My Father and his Garden

My Father with his Roses, c.1960

My Father with his Roses, c.1960

For Father’s Day, I decided to post a photo of my own father alongside his “pride and joy”, which was the large garden that he cultivated at the house in Scarborough where we grew up. He lavished many of his leisure hours on that garden, growing all kinds of plants, including the rose bushes shown. The photo was taken c.1960, before he suffered his first stroke. After that, he was no longer able to do the physical work required to maintain the garden, which then gradually deteriorated (although my mother did pitch in to maintain it until we moved away in 1970).

There’s no doubt that the results he achieved while still healthy were spectacular, as shown in the photo below of the two of us sitting by the frog pond in the back garden.

My Father with Me in our Back Garden, 1963

My Father with Me in our Back Garden, 1963

Naturally, having nothing else against which to compare it, I took it for granted that everyone had a huge garden like ours, with a pond and a stream running through it, and that working on the garden was a necessary part of every adult’s life.

It was only as I grew up that I came to realize that, not only did some people not have large gardens, but that some city-dwelling types actually didn’t have their own gardens at all!

Decades later, when I moved to California, I made the further discovery that all that gardening effort is something of a British peculiarity. Some Americans do take pride in maintaining beautiful gardens, and some take an interest in cultivating roses or other specific types of plant. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone here say that their hobby is “gardening”, which would be quite common in Britain.

Large Garden: Small House

It was also common for British suburban houses to be built with large surrounding gardens, even when the homes themselves were quite small.

Now, both the homes and the gardens are becoming small; the smallest in Europe, according to this article. Nonetheless, there are still many older houses that still have the large gardens with which they were built.

According to current aerial views, the garden of our Scarborough house has now been largely built over, so there’s nothing left to see of all my father’s hard work.

On Second Thoughts

Having grown up enjoying that immense garden, I was convinced that I, too, wanted to create and maintain something similar. It was only when we moved into a house with a garden that I realized just how much time and expense was involved! It seemed even less appealing because we were renting that house, so all that effort was going into someone else’s garden.

As a result, I dialed back my gardening ambitions very substantially! Now, I’m quite happy to have a small, well-designed, garden, and pay someone else to maintain it, even though I own the property. The photo below, showing our home’s front garden a few months ago, shows the modest level of my requirements!

The Front Garden of our Home in Santa Rosa

The Front Garden of our Home in Santa Rosa

Recapturing his Childhood

In my father’s case, I believe that he had some specific, tragic reasons for wanting to create a large and luxuriant garden. He had been born into a relatively wealthy (upper middle class) family. His father owned a textile mill in Leeds, and they lived in a large house in the suburb of Roundhay, with a complement of servants.

Unfortunately, for various reasons, the mill went bankrupt, probably in the late 1920s, and because the business was unincorporated, they lost everything. My father’s garden was probably thus a way of recapturing a lost aspect of his happy younger days.

Royal Weddings & Royal Wars

 

The Dordogne River, France, from Chateau de Beynac

The Dordogne River, France, from Chateau de Beynac

I took the photo above, looking down onto the Dordogne River in France, from the ruined battlements of the Château de Beynac.

I was reminded of this view now because of its perhaps-surprising place in English history. As I’ll explain below, my thoughts were prompted by the recent media coverage of the forthcoming British Royal Wedding, which will take place on the 19th May. Given that I was born in Britain, perhaps some would imagine that I’d be enthusiastic about such an event. After all, as Canadian actor Mike Myers said of his own Liverpool-born father a few years ago (and as reported in the Liverpool Echo):

There’s no-one more English than an Englishman not living in England

Well, I’m sorry to have to admit that I don’t fit that stereotype, at least if it applies to a fondness for royalty and certain other British institutions.

I can’t say that I’ve ever taken any great interest in the activities of the Royal Family. When I was starting my engineering apprenticeship at Ferranti, back in 1981, the nation’s attention was focused on another “fairy tale” royal wedding; that of Charles and Diana. There’s probably nobody in the world who doesn’t know how badly that “fairy tale” ended, for all involved. Sadly, from what we know now, the whole business seems to have been a fraudulent façade from the start.

When I came to live in the US about 30 years ago, I was rather surprised by the level of interest shown by the American media in British royalty. Didn’t they fight a war to free themselves from those overlords? Of course, I now realize that most of the interest really stems from the unhealthy practice of celebrity worship, and not from any actual desire to be ruled by the House of Windsor!

