The Editor has received over the last few months, letters from Marconi Veterans who receive our Newsletter. We are very grateful for their contribution and would ask other Veterans to spare a few minutes and drop a line to our Editor with views on their recollections of times with the Company. With thousands of Veterans still alive we ought to be able to write a book but some of you are very reticent in putting pen (or computer) to paper. Here are a few of the letters received to date.
1. From Jack Mayhew in South Africa. He was for many years our Marconi Company man out there.
Remembering the past – fifty -years on
I waited anxiously to learn my fate after applying for a job with Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company Ltd. in 1950 after being discharged unfit for further service from the R N. I’d had my interview, been given the usual ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ treatment and heard nothing. I was about to apply for the dole, when at the end of December I received the telegram – report at New Street on 1 January! (New Year was not a holiday then).
That first day I was introduced to Stan Clarke, I/C of Naval matters for Service Equipment Division, under Manager Colonel Elford, then it was off to Rivenhall Airfield in the care of ‘Jack’ Frost, Works
Superintendent to meet the Technical Superintendent, ‘Paddy’ Duff. The main Hangar at Rivenhall was occupied by Radar cabins being assembled for shipment to South Africa – I met up with them many years later on their home turf. I had a pleasant time at Rivenhall for a couple of years and made some good friends – I particularly remember Ken Merriman another ex- Navy man. Amongst other things, I recall we worked together converting MIMCo Radiolocator transmitters for installation on submarines for the Yugoslav Navy in the small hut allocated to the Naval Section.
I spent sometime in the Vickers shipyard at Barrow-in-Furness installing ex-Admiralty type equipment on a couple of Destroyers built by Vickers for the Venezuelan Navy. It was an experience which made it clear to me subsequently why the British shipbuilding industry went into decline! The Unions were all- powerful and demarcation was the order of the day. To get a hole drilled in a bulkhead called for the involvement of at least three different Unions and to get an antenna hoisted aloft by an overhead crane, when there was a hint of fog miles away from the shipyard, required the liberal greasing of palms.
The first time I went up to Barrow I met up with another Marconi Irishman – one ‘Paddy’ Bray who was already on site. This particular Paddy was the most irritating character I ever worked with – he had an ancient and much modified, Morris 8 in which he carted his long-suffering wife and family from one end of the country to the other. He would spend most daylight hours trying to keep his wretched vehicle from falling apart and most nights doing his day job. But in spite of Paddy we got the job done and it was a relief when he left to join the competition shortly afterwards, taking the remains of his Morris with him.
Back in New Street I worked in the Naval section with Don Saunders, another ex- Navy man and the Hon. Edmund Ironside who succeeded to the title on the death of his father and went off to twiddle his thumbs in the House of Lords. Len Firmin ran the Military and Naval projects side and in the Contracts Dept there was Ralph Day, Les Freeman and the dear old seadog Syd Hempstead, with his amazing fund of apt naval expressions to suit every occasion. About this time, a group of us junior staff got together and formed a little group in a desperate attempt to improve our education and eventually by some fluke I think we all scraped through HNC.
One day in 1962, Len Firmin called me into his office and told me the Company had received a major turnkey Radar contract from the South African Air Force (I think it was about £4.5 million – a pretty hefty sum forty years ago) and in terms of the agreement, had to provide a project engineer in RSA to run it. Would I accept the job? Let me know by tomorrow! I went home to tell my wife and two year old son, and with her agreement, within a few weeks it was off to RSA on a two-year contract for the next forty years!
But defining my terms of reference was not easy – by this time Tom Straker had become Divisional Manager -this was pre-MRSL – and he baffled to find the right diplomatic words which wouldn’t put anyone’s nose out of joint, because I was a first off experiment! Radar Div had never sent a Project Engineer on an assignment like this before – previously the installation people went out and did their thing, but this was a complete turnkey project – buildings, power stations, communications et al – and old ways were not going to satisfy the customer. Maurice Burrage was in charge of the installation side and determined to protect his turf. However, Tom used all his Antipodean charm and by and large the arrangement worked and we handed over the project on time and within budget.
