• Brian Simmons

The World of Work

I learn to work for a living


What, real work? Not just holiday jobs for pocket money?

Well, that really was a jolt. It shouldn’t have been of course because I’d been used to holiday working for several years.

Just to give an idea of me at the time - I'm the (not) cool guy in the hat on the right and no, I didn't get the girl who obviously sussed me as the poser I was. This was taken at the Bognor Butlins that I saved all my holiday work money to pay for

However, the fact is that during the school years you don’t really think that seriously about them coming to an end. So, when after my poor ‘O’ Level results my parents start talking about proper jobs and especially about my housekeeping contributions it brought me up a bit short to say the least.

There had been a point when I thought I might try to go into dentistry but that had waned somewhat as I started to find physics more difficult and I had never done any biology. Consequently, I was pinning my hopes on doing well in chemistry because an acquaintance of my father, a Mr Lemmon who was the research director of a company in Ashtead had said, “If he gets chemistry he can come and work for me.”

So, in the summer of 1960 with ‘O’ level passes in just Chemistry, English Language and Literature I entered the world of work aged 16 and became a trainee laboratory technician at The McMurdo Instrument Company in Ashtead.

McMurdo’s occupied Victoria Works in the village. This was a substantial but rather wear-worn red brick factory building but with an interesting and varied history. Dating from the late 1800’s the building had previously been home to Cadett and Neal Photographic, early pioneers of colour film processes who were eventually bought out by Eastman Colour and then merged into the Kodak empire.

In 1908 Stanley Steam Cars took over the works and it was one of their vehicles that achieved the world speed record in 1906 for covering a mile in twenty-eight seconds (128mph) which was pretty phenomenal at the time.

When the first war and the rapid development of the internal combustion engine eventually put an end to Stanley’s enterprise the factory was taken over by Ashtead Pottery. It had a sadly short life, being in business for just 12 years from 1923 to 1935. The factory was set up with the laudable aim of providing employment for disabled ex-servicemen at one point employing forty-two men. The main driving force behind the creation of the company was Sir Lawrence Weaver, a highly influential local man of the time.

The company produced a vast array of wares in the Art Deco style, ranging from figures and commemoratives, designed by leading artists of the day, through to everyday crockery. The great depression, increased competition and the untimely death of Sir Lawrence led to eventual closure of the pottery in January of 1935. (Credit www.ashteadpottery.com for info. and above text) However the company’s products have since become quite collectable today.

After the pottery closed, the works was occupied from 1937 by Celestion Ltd, radio engineers and makers of loudspeakers (still in business today). In 1946 The McMurdo Instrument Co. took over the works where it installed a large plastics moulding shop to manufacture items such as valve holders, plugs and sockets, electrical connectors and model railway parts.

When I arrived on the scene McMurdo were still producing moulded plastics but there was a great deal more going on ‘behind the scenes’ as it were.

By then the company had begun developing and manufacturing a more sophisticated range of components for the rapidly expanding electronics and communications industries and were pushing the boundaries in the development of batteries for everything from rechargeable shavers to guided missiles.

My position was in the chemistry lab working under the Chief Chemist John White. The laboratory was included within a very large open plan building with Crittal style metal and glass partitions about eight feet high so there was never any sense of privacy or quietness especially as a corridor ran the length of the building.

Of the many things we were working on, electro-plating of components was one of the most important initially.

We were responsible for monitoring and improving the quality of the gold and silver plating on the thousands of small contact pins that were fitted every day into the plastic housings produced by the moulding shop.

Without going into boring detail one of my tasks was to take random samples from batches produced and measure the thickness of the gold that was deposited in a layer only a couple of ten-thousands of an inch thick. This monotonous and repetitive task was the introduction to my new career in chemistry. What a far cry it was from the chemistry of the school lab with all its fizzes and pops, bubbling flasks, coloured smoke and wonderfully foul smells.

In addition, I was on a part time day-release course at the local technical college that would, (hopefully) lead to a National Certificate in Chemistry which was somewhere between ‘A’ level and a degree. To this end I had to attend college for one full day and two evenings a week and horror of horrors there was more, much more, maths.

However there was more to McMurdo’s than boring routine.


