the end they paid £135 for this story, which, back in those days, was good money.

So I started doing picture scripts for Commando magazine.

The move to full-length fiction

About the same time I moved to Pan African in 1983, I had a letter from the editor of DC Thomson saying, ‘We think you write very well. We think you ought to write a full-length book.’

I thought, ‘Right. This is what I’ve always wanted to do.’

I sat down and started writing my first full-length thriller. I’d be flying during the day, but when we stopped on a platform or a ship or whatever offshore I’d get my paper out and write a few notes.

We’d land at six o’clock, eat dinner at seven, and we had to be in bed at nine o’clock every night, to be up at 4.30 the next morning. But in that hour between dinner and going to bed, I’d type up the notes I’d done during the day, and over the course of a year the first story turned out.

First story based on fact….

It was called Bladestrike. It was about helicopter operations in this country and involved the IRA and terrorism. It was based on a true crime that had happened in Ireland in 1907. I always like my story to have some true aspects, to be based on an actual happening.

It was published in America. I was flying for the Americans, our taxes were all done through the Americans, so it was better that it was published out there. And they said, ‘How about another one?’

….the second based on fiction?

So I sat down to do my second story, which was based in West Africa and involved float plane flying. Our company operated float planes as well as helicopters.

The story featured African politics, lost Nazi gold. It was called Juju Reich because it was based around the West African cult of juju, black magic. This was quite a mysterious thing which I found intriguing, but I didn’t know much about it.

To do the research for the story I actually went into the jungle, spent a day or so with a witch doctor in a village to just see how this worked. It was absolutely enlightening. But some of our Nigerian pilots in particular were very worried about this. They said, ‘Don’t touch juju, it’ll bring you nothing but trouble.’

And how right they were, because two weeks after I finished the story….

A disaster foretold? Or just coincidence?

The story started with an aircraft flying down the West African coast. It disappears, and can’t be found. The reason it’s disappeared is, it’s crashed into a lagoon which is the domain of a juju goddess. She’s offended by the fact the aircraft has crashed there, and that’s why it can’t be found. Sounds a bit corny, but it worked well enough in the story.

Two weeks after I finished the story, a Boeing 727 coming down the West African coast completely disappeared. Our aircraft, including me with our helicopters, were looking for it for a week. Couldn’t be found.

In the end, they consulted the local juju priest, who said, ‘Ah, the reason it can’t be found is, it’s crashed into a lagoon which is the domain of a juju goddess. It’s offended her, and that’s why it can’t be found.’

They sent divers down to the lagoon and there was the aircraft at the bottom. It was pretty eerie.

An arresting end: and no more writing in Africa!

To make it worse, one of our Nigerian pilots had a brother who was a major in the secret police. He told his brother, with the result that I was arrested on charges of espionage and banged up in secret police headquarters, only for a night or so.

My company paid a lot of money and got me out. Then even more money to have the charges dropped. But not before I’d signed an undertaking that I would get to show the secret police anything else I wrote, ’cos they thought I might be able to predict things happening.

Anyway, my own company were less than pleased at having to fork out a lot of money to get me out of this. They said, ‘Crowther, get another hobby or get another job.’

That meant I couldn’t write another word for the rest of the time I was in Africa. I gave up writing.

Flying whatever the weather

There were some hairy flying moments for sure.

One of the traditions in Pan African was that you always took off, whatever the weather. In the rainy season, for instance, especially when it came in and went out, there were electrical storms, which could be quite something. If you were out at sea and you had to get back through that to get back to land again, it involved some pretty hairy flying.

The way we used to do it, because those helicopters were not fully instrumented, was to put the helicopter right on the deck as fast as we could and just punch through the rain. But some never came out the other side and we did lose helicopters, and people.

Reasons for leaving Africa: many things changed

I was out in Africa for 23 years total. Twenty years I was with Pan African. I became chief pilot of the operation in the end. I was married, but not out there and I commuted backwards and forwards.

In the last few years out there, things started changing somewhat. The civil war between tribes in Rwanda had already begun, and that spread to Nigeria. There was a lot of tribal unrest, and some of our installations would be overrun, ships would be hijacked.

The Nigerian army moved into the camp and so, not only were we flying our normal operations, but also military operations, doing assault missions with the army, to retake installations and retake ships and rigs that had been hijacked.

The whole thing was becoming pretty hairy. I didn’t mind that, that was all exciting. But by this time I’d been flying for 42 years, and for 40 of those years I absolutely lived and breathed flying, it was what I loved. But the last couple of years the magic started to go out of it.

From Nigeria to Norfolk

By 2000 I thought about finishing, but that same year my wife sadly died and I didn’t feel like coming home to an empty house, and so I thought, ‘I’m better out here with my friends and my other life.’

I was out there another couple of years, and then in 2002 I was getting married again, to Sue. And so, things changed, and I thought, ‘This is the time to finish.’

I was living in Hoveton. I moved to Norfolk when I went to Air Anglia in 1976. I’ve been here ever since. And when I stopped flying, I came straight to Hoveton.

I thought I might miss the life: flying, which I’d been doing for 42 years and flown 22,000 hours without killing myself, and also all that comradeship.

Actually, I found I missed none of it. It was a totally different world a million miles away. The only thing I did miss was having a job. I thought, ‘I’m too young to do nothing.’

Planning ahead for a life after flying

Along the way I’d got my boatmaster’s ticket, for years had been sailing my own boats on the Broads and a little bit offshore.

On my job in Africa I’d been landing on ships and, as well as my duties as ship’s helicopter pilot, spending time up on their bridges seeing how it was done and gaining a knowledge of ship handling.

So I got my boatmaster’s ticket as a meal ticket really, for if I ever needed it. And sure enough, it did when I got a job with Broads Tours, skippering the passenger boats on the river.

From air to water: skippering boats on the Broads: ‘a magical area’

The Broads Tours boats were big twin-screw vessels ranging in size from the biggest carrying 180 passengers to the two I was skippering carrying 120. We purposely didn’t fill them though as, if it was nice day, everybody wanted to be on the upper deck in the sunshine or, if it was raining, down in the saloon.

There was quite a mix of people, depending on the time of year and whether the schools were on break.

The first trips usually started at Easter with elderly passengers enjoying early season breaks in Great Yarmouth. And then of course when the schools broke up then it was more young people, and children.

We started at Wroxham for trips down the river to Salhouse and Horning taking an hour-and-a-half or two hours.

It was just a great time, going down the river showing people the Broads, and explaining this magical area. I always think the Broads has got a certain magic to it, so I tried to get that over.

Changes in wildlife: coots out, herons in

I’m not a great natural history person, but in order to be able to talk to the passengers about that I did gen up as much as I could on all the Broadland wildlife.

Certain things have changed. When I first started there were thousands of coots on the Broads. You hardly see a coot at all now. It was quite a thing on our trips if you could point a heron out to someone. Now, every day you see herons, so the herons have increased.

Otters have come back; we get otters in our own dock here. That’s something that wasn’t there when I first started. So, yeah, the wildlife does change, considerably.

Boating patterns have changed, too

Otherwise, some things haven’t changed at all, on the Broads, but other things have. The hire boats seem to have got bigger, although there are certainly a lot fewer of them. I remember when there were about 2,500 hire cruisers on the Broads. I think it’s probably about 800 now. It went down to 650 at one time. There’s certainly fewer hire cruisers, but just as many boats, though not used quite so often.

Back to writing

Us skippers wrote our own commentary to give on the trip. Just writing that commentary and telling my tales to the passengers as we went down the river, I felt the old urge to write coming back.

I said to Sue, ‘Do you know, I feel like trying to write a book again.’

Sue said, ‘Well, I think it’s a great idea, but don’t go writing about some place thousands of miles away which none of us have ever heard of! Why don’t you write something set right here on the Norfolk Broads, that someone having a holiday here on the Broads can read and identify with?’

I said, ‘Well, the only thing I think would work in that respect would be something like a murder mystery. I’ll give it a try.’

Murder mysteries: a family success

And so I sat down, and in three and a half months I’d written the first one. We decided we’d publish it ourselves, to make it more interesting. I’d write it, Sue would edit it. Sue’s daughter Sarah, who was good at art, said she’d do sketches to go in it, make it something more of a souvenir for people. And within a year we brought the first one out.

I thought, ‘Is anyone really gonna want to buy this?’

But the first week it was out it went into the local bestseller list and stayed there for seven months.

We were selling it through local shops. Not so much bookshops as giftshops and chandleries, and the sort of places someone having a holiday on the Broads would go and buy souvenirs.

A Broads detective with a twist

In the book I created the character of Jack Fellows, an ex-policeman, but now a navigation ranger on the Broads.

All the murder mysteries I read and see on television have some police detective inspector. I wanted something a bit different so I made my sleuth a navigation ranger.

I’ve met and talked to a lot of navigation rangers on the Broads, and got the idea of their job. A lot of them are ex-policemen, so, they all have experiences I could draw on and talk about.

The first Jack Fellows story was Waterproof, and since then there’ve been seven Jack Fellows stories.

‘Reading for children is so important’

I also wrote a children’s book called Timecruiser, which is set on the Broads. Because right from my first memories, getting my first Biggles book set my whole career. My whole life is thanks to reading exciting stories when I was a boy.

I think reading for children is so important. It gets their imagination going. Not like watching TV, they have to use their own imagination when they’re reading a book. And I thought something that children can read while they’re having a holiday on the Broads which will teach them something of the history of the Broads. So that’s what Timecruiser was.

A commercial success

My books have really sold well: 20,000 copies to date in just in local shops. When I say local shops, every year five to eight million people visit the Norfolk Broads, so you’ve got this large number of people, often a different population, coming in every week! It’s a good place to be selling books.

Stories based on experience, including the wherry Maud

One of my stories evolves around a wherry. For that I actually went and had a trip around a wherry. It was the Maud. They were very helpful. It’s Maud’s photograph on the front of the story as well.

In my stories it’s been mostly my experience of sailing the Broads myself. Sometimes a bit of aviation comes into it. There are some characters around that I’ve come across in Norfolk who I’ve used a little bit in my books.

I mean, the only real fiction in any book is the beginning that says, ‘These bear no relation to any person living or dead’! Everything is based on someone you knew, little traits, sometimes a combination of characters.

Sailing and writing: a fine life

I was a skipper for Broads Tours for five years. I was well into my writing by then, so after five years, went to just writing my stories in winter and sailing my own boat in summer.

I’ve sailed all sorts of boats. Sue and I had a sailing cruiser which we did a little bit of coasting up and down the coast on. Nowadays it’s all on the Broads, in our sailing boat, sailing dinghies, and also our motor cruiser.

First World War flying: a new direction for a story

I don’t write articles so much now. What I’m working on is a First World War flying story.

I’ve always had an interest in First World War flying. I started on open-cockpit biplanes. My father went right through the First World War and, at the age of 101, was one of its last survivors. So now I’m writing a First World War flying story. I felt like a bit of a break from Jack Fellows, so to do something completely different….

It makes you realise just how dangerous flying was back then. In the First World War, the average life of a pilot was just two weeks and Britain alone lost 12,000, half of them in training.

One final adventure: in a catamaran in the Andaman Sea!

Sue and I were having a cup of tea one day, and she said, ‘You’ve done all amazing these things, is there anything that you haven’t done, that you’d like to?’

I said, ‘Well, I always had this ambition to go and sail a traditional Polynesian catamaran out in the Pacific, or out in the Andaman Sea.’

Sue said, ‘Well, I challenge you! Why don’t you do it?’

I said, ‘OK, put the kettle on, we’ll have a second cup of tea.’

And by the time she’d made the second cup I’d got it all organised! I flew out to Thailand the following week and sailed a traditional Polynesian catamaran around the Andaman Sea.

The one I was on was a 26-foot Wharram catamaran. I took a local lad as pilot, ‘cos I knew nothing of the area at all. There was just one mast on that one. Mainsail and jib.

We sailed around for a week. We slept in the hulls. There’s ample room in each hull, he was in one hull, I was in the other. Beautiful conditions at sea, going from one island to the other out there. It was wonderful. Wonderful.

Which is better: flying, or sailing?

Flying was always my great love. I lived and breathed flying. I thought it was absolutely wonderful. But for relaxation, being on the water.

I haven’t flown since I finished with Pan African. When I left, I thought I would miss it. I thought I’d probably take a part-time flying job perhaps at Norwich Airport on helicopters there. But I found I didn’t miss it at all.

But I felt the need to do something. I’d been in transport all my life, in aviation, so going into water transport just, sort of, followed on, you know. In some ways there’s an overlap there. There are disciplines involved and complying with regulations and doing it right. So that was a good part-time job to have, as a run-down to my career.

Final thoughts

I only sail locally now. We had a motor-sailer and went up and down the coast a bit for a few years, but now we stick to the Broads. An hour’s pleasure is an hour’s pleasure, an hour’s sailing is an hour’s sailing.

Sometimes I still look at aircraft flying overhead and think, ‘Mmm, it’d be nice to have a go again.’

But really that’s another life now. Been there and done it!

Chris and his six Broads books


Chris Crowther (b. 1944) talking to WISEArchive in Hoveton on 16th March 2022

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Survival to Success (1965-2000s)

A youth in agriculture – later life in the city. Alice tells us about her interesting and varied life, from shepherding and selling double glazing, to house clearances and pea harvesting.

I was born in Norwich in 1950 and when I was five my father decided that we would move north, streets paved with gold that sort of thing. So we moved to Leeds, a new start, very exciting but it was a completely different ball game from Norfolk. We lived in a semi detached and I went to catholic school, most amazingly there were catholic schools everywhere whereas in Norfolk they were a complete rarity.

I then went to boarding school in Weston-Super-Mare for four years but unfortunately I passed the Eleven Plus and the nuns at the school in Weston felt that I needed a more scientific education. So I came back to Leeds which made me very unhappy. I went to the grammar school and did my O levels, did very well and then came up to sixth form and absolutely hated it and managed to get myself suspended. My father told me that I couldn’t just leave school so I went to secretarial college and it took me two years to do a one year course.

I then worked for an archaeologist and an anthropologist at Leeds University, and I was a hopeless secretary but they didn’t mind the fact that I couldn’t spell and I couldn’t type. But in the summer holidays I got put under the control of a woman who really thought that I should do better than I was. My dear old archaeologist took me out for lunch and said, ‘Well, why not just throw it in? Come and camp in Cambridge and do archaeology?’ So I did. This would have been 1968, 1969.

So I went to work on this dig in Cambridgeshire and I met a local farm manager and I discussed with him that I’d always wanted to farm. My grandparents and my mother’s family had been farmers. The school careers guidance person told me that there was no way that a woman could do agriculture unless you went to Reading University and got an agricultural degree. Well, I’d managed to skip that completely by being suspended from school, so he told me about colleges where you could do the training. So that was it, that was the next part of my life.

Looking back I had always been a bit of a worker. As a school girl I had a Saturday job at the Majestic Cinema in Leeds and Jimmy Savile was the area manager so that gives you the date. So from 1965 every Saturday and Sunday I worked there and I used to get, I think, about £2 for working the two days. It was enough to keep me in tights and other things I wanted to have so it worked out very well.

Agricultural college

So there I was looking at going to agricultural college. I applied to Plumpton in Sussex as it looked picturesque and I had thought that I would like to work with livestock. Plumpton were delighted to have anybody that had O levels because they mostly catered for farmers’ sons who didn’t. You had to do a year on a farm first, so good old Farmer’s Weekly and the student jobs. My dear grandmother lent me her Morris Minor and I drove down to Devon. I interviewed at three places, the most sensible one of course was offering me day release and my own cottage all the nice things. But of course being a bit of a romantic I went for the farm at Dulverton on Exmoor, just above Tarr Steps. It was basically a longhouse and at one end there were stables with the animals in and the grandmother lived in the longhouse too with her granddaughters. The only running water there was a stream that came in at the back of the kitchen into a big stone slab basin and out down the drain of the house. She had a horror of flush toilets, one had been installed in the dairy area which is an interesting hygiene situation. But she wouldn’t use that, she always did her business, as she put it, out in the stable.

My employer, his wife, his son and another student lived in a cottage on the farm. My first job was making clotted cream, where you had to fill this big double boiler with water from the sink, boil it up, in a bain-marie and the milk went to the top and you would scoop out the cream.

I got paid £5 a week and I was fed, well I say I was fed, I was fed if I was well and working. I remember vividly being very unwell and not being able to get up and I remember that no food was sent up for me. I started there in the September of 1969 and I went home for Christmas, then my father had either Hong Kong or Asian flu, I can’t remember which, but it knocked him out. He had his own business and had his deliveries to do so I stayed and helped out for a couple of weeks.

I had notified the farm that I wasn’t coming back immediately but when I returned the farmer was very unpleasant and shook around his six bore gun. I realised that I wasn’t going to stay so I took a horse from the stable and rode down to Dulverton and threw myself on the hospitality of the Lamb Inn. The hotelier phoned my father, who promised to pay the bill and he set off from Leeds to scoop me up and take me back to Leeds. When he arrived the police gave him an escort to the farm to pick up my trunk. So that was all very interesting.

Many years later I was on a sailing holiday off the southwest and I was talking to the boat owner, who had been in the police force in Dulverton. He took one look at me and said, ‘You were the girl with the horse’ so yes, I was the girl with the horse.

Another farm and a much better experience

After returning to Leeds I decided to look for another farm. My elder sister was working in Solihull so I wrote to the Warwickshire NFU and asked for a recommended place, as I had had a rather hairy time on Exmoor.

I was adopted by this wonderful family called Bell, their daughter had just gone off and married a Spaniard and was working in a restaurant in Spain so Mrs Bell was feeling very bereft. I was taken in and literally spoilt to blazes. I would do the early milking every morning and they would bring me a cup of tea and a piece of cake while I got up.

They taught me so much which was informative whereas I have to say on the previous farm I learnt very little other than the brutality of life on Exmoor. Although I did learn how to hedge and ditch which came in useful in years later when I worked with British Conservation volunteers in Norfolk.

The Warwickshire thing went really well until one day I got kicked by a cow. It wasn’t so much the kicking of the cow that was the problem it was the landing in the water trough that was the problem. I had a broken arm, broken rib, broken thigh bone and so I got carted off home again, all in plaster. It was the time of the Viva Maria skirt which was fortunate because as an ankle length skirt it covered up my plastered leg.

In the September my father drove me back down to Plumpton Agricultural College, because I was still half in plaster, and I started my year of NCA which was the National Certificate, the most basic of qualifications.

It was absolutely wonderful, there were 80 boys and four girls so it was a wildly sociable existence, I would be out at dinners all the time because everyone wanted an escort. I entered the Miss Dairymaid competition of the year as in those days we thought that was a good thing. Had I won I would have had a lovely year going around the world. Unfortunately I got through the Sussex qualification but when it came to the regional round I only came second so that was me out.

This was a very exciting time to be in farming, everybody wanted meat, they wanted wool and they wanted milk, so it was a very good time.

After leaving college I got a job in the Weald with a farmer who was also an antique dealer and had jersey cows, which were just a delight to work with. None of them had numbers or markings they all had names, all sixty or so of them and you had to learn them all. They had their names chalked over their stalls in the cow shed and they all, mostly, always returned to their stall so you got used to who the cows were.

The milk was milked by using what was known as an inline system, there were vacuum lines running the whole length of the cow sheds, you had a stainless steel bucket with a lid that had a vacuum hose attached. You would milk the cow in its stall and when it had finished you would carry the bucket to the end and pour it, through a filter, into the milk churn.

I was milking at the Weald for several months. I had a boyfriend whose father had sheep farms down in Brede near Rye and he felt perhaps that I should be looking for work closer to where he was, as it was quite a trip to the Weald.

So I looked around and a man called Rob Morris who was across the river asked me if I’d be interested in working with him and his sheep.

Working with sheep and taking to it like a duck to water

I took to sheep like a duck to water, and absolutely loved shepherding. I learnt very quickly and was very good at sheep tasks, I was extremely useful on the lambing field as I had very small hands. I lived in and was extremely well paid. I got £20 a week and was fed, and I mean seriously fed. It was glorious. I belonged to this family, I would take the children to school and then on the way back I would looker as you called it, when you went out and looked at your flocks.

We used South Down rams who were the meat generation, fascinatingly South Down rams are now considered to be rare, but in those days they were the common stock ram on the Romney Marsh or Kent sheep. We had a system which was very traditional, the rams went in in November, then lambed from the first of April. Almost on cue. Then you would have sold all your meat lambs by September the following year keeping only the pure bred females. So I had a Kent flock and a South Down ram.

I had 2000 ewes and I had only been there a few months before Rob told me that he thought that I could take it all over. It was just idyllic.

When you think of the hours I worked, it was almost nonstop, but you just didn’t mind because that was your life. We used to have the Australian and New Zealand shearers come over and this was a great moment of festivity in the year. They would come over in great big teams and have a really riotous few weeks maybe even a month. They would then leave Sussex and go to Sweden because the sheep there were all shorn before slaughter. It was a very interesting cultural time, you learnt about all these people who lived in other parts of the world.

I was so lucky with my work with the Morrises and I ended up spending three years working with Rob. I didn’t end up marrying my boyfriend but I met another chap at Young Farmers and he was a pig man. I moved up to a place called East Hoathly which was on the bend of the Dicker Road, it was a very interesting place. He looked after the pigs and I relief milked cows for a man called Sam whose father was a coal merchant. We had a very active Young Farmers existence there.

In 1974 my grandfather in Norfolk had decided to give up his pig enterprise and my husband decided that it would suit us nicely to move to Norfolk and take over this pig enterprise. My grandfather was very willing and tried hard to make it work, which it did and didn’t in its way. So having got married in May 1974 in the August we moved up to Norfolk.

The move to Norfolk, pig and sheep farming

We took over a small holding, 10 acres, of not good land, it was basically a hill of sand. In those days we used to run the sows outside. Interestingly in those days that was very much frowned upon and seen to be a very backward thing to do.

As the land was sand the manure put in the land was very welcome. The yards were all straw so that there was plenty of fibre to put back on to the land too which was very important. This pig enterprise was very much a muck generating business, the idea being that you put them on as much straw as possible. It was the same with bullocks. Because the land was very light my grandfather was a great believer in spreading muck everywhere. They didn’t do slurry, that wasn’t something that was part of his world, so everything was on straw. I remember that the straw was always baled behind the combine. In the early days they were just bunches that the combine used to throw out but when my grandfather got his new combine it had a shoot that put the corn into the trailers and used to cut the straw and leave it in lines on the field. The baler which was pulled along behind the tractor and that used to bale the straw into very tight bales. One of my delights was driving the baler, I used to think that was great fun.

When I got married Rob Morris had given me a South Down ram for my wedding present, so we had to get some ewes. I chose what were then called mules, which are basically rubbish sheep, but you could pick them up cheaply. So these rather old, raggedy sheep came to our green pastures and our ram did a wonderful job and we had a meat generation which we sold very successfully.

At the Easter auctions you would bid for the rights to graze the sheep until Michaelmas, on the Acle marshes, Halvergate marshes area. I got a certain amount of acreage, and in the winter there would be a lot of fields where they had beet tops. The Peter Standen machine used to go up the lines of sugar beet and would top one line and then the disc contraption on the machine would lift the beet that had been topped the line before.

Most farmers would just plough this in as green mature but I managed to get enough fields to graze my ewes through the winter. You used to have to be forever moving electric fences and my poor sons who were born in ’76 and ’78 spent all their known lives until they were four and two in waterproofs and welly boots on the edge of a field with their toy cars while I was moving fences.

My husband departed when my younger son was a mere baby and I kept on with  the small holding for another couple of years. But when my son became four and a half he had to go to the village school at Salhouse, which was two and a half miles away. I didn’t have a car, I only had a bike, so I found this a struggle. We had a house cow, a nice Jersey cow. I would milk the cow, then come back to the house and get the boys’ breakfast, get them togged up. This was winter term and my eldest son had an ancient rusty but trusty tricycle, I would have my youngest son on the back of my bike and we had to ride the two and a half miles. I would leave the tricycle with a friend in Salhouse and then either go to a toddler group or cycle home and do jobs before picking him up from school at twelve or half past. This small boy did this every day for a term.

I became totally worn out by it as I still had the sheep, the house cow and the garden which I grew for food, or else we would probably have starved.

It is quite interesting that I never understood the welfare system so apart from my single parent child benefit I didn’t understand that you could ask for money, so it was a very hard couple of years.

