From the early days of my childhood I always had the desire to go to sea. I had no idea how or when this would happen. Separately I was also fascinated by wireless communications as it was then known and would sit in front of the domestic wireless set that my parents owned and look at all the strange names on the dial and wonder where in the World they might be.
After I left secondary school I was fortunate enough to secure an apprenticeship with a local Radio and Television firm. During the next five years I attended two Technical Colleges where I obtained all of the qualifications then available to become a fully trained TV and Radio Service engineer.
I imagine that my parents hoped that when I finished my apprenticeship I might start up a small TV business of my own. The one impediment to that cosy vision of the future was that the desire that I had to go to sea would not go away and in fact strengthened as I grew older; even more so after I reached the age of nineteen. What made matters worse for me, was that when I was becoming even most restless about my future direction, a cousin who was about 20 months older than me, decided to become a radio officer in the merchant navy and had started to study at a Liverpool college. The idea of a career that combined my loves of the Sea and Radio was irresistible.
All these factors combined to galvanise me into taking action to the point where I wrote to a number of Merchant Navy Colleges in different parts of the country that ran training courses for would be Radio Officers.
It is worth mentioning here that although Shipping Companies in the 1960’s ran Cadet Apprenticeship schemes for Navigation and Engineering officers, none offered scholarships, bursaries or cadet-ship schemes for Radio Officers. It was necessary at the time for would be Radio Officers to train and qualify at their own expense before they could apply to a shipping or radio company for employment.
My funds were extremely limited and when I first attended the Wireless College in Colwyn Bay, North Wales, I did not have the benefit of a Local Authority education grant. This meant that if I were to go to sea I had to obtain the Post Master Generals (PMG) Second Class Certificate of Competence in Wireless Telegraphy in three academic terms (roughly one year).
None of the Local Authority run colleges that I approached would accept me on the basis of completing the course in that time scale. Their study period for the Second Class certificate was generally two years. The one exception was the privately owned Wireless College in Colwyn Bay.
My first visit to the Wireless College took place on a sunny Sunday morning about a year before I finished my apprenticeship. It must have been before the commencement of a new term because there was a total absence of students.
I travelled to Colwyn Bay by train the previous day having advance booked a two night stay at the local Youth Hostel Association (YHA) hostel. On arrival and to my complete dismay I discovered that there was a complication with the booking. However because they had vacancies and after paying a further fee the matter was quickly resolved. Several weeks after my stay I received a very apologetic letter from the warden who admitted that they had found my original booking letter and cheque. As the cheque had not been cashed it was attached to the letter for cancellation.
On arriving at the Wireless College, I was interviewed by the Chief Instructor who was the son of the proprietor, initially in a very small and cramped office where a lady was doing some typing at a desk that was piled high with papers. Because of the noise and the cramped conditions we moved to a very large room adjacent to the office that was furnished with refectory tables and bench seating. I was told this was where the students studied and practiced the Morse code. I wasn't offered a cup of tea or much in the way of small talk; we just got down to discussing why I wanted to go to sea, my technical background and why I had chosen the Wireless College. I explained my financial situation and was told that I might be able to achieve my goal of a Second Class certificate in three terms but much would depend on how quickly I became proficient at the Morse code.
I remember being shown the Cabin that was laid out like a ship’s radio room and remember being very impressed by all those unfamiliar but professional looking equipments. Strangely even though I intended to be a boarder I was not shown where the boarding students slept, washed or ate. I now believe that was an intentional omission!
I have to admit that I was attracted to the Wireless College as it met my needs. I was offered a place there and then and when I joined a year later I boarded for just one term. The cost for a boarder at that time, including tuition was £70 a term.
The main college building was large, quite imposing and spread out over (I think) four floors. The ground floor accommodated the large Morse room, the office, and the Cabin. The rooms in the two upper stories were used as the dormitories for the boarders. The cellar accommodated the communal wash room/bathroom and toilets as well as the dining room and kitchen. There was no common room or lounge for the students and the college offered nothing in the way of TV or radio for entertainment.
