William Johnson (1920 – 2010) of Chesterfield, Nottingham and Bridge, Kent

47 WJ about 1960.jpgWilliam Johnson (he was known as Billy and later as Bill) was born 9 November 1920, at 34 Mountcastle Street, Newbold, Chesterfield.  He was the fifth son and seventh child, of whom four survived to adulthood, of George Winfield William Johnson, a railway wagon works labourer, and Elsie Elizabeth, formerly Asbery.  He was baptised 27 November 1920 at St Mary’s Chesterfield.


His early education was at Newbold Primary School and he sang in the school choir and also in the choir of St John the Evangelist, Newbold, which was adjacent.  In 1932, Bill was awarded a minor scholarship to Chesterfield Grammar School and began there in September of that year, aged 11.  Bill left school, aged 16, in February 1937, with the School Certificate in 8 subjects, English Literature, History, Geography, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, all with credits, and passes in English Language and French.


Through the school, Bill was able to obtain a job with the Bolsover Colliery Company, as an apprenticed chemist and began work immediately after leaving school, continuing to live at home, at 34, Mountcastle Street, and travelling the nine miles to work by bike.    At the time Bill was there, this company had 6 collieries at Bolsover, Creswell, Mansfield Crown Farm, Rufford, Clipstone and Thoresby, and at its height (1 July 1935) it was in the top 30 index of leading shares.  The deal was 15/- a week with annual increments of 5/- to a maximum of 35/- and attendance at night school with satisfactory results.  He attended Chesterfield Technical College on three evenings a week and gained the National Certificate in Chemistry in 1939.  In the laboratory at Bolsover he conducted analyses of samples from the group of six collieries.  Amongst the materials analysed were coal (the mineral and the finished product) and samples from all the aspects of the company’s business e.g. boiler waters, water softeners, effluents to rivers and streams, mine air (for carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and methane), mine dust (but not dust in mine air) and bought-in oils for flash point and viscosity.


In April 1937 the Air Raid Wardens' Service was formed and during the next year recruited around 200,000 volunteers.  These volunteers were known as Air Raid Precaution (ARP) Wardens.  Bill volunteered in the summer of 1939 to assist with this work and his first job was to attend lectures.  In due course he took part in issuing gas-masks to the residents of Newbold, and after war was declared his job was to take messages from the ARP Warden's Post to the wardens who were patrolling the streets.  In addition there was fire watching at his place of work to be done when his turn came round, which meant staying for the night at Bolsover, though he was never involved in any actual fire fighting.


At about this time, and as a result of his membership of the Church Lads Brigade at St John’s, Newbold, Bill became a member of the Chesterfield Council of Youth.  He and a friend, Walter Robinson, were invited by the BBC to attend a weekend conference at Weston-super-Mare to discuss their autumn broadcasts to Youth Clubs etc.  Bill also took part in a radio broadcast discussion (on a Thursday, but date unknown though probably between 1939 and 1942) in the series ‘Please begin with us’.  It is thought that he spoke about young people and career opportunities.  He was referred to as ‘Bill of Chesterfield’ and ‘his contribution to the discussion was typical of him’.  He was the third from the Chesterfield Council of Youth so to have taken part in these programmes.


During the war, Bill continued to work at the Bolsover Colliery Company as he was classed as an essential worker and the Essential Works Order prevented him from leaving it to obtain employment elsewhere.  He felt that the Company used this to restrict his wages and so he volunteered for air crew duties in the RAF.  As a result of his application and interview, at Cardington, Bedfordshire, he was redirected to an interview at Manchester College of Technology, Sackville Street.  On the basis of his qualifications and training he was assigned to the Chemical Inspection Department of the Ministry of Supply, at the Royal Ordnance factory, Swynnerton, (south west of Stoke-on-Trent).  He worked there as an experimental assistant, from the summer of 1942.


At Swynnerton, Bill worked on the analysis of explosives and on the quality control of their production.  This involved some laboratory work, inspections and the taking of samples.  The three groups of explosives he worked with were initiators and detonators, propellants, and high explosives for bombs, and he believed that he supervised the filling of the first miniature submarine with RDX.  Whilst at Swynnerton he joined the Home Guard and became a corporal.


It was during his time at Swynnerton that he married, and he continued to work there until the autumn of 1947, when he applied for and obtained a job with the city of Stoke-on-Trent gas department.  Here he was employed as an analyst working with coal and gas and other gasworks products such as benzene, ammonium sulphate, tar and pitch, and effluents.  At this time Bill and his wife lived at 22a Whitemill Lane, Stone.  In October 1948, they moved to 64, Manor Rise, Stone, Staffs.