I was very lucky in Woodbastwick because there was this marvellous man, Mr Chubby for whom I will be forever grateful. If you woke up in the morning and you heard a hammer knocking you knew that Mr Chubby was somewhere on the farm trying to mend something to help me through. He was absolutely superb. You might think that he was a machine when it came to working you might think that he was slow and steady but my goodness the work he got through. Every Saturday I would leave my boys with him and they would watch wrestling which meant that I had a whole two hours to myself which was just heaven. Most of the time I would be working in the garden but the fact that I didn’t have to consciously think about where these small children were was a great relief. So, dear Mr Chubby in Woodbastwick.

I was a tenant on a very large estate, the agent’s idea was to make money so he was not particularly welcoming to me because I was obviously struggling.

Leaving the smallholding and moving into Norwich

My grandmother very supportively said that I would have to give up the farm because it was going to kill me. She helped me to buy a house, an unmodernised terrace off Unthank Road in Norwich, it cost something £8,000 or £9,000. I basically started a new life and life became a lot easier and I came to the end of my struggle.

When I came to give up the tenancy on the estate the agent said that I had to reinstate the buildings to the state that they were in when my husband signed the lease in ’74. Amongst other things we had installed feeders in the pens, concrete floors in the stables to make cleaning easier and he wanted all this removed. I knew that this was beyond my capabilities. I had no money, and not that much energy. So I walked up to the hall in Woodbastwick and confronted the owner, John Cator who was a very interesting man. He was famous for his tempers at full moon but he was also very paternal. He knew my grandfather and my mother and I explained the situation with the agent and how I couldn’t possibly do any of this. He said to me, ‘Don’t worry’ and that was it and I didn’t have to worry.

The agent was furious and came down and it’s hard to remember but I was a very frail mother at that stage with two small children and this man came bashing on the door. It was not an easy situation, but that’s how life was, very hard but as I said with the move into Norwich life became easier.

Discovering I could sell things, Oriflame and  double glazing

The most marvellous moment was the moment that I discovered that I could sell things. I started off with Oriflame, which was a makeup company and you used to have these parties. You would pay a babysitter a fiver, go out on an evening and make £20, I did it two nights a week and it was an extremely good way of existing.

Once I realised that I could sell, a friend and I saw an advertisement in the EDP [Eastern Daily Press] which said, ‘Last year I had no money, this year I’ve had exotic holidays and run fast cars’ and we decided that this would suit us as we were both single mums with no financial support.

I went along to the Posthouse in Norwich and it was a double glazing company called Thermabreak who were down Hall Road in Norwich. They wanted salesman and basically didn’t want saleswomen at any price. But they did offer me an opportunity to earn money by distributing leaflets. So I started off making appointments for people to be seen by the sales people. The thing was I would get a fiver for an address that turned out to be a deal, but I knew that the sales people were earning £200.

So I campaigned to be allowed to sell. I was very lucky, the sales director was very friendly and welcoming in his way but he was limited by the general atmosphere of the sales reps.

He said that I could do it for three months. I was their top sales person in those three months.

I went on to work for them for two years and earned a phenomenal amount of money, £50,000 I think I earned in ’81, ’82.

This enabled me to finish modernising the house in Norwich and then I realised that I had serious money so I bought a beautiful timbered house right next to the school in Pulham St Mary in South Norfolk. So double glazing was very kind to me and I have been grateful to it ever since.

My younger son then broke his leg and at that time the school toilets were outside and could not be negotiated by a wheel chair so I realised that I needed to be at home. I had sufficient income by then so I could quieten off.

When I said that I was going to give up selling they asked me whether I would be prepared to go around and train salesmen and they offered me enough money to make it worthwhile. I would earn a percentage on the concession a salesman got if their sales increased after they had attended my meetings. I used to do three Mondays a month, at Leeds Castle in Kent, Guildford and one other place that I forget. I would go down on a Sunday night and stay in a hotel. On the Monday I would do the presentation standing there with my very long hair and my very short skirts thinking I was absolutely the bees knees. I would tell these salesmen to smile and stop being so appallingly greasy and unpleasant, because double glazing salesmen truly were pretty grim.

Luckily they took notice, luckily they earned more money and luckily I earned more money, which gave me quite a comfortable income.

I had some girls who were in between jobs or going to university who would come and stay with me and look after my boys when I was away, so it was all very organised.

House clearances

I then started doing house clearances, I had a big Peugeot car and you could take out the back seats. Of course in those days we thought nothing of putting two children on the front seat of the car.

So I would go around the villages buying up whole housefuls of furniture, which I would transport in the back of the Peugeot. I made various contacts in the area. There was a man in Long Stratton who used to buy chest of drawers which he used to turn into television cupboards and cabinets which were all the rage at the time. A man in Scole would buy Edwardian wardrobes from me and turn them into bookcases, and there was another man in Dickleburgh who would buy chest of drawers from me and he would make them into combined bars and television cupboards. I would buy mahogany dining tables and put them into the sale at either Durrants in Beccles or Gazes in Diss. I made a really quite good income and it was much much more fun, much more sociable than double glazing.

All this is very interesting social history because people were buying up their houses and they wanted this smart furniture to put in it, this was before the days of IKEA of course.

Working in an art gallery

When I first ended up in Norwich I had a very good friend Tizzie Fairhurst who was an artist and his father Joe owned the Fairhurst Gallery in Bedford Street. Tizzie wanted to help me so he asked Joe if I could come and work in the gallery. So I used to go in the mornings and I used to do framing, mounting stuff, painting lines around mounts. Blickling Hall had some frames which needed restoring, one of the things we’d do was squeeze plasticine over the moulding in a good place and then you would have a mould which you could then use on other parts of the frame.

I have to say that was a very soul restorative place to be, surrounded by lovely kind people, doing lovely things, making lovely things.

Memories of my grandfather

My grandfather was also a tenant farmer for John Cator, he had a farm at Salhouse and then also took on a farm at Plumstead. He had a very interesting domestic life. My grandmother, his wife, lived at Salhouse and his mistress lived at Plumstead. My grandmother lived a very quiet life really and she was always rather overtaken by the fact that her husband had gone off with someone else. She didn’t want a divorce as she was very catholic, and my grandfather respected that and in his way he did all that he could to make things as fair as possible. Every time he bought something for the farm in Plumstead he would offer it to my grandmother as well, so she had new cookers, saucepans, everything that his mistress wanted he would buy for my grandmother.

His mistress moved to the Plumstead farm when she retired from the sugar beet factory. In the early days he used to pick her up at the railway station and they used to stay overnight at the Grange Hotel on the Yarmouth Road. I had known her all my teenage life but what I had never known or understood was the relationship. I was at least 16 by the time my mother’s younger sister discovered that I knew that she existed. She was so furious with me and I had absolutely no idea why.  I’m not even sure that I even had the concept of what mistresses were at that stage

Summer holidays with grandparents, tractor driving

I spent all my summer holidays with my grandparents, coming down on the train changing at Peterborough and March. At March you sometimes had to change stations and my mother always used to write down in capital letters exactly what I had to do and how to ask for the other station if I got lost. You literally had to walk between them.

On Fridays I would go into Norwich with my grandfather. We would go to the fish market which was behind where the Hotel Nelson is on Prince of Wales Road, down by the river. We would buy fish for lunch and then pick up the money from Barclays Bank on Bank Plain, it was a very splendid building. We would then often go and have coffee, with a man from Wiggs. Wiggs was a distributor of tractors and agricultural machinery and they were up where the Castle Mall now stands on the edge of what was the livestock market.  I used to think that this was so grown up, to sit there with these two men drinking coffee, which of course I never had at home, watching the life come in and go out. Everyone talking about machinery, farming life, the weather and it was all very exciting. I remember going to the corn market with him. You used to take your bags of corn round various corn merchants and somebody would offer the price he was expecting and that’s who he would sell his harvest to.

He was absolutely thrilled with modern technology but I remember he had an old tractor called an Allis Chalmer and I always thought that it was ‘Alice’ because of me but it wasn’t. I was driving tractors from the time I was thirteen and this was the first tractor I learnt to drive. I had to put both feet over the clutch pedal to get it to go down and then you put it into a gear and you tottered off in this gear and unless something dire happened you wouldn’t change it because it was too much of a performance.

I also used to drive the minivan around the farm for my grandfather too. Most of his fields could be connected by darting across a road. There was only one place on the Plumstead Road where I had to dart for 100 yards on the main road to go from gate to gate. So I had to open one gate in a field and then cross the road, open the gate on the other side, checking that nothing was coming before I zoomed across in my van. Then I would shut both gates.

I had another job which was to fill up the guns that went off to frighten the birds. You put powder into part of the gun and filled up the water container, you checked that the clock was correct. It was on a clockwork system which would come to a certain place then the water would drip into the powder, which would produce a gas which then shot the gun. I don’t know whether I would have allowed my thirteen olds to do this job, but hey ho

Growing and helping to harvest peas for Birds Eye

At one time he grew peas for Birds Eye in the days when peas were harvested in the field and had to be loaded on a lorry and had to be in Lowestoft or Great Yarmouth within a certain time from leaving the field. This created a mad brigade of pea testers who were also driving minivans scooting around at vast speed up and down the lanes of Norfolk, forever testing peas. It was just bizarre really. The testers would come into the field, walk across the field and take a few pods. They would put the peas into this little thing that squashed the pea and it told them whether the peas were ready for harvesting.

When they said harvest, you harvested, there wasn’t an argument. I think that the machinery was owned by a co-operation of farmers not Birds Eye, so these farmers would all come together and work on the same harvest. You would then move onto the next farm and then the next farm.

I remember that last summer that I drove tractors for the pea harvest, just before I was about to go off to secretarial college. The excitement of being in a field at night with lights attached to everything so you could see where you were going and wildlife skitting around, it really was a very very exciting time.

I used to drive tractors with the trailer for the grain harvest too. You had to catch the grain as it came out of the spout on the combine. In the early days I used to stand on the side of the combine with a couple of farm workers who would be filling the bags actually on the combine. I would have the great job of getting the new bag and putting it onto the hooks after they had taken the full bag off. I felt tremendously important and I really absolutely loved staying on the farm with my grandparents.

As a teenager I used to help out with the wage packets. I would sit at my grandfather’s bureau desk, which came from Cantley sugar factory and is now in my study today. In those days it was all done on a double ledger folder. You would put in how many hours the men had worked, multiply it by the hourly rate, deduct the tax and national insurance and then you would have the sum. You would then copy all of this information onto the little brown envelopes. You could then open the drawer in which my grandfather had sort of trays, one would have ten pound, five pound notes, shillings. I would count out the money, put it in the relevant envelopes, lick the back and stick it down. At about three o’clock on a Friday afternoon I would get in my minivan and I would drive round the farm and give the men, and they were all men, their money in the little envelopes. I was always very pleased to have my little brown envelope. And at that time I don’t think that I even paid tax or deductions so I was very fortunate. This was all cash, everything was cash, it’s a most interesting piece of history.

When my grandfather died the funeral was held at the church in Little Plumstead and the church was packed.

By that time I was living in Norwich and my other grandmother on my father’s side completely came into her own. I had been terrified of her in my teens and yet when I got into my twenties and had this traumatic relationship with my husband she was so strong. She brought me food and used to take me to second hand clothes stores. There was a shop in Glandford near Holt, which was where all the posh people from London used to bring their clothes. So they were very posh clothes and I was deeply grateful for them.

Reflections on my life

Just as a reflection, when I look back on my life, I think how jolly lucky I was to be in agriculture when I was. I had none of the hardship of the men who worked in the field. They did live in pretty awful housing, but they hadn’t known anything else and there was a society that supported them. So I’m not justifying it but I do think that there was a lot for it.

I was incredibly grateful for my tied cottages because it meant that you could live where you worked which was very important, because we couldn’t have done the hours that we did if we had had to travel.

We were very lucky in Sussex as we had some very enlightened farmers who had given us some very good quality agricultural workers’ houses. I was very lucky to fall on the Morris family at Brede not least because Paul McCartney had the farm next door. I used to work with his land agent on fencing. We had to put the fencing, I think, three foot apart so that Linda’s not be slaughtered, not to be eaten animals wouldn’t get contaminated by mine who clearly had a meat generation existence. I learnt so many skills and I have been very practical ever since.

I think that it was wonderful going off to market at a time when we thought that we were doing the best for our animals that we could. We certainly never left animals to be mistreated and certainly not in my circle anyway. The fact was that we were rearing animals when they were very much wanted. I live a vegetarian life and yet I’d be very sad not to see cows and sheep in the fields.

I was very pleased to be a young woman, much heralded, much spoilt, in my farming days. I met so many interesting people, and I just want to say that I think that I was extremely lucky to be doing it then. Although I certainly wouldn’t want to be going out to the water troughs at three in the morning to see whether they had frozen now.

Then the move into the city and to make the money that I desperately needed when my children were small. It’s the story of agriculture isn’t it. You start in a field and you end up in a house in the city.

Alice (b. 1950) talking to WISEArchive on 3rd March 2022 in Norwich.

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A career in accountancy – engineering, ducks and the NHS (1978-2022)

Tony tells us about his long business career, starting in accountancy at an engineering company through selling ducks to Denmark and ending in a company that gave him the opportunity to travel the world and provided vital equipment to the NHS during the Covid-19 pandemic.

 My early life, education and starting my career

I was born in 1958 on the outskirts of Liverpool and went to a secondary modern school also on the outskirts of Liverpool. My dad was a draftsman in a glassworks and my mum was a nursing assistant in a mental hospital.

I enjoyed my time at school and went on to the Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham where I did a degree in economics.

I’ve always been interested in business and numbers and so I decided to go and work for a business. Then I trained as a management accountant in business rather than be an auditor working for an accountancy practice. I started in business at an engineering company in Nottinghamshire. There were a further three years of studying to qualify as a chartered management accountant.

I then worked for Boots the Chemist. The head office is in Nottingham and Boots was founded in Nottingham and has been there about 100 years. It was a massive site. Thousands of people worked there.

Moving to East Anglia for a fragrant and flavoursome career

My wife is from East Anglia and has family in Norfolk and Suffolk so we decided to move down here in 1985. We initially rented a house in Lavenham in Suffolk because my wife worked in Needham Market and I worked in Haverhill.

I worked for a company called International Flavors and Fragrances. They are an American company. They’d been in Haverhill since the 1950s. Their site, which makes aroma chemicals and flavourings for food, is long-established and is part of quite a large American group.

I was initially the financial accountant looking after the account payables and receivables and the ledgers and then I was promoted to be the management accountant. That was looking after the costings and manufacturing efficiencies and inventory for the manufacturing side of the business.

It was while I was at IFF that the very first personal computers came into being such as the IBM XT and the IBM AT. The first computers at that time were used for things like word processing and spreadsheets. Lotus 123 was the main spreadsheet package. Obviously, that’s now been long replaced by Microsoft and Excel, but in those early days one of the first packages was Lotus 123.

As a young man I found it exciting to use the personal computers. It was really because prior to then computer packages had been on mainframe systems and analysis was done on big A3-sized analysis paper – all handwritten with calculators.

Being called International Flavors and Fragrances there were a lot of aromas in the factory. If you walked about the factory you got perfume on your shoes because the biggest product that they manufactured then was a synthetic musk oil. Musk oil forms the basis of lots of perfumes.

Selling ducks to Denmark

I moved on to work for a company called Manor Farm Ducklings. Originally – well, when I joined – the company was called H A Long and Sons. The part of Norfolk which boundaries the Suffolk border was a long-established area for the growing and processing of ducks. There was H A Long, which was founded in the ‘50s; there was another company not far away and there was a company just on the Suffolk border. There was a big concentration of duck companies in that area. I think it was all to do with the sandy soils – The Brecks. Ducks like being outside through most of the year so that free draining soil was ideal for the rearing of ducks. So yes, it’s strange that of the four largest duck companies in the UK three of them were actually based in that Norfolk and Suffolk border area.

The main variety we bred was the white Peking duck which was mainly reared for the Chinese market – Chinese wholesalers and supermarkets who then go on to Chinese takeaways. Your crispy duck and pancakes – all that sort of stuff. By far the biggest single market was the Chinese wholesale market.

The company won the Queen’s Award for Export. It’s a long-established award. There’s an export award and an innovation award that are given out through the queen and the government. The export award is specifically to encourage, reward and get recognition for companies who significantly exported. There was a very, very small export business when I joined the company, but I was the main driver in expanding it and we ended up selling products to Germany, to Holland, to Denmark. Denmark is quite a large duck consumer, particularly for Christingle which they celebrate at the beginning of December. I remember that one year we were sole supplier of all the ducks to the Faroes Islands.

Manor Farm Ducklings was originally a family-owned business. They had only one other professional manager – the factory manager – when I joined as the first ever finance manager. Basically, as they were expanding, they needed to have proper accounts and also wanted to make a big investment in a brand-new site and of course, banks want proper management accounts. When I joined they were in the process of installing the brand-new computer system. It made a few errors. In fact, they lost all their data because they didn’t have a backup so basically I had to start from scratch and install the financial system for them to be able to produce monthly management accounts. I then got into expanding the export side of the business. After two and a half years, I was made the general manager in charge of everything because by that time we’d recruited some more professional managers, both on the farm side and the sales side, to help the family take the business to the next level.

A precise job

I was at Manor Farm Ducklings for six years and then I moved on to a company in Norwich – an American company called Fluke Precision Measurement. The company designed and manufactured test and measurement equipment – anything that an electrician uses, which then has to be calibrated. You need a calibrator, which is an expensive piece of electronic machinery, to be able to calibrate your instrument.

The company in Norwich was originally founded in the early 1970s by two guys and was called Datron Instruments so it’s quite an established Norwich business. It’s been at a site on the airport industrial estate since 1978. The two owners sold the business to another company called Wavetek, which was an American company. The only other worldwide competitor to the Norwich company was a company called Fluke, who did the same thing – manufacturing test equipment and calibrators. They were based over in Seattle in the northwest of the US. It was originally founded by a guy called John Fluke after the Second World War. He’d been established in the Seattle area since then and between them, Fluke and Wavetek in Norwich, dominated the calibration market at about 80/85%.

Wavetek decided to sell out the business. Fluke had been taken over also at that time, so what they decided to do was take over the main opposition so together Norwich and Fluke combined ended up with 80 – 85% of that calibration business. The Norwich company was taken over in the year 2000 and is still making calibrators to this day.

As I said, calibrators are used to calibrate any sort of electrical instrument from products that an engineer would use right up to very high spec calibrators that are used to calibrate oscilloscopes. Oscillosopes are in turn used to calibrate and look at missile systems and guidance systems. They make radio frequency calibrators which, again are used in very high tech and defence businesses, and then they make things like power calibrators, which are used in big power networks to manage, for instance, the national grid and what have you. The products are sold worldwide and a range of products are still designed in Norwich and some are designed in the Seattle area.

I joined in 2001 a year after the buyout by Fluke. The then finance director, who I took over from, was coming up for retirement so I was recruited to replace him when he then retired. After about a year of me being there he retired and I took over as the site lead and now 21 years later I’m in the same situation where I’m now coming up for retirement so they’ll be looking for a replacement of myself.

The company has a big budget. Turnover wise we’re about £80 million. In Norwich we have about 140 people on the site. We actually own the buildings, but the land is owned by Norwich City Council. Effectively it’s adjacent to the Norwich City Airport and originally was part of what was the Airforce base which was established in the Second World War. The other side of the estate, within walking distance, was the old officers’ housing estate and what have you. The site has been there since 1978. We have a lease on the land which will expire in 2106 so, as I say to people, that will be someone else’s problem when that expires.

I’ve worked with a lot of scientific and technical people. One of the big drivers within manufacturing is lean manufacturing and I’m also a lean processing practitioner and so I go to training events across different sites within the wider organisation. I’ve travelled quite extensively. I think I must have been to at least a dozen different countries with Fluke including the Netherlands, where our European headquarters is, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, the Czech Republic and both the east and west coast of the US.

Over my long and varied career the thing I’ve enjoyed the most has been, I think, the interaction with other departments and helping to grow and continue the business basically. The business development side has interested me rather than the pure accounting side.

Retiring and the impact of Covid on business

The things I suppose I’m most looking forward to in retirement are the choice and freedom. I don’t have to get up every day and go to a place of work. Although in the last two years with the Covid pandemic there’s been a significant change in the world of work and a lot of office jobs, from necessity, went to home working. The big debate in business now is what does the future of work look like? Will it be home working for people who can, will it still be based in an office or will it be a combination of both? The likelihood is that it will be more flexible and a combination of both because in a lot of jobs you can’t really get away from that personal interaction you get when you’re all on a site. As I say, it’s the big debate at the moment in terms of what does the future of work look like?

I’d say the last two years of work have been probably – for everybody who has been working or otherwise – a gamechanger with the Covid pandemic. When that first came about of course people who could work from home had to work at home and then essential businesses, where people couldn’t work from home, had to still go to work.

The Fluke Norwich site was considered an essential business because some of the other products we manufactured, particularly temperature monitoring and what have you, were sold to the NHS. In the first year of the pandemic the NHS created a lot of the temporary Nightingale hospitals, and to be rather morbid, each of those Nightingale hospitals would’ve had temporary mortuaries. Those mortuaries have to be temperature controlled and we made and sold the manufacturing equipment to monitor the temperature.

When the lockdown first came about we had half our workforce working from home and half on site. On site we had to do loads of work in terms of making one-way routes, segregating people who worked together by screens, and enforced mask wearing. The mask wearing has only recently been made optional. It was compulsory before then for anybody who was on site to wear masks. And, in fact, it’s only in the last few weeks that some people have come back to the office for the first time in nearly two years. It was a massive change both for those people that had to work from home and the people who were on site. The changes we made on site went down to switching off the hand driers in the toilets and changing to paper towels to try to minimise contamination. We had a cleaner permanently walking round during the day to hand sanitise common door openings and surfaces. In our canteen area we had to split and divide all the tables to just make them single occupancy tables and put wipes on each of the tables so when people first went to a table they would have to wipe it down.

We made a big point of the fact that we were supplying the NHS, especially for people who couldn’t work from home. There was a lot of apprehension among them in the first few months of Covid outbreak in the spring of 2020. A lot of people were fearful of coming into the place of work because for everybody it was the unknown.

Anthony Francis (Tony) Helsby (born 1958)  talking to WISEArchive on  17th March 2022 in Hardwick, Norfolk.

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A life in broadcasting – from pirate to the BBC (1962-1995)

Andy tells about his life in broadcasting and in particular his time as a disc jockey on Radio Caroline.

I was born in 1946 in a village just outside of King’s Lynn called Terrington St Clement. I didn’t know my father. During the war my mother along with many other women her age were often taken out to RAF stations in buses to be dancing partners for American airmen. My mother was taken out to Wendling, obviously met this guy and nine months later I was born.

I never met him and my mother would never talk about him. I know that when she discovered that she was pregnant my grandfather telephoned the airbase and they said that he’d gone back to America. Later in life when I spoke to my mother about it she only gave me his first name and she couldn’t remember anything else about him. I did trace him through DNA and the website Ancestry, he died in the 1980s. I did discover that he was married and had several children but I never actually met him. I had a strange relationship with my mother, you know, she never really showed a lot of affection, I was a lot closer to my grandmother who was a wonderful woman I have to say.

I remember when I discovered I had family in America thinking, ‘What should I do about it?’ After my mother died I got in touch with them and my sister said that I shouldn’t spend mum’s money on going to America and I thought, ‘Yeah you’re probably right’. I mean they’re probably terribly nice people but I think that my father was a bit of a bastard leaving my mother in the lurch.

My mother wasn’t the only one by any means, there were several women who had children. But back in 1946 in a little Norfolk village pushing a pram around and you know what people were like in those days. ‘Look at her’, it must have been very difficult. My mother wasn’t a trollop or anything like that, far from it in fact.

I have to say though, they still send me a Christmas card each year from America.

You know, when I look back at my family history, infidelity is rife in my family, my grandfather was the illegitimate son of the vicar of Castle Acre, my grandmother was the illegitimate daughter of a King’s Lynn policeman and then me of course.

School, college and playing the fool

I went to school in Terrington and I have to say I was pretty useless, I was more interested in playing the fool than studying. I remember that I was interested in two subjects, music and French. We had a wonderful French teacher, Monsieur Stevens and he had two wonderful forms of transport. One was a 1000cc Vincent motorcycle and the other a Triumph car which had a dicky seat in the back, you sort of pulled the boot down and there were two seats. He was a funny little man, he had a particularly large gold signet ring and if you were playing the fool or not paying attention he’d creep up behind you and crack you across the head with it. His other trick was that if someone was giggling when he was using the blackboard rubber on the blackboard he would just turn round and hurl it. Everybody would dive under their desk and it would usually smash against the wall at the end of the classroom.

