Unsung UK Bowling Heroes – John Thurlby

UK Ten Pin Bowling has many unsung heroes, they are the backbone of the sport on our shores and go about their business for many years not seeking plaudits and praise.

Some like our first feature you might not have seen at all, even when you were in the same bowling centre together.

When I was a young mechanic at AMF Leeds Bowl in the mid Eighties, I asked “Who is the best bowling mechanic in the country”? I was told “John Thurlby”.

AMF Ilkeston’s chief mechanic, John I learned was a much respected part of the industry for many years and then an era ended when he retired from work.

They don’t make them like that anymore was my thinking going into this interview with someone I had met one or two times over the years when he visited Leeds to see my Chief mechanic Mick Mitchell. I knew his boys better, Lee, I bowled with on England duty in Holland as a junior and later got to know Rob who followed in dads footsteps in his working career.

A sad fact of bowling is many very good mechanics and technicians are lost to the industry. I always thought, to run a successful centre you need two things above all, a good manager and a great chief technician. Have those and you have a fighting chance, lose them and it’s almost certain failure. Career bowling mechanics are a dying breed, they are generally not well paid for the experience they have. A house tech these days will find themselves fixing lights, toilets and doing general house maintenance more than under the machines. That is not of course true for all centres.

As bowling is about to experience some big changes round the back of the lanes as string machine make a dramatic comeback, it was a perfect time to talk to a legend of bowling mechanics.

I contacted and sent John some questions but what I got back was not answers to the questions as such but a great blow by blow of John’s time in bowling. Rather than stick to the usual interview layout it seemed right to just let John write his story and throw in a few questions at the end.

How I became involved with Tenpin Bowling:-

I left school in December 1961 and started work at a company that I used to deliver newspapers to called Reliance Engineering, I started as a apprentice electrician but about a year in I found myself more interested in the engineering side of things and moved over to gear cutting regarded as a master trade in those days and I really did enjoy the work. After a couple of years or so I then moved over to what I considered another very interesting branch of engineering the setting up of numerical controlled lathes (the Nikols System) I worked at that time for Bendix Electronics a branch of EMI and again a job I very much enjoyed very much indeed, basically I enjoyed working with machinery and life was pretty good.

In September of 1965 I returned home from work one day to find a doctor at my home, I was informed that my dad had died from a massive heart attack at the age of 42, this its true to say stopped me in my tracks and my life was put on hold. After a few weeks for some reason or another I decided to look for another job, I though at the time that this would help me get over the sudden death of my dad.

The job I applied for was as a Lanes man at the Excel Bowling Centre Nottingham, I had no idea what a Lanesman was but I thought I would give it a try.

I was interviewed by the centre manager at that time a Gentleman by the name of Sid Vaughn, I was informed by Mr Vaughn that the Lanesman post had already been taken, another gentleman also present at my interview Dennis Langley then intervened and suggested to Sid that has I had an engineering background that I might be suitable for the mechanics vacancy that the centre also had at that time, I was then taken on a tour off the backend at Nottingham and introduced to 48 82:30 AMF Pinspotters, I was offered and accepted the post of trainee mechanic, I commenced work at Nottingham October 1965.

I can recall that at that time I had never seen anything that even resembled a ‘30’ apart from perhaps some form of bottling machine the noise of 48 of these things going flat out for virtually 24hours a day was certainly an experience. In those days ball jams and pin feed problems came at you at a fair rate and you certainly knew that you had done a shift especially Friday night through to Sunday morning, you had to learn quick. One particular task that is still in my mind was the almost continual job of cleaning “TeleScores” and refocusing the lens and mirrors. It has to be said that back at that time there wasn’t really anyone to turn to for training or help perhaps AMF tech’s or Excel’s Dennis Langley but even Dennis himself would freely admit if he’s still with us there were no experts back then, experience was the way to learn.

I still have a specific memory of Nottingham from those days it used to occur every Thursday night at 8:45pm The Robin Hood league would be switched on to ‘Instruc-to-mat’ for five minutes practice, the rumble and noise of 36 lanes of five teams was something special!

