The following sections are my own personal reminiscences of STL, from the mid 1950s when I first experienced the labs at Progress Way, Enfield, through to the early days in the 1960s at the new labs in Harlow. It is a deliberately anecdotal and a relatively trivial account – in no way do I attempt to convey a complete picture of those times or the people involved.
It was a privilege for me to have been at STL both at Progress Way, Enfield and in the early days at London Road, Harlow. My first experience of the Enfield labs was in the mid 1950s. My elder brother Alan (almost ten years older than me) had been working at the labs for some time and I used to accompany him to STL cricket matches when I would act as scorer, and sometimes to the photographic dark-room to process films and prints. I also worked at the labs during school holidays. In this way as a teenager I first became familiar with the place and met the likes of Joe Evans, Don Weir, Albert Langton, Arthur Brown and Al Jenkins. When I left school in 1958 bristling with A levels it was necessary for me to supplement the family income and university wasn’t then an option. It was a natural thing for me to go straight into full time employment at STL and I worked there for two years as a lab assistant before studying full-time for a degree in physics. My memories of the labs at Progress Way and the characters that filled it are rich and various.
My brother Alan was a popular figure at the labs and he made an easy entry for me. Alan was in the STL cricket team, which played on Saturdays and I became the official scorer, faithfully recording each and every ball marking the results in code in a huge green ledger. Mostly we played at a pitch out near Whitewebbs Park and after the matches we usually went to the Rose and Crown, where I had to be content with a pineapple juice sitting in a car outside, but feeling very grown up to be in the company of such men.
Progress Way – the building
The building itself was unexceptional – it was a conventional single storey north-light utility building typical of small factory units from what I guess was the 1930s. The individual labs formed the core of the building, each area being defined and separated by steel and glass partitions, which were mostly open to the north-light roof space. In consequence, the noise levels were high and it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. There was one corridor that ran round each side of the core. The offices for more senior staff, admin and the library were along the southern side facing Progress way and these had roofs and were relatively quiet. Some of the interior ‘secrets’ lab spaces were screened off and this gave them a sense of mystery. The chemical lab and ‘hard science’ activities, where lab coats were the norm, were in the north east corner.
Progress Way – photos
The following three photos with Joe Evans and Pat Russen with Jill Fowler were taken in the old Measurements Lab at Progress Way, which was under Bill Kerr and Gordon Heighington. What on earth was Joe doing with that ancient telephone?
Photo 1. Joe Evans doing something with an ancient phone and batteries! Note signal generator,
spot-galvanometer in the background and drawing-curves on the table.
Photo 2. Joe Evans, back view, with Pat Russen and Jill Fowler. Door to screened room beyond.
Photo 3. Pat Russen. Note Tektronix oscilloscope (ultra modern!), standard issue wooden toolbox
and rickety stool.
The next two were in the lab next door with Derek Tibbetts at his desk. And the work bench was one that I was working at doing an experiment for Derek that involved making pn alloy junction diodes. What a dump it looks! Derek went on to work at Ultra Electronics.
Photo 4. Derek Tibbetts at his desk. Note glass screening goes up to open roof and north-light.
Photo 5. Same spot as previous, but turned round to see my work-bench. Note crowded
apparatus, asbestos-cord lagged vessel, reagent/ solvent bottle (trichloroethylene?) and Variac.
STL wasn’t the only company in Progress Way and one notable neighbour was Polak and Schwartz, a manufacturer of flavours and essences, and they were on the western side, which was mostly upwind of STL. In consequence, the labs often experienced interesting wafts of aromas, mostly of strong coffee. Sometimes this was in welcome contrast to the sickly sweet metallic smell near the chemi-lab where excess silane gas was bubbled off through tanks of water that stood by the exit. Concerns about health and safety weren’t much in evidence in those days!
The canteen/ restaurant at Progress Way
The STL canteen was in a separate building between the main block and Polak & Schwartz storage yard and as I remember it was a substantial wooden clad structure. It was a bit classier than a canteen and I think we referred to it as a restaurant, with waitress service and table cloths. Important to say that it was more than a canteen and was also used as a social venue. My earlier reminiscences to Vi Maile included the following.
