Travels of a Norfolk Boy (1955-2009)

Location : Norfolk, Yorkshire & travels in Europe

Ted worked for 25 years at Laurence Scott & Electromotors. After an extensive training as a mechanical and electrical engineer, he became more interested in the business side. He moved with the firm to Leeds and his work included travel to Eastern Europe during the Iron Curtain period, and later through his own company. He gives an interesting account of working with Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the 1960s and 70s and his post-retirement activities.

Early days in Swanton Morley

My name is Ted, and I was born in this house called Woodgate in Swanton Morley, and it is where I’m still living to this day. The date was a Friday 13th in 1937! I went to Swanton Morley Primary School at the age of four and stayed there until 1948. I then had a year at the school which was then known as Crown Road School in Dereham. I passed the Scholarship, the dreaded 11 Plus, so demeaned by certain politicians of the day, and went on to Hammonds Grammar School for Boys in Swaffham. To get to this school I had to cycle every day from Swanton Morley to Dereham Station which was about three miles each way. I then took a train which, believe it or not, was a steam train to Swaffham. So my day started about 8 in the morning and finished around 6 o’clock.

When I left school at the age of 17 there were various choices of jobs for me, not like today. I narrowed it down to four or five possibilities: I could have gone as a trainee to either Laurence Scott, or Boulton & Paul’s, the Central Electricity Board or the Eastern Electricity Board. I had free choice. In the event I left school and joined Laurence, Scott & Electromotors, a well-known Norfolk company established in 1883. The training offered was on the factory floor with three nights and one day a week at College. That lasted five years and at the end of it I  qualified as an electrical and mechanical engineer. And I ended up staying there for 25 years.  A wonderful training in all respects, and I have great affection for those days spent in that factory. It was not only education in engineering, but an education in life. Initially I worked my way through all the departments in the company, finishing up on what was called the testbed. This was where all the equipment was tested. I should say here for those who don’t know, Laurence Scott made electrical equipment, motors, generators and control gear. In the early days especially the motors and generators were made mainly for the marine industry.

Then came the possibility of National Service and what to do! Should I go into National Service at 35 shillings a day … sorry .. I meant 35 shillings a week!  However the better alternative, for Laurence Scott people was to join the Merchant Navy at probably £6 or £7 a week.  Fortunately the decision was not mine as conscription ended before I had to make that decision.

Over the years I became more interested in the commercial side of work rather than the engineering, and I eventually went and worked in the estimating office. This was the place where you produced quotations for the equipment that people were asking for. This would involve anything from coal handling plants for power plants, to generators in pumping stations, and all manner of things . ..  and, of course, marine equipment.

During those early days at Laurence Scott about five of us got together as we loved playing music. It wasn’t rock and roll and more likely to be jazz.  Anyway, having played clarinet at school I decided to join this group of five with me playing clarinet and alto-saxophone. Before long we regarded ourselves as sufficiently adept to launch upon the public, and for about five years, maybe more, we performed as this small dance band. It was very much a dance band:  we had dinner suits and bow ties and travelled around village halls, ladies’ circles, Lakenheath Camp, Swanton Morley Camp, Marham Camp playing orthodox dance music. I don’t just mean old time, I’m also talking about waltzes and quicksteps. The real old time dances such as The Valeta, The St Bernard and so on were part of our repertoire. I had a very enjoyable time doing that, and it was when I moved to Yorkshire that I was unable to continue with it. I got into the export business, so I was never at home regularly enough to be in any other band.

Moving to Yorkshire and adventures behind the Iron Curtain

The move to Yorkshire came about because after a time in the Norwich office I decided I would like to go out into the big wide world and become a salesman. And the first job I was given by Laurence Scott was in the Sales Office in Leeds.

Moving to Yorkshire from Norfolk was a great upheaval for me. I couldn’t take in how the other half lived, I couldn’t believe what Yorkshire was like. Leeds at that time was starting to become a clean air area, and although the smoke had diminished, everywhere I looked all I could see were blackened, soot-encrusted buildings. So not a good start for a Norfolk boy who was used to clean air and the countryside. Nevertheless, driving a new Ford Corsair, which some of you will remember, I was given a contact list and told to go round the wool mills, the coal mines and all sorts of other industries to introduce Laurence Scott. I might add that this mailing list was so out of date that half the places on it had been knocked down!  I was also able to travel to Hull and Grimsby to visit the trawler owners. We sold a lot of equipment, trawl winch generators, trawl winch motors and such like to the marine industry. It was then that I had my big break. At that time the trawler owners in Hull and Grimsby were no longer able to afford the costs involved with British shipyard built boats. They started having their trawlers built in Poland and this coincided with me being given the job as Eastern European Manager for Laurence Scott. The job involved me travelling to Poland as over there we had our equipment fitted on the trawlers being built for Britain. At that time the Russians were also having trawlers built in Poland, and when they saw our equipment they said ‘What’s that?’ and were told ‘Oh, that comes from Britain, Norwich, Laurence Scott’. They liked it, tested it, and before long placed an order with the Polish shipyard for 35 of their new trawlers to be fitted with our motors. I was on my way, I really had made it!  Just to clarify things, these shipyards were in Gdynia and Gdansk, and you will remember that it was there in Gdansk that the Solidarity Union Movement was started which eventually overthrew the Iron Curtain in Poland.