I used to go and watch King’s Lynn play football or cricket and you’d see the reporters there and I thought, ‘Oh what a wonderful job’ so I went to college in King’s Lynn. But, again I‘m afraid I played the fool and was kicked out after about a year or so for queuing up for tickets to see the Beatles in Cambridge. The photograph was all over the paper and the principal said, ‘Queuing up for the Beatles is obviously far more important to you Dawson than your studies, you’re out’. So that was it.

I got a job as a sales assistant in the wonderful gentleman’s outfitters Jones and Dunn which was on the corner of the Tuesday Market Place in King’s Lynn. They had very, I suppose you’d say, upmarket clientele, many of the people that came in wouldn’t actually pay, they’d hand you their visiting card. It was wonderfully positioned and during the festival you’d see all sorts of famous people walking around, the Queen Mother arm in arm with Sir John Barbirolli or Benjamin Britten.

I worked there for about a year and then had a succession of jobs in King’s Lynn, including being a trainee manager at the Globe Hotel. Along with the Duke’s Head it was probably the smartest hotel in King’s Lynn and I worked in the office before being taught to wait table. I always remember that the actor Raymond Francis who was appearing in ‘Lockhart of the Yard’ was staying in the hotel. We were all very excited and I remember spilling a gin and tonic into his lap, I mean I was pretty lousy as a waiter I have to say. He did give me a tip of sixpence which I thought was very generous for such poor service.

I moved on from there and couldn’t find anything that I wanted to do so I joined the Royal Air Force and was in air traffic control. I went to Swinderby, then Hemswell where we learnt how to march and fire .303 rifles. Then I went to air traffic control school at Shawbury in Shropshire and was then posted to Tern Hill, a helicopter station near Shrewsbury.

I’m afraid that again playing the fool sort of got the better of me, and two things happened to me. I played a lot of cricket, making it in to the coastal command team when I was posted in Ballykelly. At Tern Hill there was an internal radio station with a small studio and speakers in the huts where the airmen were staying. I used to do the daily programme and so I spent most of my time in the air force playing cricket or broadcasting on the radio station.

That’s where my love of radio came about. Mum had bought me a little radio in about 1964 and I listened to these pirate stations and thought that I would like to do that eventually. But this was where my love of it really came about.

Radio Caroline

The Wilson Government of 1967 had outlawed pirate radio. I think that the Marine Offences Act came in on the 14th August 1967, in other words from then on it was illegal for a British subject to work on a pirate station. But I had found the address of the owner of Radio Caroline, Ronan O’Rahilly, and I went down to London and waited for him all day. He came out at the end of the day and said, ‘See you tomorrow, I’m in a hurry’. So the next day I went back, same thing happened but on the third day I saw him. By this time another guy, an American, Howie Castle, had joined me in the waiting room and luckily they actually needed two people so we were hired for £15 a week. We were given two single tickets to Amsterdam, as in those days although the tendering of the ship was off the Essex coast you had to use a port in Holland. We used two ports, one was Ijmuiden and the other was Vlissingen or Flushing as we used to call it.

I wasn’t a particularly good sailor at that time I can tell you and I remember the first journey out to the Mi Amigo took in excess of 18 hours on a little boat called the Offshore One. The Dutch crew used to eat meatballs and they would fry them in frying pans full of fat and as it was only a tiny boat you could smell it all over the place. I was terribly ill, much to the amusement of everyone on board I hasten to add.

I eventually got out there and got nervous all of a sudden, I was this chap who didn’t know much about anything and found myself as a disc jockey on this radio station.

Radio Caroline 1967

We had to change our names because of Customs. I was unsure what to change mine too, but I wanted to keep my first name. The senior disc jockey was a chap called Robbie Dale and I thought we’ve got the Dales which was a famous BBC radio series at the time, so I said why don’t we have the Archers as well and that’s how I became known as Andy Archer.

There was no contract and we did two weeks on and two weeks off, which was very nice. We were lucky if we…. actually we did get paid, when we came off somebody came over from Ireland, strangely, and gave us £60 in cash.

We had a Dutch crew. There was a captain, a cook, a couple of sailors who did general maintenance and a marine engineer. There was always a radio engineer and probably four disc jockeys.

Before the Marine Offence Act you could play more or less whatever music was appropriate but after the Act came in it became illegal for a lot of companies to advertise so a sort of payola system operated. Companies would pay I think £100 to get it played four times a day for a week. As a consequence some of the music was pretty dire.

My slot was three hours long, two hours if we had extra people. Sometimes we had to do two shifts a day. Johnny Walker became a good friend of mine and if he was away I would do my show and his evening show, so that was six hours a day. Sometimes there was little else to do, if the weather was bad you couldn’t sit outside and sunbathe.

Television was only on a few hours a day and we turned round on anchor twice a day and the junior person, which was me at the time, had to turn the mast. I had to climb onto the roof of the mess room whatever the weather and turn this aerial around so that it was in the right direction to pick up the signal.

Radio Caroline 1968 (Normanb.net)

The accommodation on board Mi Amigo wasn’t bad. It had been a radio station for some time, starting off as Radio Nord off the Swedish coast and it had been well fitted out. It was particularly good in bad weather, some radio ships got tossed around all over the place but the Mi Amigo was very comfortable, it had a lot of atmosphere. We used to all clean the ship and keep it in pristine condition and when it was time to come off you’d clean your cabin for the next person coming in. Sometimes in winter it could be frustrating, thinking that the tender would be coming out and then if it was too rough it couldn’t come that day.

We used to have fishermen come along sometimes and they would bring newspapers and magazines. They would gladly do this because we had a huge supply of cigarettes, gin and beer on board so they would drop off the magazines and we would hurl them a thousand Camel or Lucky Strike or whatever.

Our audience figures were quite good, they were obviously hit when Radio 1 started in I think, September 1967. They had some very big names, Kenny Everett, Tony Blackburn, who had all made their names on pirate radio of course. They were playing better music than we were, but we still had quite a large audience, in the millions I would say. Johnny Walker was the big star of Caroline in the ’60s, he used to get sacks of mail, thousands and thousands of letters and he couldn’t read them all. I will always remember one time, he used to grab a pile to take into the studio, you know maybe 20 or 30 letters and he opened one of them and found a £5 note in it. In those days you could almost fill your car up for £5 and after that he made sure that he opened every letter he got.

This stint at Radio Caroline ended in March 1968. Unbeknown to us on board the owners hadn’t been paying the tendering bills. One morning at about 5.30, 6 o’clock this huge ocean tug came along, they came on board, told the captain that was it and towed us into harbour. That was the end of Radio Caroline in 1968.

Club Oasis and Club Lafayette, Wolverhampton

One of the disc jockeys Spangles Muldoon, which is a wonderful name, came from The Midlands and he said to me, ‘Oh I know some people who have a nightclub in Wolverhampton called the Oasis and they’re looking for a disc jockey would you like it?’ I thought that I’d better do something so I became a disc jockey at the club. It was a very strange experience because I didn’t know anything about the Midlands and the Black Country accent was very hard for me to understand. Another club, The Lafayette, opened and they asked if I would go there. We used to have incredible bands playing live. I remember doing the birthday party for John Bonham who was the drummer with Led Zeppelin, he used to come into the club quite often with Robert Plant. He asked me to play the records at his wife’s 21st birthday and I said that I would be delighted. He asked me how much I wanted, I was on 20 quid a week and he said, ‘Fifty quid?’ ‘Mmm yes that’ll do’.

While I was at Club Lafayette Radio 1 started doing a programme called the Radio 1 Club. It was a two hour outside broadcast between 12pm and 2pm and came from locations across the country. The main presenter would be someone like Ed Stewart or Emperor Rosko but in each location they used a local disc jockey to do the interviews with pop stars and the crowds. They picked me and I did all of them in Wolverhampton, Stoke on Trent, Hanley and a couple in Birmingham. It was eight guineas and you’d have to wait about three months for your cheque in the post.

I was the first one of the pirates, you know, after the Marine Offences Act to be employed by Radio 1 and although it was only once every three weeks I really enjoyed it. Derek Chinnery who was the head of Radio 1 had told me that they liked my work and would like to do more with me, they couldn’t promise anything at that moment but that they would be in touch when something appropriate came along.

Radio North Sea International

In about 1970 a radio station called Radio North Sea International opened off the coast of Holland. My friend Roger ‘Twiggy’ Day, an old friend from Caroline in the ’60s got a job as a senior disc jockey on this station. His father rang me to tell me that Roger would like me to go out to the ship, it was a great opportunity and I went out there. It was based off the Dutch coast, at a seaside resort called Scheveningen

It was run by a Swiss company and we were paid terribly well, £90 a week, working two weeks on, so £360 a month for working two weeks. In 1970 it was quite a lot of money and we lived the high life I have to say.

I stayed out on the ship for the first time for a month and when I got back to our hotel base in Scheveningen I found a telegram saying that Radio 1 wanted me to take over the Dave Cash show in the afternoon. But of course it was far too late, I’d been on air and they were no longer interested. In a way I’m glad. I had a much happier life on the pirates over the years and met some wonderful people. The person who got the job taking over from Dave Cash was…..Terry Wogan, who was the best.

The owners, Herr Bollier and Herr Miester were very correct but we had a great time. I mean gosh everybody drank like fishes out there but it only lasted until the September as it was very badly run. There was another radio station off Scheveningen called Radio Veronica which had been there since the late 1950s and it was a bit of an institution in Holland. They paid Radio North Sea to go off air.

Looking for another job and then back on Radio Caroline, a hurricane and conjuring up the phrase ‘anorak’

Again I was looking for something else and luckily a couple of years later Radio Caroline came back again, with the same owner, on the Mi Amigo in 1972. It was a bit chaotic to start with, the boat had been in harbour since 1968 and hadn’t been looked after, it was in a dreadful state.

In November 1972 we had a hurricane and our mast fell down. I was onboard and it was really frightening. Remember it was quite a small ship and you know the waves, I mean you have to be in a hurricane to really realise just how big the waves are. They were brown because of all the sand and they would go right over the ship. I can remember Captain Jaap Taal, a lovely old sea dog who loved the programme Dad’s Army, we’d be cowering in the corner and he said, ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic’ doing his Corporal Jones. The anchor chain broke but luckily we managed to stay at sea. So that was a pretty dramatic rebirth of Radio Caroline.

Running a pirate station cost an awful lot of money. It opened on a shoestring but at the end of 1973 a very wealthy Belgian guy invested an awful lot of money and things became better overnight.

I was the only person there from the previous time, Spangles Muldoon became one of the managers rather than out on the ship but I was the only original one and we did have a great crowd out there.

In 1974 when the Mi Amigo was off the Dutch coast we used to get boats of fans coming out to see us. It was quite an industry for the fishermen of Scheveningen because they would have I don’t know, 40, 50, 60, 70 fans all hopping on a boat being charged however many guilders. They came out and circled the three radio ships, Radio North Sea, Radio Veronica and Radio Caroline. Once when they were approaching us I was on air and I said to somebody, ‘Oh let’s go out on deck with the microphones and just do a little bit with them’. So we put a microphone out of the port hole by the studio and they came within something like 20, 30 metres and they were all waving. I said, ‘I have never seen so many anoraks in my life!’ I wasn’t referring to them being anoraks, it was the fact that they were all wearing anoraks which seemed to be the uniform of pirate radio fans. But it stuck and now when I hear it on television, ‘Oh he’s an anorak’ or, ‘She’s an anorak’ I think, my God I started that off all those years ago.

Radio Caroline 1974

I was there until 31st August until the Dutch government outlawed the ship. The ship moved over to England and I thought that I would go out one more time and I got caught coming off. It was rather strange, all very hush hush. We would take a little boat up the River Deben and get out at Woodbridge, somewhere like that. This boat came out to see us and we were waving, thinking that they were fans and suddenly boats appeared from everywhere and there were guys from the Home Office and the police. We were arrested, taken to Ipswich and I appeared in court on the charge of breaking the Marine Offences Act. I was the first disc jockey to be charged under the Act and I was fined £100 plus £50 costs.

Andy Archer and Mike Baker outside Southend Crown Court 1975

I had got a job meanwhile on Radio Orwell so I couldn’t really challenge the charge, but my oldest friend John Jason ‑ we still see each other a lot ‑ decided to. Johnny’s a real character and his real name is Baron Rudiger Von Etzdorf and he got himself a wonderful lawyer, the high court barrister James Cummin, James played his part wonderfully and was far more qualified than the judge, Johnny got off.

Radio Orwell, Radio Nova, Devon Air and Radio Broadland

Radio Orwell was the first of the 19 commercial radio stations. I had been working as a continuity announcer at Tyne Tees television and Metro Radio in Newcastle and also did voiceovers. The guy in charge of commercial production, an Australian called John Wellington, got a job as programme controller at Radio Orwell and asked me to join them. I enjoyed working at Tyne Tees. They had two male announcers and they were looking for a female one and part of the condition of my employment was that I would get all the work I needed until they found the new announcer. Luckily John offered me this job at the time they found a female announcer. I was a bit of a wanderer, and didn’t seem to worry about having money or possessions so I went to join Radio Orwell.

It was the early days of commercial radio so it wasn’t just being a disc jockey you know, you’d have guests on, like actors, politicians or people in the news. The advertisers were all local and we had a huge audience in Ipswich and the surrounding area, out as far as Felixstowe and Woodbridge. I was there until 1980.

I remember one particular interview. We used to have a recorder called a uher, which weighed an absolute tonne. You had this tape recorder and you opened up the lid and there were two spools. A spool with tape and a blank spool, you’d load it in, start recording and the tape would run from the left hand spool over to the right.

I was interviewing Bruce Forsyth at the Gaumont Theatre in Ipswich. I went into the dressing room, sat down, shook hands and opened the tape. Both spools were full of tape, in other words there wasn’t a take up spool. So, I had to ask Bruce Forsyth to put a pencil through the hole in the spool of tape whilst I sat pulling the tape out. It took quite a while because there was quite a lot of tape and Bruce, I have to say if only the interview that I later did with him was as funny as his commentary during the unspooling it would have been a marvellous thing to listen to.

I then went to Dublin and joined Radio Nova as both the radio controller and presenter of the mid-morning show. I enjoyed the job but when I was on air, because of course, as radio controller I had to abide by my own rules, I always felt a little constrained.

I also remember a managing director telling me that if someone rings in sick on a Wednesday you can guarantee that they won’t be back until next Monday. So you were always having to make sure that you had some great people on standby. Sleepless nights too. Sometimes you’d get a call at 6am telling you that ‘Fred Smith’ hadn’t turned up to do the breakfast show so you’d have to throw jeans and a t shirt on and hop in the car.

I enjoyed Dublin a great deal, I was there for a year and a half, and met some great characters and made lots of friends. I was friendly with the singer Chris de Burgh, his brother lived next door to where I was staying, also Philip Lynott, all sorts of people.

It suddenly hit me whilst I was there, I was in my mid-40s. I thought, wow I’m earning quite a lot of money, not a lot but a decent amount and I really ought to be doing something rather than sort of going out and buying countless bottles of Bollinger and you know going on mad holidays.

I moved on from there for want of change I suppose, and came back to England. I worked at Devon Air down in Exeter, doing Devon Dawn, the breakfast show, with Keith Cooper. That was great fun.

I was offered a job at Radio Broadland in Norwich. However, I just happened to be in Ipswich one night at a farewell do of a colleague and got talking to John Jacob who was the chairman of Radio Orwell. He asked me what I was doing these days and when I told him about Radio Broadland he said, ‘What? Why don’t you come back here?’ so I asked him if that was an offer and he asked me what I would be getting paid, offered me a better deal and I said, ‘Yes I’ll come back to Radio Orwell’.

That’s where I remained for a while until Radio Broadland actually took over Radio Orwell and I was one of the first to be kicked out.

My partner was a news editor at Radio Suffolk and I used to do occasional programmes acting as a sort of locum to various presenters. One day I was interviewing a Radio Norfolk correspondent and he recommended me to Radio Norfolk, because I am of course from Norfolk.

I went to Radio Norfolk and did a couple of weekend programmes. We were based initially in Surrey Street before moving to The Forum. I did a gardening programme on Saturdays where I knew bugger all about gardening, and a programme on a Sunday afternoon. An opportunity came up for the mid-morning show, it was quite a big show and I was lucky enough to get it.

This was in the late ‘80s early 90s and it was a very happy period for me. Radio Norfolk attracted a sort of older audience and there were a lot of people who remembered things like the zeppelins flying over Great Yarmouth. I remember talking to a woman who drove Glenn Miller to the plane that he took off on in the 1940s and he was never seen again.

This was long before the internet. I used to have Kelly’s Directory in the studio and used to pick a village each day and you’d get a marvellous response from people with their memories. Sadly all these people have gone now you know.

Our listeners were very fickle, and very set in their ways. I remember once doing a programme by a pond and there was rippling water in the background and we had so many complaints from old people asking us to stop using water in the programmes as it made them go to the loo the whole time.

The other thing that people used to hate was the door bell. Every Thursday on the mid-morning show I would have a guest that they wouldn’t tell me about. This complete and utter stranger walked into the studio and I had absolutely no idea who it was. We had this recording of a door bell and when I’d get the signal I’d press it and ‘ding dong’ and I would say, ’Come in’. I’d write a load of questions, such as are you an actor? Are you in theatre, the military? Things like that. Luckily I did recognise the first guest, Peggy Spencer, a famous dancer from the ‘60s. Richard Whitely did a similar thing on a television programme in later years and strangely enough he was once one of my guests.

But the complaints we got about the door bell, you know, ‘You’re making my dog go crazy’, ‘Will you stop that bloody doorbell’. Occasionally we would play the doorbell over a record and the box where all the phone lines came in, you know, they’d all light up.

I also did Morning Mix and Drive Live, which was more of a news based programme, with no music. We’d have the main news and I would have guests the rest of the time, either in the studio or by ISDN. I remember once, a guest wasn’t on the other line and I had about four minutes to fill so I played a record. I got really blasted by the news editor and did actually lose my cool afterwards and said would she rather have had four minutes of waffle.

The worst sorts of interviewees were the ones who gave monosyllabic responses. You’d think, ‘Oh this is going to be great, off we go’ and…….’Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Oh’. You’d have a few of those.

My last job at Radio Norfolk was the programme called the Garden Party which I used to present on a Saturday lunchtime with a guy called Alan Gray who owns the big garden at East Ruston near Happisburgh. It was a two hour gardening programme and I have to say that by then I knew a bit more about gardening than when I first started.

Changes in radio and retirement

I wouldn’t like to do the same thing today, I mean commercial radio must be dreadful to work for, you have no say over what you do. I mean when I started, not that I’m advocating smoking or anything like that but the studios were smoky dens with overflowing ashtrays, papers, records, newspapers and heavens know what all over the place. Today they are like show flats in new developments, you don’t see the records or CDs, it’s all on computer. I’m not hostile to that at all but you don’t get a choice in what you play. I mean, you switch on the computer and a list comes up of what you play and you even get cue cards sometimes.

The BBC has changed too. I mean the average programme was two or three hours when I worked there. I noticed that they’re now four and there’s a lot of programme sharing, a lot of programmes join up at night.

Strangely enough I never got a job in radio that I applied for, only Radio Caroline at the beginning. I was hopeless at interviews because I got very nervous about what they were expecting me to say. But I always got my jobs through recommendation so I was very lucky that way you know.

I suppose my best experience, I think, strangely enough, was Radio Norfolk for the reasons I gave earlier. You know, speaking to people who were around for the greater part of the 20th century. You would say, ‘Does anybody remember Jimi Hendrix playing in Norwich?’ And you’d get people saying, ‘Oh yes I remember Jimi Hendrix playing at the Orford Cellar, it was packed there was only room for about 60 people but there must have been 200 in there’, memories like that. People remembering periods of the war and the 1920s and 1930s it was wonderful to be able to speak to those people. Sadly hardly any of the programmes were recorded you know. There’s no real record of them, which is such a pity. They were only kept for a month, we’re talking about 12 inch tapes, in boxes of about a foot square so storage was a problem.

I retired in the late ‘90s. I did go back and do one programme, a sort of anniversary of pirate radio. They did a sort of ‘Radio Norfolk goes pirate for the day’ which was a bit of fun to do. I have had a lot of fun over the years.

Andy Dawson 2022

Andy Dawson (b. 1946) talking to  WISEArchive on 7th January 2022 in Norwich

© 2022 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.



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Three times lucky. Life in and around Limpenhoe (1936-2022)

Denis has lived in and around Limpenhoe all his life. He shares his memories of his father’s and grandfather’s working lives on farms, on the marshes, and for the owners of the Cantley sugar factory. Denis, who was an apprentice at Laurence Scott electrical manufacturers, tells stories of his early life at Limpenhoe Mill, including surviving a bomb blast in 1943 and recovering from two bouts of TB. He passes on his experiences of the excellent care he received at Kelling Hospital and the West Norwich Hospital from the newly-formed National Health Service.

 Early days in Limpenhoe

I was born in Limpenhoe in October 1936 in a two-up two-down type farm cottage with very few facilities. My father was a farm worker, but he also worked at the Limpenhoe mill. My grandad used to man the mill, and my father used to relieve him at times. Obviously they couldn’t work 24/7, but there were times when he had to put in long hours to keep the mill running.

Limpenhoe Mill

Limpenhoe Mill was a drainage mill. I honestly don’t know when it was first built. At that time I presume it had replaced a windmill. It was a turbine, powered by a huge diesel engine with a massive flywheel. This engine had to be started on compressed air, which was generated by a small petrol engine I presume, to build up the pressure. Then it would just pump away until it wasn’t needed any more, to keep the water levels on the marsh at the level that they wanted them to be.

It won’t be diesel now. If it’s still working, it would be electric, I would think, now. I honestly don’t know if it still exists in operation.

Limpenhoe drainage mill ca 1919


Limpenhoe drainage mill 2021 (Image Norfolk Mills)

Two mill stories: an old shotgun….

I know one or two stories to do with the mill, two, anyway.

It was a pretty boring job sitting there hour after hour with nothing to do. I mean, you didn’t have to attend to the engines at all. Perhaps they had to check the bearings and lubrication and so on. My grandad’s oldest son was in the navy and he came home on leave. Because his father wasn’t at home he went down to the mill just to see him.

To break the boredom, I think, my grandad used to have an old shotgun in the mill to deal with any pheasants or anything that turned up on the river bank. But it wasn’t a cartridge thing, it was what I call, like a muzzle-loader where you had to load the cartridge in the barrel.

And anyway, this oldest boy went down. He saw the gun standing there, and he was mad on guns, so he said, ‘Can I have a shot, Dad?’

Well, he said, ‘If you can see anything!’

So he went off. Nothing came by except, in the end, a seagull sort of floated past. Of course, his son Arthur, he got the gun and pulled the trigger. And because this gun had been loaded for some time, in a damp shed, it didn’t go off straight away. And the story goes that Grandfather was doing a dance up and down telling Arthur to hold the gun, not to bring it down, because he, Grandad, knew that eventually it would go off.

And as it happened it did, it went off. I think by this time the seagull was a dot on the horizon! And this cloud of smoke! I can understand Grandad’s apprehension when he saw the gun didn’t go off because, well, it could be disastrous if he pointed it somewhere and thought, ‘What’s the matter with this?’

Anyway, that was one story.

….and a wagon gets stuck in flood water

The other story is on my memory, in 1943 I’ve checked back, it was in ’43 when the river flooded. And they needed to get fuel, diesel fuel, down to this pump. Now why they didn’t take it by river I don’t know. Presumably if it was flooded they couldn’t see where the river was and where the river wall was, I don’t know.

But I do well remember seeing a horse-drawn cart, a four-wheeled wagon, going down what we called the marsh wall that rolled down to the mill, through the floods. And the wagon was, ooh, well up over half its wheels in the water. And the horse, all its legs were in the water, it was just the body of the horse outside.

The point was, whoever drove it down there had to know the wall, had to know the road, because it wasn’t a straight road. And I thought that was absolutely marvellous that they were able to get this wagon with the barrels of fuel on the back down to the mill to keep it running because it was essential that they got the floods pumped back into the river.

