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Chas' life, WORKING LIFE

From Apprentice to retirement

Leaving school

Back in 1957 I was 16 and had just left Privet Secondary School in Gosport. Ahead lay MY future. In the summer I was used to 6 weeks holiday from school and now that was no more. I spent the time looking around for apprenticeships in engineering. The big firms were in Portsmouth and one in the Isle of Wight. Yes I even considered the possibility of traveling to Cowes to work at Saunders Roe. There was also Camper & Nicholson in Gosport where I actually paid a visit. I took entrance exams for many companies before finding Blake & Sons on my door step.

Blake & Sons

I had felt pretty depressed and rejected by now and it was a real tonic to find this small company which offered me a chance. I started a months trial. If I got on I was to be offered an Apprenticeship. We all need a good Samaritan to start off in life and I had found mine in Mr. Beasley the managing director. I think the hours were 50 a week, starting at 7:30 and finishing at 6:30 with an hour for lunch. I was to get 1 shilling and 3 1/2 pence (7 new pence) per hour! About £3.50 for the week.

A Trade Apprenticeship

My time was spent with various machine operators a Tin Smith and even a Black Smith. I accepted all this new experience as normal. The firm did a lot of sub contract work for boat builders. They had one main product of their own. It was a boat toilet ! They also made a range of sea cocks made from Gunmetal castings which were machined and fettled (filed). There was a hot dipped galvanizing bath where steel components could be coated in zinc. I will never forget the peculiar acrid smell. The firm also did electro plating. Chromium plate is applied to brass and steel this way. Actually steel has to be copper plated first. I was interested in the electrical equipment required for electro-plating. I think it was low voltage and high direct current. (D.C.).

I was to be a FITTER & TURNER. Filing, turning, grinding, machining etc. were skills of the trade. I spent time in different departments with various people. One job I had to do was to re-cut the threads on long galvanized keel bolts. These were often 1 to 2 inches in diameter and many feet long. The bolts would be held a chuck of a lathe and a die box offered up to the thread. If I was lucky a clean thread would be the result. If not the thread would get stripped off !

The milling machine was considered to be the most dangerous on the shop floor. There was one called Cincinati and was made in America. I spent a few months with an operator before being allowed to operate it myself. It was being used to machine large aluminium castings for an XRAY machine. Many of the machines were quite old as they were driven by a leather belt from an electric motor mounted on top. To engage drive a lever pulled the belt across. In previous times I suspect that many machines would have been powered from one large motor or even a water wheel. It must have been very noisy then as the belts had metal links.

Day release

I rode a bike to work passing through Alverstoke and down past the creek. If the tide was up very high I would have to take a longer route. I started Day Release, one day a week at Portsmouth Tech. which was within walking distance of the ferry terminal. I would catch the Hants & Dorset bus which went all the way to the Gosport Ferry. It was a steam boat and all the dockies would have their bikes piled up in the bow. I remember coal being shovelled aboard seeing the steam engine and feeling the heat.

I got used to the speed of a chuck and could tell almost by instinct if it was right for the job. High speed for small jobs, low speed for large jobs. Some of the machines were huge. One lathe chuck was at least 6 ft in diameter. The band saw was at least 1 1/2 inches with a bed plate over 8 ft square. Some of the larger drilling machines could take 2 inch drill bits. I learnt how to sharpen drills, milling tools and make lathe tools.

Clocking on

Every job undertaken had a card to clock your time on. I remember that my number was 656 ! The foreman was called Bert Dash. He would run round asking if you were "all right chum". Two lads Eddie and Jacko were my best mates.

Most of the people were helpful. One or two I simply hated. They would pick on me but most of the time I just took it without biting. One day I had had enough. One bloke lifted me up in the washroom so I used my legs to push against the sink. We both went flying and hit the wall behind. He never bothered me again. I've never been that violent towards anybody before or since.

All new apprentices get `initiated'. The procedure consisted of greasing your private parts. All the apprentices take part. I got the bumps before having my trousers pulled down. It was most uncomfortable.

