written in American English, I am afraid. After over 50 years I know no other.
 



Coton House
1951–52
by
Frank E. King
 


In England when I graduated, engineers who were looking for careers in industry usually served a two year internship—a graduate apprenticeship. Having previously served a trade apprenticeship, I was required to serve only a further one year and chose to serve it with the British Thomson-Houston Company in Rugby. In 1948, BTH (that had been a subsidiary of the General Electric Company of the United States) bought a large country house, Coton House, from the estate of Mrs. Arthur James, who had occupied the house with her husband from 1888 until her death in 1948. In 1909, Edward, Prince of Wales, had been a house guest while he was on a royal visit to Rugby. There was a large room in the house that was always referred to as the royal bedroom.

BTH converted Coton House and its stables into housing for apprentices. The demand for materials for postwar rebuilding exceeded supply, and supplies were allocated by the government. Story had it that in order to get the materials needed to build a dining hall and to modify the house and stables to accommodate 150 apprentices, the Company agreed to take as apprentices a number of 16 year olds from the depressed mining areas of South Wales. When I arrived at Coton House in 1951, there were about 120 trade and student apprentices living there, six of them occupying the royal bedroom; and the stables had recently been converted to house a further 30 graduate apprentices.

I was one of the first of the new intakes of graduate apprentices to arrive and was assigned to the loft of one of the newly renovated stable blocks. At the top of a flight of stairs there were three rooms in series, each with three beds. There were three rooms on the ground floor and a communal bathroom for both floors. To get to the innermost room of the loft one had to go through the first two rooms. The first of the nine occupants to arrive, I chose a bed in the innermost room. Although it was the furthest from the bathroom, I did not have to suffer the late night traffic through my room. The next two people to arrive were Ron Henderson and David McCullough, and they decided to join me. They had recently graduated from the University of Belfast and spoke with a lovely soft Ulster accent. David was quiet with a charming smile. He was a Presbyterian and soon after arriving he joined a church in Rugby where he developed an active social life. Ron was tall and gangly with a thin face and a pale complexion, hollow cheeks beneath high check bones, all topped with well groomed brown wavy hair. He handle his small-bowed pipe with elegance and turned out to be quite a raconteur. He enjoyed referring to Presbyterians as ‘a hard drinkin’ crowd’, to which David just smiled.

Two other graduates who joined us in the stables were Evan Davies and Dennis Dowling. Evan was from South Wales, and like most of the trade apprentices, Welsh was his first language. He was of medium height with straight fair hair that kept falling over his right eye. He spoke English with a singsong Welsh accent. I remember him telling me that every Welshman thinks he can sing. Evan had won an engineering scholarship to the University of Durham in the north of England. Dennis was massive but lithe: a quiet-spoken, refined, gentle man. He has a spherical head with rosy cheeks mounted on a barrel torso. Dennis had graduated from King’s College of the University of London, where he had played scrum forward on the rugby team.

Coton House was three miles of hilly, country roads from the BTH works and five miles from the town of Rugby. There is a plaque on a wall of Rugby School that states:

 

THIS STONE
COMMEMORATES THE EXPLOIT OF
WILLIAM WEBB ELLIS
WHO WITH A FINE DISREGARD FOR THE RULES OF FOOTBALL
AS PLAYED IN HIS TIME
FIRST TOOK THE BALL IN HIS ARMS AND RAN WITH IT
THUS ORIGINATING THE DISTINCTIVE FEATURE OF
THE RUGBY GAME
A.D.1823
 


It is often argued that William Webb Ellis was a bad sportsman who violated the rules of the game when he ran with the ball: but history has it that the rules were undefined in his day, with the players making them up as they played. In any case, Rugby gave its name to the game and has a strong rugby tradition with a good town team. Dennis soon became one of its regular players and at the start of his second season with the team, was elected captain. He was also selected to play for the all county team in national competition.

There were early morning and late afternoon town buses to and from the BTH works. In the evenings and over the weekends, my only means of transportation to and from Rugby was on my bicycle. It was old and decrepit, with derailleur gears that had a bad habit of sometimes throwing the chain off when I changed gears. I ran cross-country and track on the BTH team. I can remember riding into town with Dennis on some Saturday evenings after each of us had ridden to town and back to participate in our separate sporting activity in the afternoon. Then dragging home, sometimes together and at other times alone, along the pitch dark country road, in the early hours of the Sunday morning. David McCollough sometimes rode to town with us on his way to a function at his church.

