BHC Hostel and Training Centre

Alan Hunter contacted me last year and told me about the apprentices from BHC (British Hovercraft Corporation) back in the 60’s being some of the first guys to start surfing.  Earlier this week I met up with Alan and he told me a few stories from those times.

British Hovercraft Corporation (B.H.C.) had an apprentiuce hostel and training centre located in the old Naval Hospital in Whippingham on top of the hill in East Cowes and near to Osborne House. There were dormitories, workshops and a drawing school in the old wards which was a row of long buildings connected by a covered walkway. The dormitories were probably a bit like old being in a boarding school with rows of beds along the sides and lockers in the middle. Each dormintory could hold about 30 apprentices.

This is where Alan Hunter, Geoff ‘Ned’ Gardner, Derek ‘Cosmic Leashes’ Thompson, Tad Ciastula, Dougie Clark and Bob Booth started their working lives as Apprentice Engineers. The other apprentices were either from the mainland or came from parts of the Island where there was no sufficient public transport to be able to get them to work on time so they stayed at the hostel. The apprentices were a mixed bunch with Islanders, ex public school boys and lads from the ‘Metal Box Company’ in Croydon, London and the ‘Metal Box Company, Carlisle, Scotland who did their first years apprenticeship at the Training Centre on the island.

It was a melting pot of different people, many of whom went onto great things. All around the hostel were the old Saunders Roe Test Centre, with test tanks, windtunnels and various works. At the back of the dormitories was a big tin shed which would always be a hive of activity. The apprentices would spend their free time working on there own personal projects from bikes, motorbikes, scooters, cars, fly by wire model aeroplanes and shaping surfboards. This tin shed was just as essential to their learning as the Training Centre was.

Alan remembers that Tad’s father was a designer on the Saunders-Roe Skeeter, a two-seat training and scout helicopter. The Skeeter has the distinction of being the first helicopter to be used by the British Army Air Corps.

The apprentices were paid very little and out of their wages was taken rent/keep for staying at the hostel too. So on a friday morning they would trek over to Cowes to sign on as the government would subsidise apprentices wages. Some of the apprentices were lucky enough to do some cash work on a saturday morning reapiring hovercraft skirts for the Seaspeed Hovercrafts. Alan remembers being told of a story of when Tad was winching up a hovercraft to get at the skirts to repair them when the winch malfunctioned and tipped the hovercraft on end. Alan said if it had gone completely over the hovercraft would have been completely written off.

The apprentices were paid on a thursday and with what little they had, they would always be seen crossing the fields behind the hostel and around the back of the St Mildred’s Church at Whippingham and down to The Folly Inn. Geoff  ‘Ned’ Gardner was fondly remembered as a real character and for entertaining the other apprentices with impressions while they were at the pub. These were not your normal impressions but were amazing impressions of outboard motors. Alan remembers his impression of a Seagull Outboard Motor being started up particularly good.

Sunday nights were also spent at the Folly Inn, usually sitting out on the decking listening to the Goon Show on the radio and drinking scrumpy. On a few occasions Alan remembers Tad, Dougie, Derek and himself taking a couple of rowing boats from the slipway at BHC and rowing to the Woodvale Hotel in Gurnard for a few drinks.

Alan remembered buying a huge old Bilbo surfboard from Dougie Clark in about 1968/69 but admits he never really got into surfing. Dougie on the other hand wanted to make surfing his lifestyle, deciding to no longer wear shoes or socks as he wanted to harden his feet for surfing, and also decided he wasn’t going to wear a shirt and tie anymore, opting for a sweatshirt. The managers at BHC went absolutely mad but Dougie would not budge on the matter and insisted he would not wear shoes or a shirt and tie anymore.

In the tin shed/workshop at the back of the dormitories Derek Thompson brought in his old Lambretta Scooter anouncing that it looked really tatty and the spent weeks hand painting it in the workshop. When it was finished Alan says it was the most amazing paint job on a scooter he had ever seen. Derek jumped on the newly painted scooter and rode off down the road. After a few hundred yards one of the panels fell off and scraped along the road getting really badly scratched. Derek was gutted.