I have been musing over a number of things including the restaurant/ canteen. My memory is that it was more of a waitress service restaurant with white table cloths, etc. I remember joking with Albert Langton about the lucky-draw of crockery, most of which must have come from some bulk purchase of old bankrupt stock, possibly sourced by Arthur Malcouronne (more about Arthur later on!). It was thought to be a lucky omen if you landed with a plate with the insignia “Granada Hotel Umtata”, which I understand is a town in South Africa from which the Granada Hotel has long gone. A more rare and prized find would have been a plate marked “Pilatus-Kulm”. I have recently looked it up; the Pilatus-Kulm hotel still exists as a mountain hotel near Luzern. Innocent days!
Vi also asked me if I remembered the ‘trolley girls’ who toured the labs with tea, coffee and snacks, to which I said yes, but not by name. My memory is more of the eagerness of waiting for them to come round. Cheese and onion rolls perhaps.
I also remember the waitresses in the Progress Way restaurant. I doubt if I witnessed it, but I recall Albert Langton telling a story of how one enterprising waitress devised a quick method for serving cheese & biscuits at the end of the meal. As soon as the order was requested she whipped out biscuits from one front-pocket of her pinny/overalls and pieces of cheddar from the other.
My only other memory of the restaurant (we did call it that, rather than a canteen didn’t we?) was going to a STL Photographic Club “slide battle” with my brother Alan, which took place there one evening. It sounds very contrived now, but each entrant had their chosen 35mm slides projected onto a big screen to be scrutinised and rated by club members. The high spot of the evening that I attended was Arthur Brewster demonstrating his new home-made projector, which was truly impressive. It was made of cast aluminium pieces and Arthur explained how he had built a small aluminium foundry in his back garden to cast these things. I think the air was thick with smoke from his and others’ pipes and cigarettes, which was illuminated by the projector beam. Hey ho for formative times!
People, sociability and events
Joe Evans was an engaging and popular figure – when I first worked for him in about 1959 he once related to a group of us about post graduate research he had been involved in to do with cosmic rays. Joe explained that in order to track these highenergy particles the experiments had to be conducted deep underground in a South Wales coal mine. The photographic plates used to detect cosmic rays would have been ‘fogged’ if exposed at the surface and all the chemicals used to make the photosensitive emulsion had to be taken down the mine and made up in dustbin sized quantities at deep level underground.
I don’t know if Joe’s PhD was based on this work but it seemed a million miles from his later and more highly recognised work on transistors and other semi-conductor devices. A then recently published book, “Transistors and other crystal valves” confirmed that STL was at the leading edge in this exciting field. The named author is T R Scott, STL MD, but I think much of the writing was by Joe Evans. There were other memorable people who come to mind from the Enfield days. Rene Rhodes was one of the researchers and I recall him publishing a research paper that included some amazing microscope images of etch-pits around defects on silicon crystals, which I found particularly inspiring. I think Ken Batsford was also involved in this work. Other names to be revered include Brian Claussen, Doc Foord and Henley Sterling. Albert Langton worked for Henley and was doing pioneering work on Gallium Arsenide.
George King was another lofty figure at Enfield, but I can’t recall what his role was then. At Harlow I think he was designated as Chief Scientist and I recall one of his projects was to have some plant seeds irradiated at the newly installed Van de Graaff generator with the hope that mutated plants would produce new and giant fruits. I never heard the results!
Senior people, and those on the systems side of STL included T R Scott (Scottie), E P G Wright, Don Weir, Don Hunter, Leonard Lewin and Harry Rantzen. Alec Reeves was known, but I don’t think he had much of a presence at Progress Way, although he was certainly a presence at Harlow.
The relaxed culture
An agreeable aspect of life at Progress Way and later on at Harlow was the relatively relaxed attitude to, for want of a better word, discipline, with an easy going culture with regard to time-keeping and home working. In the late 1950s transistor radios were popular and it was common to see self-made radios built into plastic boxes from Woolworths made up from components readily available in the labs, including ferrite rod aerials. I recall Joe Evans commenting on the directional nature of radio reception using a ferrite rod, which meant that the null point was more sharply defined than the peak. One idea was that tractor driving ploughmen might use their transistor radios to help steer a straight line – Joe commented that this would only work if they chose to follow a quiet line, which was unlikely!
Similarly, home-build TV sets were not uncommon, for which the services of one Arthur Malcouronne were invaluable. Arthur was a sort of cross between Arthur Daley and Del-Boy – he had contacts outside the labs and could source almost anything. Lisle Street in Soho, with its rabbit warren of old shops was then the centre of military surplus and cut price electronics kit and Arthur could get anything from CRTs to half-finished wooden cabinets. Our first TV at home in 1955 came via Arthur, which he delivered in parts in his huge battered shooting-brake car. And he wore a trilby hat just to complete the image.
