Eric Lamb's Wickford Story.

Eric Lamb

I have never actually worked in the “New Town” but what is now the Borough was a place where we lived and I travelled away from to earn a living. I knew parts of  the area during the 1940s, my Aunt lived in Florence Way Laindon and later Vange. Her husband was at one time a porter at Laindon station. To get to their bungalow in Florence Way you walked on railway sleepers laid to form a road.

My Father worked in the GPO with one of the early Councillors Mr Tanswell.

When we moved to Wickford the Basildon town centre was ‘Windy City’ and Woolworths used a mobile shop which they parked at Wickford overnight.

My wife and I moved to Wickford in December 1955, at the time Hereward Gardens was an “unmade road”, it was a wet day and the road was muddy. The van driver’s first words were “let’s find the kettle and brew up”. Hereward Gardens was one of three cul de sacs that backed on to Pattmore’s Meadow and Wickford Cricket ground. Ours was the last of the group of bungalows to be built and soon after we moved in some neighbours asked us to contribute to the purchase of hard-core and gravel to surface the road and to join the labour gang. Some of the neighbours were fanatics about the road, being out at all hours tamping the surface.

A couple of years later Carter & Ward purchased Pattmore’s Meadow and built houses on Swan lane. They also built a road, Edward Gardens, which linked Hereward Gardent and the two adjacent cul de sacs. Whilst building Edward Gdns C & W fenced our road off. Then we had the big storm and flooding. Water poured down our road and guided by the slope it started to flood one bungalow. We collected some tree trunks that I had chopped down from my garden and blocked the water’s path. We also moved C & W’s fence to release the water down to Swan Lane. At that time we were unaware of the bad flooding in the town centre.

Hereward Gardens was a mix of new bungalows, pre-war houses and some empty plots, with no known owners. The Council had previously told the owners of the pre-war properties that if and when the road was made up the council would bear the cost. Hence the builder did not want to take on the responsibility.  The road was not made up until 1960, and when they started they made one side of the road at a time. Unfortunately when one side had been completed the weather stopped further progress for weeks

Our bungalow cost £2100 and at that time Carter & Ward were selling bungalows for £1200, skirting boards were extra. Our builder charged extra to put three 3 by 1 slats of wood in the airing cupboard to make a second shelf. Another local builder was named ‘Robbery’.

At that time I worked as a technician in a GPO development laboratory located on one floor in the King Edward building the HPO, near St Pauls Cathedral. Along with a couple of my neighbours I used to travel up to London by the steam train from Wickford. For several months until our son was born in mid-1956 my wife travelled up to London by train. My fare was 3 shillings and 7 pence per day, “Workman’s Return”. By the end of 1956 the steam trains were withdrawn and replaced by the sliding door electric units that had been on the Shenfield section of the line.

In the late 1950s I joined Wickford Amateur Camera Club, which met at the St Andrews church Hall in London Rd. They held discussion nights and had several visiting lecturers. The club held internal competitions both black and white and colour slides, these were judged by some of the visiting lecturers. It was useful to know what the judge’s interests were and try to enter similar pictures to get favourable comments. Initially I had a second-hand Agfa Sillete but by the mid 1960s the Russians started to make cameras for export, these were based upon German designs, namely the Leica. I bought a Zenith which was a single lens reflex camera. The only problem was that it had a Leica thread and the reasonably priced interchangeable lenses (Japanese) did not use this thread. Nevertheless I used the Zenith for many years. The club was open to everyone, but only a few women participated. The Chairman was Jim Hearn, a local car mechanic at the Fuller & Gadson’s garage in Southend Rd. Some of the others were Bob Jones the local station master, Geoff Neil, the Manageress of the Bata shoe shop and her lady companion. Another lady member was Ricky Playle who came with her husband John. Geoff Neil lived in a turning off the London Road, and Dennis Darvel lived nearby. Dennis, Geoff and I soon became friends and travelled on the same train to London. During WW2 Dennis flew in Lancaster bombers with the 617 “Dam Buster” squadron.

One Friday evening whilst we were sitting in the “Shepherd & Dog” supping our pints, and Dennis puffing away on his pipe, he told us that after the war they flew out over the Atlantic and dropped the “leftover” Barnes Wallis bouncing bombs to get rid of them. He did not say the actual aircraft number.

I do not want to detract too much from Wickford but I think that a brief explanation of the above is justified.