In the latest case, things already seem to be going ”off the rails”, according to reports like this one (from the San Jose Mercury), indicating that the bride’s father is causing embarrassment and confusion.

English Royalty or French Royalty?

I’m not sure how many people outside Britain realize that what’s now the Royal Family traces its roots to William I, a prince from Normandy (France), who in 1066 famously invaded England, killed the English king, and claimed the country as his own.

William then embarked on a ruthless campaign to suppress resistance throughout the country, removing many of the former English lords and replacing them with his own supporters. The Harrying of the North was so cruel that many areas were left uninhabitable for decades afterwards.

Given that William also reigned over lands in what’s now France, his conquest of England led to centuries of strife over the rulership of the territories. This culminated in the Hundred Years War, by the end of which the King of England lost most of his French principalities.

At one point during the Hundred Years War, the border between English and French territory was the Dordogne River. In the photo above, the land from which I took the photo was at that time French, while the land that’s visible on the other side of the river was English.

The photo below shows the Château de Beynac from below. The road from which I took the photo runs along the North bank of the river.

Beynac from the River Bank

Beynac from the River Bank

The photo below shows an evening view of the central plaza in the commune of Domme, a few miles from Beynac. Domme is a bastide like Beynac, but, being on the opposite bank of the Dordogne, was in English hands during the Hundred Years War.

The Mairie of Domme

The Mairie of Domme

Off with their Heads!

One notable (if unsurprising) fact about those medieval wars is that nobody ever asked the populations of the disputed territories who they would prefer to be ruled by. The pretenders to the thrones, and their personal armies, simply fought among themselves, and it was taken for granted that the populace would accept the outcome.

Ideas of government have certainly come a long way since then, and (despite some major shortcomings) one of the world’s most successful experiments in democratic government must surely be the USA.

Unfortunately, in contrast to the US case, many attempts to overthrow monarchies and replace them with democratic governments have not been successful. Amid all the current Royal Wedding fuss, it’s easy to forget that such a revolution once happened in England, as the outcome of the English Civil War. In 1649, the English monarchy was bloodily terminated when King Charles I was publicly beheaded. Unfortunately, the dictatorship that replaced him (led by Oliver Cromwell) was so unpleasant that the monarchy was eventually restored by popular demand!

Thus, while I’m no fan of monarchies anywhere, I’m well aware that the alternatives may sometimes be much worse!

From Cloughton Station Gates to the World

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Pencil Drawing of Cloughton Station Gates, 1977

I produced the pencil drawing above in March 1977, as one of the regular weekly homework exercises for my Advanced-Level Art qualification.

The (now rather smudged) picture depicts a disused level crossing (grade crossing) gate that protected the tracks near the station at Cloughton. Cloughton was an intermediate stop on the Scarborough-Whitby line, which closed completely in 1965. The closure of that line set off a strange chain of events, which eventually led to worldwide fame for a similar station on a neighboring line.

My 1977 photo below shows a roadside view of the station building and goods shed at Cloughton, in a semi-derelict state.

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Cloughton Station, 1977

These days, although Cloughton Station building still exists at that location, the crossing gate is long gone (as shown in this Google Streetview). On the other hand, thankfully the surviving station premises have been substantially renovated, and are now tea rooms, presenting a much cheerier scene than they did when I took my photographs during the 1970s.

Not Quite What Was There

As I recall, the goal of that homework assignment was to draw an outdoor scene, but I felt that that was a bit too much trouble, so, instead, I based my drawing on my own photograph of that scene! (Unfortunately, I no longer have that photograph.)

However, as you might expect from my approach to such artwork, if you’ve read my earlier posts on the subject, my drawing does not accurately reflect the real scene, because I felt that the composition could be improved, relative to the reality of what was there.

For example, my drawing shows a grounded railway wagon body on the left, next to the crossing. There was no such object at that crossing, although I’d seen similar carcasses in many other railway locations.

Nonetheless, my depiction of the gate itself is accurate. The North Eastern Railway, whose design it was, adopted a rather unusual practice of using extremely wide single gates to span multiple tracks, unlike most other railways (which would have used multiple gates in these cases). For my Advanced-Level Art architectural study, I eventually created a dimensioned drawing of a smaller gate of the same design at another station on the same line, Fyling Hall, as shown below.