The easy-going nature of life at the labs included longish lunch-hour trips to the pub. The most vivid in my memory were at the Pied Bull on Bullsmoor Lane on summer days in the garden at the front of what was then like a country pub. It would be mixed junior and more senior staff and often up to six of us would pile into Joe Evans’s huge Jaguar Mk VII saloon.
I bought my first car, in 1958, (a 1936 Morris 8) from a fellow Progress Way colleague Clive Vernon for £25.00, which was the going rate for such cars. The deal was struck in Henekey’s pub (long gone) in Enfield Town and I drove the car back to the labs on L plates, with Clive as my instructor. It did well for about six months during which I leant a lot about car maintenance until, despite my good efforts the engine was beyond repair. By this time the move to Harlow had taken place and I was quick to discover an amazing car breakers yard almost hidden in a rookery at Thornwood Common. During lunch breaks I managed to get another engine out of a similar car, which was on the top of a stack of three creaking in the wind with squawking rooks, and then to get Joe Fox from the STL garage to collect it and bring to the labs. To get the dead car from my home at New Southgate to Harlow, I persuaded Joe Fox to tow me, which he did using the labs’ Landrover. The journey was epic – a short steel cable was used for the towing – I had no electrics for horn, indicators or windscreen wipers and it snowed! The journey up the old A11 was fast, almost blind and terrifying – and I got out as a freezing nervous wreck, much to the amusement of Joe Fox and others at the garage! The ‘new’ engine was duly fitted in the labs car park and all was well again for another year. (If you are interested, a YouTube search for “New Southgate 1958” yields a short film clip of me with the Morris 8.)
My first job at Enfield was in the Measurements Lab, working for Bill Kerr and Gordon Heighington along with Pat Russen, all under Joe Evans. We had some quite sophisticated high precision equipment, some of which was used in a screened room. One of my tasks was using a four-probe jig to measure the resistivity along bars of zone-refined Silicon. Later, working for Derek Tibbetts we made alloy junction diodes and did countless plots of their performance. Some of the equipment was new and state-of-the-art, including Tektronics oscilloscopes, which looked really modern compared to our old Cossor scopes. When it came to sorting stuff out for the move to Harlow, some of the older kit was redundant and I managed to get a Cossor scope and a signal generator for donation to my old school. I had the pleasure of returning to the school science lab and setting it up to show a sine wave. This was impressive stuff in 1959 and I was bursting with pride when I left as local hero!
I can remember very little about the preparations for the move from Progress way to Harlow, but I recall the feeling being a positive one, if only because the old premises were cramped and run down. Despite the distance of the move, which would present a problem for some, the idea of new and bigger labs in a New Town was attractive. Forays out to visit the new site and work in progress were exciting. There was no M11 then and the favoured routes were either on the old A11 through Epping, which was sometimes slow, or cross country from Waltham Abbey. At that time the lanes across Nazeing Common were wisting and narrow, with a very narrow and hazardous bridge, since widened.
One dramatic incident that I remember was to do with moving the library. Tea-chests of books and journals were loaded onto removal vans with insufficient thought to the total weight. One van couldn’t make up the narrow hill at Nazeing and blocked the road until relief could get through.
Public transport between Enfield and Harlow was difficult and without the free coach service provided by the labs it would have been a difficult time for many of the staff. At the beginning there may have been more than one coach, each taking about fifty people. The Enfield start and drop off point was the Cecil Road car park (long gone) by Enfield Town centre. I forget the start time, it may have been 7:30, or possibly 8:00, but there was often a flurry of cars parking to drop off people just in time to get on. The usual route was up the A10, Carterhatch Lane, Waltham Abbey, Wake Arms and then the old A11 through Epping, picking up some staff on the way. The novelty of the journey didn’t last long and I think I often slept through it.
On one occasion it had snowed and the coach took an alternative route to avoid one of the hills, but we still got stuck somewhere conveniently close to a pub, which provided refuge until somehow we got going again. The coach left from the front entrance of the labs, promptly on time (5:00 pm?) and there was a big incentive not to miss it – hence the rush. When I rejoined the labs after college in 1964 I was relieved to find the coach service still running. I was living in Highgate then and my routine was to drive (in my 1939 Lancia Aprilia – a car that stayed with me through the ‘60s) to Enfield collecting Dave Thomas from Muswell Hill on the way, when the conversation in the car was sometimes animated and often political.
