1958: Clyde Williams returns to ZLW for last time

By Clyde Williams

Clyde Williams
Clyde Williams

By the end of May 1958 I had left the Chatham Islands and was back on the Wellington Radio ZLW roster as a Senior Telegraphist. As to be expected there had been a number of staff changes. Stan Carter was the Superintendent and Dexter Barrett the Senior Supervisor. Lloyd “Cookie” Douglas was back and, having the necessary qualifications, filled one of the two Class IV Supervisor positions on the station roster.

Again I found that a number of the recent arrivals were either ex RNZN/RN radio personnel or ex Radio Officers. With the benefit of hindsight my view would have to be that this arose out of withdrawal of telegraphy in the declining telegram service and the resultant drop in the need for trained personnel, and more importantly a growing awareness within the Merchant Service fleets, both national and international that there were changes ahead. Thus the Post Office were in the market and a ready source of qualified people, seeking a job ashore or a job for the future, was available. My brother Michael was at the morse school in 1959 and was half way through his training when his intake was informed their training was to cease immediately; the Post Office would train no more telegraphists.

A couple of these people I would later meet up with when I returned to the Radio Division in the early 1980s and another transferred to the Computer Division while I was there; later obtaining with free time study a degree at Victoria University and, having left the Post Office in the 1960s, was last heard of lecturing at the University of Queensland. One I note from some of the photographs on this site was still working at ZLW near the end of its operational life. Many years later, while attending a board meeting of INMARSAT in London, I was impressed by the number of ex Radio Officers working at various levels in that enterprise.

Operators at work, Tinakori Hill radio station in Wellington, 28 Oct 1957
Operators at work, Tinakori Hill radio station in Wellington, 28 Oct 1957. Evening Post photo

Other than staff movements, not too much had changed in the working life at ZLW. I was not to be rostered to Room 53 for the remainder of my time at ZLW so I could not speak of the work there. If there was a change I guess it would be that the older operators from my earlier days had largely departed and sadly some of their standards and attitudes to the job had gone with them. One instance of this: I recall seeing a 500kHz log from midnight into the morning hours where the midnight to 1am operator had completed 2 full pages of log recording the signal activity on his watch. After signing on, the first entry of the relieving operator was made at 14 minutes past the hour and read “Quiet, receiver tested OK.” The watch supervisor had ticked the page with no comment.

Becoming a ticketed Radio Officer

I sat for my “ticket” in the mid year Public Examinations held in Wellington. There were two written papers. Broadly speaking, Paper A covered the technical knowledge and Paper B the non-technical knowledge of a marine radio officer. From memory the examination took about three hours. There was also a practical examination a few days later where the aspiring radio officer had to demonstrate ability to operate and maintain the equipment and supporting systems in a maritime environment. In my case this part of the examination took place on board one of the Federal Line vessels in port at the time. I am fairly sure that the vessel was the MV Suffolk; or was it the MV Sussex? I remember that the main transmitter was one of the most recent “Worldspan” models. Impressive. I passed the examination and finally, on 23 July 1958, I held in my hand my own Radiotelegraph Operator’s Certificate 1st Class – No 760. Looking at it today I notice the last validation entry is dated 12 August 1986.

I did, in an off-hand manner, say to my lady “why should I not go to sea?”.

“The sea or me, but not both,” was her response.

New Zealand, as a member of the International Telecommunications Union, was required to meet international standards in the operation of national services. The ITU requirement for a maritime radio station, mobile or fixed, was that a person having a Radiotelegraph Operator’s Certificate should be effectively present at all times. Provision was made for a member Administration to recognise a suitable alternative.

Officialdom at work

In those times the New Zealand Post Office standard to be a Radio Station Supervisor was a successful pass in each of a number of internal examinations.

  1. If you did not have a successful pass in the educational system’s Secondary School Certificate (I had left school before I had reached that point in my education) there was a General Examination. I passed that examination while I was a Message Boy.
  2. Then there was the Telegraph Non-Technical Examination, which I had passed while at the Morse School.
  3. Finally, you needed a 1st or 2nd Class Radio Telegraph Operator’s Certificate, or an alternative examination that the Administration recognised as being a suitable substitute. To have studied and passed the Post Office Correspondence School course on radio (technical) was generally accepted by the NZPO as having met that requirement.

The first (fairly short) part of the POCS course dealt with the principles of Magnetism and Electricity followed by a main section covering the technical knowledge of radio and related equipment. The final examination was in two parts, sat at the same time, the first part to do with E&M and the second, and by far the larger part, to do with radio. A significant number of the PO-trained Supervisors qualified within this alternative.

