Bill Allen OBE (1954-1961)

I was known as Billy most of my time at the School, but now answer in the main to Bill! I was born in 1943, the product of Ron Allen (a Carpenter / Decorator) and Bridget (née McCabe) who immigrated to the UK before the war from Mullingar in the Midlands of Eire. She worked in service as a cleaner and subsequently head cook at the Bognor Regis Grammar School. After seven years in shared accommodation, my parents were allocated a new-build council house in Arnhem Road, which became a much loved home until I left school. Early school experience was first at South Bersted and then Westloats where the Eleven Plus saw a number of us transferred to ChiHi. Commuting on the school train was no hardship, as it helped fuel my lifetime interest in railways.

 

After starting (to my dismay) in 1B, I was elevated after the Christmas exams to 1A where Gert Lewis became my form mistress. I must have done well enough by hard work and school reports confirm this. It set a pattern for my school life – a photographic memory helped me conform to the teaching methods of those days i.e. absorbing and writing down comprehensive notes from the teacher, then regurgitating them in school examinations. Didactic teaching at its “best” – problem solving and experiential learning was light years away then. I fairly quickly went down a science or more specifically a biology route, although choosing between Biology or History and Geography in early years was a wrench. In later life I filled this “Arts” void by being one of the first students of the Open University in 1970.

 

A relatively unblemished academic career followed, apart from a brief “off the rails” period in the fifth form when the calls of teenage impulses were present. Our gang then included Tommy Sandes, Roy Twaites, Reg Stewart and Danny Odin. A word from K D Anderson put me back on track and I escaped serious trouble or discipline! Sixth form in BL and BU saw a small group of us studying for A Levels and a subsequent career via University. Career guidance at that time was minimal. I am often asked why I chose dentistry and I always tell the story of being summoned to KD’s study. Four of us filed in and KD looked at us from behind his desk. “Allen, Clark, Morgan, Salter …..there are too many doctors …..you are all to apply for Dentistry” (KD must have read somewhere that manpower projections stated that the country needed more dentists). We all filed out and all applied to Dental School. Bruce, Peter and myself to the Royal Dental Hospital (RDH) and Chris to Kings. We all qualified and pursued varied careers subsequently.

 

Just to conclude life at School – sport had always been a great interest and I played cricket through the teams – Junior Colts – Colts – 2nd XI and eventually 1st XI. Frank Haill described my ability in the 1961 Martlet “He is a batsman difficult to dislodge……He also essays the difficult art of leg break bowling and has been useful as a change bowler”. My efforts with leg spin were to see me brought on to bowl in the annual match versus the Staff in summer 1961 (School had scored 159 – 4) I think Ken Hoad planned that I should give them some runs – I took seven wickets for five runs including a hat-trick – not quite fulfilling the “Master plan”. Soccer was harder – I was not the most skilful player, but nevertheless possessed a strong tackle. When eventually I became a regular in the First XI, I was often given explicit instructions to mark the opposition’s equivalent of John Richards (i.e. ball-playing, skilful inside forward) and play him out of the game by fair means or foul! Sadly my football career was cut short by injury to a knee, but not before playing in the final of the Hospitals Football Cup at the RDH. My cricket career continued playing for my village and The Cricket Society until I finally hung up my boots aged 66!

 

So summer 1961 ended my days at the School and I embarked on University life in London in the 1960s – what an experience at a time when the term “swinging” meant music and fashion and not its more modern meaning of extra-marital shenanigans. The Royal Dental Hospital (England’s oldest Dental School) was located in the heart of the West End, in Leicester Square. After a year studying Anatomy, Physiology etc. at Barts Hospital, our lives then centred on the school acquiring both the academic and practical skills necessary to become a dentist. It was while working in the Prosthetics Laboratory making dentures for patients (incidentally the first patients we treated were edentulous i.e. had no teeth!) that I met, fell in love with, pursued and eventually won the heart of my wife, Jennifer. Our love affair is a story in its own right, but suffice to say her beauty, intelligence and practicality led to a life together that produced three children and a successful business partnership in our profession.

 

While the demands of exams, both theoretical and practical, were always there, students at The Royal were privileged to have excellent sporting facilities and a “Common Room” that was a converted night club (the famous pre-war – ‘Ciros’). Our bar and dances were legendary in the Hospital sector. Hailing a taxi driver of a certain age and asking to be taken to Ciros was no problem and a certain delivery on the doorstep! But the rich and titled were nowhere to be seen – at least until one of our year inherited the title of Lord Colwyn. Affairs of the heart had dominated those pre-war years and tales were told of royalty and a classical conductor having a long term affair – he wasn’t a Corporal! By far the most difficult problem at our “Hops” was keeping in time with the ‘sprung’ dance floor – getting out of sync could lead to disaster. The closeness of Soho was convenient and I vividly remember a New Year’s Eve party where a lady from one of the local strip clubs was hired and performed to great acclaim, at least from the men, and curiosity of the girls!

