Arborfield anecdotes 1956-59

Gerry Hincks 56B

I’m pretty sure that my introduction to the Army Apprentices’ School in the summer of 1956 was much the same as thousands of other young lads, but I promised ‘Scouse’ Gripton to ‘tell the tale’, so here goes!

These are just random thoughts, in no particular order, so I hope they make sense and that readers will find some amusement in them.

One thing that stands out about my arrival, which happened to be late afternoon, was my first visit to the Dining Hall – or Cookhouse, as it was also well known. I can’t recall exactly what we had to eat, but have a sharp memory of the layout of the place – long wooden tables and bench seats, no table cloths and plates full of jam and butter everywhere. Being ‘Junior Division’, this was a state of affairs that we soon became accustomed to.

After passing out from ‘HQ’ Company after the first six months, I was sent into ‘B’ Coy, to share a room with some eighteen other apprentices, in one room of what was known as a ‘spider’. Life passed by in a blur of academic training, trade training, fitness activities and sports – plus the inevitable and seemingly endless parades, which filled our every Saturday morning. After a spell in ‘B’ Coy and promotion to A/L/Cpl, I was fortunate enough to find myself posted back to ‘HQ’ Coy – as the NCO i/c Games Room! This was a great job, as the position attracted no other duties and came with my own separate bunk in the said Games Room – total bliss!

All good things pass they say, and upon further promotion to A/Cpl, back I went to join my own Div in ‘B’ Coy once more. During this period, I became a member of the AAS gymnastics display team. The display routine closely followed the pattern of that seen at the Royal Military Tattoo held at Earls Court in west London. The team attended many military and civilian events, where we were able to show off our abilities, agility and fitness.

There were two West African boys in ‘B’ Coy, one named Sam, who became a great friend of mine, and the other one named Tutu. I think in fact that they were both from a country called the ‘Gold Coast’. Many years later, when I was attending SEME Bordon on my Artificer course, I bumped into Sam once again, in the SEME Sgts’ Mess – that was the old wooden building, before it was ‘accidentally’ burned down! Sam told me that Tutu had been killed in one of the African tribal wars that were rife at the time. We also had a number of Burmese boys at Arborfield. They were quite privileged, being paid large sums of money by their government – and received a ration of 200 ‘State Express’ cigarettes every month. I think that would be very much frowned upon today!

Illegal transportation…

In those days, we weren’t permitted to own our own transport, except maybe for a bicycle – motorcars and motorcycles were definitely off the agenda! Not that it stopped everyone of course! My first purchase was a 1932 Sunbeam drop-head coupe, which I obtained from a guy who kept a number of ancient cars in a local barn. I used to go and clean it each Saturday and prepared it to drive home on leave, either late 1958 or early 1959. I remember that, when I made the trip, up to my home in Leicestershire, Russell ‘Jock’ Dodds, also of ‘B’ Coy and a member of the Pipe Band, accompanied me.

A certain amount of subterfuge was required and I caught the ‘leave coach’ to Reading Station, along with lots of others. From here, I then caught a service bus back to Arborfield to pick up the car from the barn! This was followed by a drive back to Reading to pick up Russ, before we were able to head up north. That Sunbeam was a bit of an oil burner to say the least and, in the end, I had to leave it at home, where my father eventually sold it for the princely sum of ten shillings and sixpence – fifty-five pence at today’s rate! Fortunately, I still had my train warrant for the return journey to Arborfield.

There was a distinct dress code at boys’ school, with checks at the Guardroom to make sure we didn’t wear any apparel deemed too outlandish! This led to many an illegal breakout, via the gate in the perimeter fence just behind Fred Silver’s greenhouse. The object of my affections at the time was the daughter of S/Sgt Gunner, a permanent staff instructor, who later became a ‘civvie’ instructor at Bordon. I think the young lady’s name was Valerie – I’ll have to ask Jock, as I think he also vied for her attention in those days!

I later bought another car from the same ‘Staff’ Gunner. This constituted two illegal transactions – mine for buying it and his for selling it to me, knowing I wasn’t allowed to own it! This second car was much more modern – a 1938 Morris 8! It only cost me £34 and was a great little runner. I managed to keep it at Smokey Joe’s, a much-loved ‘greasy spoon’ café out on the road down to Wokingham. On the same day that Fred Silver’s greenhouse was smashed by hailstones the size of golf-balls, those same hailstones tore many a hole in the canvas roof of my pride and joy. I had to make some quick repairs with masking tape.