As a young man at that time I found the Tenpin Bowling industry pretty hectic but at the same time enjoyable one particular weekly shift was Monday/Tuesday night were we would start at 5pm and work through to 2 or 3am Wednesday/Thursday off then Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, Friday and Saturday nights in those days would typically run through until 6 or 7am and with all of the noise and four flights of stairs to climb to get to the first floor machines you knew you had done a shift.

I met a few mechanic’s/tech’s in those days but there is one that stands out, my friend to this day is Ron Garton, as I’ve said back then there was not a lot of knowledge to fall back on many thought that they knew a lot but in truth we were all learning I moved back into engineering after 3 years at Nottingham then returned to Bowling at Ilkeston in December 1970 but Ron continued at Nottingham until he retired and he still nips in to see how things are to this day, so if anyone wants any help with 82:30/45’s Ron is your man bar none.

I think Bowling can become a way of life if you allow it to I used to enjoy the front off house also bowling in league and a few tournaments along the way up to the eighties, this I enjoyed greatly until climbing in and out of machines catches up with your knees and back, working in bowling however does not guarantee that you will become a good player, the best years I had I recall were the 1970’s if I recall correctly I held a 197 average over 90+ games about 1978 and had the dubious honour of finishing joint 3rd men’s scratch singles with Bernie Caterer who was the 1973 world champion at the BTBA Nationals held at Lewisham in 1976.

I have to be honest here I have three sons Lee, Rob, and George all of which became much better bowlers than I would have ever been even if I had continued playing to this day.

After a return to engineering at Bendix Electronics, (‘a proper job’) lasting approx. 18 months a chance meeting in Nottingham city centre was to make a major career change that was to last 45 years or so.

In November 1970 I turned around after receiving a tap on the shoulder to come face to face with John Kelly who was formally a floor supervisor for Excel Bowling Nottingham and was now the manager of Ilkeston Bowl, John said “fancy a return to Bowling” I replied maybe; John went on to explain that his Chief Tech Dennis Knighton was leaving to return to work in the hosiery industry, (maintenance), I agreed to meet up with John at Ilkeston the following week for an interview.

At the interview I was introduced to a gentleman who was a part of the head office team at AMF, Gordon Caie (jock), the interview was enjoyable and went well and I started as Chief Mechanic at Ilkeston 7th December 1970.

I soon settled in at Ilkeston learning about a type of Pinspotter I’d never seen before the 82:70, I was self-taught as I was the only tech there and 70’s were a rarity back then as far as I can remember the only other Centre to have them installed then was Consett plus a couple of American bases, Alconbury being one.

If there is a plus side to being a lone technician it must be the fact that you have to learn quickly and thoroughly, in a very short time I found myself working on chassis repairs the control unit of Pins potters at Ilkeston at that time was of the electro-mechanical type meaning that the unit was operated by the use of stepper switches and relays plus what at the time looked like a mass of wired connections, this was way before Micro Processor Chassis were used, I also carried out my own motor repairs, being the only 70’s centre in civi street certainly came with an extra responsibilities.

There was a practice I the sixties and early seventies when you could send Chassis and motors for repair/service to AMF located at South Street Whitstable this service was charged at £5 per unit, perhaps many people in the Bowling Industry today are not aware that this factory at one time manufactured many of the Pinspotters and other equipment sold in the UK and Europe.

Bowling at the time saw a decline in open play and the promotion of business was geared to league and tournament play, with this came a responsibility to ensure the machinery ran well and the lanes were maintained to ABC and BTBA specification, these circumstances resulted in me finding new skills I working with wood, this I enjoyed greatly. Preparing the lanes and machines for regular league play and the occasional tournament weekend while being stressful at times was something that gave an awful lot of job satisfaction all the more for the fact that I was working alone in this area of Ilkeston’s business.

A test of Ilkeston’s Pinspotter’s reliability was a 24hr marathon organised by John in the summer 1972, 16 five man teams started with 14 of the teams finishing, there was only a single fault during the event which recorded a very high lineage figure of 176.8 games per lane.