A popular social activity was dancing. Every Saturday night there was at least one dance. There were regular dances at the BTH women’s club that had the best, most spacious ballroom, and occasional dances at the hospital in the student nurses’ residence. Once a month the dining room at Coton House was cleared, and special buses brought people out from town to our own dance. These were informal dances to which I usually went alone and danced with various partners. There were also formal dances—the annual Hospital Ball and the Engineering Society Ball—to which I invited a partner and rode my bicycle to town in my dinner jacket and black tie. Coming home after midnight from one such formal, riding up Brownsover Lane hill, I tried to change gears and the chain came off. In pitch dark I was trying to blindly put the oily chain back on when I heard a rustling noise from over the hedge. In a panic, I took off up the hill pushing the bicycle, until I heard a MOO from over the hedge.

The meals in the dining hall at Coton House were served cafeteria style and eaten at tables for six. We were free to eat at any table, but our group quickly established the table closest to the food line. Food was still rationed. Although the Coton House staff did an excellent job of acquiring and preparing the food, as boys and young men we were always hungry. Our selected table was strategically placed: if there was any food left when the official serving period had ended, we were invited to line up for seconds and were usually first in line.

The Welsh apprentices invariably spoke to each other in their native tongue. Being closest to the serving line we could hear them talking and joking in Welsh as they waited to be served but, except for Evan, could not understand what they were saying. One day a group of them seemed to be enjoying a particular joke, and Dennis asked Evan what they were laughing about. They were laughing about us. Without looking up Evan said, “That one has just said to his friends, ‘Look at the elephant with the little round head’.” Dennis got up, walked over to the joker and towering over him asked in his refined English, “Who are you calling an elephant?” It was our table’s turn to laugh at the looks of surprise on the joker’s and his friends’ faces. It was a long time before they joked in Welsh around us again.

Our rooms were spartan. We each had a bed, an upright wooden chair and a small dresser. No desk, table or reading light. Consequently, after dinner we tended to sit around our table in the dining hall and talk. We talked about our home towns, our families and our aspirations. We each told war stories about our college experiences. Some of the stories were second hand and most were embellished for entertainment value; we all understood that. Ron told the best stories in his lilting Irish brogue with many colorful phrases. At first his stories were about the doings of people he knew: accomplished friends in whose glory he could vicariously bathe. His timing was good. He would clean and charge his pipe while telling his story and pause to light it while we waited for the exciting climax. When the story was about the doings of a friend, it usually ended with Ron shaking his head saying, ‘Oh! He was a desp’rot mon, a desp’rot mon.’

Some of his stories were clearly apocryphal, like the story of the Japanese cruiser. The story goes that before the Second World War the Japanese government asked a Belfast shipyard to bid for an order to build a state-of-the-art battle cruiser. The bid was required to include performance specifications, design details, material specifications and drawings. This was not an unusual requirement, but the depth of detail was. The shipyard management, from experience with the customer, suspected that there was no intention of an order being placed. It was during the depression, however, so a complete bid was submitted anyway. As expected, no order was placed. Some years later a Japanese shipyard launched a cruiser remarkably like the one the Belfast shipyard had bid on. The story goes that on sea trials, the first time the cruiser fired a broadside, it capsized.

Ron had an inexhaustible supply of stories. Soon they turned more-and-more to things that he had done and accomplished. While in college he was a consummate party animal who drank everyone else under the table. The next day he would wake up with a ‘head pounding like the hammers of hell’ and a mouth ‘tasting like a vulture’s crotch.’ Ron told of the college dances he went to: how he danced all night and how the women vied to be his partner.

We were not the only audience that Ron regaled with his stories. I remember looking down from the gallery above the turbine test floor and seeing him at the controls of a turbine, foot up on a stanchion, sucking on his pipe while entertaining the test engineer. He also spoke a lot with the chief cook in the Coton House dining hall.

One reason I had joined BTH was because it had an advance engineering program of studies for those engineers interested in design and analysis engineering. In the spring of 1952, the Company offered an after-hours applied mathematics review course leading to an entrance examination for the advance courses.

At the end of my one year graduate apprenticeship, I took a position with BTH as a junior engineer, learning to design and test large motors and generators, including large hydro-generators, and moved into digs in town.

29 October 2009

My name is Frank E. King.
I was a BTH graduate apprentice living at Coton House 1951–52.
I have lived in Schenectady, NY since 1957 where I was an engineer with General Electric.
The following were apprentices with me living in Coton House: Ron Henderson, David McCullough, Evan Davies, Dennis Dowling, Jim Pine, John Gosling, Peter Urry (deceased).
I would like to get in contact with any of them an others that knew me.
I may have some pictures.
Frank King