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Two Rooms And A View: 54 - Studying Part Time

...Therefore, on the last afternoon, with great embarrassment, I stood on a chair and gave a rendering of 'Good King Wenceslas' before a collective audience of drawing office staff. For this, I received a combined Christmas and leaving present of 2.10s.Od (2.50p) - or the equivalent of two and a half weeks' wages! I had never had so much money in my life. I gave half to my mother and saved the rest...

Robert Owen becomes an apprentice engineer and enters the world of part-time study.

During the summer of 1950, the often forgotten Korean War started. It lasted three years and involved thousands of National Service personnel. I didn't think much of it at the time, but when I heard that National Service had been increased from 18 to 24 months because of the war, I started to take notice. After all, if I didn't get an apprenticeship at Reyrolles, I could be 'serving the Queen' in about two years. It applied the mind.

However, the progress from a Messenger to an Apprentice was not automatic. I had to compete with external applicants via an entry examination and interview. The former was concerned with simple mechanical problems and caused little difficulty. The interview was much more demanding with the panel probing to find any evidence of practical skills.

I don't know if they found any of mine, but the outcome was that a few days later, I received a letter informing me of my acceptance as an engineering apprentice. I was to start in January 1951 and one of the conditions was that I should attend evening classes three nights a week. The letter explained that, if successful, day release might be possible.

In fact, I had already started attending evening classes in September 1950. Little did I realise that this would be the beginning of twenty-five intermittent years of part-time study.

What amazed me at the time of enrolment was, that within such a large organisation as Reyrolles, no help or guidance was offered to a naive fifteen-year-old like myself. I gathered from asking questions in the drawing office that I should aim for an Ordinary National Certificate in Mechanical or Electrical Engineering.

However, after asking more questions, I found the entry qualification for such a course was four G.C.E. 'O' levels. I had none and was directed to a two-year Junior Course known as J1 and J2. I also found out that this course was not held at the local technical college, but at my former school - Stanhope Road Secondary.

One evening in early September 1950, I presented myself for enrolment to commence my part-time studies. Again no guidance was available at Reyrolles and I had to rely on the advice of a former classmate from school to save a year of unnecessary study.

Brian Graham, a small dark-haired intelligent lad who had always been in the top two or three in our class, was my adviser. He had an older brother who had been 'through the mill' and knew what he was talking about. Brian said, "Go straight into J2 like me and save yourself a year." This I did and the enrolling staff asked no questions or evidence of ability.

We coped with the mathematics, science and engineering drawing very well and I enjoyed Brian's friendship for another year.

Physically going to evening classes was not a problem but the cost of going was something for which I was not prepared. First there was the Course Fee. This was not so bad because if a satisfactory attendance and examination result was obtained, the fee was refunded by the Company, albeit twelve months later. My immediate problem was, where does the course fee come from for somebody earning 1 a week with 2/6d pocket money and no savings?

Secondly, there was the cost of equipment. A drawing board and T square were essential and drawing instruments, textbooks, a slide rule and folders were also required.

My mother was furious and said, "You are supposed to be bringing money in, not taking it out!" She suggested that I should ask at work about having a cheap drawing board made there. In my naivety I did just that and got my first lesson in economics off Mr Mordue. He patiently explained, although Reyrolles had a large Joiners' Shop, it would cost a long way more for a joiner to make a one-off drawing board, than it would to buy a mass-produced one in the shops.

In the end, my mother borrowed some money so I could go to evening classes. Where she got it from I shall never know as she had lost her banker, my grandmother.

Working as an Office Messenger also helped my social education. I was extremely shy when I first started at Reyrolles, but by with mixing with other people, and learning to approach individuals I didn't know, for lost drawings etc., I was much more confident by my departure.

There was also great cameraderie amongst the many messengers and we had a sort of informal Association of Office Boys - there weren't many Office Girls. We used to help and cover for each other and share stories while waiting at the print room window for copies of drawings.

Although I knew several of my fellow messengers from schoolboy days - some from Stanhope Road School, many new friendships were born during that nine months in 1950, none more so than Jimmy McDowell, Derek Seymour and later, Ernie Ovington.

Unlike me, they weren't keen on football or cricket, but enjoyed cycling. In spite of this difference, we became good friends during the next five years. On the Monday of my last week, my replacement arrived. He was Richard Murt, yet another Stanhope Road School lad.

As Reyrolles finished for Christmas 1950, my time as a messenger in the Cable Section came to an end. It was only on my last day I was told of a tradition that both pleased and alarmed me. The tradition was that a collection would be made for my Christmas present, but that I would have to earn it by 'singing for my money'.

Therefore, on the last afternoon, with great embarrassment, I stood on a chair and gave a rendering of 'Good King Wenceslas' before a collective audience of drawing office staff. For this, I received a combined Christmas and leaving present of 2.10s.Od (2.50p) - or the equivalent of two and a half weeks' wages! I had never had so much money in my life. I gave half to my mother and saved the rest.

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