Red Hill School Memories

(by David Crane 1951 - 1954)

I arrived at Red Hill School on 3rd March 1951 and left when I was 14 in 1954. My memories of the school - which I will come to later - are precious and are re-visited fairly regularly. However, it has taken me a very long time to realise how fortunate I was to get there, how wise (my then despised) stepfather was to have helped me to get there and what an astonishingly remarkable man Shaw and his team were.

My paternal father died of a perforated ulcer in 1939 when I was 6 months old. My mother, my two sisters and my grandmother moved from Westcliffe-on-Sea to Rothley in Leicestershire to get away from the German bombers that were just appearing overhead. Years later, I discovered that another reason for the flight was an unhappy marriage. Five years later, my mother married again, and George became the second male in my house and the centre of my mother's attention. Thus began a period of warfare (maladjustment?) that lasted for about the next 10 years.

George was the only son of a prominent Austrian Jewish family. He and his mother and two sisters were packing their Viennese apartment as Hitler was holding a Nazi rally in the square nearby. They managed to escape to England with no money and a little furniture just before Austria was annexed. Some of his relatives remained in Austria and Germany and had their lives ended in concentration camps; others escaped to USA and South America. George's languages and his knowledge of European business qualified him to work in a local textile company, ending his working career as Export Director. It wasn't until I was in my mid-teens that I, first, began to respect him and later to love him as my true father. Had it not been for his patience, love and guidance I would not have arrived at RHS or had the opportunities I later experienced.

Having been variously 'advised to leave' or expelled from a few schools, the final one of which was the most appalling Garboldisham Manor - a school run by two (failed?) military characters - one a sadist (Major Beamish) and the other (Captain Fenn) a pederast - I arrived at Red Hill School. The feeling of safety, warmth (not in the temperature sense!) and freedom was overwhelming.

Shaw tried very hard to make me to recognise that only I was responsible for my own actions. Alas, only partially successful! The only advice that I can remember was that when I told him of the cruelty that the Beamish/Fenn duo exerted on their inmates who resisted their attacks (following the revealing of their perversions in the Daily Sketch), he suggested that I shit in a box and send it to them. I didn't do that - the choice was between a packet of 10 Piccadilly cigarettes or the postage stamps to the prison they were in. The fags won in the end!

Shaw taught me to always look below the surface - "Crane, the shadow and the substance, look!" A very profound exhortation for anyone and in the current culture extremely apposite.

Another reflection on Shaw’s guidance and with the benefit of a great deal of hindsight: Shaw taught me to always try to understand - in effect - how things worked and he could not abide bland statements that hinted at absolutism - fundamentalism in today's language. His position was that the only place that such thinking had the best chance of survival was in the general field of the physical sciences, in all other areas of life such declarations were highly suspect. I can imagine him declaring "Fundamentalism is the home of the intellectually bereft"! To how many of our leaders would this epithet fit?

Within a few days of my arrival I was gated and my clothes removed; in those days going outside the school grounds without a pass (exeat?) was a cardinal offence. I had 'borrowed' another boy's bike and, with others, went on a bike ride... the freedom was intoxicating. I have very vivid memories of dam building, tunnel digging, the all-day 'capture the flag' game lasting several days, scrumping expeditions, digging underground dens, bows and arrows and barbecuing rabbits, ants nest warfare, jam-tin personal warmers, four-sticks in the wood-yard, 'visits' to the local hop-picking commune, bike rides all over the place, breaking my wrist on the Scots Pine swing* and having my tonsils removed. I used to get very bad tonsillitis and would often be in the room next to MOF under her watchful eye. One day, I got a letter from my mother letting me know that I was shortly 'to have the offending part of my body removed'. Naturally, this would cause a certain measure of alarm to any young person - let alone a boy of 13 or so - but my mother's idea of 'offending member' at that time and mine where on an entirely different plane!

One of the many distinguishing features of RHS at that time was (by today’s grossly overblown standards) a general paucity of almost everything; almost all games or entertainment had a very high degree of invention. We were never bored - we, largely,
invented our own games and very rapidly honed the play and rules and the result was intense commitment and great pleasure. Keeping warm was of the same ilk too - each boy had a stove to keep fuelled and if the re-fuelling was ignored, everyone got cold and all hell was let loose.

I was amazed, staggered, by the freedom at RHS. This twinned with the overall sense of self-governance and group action. One day, in my dormitory, another new-ish boy was in a rage about something and hurled a chair through the window. This let in the very cold night air but it wasn't until later, at lights-out, that any staff commented about it. After lights out, when some of us began to shiver in the cold, we made the offender get out of his bed (in the warmest part of the room) and using anything he could find - mainly his clothes - to block it up. Next day, with the help of bigger boy(s) and a supply of glass and putty he had to spend all day mending it. I don't remember him doing anything like that again.