Just going back a bit…. well going back quite a long way, apart from the steam trains, bicycles and father’s Austin Seven, I had very rarely travelled a great deal. I was 19 before I even left the County, and that was only to just over the border near King’s Lynn. So when I took my first flight and turned up at Leeds Bradford Airport, it was windy, raining and I didn’t know what to expect. In those days they were flying aeroplanes with four propellers, and I knew nothing about what would happen. I climbed aboard and I must admit I had taken an early Scotch. Off went this machine!  It was a tremendous noise…and after a time there was yet another loud noise and I thought ‘Whatever is that?’ It was the wheels coming up!  And then at the top of the climb they switched the power down and I thought the engine had stopped!    We flew at about 10,000 feet right in the middle of the bad weather. All around me people were being sick, which was not a pleasant sight or sound. Anyway, it was a terrible journey but I got to Heathrow where I met my boss. I said ‘I know I’ve only taken this job a few weeks ago but I want to resign.’ He said ‘Take a Scotch’, so I had another one!  We hopped into a jet plane, a Trident, which went way above the weather in the nice blue sky above the clouds, and flew to Warsaw. I decided not to resign! This was the first time I had been overseas let alone behind the Iron Curtain. It was a great experience and my boss told me afterwards that one of the tests for a salesman in Eastern Europe was ‘How much can you drink and what is the result?’  When I came home my wife looked at me – my eyes were red-rimmed- and she said ‘What’s happened to your eyes?’ and I lied!  I said that the pressurisation in the plane had failed!

So I continued working in Eastern Europe, East Germany, going through Checkpoint Charlie, Bulgaria, Albania, all those places behind the Iron Curtain where life was so difficult for the people, even more so I suppose for the traveller. I worked, not only with the shipyards, but with factories and all manner of industries where Laurence Scott was active. Then, after spending about five years in Eastern Europe, Laurence Scott management sacked the Export Manager. They looked around and thought ‘Oh what have we done, what can we do?’ And they saw this poor fellow, pale from Eastern European travel, ‘We’ll give the job to him, he’ll be cheaper’. So they gave me the job but wouldn’t call me Export Manager. I was an Export Executive. That was simply a ruse to pay me less. And all of a sudden my territory was no longer Eastern Europe, but the world. It’s difficult to believe now in the modern oil industry age, that the Sales Director, who shall be nameless, looked at the Middle East and said ‘I don’t think we should go there as I don’t think the Arabs have got any money to spend.’ How wrong he was!  Eventually I was forced into the Middle East by a situation which really gave Laurence Scott trouble. We had some big 1,350 horsepower motors over there driving pumps in Abu Dhabi in the Emirates, and one of these had broken down. Nobody took any trouble to do anything, and eventually we were told ‘If you don’t do something then you will be taken off the vendors’ list for all future contracts’. So I was sent in the middle of the summer – that’s summer here and summer over there as well! – in Ramadan to Abu Dhabi. I found the electrical engineer concerned, walked into his office, sat down, and he said to me ‘I’ve never seen anybody from your company before and the answer is no.’ I thought ‘I’ve come all this way for a no!’  Anyway, we talked a bit, drank a bit, and eventually I gave him the equivalent of about £15,000 worth of equipment and we were back on the vendors’ list. That was easy compared to what I faced when I got back! I came back home and had to sit before the Board of Directors. I told the Sales Director ‘I have given them £15,000 worth of spares’. He was amazed!  He tailed off to the rest of the Directors and said ‘I think Peachment has gone mad,  the sun has got to him! He’s given away £15,000’.  Anyway, they eventually saw sense, we were back on the vendors’ list, and finally got an order for another twenty of these 1,350 horsepower machines.  And so I continued, not only the Middle East, but other territories including South Africa. I didn’t manage to do a lot in any other African country apart from South Africa. It was a very good place to operate in until I got mugged in Johannesburg, which was not so pleasant.  And I travelled all around the world selling this equipment.

