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Toby Reid (Left), Product Management Director, G&H Torquay & Norma Knapp (Right)Toby Reid (Left), Product Management Director, G&H Torquay & Norma Knapp (Right)©️ G&H

Capturing a moment in history: an interview with one of G&H’s first employees, Norma Knapp.


Very few companies get a chance to say they have been in business for more than 7 decades straight. Even fewer are those heritage organisations that pride themselves with such a feat and still manage to be in contact with their first employees. Celebrating those pioneers in one’s business is important because they are the ones who have set the tone for the venture from the get-go. The people who, through their hard work and dedication, have taken the first steps in fostering the original organisational presence. That is why meeting Norma Knapp, one of the first 8 employees at G&H, in December 2023 was such a momentous privilege for our company. The warmth, vivid memories and all-round British can-do attitude transformed a frosty afternoon into an inspiring trip down memory lane.

We had been waiting for this moment for a good 2 weeks, ever since we received that email from Mr. Peter Ford-Evans. “Did you know that our 92-year-old neighbor used to work for your company? More importantly, did you know she was one of the first employees at Gooch & Housego?” The preparations for this visit happened in a flash, and now, we were waiting for the big moment. What will she think about today’s G&H? How different will things feel for her when she sees the facilities? More importantly, since we are talking about a distant period in the past, how much will she be able to recall from her early days at the company?

Those thoughts did not even have time to pop up properly in our minds, that the door opened. There she was: Norma Knapp (née Simpson), one of our first workers at G&H, accompanied by the thoughtful neighbors who have helped prepare this entire get-together. Coincidentally or not, she was wearing a jacket in G&H blue and a matching blouse, something that surprised us all. “Is this the new color of the company? Now, the whole thing feels predestined, don’t you reckon?” she quickly noted.

We sat down in one of the meeting rooms at G&H Torquay to get to know Norma better. She was the 3rd of 5 siblings, born on June 1st, 1931. Her family lived in Eltham, United Kingdom, near Greenwich in South East London, where her father used to work for Standard Telephone and Cable. In 1940, as World War II was setting in the country with more serious repercussions, Norma had to be evacuated from London together with her younger sister Eileen to a tiny rural village called Ugborough in Devon, leaving her parents and 2 older siblings, Audrey and George, behind. Due to the high bombing risk, during the war Standard had to be relocated to a factory in a small town called Ilminster in Somerset. That is how the Ilminster chapter of Norma’s life started.

The Gooch & Housego Team c1953The Gooch & Housego Team c1953 (Norma Knapp, front row)©️ G&H

Her family settled in their new home, so much so that Norma herself joined Standard after leaving school when she was only 14 years old. For some time, the family worked tirelessly to make the best out of the situation, much like all the newly arrived in Ilminster. But when the war ended, many employees from Standard decided to return to London, when it was deemed safe to do so. An immediate exodus took place in that small village after 1945, except for 2 young men who had decided that this new chapter in their lives could be expanded even further from where they had put down roots. Those 2 were Archie Gooch and Leslie Housego, who had married local girls from that area. Aside from love, there was also opportunity knocking for the 2 in this place that sheltered them from the war. Through the gained experience working in the Crystals Department at Standard, Archie Gooch and Leslie Housego had a momentous advantage in starting their own crystals polishing business.

Ilminster was a small village, with a tightly knit community. Neighbor knew neighbor. As such, neighbors would help each other out when in need. And what better place to talk shop than a good old pub setting, with refreshing drinks and clamorous chatter? That is how the idea of Norma changing jobs appeared in the picture. “Father met Archie in the pub and asked him how business was going, because he knew these 2 young chaps were starting up on their own. He wanted to know if everything was going alright, as the business hadn’t been going on for very long. Archie said that they’re doing quite well, they’re getting quite a bit of work. It is slow going, but they’ll get there, is what they said. Then Archie mentioned to father that they could do with a girl in the office to carry out the office work, including the paperwork. That’s when father said <<My Norma is looking for another job, she’s a bit fed up where she currently is at the moment.>> Archie said to send me down for a talk, so I went down and had a talk with Archie, who said yes, we’llgive it a try. That’s how I got the job here, all those years ago. The rest is history: I came in on my first day, put my overall on and started working for Gooch and Housego”, she told us, as we were all sipping on some nicely brewed tea.

Norma Knapp & Toby Reid, Product Management Director, G&H TorquayNorma Knapp & Toby Reid, Product Management Director, G&H Torquay©️ G&H

Growth and evolution were Norma’s go-to words when describing her time at the company. “Especially during my formative years, it was a privilege to be part of the team. The experiences and skills I gained during my time there have stayed with me throughout my career.” We became curious about what those first days at the company looked like. “Oh, it was so different than what I am seeing here today. Back then, I’d only been used to my previous job at Standard up until that point, as I was still so young. When I came at Gooch and Housego to work, I thought what a shambles it was. And it was a shambles, I can’t really say anything else, really. We never had a decent sink. What we had was an old button sink placed in a corner, with a cold tap. There was no running hot water anywhere, and we just had to make do with what we had. The factory itself was a tip, terrible place to work, at least I thought it was, because my previous work was always nice and clean, and I thought I was never going to get used to this, but I got it round to my way of thinking, got it a bit tidier, put things away. But poor old Archie and Leslie, they worked hard for what they got. But they’re worth every penny, and what they did was worth it for them in the end, because they did work hard.”