I recall taking some other lads with me in the car, to see the Henley Regatta, just along the Thames a few miles away. I’m pretty sure that Jock was one passenger, Mick Stevens another, but cannot recall the third. On the way to Henley, the brakes failed and we had to make a rapid exit off a roundabout. From then on, I drove it ‘on the handbrake’, whilst still applying the brake pedal to make the stoplights come on! Shortly afterwards, Mick Stevens bought the car from me for the same £34 I’d paid. I know he drove it at times, but for some reason unknown to me, it was subsequently found abandoned on a grass verge at the rear of the REME Depot. The first I knew of all this was when approached by S/Sgt Gunner, asking me what the hell was going on? Unfortunately, the local Bobbies had traced the car back to him – and he could hardly say that he had sold it to an apprentice. He was even more peed off when I told him that I’d sold it on to Mick! In the event, the car finally disappeared from the verge – but I don’t know what happened to it after that.

Several boys owned motorcycles – in ‘B’ Coy alone I remember ‘Fritz’ Fry and Brian Mockford. Those machines were stashed away in various back yards, sheds and garages around the area, no doubt for a small rent. Another lad, ‘Chick’ Elliott, had his sickle confiscated and stored away in the fire station. He was cheeky enough to clear it with Fred Silver that he could go in now and again to clean and polish it during its enforced confinement!

Entertainment and sport…

Nights out were always well attended – out on the bus to Reading, drinking pints of lager and ‘scrumpy’. On one occasion, a gang of us all bought ‘Andy Capp’ style headgear, all the rage for a while. Then there were the dance nights at Wokingham Jazz Club, all competing to dance with the prettiest girls. It was Chick again who scored very well, with a girl called Gloria – smashing looking bird with a figure to die for, but also very sweet natured. Once when Chick copped for seven days jankers, he asked me to meet Gloria off the Wokingham bus and see her into camp via the back gate near the hospital. That tale ends right here!

The only other point of contact with the fairer sex was the dance class each week in the Camp Hall. But during at least one flu epidemic, we did have some QARANC nurses looking after us in both the Camp Hall and the hospital. Apart from that, there was only Miss Gunning in the WVS Room!

Cross-country runs were a favourite pastime on Wednesday sports afternoons; at least it got us out of camp!

On one occasion we ended up at the lake in Little California, running up and down the pier to keep warm. Someone decided that it was Hincks’ turn to learn how to swim – and promptly shoved me into the lake! To this day I don’t know how I managed to struggle to the bank and get out of the water. Strangely enough, I didn’t learn to swim properly until I was stationed in Libya in 1967.

More nefarious activities…

Like it or not, bullying was a fact of life then, mainly carried out by senior boys on junior boys, that’s just the way things operated. One lad in my intake was noted for his ‘hardness’, coming from the East End of London, he’d had a tough upbringing before landing at Arborfield. I won’t name him, but here’s one tale I recall. Another lad had loaned a combination lock to the room NCO, and ‘our hero’ bullied him into revealing the lock code. He then went into the NCO’s bunk, unlocked the locker, and proceeded to tie the immaculate white belt into knots and slashed the toecaps of the previously gleaming best boots. He’d obviously had a run-in with the NCO, but this revenge was over the top. The sad thing is that we all knew about it, but the ‘never tell on your mates’ attitude prevailed.

Heaven forbid if you were suspected of nicking from your mates. One lad who came under suspicion was hung upside down from the room rafter; his hands tied behind his back, and then lowered head first into the fire bucket – filled with water of course! I believe this activity was known as ‘luluing’ (pronounced loo-loo-ing). Another sure-fire way of ‘obtaining a confession’ was to hold the culprit down on the six-foot ironing table, then plug in the electric iron. Unknown to the ‘culprit’, the iron that was subsequently pressed onto his bare back was in fact a cold one – but his imagination didn’t know that, so the shock to the system was just as deadly!

Around the time I was in 5 Div, I recall that a deserter from the RAF came and ‘hid out’ at the School. We learned that he had previously been thrown out of boys’ school, so knew that it was the perfect cover! His cronies thought this was a hoot and he was soon kitted out in denims and allowed to sleep in an old mate’s room in ‘A’ Coy lines. It is alleged that he even took a party on fire picket duty, under the very nose of Fred Silver, the Provost Sergeant. He was certainly not short of money, as a gang of senior boys would come round every barrack room after pay parade and demand ‘any loose change’. It is said that this guy (Paddy Claydon) obtained about £14 a week in this manner – a lot more then the ten bob (50p) we had each week.

There was more than a fair share of other activities that would provide an episode of ‘Porridge’ on TV! We had our very own ‘loan sharks’, lending money at extortionate interest rates, to be paid back when ‘credits’ were dished out at the end of term. Then there were the ‘baccy barons’ – “I’ll lend you one ciggie now for two back tomorrow!” Perhaps I’ve painted a rather black picture above, but there were certainly more good times than bad! To prove it, I survived my three years and have enough affection to attend 56B reunions on an annual basis – so it can’t have been all doom and gloom!

Gerry Hinks 56B

Gerry recalls that the only other point of contact with the fairer sex was the dance class each week in the Camp Hall. But during at least one flu epidemic, we did have some QARANC nurses looking after us in both the Camp Hall and the hospital.

Leave a Reply