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Crossing Gate at Fyling Hall Station

From Heartbeat to Harry Potter

The Scarborough-Whitby railway was one of many targeted for closure by the notorious Beeching Report. There were many local protests regarding the planned closure of this line, and, during the 1964 national election, Harold Wilson of the Labour Party ran on a platform of promising to halt the Beeching-inspired closures. Unfortunately, it turned out that Wilson was just another lying politician, and after winning the election, he actually accelerated the closure schedule, as described in this post by transport commentator Christian Wolmar.

Following the closure, which took place on 6th March 1965, a fundraising effort began to try to buy up and reopen at least part of the Scarborough-Whitby route. Unfortunately, it appeared that the cost of repairs to structures on the line would exceed any conceivable budget, so the plan came to nothing.

However, the preservation effort then focused instead on another nearby line, which had been closed to passengers on the same day. This was the Whitby-Pickering Railway, which in fact was even more historic (albeit somewhat less scenic) than the Scarborough-Whitby route. The W&PR had originally been engineered by George Stephenson in 1836, and had relied on horse-drawn locomotion until it was connected to the national network in 1845.

As a result of all this, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway was formed, and began running trains in the early 1970s. I first visited the NYMR in 1975, and returned many times after that. The photo below shows Goathland Station on the NYMR in 1976, many years before it became world-famous.

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Before the Days of Fame: Goathland Station in 1976

The preserved NYMR met with great success, and was eventually able to extend its route all the way from Grosmont (junction with BR) to Pickering. I took the photo below of an express hauled by A4 locomotive “Sir Nigel Gresley” in Pickering in 2006.

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A4 “Sir Nigel Gresley” at Pickering, NYMR, 2006

The NYMR hired out its location for filming work, and, as a result, Goathland Station began to achieve recognition far beyond Yorkshire. During the 1990s, Goathland became “Aidensfield” in the TV soap opera Heartbeat, which ran from 1992 to 2010, and was broadcast around the world. The railway station appeared in many episodes.

Then, in 2001, Goathland Station appeared all around the world in movies, as the fictitious Hogsmeade Station in the Harry Potter films.

When I reluctantly produced that pencil drawing over 40 years ago, I couldn’t possibly have imagined the worldwide fame that was to come to some of those disused and derelict Yorkshire railways!

The Uncle I Never Met

Elvyn Stephenson Martin

Elvyn Stephenson Martin

The photo above shows my uncle, Elvyn Stephenson Martin, wearing his Army uniform, while on leave, some time in 1944-45.

I never had the chance to meet Uncle Elvyn, because he was killed in action on 14th April, 1945 (about 15 years before I was born, and exactly 73 years ago today). He is buried in Becklingen War Cemetery, in Germany: full details can be found on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site, here.

Like so many millions of others, he was a casualty of World War II, and our family was of course by no means alone in suffering such losses (or even worse). The detail that makes Elvyn’s death seem particularly pointless was that it occurred only 3 weeks before the end of the war in Europe, and thus could not possibly have accomplished anything for anyone.

I know from the CWGC details that, at the time of his death, he was a trooper with the 15th/19th  The King’s Royal Hussars, Royal Armoured Corps. The only other details I have were those that my mother (Elvyn’s younger sister) relayed to me before she died. She told me that Elvyn had spent most of the war in England, in the Military Police, which he disliked because he found himself having to arrest his own countrymen instead of engaging with the real enemy. He was therefore delighted when he was transferred to the Tank Corps, and sent across the Channel.

In early 1945, his regiment was sweeping eastwards through Northern Germany. In April, they were involved in the liberation of a concentration camp (possibly Bergen-Belsen, but I have no confirmation), apparently in support of the 11th Armoured Division. He drove into the camp in a tank, then popped his head out of the top of the turret to look around, and was shot dead by a sniper.

Those Left Behind

Elvyn’s parents, my grandparents, were naturally devastated by his death. I’m proud to say that, during the First World War, my grandfather had been a conscientious objector, for which matter of personal principle he was imprisoned. Nonetheless, he understood that, when the Second War came, there was really something to fight for, so he didn’t object to his son’s actions.

The hand-colored photo below shows my grandmother with Elvyn, shortly after his birth in 1919.

My Grandmother with Elvyn, c.1919

My Grandmother with Elvyn, c.1919

I don’t think they ever really recovered from Elvyn’s death (which is understandable).

When my grandmother died in 1979, it fell to my mother to sort through her remaining effects, but she could find no trace of Elvyn at all. There were no documents, no medals, nothing; apparently my grandmother could not bear the memories they brought back, and had disposed of everything. These few photos are all that we now have left.

