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Two Rooms And A View: 112 – Her Harold Wilson Coat

Robert Owen’s wife Angela is drafted in as a secretary to a future Prime Minister.

To read earlier chapters of Robert’s life story please click on

Our oldest son, Michael, had just passed the 11 plus exam (unlike his dad) in Sale, so when we moved to Huddersfield, we chose a house in Almondbury near the 16th century King James’s Grammar School. We found ourselves living in a street of Leeds football supporters, and when Sunderland defeated the local team in the FA Cup Final the following May, our neighbours were not best pleased.

The main role of Huddersfield College of Education (Technical) was to train lecturers for further education. It had, however, many other tasks. For example I was involved in visiting colleges, teaching overseas students and designing Education Management courses before similar institutions had thought about them.

The college had a unique reputation. I recall one student who was sightless and was accompanied everywhere by a guide dog. His name was David Blunkett - a future Home Secretary.

The college recruited many students from Tyneside, and one of them was Jimmy McDowell, the best man at our wedding. We had lost contact after I left Shields and we met unexpectedly in the college library. Jimmy was amazed to find I was on the staff and not a student.

Another Geordie I remember was a mature, qualified accountant who had been made redundant. He had applied for a place on the one year Certificate of Education and I was assisting at his interview. After offering him a place, the
Chairman of the Interview Panel commented, "With your qualifications, if you are prepared to travel, you should have no difficulty in getting a job." The applicant replied in a serious voice, "Oh I have a car and can travel anywhere between Newcastle and Middlesborough." After he left, my colleagues wanted to know, "Is everyone on Tyneside so parochial?"

I worked at Huddersfield College during the infamous three-day week in 1973. This was caused by the miners going on strike and resulted in widespread power cuts. Plans were made for petrol to be rationed should the strike continue for a major length of time. Petrol coupons were to be issued only to essential car users. Like other staff at college, I was amazed to be classified as one of these and to be issued with very precious petrol coupons. Somebody in the national economic hierarchy must have highly valued our jobs of visiting students on teaching practice. Also, the coupons would have had a tremendous value on the black market. Fortunately Prime Minister Edward Heath called a general election on "Who runs the country?" and petrol was never rationed.

The College also ran a wide range of Short Courses, which were attended by personnel from all over the country. On such a course in 1976, I recall meeting someone who was a Training Officer at Reyrolles. We got on like two old friends and he invited me to visit my former company. I jumped at the chance and had a wonderful afternoon visiting former colleagues, although I was shocked to learn how redundancy had started to eat its way into the firm's workforce.

I was also greatly saddened to hear about the sudden death of my long time friend Andy Kinelato at a very young age. I knew Andy from school, work, football and national service days. In many ways, with his out-going personality, he was just the opposite to me, yet we got on well together. His light-hearted banter will long be remembered by all who knew him.

The academic environment of Huddersfield College lent itself to further study. I soon discovered that many of my new colleagues had higher degrees. I therefore enrolled on a three-year, two evenings a week, Master of Education course at the University of Manchester. At the same time, Angela, jokingly - at least I think she was joking - promised that any more study after this and my next degree would be a decree nisi!

Throughout our marriage, Angela has always been
tremendous in supporting me with my work and studies. Without her help I would never had achieved the things I have. During this time, she also taught Office Skills part time at numerous educational establishments in Tyneside, Cheshire and West Yorkshire.

In 1973, with our sons growing up, she took the opportunity to return to full-time study and obtained a Certificate of Education. Where did she choose to study? At Huddersfield College of Education where I worked.

Angela's attendance on this course brings back two interesting memories. First, to her credit, she gained a place and attended most of the one-year course with only two of the teaching staff knowing we were related. However, one fatal day, she forgot her purse. When staff and students saw me giving money to a female student in the middle of the refectory, we thought perhaps it was time we put our cards on the table.

The second incident concerned the former Prime Minister, Sir Harold Wilson. He was leader of the Opposition when in 1974 an election was announced while he was visiting Huddersfield. It was late Friday afternoon when we got a message at the college that he urgently needed the assistance of a shorthand typist for a morning press release and could we help?

Most of the Office Skills students were going home for the weekend so at very late notice, Angela was asked to assist. The job involved working with Harold Wilson and his Press Officer for about two hours in the posh George Hotel. The shorthand then had to be transcribed and phoned through to Labour Headquarters the following morning.

Money was never mentioned, but a few days later a letter of thanks with a handsome gratuity arrived from the future Prime Minister. For many years after that, Angela wore what she called her 'Harold Wilson' coat.

After satisfactorily completing the Certificate of Education course, Angela obtained a post teaching Office Skills at a nearby secondary school, where she taught full time until retiring early in 1990.


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