At the age of 15, Bill Radley was unable to spell the name of his school, or the road he lived on.
A few years later, he was diagnosed with a type of arthritis that affects the spine. This meant he had to give up his job and his dream of being a professional footballer.
He then trained as a glassblower but was fired from one glassblowing job after another. Despite this, he went on to set up his own scientific glassblowing business and grew it into a successful international supplier of lab equipment.
As Radleys celebrates its 50th anniversary, he shares the story behind the company’s birth.
Could you tell us about your background?
I was born in 1936 in the house where l grew up, in the East End of London. My grandmother looked after me most of the time because my mother left home when I was very small. I never knew my father and Radley is my mother’s maiden name.
I lived in the same house all through the Second World War. There was a large power station at the bottom of the road that was bombed constantly but luckily it was never actually destroyed.
What was it like growing up during the war?
I found the war exciting because I was too young to really understand what was going on. Day after day there were houses all around us being bombed.
As children, we collected shrapnel, which was scattered all over the street from the bombs dropped each night. Every house had a bucket outside to collect shrapnel. I remember the decorative iron railings outside the terraced houses were taken down to be used for armaments.
What was your school life like?
We never went to school in the war; in fact I never went to school until l was nine because the school was bombed.
My education was very poor, I was dyslexic, and I could not write the name of my road or my school at 15. My teacher said that I would never amount to anything but l was very good at football and running and that was my saving grace. Every year from the age of 11 to 15 I won a medal for running the 100 yards, beating everybody else in Hackney. I also played football for Hackney Boys School. I was a big lad, so I played alongside the 15 year olds when I was 11.
We played football in the street every day. There was usually only one vehicle a day that came down the street, since nobody in the road had a car.
When I was 15, l played football in a demonstration match for visitors from around the world at the 1951 Festival of Britain. I played for a London Youth side against Arsenal. I never quite understood why a bunch of local boys were selected to play against Arsenal’s professional team.
What was your first job?
I left school at 15 and began working on the railway cleaning engines. Then at 16 I became a train fireman, which involved firing up steam engines.
When taking engines up to Liverpool Street, I had to stand between the engine and wagons and swing the coupling up to hook the two together while the driver backed the engine up. It was quite frightening standing in a very small space between the buffers but luckily the drivers approached very slowly.
Electrification had also just started and several people had been killed by touching the live wires above the train.
Why did you become a glassblower?
It was my dream to become a professional footballer and l honestly believe to this day I would have become one if I hadn’t been diagnosed with Spondylitis, a type of arthritis that affects the spine.
This meant I had to stop playing football when I was 17. I had been playing for Stratford Railway, which had their own ground and some very good ex-players.
l also had to stop my railway job because l was constantly in pain. The railway doctor suggested I learn a trade which I could do while sitting down. He suggested many options like repairing watches and glassblowing, which initially interested me because I thought it meant working in front of a furnace, like on the steam engines. I had no idea what it was really like!
He said he knew some glassblowers who made little glass animals. This appealed to me because I would occasionally buy similar animals for my wife Iris who I married when l was 18.
Tell us about your glassblowing training
I learnt glass blowing at a government training centre which looked like a prison and was very strict. In the morning you had to arrive at 8 o’clock sharp and we were then all lined up in our brown smocks.
The centre had been set up to retrain soldiers coming out of the army and it taught many different trades, including carpentry and watch repairing. l was slotted into the scheme because I was registered as disabled because of my back.
What did you do after training?
By the time I finished the course I could make test tubes, indentation tubes and other simple parts. You couldn’t learn much in six months, but you learnt enough to begin building up your skills.
Alf Berrens, who trained me, helped me get my first job as an apprentice glassblower. He was ex-army and I remember him as a very kind man. Unfortunately, I only lasted about two weeks because l was not very good.
After that l had another job which lasted six months because I was once again fired for not being very good! I then worked at Cochran Brothers in North London where they did trade work for QuickFit. l got fired from there because l used to take quite a bit of time off. In fact, I was doing part time work for other glassblowing firms to earn extra money.
So, the big training for me was that I had 11 glassblowing jobs before l started my own business. Even though l wasn’t very good at any of it, I made many different things, using all kinds of techniques. I learnt electronic glassblowing, sealing glass to metal and silica glass blowing. L also worked soda glass, which is very difficult because it flies to bits very easily.
So, while I wasn’t the best glassblower, I knew a little bit about lots of things and if I couldn’t make it myself I knew someone who could.
How did your career as a glassblower progress from there?
l took a job in Harlow with AEI doing electronic glassblowing, which l found very difficult. The glassblowing foreman there had a sideline in the evenings working for Springhams, a well-respected scientific glassblowing company that invented the modern stopcock. George Springham was a very clever glassblower.
When the foreman at AEI realised that I could do scientific glassblowing, he got me a bottle of oxygen and tools and I start working from home in the evenings and weekends. I made glass that he then sold to Springhams. I was very busy and starting to make some extra money.
The foreman was then offered a job in America and he suggested that I visit Springhams to take over his job. I was really excited because I thought I was going to earn lots more money. Unfortunately, they knew what I was being paid, so kept the money the same. However, when they got more complicated jobs they couldn’t handle, they would ask me to visit the customer as their sales representative and they would then give me 10% of any work they got.
I eventually became so busy with the work from Springhams that l decided to leave AEI. Initially, I worked from home in our council house. Eventually, l needed more room, so I found an old barn I could rent for 25 shillings a week.
I began selling for Springhams and for myself and I would wear the same suit that I’d got married in. I would visit customers like Harlow and Epping Hospital where they would give me boxes of simple repairs, like chipped beakers. I think they felt a bit sorry for me. I had about a dozen local customers, including AEI.
When did you get the first person to work with you?
In the 60s, I started working with Roy Weiss, a glassblower who had won lots of awards and was very meticulous. I used to get on very well with him and I asked him if he would like to come and do a bit of part time work with me. We worked 7 days a week and had an hour off to have dinner in the evenings. We worked every weeknight until 10pm, on Saturdays until 6pm, and Sundays until 4pm.
After a while, Roy asked me if he could buy into the business. I never thought I had a business but he obviously saw some potential! He wanted to buy 10% for £1000 but I sold him 33% of the business for £600. I wasn’t a very astute businessman.
But £600 was a lot of money then and I put it towards a deposit for a house. One of the directors at Springhams came with me to fill out the mortgage forms and said I worked full time for Springhams, so I could get the mortgage.
So when did you form Radleys?
We were rapidly filling up the barn and getting in and out of the premises was very difficult for the lorry delivering oxygen to us. So I started to look around for new premises, which I eventually found in Sawbridgeworth.
The landlord’s solicitor wrongly made the lease out to R B Radley & Co Ltd, even though I was a sole trader at that time. So my solicitor suggested I set up a limited company, which would also protect me if we couldn’t pay the lease. That was when Radleys was born in 1966.