Anyway we must have done something right because after it was completed, the customer wanted to extend it, but I decided not to get type- cast so I opted to join Marconi South Africa, which at that time was a ‘man and a boy’ outfit situated in a few scrappy offices at the local Rand Airport, with David Simmons, who had taken over from Herman Baker, as MD. I had an office just below the Control tower from where I had a mouth- watering view of the gold from the Free State gold fields being unloaded from an old Dakota.
Rhys Williams came out in 1967 to replace Dave Simmons who returned to UK and his arrival was the best thing ever to happen to the local Company, from that point on, things started to happen. Shortly afterwards we opened our first factory on the original English Electric factory site in Benoni, (originally established by F.N.Sutherland before the war) to assemble AD370 under licence to Basildon, heralding the start of a very good relationship with the then, Aeronautical Division.
In 1969 we had a visit from Bob and Betty Telford who came out to celebrate MSA’s fifty years in RSA and in 1970 Rhys returned to the UK and I was appointed to replace him. I well remember sitting on the business side of Rhys’ desk and realising I had inherited the problem of finding enough work to keep the factory going! Fortunately Rhys had built up a very good relationship with the Government procurement side and within a year or two we got enough business to justify initially extending the factory and subsequently moving altogether and taking over the old GEC fridge factory, when it finally dawned on them that they couldn’t make fridges profitably. We virtually rebuilt the factory to make it suitable for electronic manufacture and established an R&D department.
Early in the 1970s, the Government decided to go ahead with broadcast colour TV and we were fortunate to obtain a fair chunk of the business against stiff competition from the French who had gained considerable favour with the Government by turning a blind eye to UN sanctions. We on the other hand had to fight both them and the propaganda of Peter Hain’s anti-apartheid mob. The 1970s were tricky times for us in our dealings with the SA Government which was recognised by the Company as being an exceptionally good customer. We had to tread a careful path – we were in line to get a huge Communication project which was nearly scuppered by Hain and Co., but fortunately there were some sensible Union people in New Street who were able to persuade Brother Jim Callaghan (who was then occupying Downing street) that they preferred work to politics and the dole!
In 1978, Arnold Weinstock decided to sell 50% of GEC’s holdings in RSA to a local company and MSA was included in the package, as a result, for a while I found myself with three bosses. The local company which had bought half of us, had other interests in electronics some of which were badly managed so reorganisation became the order of the day and after putting up with that for a few years I retired in 1988.
I saw a good many new brooms come and go during my service and whilst they tended to sweep clean, at times they also created impenetrable clouds of dust, which effectively obscured much of the good work previously carried out by older and wiser brooms! So what’s new, one may ask!
Jack Mayhew, Hillcrest, South Africa
2. From Peter Helsdon ex MCSL Development Engineer at Waterhouse Lane
Not many people know that the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. once owned a railway. This was at the Clifden transmitter site in Ireland, built in 1907, which used a 300kW generator. The boilers required lots of fuel, which was provided by the nearby peat bogs. This was transported by a small steam train. In 1922 the transmitter and railway were damaged by the action of participants opposing the Irish Government, during the Civil war there.
3. From Peter Roscoe who with his brother and father have notched up quite a few years with the Company. Peter and David are still employed at Marconi Mobile New Street.
The Three R’s
This photograph was taken at the 2001 Re-Union of the Marconi Veterans Association when Arthur Roscoe was declared the oldest Veteran present at the age of 88 (he’s the one in the middle). He was accompanied by his sons Peter (right) and David (left). Many of our retired Veterans will remember Arthur who is still a very fit and lively Veteran.
4. From J.A.B. Russell who lives in Writtle.
for the considerable effort on your part in launching the Newsletter. It already appears to be receiving a significant welcome amongst veterans and seems set to proceed from strength to strength.
In the Issue 3 of Jan. 2001, under “Can You Help?” on Page 2, you reported no response to your earlier quest. I give my own findings under the headings below.
Early Marconi Mast
I have two postcards of the New Street masts, one coloured and postmarked 1914, the other a sepia photo postmarked 1915. A few years ago at a local auction I saw a postcard of a smaller mast, postmarked 1905. Might this have been the Hall Street mast? It was in a small bundle of Essex cards, the remainder were of no interest to me and unfortunately I was outbid by somebody who obviously valued the other cards more than I did.
Sunrise Cigarette Cards
The “Wireless Telephony” sets were issued by R & J. Hill Ltd., in 1923 – a small card series of 84 and a large card series of 20. Like many primary schoolboys in the early 1930’s I was a keen collector of cigarette cards and cannot recall ever seeing a single card of the W.T. series.