Tad and Dougie spent some of their time out in the old tin shed designing and shaping a knee board like the one George Greenough rides in Crystal Voyager with a scooped deck. Dougie also had an old 105E Anglia car and Tad and himself would always be driving off to the beach at Compton when they could to get waves or just to be at the beach.

In the dormitories Tad used to do this thing where he would stand on the edge of his bed and fall forward only putting his hands up in front of his chest to catch the fall as he landed flat on his bed. One day on the beach  when Tad went back to the car Dougie and Derek dug a huge hole where Tad had put his towel and then carefully laid the towel back down again over the hole. When Tad came back he stood at the bottom of the towel and dropped (just like he would on his bed), but this time he fell straight through his towel and into the huge hole. Alan says it was very dangerous and Tad was lucky not to have broken his neck, understandably Tad was furious.

Alan remembers one day Ned getting a really nasty gash across his head that needed stitches after pulling into a barrel at the bay.

Another surfer Alan remembered was a girl called Merry Hughes who went off to the south of Fance and Biarritz for a whole summer. When she returned from France Alan says that all of a sudden she got lots of attention from the boys as she had blossomed into an absolute stunner.

I told Alan that I’d been in touch with Tad and was hoping to speak to Bob Booth soon too but wondered if he knew the where abouts of some of the other apprentices. Alan says he remembers Dougie Clark heading off to Morroco to teach English language but hadn’t heard from him since and the last time he saw Derek Thompson was at Alexandra Palace at a Wind and Surf Exbo in the late 80’s advertising his leashes and Mountain Bikes. At the same show he said Tad had a special booth where he was shaping boards, which would have been about the time of Vitamin Sea surfboards.

Alan said he always used to try and keep in touch or at least find what the old apprentices were upto and it was great to see the write up on Tad and Sue and that they were still living the dream.

Alan also remember one day down at Little Hope Beach waiting for the waves to pick up when Carrots came flying down the hill right from the top on his skateboard until he hit the curb at the bottom and ended up in a heap.


11 Responses to “BHC Hostel and Training Centre”

  1. John Farthing says:

    Enjoyed reading of the exploits of a later tranch of apprentices. I spent the whole five years of my apprenticeship living in ‘the hostel’ When I was there the boys from Croydon were from Metal Props Ltd.The lifestlyle 1953–1958 was much the same as that descibed, except that we collected our grant (10s/3d)(51p)! from The Cowes labour office on Friday lunchtime.But The Folly still had to wait til the evening.
    All the best John F

  2. DUNCAN DAVIES says:

    I came across this site by accident, but what a surprise when I read the above story. I was one of the METAL PROP boys, with 4 other lads, we were in the Hostel 1963-1964 and this story brought all the memories back. However I do not remember any of us Metal Prop boys getting any subsidy, I was on 63s @ 9-3/4d a week and after paying 30s a week for the hostel had very little left, although we did used to get down the Folly. Never went surfing but did help row the Saunders-roe skiff down to the Folly a few times.

  3. Colin Lawrence says:

    I too was one of the 5 lads from Metal Props in 1963 – apparently the Croydon factory origionaly made alluminium propellers – it was just down the road fro Croydon Airport – when we were there the factory was famous for fabricating very large Stailess Steel oil & chemical plant – I too have very fond memories of the traning school, the Folly and Scrumpy cider – also franticly rowing upstream against an ebbing tide with the “floating bridge” approaching blowing it’s horn – I can’t remember the cost of rolling tobacco but do seem to remember Scumpy was 9d/pint = aprox 4p now it was Evil suff.
    Yes it was tough living on a little over £1-50 after board, lodging and laundry was paid – As Duncan says we were left with £1-11-9¾d………
    Best days of my Life – we 5 hope to all meet next year to celebrate 50 years!

