During school assembly in March of 1959 when I was still fourteen, the headmaster of my school asked if anyone wished to take an examination to enter a merchant navy officer-training establishment called HMS Conway.
I discussed this opportunity with my parents, because I planned to stay another year to gain nationally recognised educational certificates in various subjects before applying for a job. The extra year at school would take me to July 1960 when I would be sixteen, and looking for a job.
Most of my class friends planned to leave in July 1959 (when they were fifteen) to take up apprenticeships, working in the local shipyard or Port Sunlight soap works. None of which attracted me, which is why I wanted to stay on the extra year to take the examinations. The thought of going to sea and seeing the world suddenly became my desire.
My parents agreed that I could attempt the examination, which required a weekend at Plas Newydd (HMS Conway’s facility) on the island of Anglesey, in North Wales.
Plas Newydd the home of the Marquis of Anglesey.
In addition to being the Marquis’ home part of the house was used by HMS Conway’s captain, Captain Hewitt and his wife, as well as first term junior cadets.
The examination had several written parts as well as an oral examination. I suppose the oral part was to see what we looked like, and if we were aware of world events.
It was weeks before I was told to report to HMS Conway for the weekend of examination, and further weeks before I received a letter of acceptance, and my father received notification that I had been awarded a scholarship, because Conway was a fee-paying school.
Overall the planning and waiting took months, and it wasn’t until close to Christmas 1959 that I was told that if I was able to pass the eye sight tests then I would be join HMS Conway for the September term in 1960.
I had to take the eye test at the Ministry of Transport in Liverpool, (UK), because all merchant navy deck officers had to have 20 / 20 vision and were not allowed to wear spectacles. Besides the traditional word chart and the colour chart,
to make sure I wasn’t colour blind (a deck officer could not be colour blind), I was given a test in a very dark room, where I was required to spot red, green and white pin pricks of lights as if I was on the bridge of a ship. The positioning of the lights would allow a lookout or the officer of the watch, to know the general direction of the other vessel.
I was able to see some of the lights, but not all and I failed the test.
As I left the testing centre I was given the above form that stated that I had failed, but if I wished to challenge this result I could apply to London for a more detailed test at my own expense. If I were successful in the London test, all of my expenses would be reimbursed.
After discussing the failed eyesight test with my father, I borrowed £5.00 from him (a weeks wages for an sixteen year old), for the return train ticket to London and the second eye test fee. I passed the London test.
On returning to Liverpool I visited the MoT eye-testing centre to let them know that there was nothing wrong with my eyes. They asked me to take the test again, which I did, and failed again.
At this point someone had the bright idea to switch on the light in the testing room. I had been placed on a wooden box to view the screen, which showed the red, green and white lights, but because of my height (6 ft 1 inches) and being on top of the box, this made my eye level to be just beneath a cross-beam (the testing centre being in a basement).
On taking the test one was lead in to the testing room, which was in total darkness, and you were helped on to the viewing box. The idea of total darkness being that you would gain your night vision faster than being plunged in to darkness by switching off a light.
In the dark one has a tendency to sway slightly, because you do not have a point of reference on which to focus. The swaying was enough for me to see the lights some of the time, and not be able to see them other times, due to the beam! It made me wonder how many others had been failed, and accepted that they had an eye ‘problem’, and perhaps never going to sea, but ending up in a job that they hated.
At least I collected my £2.00 reimbursement for the second eye test, my train costs and 7/6d for my trouble. I returned the borrowed £5.00 to my father and kept the ‘profit’.