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Recollections by John Wilson

Page history last edited by David Samways 7 years, 10 months ago





A considerable business in such systems was effected in the 1950s and this continued thereafter. At that time, many former colonies and protectorates, particularly in Africa, were gaining independence and needed efficient communications systems urgently. Nigeria, for example, needed a nation-wide system linking all the main centres of population and entrusted the Company with the task of providing most of it. When completed, the country possessed what was then the world’s largest v.h.f. communications network.”


Baker W.J., A History of the Marconi Company (London: Methuen & Co. 1970)


And that, dear reader, is the only mention of Marconi’s operations in Nigeria in a book of more than 400 pages. Dismissing the “world’s largest v.h.f. communications network” in a few words seems a little disrespectful to the many Marconi engineers who spent so much time, effort and sweat in building the network, maintaining it and eventually training Nigerian staff to take over responsibility for the network’s smooth running.


I can only relate my own experiences on the “Dark Continent”, and I went to Nigeria after the installations had been completed and we were in the maintenance and training phase, but hopefully some of the “Old Coasters” might read this and fill in the gaps so that we can properly record the dedication of our Marconi colleagues.


My story


I was content with my job at Pye Telecommunications on Newmarket Road in Cambridge until as a result of an almost accidental interview with what was then Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company in Chelmsford, at the end of which the interviewers offered me a modest doubling of salary and life on expenses in a far-off country, I found myself stepping off a Bristol Britannia in Kano on the 22nd of August 1961 en-route with my new wife to a posting in Enugu, then the capital of the Eastern Region of Nigeria. At Kano I had my first introduction to the basic system of doing business in Nigeria.


Before leaving England I had purchased a brand new camera from Wallace Heaton’s in London, under the scheme whereby one could have the camera delivered to the aircraft in a sealed package, thus avoiding payment of 33% purchase tax (remember that?). On arrival at Kano the camera was delivered to me prior to passing through Customs and when the Customs Officer asked me if I had anything to declare, I produced the camera and the receipt and insisted on paying the correct duty. He looked confused, I got angry when he procrastinated, not realising that what he actually wanted was a folded Nigerian currency note hidden in my passport for him to extract with the speed and efficiency of a skilled magician. The “dash” system operated all over West Africa and one had to accept that slipping 10% in cash to anyone and everyone was the only way transactions could proceed. As I write this in 2011 I am sure that the system is still in place, even though 10% of a multi-million dollar contract for new infrastructure projects is substantial. But I digress.


Although the initial contract in 1952 was to supply and install a country-wide multi-channel radio telephone system, based on the Marconi HM100/150 terminal/repeater equipment, by the time I arrived in 1961, the Marconi engineers were also maintaining a much wider range of equipment and systems. These included the Siemens CS12/CR carrier racks located at the main centres and obscure things such as Rural Carrier (Rucar) which used carrier systems over copper wire, five channel GEC radio links, vintage S+DX (Speech + Duplex) teleprinter links, and even, as I subsequently found out, a GEC Microwave (well, at 2.4 GHz in those far-off days it was considered microwave) broadband system linking Ibadan and Lagos. Each of these systems and bits of tat had their own peculiarities, but then so had many of our engineers, so there was complete integration of man and machine throughout Nigeria. Basically, it helped to be mad if you wanted to work in Nigeria.


Probably because of the need to look after the wide variety of equipment, many of us did not have a “pure” Marconi background, but were culled from the ranks of those who had training in the British Post Office system and/or HF radio experience and /or VHF radio from other manufacturers. One thing we all had in common, both Marconi and non-Marconi, was a typically British dedication to maintaining standards of performance on the system(s) with which we were entrusted. There were, however, occasions when driving down a lonely bush road at 3am en-route to repair a fault caused one to wonder about the wisdom of doing this.


But all this was yet to come as I clambered aboard a Nigeria Airways DC-3 at Kano and proceeded on a draughty flight down to Enugu (Draughty? Have you ever flown on a DC-3?). For the purist aviation reader, it may have been a converted C-47 but what’s in a name. The doors didn’t fit on either variant.




