From Aberlour Orphanage to the BBC by Ron Aitchison
It all happened at 8:15 am one April morning. I was about to go to school at my usual time when my housemaster at Aberlour Orphanage told me that I was to go instantly to the Warden’s office. As a young 14 year old boy who had already spent all my life at this Orphanage, my fear and concerns went straight into overdrive! Why was I being asked to the warden’s office at this time of the morning? What could I have been doing that was wrong? Had I been nicking apples in the Aberlour Village again…..hang on!….no….it was April and even I knew that apple nicking was only a sport for us after the summer!
As I walked to the warden’s office along the gleaming parquet floored corridors (which some Orphanage lads had been polishing since 7:00 o’clock that morning) and through the large ornately glazed double swing doors, I still had this uncomfortable feeling about my impending doom. You were only commanded to the Warden’s office if you had been up to some mischief and I was at my wit’s end to think what I has been doing that should mean an official order to see the Warden. Think Ron…think! What have been up to! The strap was usually meted out at the Warden’s office I had just a few seconds to think what I had been doing that should merit this early morning summons. I am now sure that this was where I developed my signature frown line placed between by eyes. All caused by a deep mistrust of officialdom and people older than me!
Two Wardens had been at the helm of Aberlour Orphanage during my 14 yrs there. Charlie Leslie was an odd mix of a man with a lined and craggy face (which for a 14 yr old seemed stern), a centre parting down the middle of his black hair (spooky!), odd spectacles, a penchant for German sausage dogs, (we had been told about the war and anything German was still treated with suspicion in early 1960’s Britain). To be fair, he had trouble filling the boots of his predecessor Clarence Wolfe (Woolfie) and was seen more of an administrator and architect of the demise and final closure of the place in 1967, much to the regret of not only all who knew and loved the place but to the locals in Aberlour and the clergy as well. The Orphanage had been built and run on religious grounds by the Scottish Episcopalian Diocese.
After a shaky tap on the Warden’s office door I was invited in. Alongside the Warden was stood a very large lady who I remembered as being a Miss Talbot who was an official of Edinburgh Council Social Work Dept (ECSW) and whom I had met previously when discussions were afoot to unsuccessfully return me to the family home in Edinburgh. This was the same ECSW who had decided that it was best to remove me and all of my 7 brothers and sisters to an Orphanage institute some 200 miles away from the family home because all 8 of us couldn’t live in a squalid 3 roomed tenement building in Leith, the suburb and Port of Edinburgh.
Instantly I was asked “Ronnie, Have you ever given any thought what you might do when you leave the Orphanage?”
Leave! Now that was a word I had never heard before! Leave! Me!
“Where would I go?” I sheepishly asked.
“A job” came the terse reply.
“Have you ever given any thought about what job you would like when you leave the Orphanage?”
This was getting easy now!
“Oh yes Sir….I’d like to be an engine driver!” What a numpty!…
I was the lad just a few months before who had seen the first of the new diesel powered “Sputniks” arrive at Aberlour Station because the nice old steam trains were to finish and it never dawned on me that engine drivers would be the last job on earth!
The Warden became a little tetchy at this reply and said as calmly as he could “Well, they are not really looking for engine drivers right now. Have you ever thought about an apprenticeship?” A what? I instantly thought. They never mentioned this new word at school. “What sort of things would you like to try?” but before I could blurt out anything the warden already had the answer and I recall hearing something about Electrics.
As I looked back at the Warden in an empty glaze, not knowing what these new words meant and before I could get my act together to try and gain the upper ground in this rather bizarre conversation he made a statement of utter surprise which has lived with me all my days.
“Well Ronnie, Miss Talbot is going to take you to Edinburgh and get you a job as an apprentice in Electrics”.
I know I sheepishly agreed to this arrangement but I certainly didn’t expect the next bombshell to hit me.
“So, we will just gather your things and Miss Talbot will take you to Edinburgh and sort it all out……today!…right now!”
What! Now! But…but what about my pals at school, my housemaster, my toys and games, my “pouckies” (anything from a watch, a wind-up musical instrument, a crystal set etc) I wouldn’t be saying cheerio to anyone.
It now appears that most Orphanage children were treated this way and this type of closure to what was your family life and upbringing dealt a heavy blow and deeply affected many in later life.