During a recruitment drive, in the autumn of 1948, the year that the National Coal Board (NCB) was formed, Bill wrote a speculative letter to them and was appointed to the area laboratory at Baggeridge (south west Wolverhampton) as a scientific and technical officer grade 2.  Although he did not have the title of laboratory manager, he carried out the work associated with the running of the laboratory, the work of which was broadly similar to that at Bolsover, and he was second to the area chief chemist. 


Whilst at Baggeridge, Bill once more attended night school to become a member of the Institute of Fuel.  In 1949 and 1950 he attended Wolverhampton Technical College and studied applied physics, applied chemistry and solid fuels, becoming an associate member in 1950.  Then, in 1951, at Handsworth Technical College he studied gaseous fuels, and became a full member (M. Inst. F.), admitted fully by examination.  With the change of job to Baggeridge, it was necessary for the family to move from Stone to Wolverhampton, so in August 1949 they moved to 2, East Croft Road, Warstones Estate, Penn, Wolverhampton, a semi-detached corporation property, provided because Bill was classed as an essential worker. 


In January 1952, Bill was appointed Laboratory Manager (at scientific and technical officer grade 1 and then at senior scientific and technical officer grade) at the Eastwood area laboratory (6 miles north-west of Nottingham).  This necessitated a further move for the family and on 1 January 1952 the move was made to 119, Valley Road, Sherwood, Nottingham.  The house was a semi-detached council house, arranged as a straight swap between council house tenants.  This house was not very convenient and in March 1952 a move was made nearby to 1, Collin Green, Sherwood, Nottingham, again a swap between tenants. 


Bill realised that as a non-graduate this post was as far as his technical qualifications would permit him to go, so to achieve further promotion, he turned his attention towards marketing.  The reason behind this was that his laboratory had been invited to become involved in marketing problems, to sort out, for example, problems due to the using of the wrong type of coal in particular situations.  Promotion in marketing might come from the expertise he had acquired as a technically competent person working in a marketing environment.  The marketing department decided to appoint a technical officer in coal utilisation and Bill applied and was appointed to the post, with an office at Mansfield Woodhouse.  His years in this post, from 1957 – 1963, were in many ways the most fulfilling of his career.  His duties were to fix the price of coal according to its technical specification, to negotiate contracts with large customers and to match the types of coal to its end usage.  He dealt with e.g. the Central Electricity Generating Board, the Gas Board, cement works etc. and there were visits abroad to places such as Dublin, Belfast, Copenhagen, and The Channel Islands.  A significant ‘invention’ at this time, for which Bill, with others, was responsible, was the pneumatic delivery of small coal.  This involved blowing the coal down pipes from the tanker straight into the customer’s bunker.


As a result of the expertise that he had gained with this change in the direction of his career, he also undertook a part-time evening lecturing post at the West Nottinghamshire Technical College, at Mansfield, in Solid Fuel (1958 – 1962).  The course was shared with a colleague.  Bill covered Utilisation, the colleague covered Distribution and they both lectured in its Production.  Also, in 1962, he became a Member of the Institute of Plant Engineers (M. I. Plant E.), and belonged to the Minerals Engineering Society (formed in 1958 as the Coal Preparation Society).


Unfortunately, the Marketing Department at Mansfield became involved in reorganisation, and Bill found himself answerable to a superior for the work for which he had previously taken responsibility.  This change in management brought frictions and discontent and so he began to apply for other posts.  In October 1963 he was appointed Marketing Manager for the Kent coalfield, which comprised the collieries of Chislet, Tilmanstone, Snowdown and Betteshanger.  His office was on the sea front at Dover.  He was responsible for finding commercial markets for the production of the coalfield but additionally soon became responsible for other sections including, for example, transport and selling mine stone (colliery waste) and also for the retail side (he opened, and was responsible for, a retail office in Burgate, Canterbury).  These extra responsibilities he found onerous as he had previously no experience of them.  This promotion was the reason for the move from Nottingham in 1964 to 42, Bridge Down, Bridge, a small village on the A2, three miles south of Canterbury, where he lived for the next 46 years.


In 1972 Bill became a chartered engineer, at a time when chartered status was made more freely available to members of professional bodies.


The ‘Winter of Discontent’ was a particularly stressful time for him.  During the miners’ strike, as a manager, he had to share the burden of maintaining colliery production.  To comply with the law he had to be trained to carry out a number of roles.  On 24 November 1973 he was certificated to be power house, main fan and compressor attendant and operate switchgear relating to them, to be banksman and operate shaft signals, and to be boiler minder.  He had to work nightshifts and he and his wife received phone calls with threats of bodily harm from striking miners, but Bill was not one to be intimidated.