Working life at Limpenhoe Mill

From Hill Farm to the mill I would think it’s over a quarter of a mile, somewhere between a quarter and a half a mile away. That was quite a way across the marshes. My grandad walked to the mill every day when the mill was needed. I mean, the mill didn’t run every day. It only ran when the water levels in the marshes got too high, you see. It was a drainage mill. But he walked all the time, as far as I know, my grandad never rode a bike!

Grandfather worked on the farm, Hill Farm, when he wasn’t operating the pump, and my dad worked there ever since he left school. I can’t remember when my dad was born. In 1943, when I’m talking about, he must have been in his early forties, I would think, late thirties. He worked on the farm. But he spent a fair bit of time on the marshes.

Slubbing dykes

One of the jobs they had to do down there was what they call slubbing dykes, cleaning the dykes out. They had a special knife to cut the edges of the dyke, and a crome to pull out all the weed and the mud. And that used to be stacked up alongside the dyke, much as they do now with a digger.

That was an essential part of the drainage of the marshes, to keep the dykes clear. Of course, the cattle used to go and drink in the dykes, and they tended to push all the soil back, all the marsh back into the dyke, you see.

Great escapes part 1: rescued from the ice

I left that part of Limpenhoe in 1943. But I remember, going back to that flood, another story I had was when it actually froze over. There was acres and acres of lovely frozen ice, frozen water. And a lad who lived down the road from me, slightly older than me, came round mine and said, ‘Shall we go sliding on the ice?’

Well, that was, you know, a good thought! He must have been seven or eight, nine, maybe, and I was six. And we went off running across the ice and sliding and enjoying ourselves. Then all of a sudden we heard this ping which you get when the ice cracks.

He shouted to me, ‘Don’t go there, don’t go there!’ by which time I couldn’t stop, you can’t stop yourself when you’re running on ice.

And I ran there and I went through the ice. How deep I went in, I don’t know, but by some good fortune he was able to get to the edge and pull me out. Now, they always say that if you go through the ice nobody can pull you out, they can’t get to the edge. But he did. And so I had some distance to walk home, frozen, and presented myself dripping wet to my mum!

I don’t think she told me off. I mean, that’s what you do when you’re children. She was aware where we were going, as far as I know.

But I mean, to all intents and purposes the ice was alright, there was just this one area where we think there was a stream from the land running down, so that water was a little bit warmer. Therefore the ice didn’t set so thick. So that’s our theory anyway.

Great escapes part 2: surviving the bomb

When I was six, my family had to move away from Limpenhoe. This is where the story of the bomb comes in.

(See the article in the Eastern Daily Press, March 1943, at the end of the story. Note that no mention is made of the location in order to avoid giving help to the enemy.)

My father, for whatever reason, had dug an air raid shelter in the back of our garden, at some time earlier in the war. Just dug a big hole about six foot square and six foot deep, something like that. Put railway sleepers across the top of the hole and then put the soil back on top, and that was our air raid shelter. How many other people dug air raid shelters, I don’t know. Anyway, so it was there.

And on this particular night, on the 28th of February 1943, he came home from the Home Guard training, as they did. It was a Sunday night. I think he was in the process of getting into bed; no, that was when he got home, he said the whole area was lit up by flares like daylight. Incendiary bombs.

And he knew from being in the Home Guard, I suppose, that those bombs were dropped as a marker for the bombers. So he knew there was a good likelihood there would be a bomb coming our way. And he says he actually saw the bomb coming down on parachutes, it was a huge thing. My older sister actually saw it as well, she says it was like a tree trunk on two parachutes.

So he saw this bomb coming down. He rushed upstairs because we were all in bed and said, ‘Mum,’ to my mum, you know, ‘you’d best get in the shelter.’

So, on our way, he shouted to our neighbour to take shelter. We virtually just got into the shelter, and all I remember is he just pushed my head into an old pram that was in there with his potatoes, he used it as potato storage.

And there was this almighty, that wasn’t a bang, it was a huge whoosh. He described it like a typhoon. It lasted seconds, it seemed like seconds, this horrible whoosh, and then an awful dead silence, you know. I don’t know if other people experience that when you get a loud noise, but there was just a dead silence.

And then, I don’t know how much later, we heard our neighbour, screaming. So Dad must have gone out, and he rescued her from her house, her and her daughter, actually. But what had happened, this bomb had lit virtually on our front doorstep. And as luck would have it, it was on the far side of the house to where the shelter was.

This bomb was designed not to dig into the ground and explode. It was designed, because it came down on parachutes, to explode just before it hit the ground, so the blast was spread as far as it could possibly be.

The power of the blast

It completely destroyed our house. I mean, the paper report says ‘to a pile of rubble’, but that wasn’t a pile of rubble. There was a very slight indent in the area where the house was, but because our neighbour’s house was slightly lower than ours, it took her house off at table height. And she had sheltered in the pantry, of all places. Under a table in the pantry, which was obviously about table height. This blast had cleaned her house off at table height, and she and her daughter were under this table in the pantry.

The blast then finished off, just about half destroyed another house about 30, 40 yards down the road. It did a lot of damage to my grandparents’ house which was another 20, 30 yards down the road. According, again, to the paper report of the time, lots of houses around that little group suffered broken windows and doors and what-not.

Because our house was right on the edge of the Yare valley, the land behind our house sloped upwards onto the farmland. And this blast had obviously hit this rise in the land and shot everything up in the air, and the story goes that people found our clothes hung up in trees in Reedham, on the road to Reedham, the next day.

So that sort of gives you some idea of the power of that bomb.

The whole story is that all five of us weren’t touched at all, except I think my father’s old sawing stool came down the shelter and just damaged his elbow a bit. This neighbour, Mrs Jermy, had multiple cuts, obviously, with the crockery in the pantry, and Shirley, her daughter, had minor cuts. So everybody survived virtually unharmed. I mean there was no permanent damage to her or Shirley or any of us.

Eventually, when we came out of this shelter, again, I think it was a result of shock, I remember feeling I was, oh, I was walking on cotton wool. Everything was so soft. That’s how it felt to me.

The aftermath of the bomb: help from neighbours, and a second bomb

It must have been some time after the bomb when people from the main village of Limpenhoe came across the footpath. Most of the young men came over. I mean, bear in mind we had got nothing on apart from our nightclothes, and this was February. They piggy-backed us, well, four children, across to the main part, what we called Limpenhoe Common, and a good lady and her husband put us up for the night, Mr and Mrs Gunn. It was quite a cold journey, but nevertheless we were thankful.

And the next day, of course, they had to go out around the village and get clothes for us, because we couldn’t go anywhere! I don’t know how they had got on, but my father eventually went back to the house, or where the house was, the next morning to see what had happened. Obviously you couldn’t have torches and what-not around at that time. How he felt, I just don’t know. Must have been quite a shock.

That’s the only bomb we saw, but the same night another bomb was dropped on the road from Limpenhoe to Freethorpe. It fell right in the road. Mr Preston, who was the, sort of, dedicated bomb informer, if you like, was driving his car to see what would happen with our particular bomb. Because it’s wartime and they had pretty poor headlights anyway, the story says he’s turned his headlights out and he drove into the crater on this one on the Freethorpe Road! There were other incendiaries about, but I mean the main attack was this one big bomb.

What was the real target?

There’s been a lot of speculation about whether the bomb was targeted for something, or whether it was dropped at random. I mean, where we lived was about perhaps half a mile from the Cantley sugar factory. So that’s the only theory that we could have, that it was aimed at the sugar factory. But I mean they were half a mile out! Their aiming wasn’t that good, thankfully.

The impact on the family: rehousing in Limpenhoe, then Cantley

My family lost everything. I’ve got, well, not a cut-glass fruit bowl, but a moulded glass fruit bowl that’s got chips on the side. And that’s the only thing we recovered from the rubble. That was just absolutely devastated.

My father kept on working. He worked on a mixed farm. There were cattle sheds in the farm, up the hill, as we used to call it. They had horses, of course, and several acres of land. How soon he went back to work, I don’t know, but he went back to work there. He worked there another five years, anyway, somewhere about that.

I honestly don’t remember how the Jermys got on. Of course the next problem for us, after the bomb, we’ve got nowhere to live. I mean, there were plans afoot, obviously, in those days for people who were bombed out, for that eventuality. I don’t know how many days later, probably less than a week, we were allocated part of a farmhouse near Limpenhoe Church. It was called Cantley View Farm.

This wasn’t an old, olde-worlde farmhouse. It was three bedrooms, a lounge and a living-room and what we called a scullery, which was like a kitchen, really, and glass conservatories on north and south sides for some reason.

Anyway, we were allocated, not all of this house, just two-thirds of it. The owner was an industrialist from the Midlands. He used to come down for shoots and breaks from the wartime duties, so we had to leave him the front bedroom and the front room, and the bathroom.

So our family occupied the two bedrooms and the living room and the scullery. And we lived there from 1943 ’til 1948 in those situations. Of course, all this time my two sisters and myself had to sleep in two single beds pushed together. And by the time we left I remember my sister was 14, so it’s not an ideal situation.

We were eventually allocated a council house in Cantley. We were then able to live what we call a normal life, because living in a borrowed house all the time, we couldn’t do much. Father couldn’t do any gardening or anything like that, we just had to, virtually, exist. But he still cycled to Hill House, Hill Farm in Limpenhoe, it’s about a mile away, I suppose, for that time.

Father changes jobs

Then I don’t know what happened but he decided he didn’t want to work for Charlie May who was the farmer at that time. And he got work, because he now lived at Cantley, with the big Dutch company who owned, well, I was going to say thousands of acres locally, called the East Anglian Real Property Company. They were Dutchmen, and because the sugar beet factory had been started up by a Dutchman they came over and bought up most of the land around.

So he got a job with them. Their base was at Cantley, but the problem with that is that they owned farms, ooh, as far as Buckenham, Hassingham, Cantley, obviously, Reedham, Halvergate. I think they owned some at Beighton, yes, they did at Beighton.

So they owned farms and land all the way around there, and they expected their workers to get themselves to and from work. If they had work for them to do in Halvergate, they were expected to get on their bike and go to work at Halvergate. And bike home. And carry their own tools.

Father loses his scythe

The story I remember my father telling me is that they were hedging, trimming hedges and banks, somewhere, Reedham, I think. And, because you don’t want to carry your scythe home every night on your bike, they used to hide the scythes in the hedge. And he lost a scythe that way, somebody found it and he never saw that again. You know, they had to buy their own tools.

Pay wrongly docked: ‘A bitter story’

The other story I remember was a bitter story as far as I’m concerned. My father was put in charge of a group of ladies at Reedham. In those days they used to harvest the spuds, dig the spuds up and put them in what we used to call a hale. Used to pile ’em up on the side of the field, cover them over with straw and then with earth. Then in the springtime they’d open them up and riddle them to sort good from bad. These women used to do that job, and he was put in charge of this group of women.

One morning it had rained all night and then froze, and the roads, well, you’d say that they were really like glass. My father rode where he could, he rode even, he said, on the grass verge to try and get there. And he was late getting there.

Now each of the farms at Cantley and Buckenham and Hassingham and all of them, had their own man, like a foreman, who organised the work in their areas. Later on, the company recruited an ex-military man to be the boss over all of them. But he had a van.

And as I say, by the time my dad got to Reedham, he was there with his van. No problem for him. And he just said to my dad, ‘You know, these women have been standing here, nothing to do. You can go home, and lose half a day’s pay.’ And that has really, like….

Daily life before the bomb: relying on the pulk for water

Before we were bombed out, as I say, we were a two-up, two-down cottage. It was detached, we didn’t have any facilities, not even an inside toilet and all the rest of it. We didn’t have water, we didn’t have electricity.

And the remarkable thing about our water supply was, we had to walk down the road 30, 40 yards, perhaps more, to what we called a pulk.

Not a lot of people have heard of a pulk. What that was, was an open stream coming from the land up above, that ran eventually down onto the marshes. But into this little stream was sunk, like, a brick well, so you could get to drop a bucket in it, to get your water. So it was all open.

And you used to have at least two buckets, the old enamel buckets, I remember, and cart them home. I would think probably we had three, because, if there was any heavy rain, or wind, or anything, this stream picked up all sorts of flotsam and jetsam!

You had to have at least two buckets, so you could take one home and leave it to settle, so that all the solid stuff went to the bottom and all this floating stuff came to the top. You had to scoop that off, and then you’ve got your drinking water, washing water, whatever. And so you’ve got one that had stood for a day, and the next one was standing waiting. I would think probably we had three buckets.

Everyone down that end of the village got their water from, well, not only that pulk. My grandparents, were, as I say, another 30, 40 yards down the road. They had their own pulk, which was just for their house, and their neighbour.

As far as I know you didn’t boil the water before you drank it. It did clear in the end. I mean, as I say, if you leave it long enough the solids will go to the bottom and the floater will come to the top, so what’s in between is yours!

I did have a lot of trouble years back trying to find the definition of a pulk, because everybody I spoke to had never heard of it. And I’ve written down here that it’s defined as a ‘muddy pool’. That’s all the description I got. It was muddy after a rough night, you know, you can imagine what it was like after a heavy storm.

Toilet arrangements, washing facilities, and water from a well

We didn’t have the honeycart turn up, it was more, dig a hole in the garden to empty the bucket there. Then when we moved to this other house up what we called the top of Limpenhoe, we had some sort of toilet where it was never emptied. I think it was more or less like a cess-pool.

Then of course when we moved to Cantley there was the honeycart. I think early on, though, that was a case of digging a hole in the garden, and having the weekly, or fortnightly, duties.

And the tin bath in front of the fire, yes, and the water was heated in the coal-fired washing copper. The water there in Cantley was from a well, which was used by ten or a dozen houses, if not more, council houses. That was my job when I got old enough, to go and wind the water up!

The freedom of a happy childhood

I would say I had a happy childhood. I was happier when I was in the first house, because I had freedom. The woods on the sloping bit up to the farmland was my playground. Mother tells me I never, well, I know I never wanted to go to school, because I always wanted to know what was happening on the farm.

And the horses, I mean, oh dear. The horses were all working on the farm. I don’t think that any farmer had a tractor. I knew all the horses and what they’d been doing that day and all the rest of it.

A ride on a horse….

A story regarding the horses.

One of my uncles was in charge of the horses. I dunno if he was just in charge that particular time or whether that was his usual job.

Anyway, I walked up to the stable one afternoon when I knew the horses were back. They used to take all their harness off, and they used to release them. They used to run down the slope, quite a long, steep slope, to the marsh wall. They would run down and wait at the gate for whoever was looking after them to come and open the gate. Whichever marsh they were to go on.

They were stripped right down, no harness on at all. And this uncle said to me, ‘Do you want, will you want a ride, boy?’

And, of course, well, I took that up. So he stopped one of the horses as all the others were running down, and he lifted me up onto this horse’s back.

Well, there was nothing to hold onto, it was just pure bare back. And as it went down this slope, obviously I was sliding forwards. I must have nearly strangled this horse, I think. I really gripped. And I was scared out of my life, obviously.

And when this horse got to the gate where they were waiting, as I said, this horse, because it was last, he didn’t walk, he was galloping! And I slid off this horse and slunk off home. I didn’t contact my uncle!

… and keeping the horses awake!

Another story about horses.

They used to, in those days of course they used to thresh the corn from stacks. They didn’t have combine harvesters then. You had the steam engine driving the drum, but in those early days they used to have a horse that used to operate the elevators that took the straw from the back of the drum onto the straw stack.

This poor old horse used to have to go around and round driving these elevators. And, poor old boy, poor old Prince, I well remember his name, he used to get so bored he used to go to sleep!

So, you know, there’s the drum producing straw, and not going up onto that stack. There was a lot of shouting, so they recruited me to go up there and wake up the horse whenever he stopped, when he went to sleep! I remember doing that a few times, yeah. Good old days.

Apprenticeship with Laurence Scott, and falling ill with TB

I started with Laurence Scott as an apprentice when I was 16, in September ’52, I think. Then when I was about 18 I fell ill with TB. And so that stopped my apprenticeship.

At that time most people with lung TB went to Kelling Hospital, that was called a sanatorium. I had to wait at home for 11 weeks before I could get into Kelling, with no nursing care except my mother. I used to have to take some horrible tablets three times a day, oh, dreadful things.

Great escapes part 3: recovering from TB – twice!

So I went to Kelling, and got on really well there, just on drug treatment and bed rest. I was there six or nine months, I should imagine, because you had to do three months bed rest anyway. They gradually used to get us up an hour a day, then two hours a day, and so on.

Then I came home, and I had to have more time at home before I went back to work. Laurence Scott were good enough to let me start part time. So I went back to work and gradually got back onto full time.

I used to go for regular checks at the hospital. I wasn’t back for too long before I was told that I had got TB again.

Denis and his father have TB at the same time – and end up in the same ward!

Kelling was such a rotten place to get to from Cantley. I mean, my parents, when I was there, used to get on a train from Cantley to Yarmouth on a Sunday morning, wait goodness knows how many hours in Yarmouth to get a bus (they used to run a dedicated coach for that purpose) to Kelling, which took I don’t know how long.

They’d be with me for perhaps an hour, back, and they’d get home about six o’clock in the evening, you know, and that’s a dreadful place to get to.

So, the point I’m coming to is that my dad, in the meantime he had got TB.

And I don’t know who decided in the end, but at that time there was another chest clinic at the West Norwich Hospital, and there was a chest ward in the buildings on the other side of the Bowthorpe Road from the main West Norwich hospital. Some single-storey buildings with the men’s section one end, women’s the other and the kitchen, offices in the middle. Old, very old place.

So they found my dad a bed in this ward. He had by this time obviously left work with the farmer.

When I fell ill again, personally I would have preferred to have gone back to Kelling, but I couldn’t expect my family to visit two of us in different places, so I went into Ward Four, in Norwich. I laid in the next bed to my father, by which time he had had surgery at Kelling, and then come back there for his bed rest.

Father’s time on the ward

And so he was back there. They used to laugh at him because, when I first went back, I was on what they call ‘bed one’ which was bed all day. You’re allowed up once to go to the washroom and toilet. They used to laugh at me because I had to even do that in a wheelchair and because my dad used to push me in this wheelchair, and I was 20! I always used to pull his leg, saying, ‘That’s a year or two ago when you had to do that!’

When he finished with his bed rest and rest at home he couldn’t go back to farming, so he actually got a job at the Cantley sugar factory. He worked there for the rest of his time ’til he was 65. I don’t think he was too sad about leaving the farming industry.

Treated fairly by Laurence Scott

Then I had to go for surgery and then come back to Ward Four at Norwich, and eventually, got back to Laurence Scott. As I say, they were good enough to extend my apprenticeship, to say that, if I went anywhere else, I could say I was apprenticed the whole term.

Excellent care from the new National Health Service

This was the early days of the NHS. My treatment, and my father’s, was under the NHS. It was really, really excellent. Part of the treatment was good food, and fresh air. Which is what you got at Kelling, believe me.

They wheeled the beds outside, and you laid outside in the fresh air. I was in a wooden ward, but they used to have these huts, we used to call them chickens’ huts, because that’s really what they were like. They were on wheels, so they could turn them round to suit whichever way the wind was so you didn’t get the wind in the door, you know.

We were in the main block, as I said. They used to come in in the morning for the toilets and what-not. They often used to laugh that the flannels were like a block of ice, you know, just frozen stiff, because we used to get worse winters in those days than we do now.

The care was excellent, really excellent. You weren’t rushed around, you know. You didn’t ever feel that they wanted to get rid of you like they do now, they get you out of hospital as soon as possible, which is fair enough.

Entertaining patients at Kelling

For me as a young man that was better at Kelling, because as you got more time up, there were, sort of, recreational facilities. Nothing much, only a snooker table and a piano in what we called the recreation room. But there was lots of camaraderie there, that there wasn’t so much at Ward Four.

There was, I think, ten or a dozen of us in the men’s side. And the great thing about those days was, there was an organisation called the Friends of Kelling, started up by a former patient.

They used to provide entertainment for us, sometimes once a week. All sorts of entertainment. They were wonderful people. When I was in Ward Four they used to put all the men’s and the women’s beds in one ward so they could entertain us all at one time. So that’s my memories there.

Thoughts on Limpenhoe Mill as it might be now

I often thought I should go down and find out what happened to Limpenhoe Mill. Obviously it wouldn’t be diesel-operated now. If anything it would certainly be electrified. I should imagine they redesigned the layout with the marshes, so they may have bypassed that one altogether, I don’t know. I wish I’d gone down to see.

Limpenhoe drainage mill – floor beams (2010)  Evelyn Simak CC BY-SA 2.0


Limpenhoe drainage mill  – the scoop wheel (2010) Evelyn Simak  CC BY-SA 2.0

Many changes at Limpenhoe: ‘The village seems to have revived’

I often go down to where we used to live, and see, you know, just to bring back memories.

Strangely enough, this part of Limpenhoe, Limpenhoe Hill, is like half way between the main part of Limpenhoe, although that’s even a small village, and Reedham. And so there was like this little group of houses around the farm. Some of them were almost on the marsh. And they were I think empty for a long time.

The last time we went down there they’d all been refurbished. They were right posh houses, in a terrace. And so, you know, that little part of the village seems to have survived, revived. Even the main village. They’re different people now. I wouldn’t think they’re holiday homes, not in Limpenhoe. But as I say, those remote villages went out of fashion because you had no facilities really.

Limpenhoe marshes Helen Steed  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Final reflections on a life well lived

I’ve had a good life, and a happy life. Good family. And a good wife, of course. A big part of that.

I’ve carried on working and living in Norfolk. Never moved out of Norfolk. I’m in Lingwood now, which is miles away from Limpenhoe! Well, only about four miles away, isn’t it! I’ve had three great escapes, the going through the ice one, I regard that as an escape. And the bomb, and then TB. And who knows how many I’ve gone through without knowing since. I’m well blessed.

Denis Carter (b.1936) talking to WISEArchive in Lingwood on January 22nd 2022.

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Life in the wartime WAF and a lifelong love of local history (1940s-2021)

Helen tells about her mother’s experience in the WAF during the Second World War and about her own work as a local historian and writer.

My mother’s work in the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce

When mum joined the WAF she was approaching the age of 19 – or perhaps a bit older. I’ve found her joining-up papers, where she signed on to go into the WAF. Initially she was sent up with the other recruits  to Morecambe, Lancashire, to do their “square bashing”, their initial training and then they were assigned to the different air stations and sent to work at them.

She had to do an intelligence test and they decided from the result of that she’d be suitable for working in the plotting room – she actually later on became a radar t operator – and she was sent down to Worcestershire. At first she was based at a place called RAF Wick and then she was sent to RAF Comberton. They are both near Defford, in Worcestershire, and actually substations of Defford I believe from what I’ve managed to work out.

Curiously enough, when I first met Bill, he was talking about his work at Malvern and kept mentioning that they used Defford for testing stuff. And I said ‘Defford?’ and he went ‘Yes’ and I said ‘Mum used to talk about Defford an awful lot’. Eventually when we were going over to Wales to see my daughter we stayed in Malvern and we went and had a look around and there’s a National Trust property near there called Croome Park. It’s very near Defford and mother had talked about a big hall there and what they actually did. She said ‘We were a crew at Comberton and we had an opposite crew at Croome Park. We were not allowed to communicate with them and were not allowed to go up to Croome Park, under any circumstances as they were our duplicate crew and if one of the crews had been knocked out the other would’ve        taken over. This was where we were doing the radar work’. It was all very secret. She had to sign the Official Secrets Act.

When she worked in the plotting room they were plotting the enemy aircraft coming in, seeing where they were and the Royal Artillery officer they were attached to was sending messages to the Ack Ack guns to get the planes as they came over. This was to protect the RAF Station at Defford. She said they were living in a house called “Van Dyke Court” in Wick, which I’ve actually been to as we managed to find it once when we went to Malvern. She said, ‘When we walked out of the house we always had to go in pairs – and no more than pairs – so it didn’t look suspicious, walk up the road, go through a hole in a hedge, go across two ploughed fields and then down 25 steps into a big underground bunker’. She didn’t tell me the exact location of the bunker, but I presume from what she said that it’s still there.

She said there was a military guard on the door all the time. And she said, ‘All of us were trained to use hand pistols and military guns before we went there’. They were taught to fire and practised on a military firing range. She also said that only volunteers were armed. Conscripts weren’t. She was a WAF volunteer and said, ‘We were armed and had to carry our guns with us at all times’.