The Personal Tragedy of War & Unintended Consequences

Whatever grandiose principles any war is supposedly fought for, it always ends up being a tragedy at the personal level, as my grandparents’ experience demonstrates.

Ironically, though, the World Wars led to some improvements in the lives of the general public that were definitely unintended by the promoters of the wars. For example, the First World War led to the granting of the right to vote to women, both in the US and UK. A century later, I think that most of us would agree that a “democracy” that refused voting rights to about half its population perhaps isn’t worth fighting for.

As a result of the First and Second World Wars, in Britain, the National Health Service was founded, bringing great improvements to the standard of living for many people.

Thus, I’m in no doubt that I owe a debt of gratitude to my long-lost uncle, for the consequences of his brave actions, both intended and otherwise.

Almost a Winner

Townscape 1550, painted in school at age 14

Townscape 1550, painted in school at age 14

I painted the picture above, depicting a fictitious medieval city, in school, at the age of 14, and thought little of it at the time. It was just another one of many that I churned out during my Ordinary-level classes in Art. We were largely restricted to inventing subjects from our imaginations, because there was little reference material available and we weren’t allowed to leave the school during classes.

However, about a year later, my teacher chose this particular picture as an entry in a national art competition, where it was awarded a “runners up” certificate.

That was not the first recognition I’d won for my art skills, despite never having sought prizes for any of it. In fact, the first prize I ever won for anything was for drawing, at Newby County Primary school when I was aged 6. The award I was given for that was a copy of the book Little Grey Rabbit finds a Shoe, by Alison Uttley. Given the nature of the book, I’ve always suspected that the person responsible for obtaining the prizes had assumed that the winner would be a girl, because it didn’t seem like an ideal choice for a six-year-old boy!

Digital Salvation

Unfortunately, in the case of my 1974 painting above, and as with many of the other surviving paintings that I did at school, the cheap poster paint that we had to use is decomposing. You can see many white blotches in the blue sky, looking somewhat like aerial smoke bombs detonating! Those were not originally present, but are the result of the white paint compound separating from the tinting chemicals.

Thus, I recently took the opportunity to scan the painting before it deteriorates further, which was partly what prompted me to write this article now. The original dimensions are about 16“ x 11”, thus too large for my scanner. However, I was able to scan the paper in parts, then stitch the result together in such a way that the edges are almost invisible.

The Kellogg’s National Exhibition of Children’s Art

It seems that the American cereal company, Kellogg’s, organized a National Exhibition of Children’s Art in London every year, from the 1960s through to some time in the 1970s. The only online record of it that I’ve been able to find is a copy of an invitation to enter the “exhibition” in 1976, which apparently appeared on the back of packets of Corn Flakes. (The clichéd “happy corporate collage” artwork on the cereal packet is amusing. Of course, they couldn’t possibly promote a children’s art exhibition by using…er…actual children’s art, could they?)

As far as I recall, I was unaware of those exhibitions at the time, and my entry in the 1975 contest was entirely initiated by my teacher. I definitely didn’t fill in any back-of-a-cereal-packet entry form. The only official acknowledgement that I received was the certificate below (which isn’t even dated). Nobody invited me to attend the actual exhibition, during that or any other year.

The Undated NECA Runners-Up Certificate

The Undated NECA Runners-Up Certificate

It was certainly also the case that my parents did not encourage me to exhibit my artwork. Unfortunately, they took a pessimistic attitude to most things along the lines of, “it’s not worth trying because you’re bound to fail”. When faced with other parents who actively helped their children in such activities, they simply dismissed such behavior as being “pushy”. Nothing worse than a “pushy parent”, you know!

Competitive Art? I’d Rather Not!

While I have no objections to art exhibitions, I have become increasingly skeptical of the benefits of “art competitions”. After all, who has the competence or authority to decide which works of art are “better”? Yes; you can determine that one artwork is better-drawn or better-executed than another—that one artist is more technically competent than another—and I do that myself all the time. But does that make one artwork “better” than the other? Not necessarily. If you must turn an exhibition into a competition, wouldn’t it be better to make it a “artist contest” instead of an “art contest”?