I was fortunate, although I did not immediately realise it, to be posted to Enugu. Located at 600 feet above sea level, with surrounding hills rising to over 2000 feet, the climate is a lot more pleasant than locations nearer the Atlantic coast, or worst of all down in the Niger Delta, as I would later find out for myself.


Marconi certainly looked after its engineers well, and having arrived in Enugu we were taken from the airport to my first home, complete with car in the garage, all furnishings including crockery, cutlery and linen, and even a newly employed cook/steward to look after us. All we had to do was unpack our clothes and begin life in Nigeria.


We soon became accustomed to the quirks of drawing water through a Katadyn porous filter on the “drinking” tap, boiling it up and then filtering again through a Doulton laboratory filter before storing it away in the refrigerator for drinking, washing salads and cleaning teeth. Woe betide anyone who did not; the resultant stomach pain and frequent trips to the small room were not pleasant. And so to work.


The Marconi installation in Enugu was located on the first floor of the P & T building; a pleasant place overlooking the vulture population strutting along the roof of Kingsway Stores, and having a large rear courtyard in which was growing a huge mango tree, with the reputation of producing the best mangoes for miles around. It was our common practice to send one of the messengers out to climb this every morning at about 11 o’clock and bring back the best of the crop for our morning refreshment. Gosh – life was tough there.


From towers in the courtyard the multi-channel radio systems fired West up through the Iva Valley to the first repeater(s) at Aboh (not the Aboh down in the Delta which had been established as a trading post by the Royal Niger Company in the 1890s). Access to “our” Aboh was via a tortuous and dangerous road known as Milliken Hill which terminated at a “T” junction called, for obvious reasons, Nine Mile corner. To the left ran the road to Onitsha and the Niger, whilst to the right the road took you to Nsukka and beyond. Just along the Nsukka road lay Aboh, dominating the skyline with its 400 foot aerial tower. From the main road this was just another spike on the horizon, but take it from me, climbing a near-vertical ladder with a hacksaw clenched between your teeth and a little bag of spanners dangling from your waist was no mean feat. However, this was as nothing compared to the work carried out by the original Marconi installation team who built the thing in the first place and managed to lay the aerial feeders up the tower without damage, remembering that the feeders were HM7AL 1.4 inch diameter solid aluminium outer conductors with solid copper inner conductor and spiral polythene dielectric spacing support. Try bending that stuff without kinking it.      

I did find a secondary application for the inner conductor of HM7 when I used it to make a lightweight arm for my turntable by having two parallel lengths about 12 inches long, with the magnetic cartridge at one end, weights at the other, and a nifty little “hoop” as the pivot balanced on the tip of a Parker ball point ink cartridge as the low friction support. Perhaps not what Marconi intended, but it worked well. So far this talk of houses, mangoes and turntables all sounds quite civilised, but there was another side to the job.


The northern boundary of our area of responsibility lay at Idah, where our repeaters fired across the Niger towards Lokoja, situated at the confluence of the rivers Niger and Benue. Getting to Idah involved a trip up Milliken Hill, a drive along the tarmac strip to Nsukka, where one headed off the road and drove the last 55 miles on a single track bush road cut through the tropical forest. Typically, the surface of this “road” consisted of laterite earth that had been pounded into a hard corrugated surface by the passage of many overloaded “mammy wagons”. There were two techniques for driving on this surface; one could drive slowly and endure the rumble from the corrugations, or one could drive at speed and more or less “float” along, with the poor old shock absorbers taking a hammering. Taking my cue from the driving style of Martin Hinton, our senior Marconi engineer, I generally “floated” the Land Rover along this stretch of road (road?).


On this very road I learned one of the basic lessons of life in the bush; don’t travel without a spare fan belt. I did just this, and fortunately only a few miles from Idah, I realised that there was a plume of steam coming from somewhere. Having used up the contents of my water bottles, my flask of coffee and all available bodily fluids, I managed to make it into Idah by driving with the Land Rover bonnet up in the air in an attempt to scoop air over the engine. I still to this day carry a spare belt in my car.




