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Relay House Westwood, Broadstairs, Kent, CT10 2PX
Tel: Thanet 61561
The Day The Staff Were Armed
Remembering Norman Lawrence, Rediffusion Thanet.
Pictured in 1947, Norman (2nd Left) was a Network Engineer. Others in the picture: Bill Bishop, George Blackburn, Bert Kemp and David Payne.
Norman outside Rye Shop C 1980
It was not every day that Rediffusion staff were armed, wore uniform, and did all their work from a basement.
But it happened to Norman Lawrence, who retired in 1981 as Hastings district manager after 43 years with Rediffusion.
It was some time after war broke out, late at night, and Norman was at work as usual in Thanet as a control operator. Suddenly the phone rang, and Norman was ordered by a man from the Ministry of Defence to get his boss, Frank Austen, out of bed. The next thing Norman knew, all the equipment was being moved into the basement, and a few days later Norman and the other male staff (all the women and children had been evacuated) were in the uniform of the Local Defence Volunteers and armed with rifles and ammunition even while working.
It was, of course, the time when an invasion was expected at any moment, and Thanet, right on the coast, was in the frontline.
Apart from having an empty showroom, the building was painted in camouflage colours.
Meanwhile, on the roof of Relay House, Frank Austen, one of Rediffusion's most brilliant engineers, was working on a top secret
It was Frank Austen, in fact, who took on an 18-year-old Norman Lawrence in 1938, as a control operator at Ramsgate. The job meant selecting programmes for radio subscribers. Norman had recalled that each Sunday there was a service and he used to select a different religious denomination each time. The shifts were long and boring and often he had no relief controller which meant working from 8.00am until midnight each day.
In 1940, Norman was "called up" and joined the RAF in the Signals Corp.
After the war, he re-joined Rediffusion as a network maintenance man. They had to be on call at all hours - and that could cause problems, as Norman had recalled; "On more than one occasion, police tried to arrest me on someone's roof-top. They thought I was a cat burglar!"
Norman's big break came in 1951 when Frank Austen asked him to set up a branch in Ashford. He had to train the wiremen, and find shop premises. But Norman cleared that formidable hurdle successfully, and he went on to become branch manager in Hastings in 1959, and district manager in 1971. He had recalled: "My main interest was personnel, I took on 170 people in all. If you don't get that right, you can't get anything right."
Among the many people who passed through were about a dozen trainee managers, who learnt the trade from Norman.
One man who learnt from him was Lord Buckhurst, who spent a month in the region with Norman as his guide after joining the board of Rediffusion.