I get the impression she worked in a large team. She said there were an awful lot of ladies there who were pretending to be younger than they were and that a lot of them were  Jewish or had Jewish husbands, because they knew that, of all the people there, they would be the last to say anything to anybody. She also said that a lot of the ladies there were serving RAF officers’ wives or fiancés. Her fiancé was my dad who was in the army and actually, by that time, he was well on the way to becoming a prisoner of war, but she didn’t realise at the time.

She didn’t really talk about how she felt about her work, whether she was frightened or excited. She would chat in general about the time she spent with her friends and about how one night, when she went back to her billet hut at Comberton, she put her feet on the stove to warm them and burned a hole in the sole of her WAAF issue boots. She then had to go and explain – ‘Can you give me new boots?’, ‘Well, what have you done?’ and ‘Well, my feet were cold so I burnt them against the stove’. She would chat about things like that.

She worked night shifts sometimes. In fact, when she was a radar  operator they had  a scanner mounted on a mobile hut,  which would get dragged hither and thither into the middle of a field or wherever and then they would have to spend the night pedalling the scanner – because it was a pedal scanner – and they had to make the sure the scanner kept going when it was out in a field in the middle of goodness knows where. She said ‘That’s how we were working’.

It was intense, but they did get time off. On her days off would go into Worcester or Pershore. They’d cycle there. I think she said that coming home, when they got a leave pass, she would come home through Coventry or Birmingham and she said at Birmingham you got off the train to change the trains to come this way and the towns were  completely in ruins, bombed out.

She had to keep very quiet about the work she did. And this is the interesting part. Her father didn’t want her to go in the first place and wouldn’t even go to the station to wave her off; he refused to. He said he wanted her to stay at home because he’d had a bad experience in the First World War with losing friends so he was very anxious. He’d got two sons in the military at that time and he really didn’t want her to go. And when she came back they said, ‘Well, what are you doing? What job have you got?’ They had uniform jackets with nothing on the sleeves to indicate what they did – that patch on the sleeve was empty. ‘Well, I’m a cleaner.’ ‘So, what do you do, her father asked?’ ‘I spend my days sweeping.’ (Oh yes, sweeping the sky not the floor! ) But she said, ‘I couldn’t divulge anything. We’d been warned that if we divulged anything we’ll be lined up and shot!’

She never mentioned about being paid less than the men were paid for doing the same job. I would ask her things about radar and things like that and she said ‘I’m not telling you. It’s probably still a state secret, some of it. There are things I can tell you and things I’ll never tell anybody’. She just said ‘No, I’m not saying anything’. And in a way she was right, from talking to Bill about radar. He said she couldn’t tell me  much, because up until probably the early 1980s they were still basically using the same equipment. He said she couldn’t have talked about it.

She talked about her off duty days sometimes – at RAF Comberton – but she said ‘There were jobs we could do on our off days, either going and painting the aircraft wings with dope to waterproof them’ and the other thing they could do was, when the planes were scrambled, go out and turn the propellors as they went. I said ‘What?’ and she said ‘Yes, you had a choice. You could do one or the other, whichever, and other days we would go off to Pershore.

She wasn’t based in the same place all the time, but she just moved from  Wick to  Comberton . I actually keep meaning to get her RAF records just to see what she did and where she really went. I didn’t know until probably seven or eight years ago that she had ever been a plotter either. She’d never really said, but she was very ill and probably thought she wasn’t going to last much longer – she actually did – and she was talking to me and my son and it all just came out. And she had a mysterious New Zealander fiancé that she mentioned  briefly. When we were children she would never watch a war film involving planes. She’d go out of the room and do something else. I didn’t understand why and then in the fullness of time it all came out, didn’t it? My dad was a prisoner of war. She thought he died on the Burma railway and she manged to find herself a New Zealander – I think he was an RAF pilot and I think he was based at Swanton Morley and his name was John, but she vnever confirmed it. All she said was that he’d flown his due number of missions and volunteered for a last one and was killed and that’s all I know about him. When she died I thought there might be something in her paperwork, but there wasn’t a trace.

I have the letters that she wrote to my father during the war, which I think he finally got at the end of the war when he was released. There is nary a mention of a New Zealander.

My school days

I grew up in a village near Aylsham called Cawston and initially I went to the primary school in Cawston and then – I don’t know why – my parents decided they’d pack me off to school in Buxton. Not very far, but you certainly wouldn’t be doing that now. I wouldn’t do that with my grandson certainly and he’s about the same age. My aunt was teaching there so that was alright and she’d see me onto the bus coming home. Then I went to a tiny village school in Heydon. The total number of children in the school when I was there was, I think, 25. There were two classrooms – a big classroom and a small classroom. I have the school photos. We used to walk  round the village on May Day giving out bunches of flowers to everybody in the village, which was sweet and very nice. I have the press photo of that with all of us lined up. I can name everybody in the photo except, I think, two children because they tended to come in batches of family – you know, whole families. Mother taught there briefly at the end of the war and she actually taught the elder brothers and sisters of the ones I went to school with. That photo would’ve been about 1958. In 1959 my granny, and then my aunt, paid for me to go to prep school in Norwich – Notre Dame – so I stayed there, took my Eleven Plus, was destined to go to high school – the senior department – and I point blank refused. I said “No thanks very much. I’ve passed my Eleven Plus. I’m going off to the county grammar school at North Walsham with my friends, thanks very much’” and I duly went to the North Walsham High School for Girls.

Getting to North Walsham was interesting. We had a local coach firm in the village called Easton’s. They did the bus journeys. They picked us all up who were either going to North Walsham High School for Girls or the boys who were going to Paston and then we did a very scenic journey. I think we set off at 8 o’clock in the morning and did a journey through Aylsham from Cawston. We didn’t pick anyone up from there as another company picked up the ones from Aylsham. Then we went through Banningham and Colby and Skeyton and picked up all the way along and then were deposited at the back entrance of the school. I can’t think of the name of the road. Anyway, Paston School was down the other end of the road, but if you were caught attempting to leave the school premises during the day and wandering down the road to Paston School you were given detention. You were not allowed to go anywhere near where the boys might be despite the fact you’d just travelled to school on the bus with them!

My growing interest in history and volunteering at museums

When I left North Walsham school I ended up back at Notre Dame in Norwich and I didn’t get on very well there. Going there again was a very bad mistake, but not withstanding that, after I’d officially left school, I went back because I was doing an ‘O’ level and they allowed me to go back. I think I used to go about three mornings a week to complete this course and, in the meantime, I’d been volunteering in the Norwich museums. I’d been volunteering at the Bridewell since I was 16. I’d always had an interest in history and I was volunteering at the Bridewell – Rachel Young was in charge and she was lovely.

So, when I wasn’t at school or at tech doing my ‘A’ levels I was volunteering at the museums again and  I used to have quite busy weeks. I never quite knew where I was supposed to be, but dad worked in Norwich so he would bring me in and take me home. My brother and sister, by then, were at school in Norwich as well. My sister was at Notre Dame and my brother at Bracondale so he’d sort of ferry us in and out. That was fine. But by the time I was thinking of getting engaged to my boyfriend and I didn’t get on very well at home, so I decided to get a job with the Inland Revenue, knowing full well they would transfer me to where my boyfriend lived. So, after I’d been at the Revenue probably three months I applied for a job in Manchester and by June 1970 I was living in Manchester working for the Inland Revenue.

My boyfriend knew I was interested in history and everything and went round looking for a museum where I could do voluntary work and I ended up working at the Helmshore Textile Museum. As volunteers, sometimes we’d just work on cleaning stuff up – whatever the curator wanted. He’d managed to get the mill working and the waterwheel working. This was an 18-foot-wide overshot waterwheel and the only braking system on it was a piece of wood jammed up against it so it didn’t keep going. He said in the end ‘If you come on a Sunday you can lead part of the tour round the museum’. I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ and he said, ‘Well, actually if you can show them how the mill and the fulling stocks work’. A fulling stock is a big trough with huge wooden hammers where they put the cloth in with a lot of water and urine actually to bleach the cloth! So, it all sits in this bath, you get the wheel going and these hammers pound it to felt to turn into blankets. So anyway, he’d managed to get all the machinery working and I said, ‘Well, what about the wheel?’ and he said, ‘Well, they need to see the wheel going and you know how I set the wheel off’. So, what I had to do was go and squeeze down the side of the wheel, kick the stay out of the way and tell the people to keep back. I was there until the middle of 1971.

I’d always wanted to work for the museum service. When I was still in Norwich I managed, through Rachel Young, to get an interview at the British Museum to work in the Medieval History department. I didn’t get through the interview, but I did get to the last six.

Higher education and my career in publishing

By the time I left Helmshore I had a family. Of course, in those lovely long off days if you’d got children and a husband and a house you didn’t actually have to go out to work. My daughter has to go out to work now. You could stay at home and be an ‘at home’ mum then.

I’d always been keen on history ever since I was quite small though I hadn’t actually written anything. By the autumn of 1978 I was back at college. I was at the Manchester Metropolitan University as it is now – it was the ‘Poly’ then – and they did a special course for mature students called the Diploma in Higher Education. So I applied to do that, went for the interview and got straight through it. So, I was there and basically had wanted to do history, but I ended up being an art student! The chance arose so I took it. What did I do in the first year? Sociology and art. I carried on doing art into the second year and go on very well with that. And then later when I was back here (in Norfolk) and remarried and had another daughter, I started doing Open University because I knew I could transfer the credits from Manchester to OU, which meant I didn’t have to do much more work for a degree.

That was working alright and I did the first part of the degree and then I met Bill and he said he knew I was very keen on history, because that’s how we met. I was working as the honorary curator of the museum at Harleston and I met him through that. He said, ‘What have you been doing?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve been doing a degree and I can’t afford it anymore’. He said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that. You’re going to finish it’. And I managed to finish my degree with his help – you know, his financial help.

That led to me getting into publishing because his son-in-law worked for the European Commission and he said that you can actually get a commission grant to research our local history.

We started off doing little booklets about Harleston actually. First of all we did Harleston postcards of the Edwardian period. I had quite a good collection of postcards of Harleston. I’d been collecting them for quite a while and Bill said we should photograph each postcard and then write a bit about the street where it is. So I was coming up to the library in Norwich and the Record Office quite a bit. We were piecing it all together. This was in the very early days when the material you can get online nowadays just wasn’t available. We managed to do that that and we published it with the aid of a grant.

We then went on to publish a book on one of the Harleston families who’d been the solicitors in the town. We revelled in their name; the firm was called Hazard, Pratt and Hazard. They were succeeded by an equally well named firm called Lyas, Burn and Lyas. I wouldn’t have trusted either bunch frankly.

Then I was shown, through the museum, a poem about quite an interesting incident in Harleston. It was called ‘The Harleston Riot’. It wasn’t really a riot. It was some dispute that had risen between one set of neighbours and another over a patch of land supposedly. I always thought there was more to it than came out in this piece of poetry so I transcribed the poem.

The event was 1857 and it ended up with the town almost being burnt down. There was such a riot and revel. On bonfire night in 1857 they decided they would finally go and sort this poor family and another family out and they broke into their house and stole all their furniture and put it on the bonfire. In the meantime, they’d put barrels of tar all the way down the main street and lit them and, at that time, there were still thatched properties. And then the local policeman came to try to sort things out. They battered him around the head and he eventually died of his injuries.

I found out this information by looking through the local newspapers and I found the court account. They went before the magistrate first of all and they said, ‘No, that’s got to go to court at the Shirehall in Norwich. We can’t deal with this’. And, do you know, the culprits got away with it? There was no severe punishment for attempted murder or arson or whatever. They got right away with it. It’s just amazing what was going on.

At the moment I’m working on, well, one book. I started working on a book about the domestic aspects of the First World War in Diss and the men who’d served. This was quite a long time ago and it came out of a project I did to try to get the war memorial at Diss updated because I knew there were names missing. I had a colleague at Diss museum who gave me a list and I went through it and said there were a lot of names missing. We set about having the war memorial updated – Bill and I and the colleague at Diss – and it was unveiled in 2014. And then Bill said, ‘You’ve done all this research. Publish it’. And it is at the stage where I’ve almost completed it, but because of domestic things it’s not finished yet. And I’m now going to start another one probably on the Norwich textile industry.


Helen Kennett (b. 1950) talking to WISEArchive on 7th December 2021 in Norwich.

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The electrical engineer. Missiles and communications. (1947-2021)

Bill talks about his working life, in particular about his work on the Bloodhound missile during the Cold War and his time with Ferranti in Manchester.

I was born in Balby Road, Doncaster in 1931. My father had served with the Barnsley Pals for the whole of the war from 1914 and was then a teacher at the primary school, which I attended. My mother was a housewife when I was born but along with my father and her father she had been running a small grocer’s shop in Doncaster called Rusby and Kennett. My mother was a Rusby.

I went to Doncaster Grammar School and managed to get a Higher School Certificate in physics, chemistry and maths. At that time when you were 18 you had to register for National Service but I got a position at Manchester University to study electrical engineering.This postponed National Service for me and after graduating I took a job which was regarded as work of national importance so I was never called up for service.  It was the time of the Cold War and the military were looking for trained engineers. I only realised all this once I was much older, I didn’t know what the Cold War was then.

After finishing my degree course I tried to get a job with the various companies that I’d worked for as a vacation apprentice.

During the course I had studied light and heavy electrical engineering which included mechanical engineering, so for my first years vacation apprenticeship, summer 1951,  I went to a power station at Ferrybridge, Yorkshire, not far from my home in Doncaster, to work through the various departments.

The next year, 1952, I went to work for British Thomson-Houston, Rugby, when I was 21 and was working as a vacation apprentice on the design and development of equipment for the conversion of DC power to AC power and vice versa, heavy current engineering, which I didn’t really find interesting. I was only there for about four weeks, during the vacation.

I graduated and went for interviews including to English Electric and GEC. None of them offered me a job except the last one which was Ferranti. Ferranti had always been connected with the military from the First World War. Their first factory in the north of England was for making high voltage power transformers at Hollinwood, Oldham. Funnily enough I ended up at that site when I finished work and retired in 1959.

I was interviewed for the job at the Moston, near Manchester, site which was the radio factory, which I didn’t know until later. I went for the interview and they asked me very little about what I’d done as a degree, they were mainly interested in why I particularly wanted to work for Ferranti’s. I said, ‘Well my girlfriend lives in Stockport’ and that was a good enough reason! Well later on I realised that my whole career had been part of the scheme of the Ministry of Defence to produce engineers to help the Cold War effort.

I had little holiday at the end of the degree and started working there in Moston in September 1953. I was an assistant to one of the engineers working on the receiver (and guidance part of a ground to air missile. The missile was called Red Duster, which was its codeword for what eventually turned out to be the Bristol Bloodhound. I knew what I was working on but didn’t realise exactly what the relation to Red Duster was. I knew that I was working on something special as I had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and as far as I know I’m still not allowed to tell you any of this, but things have moved on, I can tell you, things have changed a lot since then.

The government were investing a lot of money into this research and development, ours came under the RAF but there was competition, the army were developing a similar missile with English Electric, but of course I didn’t know this at the time.

I was working in quite a small team, three radio mechanics and I think about five engineers lead by a Mr Allen Sharples. We worked in a long hut, and our bit at the end was just a small lab really. The original missile, Mark1 had been completed and was already going into testing at Woomera in Australia. In fact I rather fancied joining the test team for the travel abroad experience.  The missile operation was quite simple really. The ground radar would illuminate the target and the receiver in the Red Duster on its launching site would pick up any reflections from a target and when it was fired off it would continue to receive the reflections which were pulses of a very high frequency signal and the Ferranti Guidance would direct it to its target. The receiver could only detect the direction, like an ordinary radar like they use on civil planes at the airport.

The MOD were thinking of developing a Mark 2. The high frequency radar pulses would be modulated with a “continuous wave” CW just like the signals that come into your telly or radio are. From the reflected signal they would demodulate the CWs and that would give them the idea of the speed, using the Doppler Effect for the difference in speed. So what we were working on was a receiver and guidance to use this principle.

The engineer who I was assisting was Gerry Hawkins, he was doing his PhD at Jodrell Bank, Sir Bernard Lovell’s radio telescope, at night. You could tell that he didn’t get much sleep because there was a big pile of flat radar dish boxes outside our lab and if the sun was shining he would take his shirt off and lie on them and of course I would join him, sunbathing and having a sleep. I was only there for about six months, as I say they were developing the Mark 2 and Ferranti’s were mainly involved in the receiver and guidance which of course are the most critical things. It’s alright having a rocket or whatever but it’s got to have some control. So effectively they took over the whole job and eventually the radio factory which by then made televisions as well. That became the production factory for the missiles and they would have rows and rows of these missiles, which I think came from Bristol Aircraft, and they would fit the receivers and guidance sections.

Telecommunications Research Establishment, Malvern

The government had the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at Malvern and they were wanting to back further development on the missile, which was going to be a Mark 3. The people working on the Mark 2 had to supply an engineer and an assistant to join the team setting up at TRE in Malvern. This development was really far too ambitious  though. The idea was to have both a transmitter and a receiver in the missile. The ground transmitter would take the missile to a distance from the target so that it would then be able to carry on with its own transmitter and its own receiver and home onto the target. The nearer that you got to the target the bigger and bigger the received signal would get and therefore more accurate. So I went down to Malvern with this guy Dave Robertson and was his assistant. I’d never met him before but we got on alright.

This was really where it all happened, those twenty-four months were like ten years in my development. I mean I was working in the place where radar and the developments from radar had been invented. TRE along with Bletchley Park, which of course we didn’t know about then, was on the same level, in forwarding the vital development of radar).

TRE used to be based near Swanage on the South Coast and funnily enough I found out about its moving when I was on a geology field trip years later. We went to a lecture at a school and I think that it was the headmaster who told us about why TRE eventually ended up at Malvern. Before the war he said one of the pupils was a German. This was the story, I later found out afterwards that it wasn’t true, but apparently a plane came over one day and dropped a bomb in the sea off Swanage. They reckon that the pilot of that plane was the ex-pupil at the school and he had disobeyed orders to bomb the school. I’ve been reading recently about the Intelligence service use of Enigma and Bletchley Park, they had to capture a German radar in Bruneval just off the coast of France, they did an SAS sort of thing, took all the relevant bits of the German radar so that they could, you know, find out exactly what frequencies they were using so that they could jam them.

R.V. Jones who wrote the book was the head of the RAF intelligence during the war and he worked with the TRE in order to tell them what they were up against and what they were getting from the Bletchley Park decoded messages. As a result of this he said that it would be a good idea to move away from the coast ‘cos the Germans will have the same idea as us!

I was working with some very bright people, they were out of this world, I was part of it but I was in the background to them. I got to fly in a Tiger Moth at Defford which was the RAF Aerodrome used for any flying work for TRE.

I was in the laboratory that had been set up for the purpose of developing a logarithmic amplifier and Dave Robertson was one of the people running this project, although he was from Ferranti he was on a par with the senior TRE engineers. My bit of the job was making a tape recorder to record the output which was audio frequency but higher than normal audio. It went up to 100 KCs (kilocycles) so I had to make this special recorder which was about a foot cube in size, perhaps a bit bigger, but to fit under the navigator’s table in a Canberra bomber. The logarithmic amplifier was connected to the planes radar system and would record the output.

I never fail to sort of think how bloody lucky I was to do all this. Yeah, so my boss Dave Robertson would go up in the Canberra and they had pen recorders as well to record, fortunately, because the tape spilled out and went under his feet. I would have loved to go up in the Canberra myself but I was too junior. Anyway they came to the conclusion that they had finished the receiver bit and that the idea of the missile carrying a transmitter as well as the receiver was not worth pursuing. They took the stage two and a half back to Ferranti’s who had been working on stage two and as you know I was working for Dave developing the receiver which would fit onto the existing Mark 2 Red Duster.

Returning to Manchester

Meanwhile while I’d been away they’d built a special research and development factory at Wythenshawe, near the airport. I’d got married in 1956 and HR in the factory had got us digs in Withington.  Ringway had been an RAF station and had become a civil airport, Manchester airport now. In those days it was just made up from the original buildings of the RAF station.

This was where we were developing the sort of two and three quarters stage version. Although without carrying its own transmitter it had a midcourse guidance still being developed. This was effectively a computer which had to take in the information that the receiver was giving it. Namely the direction that it was flying, the speed that it was flying, relative to the missile and then it calculated the angle that it should fly. If the target moved from where it was to a different angle it had to follow it and use the controls of the missile to keep directing it on course. Not directly to the target but to a point where it would meet it. It was a very complicated thing and they had a whole section working on this midcourse guidance.

I was still on the amplifier, the logarithmic amplifier amongst also trying to solve other technical problems as they arose. By logarithmic I mean, you know when you see graphs on telly about Covid or whatever they have the numbers of cases in the Y axis, well in our case it was the speed in terms of frequency with a 100 KCs maximum displayed. They don’t have it going from 0 to 100 linearly, they have a band 1 to 10 and 10 to 100, the scale is logarithmic and that’s why the amplifier had to be logarithmic, that was the main special thing about it. In other words the output of the amplifier would rise logarithmically with speed and would remain within its operational range while its input could swing over a scale of 0 to 100 KCs.

The people working on stage two had completed their work and they had trials off Aberporth in Cardigan Bay, they destroyed the target and there were big cheers all round. Shortly afterwards the Minister came round and said, ‘Well done chaps you’ve done a great job’ and closed the development of missiles at Ferranti. This was about 1962 and I moved within the factory to the new Semiconductor research and development department where I stayed for the next 27 years.  They were selling the missiles for a time to Sweden, Switzerland all over the place. They were used around RAF stations too of course, I can’t remember the exact name but I was told that one airfield had at least 20 all round the field defending it against bombers. We had bomber planes which were continually in the air with nuclear bombs on, ready to act against Russia if they acted first. That was the deterrent you see, we were protecting the airfields where the bombers were based.

The move to Norfolk

My daughter married a Norfolk man and I came down on holiday with my then partner. After some complications, it ended up me living with them and it was then that I met Helen.

We have been doing some editing and publishing some books about Harleston. I got a legacy from my brother which enabled us to buy this house and we then bought a big Apple desktop and the CS3 Adobe which means that we can do the publishing ourselves.

My son-in-law got a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for the Harleston Players to put on the play ‘Bacon and Bungay’ by Robert Greene. We published a book called, ‘Harleston Fair: The story of Robert Greene’, that was distributed to the audiences at performances round the area of Harleston.  Other books that we published included  ‘Harleston Riots’ and ‘The Hazards of Harleston’.

We are certainly keeping busy in our retirement, we never stop.


Bill Kennett (b.1931) talking to WISEArchive on 7th December 2021 in Norwich.

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Labour camp to municipal engineer Part Two (1946-2021)

In Part One, Frank told of his life before moving to London in 1946. In this second part of his story he talks about his later life in Britain and Canada.

Arriving in London with no English and no map

I travelled in to London by train. I was told to take the tube to St. John’s Wood which has a very long escalator, and there I was. They didn’t have the sense to write to me telling me which way I should go, or send me a map. I had a heavy case, including my mother’s typewriter. I started walking and, of course, you don’t find anybody when you look for one, and the street names are only at the end of the roads so it was difficult. However, I did find a few people, showed them the address, and they probably told me the way but, of course, I didn’t understand.

At first I went for English lessons at the Gregg School but it wasn’t a language school, it was really a secretarial school. Everybody spoke English and I remember I was asked to write the word ‘parliament’ on the blackboard and I left out the ‘i’ because you don’t pronounce the ‘i’ in parliament, but I didn’t know that. So that was no good at all!

One of the girls in the household worked as a theatre sister at the Chelsea Hospital, along with another Jewish nurse. Her mother was a language teacher and her brother went to Padua to take his degree. She was perfect in Italian, French and Spanish and she took me under her wing and taught me English as best she could. I did about 40 words a day. I had a dictionary but that’s no use, you’ve got to know how to pronounce things and how to write them. How you write them is not the way you pronounce them. She taught me colloquial English and highbrow English, I suppose you could say.

Catching up for lost time

They asked me ‘What do you want to do?’ I said ‘Well, I’ve wasted so many years, I know a little bit about tool-making, I would like to continue’, not knowing what I was letting myself in for. Behind my back they arranged for me to be taken on in a workshop in Kentish Town. The toolmaker who ran the show was an Austrian who had been in Britain since before the First World War. He was in his seventies when I knew him and he was a marvellous worker, it was a joy to watch him. At first I could speak German to him and, as his wife was Hungarian, he spoke that too. I did learn a lot. I could operate any machine. The workshop was in a mews where horses had been kept. He had a mews house, a stable and downstairs was heavy machinery which was fit for a museum. Upstairs were the lighter tools, drills and metal heating, and two large electric motors at either end, and leather belts would drive overhead shafts. If you wanted to use a drill you had to move the belt that would engage the shaft and you could start drilling. It was prehistoric.

