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Two Rooms And A View: 60 - An Extra Hour In Bed

Robert Owen has a rude awakening when he fails to reach the required standard on a draughtman's course.

In May 1953, I gladly threw away my boiler suit and had an extra hour in bed. Clad in sports jacket and flannels, I joined thousands of office workers who started at 8.45 a.m.

The Drawing Office School (D.O.S.) was situated at New Town and had a pleasant location overlooking the sports field. The D.O.S. Training Instructor was a Harry Robson who, we were told, had taught most of the firm's draughtsmen during the past decades.

Like myself, it had long been normal practice for apprentices to spend at least two years in the factory and then, subject to satisfactory progress at evening classes, transfer to the D.O.S. for three months’ training before being allowed in the Drawing Office. What I found that morning in May was not what I expected.

On entering the D.O School, I was met by an unruly crowd of sixteen-year-olds. Further inspection confirmed there was only one other person my age. He was Don Thompson, a fellow apprentice whom I knew from evening classes. We were both shocked.

Before we could say or do anything, Harry Robson took Don and me aside and explained, "Following change in company policy to try to encourage more apprentices into the drawing office, this is the first intake of a group of sixteen-year-old first year apprentices.

Harry was practically apologetic, as he saw both of us were amazed. I think he thought the same as we did: It was grossly unfair to us, that these new, inexperienced apprentices were to proceed to the drawing office, without ever being in the factory or attending evening classes, yet Don and I were only allowed to proceed after two years in the factory, satisfactory progress with our studies, and an appraisal interview!

Unknown to us, there had been a major training crisis with an insufficient number of apprentices seeking to go into the Drawing Office. (Perhaps this was due to the inflated piece-work rates that many earned in the factory.) Whatever the reason, the outcome seemed grossly unfair, indefensible and paradoxical to us.

I think Harry Robson disliked the idea of younger students as much as we did. He certainly had a much more difficult task and was often exasperated by their lack of experience. He used to lecture before and after lunch. The rest of the day was spent on individual tuition while the remainder of the group practised their drawing skills. Harry was a quiet, serious-minded tutor with endless patience and with these younger apprentices, he needed it.

A happier memory of this time was when, following my suggestion, we entered a team in Reyrolles Interdepartmental Cricket Knock-Out Competition. This was a twenty-overs per side competition, played in the evenings for teams throughout the factory and offices.

Some departments had over a hundred personnel from which to choose. We had sixteen, and some of them were not interested. We did eventually find eleven who could hold a cricket bat, albeit some for the very first time.

In an attempt to get some much-needed practice, somebody brought in a cricket bat and ball and we ventured onto the empty sports field during one lunchtime. Before a ball could be bowled, we were spotted and chased off by two security staff who threatened to report us if we ever stepped on that hallowed turf again during the lunch break.

In the first round we were drawn against a factory team, who, when they appeared, were amazed to find, apart from Don and me, a team of school leavers. They were unaware of the change of company policy and expected a much older and experienced team. However, we did not disappoint and although we got well beaten, an enjoyable evening was had by all concerned.

1953 was a momentous year for sport and most of it happened between May and September when I was in the D.O. School.

First, England's most famous footballer, Sir Stanley Matthews at 38 years of age won his only cup final winner's medal. He achieved this when he spearheaded a remarkable Blackpool come-back against Bolton. After being 3-2 down with only two minutes remaining, Blackpool won 4-3, with Tyne Dock born Stanley Mortenson scoring a hat-trick.

Secondly, leading jockey, Gordon Richards, then in the autumn of his long career, never having won the Derby, surprised everyone by riding Pinza to victory in the June 1953 Derby.

Thirdly in August, the England cricket team led by Len Hutton, the country's first professional captain, won back the Ashes from Australia for the first time in nineteen years.

The non-sporting event that dominated the year, however, was the Queen's Coronation in June. Everybody had two days’ holiday.

I also remember the academic year 1952/3 because it was the first time I attended a day-release course instead of the traditional three evenings a week. Perhaps this was my downfall?

I must have enjoyed the above sporting events too much and neglected my studies because in early September, I got the shock of my life. I failed the mathematical content of the three subject grouped course. This was the first examination I had ever failed, and the result was disastrous.

The Technical Panel applied its sanction and I was told to return to the factory. This seemed utterly ridiculous, when all the sixteen-year-olds on the same course in the D.O.S. were allowed to proceed, yet they had not even started on my level of study and also lacked any factory experience.

This failure was a huge disappointment to me. The only explanation I could find was that I must have become too complacent during my new mode of attendance. This, however, made me much more determined to succeed, even if it meant going back to the factory and evening classes three nights a week.

Attending a day-release course instead of evening classes had also produced another problem and a major disagreement with my mother. The difficulty was that I went to college on a Friday, which was payday. My mother firmly stated that she couldn't manage through the weekend without my wages and if I wanted to eat, I had better go up to Reyrolles after college to collect my dues.

I thought of asking someone to collect my wages, but I didn't know anyone who lived near Reed Street and, more important, I didn't want them to know where I lived. So after college on a Friday, I could be seen cycling to Hebburn when everybody was going the other way. "Forgotten something Bob?" was the repetitive cry.

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