The first major tournament that I remember John ‘putting on’ at Ilkeston was The Bass Barrel Fives, John managed to stage this occasion after the closer of the then Burton Bowl, but the competition that I remember fondly most of all was the UK finals of the 1973 AMF World Cup, Bernie Caterer defeated Rolston Reid in the final round robin then went on to win the men’s singles title in Singapore. It is hard to believe sometimes that at this time we did not have the use of automatic lane conditioning machines and during this particular tournament I would have dressed the lanes using a spray can and a folded hand towel under a rotary buffer to apply the conditioner (oil) to the lanes.
Later that year John left AMF Humber Bowling and his place as manager was taken by Bruce Ford who continued to promote Bowling via the league and tournament route and business continued to improve.

Ilkeston staged many tournaments throughout the seventies one that comes to mind was a sixes format that Bruce put on The Derbyshire Sixes this event ran over four weekends through July, one year I believe entries numbered 76 teams some fete considering Ilkeston only had 16 lanes at its disposal.

Other memories that I have of Ilkeston at that time was a sense of team spirit around staff the beauty working in a smaller Centre was the feeling of a club atmosphere rather than that of a Bowling forum.

Huge changes of equipment came to bowling during 1970’s I can remember removing Magic Circle Ball Returns and installing Sur-Piks about 1976. Sometime later I remember removing the Sur-Piks and installing C90 Ball returns in the mid-eighties I think, (you get to think that you’ve been with a company a while when you replace equipment you fitted). Fitting much of this new equipment soon led to me being asked to assist on installations in other AMF Centres indeed by the early eighties Ilkeston had added another mechanic and part time pin chaser to team, the end of my ten years solitary confinement, (you don’t get that for murder these days).

On the lane side at Ilkeston all lane repairs and recoats were carried out in house I must say though that I was ably assisted by the managers at this time John and Bruce. The type of finishes also changed during this period, Nitro Cellulose then came Polyurethane then lastly Water Based, all of the above had hazardous draw backs notably odours and the risk of fire, all of this though was put to bed with the introduction of synthetic Lanes.

An afterthought during the 1970’s AMF Humber Bowling introduced an award known as the Chief Mechanic of the year award, I am pleased to say that I have still have mind intact for the year 1975, seems a long time ago now.

Another change of job came along in 1983 when I joined AMF International Inc., this job was to take me to various locations in and around the UK and also abroad.

The main duties of this post was on installations of Pinsetters, Lanes, Automatic Scoring etc., places and locations included much of the UK, Italy Milan scoring (Accuescore), Germany (American air base) scoring, Cyprus (Limassol & Nicosia) lane resurfacing. All travelling especially the abroad work may seem exciting to some and sometimes it was but it never held to much appeal to me and the main reason was that although you could spend weeks sometimes months in these places you never really saw the centres in operation so there was not the same job satisfaction for me as there was working in a operational Bowling Centre.

There are obviously memories to be had from these experiences and friendships, the resurfacing in Cyprus for example, to spend days tied to a drum sander in 100 f temperatures is not easily forgotten but seeing the end result is well worth the effort.

In August of 1983 I switched back to working for AMF Bowling, the then Chairman Bryon North was looking for two regional technicians I was fortunate enough to get the Northern area and Kevin Twinn the South, this was the start of a much better role for me.

AMF BCO (Bowling Centre Operations) was at that time under the guidance of Bryon North starting in a process of ‘modernising’ their Centres this included installing Automatic Scoring, New Seating areas and Ball Returns, in order to carry out this work required myself and Kevin to team up and also bring in teams of willing helpers from various Centres within the group. These teams in my opinion worked very well and a lot of lasting friendships were made and to be honest these jobs could not have been completed in house without their help. Some of the friends I called upon to assist were Mick Mitchell, John Perman, and John Lawson (Skin) Leeds, Ron Garton, Nottingham, Kevin would ask for Pip Clark, Bones, Worthing, Andy Philipps Portsmouth, Chris Karitz Crawley, and there were many others great team spirit and feelings for the Bowling Industry.

During this time of my career I also moved over to concentrating on lanes maintenance and lane dressing on a national basis whereas Kevin was on call for scoring and computer issues. I suppose I was selected for this role because of my past history and interest in league and tournament bowling although I hadn’t bowled seriously since 1982.

