At seven fifteen or thereabouts in the half light dawn of the first day of March, nineteen hundred and thirty, God spoke to me. Or at least His Deputy did. Loud and clear and very directly He spoke. The most impressive moment of my life!
About half an hour before this awesome happening, I had joined the crew of a deep water fishing vessel, St. Kleverne by name, lying at a berth on the fish docks at Grimsby known as 'just by the swing bridge'. At least I would become a real member of the crew just as soon as the Skipper arrived and I could sign the ships articles. To tell the truth, this was my very first ship, having recently qualified as a wireless operator.
Not that I wanted to be a wireless operator on a trawler, or even follow the sea, although there was a small family tradition in that respect. But the Great Depression was deepening rapidly, and as wireless was then the up and coming thing, becoming an operator seemed to be a better bet than following my father in his grocer's shop. Perhaps if I had done that I may have become a Prime Minister. Who knows?
But the hard fact was that there were jobs going on trawlers for operators and few prospects elsewhere. There were several reasons for this. One was the development of compact apparatus suitable for small vessels. Another was the well known rapacity of shipowners the world over towards cutting costs, and a ship fitted with wireless would pay lower insurance premiums. Unfortunately, this would be offset by the extra costs of the apparatus and the operator - both were hired. But on the other hand, by a clever and traditional system of accounting, most of this could be made to fall on the crews.
Not least however was the growing insistence of the crews themselves. They were refusing to go to sea without wireless. Not too long before there had been the affair of the Sargon, a trawler that had been posted as believed 'lost with all hands'. Monetary compensation to the families was about to be paid, and there were stories that one wife had already re-married when the ship was found drifting helplessly in the Atlantic and unable to make port. But if fitted with wireless, help could have been obtained. That the Skipper would have undoubtedly been given the sack for getting into that predicament was just one of the normal hazards in the life of a trawlerman. Thus there was somewhat of a rush to get ships fitted, especially those that went to the more distant fishing grounds; Iceland, Greenland, Bear Island and other equally insalubrious places, and that meant work for those qualified to do it.
So off to the local Nautical Institute I went, fees ten bob a week and a strain on the family finances at that. Eventually I was the proud owner of a Certificate of Proficiency (oh what a title), a parchment-like document issued on behalf of the Postmaster General himself, complete with a photograph of yours truly and a Declaration that I would observe the Secrecy of Correspondence. For not doing so... on conviction by indictment, subject to a fine not exceeding two hundred pounds and imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years. Something to worry about of course, for one hundred and fifty pounds was to be my annual wage. Even today, sixty years later, that oath is still binding. But having gained my certificate, there was one snag. I was too young to go to sea. So I had to kick my heels for a few weeks until I reached the age of seventeen. Down at the docks, you could always tell a ship that was fitted with wireless by the twenty foot extension on the mizzen mast and the four wire aerial with its ten foot spreaders. When not helping in father's shop, I would hang around the dockside gazing with admiring pride at these ships, and dying to tell passers-by that I was qualified to work this newfangled stuff.
The largest wireless company, Marconi, had appointed a full-time Inspector to the port, A. P. Frost, who was in charge of all the operators and who also fitted the equipment as necessary. In fact he did everything. Naturally, Mr Frost was held in very great awe by us students at the wireless school, perhaps with a little fear also. For after all, we did hope that he would be our first boss. Actually, he wasn't too bad when you got to know him, although there was a little tendency to be slightly brusque at times. Once I actually spoke to him as he clambered off some ship - to my disappointment, he didn't even recognise me when next I passed him.
However, the great birthday eventually arrived; I applied for a job and was instructed to report to the Marconi office in Hull. Now to get to Hull from Grimsby, one took a train to New Holland, a little place just up the Humber, and then a paddle steamer across the river. Being a keen type and eager to please, as well as get a job, I considered it my duty to arrive not later than office opening time. This meant that I had to catch the first train, about six fifteen, and an early ferry. So up at five o'clock I got, and Father went to the station with me portering my case on his cycle, it being easier that way than catching the tramcar. After a longish wait in the Hull office, probably to keep me in my place as a junior, I was instructed to catch the first boat back to Grimsby and report to Frostie, sorry Mr. Frost, that afternoon without fail. Having managed that, the great man told me that I would be sailing on the morning tide for Greenland in the St. Keverne and to be on board by six, as he was going to spend the night there actually installing the equipment.
I arrived back home somewhat deflated, and rather worried at having to tell Father that I was going to Greenland, as he had said that I was not to go there - he had heard some rather frightening stories about icebergs, ships being caught in the icefields, and the particularly terrible winter weather. Personally, I thought it rather exciting. However, he took the news quite calmly and announced that he wasn't going to get up at five o'clock two mornings in a row. So it was left to Mother to see me off on life's way. It was a longish walk to the docks and not only had I to carry a suitcase, but a bedroll as well, as fishermen had to provide their own. Normally, it would have included a Donkey's Breakfast, a rough mattress stuffed with straw, although I was minus this for the time being. Arriving at the ship, I found Frostie having a cup of tea with the watchman, having just completed the installation work. We then went to the wireless cabin, which was just a shed-like shack welded to the after side of the wheelhouse, the bridge, the previous afternoon. Here I had to listen to the initial test call to a station located just along the coast at Mablethorpe, not too far from Skegness, before signing for the equipment and the stores. My responsibility... I was terrified.
After Frostie had left for home to change and wash, then to return to his office for another day's work, I quickly repaired to the little cubby and sat full of pride, King of All I Surveyed. Then there was a shout. He was back! Mister Finch, Mister Finch. I've left my screwdriver on the desk. Me - only just seventeen - a Mister. God had indeed spoken!