I had to wait for six months before I got a permit, the Home Office wouldn’t budge. They kept me waiting for exactly six months in spite of pleading. I did learn English in those six months. I was about 18 when, in 1946, I started evening classes in mechanical engineering for a National Certificate. I couldn’t enter university because I was a foreigner and also I didn’t have enough O or A levels. I had A level German and O level English but it would have meant going to evening classes to take A levels which would have taken at least three years. It would probably have been better but it would have taken too long. You see, I had no life. I was either at work or evening classes, doing my homework or revising. You had to revise all the time, you had to keep up with the work.

My job in Kentish Town was not an apprenticeship. They had arranged for me to be an improver. An apprenticeship would have lasted five years with very little pay, just pocket money, and the employers couldn’t do that, they were too old for that, so they thought the improver was the next best thing, but an improver never qualified. In those days the trade unions ruled the roost and I would never have got a job in a closed shop, limiting my prospects, so I decided I had to get out, but it took me two years.

New name, new job and a look round the kitchen at Buckingham Palace

One Sunday I went along Victoria Street where all the structural engineering consultants were in those days. I noted their names from the plaques outside and wrote to all 72 of them using my typewriter but I only got two replies saying they would put me on their list. What was against me was the name Brichta, it was foreign. The fact that I had an Ordinary National Certificate, with distinction in one subject, didn’t matter. They just didn’t want to know. So then, in 1952, I decided to change my name and it coincided, more or less, with my application for naturalisation, not nationalisation as some people thought! It was soon after the Queen’s accession because her father’s name was still on the form!

However, I still couldn’t get a job. There were three of us boys at the Regent Street Polytechnic who worked together to carry out experiments. They weren’t really experiments, we had to ‘cook’ them to get the right results. One of the boys was Ron Warren who lived in digs in London but his family lived in Cambridge. He told them I was looking for a job in a drawing office. His father worked for the Ministry of Pensions and travelled the country to go through the books. He was in Glasgow and reading the Glasgow Herald he noticed the Ministry of Works was advertising for junior engineers. He sent the advertisement to me, I applied and after six weeks they called me for interview. The interviewer, the deputy chief engineer, was the only one in the department who had a degree. He was so impressed with me he offered me a grade higher than they had advertised. He asked me a trick question but I was prepared so I could answer it fluently. I started working for the Ministry of Works at Millbank in London in May 1953. I have one photo of me right on top of the Victoria Tower which is pretty unique. They took me round to show me what they did and I even went to the kitchen at Buckingham Palace which was quite interesting. One of the water tanks on the roof had burst as the riveting was pretty ancient. The Queen wasn’t there.

I worked for the Ministry of Works for three years. They weren’t training me though. It was interesting to go to the War Ministry, Victoria Tower and the Tower of London, and all over the place, but it didn’t teach me anything because it was maintenance, strengthening a floor, removing a wall, something like that. Not what you should be doing at the beginning of your career so I said ‘Could I please go somewhere else?’ Well, you should never do that in the Civil Service, you should just keep your mouth shut and serve.

At the top of Victoria Tower, Houses of Parliament 1950

Marriage and moving to Canada

I went to Christiani and Nielsen, Danish consultants who had a job in Australia building an offloading bay way out in the ocean where it was very shallow, enabling large ships to discharge oil. Supports for large pipes at intervals were needed. It had all been designed and now they wanted a detailer. When I walked in they thought I had replied to the advert but I hadn’t and after six weeks I left. Somebody, a Cypriot actually, suggested that I go to Norman and Dawbarn, architects and consulting engineers for their own work, in Malet Street, near the university, known as the Tombstone. The rooms were far too small and drawings had to be sent out to be printed. One of the chiefs always used to say ‘One day my prints will come!’ The prints were lifted on a rope to the upper floor. I did some war damage work there, for the Borough Polytechnic. It was a bit difficult but I stayed there and I married the book-keeper in 1954.

We got married in church in her home village. It’s the church of St. Ethelburga who was a queen who established a nunnery there. Some parts of the building are still there. They’re very low doors because people were smaller then. The vicar had been in the Middle East during the First World War and he had shell cases all over the place in his office. After we married we couldn’t find anywhere to live. We did find an upstairs flat and it was absolutely awful, just a large living-room you couldn’t heat and a very small kitchen which we had to clean. You couldn’t make the beds properly in the bedroom. Accommodation was still difficult post-war, absolutely terrible. At least a third of all buildings had been damaged during the war, Britain had been bombed all over the place.

We thought that Australia was too far and you’re five weeks on a boat and we saw Ontario was nearer so we went to the Ontario Department of Works in London and asked if they could accommodate us and what the conditions were. The aim of the clerks was to get as many immigrants as possible there because Canada was empty.

When we arrived we stayed with a fellow I knew from Norman and Dawbarn who had worked for the contractors Sir Robert McAlpine and Sons. They had established themselves in Toronto simply because they wanted dollars. They shipped all the equipment and machinery out from England because they had an office there and were independent of restrictions.

He arranged a job there for me. I had done the technical part at evening classes but I had to have site experience for the Institution of Civil Engineers. I had done three months in England in Erith for British Insulated Callender’s Cables who erected a very large workshop to produce underwater cables to connect Britain with America. Normally the Canadian engineering authorities insist on you having a degree which I hadn’t got but, because I was a graduate of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the oldest existing engineering institution, they accepted it as equivalent to a degree and made me a member. Without it I could only have been a draughtsman. I had nine months with McAlpine’s and then moved on to work for Lever Brothers.

They were on the Lakeside in Toronto. They wanted me to design a building that would be fully automated for packing soap. The soap pieces would arrive and be put into boxes which would then be shut, all on a conveyor belt with no human being in sight. They were mechanical and electrical engineers and unsure themselves about the building. They offered me a six-month contract as their structural engineer. I had two draughtsmen who were supposed to work out the details of my design. After a time I said ‘Can I have a drawing board, I’m so used to doing this sort of work myself?’ ‘No, we’re not paying you to work on a drawing-board, that’s why you’ve got the draughtsmen’. I left at the end of the six months and they looked after the erection of the structure.

Eventually I got a job detailing reinforcement. The system is completely different in Canada. Contractors would get a job with the reinforcement indicated and they would hand it over to a detailer to finish it, to make bar schedules. That’s what I did. It was so hot and humid I had an air-conditioner about six inches from me and you couldn’t touch the car because it was so hot. You had to have gloves on. It was the same in winter, the moisture on your fingers would make you stick to it. At first we lived in a sort of underground flat. Because of the frost penetration they dig out the lot rather than just footings and convert it into a flat with narrow windows on top.

We enjoyed some aspects of life in Canada. We bought a bungalow – most places were bungalows, but you had to have a permanent job at the age of 40 and Canada was exposed to the United States in trade. That is why, when I worked for a firm of architects most of their work was warehouses. The Americans could fill a warehouse with one day’s output and the Canadians would distribute. They didn’t create any work really. The Canadians were very dependent on the Americans in other ways as well. We arrived as the Korean War came to an end and the Americans stopped buying raw materials which caused a downturn in the Canadian economy. So it wasn’t a very good time to arrive.

After a six-month contract at Lever Bros. to design a fully automated soap packing building, really just a shell with a roof, I did some reinforcing bar schedules for a sub-contractor to a main contractor. I then had a phone call from a Mr. G. Wilson, OBE(Mil), partner of Wilson & Newton, Architects, of Toronto, asking me whether I would like to become their Structural Engineer. Just like that. Sight unseen, no interview, nothing. He had heard about me on the grapevine via a steel frame manufacturer. I stayed with them for three years working on factories with attached offices, schools, public open swimming pools, warehouses, anything that came along. After three years Canada experienced another economic downturn. Our firm’s books of works in the pipeline were becoming empty. Prospects were becoming insecure. It was time to leave. We did. Wilson & Newton did something unusual. They agreed with a firm of Consulting Engineers for them to become the beneficiaries of any structural work which would come the architects’ way if the consultant would take me on. I gratefully declined this very generous proposal. We burnt our bridges and returned on the last day of December 1960. March 1961 would see us in the New Town of Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. We flew back to London in 1960 on the last day of December, on a British Airways plane. It was a turbo-prop, and I tried to work out when New Year’s Day was because, obviously, the time changes as you fly. It was a lovely day. We went to Victoria by train and flowers were out, it was fantastic. We stayed with my in-laws and, of course, I had to look for a job. Pfizer was advertising for specialists in chemical structures but I didn’t have the experience, though I could have done it, there’s nothing to it!

Roads and pipes in Hemel Hempstead but no sea at Weston-Super-Mare

In the end I found a job in Hemel Hempstead. I went to see my old pals at the Ministry of Works. Then you could just walk in, and a fellow said ‘I’ve got a brother who works in Hemel Hempstead, a new town, and if you get a job there they will provide you with rented accommodation. I said ‘Well, that sounds good’, so I wrote to the manager of the Hemel Hempstead Development Corporation saying ‘Here I am. I’ve just come back from Canada. Have you any use for me?’ He sent me a paid reply telegram, I’ve still got it, saying ‘Come for interview’. He was interested in keeping his staff rates high because he was paid according to the number he employed. So, in a way, I was a godsend. I gave up structural engineering completely at that time and did roads, sewers and pipes because that’s what a new town needs. When I arrived the work was almost completed and people were leaving and the Corporation was restoring the old town so there was no future for me.

I spent about a year and a half in Hemel Hempstead and then we moved to Weston-Super-Mare. Sounds alright. My wife likes the sea, swimming. Must be alright. It wasn’t because the tide comes in only so far and goes out again immediately. So you had a huge expanse of sand, you had donkeys there for the children but very little swimming. My wife would take my first daughter, who was born in Canada, to the seaside but there was no sea! I worked for local government which was awful, it was nothing. All they did was convert private streets which were not being maintained by the local government. The local government was keen to change the status of private streets to make people pay their rates and have proper roads built. It was interesting inasmuch as it had been built very poorly. The gas pipes were just under the surface of the road so when they ripped up the road they ripped up the pipes so nobody had any gas. We stayed for a year and a half and then we went to Scarborough.

Very cold sea in Scarborough

Scarborough is by the sea and very cold. So cold, in fact, that my wife never went in and somebody had drowned there when she got her feet entrapped in seaweed. But it had little rock pools and the little one could watch the creatures in the pools. We had a new office right on top of a steep outcrop and you could look down on the seashore. You knew it was raining when the people, like ants, would all merge to get under cover. One of my jobs was to convert an old exhibition hall into an underground car park. It had been left as it was in Victorian times. There was still one display called ‘What the Butler Saw’ as well as fish tanks along the wall with the glass still there which had to be ripped out. The chief engineer wanted something on the east side of the town so I designed a circular ramp and various other things. He also wanted a sea wall but that was no good because the sea has a tremendous power. The workmen put up the formwork and, after they had put the reinforcement in I said ‘Don’t you paint the formwork to stop the concrete adhering otherwise you can’t get the timbers off?’ ‘Ah, we’ve never done that’. They tried to do it but it was no good. The chief engineer had wanted to increase the area of use for tourists but despite all the concrete, despite everything, the waves just pushed the sea walls aside.

We were in Scarborough for about two years or so and then we moved to a new town near Birmingham because the Scarborough people wanted their house back. I had been offered a house there but they ran out of houses for their staff and what they offered me was not good at all. The houses had very narrow gardens with six foot fences. You felt hemmed in and it wasn’t by the sea, the wife didn’t want it and I didn’t want it.

Designing a very large roundabout in East Kilbride

It so happened that all the chief engineers of new towns had their annual meetings in the locality. The local engineer asked the engineer from East Kilbride if he had any use for me and he said ‘Yes’. So we went to East Kilbride near Glasgow in Lanarkshire. We arrived with our gas oven but there was no gas. In order to have electricity cables they made an arrangement with the electricity suppliers that they would stop having gas so we had to rush out and buy an electric cooker. We spent two years in East Kilbride. It was interesting inasmuch as the people were very keen on golf and there was a public golf course. You passed through gardens with water gushing down and freezing into long icicles in winter but very little snow.

I had to design a roundabout for the town but they didn’t know what it would be serving. They didn’t have a traffic department and they didn’t go to the University of Glasgow for advice. They said ‘Well, have a spur. There might be a bridge there’. Instructions were very vague. I didn’t know how many cars or heavy vehicles would use it so it was a bit difficult. I made it very large. It had three underground passages for pedestrians which, I think, were too narrow. People don’t like going through narrow underground passages. I did the best I could. It was a huge drawing, three or four drawing-boards wide and I had to kneel on it to draw. I saw the beginning of the construction but then we left because house prices in England rose. I said ‘I’ll never catch up if I stay here. I’ve got to buy a house’.

Buying our first house, in Preston

We went to the North-West Road Construction Unit in Preston, Lancashire and we bought a small house in St. Anne’s which is known as ‘a cemetery with bus stops’ because people from Manchester retired there. Our children went to school there and our youngest daughter, now 59, happened to go to the only primary school that offered the 11-plus and she was the only one to pass. Our eldest went to a private school where the county bought places because they didn’t have their own grammar school. She had been to the equivalent of a grammar school in East Kilbride but the teaching approach and syllabus are different in Scotland so she had to repeat a year. This school was terribly old-fashioned. The microscopes were so old it wasn’t real, and the language lab didn’t work. They used telephones but it didn’t really work. It was awful! Nevertheless, they had an arrangement with Oxford University to send four pupils each year, irrespective of whether they were any good or not. Had she stayed she could have gone to Oxford but she didn’t. She wanted to study politics, philosophy and economics, PPE. She went to a university which had been an agricultural college  (Keele) and they didn’t know the first thing about PPE. They gave her the syllabus for all three subjects, each of which would have taken three years to do. After a year they said ‘It’s no good, go away for a year and then come back’ – she had started a year early, so she went to Switzerland to improve her German. She got a job there and we had said, ‘Don’t take your Star of David because many Germans have crossed the border to escape the de-Nazification’. My wife had found the job through The Lady and, as it happened, it was with a rabbi from Newcastle.

Keeping busy in retirement in Martlesham

Having worked in many places around the country I retired here to Martlesham. Initially we couldn’t find a property as British Telecom had taken all the available houses. However, we found this one because the owners had already found a house elsewhere and were keen to move. In my retirement I developed a connection with every school in Suffolk, giving talks and I also gave talks at the college here, before it became a university, and subsequently I was given an honorary doctorate for my work.

I keep in touch with Northgate School. I used to talk to the sixth-formers and I remember telling them about David and Goliath. They didn’t know that David was a shepherd-boy who became king and established Jerusalem, and they only knew that Goliath was an enormous crane! They know my story but not the history of Israel or anything connected with it, so I’m trying to change that. Only the other day they asked for my help, teaching foreign children to learn English because I’m supposed to be an expert! Nowadays I do it over the internet, but I used to go there. I do enjoy talking to the children but it’s not easy because they can’t understand each other. They come from Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Romania, India and they have to learn English to enable them to take exams and take part in school life. I give them advice, emphasising that you can’t rely on the way things are spelt or sound. You’ve got to learn at least 20 words a day as well as basic grammar.

Having lived in so many places I think Canada was my favourite. The people I worked with at the firm of architects were very nice, very interesting. I could talk for hours about them. The unusual thing was that normally architects don’t talk to engineers because they’re beneath them. It’s quite true. Architects must be able to think and draw three-dimensionally. I can’t. I got on very well with my chief and when he died he left me a thousand Canadian dollars, less than American dollars, but nevertheless, the thought was fantastic.

Frank Bright 2021

Frank Bright MBE (b. 1928) talking to WISEArchive on 25th and 27th May 2021 at Martlesham, Suffolk

Frank was awarded an MBE for services to Holocaust education in the New Year Honours list 2022. He tells of his early life in Labour camp to municipal engineer. Part one (1928-1945) Part One

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Labour camp to municipal engineer Part One (1928-1946)

Frank’s moving account follows him from childhood in Germany and Czechoslovakia up to the time he spent in labour camps at the end of World War Two. He talks about his later life in Britain and Canada in the second part of this story.

Life through two wars in Germany and Czechoslovakia

I was born in Berlin, the capital of Germany, in October 1928, which makes me now in my 93rd year. During my early life, from birth to the age of about five I lived with my parents. We lived in a villa which my mother’s twin, Uncle Fritz, had designed and built to accommodate his family and any children of his marriage, his sister’s family and any children of her marriage, and their mother Emma.

The villa had a very large garden and I had a sand pit with an all-round seat at the end, and I remember playing with a girl whose father had emigrated with a Leica camera. I remember it, and I had a picture of her. My cousin Ernest was born nearly the same time as I was and we went to the same school. He wasn’t a good mixer and he only felt safe at home with his mother. He came to England in what was known as a Kindertransport, suddenly torn away and put on a transport, but he didn’t realise that was the best they could do for him.

My father was in the Austrian army and having come through the war having been captured at one end of Russia, and travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway right across Russia where he finished up in Vladivostok in 1920.The Czech Republic was established in 1918 but he had to wait another two years before he got home on an American troop ship.


Postcard from Frank’s father in Siberia to his mother in Vienna

Grandmother Emma died at the beginning of January 1933, so she did not live to see the rise of the Nazi regime.

My mother took me along everywhere she went, to the hairdresser, where I felt bored – ladies hair crimped into waves with curling irons, then fashion – or to visit her aunt Helen, a widow who wore a choker and who died in 1942 in Theresienstadt. Anna, another relative, was a shop assistant in a chain of shops selling decorator’s goods such as buckets, brushes, whitewash, colouring powder, soft soap, flycatchers and mops. Just one room, very poor.

Frank’s mother (second from left, first row) working in a German insurance office

My father worked at a small private Jewish bank which was located on Unter den Linden, the main thoroughfare in Berlin.  He started there round about 1921 and he actually ran the show. He was their representative on the Berlin stock exchange; he did their annual accounts, checked clients, and one of his jobs was as an arbitrageur – that’s to say that he took advantage of small differences in currency…. You didn’t have any instant communications as you have now, you had to use telegrams, but when you knew that in one country the dollar or peso or whatever was different from somewhere else, if you bought large quantities you could make a profit. You counted the profit per mil not percent, per thousand, you know it was a very small amount.

Frank in his father’s arms, 1928, Berlin.

He had a business friend, a German, who worked in the same building, he was a stockbroker. I remember him coming to visit us and I remember him throwing me to the ceiling and catching me, the ceiling was very high, and he gave me, God knows why, a pocket watch, very thick, and it showed everything from the moon to the constellations, not only the hour and minutes.

School in Berlin

I was six and a half years old when I started school. I had been to kindergarten, but I didn’t like it. The kindergarten was run by white Russians and my father rather liked the idea because he could practise his Russian, which he learned whilst in Russia, but I just hated it. I was happy at home.

There was just Ernest and of course once I started school there were my schoolmates but again, you couldn’t make friends really because they would disappear, their parents would get a visa somehow and they would just go. They would come to England or France, Holland or South America, but the children themselves would just disappear from school.

First day at school, 1935

It was quite a big school, it had been an old people’s home, in the middle of town, so there was nowhere really to play. I mean we couldn’t play football or anything like that, there wasn’t room, all we could do was walk around slowly in an anticlockwise direction and we had to talk only to our neighbour so as not to annoy the Germans, who would complain and maybe the school would be closed. As it had been an old people’s home, the staircase was marble, and there was an aula, like a theatre (aula is the Greek word for it). It had sloping seats and a stage. It had an organ! I remember as a student having to heave up the bellows which were huge, made of leather, and then let go. My second year teacher did everything, taught us German literature, German writing, both types of Latin and Hebrew. I can still read it, I know the letters. I still remember the poems that he drummed into us, strange because I forgot much of my mother tongue but I remember the poems. It is quite amazing how you remember things from very early on.

He also played the organ and took us for PT. Now we did have a wonderful large PT hall, all new, it was marvellous. I used to love climbing ropes, I don’t know why but I did. School was staffed by excellent teachers and the reason for this was that teachers had lost their jobs in German schools from January 1933 onwards. So whoever chose them had a choice. My first teacher was a lady, but all I did was needlework, I was quite good at it and it helped me later darning my socks. But other boys were much better, they would make figures and animals out of plasticine.

I didn’t eat at school, but I know that I had a bottle of milk in the morning during our free time, but I must have gone home in the afternoon. I went there by double-decker bus and I remember on the way seeing a tall building on fire. Very exciting.

Wearing toy uniforms – Berlin policeman and train ticket collector

Moving to Prague and those left behind

My mother and I went to Prague first, that would be around June 1938 when I was 9 or 10. Both my parents had Czechoslovak nationality.

My mother had arranged some quite cheap hostel accommodation run by nuns. I didn’t go to school. I didn’t go to a German school because that was full of Nazis. I couldn’t go to a Czech school because I didn’t speak the language. What is interesting, going back to Berlin, my parents thought that I ought to have a smattering of Czech at least. My father found an elderly Czech gentleman, there were quite a few living in Berlin, but his book was terribly old fashioned. It was a book all about horses and hens and geese and that, absolutely useless for ordinary conversation. But what he did say, and it didn’t click with us, was that he had another client to whom he taught Czech and it was the Berlin police. Now why on earth should Berlin police want to know or to learn Czech? It is a difficult, Slavic language, it has seven cases and rules and exceptions. The simple answer is they knew full well they were going to invade Czechoslovakia and therefore they needed police to interview people whose affairs didn’t fit and therefore they needed a smattering of Czech.

My parents thought that a move to Prague was going to be better because Berlin was pretty unbearable. Again though we were an exception, we were Czechoslovak citizens because of my father who was born in Moravia. He went into the Austrian army but then the Czechoslovak republic was declared and he chose Czechoslovak citizenship. We wore a little Czech flag on our lapel, like a talisman to protect us. My mother’s family were Berlin Jews and they suffered terribly, so there was no point in staying. Why we went to Prague I don’t know, because it was far too near. If you look at the map it’s quite obvious that it was going to be his [Hitler’s] next aim and ambition.

We lived in the hostel and although I didn’t go to school, the luck of it, it was near Wenceslas Square and there was a library which had pre-Nazi German books. So I read a book a day more or less and my mother did the same, it’s the only thing she could do. You see, German was the only language we spoke and it wasn’t the flavour of the day because of the Munich Crisis; the Czechs felt that they were sold down the river and nobody was going to help them, and nobody did. They had their own German speaking problems in Sudeten who were all for Mr Hitler, so we found life rather difficult.

I can’t remember who else lived with us at the hostel, my daily life was limited to the library but I didn’t mind as long as I had a book.

My father followed about six months later. He had supervised the liquidation or ‘Aryanisation’ of the bank which some German took over. He had his teeth seen to too, lack of vitamin C in Russia.

When he arrived he joined a short lived mobilisation to the despair of my mother, who thought, you know, it might be war, he might be in the army. That didn’t last long though and on being free he rented a small one bedroomed flat in a newly finished block of flats on the outskirts of Prague. If you were on the first floor balcony and looked down, there was a farm. My parents brought a few pieces of furniture, there wasn’t room for much, we settled down as much as we could in the circumstances. He found a Czech boy who didn’t speak German to teach me Czech, and after a few months I was fluent and mistaken for a native. If you are young, you know, your voice can imitate anything.

My father wasn’t going to sit at home. He went to the Jewish authority, which was quite small, all they had was an orphanage, a cemetery and that was about it, and suddenly they had tens of thousands of refugees from Germany, Austria and later Sudetenland and so they were absolutely overwhelmed with German-speaking refugees. He said, ‘Look I speak both languages fluently, can I be of assistance?’ and they said, ‘You are just the man we are looking for’ and he got in at the bottom rung of the ladder and then they realised that he had organisational ability and they made him head of department and that saved us.

The rest of my family from Berlin didn’t come with us. My Uncle Fritz and his wife remained there and they obviously lost….

Uncle Fritz had been in the German navy, he and my mother were twins and they were quite small, maybe the doctors didn’t know how to feed mothers who had twins. But he was a PT instructor; now for a Jewish boy to be a PT instructor is quite something. He also played very good chess and learned Latin and Greek at school and was pretty fluent.

