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The Risdene Echo, June 2004
A Rushden Apprenticeship - Peter Butler

Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, August 1949 was to be one of the most important periods of my life.  The events of the first two weeks of that month were to shape the rest of my life.

During War years I travelled with my parents from where I was born in Podington to the places where my father had been “posted” by the powers that be.  My father, a shipwright by profession, was called up for service, first to the Naval Dockyards at Portsmouth and then to a secret Naval Base just outside Oban in Argyllshire.

As a result of this, I was quite a seasoned traveller and it was these journeys that led to my interest in trains.

When the War was over the authorities didn’t need my father so we came back from Scotland and set up home in Wymington.  My interest in trains continued and I decided that I wanted to work on the railways.  July 1949 saw my formal education finishing at Harrold County Modern Secondary School and I duly applied for a job on the railways.  Being interested in signalling I applied for, and was accepted as, a booking boy at Finedon Road signal box in Wellingborough.  Then within days of my being sent to start work, I received a letter saying that the railway management had just realised that I wore glasses and consequently could not employ me.

What to do?  At Harrold I had developed an interest in science and was one of a few lads who were always experimenting with pieces of equipment, which were retrieved from a large USAF dump near Harrold.  I often wondered if the site was cleared or if it was just buried.

I remember going into the shop in the High Street in Wymington and pouring out my tale of woe to the shopkeeper, Mrs Foulkes.  She said that she had just had some electrical work done at the shop by Morgan’s of Rushden and they had said, in passing, that they wanted an apprentice.  I got on my bike, cycled into Rushden, found Geoff Morgan and said, “I understand you want an apprentice and, well – here I am!”  His first question was, “Do I know your father?”  He did, and so I was offered an apprenticeship after a year’s trial.

Recently I dug out my Deed of Apprenticeship.  Today we might find the working a bit strange.  Geoff was ‘The Master’, I was ‘The Apprentice’ and my father was ‘The Guardian’.  According to the Deed that my father signed, he was to provide me ‘board, clothing and lodging and all necessary tools and text books’.  Well he certainly honoured the first part, but Geoff Morgan provided the tools and I paid him back from my wages.  The witness to all three signatories was Geoff’s niece, Joyce Bugby, who worked in the office.  (Sadly Joyce died at the time of writing this in April 2004).

We worked a five and a half day week, but this was invariably a six‑day week.  Much of the work was with local industry and they were working flat out to get back to full production after the War and to modernise their factories.

One of the jobs the new apprentice had to do was the round, on the shop bike, every Thursday morning collecting the batteries for recharging.  There was some mains around, but many folk still had battery-operated models, with a large dry battery for the HT supply and the accumulator for the LT supply.

Once back at the shop, the batteries had to be cleaned, wired up and put on charge for 24 hours.  Then on Saturday morning back they went, rain, hail or snow!  I also had to collect the 6d’s.  That was the cost of charging the batteries.  It was a job that nobody liked and I waited for the news that a new apprentice was starting so I could show him what to do and leave him to it!  Ironically it was to be my cousin, Bryan Hadley, who was to follow me.

Most of our work was in local factories and it might be worth listing a few just to bring back some memories.  B.Denton & Sons, Jaques and Clark’s, Allebone’s, Sanders and Sanders, Strong and Fisher’s and, not forgetting their other tannery at Raunds, Wellington Tannery.  On my way there the first time, I was told we were going to work at a scent factory!  Other names that come to mind include Chapman’s Box Factories, Fred Hawkes, George Selwood’s, The Echo Printing Works in Park Road, John Orme’s and North’s the Dentists in the High Street.  My wages at first amounted to £1.2s.6d a week.  A pound I gave to my mother and I had the Half Crown.

Thinking back to those early days, the names of the people who worked for Geoff included Bill Juby, (of whom more anon), Bill Rising, Dave Smart, Gordon Stanton, Reg Wheeler, Stan Robinson, Wilf Hickman, Albert Snelling and Gus Harris, whilst in the shop and office side, apart from Joyce and Mrs Morgan, there were Sylvia Brown, Barbara Wiggins (Geoff Wiggins’ sister), Mary Lambert and a girl called Kay, who I think came from Wymington.

Stan Robinson (whose father kept “The Wheatsheaf”) owned what in those days was a powerful motorbike.  I was on the back with him once on our way to Tillbrook Grange and on the straight stretch between Chelveston and Hargrave, Stan did almost a 100mph!  I don’t think I have been so scared in all my life.  Of course in those days no one wore crash helmets.  The next day, setting off from the workshops in Fitzwilliam Street, something happened and we were both thrown off the bike.  Thankfully no harm came to riders or bike.

The workshops were situated over Teddy Chettle’s stables which were just off Fitzwilliam Street and are still there today.  It meant that everything, stock, repairs etc had to be lifted up to that first floor.  During the winter we had a ‘tortoise stove’.  Have I got the right name for it?  This used coke and it was the apprentice’s job to light it every morning.  They also had to go with a driver in a van to buy bags of coke from the retort ovens at the gas works in Shirley Road.  In the summer we had to endure the ripe smells that arose from the stables under our feet.  We were there for quite a number of years before Geoff bought the property next to 28 Church Street and in consequence was able to move the workshops.  This is now the Pizzeria Venezia.

As mentioned above, many of the factories were modernising their production lines.  Invariably this meant getting rid of the miles of shafting that adorned the factory walls, motorising each machine and installing florescent lighting.  At B.Denton’s in Station Road we designed, built and fitted the frame for all the electric motors on every machine, which meant that hardly two designs were the same.  I’ve known the factory to close for lunch and in that hour for a machine to be converted so as to be ready for use after the break!

Although Geoff Morgan had a couple of Morris vans, quite a number of journeys were done by bus.  We had a long period of work at Gamage’s factory at Finedon.  I can remember taking lengths of conduit on the bus, laying it down the gangway and then walking half a mile to the factory.  For most local places we used our bikes.  I used to bike home to Wymington for lunch on most days, and when I think I started at the Tech in Wellingborough that meant another three nights a week of cycling back to Rushden to catch the bus.  I must have cycled a few thousand miles in my time.  It also perhaps explains why I have no desire to cycle these days, apart from the safety issue.  Thankfully when day release started it meant I didn’t have to go in the evenings, in fact it made my working life much easier.

As the years passed by I was getting more interested in electronics.  Television sets were making an appearance and I started doing some small repairs for Geoff.  Bill Juby was the radio and television engineer, but he was having increasing health problems and finally had to give up work.  He had worked on radar installations during the War whilst they were in use and the result was that Bill suffered from an unusual form of dermatitis.

When Bill had to stop work, Geoff asked me if I would like to take his place.  I was happy to do this and so I started on what was to be my second career.  It also meant my going back to Tech.  Having qualified I really felt that my further education days were over.  Little did I realise that at the ripe old age of 39, Unilever, which I joined in 1974, would ask me to go back to College again.  But that’s another story.

Other memories from Peter:
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