  4. Phil Rickett says:

    I’m another one of the Metal Pros lads of 1963. The item bought all the memories back and were most enjoyable to read. I remamber we all probably had our first driving experience in an old car (a Morris 10 I believe) with no brakes and we stopped by rollingin to a pile of earth. The Folly was a regular but I could never face (and still can’t) scriumpy after the first night when I had a little too much.
    Great times – Great memories

  5. Peter Riley says:

    I was a Saunders Roe apprentice and stayed in the hostel 64-65 . I remember the large scaletric track there, also the breakfast served in the house always good, Mr Stevens head of apprentice’s had he’s office there. We had fights between the dorms as well as football matches ect. I also rowed the skiff up the Medina, and remember lunch at the Folly being a help yourself ploughmans with a glass of scrumpy. I spent time at the appr. Workshop and then in the model / tanks before going down to East Cowes . This was a great place to start a working life . Very fond memories

  6. alan fletcher says:

    I was a Sauders Roe / B.H.C. apprentice from 1966 to 1970 and worked at the training school with Alan Hunter, “Ned” Gardener, Steve Channing, Colin Neech, Mick Spiller, Bob Booth before going off down to East Cowes to the main Part of B.H.C. to continue my apprenticeship. Didn’t live in at the training school but commuted evey day from Whitwell by motorbike. It was a great time with with some good friends. I remember the lads from the Metal Box Company, they used to make “bows & arrows” from flat steel strip and shoot welding rod arrows across the workshop. Also Tom Trevaskis the tutor he spent hours trying to teach me how to read a micrometer, i got it in the end though. I’ve still got my first wage slip somewhere, how the hell we used to live on that i’ll never know. Still, got the good memories of a formative time in my life, and the skills learned, have stood the test of time.

  7. […] Derek ‘Cosmic Leashes’ Thompson along with Geoff ‘Ned’ Gardner, Tad Ciastula, Dougie Clark and Bob Booth started their working lives as Apprentice Engineers at British Hovercraft Corporation. […]

  8. eldon mackridge says:

    Eldon Mackridge (Mac) I was a Metal Props lad 1954 to 55. Are there more from that year
    out there? Ted Horton David Raven etc

  9. Bill Pudney says:

    I was at the hostel (hostile as we called it) from 64 to 68. I remember most of the names mentioned here, especially Derek, Ned, Tad, Doug and Bob. Pay nights at the Folly were memorable, I seem to recall a dark beer (Meaxs XXXX??) being my particular poison.
    In the early years when there were three dorms, the raids were something else. At one point the fire hoses came into use, water was nearly ankle deep, someone said “Steves coming”, that was V.T. Stevenson the Apprentice Superintendent. Everyone back in bed, fully dressed, shoes and all. Steve came into the dorm…splash, splash, lights on, booming voice “…a misdemeanour has been perpetrated “. I don’t recall what happened after that!!
    The suppers in the dining room always caused a chuckle, with Sandwich Spread sandwiches stuck to the window, one side in the other out, poor Jeannie used to go bananas.
    It was sad to see the place running down towards the end of my stay there, now even the buildings have gone apparently.
    Happy days!!
    Bill Pudney

  10. DUNCAN DAVIES says:

    Great to read your story, brings back fantastic memories, I was a Metal Prop boy in the training centre 1963-64 along with 4 others who have always kept in touch over the last 50 years. An earlier apprentice to us was Bob Gammon who may well be arranging a get together of Met Boys in 2015, if you are interested I will keep in touch.

  11. Malcolm Taylor says:

    I was there from 1960-1965, it was a vey good time with some great characters. I think my pay envelope had 19s-6p per week and I believe that was good for 7 pints at 2s-6p!. I did the ‘head of the river’ race a few times against the Cowes boatyard apprentices. The Folly Inn was the place to stop on the way back from rowing to Newport on a summer evening. We had the Rugby club, Basketball (often against the Parkhurst Prison teams). and lots of time spent fixing cars, scooters and various motor bikes.