Early Days of Wireless Broadcast Reception
Nostalgia like this sends me down memory lane, to the days in rural; Kent when I first became interested in wireless sets. Up till I was ten we lived in what nowadays is known as a Grade II Listed Building. My summer “den” was in the disused stable block. It was there where I began to accumulate the discarded old sets from relatives and friends.
My first hands-on encounter was when my father rigged up and demonstrated one of the early crystal sets on the dining-room table. The set was robustly constructed with an ebonite top panel on which were the tuning knob, a cat’s-whisker assembly and big brass terminals for connection to the aerial and earth leads and the earphones. The underside of the panel held the inductance, remaining components and wiring. The panel formed the top cover of a substantial polished mahogany box.
Aerial and earth leads were borrowed from the family wireless set – the aerial itself spanned between porcelain insulators at the top of a pair of old hop poles. Headphone reception of the loudest station was comfortably audible if the room was quiet and one’s hearing was unimpaired. I found it an exciting experience.
The family wireless set in the early 1930’s I remember as being a simple trf set using a twin ganged tuning capacitor. It was out of my reach, high up on a wall shelf in the living room. Alongside was a 120V ht dry battery and a 2V accumulator. A twin flex cable trailed along the wall to a corner-mounted moving-iron type loudspeaker.
After the crystal sets I acquired only one early set with two bright emitter triode thermionic valves mounted on top of the wooden casing. This set had a separate home-made mahogany stained box, long enough to hold a row of 3-cell cycle lamp dry batteries which were series connected by clamps to provide the ht supply.
Then followed a stream of blueprint-constructed and old commercially made radios. Sadly, all these early items eventually became dismantled during my learning period to supply parts that I might need for my own constructions. The latter, in general, started as breadboard models progressing towards more complex designs. Meddling with mains-operated battery eliminators, ac operated radios, and building superhets without alignment equipment, all had to wait till I reached my teens. By that time I had found friends with similar interests and we formed a radio club with regular meetings at each other’s homes to demonstrate our recent successes. I still have the remnants of a 2-valve short-wave set that gave hours of pleasure in identifying and logging remote stations.
About this time I began thinking about taking on a challenge to build a working crystal set in a plastic thimble. What I did, to achieve this, took years for me to comprehend. It certainly baffled all of the friends I demonstrated it to (long before the days of miniature solid state diodes).
One summer evening in 1940, a man called at my home and asked to see me. He was evidently an official caller. I was told that I should be seen to be putting my time to good use by doing something towards the war effort. So I joined 40 (Founder) Squadron of the Air Training Corps. During our Morse Code practice sessions I soon recognised an opportunity to put my hoard of wireless components to good use. I made about a dozen battery operated one valve audio oscillators for cadets to use for Morse Code practice at home. Each consisted of an 8″ x 3″ wooden base on which was mounted a triode wired to an inter-valve audio transformer and sundry other parts.
Power supply was from a single-cell bicycle rear lamp battery held in place by spring contacts. A simple Morse key and headphones could be got from local junk shops.
After 2 years and 6 months with 40 Squadron I left to join the RAF. The ATC C.O. told the assembly that my total attendance hours was a squadron record.
Then came four and a half years of Radar in the Royal Air Force, with postings in the UK and overseas. I eventually joined MWT Co. in 1948 -and that’s another story!
5 From Geoff Nash who lives in Little Baddow
Final Siting of Marconi Museum
It seems there has been considerable discussion as to the final siting of a new Marconi Museum in Chelmsford.
The obvious preference would be a location directly associated with him, and that of course is New Street and I would suggest that such a building already exists, and is an excellent location.
This is the one on the left as you enter the now closed Works entrance in New Street.
I consider it is already an historic building anyway as it was from here that both the first two public broadcasts took place in the UK in 1920. First was the Concert Party followed shortly after by the ever more famous one by Dame Nellie Melba.
The building was a store room at that time, hence the black curtains in the photograph of Dame Nellie Melba.
