The Phoenix Years

I left McMichael Radio to work back on the Slough Trading Estate at the Phoenix Rubber Company. They produced rubber compounds that went into all sorts of products for instance windscreen wiper blades and rubber bonded to metal engine mountings and goodness knows what else. The rubber was sent off to the manufacturers of these products in an uncured state.

They were also big in producing PVC compounds for use in the growing injection moulding industry and also plastic extrusions. They produced their own range of floor tiles especially the heavy duty anti static tiles used in hospitals.

Basically I was taken on as a junior draughtsman. I had my own office next to Mr Schueler’s complete with drawing board, bookshelves, cupboards and good view out of the
window of the girls crossing the railway track and the road from the associated factory opposite.

Did I say girls? Yes, the previous three jobs were, like school, free of females. Now it was different. My job involved roaming around, going across the road to the buyers office, bumping into those various girls and it was there that I met my first girlfriend when I was at the age of nineteen I believe. Well, she had just become sixteen, and I was three years older.

I didn’t realise it at the time but George William Kenneth Schueler was almost like a father to me. He certainly took me under his wing and was probably the only man whom I can say had any real influence on my life. I can’t say my father had much influence. We were at loggerheads most of the time, but then I feel he didn’t actually ever know who I was in a way. I suppose the ‘Phoenix Years’ were the most influental time in my life.

The way Ken Schueler influenced me was that he taught me how to look at an engineering situation and propose a solution. He taught me to think laterally, but not only that he had confidence in my ability to actually do it. After years of my father telling me ‘You’re no good, you can’t do that’ – the very antithesis of child rearing – here was someone who told me I could do that, and who trusted me to do it.

Not only that, but he trusted me to drive his Jaguar and any other vehicle in the company. I drove amongst many others, the MD’s E-Type, and the MD’s trial car – “go out and break it R-a-a-y”.

I should explain that the top boss, George Clarke was a bit of a car nut. He had a string of veteran cars and he was into trial cars. So, my brief was to drive the trial car around a couple of days before a competition because it was better if I broke it than the boss did on competition day. Wow, what a time I had.

I think the only vehicle I didn’t drive was the firms lorry. I drove my bosses Jaguar up the M1 when there was no upper speed limit. I was on a mission which was the usual case. I was to pick an order for pulleys and belts at the Fenners depot at Luton. With sweating palms I did 120 mph. for a short distance. It seemed to be very fast and it was nerve racking but I just had to do it.

After that Mr Schueler said his car wasn’t right since I drove it, what had I done to it? Don’t know, nothing I said. Let’s face it doing 120 mph for five miles or so shouldn’t be beyond a 2.4 Jaguar.

Ken Schueler was a 6′-3″ tall, lumbering, gruff man who had been brought into Phoenix Rubber by his pal George Clarke. He was a bluff northener from Hull in Yorkshire and that didn’t help the existing mainly southern staff to warm to him.

On the contrary he was generally disliked and sometimes feared. For those of us who worked close to him it was a different matter. As a Yorkshireman myself the northern bluntness did not ‘cut me to the quick’ so to speak as it did the sensitive southerners. As I was under his wing, in a way, I felt as if I was almost, should I say, in a special position.

I don’t know how old Mr Schueler was, in the late fifties but I suppose he must have been in his early to mid fifties. I can’t believe that someone with such craggy, hangdog features could have been in his forties.

He was married to Violet and lived at Denham in a fairly new house. The marriage was childless and I think he subconsciously regarded me as perhaps a surrogate son, to compensate for the son he never had.

What he did before he came to Phoenix I don’t know but I do know that he had something to do with margarine production in Hull during the war and that would have been a reserved occupation so he wasn’t in the armed forces.

From the very few things he told me I have since deduced that he was in ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’. Not that he ever said that because they were sworn to secrecy for life. What gave me the necessary clue was that he told me how they used to make booby traps by putting a hand grenade in a tin can with the pin removed. The tin can kept the normally hand held lever in place, peg the tin to the ground and attach a tripwire. Someone catches the trip wire and the grenade is pulled out of the tin and on a very short fuse it explodes with the desired effect.

Churchill’s Secret Army were a nationwide network of resistance fighters in place to fight the Germans in the event of an invasion. Details have only recently been released and only now is it being talked about.

It figures that he would have done that because he was an extremely resourceful man. He modernised the production of PVC and rubber mainly by purchasing secondhand machinery at auctions – which I always attended with him – and manufacturing special purpose machinery in the company’s engineering workshop. That’s where I came in. My job was to produce the designs and drawings for the workshop.

I had a lot of leeway and I must have got it right because it all started with GWKS scribbling a rough sketch and then I did the rest with very little intervention from him. I then enjoyed spending time in the workshop supervising the creations made from my drawings. I liked nothing better during the annual shutdown – the time when major installations and maintenance took place – than to do some practical work such as teaching myself to weld.