I had probably only been there a couple of weeks when I fell head over heels in adolescent love with Blondie.

She was one of about thirty women who worked on a pilot assembly line in an adjacent building where we used to set up small production runs for items under development in the labs.

She was about twenty-two to my sixteen years, shortish, with an hour glass figure, mini skirt and short blond hair and she used to walk up and down the corridor past the lab several times a day apparently oblivious of my existence and the palpitations she was causing.

Very occasionally when I could justify going to the assembly building, after a quick visit to the cloakroom to check hair etc. was in order, I would make a point of walking near her position and, joy of joys, one day there was a piece of paper on the floor under her chair.

Seizing this heaven-sent opportunity of making contact I picked up the paper, leaned over her shoulder and said, with a mouth so dry my tongue would hardly work, “Excuse me. Is this yours?”

She turned around smiling and said “Oh yes. Thanks very much”

I thought my heart would burst. But sadly, I was far too shy and tongue-tied to extend the conversation. Turning to walk away, I stepped right into the path of Mr. Lemmon, who was carrying a cup of tea that went straight up in the air and came down soaking the pair of us. Now I could have died.

The old man was fine about it but I just wanted the earth to open up and swallow me.

It’s funny though how these things can work in your favour because in an instant I’d gone from invisible to known. Known; yes, as the idiot who drowned the director but known nevertheless. It also meant that the ice was broken and that now I was on speaking terms with Blondie, or Dorothy to give her correct name and the whole bunch of women who worked with her. I carried a torch for Dorothy for a few months as you do but it was never going anywhere as she had a fiancée so that was that.

The poor ladies on the assembly line had another reason to remember me a few weeks later when I had an accident that caused them all to walk off the job for a couple of hours.

Kipp’s apparatus is a piece of kit many will remember from their school days that was used, among other things, to produce a gas called hydrogen sulphide, famous for its revolting smell of rotten eggs. At McMurdo’s we used this gas in a special building outside of the factory to test the corrosion resistance of our plated components and it was my job from time to time to bring it into the lab for cleaning and on the way in one day I managed to drop it.

The whole of the assembly line area was suffused with this terrible smell but not only is it revolting it is also quite poisonous so had they not all walked out we would have had to evacuate until the gas dissipated.

Although the toxic levels reduced quickly the smell lingered for several days and there was a fair bit of grumbling before it all settled down again and I certainly took a bit of stick every time I walked through their building.

We all take very much for granted these days the tiny rechargeable batteries that power so many of our electronic gizmos but it was here at McMurdo’s in the sixties and a few other places I guess that the prototypes were being devised and tested.

Early versions of nickel cadmium batteries had a propensity to explode unexpectedly so we had built a sort of brick bunker in the corner of the lab where these things could be tested safely. However, some of the projects were very much more trial and quite a lot of error as you might say.

One such project related to the development of a fairly large battery that would be used for powering missiles and we had to devise a test system that would somehow simulate the firing of the missile.

Without going into too much detail the battery comprised alternate metal plates with spaces in between into which hydrofluoric acid, a particularly nasty chemical, would be forced by the acceleration forces of the missile being fired. However, we needed a way of doing it in-situ so that we could measure and monitor the power output of the battery.

We hit on the idea of forcing the acid plunger down with an explosive charge but of course had no idea and no means of calculating in advance what size of charge would be needed. A metal housing was made up to encase the battery and the charge which we felt should be sufficient to contain the forces concerned but to be safe it was decided that we would remain at some distance and behind some form of protection.

What we eventually arranged was that the battery and charge would be on the ground on some waste land behind the factory and that we, the test team would be in a room inside the building with the device connected to our monitoring meters and so on by wires. In hindsight it was a pretty dumb plan but then that’s research – if you don’t know, you guess.

I was responsible for firing the charge electrically by just touching a couple of wires to a battery while three colleagues were there to record and monitor the unit’s performance.

“Ok Brian.” said John “On my mark – three, two, one, Now!” I touched the wires and saw a tiny spark jump.

There was the most almighty bang, the whole building shook, the window shattered and then silence. Someone said “Holy Shit!” and we all rushed to the broken window.

There was nothing there apart from a damn great hole in the ground.

