Read by his son in law Peter at the funeral, a fascinating read.
Peter was born in Reading, the only child of Eric and Winifred Smith, and lived all of his life in Caversham, attending Hemdean House, Caversham Primary and Wilson schools. His early years coincided with the second world war and Peter recalled vividly the occasion in which their Caversham home was hit by 2 incendiary bombs – one of very few houses in Reading to suffer damage in an air raid. Peter’s father was a machine workshop instructor with the REME at Arborfield and Peter was proud that, with a lathe and other machinery specially installed in the back bedroom of their modest home in Rectory Rd, both of his parents helped the war effort by manufacturing aircraft parts. It became clear only recently, that they were part of a clandestine network throughout the South of England that secretly built thousands of Spitfires hidden in garages, sheds and barns. The story is now told in the recently released film, Secret Spitfires which includes Peter recalling some of his wartime memories. He enjoyed being filmed, and the family will treasure the footage.
Peter’s lifelong friend, Tony Halford, recalls their pre-teen exploits, including making soap box go-carts and testing them out on the hill at Bugs Bottom. Sadly, Tony is unable to be here today – but he told us that as they moved into the teen years, Peter shared with him his interest in the wonders of electronics which in those days centred around the thermionic valve. They spent many happy hours in the shed at Peter’s parents’ house, constructing and modifying “Government Surplus” equipment, and it was during this time that Peter taught Tony the skill of soldering the correct way – a skill that Peter later taught to both his children and all of his grandchildren. On one memorable occasion Peter and Tony assembled a 3 valve audio amplifier, with an old loudspeaker frigged to act as a microphone, so that from the shed they could listen to the ticking of the hall clock. They also discovered that because of the wondrous sensitivity of their creation, they could listen to Peter’s parents’ conversations as well – all over the house – a scientific achievement which, as you can imagine, was not appreciated by Winnie and Eric!
Peter would say that his school career was undistinguished but it was here that he first met Ann, who was to become his lifelong companion and soulmate. He also gained the qualifications that he needed to start an electrical engineering apprenticeship working at Taplow Court for British Telecommunications Research. He loved his days there and told many apprentice prank stories – such as the time when he had the job of wiring up a circuit to test a very expensive prototype valve – the only one in the country. When ‘switch on’ time came, much to Peter’s horror, wisps of smoke started to rise from the wiring. On closer inspection, Peter found that someone had placed a resistor across the valve supply which blew a few seconds after switch-on – just to trick him. He and Ann also enjoyed the social aspects of Taplow such as the tennis courts, boating, rifle range and Christmas parties.
Peter then moved to work at the Rutherford labs at Harwell. He was never a lover of bureaucracy and recounted stories of his frustration with the Civil Service. Seeking promotion, he moved temporarily to Daresbury in Cheshire, but after a brief and unfulfilling soujourn there he returned to Rutherford where he gained his Chartered Engineer status. While at Rutherford he met his future business partner, and in 1968 they set up their own electronics company- CONTECH – where Mac was in charge of the drawing office and Peter the design. Colleagues, who became lifelong friends, recall not only a brilliant engineer but also a kind, calm and generous boss who was always happy to pitch in whatever the task.
Peter relished the freedom of having his own company and enjoyed working on many interesting projects – a key one being the design, development and production of equipment for TV audience monitoring, subsequently employed widely around the world until the advent of digital television.
To say that he was an engineer does not really do justice to his affinity for mechanical and electrical things. He had the wonderful ability to understand how things were supposed to work, even if not all the parts were there. He could picture whatever was missing – go to his workshop and make them. A talent that will be greatly missed by his family and friends. As an engineer, his passion was to unravel unnecessary complexity in favour of elegance and simplicity. He had a very similar approach to everyday life!