Due to that special position as the big man’s sidekick nobody took me on not that they had to because I generally got on with everyone in the company – all except Jimmy Alligan the firms forklift driver we were at loggerheads all the time I was at the firm, mainly through competition for certain female office workers. It was more than that though, I didn’t like him and he didn’t like me.

In the early days there I used to drive in from Old Windsor in my ancient 1933 Austin 7 Box Saloon. I was nearly always 5-10 minutes late as my car bounced hopped and skipped across the railway lines to the parking area next to the associate factory across the road. I am told that GWKS would be often standing at the first floor office window shaking his head in disbelief. He never told me off for being late – probably thought it a miracle that I had got there at all.

He was also a one for admiring the young women. I remember a girl called Maureen who worked for the Production Manager down the corridor. She’d come into his office, short skirt, boobs hanging out and all. He would swing round in his swivel chair, cigarette precariously hanging from his lips, and slowly look her up and down. ‘eaah Mareene how’d you get into that frock’. She flushed red but she liked it, every day coming into work dressed even more provocatively just for a reaction.

I was quite partial to her but didn’t get anywhere. She always seemed to have some boyfriend or other already in place. There weren’t many ‘suitable’ young women at Phoenix but I did meet Julie, my first real girlfriend there.

First serious girlfriend at the age of 19 would seem to be astounding to young people in 2016 but you have to remember that I didn’t meet any girls at a boys school and my first three jobs were in all male drawing office. There were no draughtswomen they were all draughtsmen. Youth clubs were an unknown and rare activity and there was no clubbing or discos in those days. As far as I remember there were only three young women office workers at Phoenix – there were older women, probably married.

Of the three I had a four and a half year relationship with Julie, and I eventually married Christine. The third was Maureen and she was already taken.

By the time I was going out with Julie I had ditched the Austin 7 and replaced it with a Ford Anglia Van which I believe was at least post war. It was a step up of sorts, certainly it was safer and more reliable it had no heater but it did get us around quite effectively.

My experience in fibreglass was expanded when I sheathed a Thames slipper stern launch in glassfibre cloth for an associate – “Badger” Bartlett who lived on Friday Island by the Datchet/Old Windsor lock on the Thames. He bought it in scrapable condition from somewhere the other side of Staines. I said I could save it so Barry and I pushed it on a two wheeled trolley several miles across Runnymede to Old Windsor.

The reward for all the effort and expense was not forthcoming. He thought that sheathing the leaking hull in glassfibre would result in a shiny white finish. He didn’t understand that it would not be possible to achieve that without a great deal of rubbing down and filling. So he had to do that and he complained bitterly. I don’t remember him paying me for my efforts. In the subsequent years in the fibreglass business I came across a lot of people like that, maybe that’s what business was like.

In the meantime back at Phoenix, George Clarke, the MD, was having a house built by the river at Maidenhead. Mr Schueler and I called it “Riverrun”, and the name was officially adopted.  I was heavily involved in the project as was the maintenance department of the company. The building was shaped like a shoe box and constructed from reinforced concrete columns and beams cast in shuttering on site. I had to produce drawings for the maintenance department to fabricate the steel reinforcing rod box sections that were inserted within the shuttering prior to pouring the concrete.


Riverrun under construction

Brickwork or glasswork was infilled between the beams and columns. There was no expense spared. The bricks were obtained from a brickworks near the Forest of Dean because they were of a purplish colour and a mosaic floor in Roman style was laid on the groundfloor.

Mr Schueler gave me a book on heating by hot air via ductwork. This was to go to each room in the house. The air was going to be heated by a heatpump extracting heat from the river water. My job was to calculate the size of the marine ply ducts and to do the maths on air speed to have the slowest, quietest speed of air from the vents in each room.

The point is he trusted me to do such an important job and I was only nineteen at that time. If I got it wrong in my temperature, air speed and duct size calculations the result would have been a disaster. I riverrundidn’t get it wrong but the noise of the compressor running the heat pump was too intrusive and could be heard throughout the house and that wasn’t down to me. They fixed that by giving up on the heat pump idea and used an oil fired system to heat the air instead.

The next job was to design all the kitchen units which were specially made. I incorporated quite a few innovations some of which I saw in kitchen units decades later. There was no input from Mr Schueler on this or when I was asked to design the swimming pool. Yes, you might say, not much to design there. Well you would be wrong. Construction was important as was depth and pipework and I had to do the research before I could produce drawings.

My sidelines included buying the high quality flooring tile seconds – the sort used in hospitals – and selling them to a contact I had made. The accountant heard me talking about this in the canteen lunch queue – we used the Hawker Siddeley canteen which was next door to Phoenix – and reported it to the MD. Mr Schueler told me about the reaction from the boss who said “good luck to him for making a profit on them, we aren’t”.