I said “I don’t think we’ll need the missiles, just use the batteries.”

“Back to the drawing board.” said John, “A bit less powder next time I think.”

Another thing we were involved in was the development of water activated batteries. Anyone aware of a bit of basic science will know that dissimilar metals and a suitable electrolyte can give rise to an electric current and we were charged with refining this principle to produce batteries for lifeboats and lifejackets.

The idea was that they should operate automatically and show a light as soon as they were immersed in water. So to this end we spent quite a few days floating about in the Solent lobbing these floating lamp units into the sea and measuring the output. The sun shone and it was most enjoyable. I’m still not sure why we couldn’t have done it in a bucket of salty water behind the factory in Ashtead but it was great fun and a few good days out.

Then some bright RAF type said “What about doing something for pilots that have to bail out over land or even in the desert – not much water there.”

So we put our thinking caps on and realised the only water to hand might be the pilot’s own water – urine to be more specific.

As a result, every time we needed a pee, we’d trot off the loo with a glass flask and bring back our own urine for the little test rig we’d got running in the fume cupboard at the back of the lab. I’m pleased to say the experiment worked and hopefully may have resulted in the odd flier being picked up just that bit sooner.

Nowadays the latest batteries don’t have to rely on liquid electrolytes. Just as well for me as I certainly can’t pee on demand any more.

I learnt a lot at McMurdo’s. It was the first time I had worked as part of a team where my input was to any extent valued and it did a lot for my self-confidence. I had my own projects – albeit small - where I had to write reports and proposals for further research.

I also extended my knowledge both in the lab and at college and not just in the chemical field.

Electrical and mechanical engineering both featured to an extent in our work when it came to designing new plant and systems and in devising solutions to the problems that arose. As a result, I also learnt to use a lathe and how to do basic welding.

The other thing you learn very quickly when you step into the real world of work is about people and how they interact. It didn’t take very long to work out the personalities. John the chemist was fairly young and married to a girl who also worked there in the offices so he disappeared every lunch time to spend time with her. He was a pleasant guy but not really a manager, in fact I don’t think he’d been responsible for anyone before I came along. We developed a relationship that worked but wasn’t close.

Then there was John Fuller who was in the adjacent lab where they were concerned with designing the batteries that we were testing. He was a joker and always up to some prank or other.

His passion was photography and he apparently had quite a successful home-based business doing weddings and such like.

There were several other guys that I worked quite closely with but whose names I don’t remember. We all got on together and they treated me well, young and inexperienced though I was.

At lunch times I used to go to the canteen and there got in with another group of chaps who were mainly from the other side of the business. They worked in the plastics moulding and machine shops and their great love in life was the half size snooker table in the canteen where they played every lunch-time in a very serious league. Needless to say, I soon got involved too and actually became quite a dab hand at both snooker and billiards.

The thing I never did succumb to though was the fruit machine or ‘one armed bandit’ as we called it. I have watched on a Friday as people put virtually a whole pay packet into it and walked away in tears.

What a mug’s game. I’ve never understood gambling like that. The odd flutter yes but not to that extent.

Of course you don’t get a bunch of people working together without having a few laughs which was just as well because the pressure of work was quite intense at times.

Some of the biggest jokers worked in the moulding shop – a horrible hot and noisy environment where you certainly needed a sense of humour to remain sane. But it was a bit of a trial for anyone else who had to walk through the area to get to the main offices because they had to run the gauntlet of shouted remarks and wisecracks that allowed no quarter in those days for consideration of racist or sexual discrimination. Anyone was fair game but that also included their own too if the opportunity presented itself.

One of the press workers really fancied himself with the women and as his machine was right beside the alleyway through the centre of the shop he was ideally placed to lean over, chat-up, grope or otherwise harass any pretty but luckless female that had to pass that way.

What this guy didn’t know however was that it was common knowledge among his colleagues that he wore a toupee – well coloured and well-fitted no doubt but false hair none the less.

One day he was in the process of seriously embarrassing one of the secretaries who was new to the company and not accustomed to the banter.

He had managed to detain her for some moments when one of his colleagues reached over behind him with a high-pressure airline.