These hid the shelving for the store items. I recall it was used as a Canteen in the 1950’s. Additional accommodation could no doubt be provided in the buildings fronting New Street. They must remain as there is, I understand a conservation order on them all. There would also be a Car Park for visitors in the yard behind. I know this to be the site as I was told so by someone who, lucky chap, was present at both broadcasts. He was a near neighbour of mine, that great Marconi engineer Ned Davis, who Marconi knew well.
Incidentally he also told me that the oft-repeated story that Dame Nellie, when told that her voice would be sent from the tall masts then on the site, did not say “she definitely would not be climbing them young man”. Apparently Ned was one of the guilty ones who made this story up as a leg-pull. It fooled a lot of people for a long time.
Sorry to go on a bit, but I wonder if anyone knows when Marconi made his last visit to New Street? I know that at one time he used to call in at the sweet shop, then on the corner of New Street and Victoria Road for his fags. I was told this by Mrs Weaver, the mother of a friend of mine. She and her husband kept this shop for many years.
Editor replied to this as follows
Thank you for your letter of 12th April in connection with the Marconi Museum.
The Marconi Museum has as you state, been under considerable discussion over the last three years. I have been involved in some of these discussions, which are still going on. GEC before they decided to call it a day, gave Chelmsford Borough Council £300,000 under a Trust to set up a Museum in Chelmsford to house the Marconi Archives.
This sum of money was offered because GEC, and now Marconi plc, were unable to find a suitable building for the above purpose and, furthermore, they did not own spare land in Chelmsford on which to purpose build a suitable home for the Archives.
Whilst the front building in New Street at one time seemed a suitable place for the Archives, Marconi plc were unable to offer this. This front building has a preservation order on it, which I arranged during my employment with the Company. I thought this would be an ideal place particularly as I at one time occupied Guglielmo Marconi’s office there.
Reference your comment concerning the building where the first broadcast took place in the 1920’s. I agree with you the building on the left-hand side of the New Street Gate was the one where the lady from the Concert Party rendered her solo as the first woman to broadcast together with her colleagues. It was upstairs in the area, which more recently was occupied by the Directors and Senior Managers Luncheon Club. I used to eat there every day. The other side of this area at one time was used as a Table Tennis area for the Marconi TT Club. In fact this was Guglielmo Marconi’s experimental laboratory.
However, I must refute your comment that this was the area where Dame Nellie Melba carried out her broadcast “on air”. I understand from records, that on the morning of the prearranged broadcast, a real problem occurred and that the equipment overloaded and blew up. A hurriedly arranged studio was set up on the other side of the railway track within the Company where normally equipment was packed. Rough curtains were erected and a carpet put on the floor, which Dame Nellie decided she did not require and had it removed. I have a photograph of the area showing the large sliding door and where piano, microphones and cables abound. Unfortunately, in the revamp of Marconi’s a few years ago, this building was pulled down and I gave a BBC local Radio Broadcast at the time on its history.
Turning now to your comment on the story that Ned Davis is alleged to have made-up on the 450ft masts from which Dame Nellie’s voice was to come. I cannot comment on this, except to say that it is recorded in the annals of the Marconi Company that my predecessor as Head of Publicity and PR, one Arthur Burrows, did say this and it was only on his assurance that Dame Nellie went on to sing as the first professional broadcaster in this country.
As you probably know Marchese Marconi died in July 1937 and although I do not have detailed information, I understand that in the last month of his life he spent most of the time in Italy on his yacht “Elettra”. I will try and find out this information when next I see his daughter Princess Elettra with whom I meet on a regular basis.
6. From Ron Kitchen BEM of Chelmsford
I have been somewhat remiss in overlooking my subscription. Herewith a cheque to cover last year’s and this year’s subscriptions. The Newsletter is very interesting but with regard to the Dinner, unfortunately this coincides with an RAF re-union – presumably because our date setting formulas coincide!
I have plenty of reminiscences, probably too many to put in any sort of order at the age of 76! My first direct contact with the Company was in being involved in the initiation of SSB transmission in the Royal Air Force at El Hagg in the Egyptian Desert when I was 21 years old. When I left the RAF nine years later, I joined the Company at New Street
I remember the “great Writtle flood” being on attachment to Pat Keller’s group at the time and seeing one enterprising Engineer paddling a microwave dish! Equally amusing then was the cheer that went up when the, then, Company Chief Engineer fell into the water!
