THIS week in 1962 there was an American in orbit, controversy in the classroom and a Swindon bank full of Semtex.
The American was Colonel John Glenn, the controversy was over secondary modern schools – and we’ll get to the Semtex later.
For now let’s just say the people who put it inside the bank proudly owned up to the deed.
By the time Glenn made his three orbits aboard his tiny Friendship 7 capsule, deadly Cold War rivals the Soviet Union had already put two men there. It would be more than seven years until the US claimed first prize in the space race by landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon.
Even so, Glenn’s flight made worldwide headlines.
“Glenn goes up at last – and he’s in orbit,” shouted our front page lead in a late special edition ON Tuesday, February 20.
We added: “After another series of delays Lieut Col John Glenn was launched into space from Cape Canaveral at 2.48 this afternoon, and went into orbit.”
Our editorial writer hailed the flight as vital in our technological rivalry with the Soviet Bloc, and seemed to think the Russians were plotting to become sci-fi villains: “The astronauts’ capsules of today are the weapons carriers of tomorrow – and perhaps of a very early tomorrow – for it is now clear that an H-bomb can be put into orbit and released at the push of a button to fall within a measurable, if large, pre-determined area.”
Back on the ground in Swindon, a reader named only as ‘Teacher’ wrote to our letters page that segregating children into grammar and secondary modern schools was unfair. They added that secondary moderns failed all but their best pupils.
The claim prompted the Westcott Secondary head, a Mr R Owen, to speak out at the school’s annual prizegiving.
“We are just as proud here,” he said, “of the lad who at last finds he can read as we are of the best GCE results.”
Calling for education to keep pace with scientific and cultural developments, he told parents: “If you will forgive me, so many of you seem to think that the pattern of education of even 30 years ago is good enough for your children.”
That week also saw the opening of Swindon’s newest bank, a branch of the now long-forgotten Williams Deacon’s.
The bunker-like structure at 127 Commercial Road still stands, and houses an RBS branch.
Back in 1962, customers were promised: “An up-to-the-minute building, a forward-looking company with nearly two centuries of experience...”
They were also promised a main entrance tiled with Semtex, which in those days didn’t mean customers were strolling about on a layer of plastic explosive.
In 1962 it seems Semtex Ltd was a flooring company based in Bristol. Their advert urged: “As you walk across the public area, notice how little noise you make.
“Semtex Rubber flooring has been laid here to a simple, dignified design which does much to provide the Bank with its atmosphere.”