Well-fitted it may have been but the toupee certainly couldn’t withstand the ninety pounds per square inch jet of air that lifted his hair piece and lofted it high across the workshop. Everyone gets their just desserts and this was his day. Sad in a way because he was totally mortified but if you dish it out you have to be prepared to take it.

Christmas was an interesting time at McMurdo’s and in anticipation of doing not a lot on Christmas Eve the assembly line girls used to save up all year and arrive at work laden with bottles of booze – mostly gin and vodka plus baskets of mixers and party food. The theory was that they should work up to coffee time and that after eleven o’clock management would capitulate and the party could begin.

Well, that might have been the theory but the reality was that serious drinking began soon after arrival at 8.30 so that by coffee time any man who was foolish enough to venture anywhere near that end of the building was almost guaranteed to lose his trousers. All in complete fun for sure, but highly embarrassing if it happened to be you although anyone unlucky enough to get captured was expected to take it all in good part and laugh it off.

For our part in the lab we didn’t need to bring in alcohol, just a few mixers because we had alcohol aplenty in the form of Winchester Quart bottles of pure Ethyl Alcohol. Highly dangerous it’s true if you don’t know what you are doing but then we were the chemists and I’m still here to tell the tale.

Following this nonsense, the entire factory adjourned to a pre-booked back room in one the Ashtead village pubs for sandwiches provided by the firm and a lot more drink.

This was where, whilst I was engaged collecting a Christmas kiss from one of the office girls, a supposed friend emptied a bottle of brown ale into my back trouser pocket.

After a distinctly uncomfortable and wobbly ride home on my bike I had to explain to Mum how I’d come by a dark brown stain from my back-side to my turn-ups.

It was during this time that I had come into possession of the old motor bike from the scouts and became heavily into anything to do with motorcycling although to be truthful I was being less than successful in the restoration programme.

This was mostly because the realisation had dawned that however much time or money I spent I was only going to finish up with an old relic and certainly something a million miles removed from the shiny new Triumphs and Nortons I used to read about in magazines. It was hardly surprising then that when I met a guy called Dave at work with similar interests we became friends despite quite an age difference.

He had a Norton Dominator 500 cc bike that in those days was quite a ’beast’ and I was just so thrilled when he took me out on it one lunch time. We went down the A24 through the Mickleham bends and the cutting at almost 100mph. I was just so excited although to be honest I was also a tiny bit anxious about slowing down enough for the roundabout at the foot of Box Hill.

We weren’t to know that we were trailblazers for the many who were to come after us when Rykas burger bar at Burford Bridge became the weekend ‘mecca’ for motorcyclists from miles around. Sadly this friendship was interrupted when Dave decided he’d had enough of McMurdo’s and announced he was leaving to join the merchant navy. I must say I did feel a bit envious.

On the work front I was quite enjoying life in the laboratory but in all honesty I hated the studying side of things because I was really struggling with the maths component of the course.

This aspect was not helped by my developing social life that seriously conflicted with the two evenings a week I had to drag myself off to Ewell Technical College College, not to mention the time I should have been putting in studying for impending exams.

After I first learnt to swim in Jersey I’d got really keen, joined a swimming club at Epsom Baths and became a regular during the summer months at a small private outdoor pool in Ashtead. This was in Ottways Lane and was called Littlewoods which was the name of the family that owned it. Sadly that eventually closed down and we migrated to the Fetcham Grove pool at Leatherhead where we’d meet the two girls of the midnight assignation. So, as I enjoyed swimming it’s hardly surprising that it continued to feature in my spare time.

By the time I’m now describing, my out of work social life was largely associated with Gilmais, a nice little private open-air swimming pool and club at Bookham. During the summer months, which in those days seemed to be both long and hot, we spent as much time as we could swimming, tanning, weight-lifting and posing around the pool in the daytime and dancing in the social club at night.

There were also weekend dances at various village halls in the area and as I was not yet driving I seemed to spend interminable hours pedalling my bike around the district in the hope of getting off with the current female of my heart’s desire. Believe me it’s not that easy to look suave and attractive when you’ve just sweated the 5 miles from home to the latest venue.

In many ways I had it pretty well made around this time but if you can kick the traces, why not? I think it was Dave’s leaving to go to sea that unsettled me and it soon had its way.

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