I was born in Chingford, Essex, my father was a commissioned officer in the army and my mother was a comptometer operator until she had me.
My father unfortunately was a fatality in the closing months of the war, in the Ardennes. As a young war widow my mother moved with her parents to Lowestoft when my grandfather retired from his furniture business in Bishop’s Stortford.
Education and apprenticeship
I attended private primary education at Southolme High School, paid for by an army grant. I discovered quite early on that I had problems with my written work, although my maths appeared to be alright. When I failed the eleven plus I asked my mother if I could go to the local secondary modern school, because I thought that it was more in keeping with what I needed to do later in life.
I could have continued at private school, but that would have aimed me in the direction of an academic career, but I just did not have it, never mind about how intelligent I was, I just did not have it.
I left school at fifteen and started an apprenticeship with a small engineering works, in Lowestoft, which was in walking distance of where I lived. I had to badger the general foreman of the company for quite a few weeks before he relented and took me on.
It was the best way forward for me because my written work just was not strong enough to warrant even day release to technical college. My immediate governor understood that and gave me a very sound apprenticeship.
In my forties I discovered that I was dyslexic, which explained a multitude of things, because as a young man it was not recognised, they just though that I had problems. I was told later in my career by a customer that I was verbally dyslexic which explained why I was unable to spell. If you cannot pronounce a word correctly you’ve got no chance of spelling it.
During my apprenticeship I did a varied amount of work, we built and fabricated machinery, we did a lot of work for all the garages in the town. We were also the main agents for Gardner Marine Diesels, and when the Scottish fishing fleet came round every year we were extremely busy. We could be sent out a boat at Yarmouth and probably not come off it until midnight.
This gave me grounding in marine engineering, and although I went away from it for quite a number of years, one always tends to return to ones roots.
To help me read the specifications and drawings for the machinery we were building I took a night course on technical drawing, I managed it very well and it was an asset for both me and the company.
First job, cars and motorbikes
My apprenticeship lasted five years and I finished when I was twenty one. My first job was with a company in Gorleston that manufactured paper bags and sacks. They opened a factory in Hartlepool, under a grant scheme and the three of us went over to Germany to oversee the final assembly of the machinery that was going in to it.
The total sum involved was three hundred thousand pounds, a considerable sum in those days. Unfortunately the company floundered, it overreached itself and cash flow problems caused it to cease trading.
I moved back down to Lowestoft and saw my original governor, he offered me my old job back, but I declined it politely, once a boy always a boy.
Whilst I found my feet I temporarily took a job as foreman of a garage in Oulton Broad. I had always had an interest in cars and bike. In fact I must have been an absolute nightmare for my mother as I was absolutely infatuated with motorbikes, I had various ones of increasing size.
My favourite was 500 Triumph Twin, which I actually had a very bad accident on, but I survived and so did the bike.
I have owned and ridden motorcycles all my life and in fact I still do.
Because of my background in the engineering side of the car business, I managed it no problem at all.
Gough Packaging, assistant engineer to chief engineer
By this time I was married and succeeded in applying for a position as assistant engineer at Gough Packaging in Norwich. We manufactured our own corrugated boards, we had our own steam raising plant. We also did a lot of work for the shoe industry done in Norwich, basically manufacturing shoe boxes.
We made point of sales cardboard display units that were flat packed and could be assembled to display goods.
I was involved in maintaining the plant and machinery which was quite involved. I became chief engineer, and to the best of my knowledge I was the youngest chief engineer in Norwich. I did not look my years and as I was responsible for nine blokes with an average age of forty it gave me problems with my contemporaries as they tended not to take me seriously.
Once they realised that I knew what I was doing and would stand by them no matter what I had no problems with them whatsoever.
The factory was sold and the machinery was taken out and put into a factory in Harlow, I was offered the job of assistant engineer in Harlow but my children had just started school and the upheaval just wasn’t on the cards.
John at Gough Packaging
John aged 26 with his daughter
Moving into the boat industry
I was told that a company at Brundall, Moonraker Marine, was hiring. They were building a range of luxury sea going power yachts, I went to see the project engineer and he offered me the position of plant engineer, which suited me down to the ground.