During WW2 Barnes Wallace was an aircraft designer with Vickers Armstrong Ltd which had two designs of bouncing bomb, one for use against large ships and the other, a larger one, to attack the Ruhr dams. The debate about the design and effectiveness of the weapon was very protracted with some senior people in the Services and Ministry holding divergent views. Eventually the bombs went into limited quantity production. This type of bomb was only used in one raid, that against the Ruhr dams.

The post war fate of the bombs has been confirmed by the following snippet from the web: – The information in this article is from Alex Bateman’s posts on Lancaster Archive.

After the mission Lancaster ED906 was taken into storage at 46 Maintenance Unit in Lossiemouth. After the war, ED906 was one of the three Dambuster aircraft brought out of storage and used in Operation Guzzle, the disposal of the ‘Upkeep’ bouncing bombs used in the Dams Raid. There were some 37 of these weapons left over, and each had to be individually dumped into the sea just beyond the edge of the Atlantic shelf some 280 miles west of Glasgow. This took place between August and December 1946. It may well have still carried the AJ-G code at this stage. After Guzzle it was then recoded YF-A. It was ‘struck off charge’ (i.e. released for scrapping) on 29 July 1947.

Some of the bombs have been put on public display at various places:-

Hopefully that allows me to introduce “Service Life”. Early on in the war, Geoff had been in the Army in Greece and volunteered to train as a pilot. He trained in one of the Southern African flying schools but never became operational. John was in the RAF as ground crew at the end of the war. As myself I was too young, but did National Service in the RAF. At that time the service period had just been increased from 18 months to 2 years. As a result the openings to a trade were limited. I went to Germany initially as a telephonist but because of my pre service training I became “misemployed” as Radio operator/mechanic and general dog’s body on a Mobile Signals Unit.

However, back to my life in Wickford. When Dennis, Geoff and I travelled on the sliding door electric trains they were so crowded that we had to stand. I took a fishing stool with me and we used to take it in turns to sit.

Some years later the Camera Club moved to the new Wickford Community Centre. Whilst there we held several public exhibitions, at one of these a noted photographer, who exhibited in London Galleries was invited to send us some exhibits. The number he sent overwhelmed us, so a small panel was set up to review them. Geoff, Dennis, John and myself were members of the panel. We were all broad minded but some of his entries were XXX. We decided that they were not suitable for public display and decided that we either had to “Accept or Reject” all of his submissions. The secretary was given the task of writing a “thank you but no thanks” letter.

For another exhibition the club made an 8mm cine film of Wickford. I got lumbered with the role of narrator and several Saturday mornings I was followed by the film team. Subsequently we spent several evenings at one member’s house in Rectory Road, Basildon, arguing about the editing and background music. (Subsequently Rectory Rd was merged with the rest of Basildon and this house no longer exists). The make-up of the team varied for some activities, but it invariably included John, Dennis and Geoff. Dear old Jim was delegated to the job of representing the club with other organisations. The film was made circa 1965 and unfortunately has been lost and the club has ceased.

John Playle was a roofing asphalter and he used to have his car serviced at the Runwell garage and he became friendly with Jim Hair, one of the mechanics, later Jim opened a Toyota garage in the Nevendon Rd (now a block of apartments). John used to open the garage up for Jim at weekends. Dennis, John, Geoff and I used to go to ‘the Shepherd and Dog’ for a lads night out on a Friday. John told us that the “Travellers” would come into Jim’s garage in Nevendon Road to buy a car and they would pay in cash. They just opened a carrier bag and emptied wads of pound notes onto Jim’s office desk.

Jim then opened a garage near the Co-op roundabout on the Golden Jubilee Way. This is now a block of flats.

When I first knew Dennis he worked as a mechanic for Linotype, but in the late 1960s the firm relocated and he decided to leave. He became a Security Guard at a Credit Card company on the Basildon industrial estate. He told us that one night the monitor screen kept showing spots of flashing lights. This intrigued him and the others on duty, so they zoomed their security cameras in on the area. To their surprise they saw a fox and it was picking up worms just outside the security fence. The spots that they saw were the reflections from the animal’s eyes.

On the social side of Wickford life, my Father in Law used to come to visit us for the weekend in the late 1950s and he and I would go to the ‘Swan’ for a game of darts, my Father in Law was a good dart player, but a local player used to demonstrate throwing 6 inch nails into the dart board.

In the GPO Telecoms Laboratory we used to get many visitors from the design teams and others. In 1958 the BBC interviewed one of the GPO directors about the launch of STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialling) one of the interviewers asked him a question to which he responded “I wish you hadn’t asked me that question” and the interviewer just said “Scrub that from the record”. We all grinned in the background as we knew the interviewer had identified a problem. But STD was born prematurely as the launch date that the designers had been originally given was post 1960 but the then Conservative Post Master General announced that the service would start in 1958.

