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Memories of life in the Forest of Dean by Robert Watkins.

A photo of the house Brookville in Pillowell showing the side view


I was born on February 8th 1926 at Brookville, Lower Yorkley, Lydney, Gloucestershire. My mother’s name was GLADYS MAY WATKINS (nee PHIPPS) from Whitecroft. My father was ALBERT ERNEST WATKINS from Pillowell. They were married in March 1925 at Whitecroft Chapel. Both at the age of 32. A reception was held at Woodland Villa, Whitecroft, my mother’s home, after which they went on honeymoon to Bournemouth. I think it was the only holiday they ever had in the rest of their lives.

They returned to live in the house that father had had built for about £500. (Wages were probably less than £2 for a six day week). I don’t know how long it took to build, but Mr Phil Phipps was the architect and the builder was Mr Davis from Blakeney.

When I was born, I understand I only just made it. The doctor gave me the hardest slapping of my life to start me crying!

1926 was also the year of the General Strike and times were hard and there was no money coming in because we owned our own house. I was christened ROBERT JOHN WATKINS at Whitecroft (Wesleyan) Methodist Chapel at a Tuesday evening meeting. My godmother was Aunty Liz, my mother’s sister (LIZ LEE). I can’t remember the name of the minister but Rev. George Lawrence came to Whitecroft about two years later as a probationer.

At the age of five I attended Pillowell County Council School primary class with Miss PHIPPS, Miss MORGAN and Miss EDDY. When I was seven I moved into the “Big Boys’ Class” and was taught by Mrs HARRY JONES, MRS GERTIE DAVIES and the head was Mr HARRY JONES. He was later replaced by Mr DONALD WINTLE. Miss HALE replaced him when the boys and girls’ schools were amalgamated in 1938 and Mr KEN PRITCHARD was also appointed a year later.

The continuity of education was somewhat interrupted due to all the changes of staff and reorganisation.

Also, when I was about five years old I remembered being chaperoned by two young ladies to Sunday School at Whitecroft Methodist Chapel. It was quite a walk from Yorkley to Whitecroft for a little one! The ladies were FRANCES JAMES (Mrs F. BEVAN) and AMY JAMES. Mrs TURNER was in charge and we met in the Guild Room. I still remember the song “Here the pennies dropping” which we sang when the collection was taken. Of course there were lots of Bible stories too. It all lasted about an hour.

When I was seven I was promoted to the Junior Class where the superintendents included Mr TOM PRICE, Mr FRED MORGAN, Mr RAY PHIPPS and the teachers were Mr. HORACE MORGAN, Mr GARNETT WATTS, Mrs HOOK, Mr. RON ALDRIDGE, Mrs DENNING, Mrs BESSIE PHIPPS, Miss EDNA PHIPPS and Mr. COMBES.

There were three highlights of the year for the Sunday School. One was the Christmas Party, another the Annual Outing. In the early days of the 1930’s we went by train to Bishop’s Cleeve. A special excursion was run from Cinderford, through Parkend, Whitecroft and Lydney to Gloucester, Cheltenham and finally to Bishop’s Cleeve.

At Bishop’s Cleeve I remember the large pleasure park with swings and slides (mats provided). We had a wonderful time and it was all free. After the fun we were treated to tea which included sandwiches and cakes which was held in a large hall. Most of us were accompanied by our parents. As soon as Grace was said the boys did a dive for the best cakes and the girls didn’t stand a chance..manners were forgotten!

Of course, attendance at Sunday School was rewarded by the free treats…low attendance meant that some were penalised and had to make a contribution.

A couple of times we were treated to an excursion to Severn Beach, near Bristol. There was an outdoor swimming pool, boating lake and amusement fair.

Unfortunately, one year, I remember it was very wet when we arrived and Uncle PERCY PHIPPS approached the engine driver and begged him “ Old butty, put the engine to the other end and let’s go back home! “ No-one took him seriously!