He worked for Dresdner Bank and lost his job in late 1937, I remember they gave him a mantelpiece clock, they gave him a small pension and then they stopped that. He had to do forced labour, which must have been pretty strenuous, because you used up shoe leather, but you didn’t get shoes, you didn’t get a clothing ration, Jews didn’t get that. So it was very difficult. He also had to walk for at least an hour if not longer because he wasn’t allowed to use public transport. His wife, Hildegard, the same; she worked for AEG the electrical firm and she had terrible hands. They weren’t sent together to Auschwitz… She was apprehended by the Gestapo. I found people who have researched the family and know more about my family than I do. They found that she entered Auschwitz but a week later she was gassed. Uncle Fritz travelled on a different transport and was gassed on arrival.

There were one or two distant relatives too, but they soon disappeared. There was a girl, who came to see us once, and she brought with her a quarter of a loaf. Now these loaves were baked in a communal oven in the village, it must have been a huge oven and everybody would bake their bread. It was a huge loaf, even a quarter was enormous and it was a good present as at that time we just didn’t have enough food.

Before the Germans arrived life wasn’t too difficult, there was no real shortage of food. You still had the systems that had existed since 1918, and had always existed for hundreds of years under the Austrian rule, the Imperial Austrian-Hungarian rule. The idea of a republic was good. You had Slovakia attached to Bohemia which was agricultural. You had the Czech part which was industrial, so they complemented each other. The idea was very good except of course the Germans took over the industrial part and that helped them a lot, they made steel and had coal pits, and everything.

Invasion of Prague 15th March 1939

I remember where I stood. I came back from school, and I stood at a point where I had to cross the road because the troops were going past, they had large containers and knew exactly where they were going. They were emptying all the large warehouses of all food. They were on motorcycles, BMWs, with a sidecar and the sidecar had a little machine gun. They knew exactly where they were going and what they were up to; before that, apart from the political situation, it was normal. From that day it wasn’t.

It was very sudden, once they marched in, the people of Prague, they realised immediately that all the negotiations, all the diplomatic hoo-ha, had been a waste of time. The Germans had made up their minds. They had already seized Sudetenland, with the approval of the Sudeten Germans, who were really Austrian and they surrounded Bohemia. I have a map showing that it was like a crocodile’s open mouth and all it had to do is snap shut and that was it.

That is why I can’t understand why we went to Prague. It could be because my father’s brother lived there, you know, brothers close to each other, maybe he thought that was a good idea. Although he, as a foreigner, could have taken money out, he could have come to England. But he didn’t, that’s the end of the story.

Daily life changed. Gradually they thought of restrictions and gradually they thought of forcing us to hand in things they needed, from musical instruments to radios to woollies. The army in Russia didn’t have woollen underwear so the Jewish ones would do. I had a violin and I had to hand that in, my mother had a sewing machine, she had to hand that in, we had a camera, we had binoculars…. anything the army could use.

You had to take your things to a central depot and then they would distribute it into various stores. Later when they had deported people they would go into their houses and flats empty it completely and again distribute the goods they found into various stores. There would be wardrobes in one, pianos, upright and grand, in another, there would be refrigerators, although there were very few of those, there was clothing, furniture, porcelain, works of art, each had a separate store. It was well organised I must say.

Assembly of stolen Jewish antique furniture in Prague

Everybody did as they were told, you couldn’t do much else. In fact, you had to do a very detailed form detailing every possible item you could think of. I have a copy. You had to give the value at 1939 times. They wanted to know not what I could get immediately but what I would get in the future. They also ruled that you were not allowed to give any other people any of your possessions. Now that made it difficult, you see children grow, maybe we grew more slowly of course because of the lack of vitamins, minerals and food in general. But we did grow and we did grow out of our clothing, and people had clothing from their older children but they were afraid to hand it over, in case they looked up on the list and found ‘This is missing, where is it?’ But people were sent to their deaths anyway, but you didn’t know that.

We were limited as to the time we could shop, which was the afternoon. Now don’t forget there was no refrigeration, so you had to get vegetables and fruit in season only, so that by the afternoon there was nothing left, and that was the object of the exercise.

On the corner where we lived was a corner shop and he would keep things and I would collect them, but you had to pay for that and it was dangerous. I even went to a pub on the other corner and got Father some beer, I didn’t go into the pub, I went into the kitchen, in the main pub there were German soldiers. I didn’t look Jewish at the time and got away with it.

School closing

The school closed around May – June 1942 and we each had to find a job, I did gardening. My father didn’t want me to help the German war effort and he got me a job at a Jewish cemetery, a huge cemetery called Olšany. It was quite a walk up hill, before it levelled out. I was there from autumn ’42 to around June ’43. As the school was closed my father arranged for private tuition with another girl but the Germans got wise to that and they prohibited that too. They also said that Jews could not go to a barber and barbers must not go to Jewish households, because they realised what was happening, so you were a bit hemmed in.

Jewish school class in Prague. Those marked in red perished in the Holocaust –
those who survived till liberation have a blue marker

So I got this job in the cemetery. I was the only assistant that the chief gardener had and I learned quite a lot from him. I learned how to prune trees, how to collect leaves and make a huge leaf mound which got so hot that in the end all we had was grey ash –it had burned inside and created its own heat. I grew tomatoes from seed, because the winters were so cold the trays were left in the workman’s room because it was heated. I would take the seedlings and put them into small pots, then larger and larger pots. The area at the end of the cemetery was quite bare, other classmates joined me and we dug it over and planted all sorts of things: tomatoes, leeks, onions, spring onions.

12th July 1943 Theresienstadt

I did that until we left our flat on the 12th July 1943 and went to the assembly point.

Because my father had risen to the top within the Jewish organisation we were the last ones to leave Prague: if he had not done that we would have been deported earlier, but we went with the last lot of about 680 people, the clerks and their families.

All we could take was one bag of clothing, but we were also told that we ought to take eiderdowns because there was no heating in the ghetto and there wasn’t. So that took a lot of room, but we took very bare essentials.

As it happened we travelled in an ordinary train, a third class train, not with a gangway in the middle like you have now. Each compartment was separate and you had two doors. I could be locked. It had wooden slatted seats; it wasn’t uncomfortable. When we arrived at the assembly point on the 12th we made ourselves as comfortable as possible on our one piece of luggage and a rumour navigated that the island of Sicily had been invaded and that was true. It had been invaded on the 10th and it had taken just two days for the rumour to reach us. Now, we lived on rumours, we didn’t have newspapers, we didn’t have radios, we just lived on rumours and some could be false. I mean you could think of a rumour, spread it, wait for it to come back and it might be distorted. Anyway it actually happened, we said, ‘Oh the war will be over soon’ but it wasn’t, it lasted for a long time.

Plan of transports from places in Western Europe to the ghetto and then to the East and oblivion

The Nazis had their own government department in the middle of town, but the organisation of transport, food distribution and healthcare was left to the Jewish authorities, the Elders, This was a terrible job because they had to find who to send to the east and we didn’t know what the east meant. The first half of a large number of transports were sent east, they were sent to extermination camps, and the survival rate was less than 1%.

When we arrived we found that it was overcrowded. It was at a point where more people had arrived than had left. They’d come from everywhere, Germany, Austria, Holland, a few from Denmark and a few from all over the place but not enough to mention separately. Lots of different languages and each lived their separate lives. The Danes kept very much to themselves, the Germans couldn’t talk to the Czechs, only the older ones could speak German, the younger ones couldn’t. The Czechs lived, again for language reasons, on their own, and they were the first ones to be sent, so they were, as it were, the ruling crowd, they were in the best jobs. Because they were there right from the beginning they established the ghetto, they made bunk beds, tables and chairs as best they could, and open kitchens.

The Germans came later, the Sudeten Germans, Jewish from Sudetenland came even later. So, you had people separated and segregated which made life for allocation of accommodation very difficult, you couldn’t mix them up.

It was so overcrowded that they allocated my father and myself a place in the loft of one of the large army barracks. I mean these army barracks had been built in 1780, they were pretty ancient and they had huge floor beams from which the ceiling was suspended. There were no services in the loft, if you wanted to go to the loo you had to climb over them and go downstairs and use whatever was available, and that wasn’t sufficient. So I shared with my father. It was terribly hot. July can be very hot and the tiles would radiate heat that would radiate into the loft. At least we had room, something we came to appreciate later when there wasn’t any room.

My father remained in the loft; I was asked to go to the floor below into a room with boys of my age. It was there that a boy called Charles Popper who was utterly brilliant,  taught me the elements of trigonometry, something the school should have done but didn’t. They had a reason for it, the Germans didn’t want educated children, I mean they were going to kill them anyway, so there was no point. Then I was moved into a house.

Now the ghetto had houses too, not just army barracks, the houses had been built to support the army, the Austrian army. There would be a smithy for horse shoes, there would be tailors, gunsmiths, cooks, bakers, things like that and they would live in small houses in between the barracks. There was also a courtyard. We were rather cramped, there were something like six of us in a small room on three tier bunks, and one of the fellows was named Paul Kling. Paul Kling was a Wunderkind on the violin, he performed at the age of seven with the Vienna Philharmonic, a violin piece by Mozart, it was just fantastic. He lived for his music, that’s important to realise what single mindedness is.

The Germans, because they wanted to make it a show ghetto would take a few violins and cellos out of their stores of looted ones, they distributed them and would say, ‘Anybody who can play, take it’, and Paul got a violin and a bow. He used to tell me that a bow is as important as a violin. He would practise and you couldn’t stand next to him because there wasn’t room, you know it was that cramped. And he would play a piece by Paganini just as exercises – it would lift your spirits! He was sent to Auschwitz with his brother and he survived. He went to Vienna and then Tokyo, he was the leader of the Tokyo Philharmonic. He went to Louisville Kentucky, again being leader and he finished in British Columbia as a professor of music. And I met him, he was giving a master class and interrupted his journey to meet me. We lived in London at the time, but we met at Paddington Station and that’s not a good place to meet, it’s too noisy and you know, anyway…. There was a huge number of very talented people and very nearly all of them died.

Paul Kling 1998

The medical front was as good as it could be, which was very limited. For instance, I suffered from hay-fever, there is a hollow over your eyes and that got inflamed, so I was sitting in front of the doctor, no anaesthetic and he pushed a thick needle up my nose and I could feel the crackling of the bones and he would say, ‘Don’t move there’s an eye nerve there and if I hit that you could go blind!’ ‘Thank you’ I said. I could feel the crackling as he pushed the water through and it came through the mouth and caught in a kidney bowl. And although my eye nearly came off it did the job.

On another occasion I said that I found blood in my urine and they whisked me off to the children’s hospital. Now in that children’s hospital you were given white bread. My parents didn’t have enough to eat so I passed it on to them. I was there for something like six weeks, that served two purposes. Firstly they wanted to make sure that I was alright again and that it wouldn’t recur. Secondly they had beds to fill to justify their existence so I was there for quite a long time. After that I had been moved to another room with an awful lot of other people.

Here I must explain. There were a lot of Czech children who had a Czech Christian mother and a Jewish father, there was a lot of inter-marriage because Jews stopped being religious, they didn’t care, you know they talked to Czech girls. But, that protected them, those children were not sent on a transport. Being sent on a transport was our main worry, they didn’t experience that, not until the very last end, so their outlook on life was quite different it wasn’t like our life was.

I was in Theresienstadt for 15 months.

The ghetto was cleared between 28th of September and 28th of October 1944. There was something like 10 transports leaving every other day, with a thousand, fifteen hundred, two thousand people on each. That meant that the ghetto was emptying, although not completely, seventeen thousand stayed behind. They could have been those children, but it did mean that in the last week when everybody had more or less gone, I got a job in a bakery. That was marvellous. They gave me, I think, half a loaf per shift and I shared it with my mother. I wish that it had happened sooner but you couldn’t get a job.

The Red Cross washed their hands of us altogether. We had one visit from a Red Cross delegate who followed the SS rules on the prescribed route, and didn’t talk to any of us. We had great hopes that would at least stop the dreaded transports, increase food. No, no such thing. As soon as he left transport restarted.

October 1944 Auschwitz

I was moved to a transit camp in Auschwitz. however we didn’t enter Auschwitz proper. It was the same as Auschwitz, it had its gas chamber and its crematoria, everything. What happened was, a manager of a German firm who got a contract to make propellers for the German air force and who had already received 300 prisoners from there wanted 165 more. So our fate had been decided before we even left the ghetto and therefore we were apart from those who went straight into the gas chamber which was the vast majority of fifteen hundred men, women, boys, girls and children; only 78 survived – 39 or so men, 39 women you know, it’s just a guess but that’s about it and I am one of the 39.

My father was sent a fortnight earlier than my mother and me, and he just disappeared. We couldn’t say goodbye, he just disappeared. I know which transport he was on, I traced it later, but my mother said, ‘Your father is gone’ and it’s awful. It’s something that’s been with me all the time that I could never say goodbye. It may be that you didn’t want to, because you realised that you wouldn’t see each other again. But nevertheless you lost that chance to see him for the last time then and that’s pretty awful. Out of the fifteen hundred again only 78 survived and he wasn’t among them.

My mother and I arrived in Auschwitz, not that we knew what it was, doors were opened. I have read books on this and quite often you know, people were chased out, there were dogs and whips and all sorts of things. It wasn’t like that with me, they tried another scheme. They said, ‘If anybody feels sick or old or can’t walk, we’ll take them on a lorry into camp’; so people volunteered: of course, they went straight into the gas chamber. We were put about six abreast, women, girls and children in one column and men and boys next to them in parallel. The women went first and they were disposed of in every sense of the word, very quickly.

There was a fellow at the end, along what later became known as the ramp. It wasn’t a ramp, it was a flat place to walk on and he would judge you as you approached. He would point his finger either one way or the other, if he pointed right, which was most of the time, you went into the gas chamber and if he pointed left he thought that you were fit to work. Now my mother was in the women’s group. I didn’t see her but she spied me, I was near the front and so was she and she came over to me shook my hand and went back. That wasn’t quite the last I saw of her, I saw her move down this ramp and I saw her being told to go to the right. When it was my turn, I didn’t notice anybody pointing a finger, I just followed where I’d seen her go but I was pulled back. Apparently he got fed up pointing one way and was pointing the other way and so that was my first, I’m not saying this was a bit of luck but it was a link in a chain that kept me going or allowed me to keep going.

I stayed there for about a week. What happened was, on the second night the door of the hut opened and a civilian appeared. A civilian was simply guided to the right hut because all the huts looked exactly the same and he wouldn’t know by himself where to go. He stayed at the door because the light from outside from the electrified wire supports was far better than the low wattage light inside. He looked around and I happened to stand there and he saw me and pointed at me and I was his, you see, simple as that.

There was boy who had been in my class in Prague who had been through the same thing. He was chosen to work on the first selection but he happened to stand at the back of the hut and the stupid man didn’t ask people from the back to come forward to give him a better choice. There wasn’t enough of us, I mean I say he wanted 165 and there weren’t 165 people left by any stretch of the imagination.

Friedland – labour camp

After a week, when it was dark we were put into cattle trucks, standing room only. We were taken, we didn’t know where, to a place called Friedland. The trouble is there were three Friedlands in the area. One is Friedland, a battle that Napoleon won, another was further away near Bohemia and then there was another one. I think that the driver took the wrong turn at one point because it took a long time to turn back. Anyway we arrived, it was a single track line passing our camp, really right next door, they couldn’t miss us. We disembarked and marched to Friedland camp. Now, again we were terribly lucky, that camp had held Italian prisoners – the Italians had changed sides and all the soldiers had been captured, as it were, accommodated and then taken somewhere else. We took their place, their beds, it was quite a small camp.

The manager who had pointed his finger at me in Auschwitz he had a contract to make aluminium propellers from castings. They were duralumin, a small amount of copper is added to aluminium that makes it very tough. There was a production line. You got the castings, somebody would cut the edges, somebody would make a thread at the back. Mine was the last job which was to straighten, make sure it’s in a straight line. And that was difficult because you had a hydraulic pump, which was foot operated and that was quite an effort. If you pressed too much it wouldn’t spring back and it would be what they called permanent set, you couldn’t do that too often as it would ruin the aluminium and it had to be thrown away. I didn’t produce many, that was at a time when the rumour was that the Russians were approaching. There were Germans fleeing past our camp, so the attitude changed.

The firm had originally come from Hamburg and had been bombed, and they had been relocated into a cotton mill. The cotton mill had been closed and the firm put their machineries in to this concrete building and employed us to operate them. As I say I didn’t produce many, but the German foreman who had come from Hamburg didn’t mind, he didn’t tell me off for not producing anything. In fact, at times he gave me pieces of very hard crusts of bread, he said that they really were meant for his rabbit, but maybe I would appreciate them more.

We were working, I think, seven days, either a night shift or a day shift. A shift was far too long, 12 hours. We wouldn’t last really and we tried to slow down and what we’d be looking forward to was the meal that arrived, or soup that would arrive halfway through the shift. People died, you know, of hunger.

Feeling that things were changing

We felt that things were changing but we didn’t know how. I mean, there were these death marches, we didn’t know about that but we could easily have been put on a death march, and I would not have survived that…but we were not.

On the last day the German SS who was an elderly man really not fit for front line duties, called us as usual to be counted and he said that we were going, and would we remember please that he treated us well, or reasonably. I mean we had Ukrainian SS guards and they were prevented from hitting us with rifle butts because they were told that we were skilled people and they couldn’t replace us. So in a way he did help us, although we were still in a labour camp.

The last day in the labour camp and returning to Prague

He left and his deputy left. so we were subjected to the Ukrainian SS who took a long time thinking things over. Now they stood on a watch tower with a machine gun that could have easily killed us, but they were more interested in their own skin – they knew that if they were caught by any approaching Russians what their fate would be – so in their own interest they left too.

We were still in a locked-up camp with electrified wire and then one of us must have shouted across to people walking past, would they open the gate or switch off the electricity, which they did.

We had a fellow, I met him later by email, he was a chemist who became professor at New York University. He was fluent in French and there were other French workers. They were in forced labour too, probably not making propellers, but stacking wood, there were only two or three of them who did that. He asked them, you know, would they open the gate. The rumour was that a Ukrainian SS general was near, they might just have thrown a few hand grenades over the wire, and would we go into the woods nearby and come back the next day. And we did. It was warm there, May was warm and we came back and we found that the Russians had arrived.

So they didn’t really liberate us, but they did in a different sense, they had arrived and the war had come to an end. It was the most odd group; they were on carts with horses. The advantage of that was that a horse can feed itself by the roadside, whereas if you use a petrol driven car you had to carry petrol for thousands of miles. So that was the right idea. They also had children in army uniform, only boys, they were probably orphans which they had picked up, but they did carry little machine guns. They had military police, who were women. They were square, you know, really square! Soldiers who had faced the Germans who were being resolute and heroic, their knees would tremble meeting one of those. But they took absolutely no notice of us, didn’t give us any bread, something which we could digest, they just ignored us.

I made friends with a boy who could speak Russian and of course Polish – he came from Poland and was looking for his mother; he was sure that she was still alive. He arranged for a room on a dairy farm, the farms extended into the village, he had a pint of milk a day and that sustained us, that was good enough we didn’t want anymore. And then I remember a group of former prisoners called me over and said, ‘We’ve been to the factory to see if anything is worth having, we know you’re interested in metal working and here is a side gate, do you want it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure’. On another occasion I was called over and they said, ‘We got a bicycle, do you want it?’ Well, the bicycle was a continental one with thick tyres, real balloon tyres and you brake by pedalling backwards and that wore out pretty soon. I didn’t really have the muscles to ride a bike, you know you do need some effort, but I said, ‘I’ll have it’, and after a week this friend of mine left to look for his mother and I left on the bicycle.

It was a very flat area and I didn’t know which way to head, but I happened to head in the right direction because the Czech border was quite near and I happened upon it, and the terminus of the Czech railway line, just a small line. They saw me and they were probably aghast you know, the way I looked and they asked me where I had been and where I wanted to go. All I could think of was Prague, although I knew that there was nobody there. They said, ‘You are just the man we were looking for’, because they had no news and everything that happened, happened in Prague so they wanted me as an excuse. So, they put a fire in the locomotive, coupled on a carriage, put me in, I think that I fell asleep, I can’t remember anything, and off we went.

That was the only time that someone laid on a train for me and I got out at a Prague railway station, I can’t remember which. There was no Red Cross lady to offer me a cup of tea and a biscuit and nobody was expecting me. It’d taken about ten days, a week to ten days, from being liberated to arriving in Prague, which was quite soon really.

The beginning of a new life

So, I left the labour camp and returned to Prague on a train which the railwaymen ‘laid on’ for me from a station near the camp. I was on my own as were literally thousands and thousands of other people. They were either prisoners or forced workers who had been taken to the West, who wanted to go home to the East, and people who had been taken to the East who wanted to go back to the West, including French prisoners of war who simply wanted to get home as quickly as possible. Czechoslovakia still had a functioning railway system whereas those all over France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Austria had been bombed, as a prelude to the invasion. It was terribly difficult until I got to the border. Prague was the hub. Everybody went to Prague and the local authorities, being overwhelmed, put iron bedsteads into school classrooms and I was allocated one. I still didn’t know what to do with myself.

By then Prague was pretty shabby and very neglected, nothing like it is now. When I arrived I knew where I was and the shabbiness didn’t worry me. The Czechs copied a lot from the Austrians, who ruled the place for hundreds of years, and copied their bureaucracy so they had clerks taking down everyone’s details and I think that is how, later, distant relatives found me, possibly through the Red Cross. I was befriended by a real communist (the ones later on were just fakes) whose husband had just been set free from a concentration camp. She arranged for me to go to a convalescent home in Tábor, an ancient town in Bohemia. So off I went. They had a delivery of bags of flour, each a hundredweight, and I volunteered to help unload them, and I collapsed. I couldn’t possibly lift them. I was taken to the nearest hospital on a rackety horse and cart along a rackety road. The hospital was quite new but there was only one doctor and one nurse. They discovered that I had an inflammation of the lining between the lungs and the gut so they put me on a chair the wrong way round and put a thick needle through and extracted the liquid with a syringe, and that worked. I was there for several weeks while it healed. It wasn’t very nice because right next to me was a boy who had been run over by a car, probably because there were so few cars and he hadn’t expected one, and his relatives were wailing.

Life as an apprentice at the Zeiss factory in Teplice

I returned to the convalescent home and they said ‘If you like, stay for another six weeks’. I had no family or friends in Prague and I said ‘No, I can’t possibly do that, I have got to catch up on my six lost years’. So I went back to Prague, the only place you could go to and I went to the equivalent to the Ministry of Works and said ‘Here I am, what can you do for me?’ They were dismissing the Germans in the Sudetenland and could offer me a three-year apprenticeship at a Zeiss factory, with accommodation, food and some pocket money. So that solved my problem and I went off to Teplice. It was an extraordinary plant, two reinforced concrete two-storey buildings, one for mirrors and the other for metal parts for anti-aircraft guns. The mirrors were for the split image on the cameras. If the image matched you could read off the distance.

The apprentice department was on its own. We were not part of production or anything. It was a very well-established and furnished workshop where every apprentice had his own little lathe, vice and drawers for tools, and you were given a drawing of ever-increasing difficulty. Our first job was to produce a cube one centimetre square. It’s very difficult to have all sides square and finish with the right measurements. It took me ages. They really trained you which is why the apprenticeship lasted three years.

When I arrived I was completely on my own while the other apprentices, who came from Prague, could go home at weekends and their mothers would do their washing and ironing and feed them up. The organisation was poor. The house had belonged to a large Jewish family. The cooking was rather miserable with nobody to do it. The first people they sent was a commissar and her mother. Most odd, so that wasn’t very good. Unlike the others, I didn’t have any help. Things weren’t terribly good because there were two Hitlerjugend (Hitler youths) who were fiercely anti-Semitic. They were indoctrinated, they had been brainwashed, and it didn’t go down very well with me. Next door was another house, for girls, and I met four Jewish girls, apprentice dressmakers, who were on their way to America. In those days you didn’t buy ready-made, it was all to measure and dress-making was still a trade. I befriended one of the girls, Magda, who said ‘Well, if you don’t like it, up the road is a Jewish hostel’. Communications were very poor so I hadn’t known that. So after about three months I moved there and, oddly enough, it was as chaotic as the first place.