Another GPO design engineer told me how he planned his career advancements and that I should do the same. He ultimately became a director, but although I became a designer I was unable to match the career plan and ultimately left.

When I became a design engineer a colleague suggested that I took up teaching at evening classes. I made enquiries and found that the Basildon Fryerns Adult College was seeking a Telecoms lecturer.  I applied and started teaching “Electrical Principles”, a C&G course. The students were all from the Southend Area of GPO telephones. At 28 I was the youngest in the class. We had a tea break at 8pm and just before that I would send someone down to the canteen to order 8 teas. It was most enjoyable and I think the students enjoyed it because they always stayed on after finishing time.

The following year I started teaching the same subject at the South East London College (Lewisham) and the students were all male and of various ages. One time I asked the Head why I had 35 students on the Roll but only 20 attended. He said that they were foreign students and only enrolled to get their grants but did not want to do the course. The Head said that he got paid for the number of students enrolled, whereas I was paid by the hour. We were in the School’s Annexe, an old house, I had coal fires and I remember standing in front of the blazing fire one evening when the janitor came in to tell us the President Kennedy had been assassinated.

In the middle of one evening, a student joined the class mid-term. I used to discuss the subject and then dictate some notes, I spotted that he was not doing anything and I spoke to him, he told me that he was Maltese and worked for “Wimpy Bar” and could not understand me. I went to the Head and asked for him to be moved to another class where they just copied notes from the board. (The subject was taught on several nights). The Head said that he could not as the student was enrolled for 5 nights per week. The Head then realised that the student had not said a word when the Head interview him, the student’s elder brother, who was in a higher class had done all the talking, the student had trouble with English language. The Head just said “carry on” he will drop out in a few weeks.

I was asked to take a combined group of 4 classes to get them ready for their exams. They were from the nearby Siemens Communications Company doing “block release”, doing 2 years of the course in one year. Each of the classes normally had a different tutor and I found out some tutors were avoiding teaching some parts of the syllabus. I took this up with the Head teacher. At the end I said that they would struggle with the exam. Later that year the Head called me in to say that 80% got 1st class passes, my comment was “I did my job”.

However in 1968 the GLC made a policy decision that all lecturers must be members of the day staff, so I had to pack up. Nevertheless the college contacted me some while later to teach on a Friday morning, obviously this was impractical.

Before that time I was appointed as a member of a panel of specialist lecturers who gave lectures to Post Graduate students at the main part of the South East London College. I gave a lecture one Friday morning and whilst walking through the corridors on my way out I spotted someone that I recognised. I said “Hello Andy what are you doing here?” The reply was “I am head of the Electrical Dept”. Andy had been a Technician in the GPO Laboratory. My colleague and I were his supervisors. My colleague became a Director of BT. Andy was a Cypriot and had a “photographic memory” but could not apply it. Also his practical work left much to be desired. He came to us for help with his homework problems. Obviously he obtained a Degree. Whilst we were talking in the corridor he told me that he had written two books on electrical theory. (I refrain from further comment)

Later I joined a group at Wickford Library providing help for people who had difficulty with their reading or writing. This was a ‘one on one’ process and could be very trying, as the progress made one week was forgotten a week later. Some individuals would come along for some weeks and then pack it up. Ultimately with mutual agreement I left and carried on with my student at my home. He was a builder but had problems with preparing quotes etc. His wife had decided that she did not want to continue writing the quotes any more. We left the library as the environment was more relaxed/less stressful for him at my home.

My last period in the GPO was as design engineer developing equipment to conduct routine tests on telephone exchange equipment. I took over from another engineer who had been on the duty for some years. I knew him from the Circuit Laboratory, he was a group leader when I was a trainee. He designed a piece of equipment that was notorious in the “Lab” as a piece of *** I inherited on my new duty. Fortunately by then most of the problems had been ironed out. Its basic problem lay in the fact that it was attempting to use thermionic valves with a 50 volt power supply. Normally they use 200+ volts. He also left me a small tester design to finish off – TRT 122. I also was involved in developing small electronic circuit for specific functions in testers. I used to “creep back “ into the Circuit Lab to develop these units.

In the 1950s the Wickford telephone exchange was a brick building in Swan Lane, now a group of two-bed houses. There was a similar building in London Road, but that was a “Repeater Station”. In the late 60s the Swan Lane telephone had an “open day”. The wife and I went to visit and the technician showed us around. I spotted something in the corner and asked what it was, the technician said that it was a new piece of test gear TRT 122, which he hadn’t yet used, but it was supposed to do****.  I agreed with him and added “I had designed it”. Time to thank him, shake hands and say “goodbye”.

