The "Lesney (Matchbox)" connection
Jack Odell (left) and Leslie Smith in the late 1950s
During the mid-1930s, quite by chance, my parents rented a top floor flat at 1, Wetherill Road on the Muswell Hill/New Southgate borders of north London. The remainder of the house was occupied by the resident landlord, William Odell, a bus driver and his family. There were two sons in the Odell family, the elder was John (a.k.a. "Jack") and his brother, Ken.
When my late father, Sidney Ambridge (co-founder of Lone Star Products/Die Casting Machine Tools Ltd), first encountered Jack Odell, the latter was a cinema projectionist who, in 1939, was called-up in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (R.E.M.E.) Corps of the British Army. Jack was subsequently posted to north Africa and later to Italy during WW2. When the war ended, in seeking employment, it was not unreasonable for Jack to ask his father's upstairs tenant, Sidney Ambridge, for a job at my father's fledgling die-casting company in Green Lanes, Palmers Green, north London. Having previously considered Jack Odell the same as one would consider a 'nephew', I suppose my father felt under obligation to find employment for Jack and even though a vacancy didn't exist, a job as a 'die-caster' (machine operator) was ..created.. for him at the so-called "Bridge Works", Green Lanes.
Jack was keen to learn and he quickly recognised that, this way, metal products could be manufactured by the hundreds, once moulds to make them had been built. He, therefore, wanted my father to teach him how to make the steel moulds on a step-by-step basis, which my father was pleased to do. Little did he realise that this was not going to be a long-term employment on a surrogate 'uncle'/'nephew' basis. Eventually, Jack and a die-caster colleague, Rodney Smith, left my father's firm and with the knowledge and skills they had acquired, they set up LESNEY PRODUCTS and the rest is history!
As Jack had been trained in die-casting practices by my father, somehow they arranged between themselves, without my prior knowledge, for me to be similarly trained at Jack Odell's factory, presumably by Jack, which was in a yard off Shacklewell Lane, Dalston, east London. I think that Jack must have accepted this with utmost reluctance and may have been under pressure to reciprocate for his own training opportunity. At Dalston, he seemed far too busy to spend any time showing me anything and what I learned whilst there I managed to pick up from his toolmakers for whom I did 'odd jobs' in the tool room, whose names I still recall. I never received any tuition as to how to build a mould.
At the outset, in late summer 1954, I was offered one shilling and sixpence (1s. 6d.) per hour (7.5p) working 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Jack had added "take it or leave it" hoping, I'm firmly convinced, that I would leave it. As it transpired, although I was completely unaware of it at the time, Lesney's were about to introduce their upcoming range of vintage vehicles "Models of Yesteryear" and I don't suppose that Jack would have wanted to have the son of a director of a rival company inside his own premises where there might have been a risk of sensitive research and development leaking out to a competitor, however inadvertently.
I worked there for seven months only until February 1955 when, with compacted ice on the roads, cycling to work was dangerous, and then I discovered that my fares by public transport to and from Dalston/Totteridge amounted to more than I earned. There didn't seem to be any point in staying any longer at Lesney's as I could only afford to get there if I cycled the gruelling ten miles each way, five days a week, so I gave in my notice to leave. On the last day, it was dark at 6 p.m. and I cycled very tentatively on icy roads on my final homeward journey. At around the half-way point, I was overtaken by Jack Odell in his black Vauxhall Velox saloon and he waved to me as he passed by. I could not respond but could only stare at the rear tail lights of his car until they merged with others in the far distance.