The journey was interrupted by the need to cross a deep and fast flowing river, using a flat bottomed raft poled across by the residents of a small village on the eastern side of the river. This crossing could be quite exciting since the raft was not tethered to the banks but free floating, and the motley crew displayed great skill in aiming the raft far upstream and then allowing the current to drift the whole thing back to the opposite bank. Because the “crew” lived on the eastern bank, one had to make sure that the return journey from Idah reached the western bank of the river before dusk, otherwise no amount of hooting and hollering would persuade the crew to attempt the crossing in darkness. The other essential thing to remember was to have a pocket full of loose change, because the fee for the crossing was sixpence (or SiSi) for each crew member, and only individual sixpences were accepted.



You may note the strategically aware vulture, no doubt hoping for an accident!


The Idah repeater station was a pleasant place, and clearly the local termite population agreed judging by the height of their accommodation when compared to the height of our local technician. This tower was one of several sitting on the immediate boundary of the station compound, and we always had the worry that if they took a liking to cable sheath material, we would be in serious trouble.


 Because we adhered to the rule that no link could be taken out of service before midnight, carrying out routine maintenance on the Marconi equipment bearing in mind the fact that one could not get back across the ferry anyway, meant that one had a hot sweaty few hours (no air conditioning in the repeater station) accompanied by the throb of the diesel generators, before collapsing into an equally sweaty and hot caravan that was your overnight accommodation. This whole question of regular intrusive maintenance flew in the face of my previous experience in the R.A.F. where we changed the entire servicing procedure on aircraft radio equipment from a system of removing every unit from the aircraft, taking it to a service bay, setting it all up in test jigs and then replacing it in the aircraft. All that achieved was an aircraft that for the next six weeks suffered from a series of intermittent faults caused by the removal and replacement of its electronics. Changing these procedures to leaving the units in the aircraft, carrying out performance checks in situ, and removing only those units that were clearly faulty resulted in a higher reliability record.


By this token, the Marconi procedure of removing every single valve (real radio glows in the dark), cleaning the pins and replacing the valve in its socket, definitely in my experience resulted in call-outs in the weeks following the routine servicing. That meant yet another 200 mile round trip down the bush roads to clear the fault(s).


Having said that our area ended at Idah, I almost forgot about the single channel link across the mighty Niger to a village called Agenebode. Rumour had it that this village was the home of some minor Government Minister who insisted on having 24 hour telephone service. That’s all very well, but just getting to Agenebode meant crossing the Niger itself, at that point about a mile across. Mode of transport? A rickety canoe with a putt-putt tiny engine into which we piled our test equipment and set out hoping that we would actually reach the other side. In order to power our test gear, and remembering that solid state signal generators were as yet unavailable, we also had to take a petrol powered generator, and this early concept of “portable power” can be seen in the photograph below. The other photograph is the view from the canoe, with my colleague Martin Hinton clutching the seat. In the far, far distance you can just make out the other side of the river.   


Martin was an interesting character; a strict “by the rules” individual who could be quite forbidding, and yet drove like the wind at 80 mph with one hand on the steering wheel and an elbow casually resting on the sill of the ever-open window. One of his schemes was preparation to “rescue” our colleague and friend Barrie Horner who, in late 1961 was stationed at Buea in the Southern Cameroons. Why “rescue”? Because as a result of a United Nations plebiscite in February 1961, Southern Cameroon decided to join the French speaking former colony of Cameroun. The change was to take place on the first of October 1961 and anticipating the kind of disturbances that so often accompany such changes in African countries, Martin was laying plans to mount an expedition to the Cameroon border to pluck Barrie out of any trouble. I have no idea if the British Foreign Office were even aware of this plan, but as it happened it proved unnecessary. Barrie has told me only recently that he had no idea such a rescue was being proposed, but it was typical of Martin Hinton’s advance planning.


