A student in post-war Oxford, Norman came to Hertford as a Maths scholar, later switching to Engineering Science for his finals. He went on to a career in the RAF, rising to the role of Air Vice Marshal and President of the Ordnance Board.
I wouldn’t exactly say that I was drawn to Oxford, or Hertford, so much as that Hertford seemed drawn to me out of the blue.
It all began with a lucky birth-date – 30th September. This enabled me to sit the 11 plus a few months before my 11th birthday. I was actually not quite 11 when I started at a very good Liverpool grammar school in September 1941. In the spring of 1945 I achieved a good “School Certificate” including both Latin and Greek. To my horror, I was placed in the Classical section of the Lower Sixth Form. After much struggle, 2 weeks later I escaped to the Lower 6th Maths and Science section. Under the tutelage of a much respected maths teacher I prospered and, in 1947, reached a good Higher School Certificate. That won me a scholarship place in engineering at Liverpool University, but the same teacher, supported by the school headmaster, persuaded me to defer acceptance and try for Cambridge or Oxford instead.
From September 1947 I embarked on a very different mathematics syllabus, and that wasn’t quite long enough to bring me success in the Cambridge attempt in early December. So it was back to school work in January and two or three months on to try for an engineering scholarship at Corpus Christi, Oxford.
The gruelling five days of exam papers culminated in an interview on the Friday afternoon which dealt with many aspects of my life – but not at all with the academic subjects. There are many anecdotes about such interview but the item that stuck in my mind was when, towards the end, I was asked if I was “musical”, I blithely replied that, of course I was, because I had played the bugle in the Boys Brigade. This produced a burst of merry laughter and I left wondering whether that was a good thing or bad. The answer came in the form of a hand-written letter from the Principal of Hertford College (what was that?), a Mr J W L Murphy, asking if I would be able to accept a Baring Scholarship to read maths at the college.
Needless to say, knowing that the £100 scholarship would be enhanced by a Supplemental State Scholarship to cover all the fees (what beneficent days those were), and assured by my maths teacher that Hertford was a good college, and that I could defer National Service until after graduation, I gratefully accepted.
It was only after I arrived in Oxford for Michaelmas Term 1948 that I found that the Principal’s name was Dr N R Murphy (perhaps he had been a GP writing prescriptions in a former life!) And then there was my Ration Book which caused the Bursar, Dr W L Ferrar, some anxiety, being blue rather than the standard buff colour. Reassured that it would be exchanged for the grown up version in a few weeks’ time when I had reached the age of 18, he asked what benefits accrued. This culminated a week or two later in being singled out for a special dessert at dinner; a solitary banana was borne in on a silver charger.
One feature of my first year now reading for a maths and science course was that the major part of that year’s entry seemed to be either returning from War Service or at least having completed the two years National Service. As it was the first time I had ever (the exam weeks apart) been that far into the deep south of England it was all rather strange, but thankfully very welcoming, and I soon felt totally at home.
After a First in Honour Mods I paused, mentally, to think what to do in years 2 and 3. I could not see myself as a teacher, despite my admiration and respect for my mentor at school, but what else can one do with a maths degree (still the better side of my leanings than the science). Computers? What were they? So I applied for Engineering Science and was duly enrolled on that course. That continued the rather quirky situation that none of my tutorials in three years in Oxford was held by a Hertford based tutor. Dear Dr Ferrar was much absorbed in post-grad studies, writing his excellent maths text books and his bursar-ship.
So Hertford, per se, had only an indirect influence on my academic career; what served me best was the warm ambience and diversity of fellow college members which was even more evident in Years 2 and 3 with an influx of newcomers from Lancashire and Yorkshire including on from my own Liverpool Grammar School. Even more marked was that so many of them played football! This led to a great 1950-51 season when we were promoted to the First Division AND won the intercollegiate cuppers. My, how we celebrated that!
So how did those 3 years contribute to the rest of my life? They enabled me to grow up in a mature culture that encouraged a flexible approach to the problems and situations when a change of direction was needed. I learned that whatever the context there is always someone nearby who knows more than yourself about problem-solving. That approach was to serve me well in my later RAF career, where over the course of some 35 years I migrated from would-be Civil Engineer to Aeronautical Engineer, and thence to Missile Systems Engineer, and finally to Ordnance Engineer. A career that brought me to Air Vice Marshal and President of the Ordnance Board.
Nothing much changed after I retired from the RAF in 1986. I then took a job as the Director of the Telecommunications Engineering and Manufacturing Association. The industry was burgeoning through the national liberalisation programme at the time and it involved a whole new learning experience: again the Oxford mind-set helped me enormously, especially when I became Secretary General of a European confederation of similar national associations who were embarking on their own version of liberalisation in the face of determined interference by busy-body EU Commission staff (plus ça change). That activity lasted for some 9 to 10 years until I finally retired for good, to enjoy my life of bridge, crosswords, and following Liverpool FC.
I will always be grateful for my Hertford experience, I will continue as a donor as long as I can, and look forward to further alumni events at college.