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Robin Reynolds

Page history last edited by Ian Gillis 4 years, 9 months ago Saved with comment



My Early Days at Marconi

In the last few months I was at school, (Colchester Technical), we were interviewed by someone who I guess nowadays would be called a careers officer. His job was to advise us kids on what sort of job we could expect now that we had passed the final exam available at that school and to try and guide us into a job which we may find of some interest to us. Many of us had little idea of what would be expected of us but in those days most pupils from that school were offered some sort of apprenticeship with very little pay. Many of our “less privileged” friends who had received a somewhat lesser education by attending a less salubrious school were being offered more pay in somewhat mundane jobs. This rankled us rather faced with the prospect of starting work on 30 shillings and a few pennies a week with digs at 30 shillings leaving little for riotous living.


Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company was in my sights and I had two options, either to sign up for a Student Apprenticeship lasting four years, or a Craft Apprenticeship lasting five years. Although I had achieved the highest score of subjects in the class for my School Certificate, I had only gained a Pass in English language when the requirements for a Student Apprenticeship was a Credit. I was advised to apply for a Craft Apprenticeship to be sure of being accepted. It wasn’t until I had been an apprentice for some time that the full significance of this move sank in and I realised I had to work hard to avoid a life on the shop floor. Although I had always gained a certain amount of satisfaction in making things and seeing the end result I was less inspired to make or assemble just a small part of the finished product.


I started my life at Marconi in late August 1951. I had previously visited the town and established some digs to live in during the week, proposing to travel down from my parent’s home in Holland-on-Sea on Sunday evenings and back again on Friday evenings. I phoned the people with whom I was going to lodge during the week the day before I was due to travel only for them to tell me they had changed their mind and I would have to find elsewhere. This is a fine start, I thought, I start work tomorrow and nowhere to live! The Welfare Department came to my aid at the last moment and put me in the Marconi Hostel, an old farmhouse next to the Waterhouse Lane Works – that was when it really was a lane – only bicycles, pedestrians and horses could navigate it. Now it seems to be the main road to Braintree.


My first job was as Shop Boy in Charlie Britten’s workshop. It was impossible to be a lower form of life in the firm, even the old chap who swept the floor had a higher ranking as he had his own chair to sit on during tea-break and I suspect the lavatory cleaner was graded higher. The job was to walk round the site carrying out all the errands for the men in the workshop. Collecting materials, fixings, drawings and taking finished items for plating or painting. I realised that this was good training, not only to be humble but to become familiar with the New Street site and discover the location of the Raw Stores, Finished Part Stores, Print Room, Plating Shop and the Paint Shop. Sometimes there was a need for me to visit the Winding Shop – that was an education in itself for a 16 year old lad!


Although the Hostel provided an evening meal it seemed almost obligatory to have lunch in the Company canteen. This could be difficult on only a few pence spending money a week. One lad came up with a good scheme when he discovered that gravy and custard were free and that bread was only a halfpenny a slice. Using two plates one could have a two course “meal” for a penny, gravy on one and custard on the other. No nonsense about five-a-day then!


I was fascinated by the layout of the New Street site as it seemed like a little town to me with proper roads and pavements with different buildings emitting different smells according to whatever process was taking place within. The other thing that struck me as odd was that there were no loose dogs wandering around. In the 40's and 50's it was not unusual to see a few loose dogs wandering the streets of any rural town despite the fact that all dogs had to be licensed by their owners. Today there appear to be very few loose dogs around which may be due to the increased volume of vehicular traffic.


So for almost three months my week started on Sunday evening riding my old iron bicycle from Holland–on–Sea to Chelmsford, spending 07.45 to 17.30 four days at New Street and one day of “Day Release” at the Mid-Essex Technical college chasing National Certificate. Then Friday evening, 43 miles back to my parents home on the old bike. In November 1951 I was old enough to go to the Apprentice Training Centre then located at Waterhouse Lane to start learning how to become an Instrument Maker. Early in 1952 we were relocated to the new building at New Street – the one with the wavy roof that has just been pulled down. The main thing I remember about the Apprentice Training Centre was that it was run by a somewhat objectionable character who insisted we all called him “Sir”, had a nasty smell about him due to a gammy leg and slept under his desk at lunchtimes. The actual instructors though were excellent and I owe a lot to them in that they taught me discipline and accuracy in my work.