Buying and selling from the East through Norwich

Eventually, after many years of persuasion a German fellow who knew me very well said ‘Please come and work in Hamburg. Come and work for me’.  I said ‘I don’t want to live in Germany’. He eventually gave way, financed me and I set up my own company in Norwich. I had a small office in Magdalen Street in Norwich and called my company Techno-Product Ltd, which had a very Eastern European twang about it. I had all sorts of different products. Believe it or not I was selling anything from one ton gas cylinders for chlorine to very tiny magnets for loudspeakers, which I bought from Russia. I was buying railway wheels from East Germany and selling them to British Rail. Little did they know that I was bringing in railway wheels from East Germany, as it was then unheard of for British Rail to buy from Eastern Europe.  I was bringing them in through West Berlin, drilling holes in them, painting them green and giving them a certificate of Western European source.  So there we were selling railway wheels to British Rail.  My chlorine drum business took me to all sorts of strange places, not least of which was Egypt. Over there, in those days, they were using a lot of chlorine for purifying water, and on one occasion they alleged that one of our cylinders was leaking. Now, in the West, if you had a leak of chlorine you would immediately bring in all the experts and see what could be done. In Egypt, no! They sacked the manager of the pumping station and the water treatment station, so nobody knew what they were doing. I had to go there and see what the situation was.  We overcame it. Later in Saudi Arabia we had a situation where they believed that these large chlorine water purification cylinders contained alcohol. Now that really did cause distress!  So overall I had a great experience of what the rest of the world is like. Some people have said ‘Oh, does travel broaden the mind?’  I suppose it really does. But in some ways it’s made me more xenophobic and more anxious to try and conform and I find that very difficult.  I suppose this is really the result of being a Norfolk man!  Because in Norfolk ‘we du different’ (laughs).

The Eastern bloc was a bit different to the Chinese Communist countries. The Eastern bloc way of working was very, very inefficient. People were very hard up, very poor. They were very friendly, and took you to their homes, but they lived in these great big Eastern European blocks of flats with hardly more space than a battery chicken really.  They had one room where you lived, dined and slept, because it was turned into a bedroom at night. I first went to China to a British Energy exhibition, just as the Chinese were letting Westerners come in. I was on one of the very first British Airways flights to go there, into Peking. Again our accommodation was…. it was called The Friendship Hotel. It was like a great block house, and we were all put into this place. There was no air conditioning, but the people were so friendly. There was no crime and you had no need to lock your suitcase or door. I spoke no Chinese and they spoke no English, well not the ones I came across, and yet we laughed so much together. The food was genuine then, not like the stuff you get served up in England these days. I very soon learned to either starve or use chopsticks. I was there about 40 years ago, bearing in mind today is 2009, and went to places like Tiananmen Square, which these days is absolutely crowded. Then, it was deserted. I went to the Great Wall of China, again, absolutely deserted!  And it was only 35 to 40 years later when I went back to China on a holiday that I realised just how things had changed.  Motorways had been built, buildings put up everywhere and cars blocking the roads, as opposed to the early days when there was nothing but bicycles lining the streets. That to me was one of the greatest changes I had ever seen during my travelling period.

Retirement: selling greenhouses and voluntary work

I retired when I was 61.  I’ll put in some financial information here:  Annuities for pension funds were going down and down and down. At that time a lump sum of £100,000 would result in a pension of £10,000 a year.  What do we get now?  Probably £5,000 if we’re lucky.  So I decided that I would retire and unlike most people who say ‘Oh what shall I do now?’ I was offered a job, believe it or not, selling greenhouses!  I was asked ‘In view of your experience in exhibition work (which I’d done in Peking, Hanover, Cologne, and everywhere else) would you go to the Royal Norfolk Show and sell greenhouses?’  Seemed rather a strange thing to do, but I did and I became quite successful at selling glasshouses. It was easier selling greenhouses to Norfolk people than it was electrical equipment to Arabs. So I continued that for some time but stopped because all sorts of other interests occurred. I’ve always been a country man, and I was quite interested in the activities of the Norfolk Society, who are now the Norfolk Branch of Campaign for the Protection of Rural England.  So I joined that, and did my best to help them.