What was particularly noticeable about the main building was its Spartan appearance and the all-pervading smell that seemed to be an infusion of disinfectant, polish, boiled cabbage and something akin to the smell of a football club's changing room.
In addition to the main building was the Theatre that was used for lectures. This was located across the road about fifty yards from the main building. Although seemingly fully equipped as a theatre it was not used as such during my time there.
Outside of the Main building was a long wooden hut that I believe was used to store old equipment and unused and broken items of furniture.
Nothing in my five years at college doing day-release prepared me for the experience of being a first term boarder at the Wireless College.
The culture shock of the dormitory, feeding and washing arrangements was severe and outside of anything I had ever experienced. I believe that Oliver Twist would have felt completely at home because the domestic arrangements were a throwback to a bygone age.
However I was there for a purpose so college comforts (or the complete lack of them) only acted as a spur to study. Any factor that increased my motivation to obtain the Second Class PMG certificate in three terms was to be embraced with enthusiasm.
Most of the other boarders during my first term were recent school leavers, the youngest being sixteen years of age. The behaviour of some of these youngsters could best be described as bizarre. Expulsion from the college due to bad behavior was not unknown and in fact happened during my first term. It was with the greatest relief therefore that at the end of the first term I was able to obtain lodgings in a boarding house owned by the College’s Morse instructor and run by his wife. I was very happy with my new lodgings and stayed there until I had completed the course and obtained the PMG qualifications.
I suppose there were four cohorts of students at different stages of study. Socialising with fellow students in my experience tended to be within your own cohort (although not exclusively so) and involved visiting the local pubs, coffee houses, Wimpey Bar or cinemas. Colwyn Bay on a Sunday at that time meant that everything closed down and if you wanted to drink alcohol you had to catch the train to Rhyl, further down the coast. I was most grateful to a local Baptist Church that organised a social evening every Sunday evening for us students. I liked Colwyn Bay very much as a resort. At that time the Pier was still open to the public, the local residents were very friendly and welcoming and I am not aware of there ever being any tension between College students and Colwyn Bay teenagers.
During break times in the mornings and afternoons most students found their way to the Dingle Café that was located in Eirias Park close by. This cafe was owned and run by two sisters who I guess were in their early forties and were absolutely brilliant towards us students, allowing us to use the cafe during the weekends as a study centre, to keep warm in the cold weather and to stay for long periods of time whilst nursing the same cup of coffee. It was a place where you could buy a cooked meal to supplement the food offered to boarders at the college.
College food was dull and uninspiring but it clearly sustained me and to be honest I was never ill. However most boarders were always hungry which meant that the local fish and chip shops did wonderful business with us. The food provided by my landlady in my lodgings during my second and subsequent terms at the college was excellent.
As to the training, there were four components to the syllabus. Electrical and radio communications theory, Morse code practice, Radio Regulations and practical work.
For me the radio communication theory was the easiest topic because of the years of study undertaken during my apprenticeship. Although dubious to begin with the college eventually agreed to me missing some of the Radio theory lectures in order to spend more time learning and practicing the Morse code.
There were areas of study that were completely new to me. These included the theory, operation, management and maintenance of electric motors, generators, alternators and batteries. The ships I sailed on had domestic power supplies of 110 volts DC. To power transmitters that were designed to operate on 240 volt AC supplies required the machinery to do the power conversion. In the event of a complete power failure on board ship, the ship's emergency transmitters, emergency receivers, direction finding equipment and radio room emergency lighting had to be capable of being powered from the ship's emergency, 24 volt DC batteries. The training on the use of a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity of the dilute sulfuric acid electrolyte of the emergency lead acid batteries came in very handy years later in the production of home made beer and wine!
