Wednesday 13 June 2012

Childhood Ramblings – Part Four (and final)

My last episode told of my early trials and tribulations as I became a working youth.  Here I continue with the latter part of my time as a Shop Boy before commencing my Apprenticeship.

As time progressed I became more confident and learned to stand my ground with the few ‘work mates’ who continued to tease me.  As they realised that I was not such easy prey they began to accept me more and a less challenging relationship developed until I felt that I was ‘one of the boys’!
The year went by and Christmas came to the work shop with decorations (discouraged by Management) put up all over the place.  The final working day before we closed for Christmas was reminiscent of the last day of term at school.  Work was almost non-existent and the charge hands generally turned a blind eye as we stood around talking and joking. At lunchtime the majority headed off to the nearest pub with ‘under age’ me amongst them. After well over the official hour’s lunch break, the workmen gradually drifted back into the workshop with several of them rather the worse for their drinking.  Mr Robinson who was a very wise Workshop Manager, seeing that the longer the men remained in the workshop could only lead to trouble, announced that work was over for the day and sent us all home to enjoy a whole two days holiday, for that was all we got in those days. We all knew that he and the rest of management wanted to get on with their own Office party!

The winter months following that first Christmas really tested me on my journeys to and from work.  The road between Kingsley and Alton in those days was little more than a country lane and became extremely treacherous with snow and ice. Before the widespread use of salt, the council spread fine grit and flints on the worst of the ice. This may have helped the motor vehicles but was a source of misery to me and my bicycle tyres causing many punctures both too and from work.  After I struggled home in the dark one night after getting yet another puncture, my Father reached into his pocket and pulling out a Pound note said he thought it about time I bought some new tyres!

A little History lesson.
By the time I left school in 1958, “Vokes Ernst, Scientific Surgical Appliance Makers” or VESSA Ltd had been in existence for about ten years.   A company called Vokes Limited located in Normandy near Guilford, who was a major supplier of air filtration equipment throughout the Second WW, bought the Artificial Limb business from an engineering company called Desoutter Brothers.

The Desoutter family became involved in artificial limb making when Marcel, one of the Desoutter brothers, lost a leg in a flying accident in the 1920’s.  Not satisfied with the quality of the artificial limbs generally available at that time, the family used their engineering resources to design a revolutionary false limb for Marcel.   Such was the success of their design that wealthy leg amputees flocked to their door from far and wide to purchase this light weight marvel of prosthetic engineering.  What was recognised as the ‘Rolls Royce’ of ‘light metal’ artificial limbs, filled a lucrative ‘private’ market with famous users such as Douglas Bader. 

In 1948,it was decided that what was then the Ministry of Pensions would  ’supply artificial limbs to all’, paid for by the Tax Payer.  The Desoutter brothers were not interested in this development as the profitable side of their business was the manufacture of their power tools, and so sold the artificial limb business and the Patents to Vokes Limited.  Thus VESSA Ltd came into existence with a number of the Desoutter employees moving from London to Alton, to work in new premises on Paper Mill Lane just below the station.

My Apprenticeship and beyond!
Easter approached along with my sixteenth birthday.  My Father was summoned to the factory to sign my Apprenticeship Indentures.  This agreement would tie me to my employers for five years whilst I served my Apprenticeship. In doing so, I became a member of staff which meant that although I still had a clock card I was no longer paid by the hour but would receive a fixed weekly wage.
 I now had the dubious honour of becoming the first Apprentice Artificial Limb maker the company had employed and to a large degree my training programme was ‘made up’ as we went along!
In those days Artificial Limbs were constructed from light metals, largely Duraluminium alloy, wood and leather, and my Apprenticeship would in the following five years take me through all the various departments, learning as I went the necessary skills with which each material was formed and handled.  The many and varied operations involved are far too numerous to list here and at times I doubted I would ever achieve the necessary skills to become a fully qualified Limb Maker.

My years as the ‘first’ apprentice however were very interesting, proving that I did indeed have the aptitude and ability to learn this extremely intricate work.  On top of the ‘hands on’ training, I also was required to attend what was then called Farnborough Technical College, to study for City and Guilds Certificates in Sheet Metal Work.  These courses were the nearest association to the trade I was learning.  Here I discovered that my educational capabilities where also somewhat better than previously believed, and in the four years that I attended Farnborough, to my delight I received several year-end awards for examination successes, and good class work.

The latter stages of my apprenticeship became a quite complicated by the fact that I had fallen head over heels in love with a young lady who I had espied whilst making a visit to the Managers offices in the corner of the workshop.   I thought that she was the most beautiful apparition and to cut a long story extremely short, I started courting Patricia or Paddy as she has always been known in the summer of our mutual sixteenth year.

This created serious difficulties as I had to juggle a courtship in conjunction with my training.   We were to marry in 1962 at the ripe old age of nineteen and one half years and celebrate our 50th Anniversary in October.
In 1963 I successfully completed my Apprenticeship and gained City and Guilds Certificates both Ordinary and Advanced Level in Sheet Metal Work.   I was employed in the Limb Shop and was employed as a fully qualified Artificial Limb Maker and because of my training was one of the few who could work in all areas of limb construction. Better still, I was now receiving what was called ‘A’ grade pay, which at that time was in the order of £16.00 per week, and quite enjoying life with my lovely new wife.

I had always expressed an interest in the fitting of artificial limbs to the patients and in 1965 I had the opportunity to commence training as a ‘fitter’, later we were to be called Prosthetists.

I must abbreviate my next forty three working years until I retired in 2008 otherwise I will be writing many more entries to the Kings Blog.

In 1965 we moved to Manchester with a young child and subsequently had two more children.  I qualified as a Prosthetist at Withington Hospital and subsequently became Manager of the Prosthetic unit I worked in.  In 1984 due to a promotion to a management position it was necessary for me to relocate back to Alton where I worked managing all the VESSA branches around the country until being made redundant in 1989.

My last 19 years saw me working at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital at Stanmore, Queen Marys’ Hospital at Roehampton and Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith.

My life in Prosthetics has been a most interesting and rewarding career (not necessarily financially!) and I have witnessed considerable changes in the way prostheses are constructed.  Duraluminium and wood has been superseded by carbon fibres and a variety of plastics, with sophisticated computer aided mechanisms for knee and ankle movement.

Having retired in 2008 after fifty years in the same business, my wife Paddy and I enjoy new interests being quite heavily involved in the Alton University of the Third Age (U3A), our allotment and Grandchildren.  We also travel when we can, enjoying cruises to the Alaskan Coast, the Baltic and the Antarctic Peninsula.  The latter was particularly poignant as we called in at the Falklands where a number of my patients had lost their limbs many years before.


  1. I read this article with Interest. I recently found a vessa leg in my nans old plotland house.. I was wondering if possible you could give me an idea of its age if I sent you a picture. Its certainly a talking piece and has scared many a friend hanging in my shed. Emma

  2. Bring it on Emma, I'm sure someone here can help.