The Court and Community Meetings were demanding. If anybody - staff included - transgressed (in your view), you demanded that they stand before the Court, hear your accusation, listen to any witnesses, cross-question you and your witnesses and receive the judgement of the Court. Being charged, or bringing a charge was a salutary experience: only the strength of the logic of your case/defence carried any weight. The Bench Members (senior boys) were just as capable of handing down a punishment for a poorly presented argument as they were for a true transgression - to anyone, staff included.

Lessons, too, were fascinating - and optional. However, I very rarely absented myself and when I did, I had to provide a very good reason. If I failed in that objective, I was not punished; I always was left with the uncomfortable feeling that I might have missed something or was being a prat or I had better make a better case next time. On the rare occasions when I was able to sustain the case for absence - I had something much better and more interesting to do, the teacher supported the decision! On reflection, all of my teachers were inspirational: Ray Exton kindled my interest in English and the English language; the way that Paul Pollack explained the basics of physics and chemistry have stayed with me forever and were great fun and the French lessons were very amusing. Much later, I learned that Paul Pollack, following an Inspection by HM School Inspectors, was fired and the reason was that he was 'unqualified'. That must have been at the time the jobsworthiness virus took hold in our now overblown bureaucracy - a tragic loss of a good teacher.

When I was 14 Shaw decided that I was ready to move on.

I left RHS and went to Frensham Heights School until I was 17. Frensham was described as a 'progressive co-educational school'. There I learned to love music and the English language. I also fell in love with a most beautiful girl - quite and absolutely unrequited - and was forever rebuked by my teachers for not working. "Crane, you're a fool - you could easily get to University - why the Hell don't you do a day's work?" I preferred to hang out with 'The Rebels', smoke in the bushes and go on long solitary walks and read poetry and listen to music. Underneath all this, in the craft workshop and at home, I spent as much time as I could making things - model aeroplanes, a canoe, anything on wheels, anything with gears, pendulums - anything that moved. I left Frensham with 2 'O' levels.

In those days (1956) sandwich apprenticeships were readily available.

So, at 17 years old, I began a 5-year craft apprenticeship at the British United Shoe Machinery Company in Leicester. Start at 07:30, lunch break at 12:30 to 13:00, end at 17:00 hrs. Lateness per week: 1 min per day OK. 5 mins per week resulted in a telling-off from the foreman, 15 mins per week resulted in 1 hours pay docked and a meeting with the Personnel Manager. Not a pleasant experience; 2 such meetings in a month and one was fired. After six months of initial training - use of hand tools, use of machine tools - 1 day per week at the local tech and 4 nights a week at night class. My National Service was deferred and later cancelled when joining the armed forces became a voluntary activity.

To the posh kid from a very privileged background, the culture shock had seismic proportions!

For the first 2 years on the job (Teddy Boys, Tommy Steele, etc.) I hated every minute of it, but I simply didn't have the courage to - yet again - disappoint my parents by quitting. One memory: I was working in the milling department next to a very typical-looking Teddy Boy who hated me and everything I represented. I avoided breathing in his presence when necessary. One Monday morning he arrived at his machine with a line of stitches from the top of his left ear right down to the point of his chin. Of course, I could not help but look. Suddenly, I felt the cold edge of a 9-inch flick knife across my throat under my chin: "What are you looking at you posh c**t? eh? eh?" I was rescued by the foreman. Thankfully, nothing happened and I think I got on OK with that bloke after that.

Later, in my final year, a friend and I raised a few hundred chickens and I sold them around the factory for Christmas. I had never seen so much cash in one place at the same time that Christmas Eve. I was also terrified that they would not make a good Christmas Dinner. When work started again, I was inundated with orders for more - that was the time that chicken was changing from a luxury to a commodity. With some of the cash I made from the chickens and some savings, I bought a 1948 TC MG sports car. I was then working in the Planning Department scheduling machine components through the various machine shops. The office was next door to the Design Office and the head was a man with about a yard of letters after his name. He was a brilliant engineer and had designed some superb mechanisms in the shoe-making machinery the company manufactured.

Every day, at knocking-off time, he would put his bike clips on and cycle home. One particularly cold and stormy day, I drove past him in my MG and had a !Eureka! moment: I could perhaps, eventually, design and make machines and mechanisms if I was as clever and experienced as him, but I could also design and make machines and mechanisms now if I employed people like him. The money we had made from the chickens exceeded the top salary for design engineers at that time. Hey Presto: make money to employ good people to make good things. Therefore, forget night-school and exams; instead find something to make that people want, sell it to them, raise the cash, etc., etc..