There was a Social Club. A room to which you could go to play Ping Pong, Snooker or Darts. We were able to bring guests in the evenings. One day a week I took along my record player and we would have a jive session. Connie Frances, Everly Brothers, Elvis, Cliff Richard and Jazz with Chris Barber and Acker Bilk were in the pop scene then! Also Rolling Stones and Manfred Mann. Once a year the firm had a dance around Christmas time and I was encouraged to enjoy proper dancing.

Time to move on

I spent a few more months as a qualified Fitter & Turner before being persuaded to leave for my own benefit. I had applied to the A. E. W. for a job. I was invited for an interview in March 1964. I was offered the position of Laboratory Mechanic and given 231 shillings (£11.50) rising to 323 shillings (£16.15) for a 42 hour week. So I went for it.

I had a large box of tools which I had bought myself. I was always told to "get your own" when trying to borrow tools. So these all went with me. The A.E.W. was a 'closed shop' which meant belonging to a trades union so I joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union. I refused to pay the 'political levy' as that went to the Labour Party! All pay and conditions were negotiated through the union.

It was so different with many other trades like foundry men making castings in sand, carpenters, electrical engineers, draftsmen and people who carried out performance testing. There was a cavitation tunnel in which propellers could be made to cavitate in water. A strobe light showed the bubbles spiralling away from the blades. It was quite a pretty sight.

I continued picking up information about electronics while at A.E.W. I even built an A.M. radio which picked up conversations between the Pompy Tug boats and their control centre. I learnt a lot about how to look after my mini van which I had then. I had passed all the exams at college and started teaching apprentices. I set up a milling machine to make gearwheels and turned fancy threads in brass on a lathe.

I really enjoyed the work and found it less hectic. So long as the job was correct it did not matter so much how long it took. Some items were quite difficult to make. Large model ships were made to scale and fitted out with electric motors, rudders and radio control all made in the work shops.

I got the chance to go to Fords at Dagenham, so we all went by coach. It was a real eye opener seeing all the engines being made from castings to machining to assembly to running it in using an electric motor. Then to see body shells being pressed out using huge machines, being welded together and painted. Finally watching as a brand new car start up and drive away. I stayed at the A.E.W. for 6 years until in 1970 the union got difficult and I left.

University of Southampton

I got an interview at the University of Southampton. My interest in electronics got me in and I started on £30 a week paid monthly. By then it was for a 35 1/2 hour week and I was 29.

I was required to help a post graduate with his research into rain gauges and how their catch was affected by wind. After working in a large machine shop this was something totally different and I found that I did not miss it one bit! My first task was to make a crate to carry water bottles. I had access to a small workshop and designed and built the crate. I made it like a milk bottle carrier only it was for much larger bottles. I was working in the Civil Engineering Department and had access to the wind tunnel. My mechanical skills were required for designing and building equipment. The graduate was called Michael Green. My electronic skills came in handy because I also had to make instruments to measure wind speed. The work was interesting and varied from week to week.

Michael actually worked for the Water Research Association in Medmenham, Buckinghamshire. He had some rain gauges set up in a field with anemometers to measure the wind speed. One gauge was set with its rim level with the ground. Equipment was setup inside to monitor and record rainfall and wind speed. This had been going on about 6 months before I started. This is the first job I had where I was directly involved. I traveled to W.R.A. several times and stayed for a week at a time. They had their own guest house down the road and it was very pleasant by the river Thames.

Back to college

It was suggested that I study electronics at college. So I went to Southampton Tech. to learn about Radio, Television and Logic circuits. I joined a class of students who were much younger than I and went one day a week for many years and managed to pass several exams.

I took photographs of water drops as they fell from a drop producer. They landed on or near a rain gauge. This was all inside the large wind tunnel! I also used a high speed cine camera but the results were not so good as the stills. The wind speed is measured using an anemometer which has 3 rotating cups. The instrument produces pulses which are counted and gives an average speed over a period of time. I produced equipment which recorded the pulses from several anemometers and this was used at the W.R.A. Michael also needed to measure the gustiness of the wind. This needed an instrument with a quick response. A hot wire anemometer is used for these readings. We devised a method to produce one for our selves. The wire was very fine and delicate. Each probe once made had to be calibrated in the wind tunnel. The resistance varied with wind speed and this was measured by electronics. The equipment was designed by an engineer at W.R.A. and I built it.

