Hatfield Technical College
Engineering and shorthand
Hatfield Technical College , or Hatfield Tech. as we knew it, opened in 1952 to supply the de Havilland Aircraft Company with highly qualified engineers and technicians along with skilled tradesmen of all kinds. Described as “the top 5% of the country’s brains” by Principal Dr W.A.J. Chapman, the Indentured Apprentices were an elite collection from schools all over Britain and the world. Special abilities in Maths – and inspired by the thrill of aircraft – these young people came from every sector of society, at home and abroad, to commit themselves to five years of study and practical work for a nominal wage. The system of block-release meant six weeks in college for theoretical training alternating with six weeks on the factory floor. These “sandwich” courses proved very effective in providing the thorough grounding necessary for aircraft-design engineers and future captains of industry. Many of these young men (and one woman) achieved great things both in the aircraft industry and beyond.
The most beautiful aircraft ever built
In 1952, the de Havilland Comet was the first jet airliner to cross the Atlantic on a commercial route, beating the American Boeing. This was a source of great pride to the apprentices who considered the Comet “the most beautiful aircraft ever built”. Many of them were personally involved in its construction and it was a black day when the airplane failed. Arduous research found the cause to be a new phenomenon: metal fatigue. This previously unknown factor set in train a whole new era of experimentation to ensure the safety of future air passengers. Britain’s loss became America’s gain as our rivals benefited from the new knowledge. The gloom of those stressful days is mirrored in emotive reactions to the scrapping of the Comet’s military successor, Nimrod, announced in February 2011. Those keen young apprentices, now in their seventies, emailed the following comments:
28.02.2011 A £4 Billion moment of silence please to mourn the passing of the last vestiges of the DH Comet. What an ignominious end to the most beautiful aircraft ever built. Stuart
Ah, the Comet was beautiful, but that Nimrod thingie? That was a Manchester lash up. H
I agree, a dreadful decision. You wonder whether they ever considered mothballing them so at least an irrevocable decision could have been revoked in the future should it prove to have been an unwise one. Same with the Harriers… John
Not entirely so! The first suggestion for what became the Nimrod thingie was actually made in the Future Projects Group in Hatfield. The instructions were to come up with a project based on the Trident, but that simply would not work – impossible to meet the endurance requirements. By coincidence, the fuel capacity required matched almost exactly that of the Comet 4, so an appendix was added to the study report, showing that the Comet could be adapted to the role, and could meet the requirements. I know this to be true, because I did the study and wrote the report – although I was given to understand that certain of the management were not too happy about it! There were reports of Willy Clarkson throwing his copy on the floor and stamping on it! Still, I survived. Incredible to think that the report was written nearly 50 years ago… Arthur
Indeed a sad end. The pictures shown on TV taken from above the scene of the destruction were even more harrowing. However, this project was fraught with problems from the beginning – it should probably have been stopped years ago. Fortunately there are still a few of the earlier AEW Comets still serving the nation well up in Scotland – I wonder how long for! John H-W
06.03.2011 Agreed, the Comet was indeed one of the most beautiful aircraft ever built, but it was also a delightful aircraft to fly. Chris
07.03.2011 Dear All, I agree, and mourn the passing of the Comet etc.- and the major part of the whole British Aircraft Industry. The problem I have is that I moved from the aircraft industry to the automobile and truck industries. And I have been mourning their demise for the last few years, due to government interference when not required, and indifference when support was suitable. Does that sound familiar? I suppose these comments apply to most of the British Manufacturing Industry. This current talk of reviving manufacturing surely ignores the fact that British industry has declined to a fundamental point where the supporting infrastructure has gone. Finding raw material and component, expertise and quantity supply is difficult without going abroad. Talking to the “wise men” in the city finance and investment fields, their advice when investing in “technology” – “Don’t touch the motor industry or invest in any company that manufactures their own products” That seems to sum up the social attitude in this country, but if you look back over the last fifty years the above financial advice would be sound for investing for our retirement. But, is that cause or effect? Must be showing my age! Sorry about that. Regards John R
The secretarial college
The depth of feeling about the Comet, that creation of metal and stardust, of manufacturing in general and the contrast between youthful aspirations and seasoned realism tell a story about Britain’s industrial decline. As a leading institution in the nation’s pantheon of engineering schools Hatfield Technical College was second to none. As a secretarial college it was no doubt better than many. Some students found the overwhelmingly male environment disturbing and were deeply miserable. Others rejoiced in it. However, sexual casualties were few, largely due to innocence and/or ignorance. Ironically it was an older, less naive girl who fell pregnant and was pressed into a shot-gun wedding, followed soon after by divorce; single motherhood was not yet accepted. The sexual revolution was on the cusp, awaiting the invention of The Pill. Fear of pregnancy kept most of us on the straight and narrow.
Events such as Rag Week, a chaotic event in the name of charity, were an outlet for youthful high spirits and general craziness overseen by a strange Alien-type character called The Krud. Culminating in the Rag Ball, preparations involved a stand-off with the Principal whose quaint insistence that gloves be worn for dancing was soon dismissed. Perhaps it should be noted that girls still wore gloves outside the home all year round. Similarly, corsets and elasticated “roll-ons” were still de rigueur with well brought-up young ladies, but it seemed the whole country was loosening its stays after the stringencies of war. Victorian discipline and taut social mores were beginning to crumble. Social etiquette and automatic deference were calcifying like fossils in the stratum of history.
A different outfit every day
Girls from Swiss finishing schools and well connected families mixed with hoi-polloi to learn Shorthand Typing and Secretarial Duties from a well-spoken female of “a certain age”. One student of uncertain age wore a different outfit every day for the first six weeks while most had to make do with just two or three. Fleur Rafferty could be quite baffling with her worldly-wise, light-hearted approach to college life. More serious in outlook were former Ware Grammar School girls Marion Coleman, Marilyn Early and Judith Fitch in my class.