Outside work too, Peter was always busy. At 21, he and Ann married (Tony was his best man!). Peter built the first marital home by purchasing a caravan shell. He installed heating and lighting and built the fitted furniture inside. Just prior to the arrival of Wendy a year later, they moved in to live with Ann’s father and aunt while Peter planned his next project. This was to build the house in Kidmore Rd where they brought up their family and where he lived for the rest of his life. Peter familiarised himself with building regulations and taught himself the necessary skills such as bricklaying and plumbing. He broke ground on the build in 1960, aged, 23. Holding down a full-time job and only working evenings and weekends on the house, they completed it with virtually no outside help of any kind 2 years later and moved in in October 1962. 6 months later, the house was complete and following a couple of years R&R, Helen was born.
Family was always a priority and Wendy and Helen’s mum and dad had a very long and happy marriage, celebrating their Golden Wedding in 2008. Their mum suffered with ill health for a number of years and their dad became a kind and devoted carer for her until becoming a widower in 2009.
Both Wendy and Helen have lived nearby for the majority of their adult lives and so raised their families locally. Because of this Peter and Ann were able to be an integral part of their grandchildren’s lives. Grandpa was always there to join the celebrations, encourage first Andrew and Elizabeth and then Christopher, Thomas and Matthew with their projects and endeavours – helping to fix anything and everything that needed attention. In addition to all the usual family events, Grandpa continued the tradition he and Nana had started, hosting two highlights in the family calendar. In the spring, he spent considerable time hiding mini Easter eggs around his wonderful garden for the grandchildren to find. Over the years he took great delight in finding new places to challenge the hunters – a task that became increasingly difficult as the grandchildren are all now over 20. Bonfire night too, was always organised meticulously in the typical Peter fashion. Fairy lights and lanterns provided a magical setting for bonfires, fireworks and sausages and soup.
Peter and Ann relaxed by walking in the countryside and family holidays were usually taken in Scotland, the Lake District, Cornwall or Wales. In retirement, the Pembrokeshire coastal path became a real favourite for the pair with many holidays in St David’s – and also Switzerland. Once widowed, Peter sought new walking partners by joining the Sonning Common Health Walks where he rekindled old friendships and made new ones. These times became an important part of his week and he always told the family about them, including owning up when they had got lost!
Peter’s interest in wireless began during the war, when his father gave him a crystal set and from an early age he was often called upon to help to fix sets for neighbours and friends. He was a frequent visitor to Bill Good’s wireless shop around the corner in Church St and later spent many hours at the ‘Shop on the bridge’ in Kings Rd and Bob Iles’s shop in Southampton St. In the late 1970’s he found time to resurrect his interest in amateur radio and he became a member of the Radio Society of Great Britain taking on the A license G4JNU call sign in 1980. He was a very active member of the Reading Amateur Radio club where he made many friends through shared interests and enjoyed demonstrating his restorations of all kinds of vintage electrical and mechanical curiosities.
Following from his love of wireless he also became a member of the Narrow-bandwidth Television Association devoted to all aspects of early television. He was fascinated by the technology and spent many hours restoring original equipment, constructing replica mechanical television apparatus and learning about the origins of early television by recreating the experiments of its inventor and pioneer – John Logie Baird. He became one of the most knowledgeable people in the country on Baird and early mechanical television. He supported museums, groups and individuals with his masterful engineering skills and with his passion for early radio and television technology. Through his efforts many museums can now display original radio and television equipment working again and he has enabled working demonstrations of original equipment to be featured on several television programmes on the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky, including the BBC’s recreation in 2016 of the 1936 opening night of television.
We will treasure memories of a loving, kind- hearted and generous man who was always willing to help whatever the task. He always had a project on the go either restoring or building something, researching or making something work – whether it was a family, a house or a Baird televisor.
The BBC’s – and the world’s – first regular television service started on Monday the 2nd of November 1936. The song you are about to hear was performed in the opening show and captures something of the mystery and wonder that must have surrounded the new invention at that time
‘Magic Rays of Light sung by Adele Dixon