Dennis Higton: an unconventional route into scientific work at the RAE

Dennis Higton recalls an unconventional route into scientific work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment.

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I was the first born. My mum came from Arundel in Sussex. Unfortunately I lost her, she died of pneumonia when she was only thirty something and she left three kids, that’s my sister, my brother and myself. And this of course cast the die for quite a lot years in that there was a recession then, 1938-ish, and my dad was out of work and things got very hard indeed. All three of us were at school but pretty – you know, my brother was about five and I was – or less than ten. State schools at that time were little more than the three Rs. However, I enjoyed it because I was that sort of chap, enthusiastic. I eventually left when I was about fourteen, perhaps a bit more, and didn’t know which way to turn for something to do. You know, I could have been a carpenter or a road sweeper or something on the artisan side. I was quite bright, I could tell that, but I was miles behind the normal chaps when it came to English, physics and so on. But luckily – it was luck, they had a vacancy in the local waterworks and a chap said, ‘Look, we need a sort of junior in the drawing office, come and have an interview,’ and I got a job with the Mid Wessex water company in Frimley Green, and, another happy moment, probably the most important moment in my life, I’d gone home from the waterworks and my stepmother said to me, having pulled a little bit of paper out of the Aldershot News, saying that there’s vacancies for a nationwide exam for engineering student apprentices at Farnborough. You’ve got two weeks to apply and get in. Well, I really felt miles behind the man in the street. However, I’ll make it short, I wrote the letter and got an interview, and there were ninety people at the interview and they only chose nine, and I was one of those. And I realised that I’d had an extraordinary moment and I vowed and declared there and then, because it’s a highly academic as well as the workshops because they’re vying with people who are getting their first degrees. I can’t tell you the resolve that I put upon myself not to cheat, not to slack, to become absurdly diligent because I wouldn’t have another chance. I finished my apprenticeship on my birthday, twenty-first birthday, which was 21st July, 1942. And to my amazement the aerodynamics department at Farnborough took me on as a junior scientific assistant. I suddenly became a boffin rather than apprentice.
  • Interviewee Dennis Higton
  • Duration 00:03:30
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Thomas Lean
  • Date of interview 2/10/2011
  • Shelfmark C1379/41

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