I understand that, even in a non-competitive exhibition, there has to be someone to decide which entries will “make the cut”. Given that Kellogg’s were soliciting entries for their exhibition on the backs of cereal packets, someone would obviously need to review all entries, even if only to determine which entries met the basic conditions (e.g., to determine that they were actually produced by children). That kind of basic judgment doesn’t really turn an exhibition into a contest, unless the promoters deliberately aim to do that.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture where some people seem to want to turn every human endeavor into a contest, so when someone promotes contests in inappropriate areas, all too many people support the idea, instead of treating it with the skepticism, or possibly even contempt, that it may deserve.

It’s true that I have entered my own artworks in exhibitions that involve judging and prizegiving, such as my Moggies cartoons, which were displayed at some Sonoma County Fairs. Sometimes my entries have won, but sometimes they received no award at all. I try to maintain as detached a view as possible of those events and the responses to my entries.

Encouraging Originality

Surely, art is about the wide variety of ways in which artists see and interpret the universe, and reducing all that to a contest misses much of the value of art. The judgments that are necessary to determine contest winners will inevitably give the impression that one or two viewpoints are superior to all others, thus discouraging the very exploration and variety that is essential to art.

The Story Of Reading Evenings

Pencil Portrait, Reading, 1986

Pencil Portrait, Reading, 1986

The pencil drawing above is a surviving sample of the life drawing work that I did at sessions in Reading during 1986-7. If you understood the word “Reading” here as referring to the reading of a book, then the title and first sentence of this post must have seemed quite meaningless.

In fact, Reading in this context is the name of a town in England, about 40 miles west of London, and it’s pronounced “Redding”. Reading forms the hub of an area known as the M4 Corridor, where huddle many of Britain’s remaining electronics technology industries. That was also true in the 1980s, when Britain had many more such industries than it does today.

Reading was perhaps first made famous during the nineteenth century by Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, and wrote a lengthy poem called The Ballad of Reading Gaol. In that poem, he wrote:

In Reading gaol by Reading town

There is a pit of shame…

I’m glad to be able to say that the hours I spent in Reading were definitely not in any “pit of shame” (except perhaps for certain pubs…).

More recently, of course, Reading has again achieved fame as the birthplace of comedian Ricky Gervais, who wrote a movie named after an area of the town: Cemetery Junction.

A New Venue

In an earlier article, I described how I attended Life Drawing classes in Andover during 1985-86, while I was living there and working for Link Electronics. Unfortunately, despite having created some brilliant products, Link turned out to be just one more failing British company, with the result that I was laid off in June 1985, when their management decided to shut down the design and manufacture of television cameras.

After searching for suitable alternative employment for a few weeks, I accepted a Design Engineering position with a small digital video equipment company called Questech, who were based in Wokingham, Berkshire. (As you may have guessed, because it has become such a repetitive theme, Questech is also now long out-of-business.) Although I was still living in Andover, I could no longer attend the sessions at Cricklade College, so I looked around to find something similar in the nearest large town to Wokingham, which was Reading. I eventually found a suitable class at a branch of the University of Reading, on Bath Road.

Just to demonstrate that life drawing models aren’t always female, here’s an example of one of my drawings from Reading that featured a male model.

Male Nude, Reading, 1986

Male Nude, Reading, 1986

However, those drawing sessions were not by any means the first time I’d visited Reading, because I’d had a somewhat ambivalent connection to the town since 1978.

Revisiting Reading

I had actually first traveled to Reading in 1978, while living in Coventry. While at school in Scarborough, I had had a crush on a girl who had gone on to study at the University of Reading. Had I been more mature, I would have realized that my crush was futile, but I was just another irrational teenager…

Thus one day—her birthday, in fact—I had the “bright idea” to go to Reading and seek out her room in the beautiful Wantage Hall.

Wantage Hall, University of Reading, 1996

Wantage Hall, University of Reading, 1996

I don’t think that I was really intending to try to meet up with her during that visit, but in fact I did, along with her new boyfriend! Fortunately, it all seemed to go fairly amicably, which perhaps was partly because she was still half-asleep during our unplanned meeting! It turned out to be the last time I ever saw her, which was probably just as well for all of us.

I did spend some time wandering around the town. One of the first features that struck me was the Town Hall, which, for people of my age, was very reminiscent of the building in the children’s animated series Trumpton.

Reading Town Hall, Following an External Cleaning, in 2001

Reading Town Hall, Following an External Cleaning, in 2001

Reading has some fairly pleasant footpaths along the banks of the River Thames. I took the photo below, of Caversham Bridge, while walking alongside the river in rain.