The entire picture Norma was painting put things into perspective. What a time that must have been, just right after the war. The “shambles” made sense, as we could image this group of people, in lack, yet ambitious, trying to make miracles happen in the face of recession and recovery. But that atmosphere did bring about positive aspects, too, as Norma would go on with the story. “On the other hand, everyone in the company at that point in time, we were all like brothers and sisters, really. We knew one another from the old days. For example, I’d known Archie and Les for a long time, as they all came to Ilminster with us from London, and everybody knew one another. I always knew them well, I danced with Archie at dances and things, and Les, well, I never knew him quite so well, because he was from further out of town. But I knew the family very well and they were very nice people.”

We started asking what a regular day of work looked like for Norma. What kind of routines were being practiced in those early days of G&H? “For me, it was just an ordinary job, I didn’t seem to make anything of it. There wasn’t a lot going on other than working while you were there. I did a bit of everything. I did the office work, then I did the packing, the cleaning of the parts before they were packed, I used to do everything really. The wages, for all the workers, there wasn’t many of us there. I used to sit and listen to Mrs. Dale’s Diary, the first significant BBC radio serial drama from January, 1948, with Archie on the radio. And he’d be sat upstairs doing some cleaning and he’d shout in the office <<Norm, Mrs. Dale’s Diary is starting any minute now, come on out!>> and he’d have some work for me ready out there to do whilst we listened. Making the tea, doing the filing, cleaning up the benches, the wages for all the workers since there wasn’t many of us there, going out and getting the boys their rolls for lunch, making the tea – with an enamel jug on a gas ring that was on a wooden floor – and we didn’t set the place alight!

Norma Knapp (L) & Toby Reid (R), Product Management Director, G&H TorquayNorma Knapp (L) & Toby Reid (R), Product Management Director, G&H Torquay©️ G&H

I used to do a bit of everything. Once when I was packing, I had all these parcels to take to the post office. So, I’ve got these old shoes on with rubbery soles and it’s raining outside, so I had to be careful as they used to pick up all the bits from the factory on them, and when they got wet, they’d get slippery. So I went down the 64 steps, to get right to the bottom of the building, walked across the factory, crossed the road, the post office is only over there. So, I stepped into the first 2 doors of the post office that were open, and the next 2 were push open doors. But I hit those set of doors because I slipped on the floor with these shoes on and slid right across the floor right up to the counter of the post office. The chap who was serving, Mr. Olver, leant over the counter, and said <<you’re in a bit of a hurry this morning>> as I was lying on the filthy floor in my overall with all the parcels of optics surrounding my feet. I remember that day very well.”

We all had a great laugh at that sight, as we all appreciated Norma’s vividly witty humor. Such simple, yet special moments were quietly collected in the history of our company. We asked Norma if she wanted to take a tour of the Torquay facilities, to show her how much the company had grown and changed over the years. She was delighted to explore the new G&H and, even more, to meet the people on the shop floor. Interestingly enough, during our small presentation of the factory, some of our colleagues came up to us to meet Norma in person. They had heard rumors that someone special was going to be visiting our site on this day. The meeting ended up resembling encountering a Hollywood superstar, with animated chatter and plenty of curious questions. And why wouldn’t our colleagues think as much? Norma was a sweet and sparkling presence, with a charm and glamour from a different time.

To our surprise, she even remembered certain technicalities on the manufacturing side of the business. “Archie Gooch was downstairs with me, Leslie Housego was upstairs, he always used to cut the quartz, and then they had other boys come, including Len Pye, I think he went upstairs with Les and learnt the trade with him. But we didn’t see much of them while they were up there, they’d come down to have their tea where we’d all sit around the bench and have our cup of tea together, just like anywhere else really, nothing different”, Norma reminisced.

Norma Knapp (Centre) & family with Toby Reid (Right), Product Management Director, G&H TorquayNorma Knapp (Centre) & family with Toby Reid (Right), Product Management Director, G&H Torquay©️ G&H

“Are you pleased with how G&H has evolved over the years?” we asked her.

“Oh, there’s no comparison dear”, she instantly replied. “No comparison at all, this is absolutely marvelous. I couldn’t wait to come and see how everything had turned out in the end, you see. Having seen it right from the start, and what we had to put up with and what we didn’t have, more what we didn’t have than anything else, to see what you are doing now is beyond me, it really is! The technology behind what you do is fantastic, absolutely fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed my tour!”

After 7 years with Gooch and Housego, Norma felt it was time to move on. Standard had announced its intention to relocate to a new purpose-built factory in Paignton, South Devon. By this time, Norma’s siblings also started working for Standard. As such, it only felt natural for her to join them at the old company because she wanted to stay near her family. Norma married Jack Knapp (also a Standard worker) in 1955 and they moved to a house in Paignton, one of many that were built by Standard for their employees. Norma believes she would probably have stayed with Gooch and Housego until retirement if Standard had not caused her family to move away. But such is life, with its surprising twists and turns. We were thrilled to have had the pleasure of meeting Norma and listening to her stories and charming anecdotes. In the way she lived this reunion, it felt like no day had actually gone by. Norma’s spirit, in life and through her deep appreciation for her time at G&H, served as an important lesson for us: to respect, cherish, and try to leave a legacy behind, no matter how big or small, for those who will follow us. One never knows what kind of impact our work can have on the future.

Thank you, Norma, for the great afternoon spent together, and, most importantly, from the lessons we can learn from someone as bright, in all the ways, like yourself.

About Us

Celebrating 75 years of innovation

From a small-town shop to a global photonics leader, Gooch & Housego has evolved over seven and a half decades through the hard work of employees, a series of smart product developments and strategic acquisitions.