I did find this aspect interesting though traveling to various Centres giving a helping hand when needed to checking over the cleanliness and general maintenance of their Lane conditioning machines downloading programs and suggesting various programs that may help them attain a good scoring condition for any tournaments they may hold or resolve any moans and groans from their league players. I would often offer my services to anyone requiring help in recoating lanes or approaches. During this time I was allowed to visit the USA either for training or to visit Centres that were regarded as high scoring venues to see how it was done, on this subject one thing stood out like a beacon, Centres in various states had something in common, The Lanes Surface all cases had a good covering of Finish the surfaces of the lanes were like glass, no oil disappearing into the wood here, the conditioner stayed where it was put.

On my visits to America I visited Chicago twice (helped to install synthetic overlays), Pittsburgh (again over lane installation) Milwaukee (visit the ABC headquarters), Des Moines Iowa (meet with their production chemist Brent Perrier), Richmond Virginia (visit the AMF Factory and motor repair area),Denver Colorado twice (took a course on rebuilding lane conditioning machines, also trained on Vacu ball drilling rig) second course (fitting upgrades to various Century machines including the ill-fated Chairman).

I had to slip this comment in: – when I returned to Ilkeston on one occasion my old friend Marg the clean (the Ilkeston cleaner sadly no longer with us) asked me, John of all the places that you have been to on your travels is there one that you would wish move to permanently? I thought about it and said two Marg one is Cyprus because of the weather and in some places you can get a chip butty, and the other is Denver the mile high city, the city is so clean, least it was when I was there and the scenery around it up in the mountains is absolutely beautiful a fantastic place that I will always remember.

This role for me pretty much carried on up to September 2005 when I was offer a role as Technical Trainer for AMF Bowling which I accepted, my first duties in this role were to write two trainers manuals these were to help Chief Technicians to train their teams up to a company consistent standard, a short of a train the trainers manual, The Manual for the Pinsetters was obviously based on the official AMF Pinsetters workshop manual the other relating to Lanes was based on my knowledge and experience because basically there was not much in the way of instructions or how to do it information on Lane maintenance repairs etc.

Following the printing of these books I went on my travels again to present these manuals to the Chief Tech’s and generally they were received well, there was a problem with this system however which was to surface later, as a company AMF did not attach any incentive to this training system there was not a grading program in place that could offer techs any type of in house promotion or any pay increase whereas a similar system operated by Hollywood Bowling did, obviously their system was better received than ours.

Following the distribution of the lanes maintenance manual I did carry out on the road training events that went very well one in particular I was held at Ashford Kent tech’s fro in and around the area attended we covered patching out damaged boards, replacing edge boards, pin-deck repairs and levelling etc., this went very well but these events were few are far between mainly because of travel expenses.

On a personal note I did acquire my City and Guilds Certificate for Electrical installations 17th edition BS 7671 November 2009 City and Guilds Testing and inspection of Electrical Equipment 100/4339/1 on 02 December 2009 City and Guilds Portable Appliance Testing 2377 Certificate December 2009.

Bit of a feather in my cap this one as I scored a very pleasing 100% in all five modules of the exam.

Picking up these qualifications after originally starting my working life as an apprentice electrician in 1961 was most surreal.

My latter years in the Bowling industry:-

Following the rebranding of AMF to The Original Bowling Company things for me on a personal note were fine I continued in my training role although it was hard to stay enthusiastic when there seemed to be a lack of financial backing and also I was restricted to visiting Centres to explain the workings and procedures of the trainers manuals but was not allowed to physically enter the machines on site, this situation came about in think because my position was moved from the technical department to HR therefore becoming a administrative job rather than hands on which I much preferred. As time passed the situation came to a sudden halt when I was informed by one of the directors that the company no longer saw the need for a technical trainer and therefore I was to be made redundant. However a week or so later I was offered a position more to do with health & safety because of a qualification I had for Portable Appliance Testing. I accepted and carried out these duties because I still had a little to pay on my mortgage. I carried out this duty for a year or so then along came another major change.

