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Stoke GEC - John Walker's first 'real job'

I got my first "paid employment" when I met track manager Phil Storey at the Ten-Pin Bowling, fibbed about my age (14, but on the tall side), and got a job on the track at Brandon on Saturday nights. It felt very much like winning the lottery at the time! But my first "real" job came when I had a gap of several months between leaving KHVIII and going to university. As I had an interest in computers, and my dad (Arthur Walker - if anyone else worked there?) worked in the heavy press shop at GEC Stoke, he suggested I put in for a temporary vacancy as a computer operator in the then-new building in Brindle Avenue. One of their operators was about to go on maternity leave, so they needed someone to take her place.

Peel Connor works - later GEC Peel Connor works in 1923 - later Stoke GEC. The only surviving building in 2022 is Copsewood Grange, the grand building partially hidden behind trees near the top right of this photo, which was, for many years, the GEC's social club.
Note, also, all the fields, top left, where now lies Sewall Highway and all the surrounding housing estates.

They ran a three by eight hour shift system, Monday to Friday, because the computer had to be running continuously - I think it took about 6 hours just to process the pay!. I was initially assigned to a team of about three or four on the 6am-2pm shift, and then after a couple of weeks, during which I was obviously judged "OK", the boss - Reg Binns (I wonder if anyone else remembers him? Used to drive a beautiful MG Magnette.) - called me into his office. As several of his staff were women, and they were not allowed to work after 10pm, he was seriously stuck for staff on the 10pm-6am shift, and asked if I'd be willing to do it. I really wasn't keen, but he made it more and more attractive as he spoke: - I would be paid double time, for night shift work, and as I was a teenage lad, who "should have better things to do with his evenings", if I was a bit late he would cover for me, but - better still - he would give me every Friday off - with pay! So I signed up for this.

There were only two of us on the night-shift. My team leader was - if I remember right - an ex-RAF guy, who I got on with very well. After everyone else had gone, our job mostly involved monitoring the teletype, and from time to time it would tell us to "remove Magnetic Tape number 123456 and replace it with Tape number 98765", or words to that effect. These were the 2400ft tapes, the size of a large dinner plate, and with about a thousandth of the capacity of the tiniest of USB sticks you can buy these days. The payroll run required dozens of them. The computer itself occupied a room that must have been 20 metres by 10, or thereabouts, so when the computer didn't need our attention, we would do time trials racing around between the tape decks on our ergonomically designed and wheeled office chairs. We were quite well-matched, but I think I beat him a bit more often than he beat me.

One night, we were allocated a new task. Hundreds of brand new mag tapes had arrived, and we had to get them out of their expanded polystyrene packaging, put sticky number labels on them, "initialise" them, and store them in the racks. This went OK, until we were finding ourselves knee deep in polystyrene, and several big dustbins already full. My team leader sat down for a smoke and tried to think how we could get rid of all this rubbish, and casually dropped his fag-end in a small metal waste paper bin that contained some of the polystyrene fragments. They instantly vanished, leaving nothing but a tiny wisp of smoke. This of course was the solution to our problem, and we set up a nice little process, ripping the poly into smaller bits, tossing them into the bin, and setting fire to them. Problem solved! The only evidence was a small puddle of sticky resin in the bottom of the bins.

We turned up to work next night to find the place in total disarray. The afternoon shift told us that a smell "like burning electrical cables" had been detected by the morning shift. They had reported it, and the works fire brigade had tried - unsuccessfully - to find the source. They then also called in the City Fire Brigade, and together they pulled up all the flooring and pulled down all the ceiling tiles, and still couldn't find it. The computer had been switched off - for its own protection - all day. My team leader and I expressed our sympathy for the rotten day they'd all had, but kept our other thoughts to ourselves.

When the others had gone, Reg came in, smiling as usual. He told us the whole sorry tale, including how serious the problem might have been if it had indeed been an electrical fire, and we again sympathised and kept our other thoughts to ourselves. Then, he calmly looked down into one of the bins, casually nudged it with his foot, and told us that "I know it won't happen again though, don't I?". And strangely enough, it never did!


 
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