I applied for the other of the two Class IV Supervisor positions, currently being temporarily occupied on an acting basis by a senior but technically unqualified telegraphist. I was told that, not withstanding my PMG certificate, I had not met the requirement to have demonstrated my satisfactory knowledge of the general principles of Magnetism and Electricity and thus I was not qualified to be appointed to that position! I swallowed my pride but had to wait until late in the year and only after some negotiation before I could sit the next available E&M exam paper – and rocketed through.

Family responsibilities

In between times my fiancée and I had saved enough to raise a five-year mortgage on an acre of land including a small (575 square feet) cottage in a northern suburb of Wellington. We married in October 1958 and took up residence in that property. It was our first of only three homes. It was extremely modest, with only a few items of furniture, but it was ours. I had a motorcycle which got me to and from work.

Post Office Ball, Wellington, 1956. L-R: Gordon Minshall and friend, Dennis and Grace Horan, Dave and Pat Boys, Ken and Ngaire Walford, Clyde Williams and fiancée Cathie Wright
Post Office Ball, Wellington, 1956. L-R: Gordon Minshall and friend, Dennis and Grace Horan, Dave and Pat Boys, Ken and Ngaire Walford, Clyde Williams and fiancée Cathie Wright. Photo courtesy Dave Boys

Towards the end of the year I was approached by Clarrie Langdale, The Chief Radio Inspector, who asked if I would be interested in a transfer into the Engineer-in-Chief’s Radio Section. He was not able to be more specific as he was to be part of the New Zealand Delegation to the 1959 ITU Conference, and was fully tied up with that. As it would be until well into the following year before anything further could be done, I could only say that if and when I received a firm offer I would consider it.

Early in 1959 I was appointed to the Class IV Supervisor position I had sought earlier. I stayed in this position until I left ZLW in January 1960. Memory tells me that Cookie was ultimately to leave the station later and take up a Radio Inspector’s position on promotion. The two of us shared the position of Supervisor of the 1am to 7am watch, week-about. On alternate weeks we filled the position of Superintendent’s clerk, (pay, stores, rosters and all other clerical requirements) which was an 8.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Friday job. Effectively it meant we had one day off a week. (The night watch week commenced 1am Sunday and finished 7am Saturday). I quite enjoyed it but I found the day shift did become a bit monotonous. When I was on my way home from the night shift I would often greet my working wife at the local bus stop where she waited for her morning bus; our neighbours were greatly amused.

In November 1959 Stan Carter told me I had been “invited” to go to POHQ and together with the Principal, Radio Division, meet with the Director of Telecommunication Operations. When I asked him why, he would only say it would be in my interest to accept the invitation and this I did. At the meeting the DTO said a position in Radio Division was available to me should I wish to take it up and described what that position would be initially and where it may lead to in the longer term. It was not a matter of compulsory transfer and if I took it up and within a reasonable time later found I wished to return to a radio station then that would be arranged. At this time my wife was expecting our first child and we had been discussing how I could arrange a non-shift work job. Forgetting all about Clarry Langdale’s offer* and after some thought, I said that I would go to the Radio Division. It was agreed I would commence work there in mid January 1960.

* Clarry did ring me in the New Year expressing his disappointment at my decision but did accept I had not received any concrete proposal from him. I thought he was very generous but I did recognise I had let him down.

I never returned to the Maritime Radio sphere as a working unit and left the Radio Division altogether in 1964. When, in the early 1980s, I was appointed Principal, Radio Division, the operational aspects of the Post Office Maritime Radio sphere were part of my responsibility.

In conclusion

At this time, looking back almost 70 years to the 12-year period from age 16 to age 28 when I trained and worked as a Radio Operator, a field that did not exist 30 years before my birth and one that had mostly disappeared some 10 years after my retirement, I realise that I could not have chosen a better work place in which to learn many of life’s necessary disciplines. To have spent over a third of that time in remote and isolated places so early in my working life also gave me added experience and an attitude to personal responsibility that would prove to be invaluable in later years. To work in an area where pride in one’s ability, skills and work contribution were expected by the great majority of your colleagues was a bonus. In the words of the Aboriginal people this was my “Dream Time” and nothing, but nothing, I ever did in the remaining part of my working life gave me as much personal satisfaction as writing in the watch log “Williams on” and “Williams off”. Were it at all practicable, I would have done it for free.

PS: I do have to admit I was always jealous of Neville Holding. He could sign “Holding on” and “Holding off”.

-.. . RCW .-.-. …-.- . .