The Original Bowling Company bought The Hollywood Chain this was a massive boost to many employees throughout the AMF Centres because these newly acquired Centres were in general much more modern and successful than the older AMF Centres this to me was a bit of a boost and things really picked up. I started to get more involved in lanes maintenance again carrying out a few Centre recoats I was becoming more ‘hands on’ again. Further to this situation I was made leader of the was the Hollywood Resurface Crew this was the beginning of a very enjoyable period of my career in Tenpin Bowling.

I have to say that this Team of men were a pleasure to work and be with, hardworking, consensus and took great pride in their jobs.

Following approximately two years in this position thing started to go downhill I had the feeling that my services were no longer required to put it politely, I was constantly badgered and bullied by people who did not have the common decencies to just ask me to leave. Therefore I decided to leave of my own accord rather than to work in such circumstances.

Everything taken into account I enjoyed my 46 years in the Bowling business and had a tremendous and rewarding time, through the years I met and worked some excellent technicians some of which are no longer with us and many of them are still friends, BUT if you were to ask me if I would do it all again the answer would be NO because Tenpin Bowling has moved on, business today is more about family entertainment, arcades, burger bars and loud music, which is good and makes lots of money, the Bowling business that I worked in was more of a sports centre environment that is also fine, I enjoyed the latter very much indeed and am proud to have been part of it!

Bowing Bio funny moments:-

I’ve had many funny and sometimes weird moments over the years during my time in bowling and some of them certainly not printable. Here’s a sample that come to mind.

Back in 1966/67 I can’t be positive about the exact date myself and Ron Garton were on a Friday night shift at Nottingham’s Excel Centre, the radio in the workshop an old valve type in those days was tuned to radio Luxembourg playing the pop music of the day. When we had the bright idea that if we connected the radio speaker to the speaker in the workshop that happened to be part of the bowls PA system we might create “Stereo Sound”, the connection was made. However during the conversion the radio accidently became retuned, we turned on said new sound system to check the results of our experiment, so far so good, after a few minutes the interdepartmental phone rang, I answered, the duty manager was on the line (Roger Marshall) he shouted “what are you pair of twats pissing about at? “What Rog” I said, “don’t f**#~%g Rog me he said”” LISTEN“ he held the phone aloft, I couldn’t quite make out what the sound was but it certainly wasn’t the Juke box, Roger came back to the phone and said “there are 3000 people in this place and all of them are listening to the bleeding ARCHERS”. Apparently the power output of the old valve radio had over ridden every switch on the PA system and every single speaker within the centre played whatever came from our radio.

The Ilkeston Marathon.

During John Kelly’s time as Ilkeston manager John decided to hold a 24 hour 5 man team bowling marathon for charity, the event was run between 09:00 Saturday to 09:00Sunday.

Prior to the opening of the event a group of students paraded around the concourse dressed Scottish soldiers of a by gone age accompanied by bagpipes, six of the students carried a coffin containing a guy dressed as ‘Bonny Prince Charlie’. After the parade it was decided to store the coffin ‘down the back’ just outside the workshop door.

Back then I was the only mechanic on the staff at Ilkeston so it was going to be a long shift.
Around six o’clock Sunday morning I was feeling a little tired, the machines were running well so I thought I’d take 40 winks, looking around for a comfy seat or the like I took a look at the coffin placed on two trestles, the coffin was very realistic and lined quite well, so I climbed in and dozed off.
What seemed to be just a few minutes later I was awakened by an air piercing screeeeeem,
I looked up to see an ashen looking cleaning lady staggering around as I leapt from the coffin to help it appeared to make matters worse she nigh on passed out in a state of shock, after a short while with a cup of tea and brandy Marg settled down and made a complete recovery.

The Nottingham Haunting.

After a night shift it was almost the norm to wind down with a cup of tea and a chat.
It was on one of these occasions that Ron and I decided to make a ghost of our own as every bowl was rumored to have one.

Ours was made by tying two white sweep rails together crucifix style then dressing this cross in a white boiler suit, we added a lamp holder with flex and a bulb. We then suspended our ghoul from the ceiling at the far end of the pit area over lane 48, we ten hatched our plan. We were to power the ghost up (plug the lamp in), switch off the lights in the pit area and Ron was to lie in a pose on the floor as If he had passed out. So off we go lights off etc. I ran up and down the stairs a few times so as to get out of breath then ran up the front end down stairs to where Bob Smith (ex desert rat) and Pete Tomlin both lanesmen were working, Help Help I gasped there’s a ghost upstairs.