Later on Gressenhall Workhouse and Museum were advertising for volunteers, so I went along to that for an interview and decided I’d probably like to do that. They said ‘Right, we have a training period of about six weeks so come along’. Well, I almost gave up halfway through, because for the first time in my then 68 years I was CRB checked -that’s checked by the police- which was a bit of a shock. I had to do a hygiene certificate in case I did any cooking in the farmhouse. There were all sorts of Health & Safety aspects and all sorts of training on how to treat children, adults, the disabled, and old age pensioners. This Nanny State almost caused me to pack up.  But I continued anyway, and we all had to give a presentation at the end of the course, during which I presented a programme about farming before tractors. I successfully passed this training and was given a job as a volunteer.  We’re called ‘mardlers’. The word ‘mardler’ is the Norfolk word meaning people that speak a lot.  I’m a mardler!  Anyway I decided that the place for me would be on the farm, and so there I am down on the farm, driving a tractor with a trailer on the back with seats for visitors. I’m among rare breed animals. We have Large Black pigs, Norfolk Horn sheep and Red Poll cattle, which brings me to another interest of mine.  I’m interested in rare breed farm animals.  They’re animals which are rare simply because they are the old traditional breeds, they grow slowly, don’t mature very quickly, and they’re probably a bit too fat for the supermarkets. So really they don’t fall in line with modern requirements, either for a farmer to make a living or for supermarkets to sell their meat.

I then had a telephone call ‘Would you be so kind as to come along and be a member of the Patients’ Participation Group?’  Once I ascertained what that was, that it was a small group in the village where they have people that liaise between doctors and clinical staff and the patients in the street I joined.  Eventually I became Chairman of that, and still am. Another interest is our village magazine called Link Up. It covers Swanton Morley, East Bilney, Gressenhall and Hoe, and I found myself involved with that, initially distributing but now becoming more and more involved in the production and all other aspects of the magazine.

I still see my old work colleagues. About three or four years ago we started to have a reunion of Laurence Scott people and there were about 250 people turned up. Bearing in mind, in its heyday there were 4,000 people employed in Norwich  a 200 odd turn up for this reunion is good. We had a fellow there last year who was 91. The sort of loyalty and affection that we had and still have for the old company is unknown today. I mean if you got a job at Laurence Scott then you were there for life, just as with Norwich Union and other institutions. Whilst I was working at Laurence Scott we occasionally had a trip to the great city of London, in the days when ladies of the night were in doorways in Soho. We all thought that was quite interesting!  They still have a very strong Pensioners’ Association. I’m not a member and I don’t admit to being a pensioner, but they do have such an organisation. I think Laurence Scott at the moment is under Austrian ownership, which as an ex-export man for them is a bit of a horror story for me. But I hear they’re doing very well which I’m glad to hear, although I think they only employ about 500 people now.  You probably don’t know, but Laurence Scott is on Kerrison Road, which is behind the football club at Carrow Road. In fact a lot of the Laurence Scott car park has been taken over by Norwich City Football Club. Looking back, even before my time, if workers there were ill they were taken away to a rest home at East Carleton, which was owned by Laurence Scott, and they were there at the Company’s expense until they got better. There was a tremendous amount of two-way loyalty, the people that worked there and the people for whom we worked, something which I don’t see today.  But be careful because the grumpy old man will come out again!  There doesn’t seem to be the sort of loyalty in both directions that there was then. Also in terms of reunions, we have a Norwich City College reunion. I went to one about two weeks ago and it was the 48th year we were celebrating this reunion. And as for Hammonds Grammar School, or Swaffham Grammar School as it is now known, we have an annual lunch for that and about 120 people turn up. So there’s a lot of nostalgia in my life.  I’ve often heard it said that ‘nostalgia is not what it used to be’ (laughter)

It’s interesting when people ask me that with all the areas I’ve travelled I’ve to what is my favourite place. And I say ‘Woodgate, Swanton Morley’. I think that if I was transposed into another time, was about 30 years old and qualified, I would be off to New Zealand. And the strange part about it is that in spite of all my travels I’ve never been there. I like Switzerland a great deal, spend a lot of time in Switzerland, and they are still looking after a little bit of my money (laughs). But I realised early on that to be successful in Switzerland you have to be Swiss. They had a referendum, oh… 30 years ago: ‘Shall we send all foreigners back?’, and do you know they only lost that by 51 to 49.  But to the things that people say to me like ‘Were your schooldays the best days of your life?’ I reply ‘Not yet!’  (laughs). I think I’ve really enjoyed all my life, but I thank God that I did it at the right time. I travelled in the Middle East when it was perfectly safe. I travelled in Eastern Europe when it was perfectly safe. There wasn’t the threat of danger from flying in aircraft that there probably is now. Terrorism was not something which was high on the agenda, so I had a happy life. No, I mustn’t say ‘I had’. I haven’t finished yet!  I’ve had a happy life, but I’m glad I did it when I did, which sounds like a statement of ‘I’m glad I’m old’. I’m not glad I’m old, but I wouldn’t want to do the things I did then now, so I’m much happier being a gardening peasant, sitting with my memories back here in the centre of the earth, Woodgate, Swanton Morley!

Ted (b. 1937) talking to WISEArchive on 27th April 2009 in Swanton Morley

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