It turns out that Miss Talbot had tickets for us to travel by train to Edinburgh at 10.30am that morning and install me in an Edinburgh Council home called Ponton House which had 2 interconnecting town houses in Magdala Crescent in Edinburgh’s Haymarket. Not only that, I was kitted out with all the clothes and paraphernalia that I would need for a working life. I had never heard of a Donkey Jacket or Overalls before now. I also had this job to think about. That, as it turned out was already arranged as well. The BBC in Edinburgh’s Queen Street must have had some deal going with Edinburgh Council for us Orphanage kids because I was to start instantly and had to report to the Commissionaires Office at 8:30 am the next day.
P.S….I later discovered that my brother Robert had been given the same job some 3 years before me!
The grandly titled Commissionaires Office was, in effect the Reception to the BBC office building and workshops. 2 Officers would be in attendance with full uniform and regalia and looked very official. They dealt with all visitors who entered the building, ticking off screeds of lists of employees either entering or leaving the building, dealing with members of the public enquiries, saluting anyone who looked important enough and amongst their lesser duties was the internal mail.
Now that’s where I come in! As part of my apprenticeship in Electrics I was to deliver all internal mail round to each office and room in this huge building. The idea was that a member of staff would write a note to another member of staff and place it in an envelope which would have the recipients name on, and this re-usable envelope would be a) collected by me at a certain time in the morning and taken to Reception and b) taken to the bearer of the envelope in the afternoon. Quite easy really for a bright boy you might think….but no! This was quite a complicated system at times as people would decry and blame the system for it not working correctly and their precious note should have been sent directly to the receiver as the information contained therein was most urgent (allegedly!)
Some nice office workers would chat with you to pass the time of day, others always had a wee fly cuppa ready for you, or in the afternoons a treat of a wee cake or biscuit but the most respect had to be held for “The Controller” of the BBC. This was a lady (whose name escapes me) who was always very polite but always keen to point out the slightest flaw in your dress, manner and decorum. Ties straight, shoes polished…that sort of thing. Knock twice on the door and always wait to be invited in. Close door behind you. Enter the room quietly and carry your mail (or perhaps tea tray) with upright posture and place tray solidly on a flat surface. Only speak when spoken too as the telephone may be in use by the person and you were not to be an interference to this (always important) telephone call. Leave the room quietly and close door without a sound. Only then could you breathe again! I don’t ever remember hearing the sound of laughter in the BBC buildings, except when a recorded radio or televised show was on and the audience were sign boarded when they were to laugh!
The BBC, as we all know, did radio from their Queen Street offices and there was a large auditorium for audience invited radio shows, but television was the new thing and although the building had 3 small television studio’s they were absolutely off limits to everyone who worked in the place. Except that is for a wee boy who found out how to sneak into the back area of the set and once the light switches were found could float away into a different world of fantasy. This surely was the place that dreams were lived out in front of these cameras. A small area just like you could see on a stage in the theatres would be set out with either a room setting with a chair or sofa. Another set might have a dummy window and door built into it. I knew about some of the tricks they were using here as I had been in at least 3 of our Orphanage pantomimes and soon learned all about painted walls and sets! The actual television cameras were huge things on trolleys and usually covered in a grey dust jacket while they were off duty. You could clearly make out the large lens sticking out the front.
A Sergeant Peacock was the maintenance engineer who was to be my mentor when this apprenticeship started…but at 14yrs old I was a bit young and Internal Mail would be a grand start to see how things worked out for me. He always wore a brown dust coat with screwdrivers and pliers hanging out of most pockets and seemed to know lots of interesting things about how the whole world worked through the eyes of a TV engineer. He once showed me how they used walkie-talkies during a recorded programme and these things were so heavy I could hardly lift one with both hands! The Army had used them before and were thought to be the latest thing in technology.
Another member of staff who appeared to use the Commissionaires Office as his own was the Controller’s chauffeur. The company had a dark grey Humber Hawk for the Controller’s use and occasionally I would join the chauffeur on trips to the BBC’s head office in Glasgow’s Queen Margaret Drive. I would never be allowed on these trips if the Controller was in the car herself, but sometimes the driver would pop me in the back seat for the run home to Edinburgh. What a treat for a young 14 year old boy this was, the car trip, seeing Glasgow and helping the chauffeur in whatever duties had to be seen too. Again, the chauffeur would be in uniform with peaked cap in place when he was driving and the car would be spotless with a shine like a mirror.
