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The Risdene Echo, December 2007
Distant Memories - Peter Butler

Whilst at the Mill Theatre at Sharnbrook recently I recalled the days, before it was a theatre, when Geoff Morgan did the electrical work there.  I also remembered that I had been asked to write another piece of those seemingly far off days, and yet, in some respects, quite recent.  Must be something to do with getting older!

The Mill at Sharnbrook was owned by the Hipwell family who lived in a largish house next to the mill.  Power for the mill was by a water wheel which also drove a small dynamo.  There was no mains electricity in the mill or in the house.  The power for the house was provided by a large bank of batteries which were kept charged by the dynamo.  The biggest drain on these batteries was an old electric cooker that Mrs.Hipwell used.  When we turned it on the lights really dipped.  These batteries were really large.  Most of you will remember the small glass batteries used for early radio sets.  The electrodes were lead and the liquid was sulphuric acid.  Now imagine a larger version of these that measured something like 9ins x 9ins by 18ins tall.  They were heavy and held lots of acid.  In those days we had no protective clothing, goggles or even rubber gloves.  You always wore the oldest pair of overalls because you knew that at the end of the week they would be full of holes.  You looked as though Al Capone had used you for target practice.  Weeks before the work was to be done, Geoff would order a large carboy of sulphuric acid which would come in a large crate, protected by straw, and, like most things then, arrived by rail.  Having disconnected the batteries they would be carried outside to the edge of the mill race.  Whether the old acid was tipped into the river I can’t remember, but certainly we used the river water for washing out the containers.  On one memorable occasion I remember I had just got a bucketful of water out of the river when Gus Harris came up holding one of the batteries.  One of the electrodes broke off, dropped, broke the glass and drenched Gus with acid.  I just threw the bucket of water at him and thankfully saved him from being burnt.  When at last they did have the mains connected it was, initially, for just one light in the yard.

For many years the annual factory holidays in the area meant an outing for most of Geoff’s workforce.  This was to the small leather tannery and dressing firm of Reginald Dickens at Harrold.  During that fortnight every motor in the factory had to be overhauled.  The procedure was for motors to be dismantled and the dust blown out.  A year’s accumulation of dust being blown out could be quite impressive.  The bearings would be washed out with paraffin and repacked with new grease, the windings of the motor would be washed with petrol and then painted with black shellac, the whole motor then being reassembled.  Can you imagine what the Health and Safety authorities would have said about how we did the work in those days?

Let’s move a little nearer to home, to what I know as Odell Folly.  I refer to the few houses situated at the junction of the Hinwick and Odell roads.  Just up the road towards Hinwick there was another small leather company whose name was, I think, Tustins, or something like that.  Geoff had done some work for them but this job we did stuck in my memory because of what we were asked to do.  The owner, who also did a bit of farming, had asked Geoff if we could do some alterations to the drawbar of a piece of farm equipment.  If memory serves me right it was Reg Wheeler and yours truly who did the work.  We had no power equipment available so it meant sawing and drilling by hand.  It was hard work but we did it, something that today no one would contemplate unless they had all the power tools.

It’s strange how some things stick in the memory, even simple, almost routine jobs we used to do.  This one was out at Tilbrook Grange.  The farm had a manager who lived in a largish house at the farm.  For some reason the immersion heater at the house always seemed to have a short life.  Anyone who has had any dealings with immersion heaters will know what a pig they can be.  Invariably they will have become corroded and getting them out was always difficult, not least because they were always in an airing cupboard with limited space.  Eventually I cracked this problem by putting plenty of Vaseline on the threads of the heater and not doing it up too tight.  The grease stopped any leakage and made it so easy the next time it failed.  I often had a quiet chuckle to myself when I used to get called there because the manager’s wife, who was rather posh, used to call her husband from across the road with such things as “Guy darling, telephone”.  Even now, some 50 years later, I can still hear her voice.

One final set of memories came flooding back recently when I learned of the death of Rod Walker.  I first met Rod when he worked for Cyril Norris in Wellingborough Road.  When John Orme started his own company he took with him several men from Norris’s including Rod and Ernie Houghton.  Orme’s developed a rotational moulding machine which was quite a radical step forward in the way things were made from plastic.  Geoff did all the electrical development work for these machines and for quite some time several of us were employed almost full time of this work, in fact I remember weeks when we only went to Church Street on a Friday to collect our wages.  The work was interesting being totally different from our normal work.  What today would be done electronically all had to be done electro/mechanically.  Because these machines were exported all over the world, all the electrics had to be compliant with the different voltages/frequencies etc used in that particular country.  I think that some of my happiest days were spent at John Orme’s in Midland Road in Higham Ferrers.  After I left Geoff’s I know that Orme’s used the old station for storage – but if I start on railways....

Other memories from Peter:
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