Life back in Enugu continued on its merry way, with lazy afternoons spent by the Shell Company swimming pool and traditional Sunday curry lunches that tended to drift on into the evenings. One British tradition that never changed was lunch on Christmas Day when one tried to remember that eating roast turkey followed by Christmas Pud when the ambient temperature was hovering into the ninety degrees (Fahrenheit of course) was the normal thing to do. There were, however, the occasional interruptions to the smooth flow of the meal; events that could only take place in Nigeria such as the Christmas Day of 1961 when we heard a dull “thud” from the kitchen followed by the entrance of the cook carrying the “Pud” at arms length in order to avoid the flames which were leaping toward the ceiling. He had been instructed to pour brandy over the pudding and light it before serving, but had not been specifically instructed on the quantity of brandy to use – so we had the entire bottle on fire. One learned quite quickly that precision of language was necessary at all times, as I later found out in Warri – but that’s another story.


Driving at night, which we often had to do when haring off to a fault call out, was never a pleasant experience, since the pilots of Mammy Wagons always drove with headlights on full beam and gave way to no-one. This amusing habit almost cost me my life when I was called out to a fault that involved a drive up the afore-mentioned Milliken Hill. Hurtling into the night in my Standard Ensign I was faced with a blaze of light coming towards me that completely obliterated the presence of another Mammy Wagon that had been abandoned in the middle of the road in front of me. Painted the usual matt black, with no lights, no reflectors and no hint of its presence, this huge wall appeared in front of me just in time for a wrench of the steering wheel to save me. The picture of the wrecked car shows how far it had travelled beneath the truck, and how little space was left for the driver (me) to survive. 1962 – no seat belts then, and a car interior that cleverly placed all the light switches as protruding round knobs along a shelf under the steering wheel at knee level. Fifty years later, is it any wonder that I have creaking knee joints, and the entry holes are still just visible under my knee caps?



Ironically, and anyone who served in Enugu will remember, there was a large sign at the foot of Milliken Hill proclaiming “Better to be late than The Late”. I never rushed to a call out after that little encounter with fate.


Fate, however, eventually got me when I learned that I had been posted to Warri, deep in the Niger Delta.


As a result of oil discoveries in the Delta, Warri is now a large, well-populated and highly dangerous place to live, but when I arrived there in 1962 there were just a handful of Europeans living in what one could only describe as the fundamental orifice of West Africa. Getting to Warri from Enugu involved a very long drive and another crossing of the Niger between Onitsha and Asaba, fortunately this time on a ferry with engines.



Note that the horizon is level – it’s the ferry that is leaning.


From Asaba the route passed by the Marconi repeaters at Ogwashi-Uku, Agbor and Ugunoba, eventually arriving at Benin where I handed over my car and took possession of the Land Rover that was to be my (necessary) transport on the few roads that existed through what was otherwise a waterlogged mangrove swamp that constituted my own, my very own, area of service to the cause – some 10,000 square miles of it.


The journey was not yet complete, since one had to get from Benin down to Warri, crossing yet another ferry at Sapele (pronounced Sah Peh Leh and not as English wood workers say Sah Pee Lee). Astonishingly, although Sapele is over 50 miles from the mouth of the Benin River on which it sits, the water is still deep enough for large vessels to navigate all that way and pick up cargoes of mahogany for shipment back to Europe. The method of getting mahogany logs from the forest down to Sapele is to tie them together in huge long rafts (and the individual logs are anything up to 100 feet long) and build a small palm leaf shelter on top of the raft where the loggers live during the journey down river to Sapele. One then has the sight of little huts apparently floating on the water, because Sapele mahogany has a density approaching 1000 kg per cubic metre and thus “floats” more or less level with the surface of the water under which it is “floating”.