The outings continued until 1939 when the war put an end to them all. Further outings were arranged and Willetts coaches employed after 1945.

The third highlight for everyone was the Sunday School Anniversary in which about 80 children took part with their singing and recitations. We performed morning, afternoon and evening and each session was extremely well supported and everyone was well dressed for the occasion.

I believe there is a photograph of one of the Anniversaries displayed in Whitecroft Memorial Hall after the closure of the Chapel. At the age of 15, I joined Whitecroft Methodist Youth Club which was formed by Mr RON ALDRIDGE a local preacher. If we attended the Tuesday Devotional meetings we were allowed to visit the games Room in the Mill House on a Friday. We were privileged to be able to use the tennis courts also.

Bible Class was always on a Sunday and there was lots of Bible teaching ( the leaders were wanting to develop more Local preachers and Sunday School teachers) KEITH PHIPPS and GERALD MORGAN were fine examples. But I know Sunday school teaching was not my gift at that time !

After having failed the 11 plus examination I was fortunate to have Mr PRITCHARD’s help to pass the examination at the age of 13 years to go to Gloucester Junior Technical School. So from Sept.1939 for two years I travelled from ten to eight every weekday morning on the Red and White bus and returned home at twenty to seven at night. Homework then followed and kept me out of mischief.

The Principal of the Tech. at that time was Dr WATSON. Mr ARMIN taught Science and maths which also included engineering drawing, mechanics and electricity. Mr JONES taught English, Mr WEST Woodwork, building and Technical Drawing. Mr SUMPTION taught Metalwork and Maths. There were 25 students in my class, I can remember the names of some of them…MARSH, BEVERSTOCK, WILCE, TURLEY, POWELL, WAITE, WATKINS, EDWARDS, HUGHES, DAWSON, BAYLISS, BYARD, JONES, SMITH, HEAP, SMALL(?) GABB, FENNELL, CHARLES.

The course was for two years and stood me in good stead for later work at Ranks. Because my start coincided with the beginning of the war the college had to be evacuated from Brunswick Road to Archdeacon Street. We moved a few more times and finally moved into a new building which during the 2011 riots in Gloucester was attacked and partly burnt down.

I left Gloucester Tech. at the age of 15 and started work at Watts Factors Ltd, Lydney apprenticed to Motor Engineering for four years. I earned four shillings a week for the first year, six the next and then eight and finally ten. Later the wages doubled. Things improved financially when the apprentices joined the Transport and General Union albeit there was some objection from the management.

The company was owned by Mr ARTHUR J. WATTS , Mr STAN MORRIS (General Manager) Mr BILL FRANKLIN (Chief Engineer) Mr HARRY SMITH (Office manager) Mr JACK JAMES, Mr WILLIAM JAMES (Foremen)

I served most of the four years in the Heavy Goods Dept. We worked on such vehicles as Albion, Leyland, Scammell and Gardener, AEC, Fodden , Guy and Atkinson, Seddon, ERF, and Commer.

We dealt with anything from the front radiator to the rear light. Then after four years one became a fully fledged mechanic and could work on any job anywhere.

I was too young to be called up in the war and I was in a reserved occupation but on December 5th 1946 I was called into the army at the age of 21. My five week training started at Reservoir Camp, Gloucester. We had one week off for Christmas. After that we moved on to Ottley for trade testing and I became PT. R.J. WATKINS Motor Mechanic 3rd Class.

It was now 1947 and there we experienced snow drifts approximately two feet high. Of course we were very close to Ilkley Moor. We stayed three weeks and then were sent to Slough for one night and then transferred to Ashchurch camp in Gloucestershire. There we worked for twenty months mostly on many types of vehicles including Churchills, Valentines and Stewarts (light tanks) and the Sherman (main American fighting armour)

The Churchills were an infantry support tank and used for recovery and bridge laying. I remember clearly one instance when I was detailed to correct the braking system on a 17ton AEC armoured B. vehicle. It was a panic job and the captain asked “What are you going to do to fix it Watkins?” “Adjust the system Sir,” There was some question on the breaking distance. The inspectors had complained that it was not short enough. So I said (sticking my neck out) “ Captain, I shall need some heavy jacking equipment, and also sir, what distance would you suggest is acceptable?” To my surprise, I was given no answer but he said, “I’ll organise some jacks…” and I was left to it!

