My Start in Life as an Apprentice

President Dr Nick Waring & David Wickens

“Learn a trade, son” was the advice Probus Club member David Wickens received from his father. Like many about to leave school in the Swinging Sixties, he had no clear idea of what to do with the rest of his life. Besides, these were exciting times and there were many distractions.

All around could be seen the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the death of Marilyn Monroe, the assassination of  President Kennedy, James Bond films, Twiggy with miniskirts and men with long hair and flared trousers not forgetting England winning the World Cup. But what to do?

An uncle gave him an insight into high precision engineering by showing him what went on in automatically testing fifty points simultaneously of jet engine fan blades.  An interest was born and the idea of getting an apprenticeship in engineering was forming.

Apprentices have been around for thousands of years as a way of a master craftsmen passing on his secret arts and skills to the next generation. The young person was “indentured” to the master for many years with onerous conditions, any failure of which could have significant repercussions.

Needless to say the restrictions placed on indentured apprentices of yesteryear of not visiting playhouses and taverns, gambling, committing fornication or marrying did not apply to the speaker during his five years with day release at technical college and night school. A company in the Cambridge Instrument group was the benefactor of the speaker’s ambitions having told the managing director at interview, that his job looked attractive.

Like apprentices in all trades he was subject to the usual initiations by the” timed served” tradesmen. Sending him for a tin of elbow grease or a bag of bubbles for the spirit levels, having his tools welded to the bench or having parts of his anatomy painted with marking blue dye was all to be endured. The only consolation was that he could look forward to applying the same rituals to the next incoming apprentice.

To further enhance his appreciation of how the instruments made by his company were used in the wide world visits were arranged to some customers. The David Brown factory in Newport Pagnell, was home of Aston Martin and Lagonda, the super cars of the 60s. Here he heard about the Aston Martin DB5 used by James Bond in the film Goldfinger in 1964 when six body shells were needed for various scenes..

The Royal Small Arms factory in London had produced swords, muskets and from 1895 onwards the famous Lea Enfield rifle which was greatly admired for the interchange ability of parts, its firing range and the competitive cost due to mass production.

The first large scale plant David visited as part of his apprenticeship was to the Dungeness “A” Nuclear Power station. This was a Magnox reactor with a capacity of 500 MW which could power 10% of Britain’s electrical needs.

The Stewart & Lloyd’s steel works at Corby was almost self sufficient from open cast mining of the iron ore using huge excavators with buckets that could carry 11 cubic metres of ore transported to the blast furnaces for ingot production and tube manufacture.

A visit to Heathrow airport to tour the BOAC Pilot Training School allowed him to try out the Boeing 747 – 136 Flight Simulator and visit the hangers to watch aircraft being serviced which demonstrated how they used the instruments David was training to make.

Hand tools made by David Wickens during his apprenticeship

David Wickens was clearly good at his job, achieving the award of apprentice of the year. To demonstrate some of the skills learned in the early part of his apprenticeship he brought along some of the hand tools he had made in those years

Further experiences were developed in Work Study and Production Engineering, then in the Drawing Office where draughtsmen used pencil and paper well before the advent of CAD technology and eventually into Sales and Marketing. This latter area held him for the rest of his career as he progressed to become Export Manager visiting many manufacturing plants throughout the World.

And it all started the day he saw a fan blade being tested.