In 1965 I moved to the Central Electricity Generating (CEGB) that was expanding their Telecommunications and Control systems following an enquiry as to why nearly all of the UK lost power for many hours one Sunday morning. The root cause of the problem lay in the north of England and it cascaded. Also the electricity grid had to be reinforced. I was fortunate as many of the senior engineers in the Regions had worked in the same GPO Lab as myself but left at the end of WW2

However in my time at the CEGB I blacked out Wimbledon from my office desk.  In the CEGB we had design teams and I had a responsibility for the design of speech and control equipment used in the local level of the network and liaison with field engineers. I had a report of a problem with some of the existing equipment and developed a modification, which I tested at several sub-stations. However the engineer at Wimbledon knew me and trusted me so he ignored the rule to switch the system to manual before touching it. He carried out the modification and the sub-station circuit breakers tripped out, causing a local black out. It transpired that at some time some unknown person had connected something else to a terminal that was supposedly spare.  The local engineer had to attend the enquiry, I heard no more.

My experience at the South East London technical college came in useful as after 6 months in the CEGB I had to sit in on the annual course at Buxton. The course was given by the Management team from London Head office and also some of the senior staff from the Regions. Later the manager told me that I would be presenting next time. It proved useful as I made good contacts with the field engineers. I was presenting on the Thursday morning and I would arrive on the Wednesday afternoon, when I walked down the bar I was usually told “your beer’s on the bar Eric”. It made things easy on a day basis when any of the field engineers phoned me to discuss a problem.

However some of the senior Regional staff had an “anti” with Head office. One of them followed on from my lecture and we took joint questions. He was a bore, so I got the projectionist to slip of the naked ladies into his pack. That brought the room to life and before the next year’s session he asked me to take the slides along.

At some time in the mid/late 1960s I decided to join a gym in Wickford. By modern standards this was fairly basic. It was held in a wooden building behind Weston’s, now a travel agent, in those days Weston’s had a removal company and this building had probably been a store. Initially a trainer assessed you and if satisfied you were allowed to do a routine on your own. I used to go on a Sunday morning about 9 o’clock, after my workout I would have a Sauna. Most mornings another chap would join me after about 15 minutes. When I saw him coming I would pour water on the heater and raise the steam. Without fail he yelled out as the heat made his St Christopher medallion very hot.

One evening my eldest son came home about 8.30 with a hot black object in his hand. It was one of the “coals” from the Sauna heater. Apparently the gym had caught fire and was a wreck.

The CEGB moved out of London in 1970 and set up office in Guildford. It was not convenient for me to move for family reasons and property in Guildford was dearer. So I travelled to Guildford for 3 years, it was not an every day journey as often I was out at a field location or a manufacturers.

In 1974 I got a job in London with Mobil Oil, they were just planning their first North Sea Oil Production platform. Although I was based in London my role as a Telecoms Consultant took me to many places in Europe and also to their key sites in the UK, Aberdeen, Birkenhead and Coryton. On one occasion when I arrived at Coryton the car park was full and I parked near where I was working. When I went to my car later there was a very sticky label on the windscreen “No Parking Allowed Here”, I also saw the Security Manager having a good laugh at my expense. He had placed the notice on my windscreen. He and I worked closely together on many security issues in the Refinery.

My time with Mobil brought me back to my days in the GPO as the BT’s North Sea Task Force liaison contact was the cousin of my first instructor at the Circuit Laboratory and their director was also ex Lab.  Many of the engineers that I had to liaise with had been apprentices under me.

Earlier I mentioned one chap who planned his career, he became Director of BT International, I met him at one of their pre-Christmas functions, it was closing up and he asked me if I wanted a drink, I said that the bar was closed, so he persuaded the young lady to find another bottle. We walked to Liverpool Street and got our trains, when I arrived at Wickford I sat on a bench and tried to go to sleep. A station porter persuaded me to walk home (about 6 minutes normally). At home I opened the door and slept on the mat.

I retired from Mobil in 1990 and I started Voluntary work, initially with “The Opportunity Centre” in Basildon, this was in the old Basildon library. The Centre catered for people who had mental problems and were being reintroduced into the community. I also worked with South West Essex Business Partnership and for 16 years I managed their Interview Skills Programme, which took me to all of the Secondary schools in Basildon. However in 2007 I started to feel the need to take life a bit more casual.

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