Left BUSMC and a little later started a company to manufacture machines to automate the UK pottery industry. I designed and made the machines to put blue bands on plates, jugs and cups. Married Valerie in 1962, a very beautiful, ‘free spirit’ girl. Went to the brink of going bust. Got rescued by giving the business to a conglomerate group - 'Royston Industries'. Under their wing, started another business making variable speed drives - Quinton-Crane Electronics Limited. Sons Matthew and Harry were born. Business going well, house too small, third son imminent. One damp and foggy October evening, having returned from the local hospital where my lovely wife had just delivered son George to the world, I slid the long thin envelope into the letterbox containing the contract we had just signed to buy a large, beautiful, Queen Anne wreck of a house from the Crown Estate. The next morning, I arrived at my office to be met by an anxious, grey, secretary who had cleared my desk and laid out the Financial Times - 'Royston Industries appoints Receiver' Within an hour, after a very curt phone call, no job, no income, 3 baby sons and a house I could not pay for.

With money I had not a hope of getting, negotiated with the Receiver to buy the company and sold it the next day to a local machine-tool manufacturing company. Two years later, I was fired. The, then, Deputy Chairman's boast was that he joined the company when he was 14 years old as a floor-sweeper. He also had a problem with tall people: I was 6'2" and he was about 4'6". I maintained that he was at his intellectual limit when he took his first job with the company.

Left and on 4th November 1971 started Crane Electronics Limited making torque measurement and control equipment - with a sales and manufacturing subsidiary in USA. Sold the business on 20th February 2007. CEL is, currently, the World leading manufacturer of this specialist equipment and on my watch we never exported less than 70% of what we designed and manufactured. With some of the money I made from that sale, with others, in 2004 I helped start Gasfill Limited - - which has yet to prove itself. One day I will write a book about this adventure; the subject will be what the true meaning of 'entrepreneur' is - the management of risk, the personal and intellectual attributes, the responses of the wider public to success and failure, etc., etc. It is also a fact of my history that had it not been for the support I had from my wife - through some very, very, rough passages - I could not have achieved or done the things I have.

Along the way, I learned to fly weight-shift microlights and in 1995 won a major London/Madrid competition. In 2 weeks I flew from Leicestershire to Madrid, then to Portugal, then over the Pyrenees, then (nearly) over Mont Blanc and back to London. Great excitement and one hell of a party when we all got back.

Also along the way, I have interviewed a lot of 16-18 year young men for jobs as well as giving talks in local schools about working in Industry. I have been struck many times by how badly some of these young people are disconnected, disenfranchised, disillusioned and with very low expectations and ambitions. Many times I have thought that there is now a whole generation who would have - with absolutely no doubt at all - benefited from the sort of 'tough love' that RHS represented. But then Political Correctness (Institutionalised Lying), Spin, Shadow-over-Substance, Health and Safety, Risk Assessment, Human Rights, Data Protection - all the tick-boxes that would kill any hope of any sort of RHS resurrection. Of course, the biggest bogey-man of all - anything that even hints about differentiation between classes of people and the biggest no-no of all: I.Q.

But still, as our guide and mentor, we have the aptly-named Ed Balls...

* I have, since writing this, had a memorable lunch reminiscence with Ralph Gee and read one of his splendidly-written potted histories about significant events concerning bicycles. He is wrong - I did not break a leg by flying my bike onto the road. It could have been the beginning of a short-lived craze: the plan was to ride a bicycle as fast as possible straight over the parapet under the Lone Pine Swing. Just before the front wheel lost touch with terra-firma the rider had to grab the cross-bar (held steady by another boy with a long, thin, stick) and swing pendulum-like heaven-wards. Another boy, sighting along the edge of a piece of wood nailed to the body of the Lone Pine, tracked the trajectory of the contestant and the boy who got the wood tilted the furthest away from horizontal was the winner. I seem to remember having had several attempts, the only consequence being a gradual deterioration in the usefulness of my bike. At the time of the incident, I had decided to make a serious attempt on 'The World Record' so I pushed my bike up to the top gate and it was only when I got to the right-hand bend at the bottom of the steep drive that I discovered that a vital part of the braking system was missing. The only place to stop was at the end of the Lone Pine Swing...

I think I set the record that day and for a split golden second, high above the Weald, I felt the winner's glow. My reverie was rudely interrupted when I plunged earthwards clutching the green bark of the newly-hewn Ash bough cross-bar to be re-acquainted with my bike. For another split second, just before the blackness and pain invaded my body, I wondered where the front wheel had got to. The result was a broken wrist, not a broken leg. I think the practice was banned after that.

(January 2010)