Pub crawls and “pea-soupers”
The Music Society and Jazz Club, especially the Jazz Club, were popular but in the absence of an in-house bar, pub crawls were the entertainment of choice at a time when drink-driving was not a punishable offence. Surprisingly few traffic accidents occurred, even on foggy nights. Thick “pea-soupers” were common in winter due to coal smoke from homes and factories mingling with natural fog. This lethal mixture was called smog and was responsible for thousands of deaths every year. Sometimes it was impossible to see as far as a metre ahead. With their youthful disregard for personal health or safety, the apprentices rarely allowed such hazards to cramp their style. Missing the last bus, it was normal to speed home at 80 mph through Hertford late at night on the back of a motorbike, both rider and pillion passenger unhelmeted. Cautious mothers forbade dutiful daughters such risky pleasures. But I was no dutiful daughter and enjoyed the power of a pretty face in need of wheels from a range of eager hopefuls with never a thought for their lonely unrequited journeys home. Ah, the irresponsibility and sheer selfishness of youth!
Forgotten teatime eggs…
For many of the apprentices it was their first experience of living away from home. Astwick Manor became their home for the first year with dormitories and communal rooms. Reflecting the raw egality of World War I where a duke might find himself occupying the same quarters as his chauffeur, the de Havilland apprentices found themselves sharing the same facilities regardless of class or status. Accommodation later was found in shared flats or houses. Fending for themselves was an excellent preparation for life in the big world outside. Rent and the milkman had to be paid, laundry made ready for collection and return by a service now long extinct. Cooking was a challenge before take-aways or microwaves; disasters were frequent. Forgotten teatime eggs would be found in saucepans left boiling dry; giblets were often roasted inside the chicken. Secret caches of food were hidden from hungry flatmates. Learning to share was often painful and arguments were rife. Grudges did not last long, however, and were soon forgotten over a pint at the local.
John Hofstetter, an eccentric Swiss student
Parties were frequent and rowdy with nuisance calls to the police about “rivers of blood” in the streets. A particularly eccentric young man was the wild son of a Swiss diplomat with an impressive home on a remote Scottish island. John Hofstetter was seen on national television experimenting on the Thames with a new type of aircraft. His private life was colourful and prone to accident, on one occasion leading a drunken party onto a garage roof that collapsed beneath them. Broken jaws resulted in bizarre metal braces being fitted giving the wearers a ghoulish aura. John’s attraction to heights led to painting “WOT NO JAZZ” on the college roof (without accident) in very large white letters that lasted years. Nobody seems to know what became of him. A press cutting from a London paper did not augur well.
Other alumni became well-established aeronautical experts from government advisers to designers of more advanced aero projects; those who diverged from aircraft found excellent opportunities in other forms of manufacturing. You can read some of their stories by following this link [link opens in a new tab]. Several of them indicate the declining status of British manufacturing industry and engineering in particular in the years following qualification. Those from abroad often fared better, with wealthy families to support them in business while some, like Harbens Mediratta for example, seemed to be eternal students. On the other hand, Rana, a turbaned, soft-spoken Sikh, returned to India to head a national energy company. Tall, respectful West Indian Peter Crooks known as “Jamaica” pursued an engineering career in Canada. Some apprentices like ‘Gus’ Guttridge and John Pike (Spike) joined the Royal Air Force and rose through the ranks to high office from modest beginnings. One confident, blue-eyed charmer who gained his pilot’s licence before his driving licence crossed the Atlantic to run a Dutch aircraft company and was rewarded with a knighthood from Queen Beatrix. Showered with awards and honours in retirement his name adorns a suite at his alma mater, now University of Hertfordshire. Another alumnus found himself engaged in high-level political discussions about the Airbus, winning the MBE as a result.
If achievement is judged by the amount of effort involved, possibly the greatest triumph was that of an acutely shy, 60% disabled student who succeeding in completing the five-year Indentured Apprenticeship with only one hand and then rose to the top of a multinational. Accepted by the RAF for pilot officer training at 17, Duncan lost his left hand in an explosion a week later. Inspired by the particularly apt motto over his former school workshop (“Nothing is impossible to a willing hand”), he chose the tough alternative of an Indentured Aeronautical Apprenticeship. Without counselling, compensation or any special consideration, the resourceful youth known as ‘Willy’ to his flatmates completed all the required practical exercises beginning with a wooden toolbox for personal use: each corner perfectly dovetailed, each drawer sliding effortlessly in and out, the whole finished with french polish, a masterpiece of carpentry. This task was hard enough with two hands!
Wikipedia states: Although it is technically a straight-forward process, hand-cutting dovetails requires a high degree of accuracy to ensure a snug fit and so can be difficult to master. The pins and tails must fit together with no gap between them so that the joint interlocks tightly with no movement. Thus the cutting of dovetails by hand is regarded as a mark of skill on the part of the crafts-person. Then there were the painstaking metal fitting exercises. Theoretical studies were equally demanding and had to be correct. Air passengers’ lives depended on such accuracy.
In 2001, Duncan was honoured with an MBE from Her Majesty the Queen for services to the disabled. In the same year he received a special award from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. But perhaps his greatest public service and most courageous act was to marry me on 6th August 1957. His treasured work-box stands in our hall as a permanent reminder of de Havillands and Hatfield Tech.
Sadly Duncan passed away unexpectedly on 18th May 2011 in Boston Pilgrim Hospital, Lincolnshire. He was 76.
You can read further details of Duncan’s life and career by opening the document below.