Caversham Bridge, Reading, 1979

Caversham Bridge, Reading, 1979

The arms below are those of the Borough of Reading, which used to appear on the sides of all Reading Transport buses.

Arms of the Borough of Reading

Arms of the Borough of Reading

The Equalizer Stops By for a Pint

When attending those 1980s drawing sessions, I rushed there straight from Wokingham, immediately after finishing work for the day. Once the drawing session was over, I was naturally hungry for dinner, so I would visit a local pub before beginning the journey home to Andover.

One pub that I frequented nearby was, and still is, called the Lyndhurst. Below is a modern Google Streetview of the location.

Google Streetview of the Lyndhurst, Reading

Google Streetview of the Lyndhurst, Reading

When I visited the pub in those days, one regular customer was a man who never offered anyone his name, but was known by the bartender as The Equalizer [warning: link plays video]. This was because he looked quite like Edward Woodward, who at the time was starring in an American TV series as the eponymous character. I still don’t know who the man in the pub was, so maybe someone will read this article and enlighten us?

As I said, the Lyndhurst is still in business today, serving good food, so probably worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Reading!

The Bizarre Demise of Ferranti

Panorama of Middleton, Manchester, 1981

Panorama of Middleton, Manchester, 1981

The photo above shows a panorama of Middleton, a suburb north of Manchester, one summer afternoon in 1981, while I was living there, and working as an apprentice at a famous British electronics company, Ferranti. For a few summers during my engineering training, I did indeed find myself working in some of the “dark satanic mills” of Manchester! I couldn’t have foreseen at the time that, within about 10 years, Ferranti would go out of business in a spectacular collapse, induced at least partially by an international fraud.

I mentioned in a previous post that, having decided during 1980 that I should try to obtain a degree in Electronics, I began searching for an employer who could sponsor me for what was called a “sandwich course”, which interleaved periods of industrial work with the academic study terms. My efforts to find such a position eventually paid off, and I was offered a Student Apprenticeship with Ferranti, commencing in July 1981, whereby I would work for the company each summer while at university. Thus, I lived and worked in Manchester for 3 summers, from 1981 to 1983, but, for reasons that I’ll explain below, I did not return there after graduating in 1984.

Live by the Sword…

In those days, Ferranti was, although not one of the largest electronics companies in Britain, certainly one of the best-regarded (the “Big Three” electronics companies were GEC, Marconi and Plessey). Ferranti had pioneered the development of computers in Britain.

When I received the offer from Ferranti, it caused some discomfort among my family and friends, because the company had a justified reputation for deriving much of its income from military contracts. However, not all of Ferranti’s work was for the military, so I was given the option to work for the company only in civilian product areas.

As things were to turn out, Ferranti did indeed “live by the sword and die by the sword”.

The Boys (& Girl) of Summer

Ferranti’s Student Apprenticeships were arranged so that we were employed by the company directly during each summer break from university. We then attended university for a normal academic year, from October through to the following June.

In July 1981, I presented myself at Ferranti’s Training Centre, at the so-called Avenue Works in Chadderton (sometimes referred to as the Hollinwood plant), to begin my apprenticeship. Most of my fellow apprentices were male, but there was (apparently for the first time ever) one girl in the group.

The first summer consisted of the “EP1” practical training, which was required by the Institution of Electrical Engineers. We learned technical drawing, soldering, welding, metal fabrication, machining, and many other practical skills. This was very intensive training; for example, we spent 4 weeks learning to solder, and were required to pass precision tests.

Our fabrication, welding and machining skills were tested by an assignment to build a toolbox from steel. The diagram below, which I drew in my Ferranti log book, shows how the toolbox was constructed. I still have that toolbox, which is far stronger than similar shop-bought items.

Diagram of the Toolbox I Constructed at Ferranti, 1981

Diagram of the Toolbox I Constructed at Ferranti, 1981

Wafers at Gem Mill

My second summer at Ferranti involved more uncertainty about what my assignment would be. Initially, I was told that there was actually no assignment for me, and that I should return to the Training Centre. After a short time there, several of us were assigned to a photoelastic stress analysis project at the Van Carrier manufacturing division of Ferranti Engineering plc, which was situated in the front offices of what had been the Avenue Works transformer factory.

The project was quite interesting, but obviously it didn’t have anything to do with electronics. I was thus relieved when, about half-way through the summer, an opportunity arose for me to be transferred to the semiconductor manufacturing plant at Gem Mill, Chadderton, to write some software.