 

But all good things come to an end and in December 1965, those of us that survived the course, qualified and joined the Dental Register as “competent” dentists i.e. the examiners and General Dental Council thought us fit to be let loose on the public. However, there is a world of difference between competent and proficient. In those days there was no Vocational Training to start you off, it was sink or swim in practice. I nearly sank! Jennifer joined the School Dental Service in Nottingham and as part of our exit plan from London and potential hostile parents, I became an assistant in a practice in Beeston, near the University of Nottingham. We spent two years in Nottingham, married and started our first home in a modern, delightful flat. Cricket continued for Chilwell Cricket Club, which I captained in 1967 (incidentally starting a trend towards leadership throughout my life).

 

But professionally I stood still and this was brought home to me even more profoundly when we moved back down south. Jennifer continued in the School Service, while I joined a practice in Chelmsford with a fellow ex RDH student, working for an experienced Indian dentist. I lasted six months and we parted company with him expressing the view that I had a lot to learn about treating patients. This shock combined with Jennifer miscarrying her first pregnancy led me to take stock and return to basics. A pair of sympathetic older dentists – Derek Holgate in Leigh-on-Sea and Richard Kelly in Harlow gave me time and their experience to develop my skills and proficiency and people skills. Ironically now all graduate dentists have to do Vocational Training before they can join the National Health Service. This provides a sheltered environment with time and resources to develop and no time or financial pressure. In later years this personal lesson I put to good use in leading the implementation of a compulsory Vocational Training Scheme in the UK.

 

After this locum period, we decided to start our own practice and we located premises in Braintree, where we put up our plaque, installed my Mother-in- Law (who was now quite reconciled to our marriage) as receptionist and waited for the patients to arrive. Such an arrangement was called a “squat” and within six months I went from one evening a week to fully-booked. Number 9, Market Square was a success and I always believe that in those days reputations often hung on something as simple as being good at extraction of teeth (which I was). Remember that at that time Dentistry was need/disease led and therefore demand was almost limitless. Now demand for cosmetics, prevention etc. has changed the face of the profession. Just as an aside, 1970 was a watershed for dentistry in the UK – universal use of fluoridated toothpaste dramatically reduced tooth decay in children and of course those generations, now in their late 30s and 40s have far less dental disease. But until the generations before have departed this mortal soil – crowns, bridges and implants will remain necessary. In 100 years dentistry will look very different.

 

After children started to arrive, Jennifer left the school service, but came in to the practice and in order to accommodate her we moved to a four day for me and one day for her system. So Thursday I became a house husband and hands on father to three small girls. To me this was a wonderful, satisfying and I hope beneficial experience for our children. My interest in cookery was given free rein! As the girls grew up so more time became available for work and Jennifer went on to limit her practice to Orthodontics – a specialist in all but qualifications and developed a reputation in North Essex that meant referrals came in from many local practices. We moved premises twice, again almost a story in its own right, and when we sold the practice in 2000, we had served the people of Braintree for thirty two years.

 

During this time two threads in my professional life developed that were to mean a major change in my life. The first was Post-Graduate Education. A local dentist from Clacton-on-Sea, Ken Horrocks, was Regional Adviser in General Dental Practice for East Anglia, but based at the British Postgraduate Medical Federation in Guilford Street, London. Ken approached me to see if I would like to be involved in pioneering work seeing if dentists could be trained to be teachers / mentors. From this I became the organiser of the Basildon VT Scheme and I spent seven very happy years helping young dentists take their first steps into practice. Their enthusiasm coupled with the experience of their trainers (dentist running practices) filled a niche that I had so lacked when I qualified. Later I was selected by Government to be Chairman of The Committee on Vocational Training for General Dental Practice (CVT). The task of my small “Quango” was to overview VT and implement a mandatory scheme in the UK. Separately my post graduate involvement also continued later in Europe working for the EU Commission on the Dental Directives governing Standards and Free Movement.