RACAL Thermionics

Michael Green finished his degree and I had little to do so Dr. Halliwell suggested that I should try RACAL for a job. I found the place tucked away down a side street. It was next to the Blanket factory, where Ann worked for a while. The year was 1973 and Christopher was only 5 years old.

So I parked the car up the road leading to the old Hythe railway station and went to see Mrs. Holden, the personnel officer. After a long wait and having filled in some forms I was shown round the factory. Then a talk with someone who wanted to make 'professional' test equipment. This would involve working from circuit diagrams and building from start to finish. It was quite informal and I was asked when I could start as a technician. I had to give a months notice to the University. It was a long month! I started on £35 a week.

I had not worked in a private company since my apprenticeship at Blakes. This place was so different. RACAL Thermionics, as it was then called produced industrial tape recorders for the Civil Aviation Authority. They employed about 400 people in a variety of trades and departments. From girls in production to men in design. Most of my working life was among men and this was the first time since Bakes that I had the chance to work with the ladies!

One Monday in August I started in the Engineering Dept. Tony Cross was the Technical Director of Research & Development. It was quiet and not many people about as it was the 'shutdown', for two weeks! John Lewis found me something to do. I worked with Ray Wood who had just finished a test box of which two was required. I built the second one. John was a design engineer and Ray was a technician. Ray and I spent some time looking round the factory which occupied many old buildings. There was a canteen and a social club.

Building test boxes

After the 'shutdown' the place got more active and I met Bob Hannan who was to be my supervisor for many years to come. He was a design engineer involved with producing Test Equipment. A new International Communications Recorder had been developed and we were to build all the test equipment for it.

Most test boxes were die cast boxes drilled for various connectors for power and signals and an edge connector for a printed circuit board to be tested. All the P.C.B's in the recorder from power supply to signal cards were individually tested before assembly into the recorder chassis. Once the electronic design of the box was complete I was able to do my own layout of the various switches and connectors. Then I drilled all the holes, got the box painted, labeled all the switch functions and wired it to the circuit diagram. All my own work from start to finish.

Ron Reeve joined the team as there was more work to do. We were called the Technical Services Group. I learnt a lot about how circuits worked and how to repair the faulty ones. Each P.C.B. was tested following a test spec. which described how to use the box. The test spec was derived from the performance spec. written for the P.C.B. The performance spec came from the Engineering Dept. So I kept close ties with the engineers and was involved with many of the new products being developed. I even got to check the functionality of the test boxes I had built. Most rewarding.


In 1974 the company moved to the new factory at Hardley Industrial Estate. It was far better with all departments under the same roof. Ever since then departments moved around got bigger and smaller. Offices built and taken down. Ray Willbourne, who lived next door, is kept busy by the maintenance department.

Many changes took place as different Managing Directors came and went. Mr.Chudley was the first I knew. Mr.Kempson came in 1982 and got rid of the machine shop but he did get the 'Store Horse' into the market. He then created the large assembly area. The Final Test department was next to get the treatment with much improved benches. Mr. Adrian Day arrived in 1989. He decided we all needed a nice new Canteen, we called it "Woodlands". It was run by an outside catering firm. It looks like a department store restaurant. Much better and for a while the food was good to match but we lost the Social Club. At the end of 1992, just before Christmas, Mr.Day left and Mr. Poole took over the running.

Record and replay

Tape recorders need 'heads' to transfer the information to and from the tape. Marketing required more tracks and much higher density. Our head shop was only making them for a limited product range. The 'Store Horse' heads were made in America. Then some new products started using video cassettes with ready made cheap decks and helical scanning heads. The head shop is no more. Most of the girls moved on to Printed Circuit Board production.