Description of Silicon Wafer Test Software, from my Log Book, Gem Mill 1981

Description of Silicon Wafer Test Software, from my Log Book, Gem Mill 1981

Sadly, I took no photos of the Ferranti sites at which I worked, most of which have now been demolished. Therefore, I’ve used a Wikimedia Commons image of Gem Mill below.

Chadderton,Oldham - geograph.org.uk - 1547

Thanks, But I Won’t Be Back

As I discussed previously, my goal in obtaining an electronics degree had always been to get a job with the BBC. It may seem surprising that the terms of Ferranti’s apprenticeship did not impose on us any obligation to work for Ferranti after graduation. Similarly, Ferranti were under no obligation to offer me a job. Both parties were free to terminate the arrangement at any time.

During the Spring 1984 “milk round” (when employers visited universities searching for promising new graduates), I applied to the BBC and, after several interviews, I was hired.

As a result, I had to write to the Training Officer at Ferranti, to tell him that I would be accepting the BBC’s offer and thus would not be returning to Manchester. I expressed my gratitude for the “leg up” that Ferranti had given me when starting my new career. I wasn’t really expecting a reply, but, to my surprise, he did write back, indicating that he was very happy that Ferranti had been able to help me along.

I did feel a little guilty about walking away from Ferranti at that time. I was all too aware that this was the one company that had given me a second chance, at a time when no other engineering employer was interested in me. I had also gained some valuable experience in the electronics industry, which did indeed open the door to other employment opportunities later on. It turned out to have been a “wise” decision on my part, but few could have foreseen that at the time.

Like a Bad Spy Thriller

When I worked there, Ferranti always had the “big company feel”. Everyone was expected to slot obediently into predefined roles, and there was little room for individuality or special skills. (As an engineering student with artistic skills, I was always regarded as a very odd creature!) When I made the decision not to return, however, I certainly had no forewarning that Ferranti might not even exist much longer!

I heard the astonishing news of Ferranti’s demise only after I had moved far away to California, and, in my busy new life, I had almost forgotten that I’d ever worked there.

What I heard sounded so much like the plot of a bad spy thriller novel that I had to double-check the details to be sure that it was true. This story has been told in great detail elsewhere (particularly in the book Ferranti A history: Volume 3, by John F Wilson), so I will just summarize the main points here.

Cover of John Wilson's Book about the Demise of Ferranti

Cover of John Wilson’s Book about the Demise of Ferranti

It seems that, amid the Thatcherite business hubris of the 1980s, Ferranti’s management had become convinced that they needed to expand the company in the United States, and that the best way to do that would be to merge with a US defense electronics company. Unfortunately, when selecting a company, they made an appallingly bad choice. They selected a Pennsylvania-based company called International Signal & Control (ISC).

There were warning signs that ISC was a suspect operation, which Ferranti’s management and their auditors managed to miss. (For example, although nominally a US operation, ISC had chosen to register in Britain, simply to take advantage of relatively lax regulation of businesses in Britain.)

Soon after Ferranti merged with ISC, it began to become apparent that some of ISC’s major contracts actually didn’t exist at all, and that ISC’s management had engaged in elaborate deceptions to maintain their fraud. The CEO of ISC, James Guerin, was actually circulating money through front companies to give the impression that progress payments were being made on the fictitious contracts, but he couldn’t keep that up forever, so when he was no longer able to borrow more money, the whole fraud was exposed.

To be fair, though, the ISC fraud wasn’t the sole cause of Ferranti’s demise. This was the time of the end of the Cold War, when defense budgets were being slashed and contracts canceled. As Wilson mentions in his book, Ferranti had for some time been too dependent for its income on military projects, so these cutbacks exacerbated the company’s already-serious predicament, and led to its bankruptcy.

Look Back in Astonishment

It seems astonishing, and quite sad, to reflect that, that, only 35 years ago, I was working for a British company that was not only designing integrated circuits and computers, but also manufacturing them in Britain. Additionally, at that time Ferranti was designing and manufacturing many other kinds of engineering products, including some that I worked on briefly, such as telephones and van carriers. I’ll probably write more about those other products in future posts.

Whatever bad managerial decisions led to Ferranti’s demise, it still seems tragic that so much world-class innovation and effort came to so ignominious an end, and of course it was particularly disastrous for the all the highly-skilled and hard-working staff who lost their jobs when the company folded.