 

But a third strand in my life was also gradually growing. Politics! The British Dental Association (BDA) represents dentists and provides services to its members. At local level Sections and Branches have Post-Graduate meetings and political discussions and committees. At that time the Local Dental Committee (LDC) a statutory NHS committee was also very important in looking after dentistry in local areas. Three men – Kit Hughes, Gordon Cowley and Owen Law were influential in identifying and grooming both myself and a friend Lesley Laxton onto the ladder to a national position. I was elected to the Representative Body of the BDA and from there to the major general dental practice committee. Elected to its principal committee, I also served on the British Medical Association (BMA) equivalent body, which gave me a good insight into the wider NHS. By now in the early 1990s more and more of my time was spent in London. In 1990 I chaired a particularly contentious Special Conference of LDCs after the imposition by the Government of a new Dental Contract. (Shades of the current Junior Doctors dispute)

 

I always look back on that day as a bit like opening the batting in a cricket match against a hostile attack on a sporting wicket! Nervous before the event, aggressive fast bowling, playing straight with no risks, concentrating but eventually expansive and moving into playing my shots. I must have “done alright” because successive promotions followed on the Council of the BDA. In 1994 I was encouraged to stand for election as Chairman of Council, won and served the Association for six years. As principal elected officer of the BDA, I use the comparison with the Prime Minister. Head of the BDA, controlling policy, negotiating with Government through the Review Body and by direct meetings with the Secretary of State or Ministers of Health. I was in office as John Major and the Tories came out of office to be succeeded by Tony Blair and “New Labour”. The politicians who impressed me were Stephen Dorrell (the Tory’s lost leader in my opinion) and Alan Milburn. At the opposite end of the spectrum were some of the nastiest …… probably best nameless.

 

As part of my work I was heavily media trained both at the BDA and BMA and often now recognise the tricks as people are interviewed on radio and TV. One example of the training I remember was a BBC figure, John Deacon who used a lovely hint. He said “Whenever you are speaking to a politician, you have to look him in the eyes and in your mind say to yourself – ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me!”

 

It became another great part of my life being motivated, briefed and put up for interview by Kate Cinamon, the BDA Press Officer. So I featured on Breakfast TV, The Today programme with John Humphries and local and national radio stations usually trying to defend the profession and to reassure the public by making positive points. I loved it and was only sorry not to have met and been interviewed by Paxman – that would have been a challenge!

 

But my biggest regret of that whole period is that the BDA had developed a plan for NHS Dentistry which was in turmoil as more and more dentists voted with their feet an went into the private sector, so boosting the business at Denplan! We offered it to Blair’s government and it would have meant a core service in NHS dentistry, viable and affordable. They rejected it on grounds of political rhetoric and the need to be able to say that the NHS was free at the point of demand – long since lost in reality in dentistry.

 

In parallel with UK activity I was becoming involved internationally from 1994 to 2010 as a Councillor and Director of the World Dental Federation (FDI) This involved travel world-wide, an enormous responsibility and experience that Jennifer was able to share. The climax of this involvement was standing for President in Sydney in 2003. To my chagrin and regret I missed out by one vote to a woman from Belgium. An opportunity missed by the FDI and myself.

 

My final honours were to be appointed President of the BDA in 2000 – where unlike my former role of “Prime Minister” where you have all the work, power but very little glory – you become like the Queen with all the glory, but no power! I spent a year travelling to New Zealand, South Africa and Branches and Sections in the UK. It was lovely to meet and chat to members and eat a lot of Chicken and Australian Red Wine. Eating for the BDA not working! And ultimately in November 1999 came a letter from the Prime Minister’s Office informing me that the Queen had in mind to appoint me to the Order of the British Empire. The story of my Investiture at the Palace before the Queen in summer 2000 included a humorous aspect. When you arrive at the Palace you are separated into MBEs in one area, OBEs another, CBEs and Knighthoods etc. You are then briefed on the procedure – walk in procession – when it is your turn walk forward from the line shake the Queen’s gloved hand – she pins the badge on you – a firm push from her backwards as you grasp her hand again – this means the interview is over – you walk backwards – reach the line and then turn right and exit. While briefing the “Flunkie” checks your name so I was described as Mr William Allen – No I said I am Doctor Allen – “Oh!” came the response, not what we have down. I then explained that the BDA was mounting a campaign to “Call me Doctor” for dentists. After a consultation they agreed somewhat reluctantly. And what was the first thing the Queen said to me?

 

”Are you actually a doctor – Doctor Allen?”

 

So I am a lucky and fulfilled man – with a Wife and Partner, three Daughters, eight Grandchildren – cricket, cycling, golf, and sport in general albeit a season ticket holder at Pompey is my penance. Steam engines and model railways are still a major interest and I am still very active in retirement – Chairman of the Essex Area of the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS) and Trustee on the Board of the London School of Osteopathy. I am also a past Chairman of The Cricket Society. All this keeps my mind and body active and busy and we now have a flat in Chichester, in Grove Road – just yards from the old School site, so the circle is perhaps complete.

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