A large computer system, I C L, took over the running of production, with a program called OMAC while VAX was used by the development engineers. They are both mainframe computers with 'dumb' terminals. Since about 1992 Personal Computers linked to VAX via a network have become more popular. By then the VAX was a huge data base stored on large hard drives.


Bob decided to leave. It was a bit of a shock to Ron and myself. Worse still to come when we heard that Bob had died later that year. Some reorganisation took place. Ron worked for Engineering and I was taken on by Alan Goodwin in the quality department. John Campbell joined the team as a designer and Steve Geary helped as a contract wireman. We built the first Automatic Test Equipment system.

'Auto Store' had just been launched and we all got to work on a new set of test equipment. Computer systems were creeping into all sorts of new areas. Many new products had processors and software built in. Around this time 15% of the workforce had been made redundant including Ron Reeve. In fact all the technicians in engineering went. Suddenly in 1984 I got transferred to the Engineering Department.

Prototype technicians

Tony Miles had become Technical Director and I was to work as a technician building prototype circuits for design engineers. I was the only technician in the lab and it took some time to settle in. There was nothing specific for me to do so I found myself a bench claimed a soldering iron and waited for work. I wandered round finding out what was going on. Basically engineers 'design' and technicians 'build' so if I found an engineer building I suggested that I could do that. Very soon they got the message and work came my way from all directions. It was difficult to keep everybody happy.

The company took in several apprentices every year and one or two came my way each year. Most would end up in the final test department. Then one was taken on to work in the lab, his name was Steve Hunt. He was very clever and helpful. Then came Des Thomas and for a while we 3 technicians were happy building prototype circuits and testing systems. Sadly Steve died suddenly in 1988 and Des left soon after.

Gradually a new 'team' emerged. Andrew Moore and Clive Pearce were apprentices who, when qualified, were taken on in Engineering. Some contractors, Jim and Tom, were also employed for a while. Then Bill Dries another apprentice joined the 'team'. He was a jovial character and injected some fun into the lab. Clive was very methodical and eventually ended up in 'specials'. Both Andrew and Bill decided to go to University and left. Mean while Neil Truckell joined the team in 1990. He was a bit of a 'hippi' but did some very good work. He started as a contractor and later became a technician then an engineer.

Micro processors

In the 90’s things began to change. Micro Processors were the thing to go for. Software became dominant. The Drawing office invested heavily in Computer Aided Design. It became cheaper and quicker to produce circuit designs for P.C.B’s. Most of the work required of technicians reduced and declined until I found myself on my own again. I looked after Labstock, trained the apprentices and became a Safety Officer. Daryll Pullen was the last apprentice for the lab and he also went on to university. By now I was given Engineer status and paid accordingly.

Many pupils came for 'Work Experience' from Applemore School. I provided kits of electronics for them to build and keep. The first was a Dice then a Solid State Recorder.

I had become more involved with 'Rapidax Ranger', a rapid access multi-channel voice recorder based on computer technology and 90% software. While there were some improvements to the hardware, most of the functional performance improvements were down to software changes. These changes continued for many years. I tested the functionality and reported many faults in the software. I also made sure that the set of manuals were kept up to date. This was almost impossible as it was so easy to change the functionality.

More development

At the end of 1996 'Rapidax Ranger' moved to the Quality Department because 'Engineering' had finished the development. I went with it to the Technical Services Group. If you can remember, that is where I came from 12 years ago in 1984! In fact development continued with the addition of RADAR SIGNAL recording. This required an extra circuit board and a new set of software to test and evaluate. Some customers had problems 'in the field'. I was required to travel to Portsmouth Dockyard or Milford Haven with a colleague to help sort out the installation and give advice.

Redundant & Retired

Another much better product was being developed in 'engineering' which would replace the 'Ranger'. So it was taken off the market and I was made redundant in 1999 when I was 57. I later discovered that the company who wrote all the software had their own product on the market which was in competition with the 'Ranger' and was called 'Red Box'.

The chairman of RACAL, Sir Ernest Harrison retired and RACAL was sold to a French company. Then the RACAL RECORDERS COMPANY gradually disappeared.