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Helen Clark (Helen Jackson): Reminiscence

Born June 1936 in Wigan, I was the youngest of 3 daughters to a manager at the local coal mine.

At the age of five I was sent to a private preparatory school, to which even at that age I went by myself on two buses each way. From this school I passed the 11 plus and went to Wigan High School for Girls. That same year my father died from heart attack; my mother never re-married.

In my penultimate school year, on a school trip to France I had to make a speech in French to the Mayor of Paris, thanking them for their hospitality, which I can recite to this day.   In my final year I was appointed Head Girl.

After my A levels in 1954, I went to Manchester University, and graduated in Maths in 1957.

I went for job interviews to English Electric, Vickers Aircraft and LEO. I liked LEO best, particularly the job Appreciation Course, which in those days was a one day elementary programming course and tests on it, with the interview coming after the test results were known. I thought ‘I can do this’, and joined LEO in September 1957.

My sisters were by then living near London, and my mother had decided to move South anyway, and did this soon after I joined LEO.

After my programming course I was put into the programming section managed by Jim Smith, which had about 15 programmers working mainly in technical and insurance applications. I worked on several of these, on both LEO I and LEO II, and was rapidly promoted to be a Senior Programmer.

In 1959 LEO moved from Elms House, adjacent to Lyons head office at Cadby Hall, to Hartree House in Bayswater. LEO needed much more space for growth, for both programming work and computer operations for service bureau and computer customers.     

In 1961 I was given responsibility for all service bureau application programming, and raised to management level. At 24, I was told that I was both the youngest person and the first woman ever to achieve this in the whole Lyons organisation.

Also in 1961 I married Mike Jackson.  We had first met when Mike, also one of Jim Smith’s programmers, was giving some of the lectures on my initial programming course on joining LEO. After that, we had had very little contact until the autumn of 1958 when all London Transport bus drivers went on strike, which lasted a few weeks. One lunch time a group of us were chatting about the effects of this on them, and I told them that I had to walk over 3 miles each way to and from the station to get to work, unless I could thumb a lift from a passing motorist. Mike offered to take me home that day on his motorbike, and this led to him taking me regularly to and from work for the duration of the strike. A strong relationship soon formed, which has lasted ever since. We will be celebrating our Diamond Wedding this year.

Mike was a keen racing dinghy sailor, and from early 1959 I crewed him regularly, in boats he had designed and built himself. We won many races, including regatta trophies, and were 3 times National Champions in the Class.

Following my promotion in 1961, the work for service bureau programming steadily increased. Initially, Hartree House had LEO II/5, with a drum, magnetic tape, and very fast printers. These latter items made it much more capable than LEO II/1 at Elms House, and much more service bureau work could be taken on. Later, LEO III/1 was installed there, many times more powerful than the LEO II, and my department was steadily expanded to meet the customer workload that the greatly extra computing power enabled. Eventually I had 53 programmers working for me.

Service bureau programming was where most new trainee programmers were placed, some proving to be of high calibre, and I was delighted that they came through my department on their way to better things. Noteworthy were Mike Daniels, Jim Feeney, Dick Peters.

However, all good things come to an end. In this case, it was with the arrival of our first child in 1965, after over 4 years as Service Bureau Programming Manager. I did not return to LEO, although after the birth, Mike asked me to write the programme for the largest and most complex job he was planning for the LEO 326 installation he was managing. This was written in CLEO for the handling of the accounts for a very large mail order company, which came to be handling over 300,00 agents and individual accounts of over a million credit customers. (Editor: that was the London Mail Order Company which Mike later joined. See Mike Jackson’s own oral history). It was very successful. We had two more children, in 1967 and 1969.

By 1978, I decided that I would like a part time job, and started as bookkeeper for a small nearby firm in the building industry. When there, having told the boss about my time at LEO, he got me to use Atkins Computing, a service bureau in Epsom, to do structural calculations for some design work. This was followed with his purchase of an Apple II in 1980, my first introduction to personal computers. I was pleasantly surprised at how powerful it was, and after machine code on LEO II, what a flexible language Basic is. I stopped working for him in 1981, when I started teaching.

We had sent our daughters to an independent grammar school. At a parents evening, in a chat with the headmistress I told her of my time at LEO. This resulted in being asked to introduce computer studies into the curriculum, and I taught it for 5 years. Some parents came for word processing lessons. During this time I put the staff payroll on to a PC, paying them direct into their banks, using a BACS file sent over a normal phone line. This was very early days for using a PC for that kind of work. But when the school accountant was due to retire, I was asked to take on that job, where I put the school accounts on to a PC, including parent billing. I was in this position for several years, only retiring in 1995.

After that, I did various stints of unpaid voluntary work, including for a local Citizens Advice Bureau, a toy library, and as a classroom assistant at a local primary school.

Date : April 2021

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This exhibit has a reference ID of CH64037. Please quote this reference ID in any communication with the Centre for Computing History.

Helen Clark (Helen Jackson): Reminiscence

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