On 31st March 1976, at the age of 55, Bill was made redundant.  The National Coal Board was being restructured and because the Kent coalfield was small, the management team was disbanded and its functions were carried out by another division.  After this date Bill undertook a small number of consultancy jobs for private clients, one of which was Palmers.  This firm had a manufacturing plant, for briquettes made from anthracite dust bound with bitumen (the product was called Palmglow), on a derelict gasworks site at East Ham, east of London.  His brief was to find and service outlets for this product in Kent and East Sussex.  He worked half time for them for about 2½ years (working from home) but this work suddenly stopped when the factory burnt down and the company ceased to trade.


After the Palmglow work ceased, Bill then spent 6 months as a Chemistry laboratory technician at Simon Langton Boys’ School, Canterbury, retiring from this on the grounds of ill health as he was experiencing intestinal problems. 


On the death of his father (1966), from whom he had a small legacy, Bill bought a French horn.  He had previously had a little experience of a flugel horn (his brother George’s instrument) and a cornet when he was a young man.  He undertook music lessons with a teacher of the French horn and, as part of his study of music, decided to take the O-Level exam after attending a series of evening classes.  He passed the exam in June 1970 (grade 4, the pass grades were 1 - 6 and the fail grades 7 – 9).  Bill became a member of the Dover Orchestra and then the Canterbury Orchestra.  He played in a number of large-scale performances (e.e. Mahler’s Symphony for 1000) but Bill found these concerts, with their rehearsals, increasing arduous.  He then joined the Invicta Band, which played smaller and physically less demanding pieces. 


On his move to Kent, Bill also took up singing once more.  He had sung in the choir of St John the Evangelist, Newbold and then joined the choir of St Peter’s Church, Bridge, singing tenor.  He also joined the Kent Chorale, a travelling choir, which sang evensong in parishes churches in East Kent.  Astronomy was also one of his continuing interests and he owned a 3 inch refractor telescope.


In the community in 1976 or 7, Bill served as a parish councillor for Bridge.  He served for 1 term but found the politics distasteful and did not seek re-election.  He also served for about 6 months as a churchwarden at St Peter’s Church, Bridge.  In his later retirement Bill started a mobile library, to provide books for the housebound.  He continued with this until he was 75 and had to stop then because the council could no longer insure him.  He also assisted in starting the ‘Fish’ scheme (a volunteer scheme to offer support and practical help to the elderly and disabled) in the village and was its first treasurer.  He was a founder member of Bridge Chess Club.


In later life, Bill enjoyed working ‘Readicut’ woollen rugs and tapestry pictures from kits which he bought and which others gave him.  His work was neat and even and he was a methodical, well-organised and careful craftsman.  He had excellent hand/eye coordination and his hand-writing was rounded and small with well-formed letters.  His technical drawings and manuscript music copies were meticulous and with exceptional attention to detail.


As Bill and his wife grew older, Bill played an increasing part in running their home as his wife became increasingly arthritic.  Unfortunately, in the spring of 2010, it was apparent that Bill had become very forgetful and he was diagnosed with mild to moderate vascular dementia.  It was clear at the beginning of July 2010 that his wife couldn’t cope with his behaviour, which was increasingly irrational, and that he could no longer look after her, so they took the decision, his wife readily and Bill reluctantly, that they must move into a residential home near another family member in Somerset.  Initially they had rooms adjacent to one another but two months later Bill had to move into the dementia unit of the home, and he died, rather suddenly, of a dissecting abdominal aortic aneurism on 18 December 2010.


Bill’s passports describe him physically as being 5 feet 7 inches tall with blue-grey eyes and brown hair.  His character was strong-willed and determined e.g. he gave up cigarette smoking overnight and was very moderate in his consumption of alcohol.  His personality was out-going and confident, and he was not afraid of making his opinions known.  Some may have felt that he lacked tact in his dealings with people but he was fair, generous and keen to help and support others.  If he said he would do something he was very careful to carry this out conscientiously and meticulously, often going out of his way to make sure that things were done properly.  He had considerable leadership potential and preferred to be in charge.  He was not really a ‘team player’ and sometimes alienated others by refusing to follow their lead when he could not agree with them.  In politics he was a liberal.  He was serious-minded and had an under-developed sense of humour.  He was relatively thin-skinned and found it difficult to deal with criticism, often taking this personally.  His over-riding concern always was to provide a comfortable home for his wife, to be financially secure and to give his children the best possible start in life.  He worked very hard to achieve this; and he succeeded.

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Posted October 2016