In my experience there is only one truly successful approach to learning the Morse code which is to practice, practice and then practice some more. Morse should not be considered as a combination of dots and dashes but a series of unique sounds that the brain can be trained to decode into letters, numbers and symbols. There was a saying at the time that we students used to joke about which was that the Morse code was like “music to the ears”. It become so central to my thinking that on the trains to and from North Wales I used to decode characters as the train ran over the points on the tracks! Once learnt never forgotten is absolutely true for the Morse code. We were tested each week on our proficiency in sending and receiving the code. My progress to begin with was slow as after initial increases in sending and receiving speed, my performance levelled out. Fortunately that situation did not last for too long.
The Radio Officers Bible was the General Post Offices “Handbook for Radio Operators” that covered all aspects of the regulations and conditions to be observed by ships wireless stations. I still have my copy that I bought at the time as well as my old fashioned SG Brown, moving coil headphones. My copy of the handbook is now extremely dog-eared but occupies a special place in my Ham Radio Shack. It is a small book running to just over two hundred pages including a number of Annexes. It was necessary to learn the contents by heart because the PMG examination on the regulations required you to quote specific paragraphs as an answer to the Question. Much emphasis was placed on Distress, Urgency and Safety traffic handling as well as the more mundane topics of word counting, cost accounting and the routing of telegrams from the ship.
Practical work included maintenance and fault finding on all of the equipments that would be installed in a ship’s radio room. Fortunately because of my previous job I was fairly adept at fault finding on receiving equipment although up until that time I had not had any opportunity to repair transmitters of any sort.
I did achieve my goal of obtaining the PMG Second Class Certificate in three terms but having started at the College I discovered that whereas I was self funded, most of the other students were there with the assistance of a Local Authority grant. To cut a long story short I successfully applied for and was given a County Council grant from the Authority where my parents lived which then allowed me not only to cease worrying about money but also to obtain the PMG First Class Certificate at the Wireless College and on completion enrol at the Bristol Polytechnic in order to obtain the Ministry of Transport’s Radar Maintenance Certificate. I completed all of these courses in five terms (just over eighteen months).
In the early 1960’s there was a good demand for newly qualified radio officers. Jobs were available with radio companies such as Marconi, or Redifon or with shipping companies such as British Petroleum, Blue Funnel or Thos & Jno Brocklebank Ltd. It was rumoured but may not be true that the College had a close relationship with the Marconi Marine company acting as their scout, sending likely candidates to the company when they were recently qualified. Radio companies such as Marconi supplied a complete radio service to ship owners that included the R/O and all of the ship’s wireless equipment.
I preferred the direct employment route and had an interview with Thos & Jno Brocklebanks at their Head Office in Liverpool, who offered me a job on the spot.
What the college never explained to their students was how the communication environment at sea was so different to the benign experiences of the classroom. At that time communications on the International Distress Frequency of 500 kHz around the coasts of the United Kingdom (UK), particularly in the North Sea was akin to entering a room in the middle of a wild party when everyone was shouting over each other trying to make themselves heard. Sending and receiving Morse at college was never subjected to fading, static or noise bursts as experienced when communicating at sea on the short wave bands.
It was hardly surprising therefore that a newly qualified R/O was required by the International Maritime Radio Regulations to undertake at least six months of sea training under the supervision of an experience R/O before they were allowed to take charge of a cargo ship’s wireless station on their own.
I never regretted going to the Wireless College Colwyn Bay because the training that the college provided, was first rate. Looking back I can now see that the time spent away from home studying at the Wireless College Colwyn Bay and later at the Bristol Polytechnic broadened my outlook on life considerably.
After I left, the Wireless College continued to train R/O’s for a number of years until somewhere around the early 1970’s it was forced to close due to falling student numbers. Eventually the main building was demolished to make way for the A55 North Wales Expressway. Its existence is now marked and commemorated by a plaque paid for by ex-students that is attached to a large boulder in a car park close to where the Wireless College once stood. The college theatre has been converted into privately owned residential apartments.
For any reader who might be interested, a search on the Internet including a look at Facebook, will find a great deal of written and photographic information on the college and the life of the students who studied there.
copyright © John Leary