So here I was, a Marconi radio specialist looking after a region in which there were no Marconi terminals or repeaters anywhere to be found. There were, it is true, some radio links to keep me happy, but they were all made by G.E.C. and another British company whose name escapes me. Between Warri and Sapele the telephone network was carried on copper, and so were the links to the East to Abraka, Obiaruku and Kwale, with another copper link to Ughelli. From Ughelli there were two single channel radio links across the swamps to two villages further up the Niger, called Bomadi and Patani. On a map, the line of sight distance between Ughelli and each of these outstations was not great, about 26 miles, but getting there was a different story altogether.


As a “Government Officer” my official mode of transport was by the Government “Launch”, that was actually an ancient flat-bottomed stern wheeler reminiscent of a Mississippi river boat. Flat bottomed because it had to negotiate the Niger in the dry season when the river level dropped, the boat was something like 100 feet long and carried a Nigerian crew who fed the boilers and generally managed and navigated the vessel around the Delta. I cannot remember how many men were in the crew, but a journey on this “African Queen” involved taking along one’s own cook/steward and sufficient supplies of food, boiled water and other more alcoholic beverages to sustain one through the journey. Yes – I did say it was 26 miles as the radio waves travel, but from Warri to Patani by river was nearer 90 miles and took four days sailing against the river flow but only two days to return. Add into that the time taken to call and maintain the two radio links and one can imagine just how long the overall journey took. 








(1) My Government transport.

(2) “Floating” mahogany log raft on Forcados River en-route to Warri.


 One such trip was quite enough for me, and fate again took a hand, but this time in a positive direction. The search for oil was just beginning in the Niger Delta and was being carried out by a crew from Seismographic Services Limited who were working for Shell Oil. They were based in Warri, and since virtually all of their work was in the mangrove swamps they used a number of aluminium dinghies driven by two huge Evinrude outboard engines, with native drivers who knew every twist and turn of the creeks. Their communications system made use of Marconi HSR-21 SSB HF transceivers, but of course there were no servicing facilities in the Delta; that is until I came along….! We came to a mutually satisfactory arrangement whereby I advised on installation and operation of their equipment and repaired it when it went wrong and in return they loaned me one of their high speed dinghies complete with driver whenever I needed to make the trip up-river. This meant that I could set out very early in the morning, get to Patani, do a routine service and return all in the same (very long) day. It did mean that my diet consisted of cold baked beans eaten from the tin whilst bouncing along the river, accompanied by cold Christmas Pudding also from a tin, but the time saving was enormous and also helped when I had to visit the old Niger Company river stations at Burutu and Forcados.


 It never occurred to me at the time, but the Niger is home to some very large, very aggressive man eating crocodiles, and falling from the boat would have certainly been fatal – the innocence of youth. Loss of motive power also never crossed my mind until on a return trip from Bomadi one late afternoon, first one and then the other engine stopped and we had to revert to manual paddling. In this part of the world night is totally dark, and I can only marvel at the way the driver found his way back to Warri. Ironically, as we wearily paddled our way back into Warri creek at three in the morning, we had to pass the “Elizabeth Holt” which was moored up at the John Holt wharf, and on which a party was still in full swing – a party to which my wife and I had been invited. Bloody fate again. I checked my Marconi contract to see if there were any clauses covering eight hours of non-stop paddling but found that I had been sent up the creek etc….


The village of Bomadi was in a time warp with a touch of the “Marie Celeste” about it. Walking through the line of huts that lined the bank of the Niger, one suddenly found oneself in an open space rather like an English village green, surrounded by tropical style bungalows and even an abandoned tennis court with the net supports standing forlornly without a net. Not a sign of any European people, but there had obviously been an active community here in the past. A strange feeling.


The aerial (in 1962 we still used “aerial” rather than “antenna”) for the radio link back to Ughelli was supported, more or less, by a rickety triangular lattice mast that looked as though it had been erected by drunken riggers; riggers who had abandoned some lattice sections on the ground, as can be seen in the background of the “village green” photograph. I escorted Roy Goulding, the assistant controller of NMS, together with Jock the rigger to Bomadi in order to survey this mast and try to determine how the installation could be improved. Roy was suspected of witchcraft when he produced a field strength measuring set and tried to check the level of signal coming in from Ughelli, and the sight of him taking a photograph of the wobbly mast was a picture in itself.