The chance to move on to London

A soldier arrived. He was from the Jewish Brigade of the Eighth British Army, Montgomery’s, and he knew about us. He said ‘There’s no guarantee that you will actually land in Palestine because the Royal Navy has orders to intercept ‘illegal immigrants’ because you are not included in the quota allowed in per year. We try, but ships do get intercepted’. I wanted to go to Palestine because I couldn’t think of anywhere else. I didn’t want to stay in Czechoslovakia. I had no connection with the country, I wasn’t born there, all my relatives had been murdered, I didn’t know anybody. I had learnt the language in Prague and spoke it almost perfectly. When the soldier mentioned we could be intercepted and put into displaced persons camps, either in Germany or on Cyprus which had a reputation for water shortages, I hesitated. Of course in ‘45 you didn’t know what was going to happen in the future. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The fact that in 1948 the Jewish state might be established meant that’s where I wanted to go. I had been a Zionist before the war as it seemed the only solution, to get a state of our own, not to be dependent on others.

However, a distant relative invited me to go to London. I have to go back to my grandfather to find the relationship. It was two Viennese brothers who married two sisters from my father’s village. The relative was one of their sons and another very distant relative, who offered to pay for me, wrote saying ‘If you like, you can come to England, we shall apply to the Home Office for a visa and you can stay with us’. They must have found me through the Red Cross lists. I replied ‘Yes, I shall be very pleased’. I didn’t speak any English at all. In fact, my friend Magda, who came from Ukraine, had an English boyfriend, probably a prisoner-of-war. She asked if I could translate a letter from him but I couldn’t. It was pretty awkward. She spoke Hungarian, Russian, Czech and Yiddish, but not English.

Strangely enough, in Teplice a woman had offered to read my cards. I was all against it because to me it was only through the logical thinking of the Greeks that you arrive at a reasonable proposition. Reading cards wasn’t among them. She said ‘You are going on a long journey and you will meet one man whom you will not get on with and you will find three women with whom you will get on very well’. Alright. ‘And you just have to wait. Your visa is at the bottom of a pile of papers’. Quite true. I had met another distant relative who went to the British Embassy to ask where my visa was. At least I had somebody who could speak English. They couldn’t find it. Eventually, after a nerve-wracking time, it was found. I had a photograph taken, very prim and proper, with brushed hair, looking stern and I had a passport. I had a Czech guardian, because I was underage, and I had to tell him that I was going to return. I couldn’t possibly say I wasn’t coming back and my Czech passport which was only for six months expired after I had left the country.

The people in London arranged for my travel by plane as all the railways had been destroyed. I went in an old Junkers 52, a German paratroop plane which had been left on a Prague airfield because anything that flew would have been shot down. The rest of the passengers were Czech diplomats on their way to the United Nations, in Los Angeles, I think. We flew in hops. The plane couldn’t fly for long so we stopped in Frankfurt and Brussels, at an American military airport. As the plane was for paratroopers you had seats along the fuselage, not individual seats, and smaller holes to look through so you had a crick in your neck if you wanted to see. We flew very low. I can’t remember which airfield we arrived at in London. On the flight they gave me the address, 11 Don Place, St. John’s Wood.

Frank Bright 2021

Frank Bright MBE (b. 1928) talking to WISEArchive on 25th and 27th May 2021 at Martlesham, Suffolk

Frank was awarded an MBE for services to Holocaust education in the New Year Honours list 2022.

His story continues in Labour camp to municipal engineer Part Two (1946-2021) Part Two

© 2021 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.

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A career behind the camera (1967-2004)

Roger tells us about his working life as a cameraman, a career which took him all over the world, but much of which was based at Anglia Television in Norwich.

I was born in 1944 in a small mining town in Derbyshire about ten miles north of Derby. My grandfather had been down the mines and he was determined that my father would never go down the mine. My father never ever did go down the mine. I did once, but he didn’t.

He worked for the local Co-op and trained as a company secretary and then the war happened. He went into the RAF, caught rheumatic fever and was invalided out. He then worked for Rolls Royce producing Merlin engines for Lancaster bombers and things like that through the war. After the war he worked as a company secretary for a series of small companies before finally ending up as civil servant, ‘for the pension’ as he always said.


I went to primary and junior school in the town and then grammar school was about two miles away in Swanwick. I was there from ’55 to ’62, I went by bus but occasionally got a lift from my father as one of his jobs took him past the door. He was usually too late leaving for me to get a lift with him.

I studied, GCEs, O levels and A levels, some not particularly successfully, because I had sort of lost the incentive by then. It was very difficult in those days to do a mixture of science and art subjects, you had to take one course or the other. I had not a clue what I wanted to be: my parents wanted me to be a professional I think. I had been very keen on natural history and things so toyed round the idea of vet, medicine, various things, but I sort of lost my desire to do any academic work really.

After I left school, I tried to do my A levels again, and did slightly better at the second attempt and went off to London to train as an architect. I had always had this sort of diversity in my mind as to whether I liked that arts or science. I always liked art, I was always good at art, I could draw, I could do a bit of painting, bit of sculpture and things and had kept it going through into sixth form.

A friend of mine was at Northern Polytechnic in London and I was looking through a prospectus and saw this degree in architecture, thought it looked interesting, did a last minute application and was accepted. This revitalised my interest in art so I said to the local education authority that I wanted to do art and they said that I could come back to Derbyshire. I went to the art school in Derby and became interested in photography and film. I got myself a place at the London College of Printing which did a film and photographic course. But the education authority having got wise to me and my habits and decided that as they did a photography course in the county they weren’t going to pay the extra money for me to go to London and idle my time away there. So they said, ‘Well you know, well done for getting your place, but we ain’t going to pay for you to go’.

There were two colleges in Derbyshire, one in Derby, which had a very good reputation, and one in Chesterfield, me being bloody minded went to Chesterfield, they had a three year sort of film course. I very quickly realised that the man who was supposed to be in charge of the course didn’t really know very much so I segued into doing a straightforward stills photography qualification, which I did in two years out of three.

A summer job in London and serendipity

I went down to London as part of a summer job in a studio and decided that there wasn’t a lot of point going back to college if I could avoid it, because I seemed to know more about the theory of photography than most people who were doing the job [laughs]. It was a student placement, so I was basically observing really, a general dogsbody. I was working with different guys for about three weeks. As I was about to leave I asked the studio manager if there was any chance of a job as an assistant. By that time I was about 23 and I was basically too old as they were training up 16 year olds, but I asked them to let me know if they heard of anything. About three weeks after I got back to Derbyshire I had a phone call giving me the details of a guy looking for his first assistant, I gave him a call and started work seven days later as an assistant to the stills photographer.

I didn’t stay with him for very long, I moved on quickly, but we got on very well and he’s still a friend of mine.

In one of those serendipitous moments in my life – I was walking down St Martin’s Lane and saw this character coming towards me, we made eye contact and I thought that I recognised him. He said, ‘I know you, you were at Swanwick weren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I was at Swanwick, yeah’. He’d left when he was about 15 or 16 as his father had moved to London and we’d parted ways. Anyway we met a few times and he asked me one day ‘What are you doing this weekend? I was new to town and you know what it’s like, Billy no mates, so I said, ‘Nothing really’ and he told me that he was doing a little shoot at CBS Records and would I like to give them a hand. He was going to the London Film School later in the year and his brother was a director of the small production company, based in St Martin’s Lane and he was doing a bit of relief work in the office.

It was a film that they used to do on a regular basis for CBS showing the management in funny situations, to show their sales representatives. I turned up, there was a pile of lights, a camera, a tripod, nobody really seemed to know what to do. So I ended up shooting, putting lights up, reading the light meter, some guy looked through the camera and by some miracle it all turned out.

Their stills guy left and I got a call from the director saying that they liked what I had done and did I want to go and work with them. And that’s how I got introduced into the film business.

At this time I was living all over the place, I started in digs in Muswell Hill, then God knows what happened, I ended up in a room in Crouch End, rooms in those days were not very nice [laughs].

The role of an assistant producer involves basically anything the producer asks you to do. It’s like a glorified runner/co-ordinator/organiser. The first job that I had for example was to sort out the film library, I had to go down to the library and open these cans and I’d never seen film other than on spools, of course professional film isn’t kept on spools. It’s kept in very tightly wound roll, just taped on and you have to pick it up carefully otherwise the middle drops out and you’ve got hundreds of feet of film running around the room. You’d try to thread it all backwards from the middle, but it’s never very successful I have to say.

In the team there were, let me think, three production, three directors/producers, myself, an admin guy, two secretaries and one other, slightly more of a dogsbody than me.

We also had a small projection theatre downstairs, with perhaps 15, 20 seats. All the people making commercial and documentaries wanted places to show them so there were loads of these in West End. They had full size 35 millimetre projectors, quite a small screen, curtains the whole thing, like a mini cinema. So for example if you had a 60 second commercial you could book the theatre for a quarter of an hour. The projector would thread up the film and depending on how quick they were you could probably show it five, six, seven or eight times. We were doing mostly test commercials and trials, five or six smaller agencies were all connected. The main agency was the London Press Exchange and during my time it became Leo Burnett.

Leaving, again, after not very long

I stayed there. Again not for very long and one of the main reasons was that the industry was very unionised. It was really difficult to get into a trade union, they were very tight about letting people in. It was one of those catch-22 situations – you couldn’t get a job if you didn’t have what they called a ticket and you couldn’t get a ticket unless you worked in the industry, so it was always quite difficult. There was this ruse – you could get a short term contract at the BBC, they had their own union called Bectu. The ACTT was the main film and television union and they were always trying to get into the BBC to try to get control. So, all of us young lads who wanted to get a ticket used to try  to get these jobs at the BBC and then first thing you would do would be to go and see the union rep and get yourself into the ACTT and then you could go from there. So that’s one of the main reasons I left.

In those days the BBC had probably about 36 cameramen working on film, maybe more I can’t remember exactly. All their documentaries were shot on film, film technology was much lighter and more portable than electronic technology. The bits for light entertainment that were shot outside were cut into the end product. In those days it all had to be wired back to vans or the studio.

So, an outside broadcast for example, horse racing, you’d have these fixed camera points where the cameras are rigged, but inter-connected by cable and they‘d go back to a central scanner, where the wires come in and monitors are set up. You’d have a director sitting inside deciding which shots he wanted to use, either on air or to be edited later. They will all be recorded and edited but if it’s a live OB they’d be saying, ‘Camera one, camera two, camera four, camera five.

During my career I only very, very, very, very occasionally worked on live tv, it was a different skill. I was used to what Anglia television called ‘single camera units’ so as a cameraman you had the camera, you were basically the only person who saw what was happening. With live OB work you’re part of a team, you have a director co-ordinating what you’re doing. When you’re not shooting, you’re changing it and he’s asking you to find something else for them. You’d take your shot, he’d move onto another camera, you’ll be resetting something like that. So the idea of whizzing about and other people taking over from you, for a few seconds, it’s just a very different mindset.

Moving to Norfolk, Tales of the Unexpected

My first wife was fed up with me being away a lot, and she quite fancied living somewhere in the country. I went in to pay my union subs one day and saw that there was a job for an assistant up in Norwich, So I wrote off, came for an interview, got the job, turned up as simple as that. That was in 1979.

One of the programmes I worked on was Tales of the Unexpected, which was a half hour programme. I can’t remember how many I did, we were quite slow in those days, I think it was a two-week shoot for each one.

I was a focus puller. In the old days the cameras were so big and heavy that they were on what was called a geared head, the tripod had a head on top which supported the camera. It had two wheels, one went horizontally, and the other tipped vertically. The operator had a viewfinder on the side of the camera and he would follow the operation by twirling these wheels. That’s a skill in itself I can assure you.

So for various technical reasons which I won’t go into, it means that if someone gets close to the camera, the viewfinder on the side had to be angled, to make sure that the framing that the operator was seeing was similar to what the camera was seeing. If it was a long way away it would be more in parallel with the camera. So because the guy had his two hands twirling he couldn’t change the focus so if someone came from a distance to close up if you left the focus in one position or the other they would go soft. It would go out of focus.

So you had what they called a focus puller whose job is to know exactly how far that person is away from the camera and tweak the focus ring on the camera  which simultaneously in the old days used to adjust the viewfinder, so that the operator’s view was in keeping with that the camera was seeing.

So the crew was a clapper loader who loaded the magazines and put the clapper board on, the focus puller, the operator with his hands glued to the camera, and the lighting cameraman who was responsible for the lighting.

As a team you got to know each other and got used to the way of things. The difference between working at a company like Anglia and being a freelancer is that most freelancers tend to get together with people they know and like. A company like Anglia employs so many people that you have so many crews, so obviously you make certain compromises along the way, you know, it’s not always a free choice.

When I joined Anglia we had two sizes of film crew. We had what was called a feature crew, which was what I joined. It consisted of a cameraman and an assistant, a sound man, an electrician, and a driver. We all drove around in a big old converted van. Then there was what they called the mini crew, a three man crew that went around in estate cars. There was an electrician with his own car, a cameraman and a then a soundman who drove in another estate car.

Officially the working day was 8.30am to 5.30pm, so we did a 37 hour week and I think that we had about four weeks holiday. We were very privileged in those days as we had the old ITN agreement, which mean that we had fixed hours so anything outside of those was overtime. So that was very good.

We were always going out on location, I mean virtually every day was on location. Our area extended to Bedford in the south, a lot of Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire. When Anglia first started it went up as far as Hull. We had news offices in Hull, Kings Lynn, Cambridge, Luton and Norwich obviously.

The beauty of being on location was that we were outside and dependent on the weather. You had to work out in all weathers but we were very rarely rained off completely, we would always find a way of working.

Near misses and a stunt gone wrong

I have had one or two near misses. The first drama I ever worked on with the BBC was a thing called the Canterbury Tales. We spent a month shooting all these guys in period costume in various parts of Cambridge. We got to the end of this thing and it was the very last day of the shoot and it was, ‘Lovely working with you darling, see you on the next one’ and everyone was driving off, waving. I was about to do what we call ‘can up’ which is taking the film out of the magazine, put it in a metal can, seal it up and send to the laboratory for processing. For some reason, I will never understand why, I had this magazine on top of the changing bag, sitting open, waiting for me to put in the changing bag.

I walked up to it, undid the lid, lifted it up and said an obscenity and slammed it down. My heart dropped, anyway, I sealed it up and went to the lighting cameraman and said, ‘Look, I’ve just done something really stupid’ and told him what I’d done. He said, ’Ah it’s alright, we’ll blame the labs’, because the labs were always doing things like that. About a week later I was at the old Ealing studios, as that was where the BBC were based, and I was working through the lot. I see the two directors who’d been directing the thing walking towards me. One said, ‘Hi Rog, have you heard? We’ve been so lucky’. ‘What?’ I said, he said, ‘There’s mystery fogging, the whole of the BBC are getting this mystery edge fogging. We’ve been really lucky, we’ve only had one roll’.

It was true, we had to empty loads, and loads of these little tiny cans and take ten feet off the front, put it back in the can, seal it and then at the end of that roll we had to try not to run out of film on that roll. Then we had to put the last few feet of film into another roll, make a note of every magazine so that they could trace this edge fogging. But anyway our one roll was me as it happens [laughter].

So I got away with that one. But I was blown up on Tales of the Unexpected. It was a stunt of course, it’s always a stunt with these things and it happened on the Dereham bypass just before it had opened. A car had theoretically been chased and was about to burst through the specially weakened Armco on the side. The way they did the stunt was that inside the car, which was an automatic and which had been put into first gear. There was a system of levers and pulleys inside, one held the steering in a straight line, another was connected to the accelerator and the other was to the brake.

The idea was that you put your dummy in the car, started the engine and someone put a hand through into the car releasing the lever that took the pressure off the foot to give full acceleration. They spent a couple of hours in the morning setting this up and rehearsing before shooting after lunch.

We came back after lunch and I’m on top of the edge of the bank to get a shot of the car crashing through the barrier. There was another crew down the bottom to get a close up of it coming through and another crew buried in the side to get another angle. The stunt guy had said to us, ‘You’ll be alright, if anything goes wrong I’ll just tap you on the shoulder and pull you out of the way’. I thought about this and wasn’t too sure as if it was going to burst into flames and explode there could be debris. So I suggested that we get a bit of block board to put up by the camera just in case. But when I looked at it I realised that I couldn’t pan to it, so I had it below the camera.

We put the slate on and all of a sudden this car revs up, big revving of engines. I’m focused, framed on it, looking and watching it. All of a sudden it doesn’t shoot off, it slews towards me, a piece of wood shoots out from the back of the wheel and comes trucking along as if towards me. There are a whole load of people on the bank theoretically in a safe position spectating. The stunt guy decides that he doesn’t want it to run into them so he explodes it. This thing explodes within about probably ten feet of me, there’s this huge sheet of flame blowing towards me, engulfs me in flame and on the sound track you can hear a little sort of, ‘Aagh’ like Bluebottle in The Goons [laughs]. And then finally you heard the sound man saying, ‘I think Roger’s had it’ I mean fortunately I hadn’t. I’d come to work on a motorbike and was wearing a nylon motorbike jacket and it had melted all the collar of my coat. The front of the lens of the camera which had a filter on had been splattered in burning fuel. I got a slight burn to my bald spot and I was sent off to hospital where I was given two paracetamol and sent back [laughs]. Eventually we went back out with another car and did it again.

The other incident that was of some mild excitement in my life was doing a film on leadership. They decided to follow an RAF pilot and told me that they’d arranged for me to fly in a Harrier with this guy. We turn up, get kitted out and I just managed to fit into the wooden frame that you have to sit in making sure that your knees don’t go beyond a certain point. It was a training Harrier, pilot at the front, me at the back strapped in the ejector seat. Bearing in mind that nowadays the camera you see on telly now is quite small, quite light, these ones then were quite heavy metal aluminium things, with four hundred feet of film on the back and a big lens on the front. So I was sitting in the Harrier with all this kit on, slightly apprehensive about being nauseous, a little man watching me making sure that I took the pins out to arm the ejector seat. The pilot said, ‘If there’s any problem I’ll tell you to eject’.

Basically, on the ejector seat you have a big handle between your legs which for boys is quite a sensible place to put it really as it’s the first place they respond to when in danger. It was the most amazing experience, I’ve flown lots of times, you know helicopters, light airplanes, commercial flights. But this was like driving to work in a 2CV and swapping it for a Porsche. It didn’t do a vertical takeoff but it went up pretty smartly, and when they changed direction he just flicks and stops and then flicks the other way and stops and banks, and does this zzzzip zzzip zzzzip, you can imagine.

So we got into the air, flying along, I was seeing what I could see with the camera and after about ten, fifteen minutes there’s a bit of a bang and a smell of burning. He said, ‘Right, we’re going down’ and I said, ‘Oh, okay’ and we landed at the RAF training school at Cranwell near Newark. We finally got out and he said, ‘You were very calm’ I said, ‘Was I?’ ‘Well’ he said, ‘You do realise that you were about five seconds from ejecting don’t you?’ ‘No’, ‘Yeah, we had a bird strike, I had to do an emergency relight of the engine’ He then told me that he had done it lots of times in training but never before for real.

I was presented with a series of photographs taken from above by another Harrier as I’d obviously missed the whole thing. They had documentation in case something went wrong. Coincidentally a few years later I was at a wedding and met another pilot so relayed the tale. ‘Oh’ he said, ‘That was you was it?’ It had been published in all of their manuals, recording incidents that had happened.

America, Kuwait and filming war surgeons

I have sat and thought about it and I have worked out that I have been to at least forty countries. Anglia used to send a crew over to America every year to shoot link for   Survival for the Americans. In this country Survival didn’t have a presenter it was all about the animals and their narrative. But in America they used to have John Forsyth to introduce them, in a way that Roald Dahl introduced Tales of the Unexpected. So we would go across to California and Arizona every year and shoot his introduction pieces. He wasn’t that well known to us Brits but he’d been very famous in America, everywhere he went in the States ladies would come out and ask for his autograph. I remember sitting in a car with him and he told me that his agent had just offered him a job in a series but that he didn’t know whether to take it or not. The next morning he told me that he had decided to do it –  that series was Dynasty, which people of my age will remember.

Whilst working for Anglia I also did a thing on surgery. I was introduced to a surgeon, who has since become a friend, who worked for the International Red Cross in Geneva. He specialised in anti-personnel mine injuries and wanted to make a training manual for war surgeons. He asked me if I knew of anyone who would do this, there was a freelance guy but he didn’t want to do it because it meant being away for a month, he probably didn’t fancy the subject matter either. Any way I got chatting with the surgeon and he asked me if I would do it. As I was still working for Anglia he worked out a deal where I was subcontracted via Anglia, and because he was a local lad we did a documentary about him, sort of local connection interest.

So we went out to a hospital in Peshawar; it wasn’t a hospital as we know it, but it had an operating theatre, and people were coming down from Afghanistan, they had trodden on anti-personnel devices so they were coming back with quite substantial injuries, limbs missing.

It was daunting but you get used to it. With a camera, once you close one eye you’re involved in what’s in front of you through the viewfinder. It was interesting ‘cos it was the first job that I was really allowed to direct as well as shoot. There were only two of us who went out there, so I had to put up all the lights and do all sorts of things.

We edited everything back here and the editor couldn’t get used to it, he never really enjoyed it. He’d get used to one patient and then when we got to the next one his head would go down and gradually his eyes would creep up and he’d look at it. It was subtitled ‘haemoglobin or the return of the corpuscle’. Typical black humour!

I went to Kuwait a week before the first Iraq war started. The East Anglian Regiment were there so we did a documentary and I was filming a lot of the build-up for war. That was pretty amazing, I have to say.

Patience  ‑ a trait of a cameraman

One of the traits of a cameraman is patience – or an infinite capacity for buggering about is how I describe it.

Filming is very time-consuming, it looks easy when it’s on the screen, but quite often it’s very fiddly. It depends on what you’re actually filming, I remember doing a documentary on Stonehenge. Whenever the shoot got difficult, the director would say ‘We’ll do that on the model’. Somebody had built a large three dimensional scale model of Stonehenge, we had a small studio with cranes, jibs tracking over these things. This was before drones, which you would use now as they’re so small. So we had tracks down the side, lights put up, things like that would take days and days and days, especially when so much had been deferred to ‘the model’.

Drones came in since I retired, they’re ubiquitous now, aren’t they. There’s hardly a programme that doesn’t go out with a drone operator. I was the sort of go to guy at Anglia for helicopter shoots for a few years. I’d sort of go and hang out of the side of the helicopter when people wanted aerial shots of something. Probably the best fun shoot I ever did with a helicopter was following The Mallard on the Classic run from York to I think Harrogate, somewhere like that. We had to fly up to York and shoot as it went along.

It turned out to be an all day job because it was foggy in Norwich we couldn’t leave Norwich for hours. The pilot then said that he was getting bored of waiting and said that we would just follow the power line, he said that he knew that the fog only extended for about 40 miles and that he wasn’t supposed to but we followed the power lines [laughter].

Retirement and the next generation

I’ve done some bits after retiring, my wife works with a production company so I’m sort of involved with them on a few projects. In some ways technology has moved on, it’s a lot lighter and a lot easier. But there’s a lot more pressure, time pressure, cost pressure.

What have I done in my retirement? Well I did a Fine Art degree at the Arts School, and an MA. I enjoyed it, but me being me, being a student is a bit like being a cameraman, ‘cos you bugger about a lot. You make a mess and you try things, it’s experimental and it’s fun, it’s a lot of fun. Except that when you’re an art student you have to be a bit more intense about it and find a justification for it.

I mean, in some ways we had it easy because of trade unionism. You know you couldn’t just say, ‘Oh I’m going to make a film‘  it had to be done, the right number of people on the crew, there was policing to a certain extent, people would check that you’d got a union card.

So for young people now if they’ve got an idea and can find someone to finance it anybody can join in. But of course there are loads and loads of universities and colleges all producing students, all of whom have a brilliant idea for a script, all of whom want to be a director, and they’re all out there competing. But again the market’s a lot bigger, you know. When I was young there was the BBC and ITV then Channel 4. Now there is Netflix, all this streaming the market is insatiable.

I was on holiday two, three years ago and there were people wandering around with a still camera on a little hand device doing all sorts of things. And you know they were just being tourists they were actually doing something, YouTube or something you know. I could have been an influencer [laughs].

I remember when I first started in the business all the old boys said, Oh we feel really sorry for you, we’ve had the best days out of this industry’. And I had a brilliant time and I look at the kids now shooting with their still cameras and I think,’ Why are they doing that?’ You see them all with their booms doing their sound, they’ve got their clipboards. And I think that it’ll be brilliant for them as well. You know it’ll be different, but it’ll be just as much fun.

Roger Bunting (b. 1944)  talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 4th June 2021.

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