My yellow Ford van alongside father’s at Burfield Road

In the meantime I was also making money by churning out decoy pigeons and I put a deposit down on a new Ford van sometime in 1960. The cost was £500 and it came in grey primer. I had a thing about yellow (the motorbike) and  had it sprayed that colour by the dealer. At last I had a heater, what a luxury. We went all over in that van, Brands Hatch, Goodwood, Kart Racing, Cornwall. I didn’t take long to pay off the finance either even though my maximum wage at Phoenix was still a single figure at £8 per week.

That £8 a week went a long way in 1960. Inflation was low and prices had been the same for some years. I believe petrol was only five shillings a gallon (25p a gallon) even then and I had more disposable income. I bought a cine camera and managed to film quite a few of our activities even though fim cost £3 for a 3 minute reel. Barry and I bought a kart between us and went kart racing. We soon upgraded it with a German JLO engine which probably cost us quite a lot of money. We went target shooting at Bisley,  and to motor sports events as far away as Brands Hatch and I was filming a lot of it.

The boss was taking film of the Maidenhead house build. Learning of my prowess with cine I was handed his 16mm camera and sent over to Maidenhead to take film of the progress when he couldn’t get there. My footage must have been OK, I never received any complaints.

As for Ken Schueler – of the George, William and Kenneth of his names Ken was the name of choice. He had quite a zany sense of humour as I did, he made me laugh. In those days we used to get pea souper fogs in the Thames Valley area. After a particularly thick fog he said to me ” it was so bad even the birds had to walk” and another time when driving one of the bosses veteran cars, “the lights were so dim I had to strike a match to see if they were on”.  Those were right up my street, and I could still raise a smile now when I think about the absurdity of it.

Now, I thought that was very funny, you see ordinary humour doesn’t amuse me. I don’t like slapstick or typical situation TV comedy it has to be over the top absurd or zany as I call it. I guess Faulty Towers was my ideal although I thought that generally speaking Monty Python’s Flying Circus was too absurd and not funny although those examples did not come to our TV’s until 1969 for the latter not until 1975 for the former.

I guess that in the early sixties I was too busy doing other things than watch much TV. Julie dragged me off to the Adelphi in Slough for weekly dancing lessons where we learned the waltz, foxtrott, cha cha etc. I wasn’t overly into it but I learned enough to get by at the Phoenix annual Christmas Dinner and dance and I suppose that’s all that matters. Once I left Phoenix I forgot much of that what I had learned because the opportunity never arose again and anyway Rock ‘n Roll had taken over.

I guess we were like a large family at Phoenix. There must have been around a hundred of us and everyone there knew my name if only because I was frequently called for over the tannoy system. Julie’s mum used to hear my name on the tannoy when the wind was in the right direction even though they lived some distance away. I was tannoyed or mentioned on tannoy (MOT’D) as we called it because I had a habit of roaming all over the factory and the nissen huts in the yard at the back next to the main Paddington railway line. An express steam train belting down the non stop stretch between Reading and Paddington was a sight and sound to behold – I said I was a steam buff earlier didn’t I?

Ken Schueler didn’t seem to mind my wanderings – I couldn’t sit in that office all day – and I usually had an excuse like visiting the electrician, or the maintenance or checking on the tile moulding section. Anyway, the next event curbed my wanderings to a certain extent.

Christine was George Clarke’s secretary just down the corridor from my office and we were becoming closer over the months. It all came to a head when I invited her to a party that I was having on my birthday in 1962 at Burfield Road. She lived at Datchet and had no transport so I was to pick her up and take her home. Why I thought it was OK to invite her when I was going out with Julie beats me but I did, we do some strange things in our lives that baffle us now.

I gave her a lift home around midnight and all the pent up feelings came out by way of some  passion as we sat in the van. The next day I saw Julie as usual, said nothing but was internally torturing myself. You see I believed that such a thing cannot be brushed over, that if you are in a serious relationship – everyone expected us to get married – such an event with someone else is a game changer and things cannot be the same.

This was an attitude that I very much deeply regretted almost twenty years later.

On the Monday I met up with Julie again and I told her it was over. She, in tears, ran from the van back home. I by now, was in tears also, it was a horrible thing that I did and there were repercussions at Phoenix the next day. Julie was in a bad way in the office across the road and I was not seen in a good light. There was lots of talk and questions but it left an opening for a couple of sleaze bags to take advantage of a vulnerable young woman. This I heard about much later when I had left the company.

Anyway my time was to come to an end at Phoenix sometime towards the end of 1962 when Mr Schueler and I had a row about goodness knows what and I said “that’s it, I’m going”. The fact of the matter was I was extremely busy making decoy pigeons and was developing new products in premises at the rear of my fathers shop. I believe Ken Schueler was quite upset at the turn of events, Christine having heard him talking to George Clarke.

I was now self employed but Ken Schueler still had me in mind and found a couple of products for me to manufacture for use in the factory. I very much regret not keeping in touch with him after all he had been an immensely important influence in my life, I learned so much from him but it’s only when looking back over the years that the significance becomes clear. When you are young you have so much else going on and no inclination to reflect on things.

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