The remainder of my apprenticeship involved moving around various departments learning whatever skills were required of me. I did my best to avoid a course at Marconi College Drawing School. I thought that if they get me in there I’ll end up as a draughtsman – a future I dreaded. I continued cycling back and forth to my parent’s home at weekends and became so fit I took up cycle racing and still have a few medals to show for my efforts. More evening classes and exams took up any other spare time I had before the dreaded call for National Service came in 1956. By then I had spent some time working at Pottery Lane on radar transmitter development which held me in good stead when it came to selection for a semi-decent job in H.M. Forces. So I had a two year break from Marconi before re-joining in 1958 as a Junior Engineer with the same Group subsequently re-located to Great Baddow. I think that is now called a Gap Year!


P.S. People have asked me why I refer to my “iron bike”. Well the frame was rescued from a bomb crater that had been used as a fly-tip. I scraped off all the rust and painted it red with a tin I found in my dad’s shed, the wheels I bought second hand from a friend, I fitted new bearings and saddle and generally scrounged the remaining parts to make it ride-able. At least it got me around until I could save up enough to buy something better.



Great Train Robbery - The Escape Plan

It was way back in 1984 or thereabouts, we had been unsuccessful in selling S511 to the Americans with our demonstration at the Grand Canyon airport but we caught the eye of the Canadians who bought five systems including the one at the Grand Canyon. This was to be installed at the Canadian Forces Base at Lahr in Germany to replace the S654. They were not too sure if their power supplies would be suitable so asked for a survey to be carried out on site. The people chosen to go were Alf Lund of the Power Equipment section at New Street and Harry Cole in ATC Systems.

Near the time, Alf Lund had another important engagement so asked his No. 2, John Biggs to take his place. Even nearer the time, Harry Cole found something more important to do so I was asked to replace him. So we turned up at the Canadian Forces check-in desk at Gatwick and told them that Lund and Cole would not be travelling with them today but Biggs and Reynolds would.

Now any other day it would have been OK, but as it happened the two notorious train robbers, Biggs and Reynolds had escaped from prison only a few days earlier. After a bit of leg pulling we were loaded on to the old Boeing 707 and set off for Germany. Just before we were due to land they announced that the runway at Lahr was being re-surfaced so we would land in Baden and would be taken to Lahr by road to Lahr and collect our luggage there. Unfortunately our bags had been left on the plane and were by now on their way to Canada.

More hilarity followed when we arrived at the Hotel Lowen with no baggage and I explained to the boss, in my best German, that Lund and Cole had been replaced by Biggs and Reynolds when on his desk the newspaper Die Zeitung bore as it headline that Biggs and Reynolds were wanted by Interpol. We were well received however and I think we even got a free beer out of it.

We got our bags back eventually, mine came via New York but a few items were missing and now had new owners somewhere.

One interesting thing I learnt talking to John Biggs was about German railways. As we travelled by bus to Lahr we passed very close to a railway line and he told me that he designed the motors used in their locomotives when he worked at Crompton-Parkinson. He told me that all their trains ran on a supply at 16⅔ Hz. I think it was done to stop people stealing electricity but made me wonder how Eurostar get a train to run from St. Pancras to Frankfurt. All suggestions on a postcard please.

NB see also Robin's tribute to Eric Gildersleve which includes biographical material.


Death of Robin Reynolds

We have been informed that Robin passed away on the evening of the 8th October 2019. Some tributes from colleagues and friends follow:

From Alan T
So sorry to hear of Robin's passing. He and I had recently made contact after he spotted that I was interested in trains. He wrote an account of his own interest, promising me a second part with details of his involvement in garden railways. It sounded quite fascinating and I would have loved to be able to read it, but as far as I know he never completed it. I had hoped too to send him more about myself but that too has not been written.

From Alan M
Was very sad to hear the bad news about Robin Reynolds.
He had many problems recently having an elderly and sick wife to care for and having lost his power of speech, with other problems which required many hospital visits and “procedures.”
I never actually worked with him but he was always around for a bit of banter with his witty, and dry humour.
We communicated most weeks by email and I was always impressed with his cheery signing off comments, despite his obvious problems.

From Ian B
It was sad to hear of the sudden passing of Robin Reynolds. He was not known to me personally but I regularly saw him ‘up the field’ near H or F blocks at Great Baddow and sometimes he would pop in an have a chat with the late Chris Arnold in our portakabin . My memory of him is that of being very jovial with dark hair and Buddy Holly style glasses and always dressed in a very dark suit. Nice chap.


From Robin W

So sorry to learn of Robin’s passing. He was a great guy to be with and we struck up a lasting relationship when involved with the S511 Grand Canyon project and the subsequent sale of systems to the Canadian DND.

RIP Robin, you and your Marconi stories will be missed.


Comments (1)

Ian Gillis said

at 3:47 pm on Feb 14, 2016

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