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Directorate of Telecommunications
Wootton Hall Outstation (my early years)

John Leary

It’s funny how fate can influence our lives.  After I left the Merchant Navy in 1966, I initially returned to my old job as a Radio and TV service engineer but wanted to develop a career in telecommunications.

My first attempt, working for GEC Marconi as a microwave test engineer was not entirely satisfactory as I was living in Northampton but commuting each day to the Telephone Works in Coventry. One day one of my brothers-in-law phoned me to say that the Home Office were advertising for a Wireless Technician to fill a single post at the Northamptonshire Police Headquarters and it might be the sort of job I would like.

I remember working my way through the many pages of the application form, wondering whether any job was worth the time and effort needed to complete it.

I must have hit the right buttons because I was invited to an interview at Rochester Row along with a number of other hopefuls including a guy I had been at college with.

I cannot remember all of the interview except that it was the first time I sat in front of a panel of three and felt as though their eyes were boring into the back of my skull. They were interested in the marine VHF equipment I had sailed with, asked questions about modulation methods and specifically about the amount of power in an 100% modulated, amplitude modulated carrier. After the interview I wasn’t sure I answered all the questions correctly but by then it was too late. I eventually received a letter offering me the job. From memory the whole process from advertisement to appointment took about six months. I started in July 1967.

Wootton Hall, the Northamptonshire Police Headquarters, had once been the country house of a wealthy local boot and shoe manufacturer. The wireless workshop was located in the garage block in a small room adjacent to where the then Chief Constable John Gott kept his Austin Healey racing cars. The sole detached technician, Bill Martin had been told by the Stanton Depot that I had been recruited but not that I would be turning up for duty!

Sometimes in our lives we meet exceptional people and “Billy” Martin was one of these. In appearance he was very much like Mr Pastry (for those of us old enough to remember this children’s TV character) as he had grey hair at the back and sides of a brown, shiny bald head, a grey moustache and half glasses that perched precariously on the end of his nose. He had had a fascinating life having raced motorcycles and been a commissioned officer in the RAF during the war but the thing I remember most is that he had a wicked sense of humour, the most engaging smile and a very infectious laugh. Sometimes when he was telling a joke and before he got to the punch line, he would laugh uncontrollably with the tears falling freely down his face. To say that we got on well would be an understatement.

On my second day I was called to the Stanton Depot for a one-week induction course and to collect my tool kit. As the detachment had yet to be issued with an official van and used Bill’s Renault Four hatchback for all maintenance visits I had to find the depot unaided, tucked away as it was on the edge of Stanton on the Wolds village.

On arrival I became the object of much friendly curiosity and was eventually ushered into the Regional Wireless Engineer’s Office to be introduced to the great man himself. Jim Cornwall made me very welcome and over the years that I worked within the Stanton Region I came to admire him very much. He hated Monday mornings and you had to be brave or desperate if you wanted to speak to him at the start of the new week.  I later learnt that he had designed the Universal Test Set with its detachable interface panel that was the mainstay of all mobile testing. It seems to me that the Regional Wireless Engineer grade then had more authority and organisational power than was the case when I became a Senior Wireless Engineer many years later but perhaps that was just the perception of a newly appointed member of staff looking up at the engineer and manager at the top of the local management pyramid.

Mid morning on that first Tuesday I was told to accompany Alec Bennet who was the Senior Wireless Technician (SWT) responsible for the maintenance of Northamptonshire’s fixed system, to repair a fault at Broughton (Hutchinson’s Holt) one of Northamptonshire’s two hilltop sites. Later all maintenance, both fixed and mobile became a detachment responsibility but at that time the detachment was restricted to mobile maintenance.

My one-week induction training turned out to be all of a day and a half because on the Wednesday morning I was instructed to return to Wootton Hall.

During my time at Wootton Hall there was never a resident SWT because it was considered too small a detachment to warrant an on-site line manager. This lack of organisational structure never became an issue with Bill, Max Corney or Peter Thompson who followed on in turn after Bill eventually returned to Stanton. It did however mean there were some interesting processes when annual staff reports were compiled but that is another story.

My years at Wootton Hall were happy ones that saw the expansion of detachment responsibilities to include all maintenance of fixed and mobile equipments, the amalgamation of the town and county fire brigades and the introduction of the UHF pocketfone systems including the maintenance of the pocketfones to first and second line levels. The single channel countywide scheme had an equipment replacement (pre Pye Radio Link Assembly) and we also saw the introduction of the SE Labs terminals giving Force access to the Police National Computer. Last but not least saw the replacement of the single channel Pye Vanguards with the ten channel Pye Whitehall mobile equipments.

When call-out was introduced the Northamptonshire Detachment shared a rota with the Leicestershire detachment. Once, having been called out to repair the UHF base station at Gartree prison I was later to be extremely embarrassed when my small son told his friend’s parent “daddy has been to prison”!

Those early years of detached working gave me the experience and the confidence to deal with all sorts of problems. This stood me in good stead during the next and subsequent stages of my career.

After joining DTels in July 1967 and spending a period of time at Wootton Hall, John was promoted to SWT Nottingham Outstation, then circa 1978 he moved to Harrow, firstly as a CWT Project Control, followed by a spell in E&D Section. Around 1981 he moved to HQ as a SWE responsible for WARC Fixed Equipment’s,  before a sideways transfer to Maintenance Planning Group Weyhill (with overall responsibility for the three Maintenance Units) in late 1983.  After one temporary assignment at HQ, in 1987 as a G7, he took charge of the HQ WARC Planning Team at Horseferry House until his transfer to the Metropolitan Police Radio Branch in 1989 and subsequent promotion to Grade 6 (Deputy Director) in charge of all Network Projects in 1992.

During his time with the Met Police before he retirement in the late 90’s, John had been responsible for setting up the Radio Branch at Sydenham and overseeing the successful introduction of the first UK Emergency Service analogue trunked radio system from Motorola, initially piloted using Ericsson EDACS.Acknowledgement: John Leary

page updated: 22/07/19

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