We travelled to Bomadi using the ever-welcome assistance of the SSL high speed dinghy, and since this was in the dry season we arrived at the bottom of the impressive flight of steps leading up to the village. Other visits in the wet season serve to illustrate the immense rise and fall of the Niger over the year.











                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Bomadi wet Bomadi dry season                                                                                                                                                 Bomadi wet season    


And at least we did not have to travel using the everyday transport method on the river. This is the same style of canoe in which we crossed the Niger from Idah to Agenebode, as mentioned earlier. I leave you to work out the function of the little throne at the rear end:-




Water, water, everywhere, and much of it in my “garden”. The bungalow in which we lived in Warri was presumably built on a concrete “raft”, which is perhaps as well since because of the rise and fall of Warri River our so-called “garden” disappeared under water each afternoon at about 15.30. Add to that the unbelievable amount of rain that pours from the sky in the wet season and one can well understand why one’s shoes grew green mould overnight if left outside the air-conditioned bedroom, and why, when we returned to England on leave, all belongings in the suitcases smelt of tropical decay. In the picture of a typical Warri afternoon, the sharp-eyed will just make out the folded dipole aerial cut to resonate at 15070 kHz so that we could listen to the BBC Overseas Service using a venerable GEC BRT-400 receiver.


On the other hand, we did get magnificent sunsets…..!


I have mentioned the need for precision of language in relation to the “Christmas Pud Affair”, and it raised its head again during my time in Warri. I was woken in the wee small hours by a call from my technician at Sapele who told me that the S+DX link from Warri had failed. Since this was the only telegraphic circuit out of Warri it was important to have it restored as quickly as possible, so I began asking the technician to measure at various test points on the equipment at Sapele in order to attempt a remote diagnosis. Not receiving any coherent answers I climbed into the trusty Land Rover and headed up the 30 mile causeway to Sapele, where I walked into the carrier room, switched on the mains power to the S+DX, climbed back into the Land Rover and headed back to Warri in a fury. My fault entirely; in all the requests for measurements I had not actually asked “Is it switched on?” Now my wife gets annoyed when the first question I ask when the washing machine won’t work is “Is it switched on?”


The work load in Warri was not heavy, so there were opportunities for relaxation with some particular friends called Chris and Gwen Earley. Chris was the local manage of the John Holt shipping agency, and one of his undoubted advantages over my own domestic arrangements was possession of a swimming pool at his house. One of my contributions to the passage of time was to construct a three dimensional noughts and crosses board using a 3 x 3 x 3 matrix on three pieces of Perspex looted from my office. The individual movable pieces were made from the round plastic pin protectors from B7G valve bases (who remembers those?), identified by scraps of orange and blue plastic cut from the boxes in which our Agfa slides were returned from Germany after film processing. In retrospect I wish I had patented the idea, but at the time it was just a way of occupying ones mind. The device can just be seen between us on the poolside.



All good (?) times must come to an end, and after sundry other technical adventures including the accidental discovery that a long wheelbase Land Rover will actually float in a mangrove swamp. I had to say farewell to my staff and set out on the long trip to Lagos via the Sapele ferry, Benin City, Akure (which was a posting nobody wanted), Ondo, Ife and Ibadan. I was touched by the parting gift from my Warri staff, although as you can see from my expression I had not the faintest clue what it was.




Lagos was, and still is, a seething mass of assorted humanity, and it was utter joy to board the MV “Accra” at Apapa to come home to England. Fate, however, had one final blow to strike. We arrived in England on the 10th of December 1962 and two days later had the first fall of snow that carried on into what was to be the worst winter in living memory. It was still snowing in late February, 1963, when we once more set off for Heathrow, ready to exchange the freezing temperatures for that blast of hot, sweaty, wet air that greets you when you step out of the aircraft at Ikeja into 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 90% humidity.


But that’s another story.









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