Another interesting memory is when I took over and took charge of the Widford Hall establishment which then had a Moat, about 100 fruit trees (which the main canteen organisation harvested) and large grounds. Subsequently the grounds were reduced to accommodate the new and less than attractive developments which were being done on the Widford Industrial Estate. I still have the ancient front door key of Widford Hall as a souvenir.
There are seemingly endless other memories but since I retired I have run 73 courses on RF radiation safety at the late lamented Marconi College and subsequently at another Company and written two books on the subject, the second in the process of publication at present.
Anyway this is probably all rather boring so keep on with the Newsletters.
7. From R.E. Amos, Tyne & Wear
Enclosed cheque for £10 annual subscription, although I do not get down to Chelmsford for the reunion I am always interested in the Newsletter. Do you stiII have the register of Marconi Veterans ? The last amendment I have is dated 1994.
I was born and Iived in Chelmsford and joined the Marconi Company in 1936 as an Instrument Maker Apprentice, Eight shillings a week I recall, this was just after the great masts were dismantled. After spending four odd years in the R AF I rejoined the company and spent the next 15 years in the drawing office under Reg Mead and Horace Singer, until a move i n 1960 to Marconi Radar at Gateshead as chief droughts man and there I remained until retiring after 50 years with the Company in 1986, having moved to Engineering Manager with BilI Henderson and Ron ??.
I was interested to see the letter from Brian Carey, to see he moved to Newcastle, I know of BiII Henderson’s death but I wonder if Brian is aware that Roy Cantwell, Ex Quality Manager Gateshead also passed on last year.
It is many years since I was in Chelmsford, my life is now in the North East, my family and grandchildren are settled in this area. It is sad to think that Marconi is fast being forgotten in the town after all where would Chelmsford have been without Marconi, Hoffmann and Crompton, all pioneers in their fields.
I would be interested to receive a tie if they are still available and will be pleased to forward a cheque if you could let me know the cost.
Best wishes to you all.
8. From Roger Sweeny Chelmsford
Thank you for the recent (September, actually! -well, time flies, doesn’t it!) Association Newsletter -it’s great – I don’t know why we never had one before. Will you be running a “Get (or keep) in Touch” column? so that we may possibly be able to make contact with people whom we haven’t seen for years? The Newsletter would seem to be an ideal medium.
I enclose my cheque for £10 as my membership subscription for 2001. All the best for Christmas and I look forward to seeing you in the New Year.
Editors Note: See later we have introduced a “Get in Touch” column for you to keep in contact with friends (and others).
9. From Peter Helsdon, Chelmsford
On the 23rd February 1900 the Company name was changed from “The Wireless Telegraph Company” to “Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company”. The post cards and table mats issued on the 100th Anniversary in 1997 have the Hall Street works showing this new name on the rounded corner of the building.
About 1976 the building was acquired by the Essex Water Company. At that time the North end of the building was covered with boarding over the brick work. In 1981 1 was walking past and noticed scaffolding had been erected there and the boarding had been removed. This revealed the lettering which had been covered since the Hall Street Works had been closed. Just before the wall was covered in white paint, I had the attached photo taken. This shows “Marconi’s Wireless”, but the rest is obscured by the scaffolding, however, while I was there I could read the whole name. I believe my photo is the only record of the Company name on that wall.
10. From Joe Sutton, Little Baddow
Many thanks for Newsletter No. 3. 1 can’t remember receiving 1 & 2 but this could well be the effect of failing memory. My long term memory is excellent but short term terrible. I don’t think I’ve paid in the past so herewith cheque for £30 for 2 back years and the current year.
I joined the old M.W.T. Co in 1935 as one of the first graduate intakes. The College then consisted of the backroom of the house and a hut in the backyard.
After a few weeks there I went to work under Ernest Green on S.W. transmitters in B. 30 at the top end of the site near Glebe Road. Five years there until I went to Farnborough. I learnt a lot under E.G. and many happy memories.
In those days we were all research E.G. was Independent Research 1 A and believe me he was independent.
J.G. Robb was Chief of Research and his brother F.G. also worked in B. 30. J.G. was a fairly big chap and was known as big Robb. F.G. was a small neat chap, known as little Robb. But he had a big sense of humour. I was working at the bench one day hacking away at a piece of copper tubing, F.G. passed by and called out “Hi Joe, more bloody research.”
Best wishes for your enterprise and kind regards.