First impressions of Harlow
From the utilitarian dinginess of Progress Way the Harlow labs were a modern delight. The floor-to-ceiling glass entrance foyer was compete with state of design Mies van der Rohe ‘Barcelona’ leather seats, and the whole feeling was of light, airy and contemporary in style. The lab spaces were mostly unfinished when we moved in and there was some improvisation to get work started. I recall work-bench island units fitted with rows of 13 amp sockets but still devoid of live power. And then to my
alarm seeing that someone keen to get on with work had made fat power cables complete with 13 amp plugs at both ends to jump power to some of the units!
The relative remoteness of the London Road site was eased by discovering the pleasant walk through the woods to the shops and pub, the ‘Essex Skipper’ at The Stow. Pub lunch options then didn’t extend much beyond a cold pork pie and a bag of crisps! The phenomenon of Harlow being a New Town was also of interest, with newness and planning being somehow consistent with technological progress, which was what the labs were all about. The New Town had been built on what had been open farm land and the labs were on what had been New Hall Farm, owned by William Soper, whose farmhouse was visible in the fields across London Road. The story was that the compulsory purchase of his land led Soper to commit suicide. The once rural nature of the site was evidenced on one occasion by the Essex Hunt
tallyho-ing on horse-back in full costume into the field south of the labs in pursuit of a fox. Some of us went out and jeered – and cheered in support of the fox!
Photo 6. STL publicity photo taken in ~1960.
This photo was sent to me by Vi Maile, who had thought that the figure on the right might have been me. I could see the similarity, but I recognised it as Dick Swann. Posting this photo on the STLQCC website recently led to an exchange of messages which identified almost all of the individuals. In the foreground, left to right – Jill Fowler, Mike Yeo, (?) and Richard Swann. In the background are Geoff Walker and Stan Shephard. I seem to think that lab was on the north side of the building, one floor up, just along from the restaurant, but others have different thoughts.
The scene looks highly posed and set-up with equipment as if it’s laid out to impress, rather than do a job. At the end of the lab is a vacuum system, with a bell-jar fitted with a metal mesh cover. I remember having a significant explosion in a system like this, when I had failed to flush out all the hydrogen from an experiment and letting air in at the end causing the whole thing to blow up, with shattered glass everywhere and my ears ringing with the blast. Fortunately, nobody was hurt!
Another thing in the photo to comment in is the wood-block floor. The Harlow labs had under-floor electric heating and we were all very blasé when mercury was spilled, sometimes in kilogram quantities, when it all disappeared down the gaps in the blocks. When the heating came on, the mercury vaporised and we were all unwittingly subjected to mercury vapour poisoning. I think it was Henry Wolfson who spotted this hazard and had the bright idea of sprinkling sulphur powder on the floor and brushing it down the gaps. I doubt it did any good. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include hair loss and loose teeth – I wonder?
Such was the feeling of community at STL that any difference in status between PhDs and others didn’t matter at all. In fact, in those days some of the most eminent and highly regarded people at the labs, such as Cyril Drake, Henley Sterling, Harry (HB) Rantzen, and even the esteemed Alec Reeves seemed to be without rank or title.
In my junior position I had little to do with Harry Rantzen, but I was aware that he was somewhat special. In the late 1960s, just prior to my departure to ITTE Brussels, by coincidence I was asked by a friend who worked in publishing to review a newly printed book – the title was “Uncertainty in nature and communications” by Henry Barnato Rantzen. As I recall, it wasn’t an easy read with some obscure maths and a proposed new fundamental physical constant derived from the curvature of the Earth – the ‘Curth’, I think. I concluded that it was all a bit fanciful and I declined to write a review, good or bad. I have just looked it up on Amazon – copies are still available! In one of her many radio interviews, Esther Rantzen described her father as “one of the back-room boys at the BBC” – oh dear!
The memories in the foregoing sections only cover the early days at Harlow. I have also written about my impressions of the labs later in the 1960s and my later experiences after I left the labs in 1969 to work in the technical directorate at ITTE in Brussels. These later memories are available on the STLQCC website.
Colin Marr – March 2019