One problem I had when given promotion .. I was never given official instruction on regimental duties, so it was very easy to get into trouble. It happened to me, I found out the hard way. I suppose I was promoted on technical abilities and eventually became Sergeant.

After being demobbed I returned to WATT FACTORS Ltd. in 1948. In 1960 I was thrilled to get a job at RANK PRECISION INDUSTRY. The story of how I got there is an interesting one.

One Friday afternoon my wife Peggy who was reading the local newspaper, noticed that RANKS at Mitcheldean were advertisng for a Radio Repair Mechanic. She offered to type a letter which explained that I was self taught, I had constructed radio sets, a six inch television (using radar tube) All the information I gleaned from “The Practical Television “ magazine. I didn’t think I stood much chance of an interview even, but to my delight I was asked. I told no-one where I was going although, of course, I took a half day off work and forthwith was offered the job.

At first the work involved reading amplifier circuits and using a soldering iron. The amplifier units were assembled by female staff and when completed were allotted to one of the three of us who had to check and ensure they worked to a set specification.

For the first month I was supervised by Mr H. HELM, charge hand, or Mr. J. JOHNSON, inspector. I qualified and became a full time “Snagger”. The amps were built into 16mm film projectors. They used EF86, ECC83, EL84 valves. Later some had a few transistors as pre-amps.

When a new company was formed as RANK XEROX a lot of the products ended around 1965. I was then involved in the manufacture of printing machines. After working “on line” for a few months I obtained a job in the Reliability Dept. All components were tested to simulate a five year life. The manager, Mr K. BOYD used to say “ Failures are our bread and butter.” Manufacturers either redesigned the product or another was found. There was a difference in the new type of work. Although the radio/amplifiers were electrical, they were a static unit, an electrical machine was something different. To detect a fault it was necessary to know the mechanical sequence, and know at what place in the cycle the fault occurred. Worse still, wires were sometimes assembled in the wrong terminals.

The work sequence was two weeks days and two weeks nights. Days were from eight till five, nights were from 10 till six. I found the night work hard, trying to keep awake. It was extra pay for nights, ie time and a half.

The Reliability Dept. was better on “days”. I started off as a laboratory aide assisting highly qualified mechanical/electrical engineers who were experts in the working and design of these machine components.

As time progressed two departments were formed: Component Test and Machine Test. I became attached to the latter. The team was Chief Engineer, Departmental Manager, over both sections, Section Manager, Section Leader ( grade eight), and his assistant, Lab. Aide( grade five) acting as a field engineer, then a machine operator.

Various forms of testing were carried out, scrutinising early “first offs”, testing new design features, checking modification instructions. The unit incorporated two large environmental chambers covering conditions 50 degrees F. 30% / 80% Hum. 80 degrees F./95 degrees F. 20%/ 95% Hum. So to sum it up, it could be very cold or very hot and sticky. These special chambers were capable of simulating quite a number of world conditions. I am told that Rochester USA could reach the 80 degrees F. 80% Humidity.

In August 1986, I took voluntary redundancy, at the age of 56, having worked happily at RANKS for 22 years and having been offered a good deal.

Robert added: I would say that the majority of the names mentioned are dead, this account was edited and typed by my late wife's niece Marie Price

By kind permission of Robert Watkins.

Paul Morgan added:"... Nice to read Robert's memories especially of my grandfather Fred Morgan, father Horace Morgan and dad's cousin Garnett Watts. I didnt know they taught at Sunday School".

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