When I left school at 15, Aunt Alice organised an interview for me with the local Walls Ice Cream factory for a vacancy in their laboratory. It did not in the least excite me and I wasn’t looking forward to it. Fortunately before I could attend the interview, a letter came from the Derbyshire County Council approving my enrollment in a technical college in Manchester to study to be a Merchant Navy Radio Officer. My cousin David had already done the course and was traveling the world sending postcards from Egypt and South Africa so I decided to do the same.
Being the youngest in the college and in the same class as 50-60 year-old’s was pretty daunting. I had minimal knowledge of algebra but this was full on algebra. I travelled on the electric train from Glossop to Piccadilly Station in Manchester every day, then a bus to The College at Brooks Bar, a Manchester suburb.
It was very interesting but hard work as it was completely new to me and I still had to attain the frame of mind of a serious student. We were also learning Morse code which I found fairly easy and was soon sending and receiving quite fast.
It was the era of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and the swinging ‘60’s. We would go to the pub at lunch time and play darts or snooker and have a couple of pints. There wouldn’t be much study happening in the afternoons as we were all half cut. I would get James Thompson, one of the other students to buy the drinks as I was only 16 and he was 18.
I remember Yuri Gagarin, the Russian Cosmonaut, came past in a cavalcade of open top cars waving as we leaned out of the upstairs windows at the college and waved back.
The College of International Marine Radiotelegraphic Communications was the grand title given to what was colloquially known as “Woodies Academy” or “Woodies Lot.” Mr Wood was the principle and Mrs Sparkes (how appropriate) was the secretary.
College of International Marine Radiotelegraphic Communications, Brooks Bar, Manchester
Our Morse code lessons were held in the top room where massive iron tables were fitted with a Morse key at each corner and sockets to plug in headphones. About 30-odd students would sit in front of keys tapping out code with their headphones on. At the front of the room, the instructor would sit in front of the master key. He would be able to send to everyone in the class and students sitting opposite would be able to send and receive to each other.
When the instructor keyed the main key, it could be heard several blocks away as the loudspeakers were deafening. There was a huge blackboard with all the Morse characters written on it. Every week we would be given a test. Plain language, 5-letter code groups, figures and accented letters. We had to attain a speed of 25wpm for first class and 20wpm for second class.
In the lecture rooms, one had to be careful of getting splinters in ones backside from the homemade wooden benches.
One of the students who lived in Glossop was Scotty from Edinburgh. We would travel on the train together each morning. We were both running late one morning and missed our usual train so we had to catch the next train 30 minutes later. This meant we had to stop at Belle Vue instead of Piccadilly and then catch a bus to Brooks Bar.
As the train pulled into Belle Vue, we had about 2 minutes to run downstairs and catch the bus. Scotty was running ahead of me and I had just reached the top of the stairs and could see our bus stopped on the opposite side of the road.
It all happened as if it was in slow motion. Scotty suddenly jumped out from in front of the parked bus to run across the road and got collected by a car coming the other way. He was hurled onto the bonnet and slid down the road for about 10 yards. All his college notes flew up in a cloud and fluttered about.
I just froze at the top of the stairs as I had witnessed it all. Then I ran like mad and was the first one to get to Scotty. All the traffic had stopped. I spoke to him but he just groaned. He was crumpled lying on his side with blood coming from his forehead.
I tried turning him over, but someone pulled me away and told me to leave him. the ambulance was on its way. Pretty soon the ambulance arrived and took Scotty away.
The police came and took a statement from me and then I caught the next bus to Brooks Bar. I wasn’t sure if I would go to college or go home, but then the bus stopped at Brooks Bar so I went inside and sat in the common room.
Mrs Sparkes the secretary came in and saw me and I told her what had happened. “You had better sit down and I’ll make you a strong cup of tea, then you can go home for the day, you must be shook up.”
A year later at the age of 18, after I had passed my exam and the very day I was collecting my certificate, I met Scotty in the lobby. He was just starting back at elementary level again. It had been 12 months since the accident.