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The likely lads
IF you are one of these long-haired young men, pictured one late summer day in 1970, a reunion beckons.
The same applies to all of the 2,400 or so teenagers who studied at the Works Training School in Swindon from its opening in 1962 to its final intake in 1984.
The school, at the Newburn Crescent end of Dean Street, was set up to give apprentices basic instruction and identify their strongest aptitudes. It was demolished some time ago and the site is currently empty.
On Saturday, September 22, the 50th anniversary of the school will be marked by a reunion at Steam, Swindon’s museum of the Great Western Railway. The idea for the gathering came from an ‘old boy’, John Baker. He suggested it to local historian Rosa Matheson, who has written several books about the GWR and its workers.
“She gave him my name and we went from there,” said Andy Binks, a Swindon Society member, history enthusiast and former engineer who is helping to organise the reunion.
Mr Binks, 57, who lives in Old Town, is the tall teenager in the front row of the 1970 group shot. Aged 15, he had recently swapped Commonweal School for the training school. He was paid £4 17s 6d per week, and £5.25 when decimal currency was introduced the following year.
“It wasn’t just Swindon people there,” he said. “There were people from places such as Reading, London, Cardiff and Bristol, and there were also people from local firms that didn’t have their own training facilities, such as Garrard’s, Plessey and Square D.”
Boys from out of town lived in a hostel in Bath Road.
“The first year gave you a go at every sort of trade that was possible – fitting, turning, carpentry, welding, all the skills. We made test pieces for all of the skills.”
Some of those test pieces, including examples made by Mr Binks, are currently on display on the second floor of the Central Library, near its extensive collection of Swindon-related items. Mr Binks’ aptitude for engineering saw him become a fitter.
“The apprenticeship was four years but you were a year at the training school,” he said. “By the end of that year they’d sussed out what you were good at. I think most of the lads had an idea what they wanted to do. I was always going to become a mechanical engineer.”
Mr Binks remembers the school as initially daunting. “You went from school to a man’s world but with a lot of boys, in a way.
“It was a happy place but they were going to knock you into shape in 12 months and find out where you fit in. Some of the instructors were quite tough, there’s no doubt about it, but they were very fair and some of the best engineers in the works were teachers there.
“I remember the welding man, Jack Packer, was an interesting character – you could have a good crack with him. They were all in their 50s apart from one person that I recall, and he still lives in Old Town.”
On leaving the training school, the apprentices would report to the works, where they were known as ‘greenbacks’ because of the green overalls they wore to distinguish them from the time-served men, who wore blue.
Mr Binks was to stay until the closure of the works in 1986, when he went to work for EMI. He currently works at a golf club. His memories of the works are fond.
“Life in the factory was a big, happy family,” he said. “I can’t say strongly enough how happy the life in there was.”
Further information about the reunion is available at www.facebook.com/groups/swindonapprentice/ and from firstname.lastname@example.org, as well as from Chris on 07789 514310 or 01793 643465 and Colin on 07850 666196 or 01793 610465.
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