We all ran back upstairs me leading the way, we arrived at the top landing Ron was on the floor in his best fainted pose who then looked in the direction of the spectre, at his first sight of the ghost Pete let out a yell and scarpered Bob stammered it, it, it, it’s one, it’s one of them and promptly ran off. Me and Ron could hardly contain ourselves and fell about in fits of laughter, and then we both noticed something strange there was a kind of mist surrounding our spook. After a couple of minutes we decided to investigate but by this time the whole thing was looking more and more scary, so much so that we had to approach it together although we had built it. When we got to our spook we switched on the pit lights and saw the cause of the mysterious mist the lamp was scorching the boiler suit causing wisps of smoke, we dismantled our effigy and went down stairs. We found Bob who was still shaking and explained, but there was no sign of Pete, we sat down for a cup of tea, a short while passed then two policemen walked in and stated that they had found this nutter (Pete) in an hysterical state running around the Nottingham wholesale fruit market claiming that there was a ghost in the Bowling Alley, they saw the funny side and all ended well.

Walkden, my personal mystery.

In my Excel days I was occasionally asked to help out at other centres that were short of a mechanic for one reason or another, this time I traveled to Walkden.

On arrival I reported to the manager and asked when would you like me to start as soon as possible he said you are on your on your own, I was told one on holiday, one ill and one who was to be in was changing wheel on his car when the jack slipped and cut the end of his finger off, so I went down the back and put my overalls on.

At the end of the evening no one had any idea whether or not any accommodation had been booked for me so I decided to kip down in the bar, (in those days the Excel Centres had night watchmen on site that often doubled up as Lanesmen), so I wasn’t alone

Sometime later I awoke I was laying on a stretch of seating facing the wall, as I gathered my senses I had a feeling that I was being watched I turned my head upwards slightly and caught a glimpse of a small person in a reflection on a glass division in the wall above me I sat up slowly turned to face into the bar area and saw a little girl holding a teddy bear she was about twenty feet away, as I looked straight at her she walked backwards away from me then turned and disappeared into a dark area on the far side of the bar.

I thought what’s a little kid doing on her own in this place this time of night, I got up walked in her direction couldn’t see her so I walked through the doors into the concourse area of the bowl then went over to the night-watchman/lanesman as I got closer to him he said “you’ve seen her then” I answered him “what made you say that” he said “that confused look on your face” I replied seen who he replied again “a little girl with a teddy bear”? I was gob smacked.

That gentleman then explained to me that the story he had heard that a row of houses formally on the site where the Bowl had been built was destroyed in a bombing raid during the war and many of the people living there were killed, his explanation was the little girl couldn’t find her way home so was not at peace.

That memory is still very clear in my mind from the winter 1967.

Stringed Pinsetters

There was a version of stringed pin setters a few years back, now I knew them as Smitt Machines and although I never saw one personally I did hear at the time though that occasionally the strings would become entangled but apart from that they were good.

I must also say that I saw smaller versions in the arcades at various sea-side resorts and the youngsters and some older people enjoyed playing on them all good fun. I can’t honestly say though that persons who take the sport a little more seriously by playing in leagues and tournaments accepting a machine so radical in its change of concept in the way a pinsetter should operate.
I have heard it said that these new stringed machines do not have the tangling problems as the earlier models but I’ve not seen them in operation, I’ve also heard that because these machines have fewer moving parts they are easier and cheaper to operate, that is to say fewer spare parts to buy therefore less time for technicians to spend on machines, this may also translate into fewer technicians.

Questions I would ask, are the ABC regulations still in force on both machines and lanes is there such a rule any longer that Lanes and Pinsetters should meet certain standards before being eligible for sanction by the ABC or the BTBA.

One other question how heavy are the pins used in these machines, in my opinion if the answers to these questions are no, or don’t know, or don’t care then any self-respecting Bowler that takes their chosen sport seriously wouldn’t bowl in such a centre.

If on the other hand you’re not bothered then go ahead bowl in any centre or arcade that pleases you.