After a few months and taking on small responsibilities a bit at a time I was once asked to accompany a taxi provided by The Corporation to go to The Assembly Rooms to collect a certain Mr Hall and a Mr McGregor. This was during the Edinburgh Festival and I was to collect these gentlemen and return them to studios for a radio interview. I later learned about the popularity of Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor and these were the first of a long list of personalities, singers, actors and generally just about everyone who appeared in the Edinburgh Festival that year. The Corporation asked me to do overtime during the festival to collect even more performers from the pubs and clubs of Edinburgh in the evenings. Imagine that….getting extra pay to see some of the country’s stars of tomorrow. Quite often I would stroll into the venue and shout at the top of my voice “BBC taxi for Mr Connelly” or “interview taxi for Mr Logan”. Quite a few famous names from Scottish stage and screen got into my taxis. This new experience of nipping into pubs and bars gave me a wonderful insight into the very large world that was waiting for me in a few years time! I also enjoyed the whole theatre and concert going experience and would later attend many plays and operettas.
This really was the highlight of my 9 months with BBC. More and more I found whenever I brought up the subject of this apprenticeship I had been offered the more I was pooh-poohed into waiting and more waiting. I was determined to do something about this. I would go and find my own apprenticeship!
As one of a few band of employees who would have any reason to go absolutely anywhere within the huge BBC building I was in a special place. I stumbled across a small disused office right at the top of the building overlooking QueenStreetGarden’s and the river Forth and Fife in the far distance. This office had been stripped of all evidence of it’s previous user. No carpets, just floorboards, no office furniture that I saw in other rooms. Perhaps this was a room with dark secrets and the earlier incumbent had overstepped one of the many BBC’s rules that when he or she was asked to leave there was no evidence to be left of where they had worked. Perhaps they had suggested moving to the recently announced STV and I am sure that this would mean instant removal from all things BBC….even the carpet they had stood on! The only thing in this room was a rather silly looking wire trailing across the floor of the room with an old bakelite telephone attached to it. Occasionally I would go up to this office and dream of being a BBC executive while holding the telephone and looking out across to Fife and pretending to mastermind great deals. Hey! Hold on! This telephone could be connected to an outside line! Which meant that I could phone the world out there…I could be masterminding deals for myself!
Eventually I managed to find a phone book and instantly set about looking for an apprenticeship. Bad start….nothing under “A”. This was no good…a bad start indeed! After a bit of discreet asking around (or networking as we say today) I discovered that I needed to know what kind of industry apprenticeship I was after. This was easy…I had always been inspired by one of my housemasters at Aberlour Orphanage who had a constant stream of lovely cars. I had a hurl once in a red MG sports cars and thought how thrilling it was and I always loved my drives in the company’s Humber with the chauffeur and being an apprentice electrical was all about delivering mail through a large building…so who wants to be one of those!
So I called the first garage in my phone book coming under A for Appleyards garage at Westfield the BMC garage and then A for Alexander’s garage the Ford dealers. Finally I got to B…and I worked in that garage finishing my apprenticeship and eventually becoming a manager for 17 years…but that’s another job and another story!
Click here to read Ron’s family story brought up to date
Aberlour Orphanage Old Boys and Girls Memories Page (Aberlour Trust Website)
There are many former residents who are very proud to be a part of Aberlour’s history, and it has had a profound effect on their lives, and indeed ours.
They want to celebrate the rich and varied experiences of these people, and give an insight into how life at Aberlour was. That’s what this section of the site is about.
Aberlour Trust Bicentenary of events
The village of Aberlour will be celebrating its 200th anniversary in September, and the Aberlour Child Care Trust will be in attendance on the 14th and 15th.
All activities are to be held in the marquee in the Alice Littler Park.
The website also has information on the history of the Orphanage.
The Aberlour Trust has a series of recordings by people who remember the Aberlour Orphanage. You can watch videos of first hand accounts of life there including the Aberlour trust interview with Ron Aitchison
It was a very difficult decision to close the orphanage and was part of a new emphasis on placing children in family homes instead of large institutions.
Press and Journal article about life in the Orphanage by a previous resident.
Archival information on Aberlour Orphanage is held by Glasgow Caledonian University.
Dorothy K. Hayes spent her childhood at the Orphanage and wrote the book Haste ye back, about her time there.
BBC in Edinburgh
BBC Building at Queen Street. Canmore site has information on the listed building here.