I was responsible for looking after the fabric of the extensive buildings, all the lifting equipment and compressors. They had a fully automated GRP [glass reinforced plastic] shop which was powered by machines called drosstones which was basically the early form of spraying on fibreglass. The company was owned by Colin Chapman of Lotus cars, he also had boat building enterprises on the Hethel site in the old hangers, and I was seconded to that as project/development engineer, whilst still being responsible for the operation at Brundall.
I was responsible for setting up the woodworking sawmill, power requirements which were totally inadequate. When you build a boat and you start fitting it out you work off a mezzanine floor which is like a quarry quay heading, so I had to maintain that too. There were some problems with the construction of them, there were also problems with the hanger floor not taking the point loadings required at one end. It was an interesting time.
After that I was briefly in partnership with a welding and fabrication company based in the railway goods shed at Acle, my background was an asset to the business.
From boat engineering to abattoir engineering
I was head hunted by Mr George Pointer of Pointer’s abattoir, Aylsham Road, Norwich, who wanted a competent engineer to run the mechanics of his new EEC [European Economic Community] regulation abattoir.
I soon discovered that Mr Pointer was a good old fashioned Norfolk gov’nor who always treated me well. The job was not to everybody’s taste, and it was quite difficult to find someone who fitted in to the role, so I was paid well, and the job suited me just fine. I had no problem with it,
I worked for him for six years, keeping the plant in order, there was a steam raising plant too, which of course I was conversant with, and large refrigeration and chill rooms. It was a fully automated line for dealing with pigs.
I was the only engineer there and could hold the job down on the principle of the stitch in time saves nine. I used to walk the premises every morning, right through and anything I saw I either dealt with then and there, or during the knockdown for lunch or I stayed on an evening.
I can honestly say that in six years he never lost one hour’s production.
I left that job on Mr Pointer’s retirement, and went to work for Des Drummond who had a small plastics company called Lettergold Plastics in Newmarket. The Lettergold referred to the fact that at one time an arm of the company did silk screen printing and embossing, but that side of the company was sold and it concentrated on the blow moulding side of things.
He had fully automated bottle blowing machines, and had also put a pair of injection moulders in to make closures for the bottles and needed a competent electromechanical engineer to run them.
We gave the machine nicknames, if you can personalise a machine the operators will treat it better. The blow moulder we called Evil Edna, it was supposed to run twenty four hours a day, but every day when we went in it had broken down. The two injection moulders we called Pinky and Perky, even when the company grew and moved to a larger factory at Kentford the machines still had pet names.
From Lettergold Plastics to being my own governor
I worked there for six years but I always had a wish to be my own governor so I moved back down to Lingwood near Norwich and started off a company as a marine and general engineer.
The work I did was varied, a lot of it was sub-contracted from some of the larger boatyards, they gave me what they could not handle themselves or the rubbish they did not want to be involved in, I make no apology for using the word rubbish.
I also continued to work for Des Drummond as a sub contractor on an as and when basis, and did so for the rest of my working life, we had a good relationship.
Malthouse Broad Boatyard, Ranworth
I also worked at Ranworth, running the operation one day a week, two days when we were pulling out in to the yard on the slip, or putting the boats back in after they had over wintered. During this time I worked with the Cator family and Charles Cator was my immediate contact. He was a gentleman farmer but loved getting amongst all the muck. I have a very nice letter that he wrote me on my retirement saying that ‘he looked back on our days of rummaging about in goodness knows what, with great affection’.
The Norfolk Broads has a rich history of locally built yachts, various classes and of various manufacturers.
The Hunter’s yard at Ludham is a prime example of one that has been preserved, I believe that it is tied in to a heritage of some type and they are still running the original boats. Most of them are built out of Burmese teak and will last forever.
I worked for South River Marine, based at St Olaves, they specialised in the restoration of classic and vintage boats. A lot of the boat owners wanted original type engines in them, which was the type of engine I served my apprenticeship on basically. I knew them inside out, so the format was, they got the boat, whatever was in it for an engine was taken out, Mike Barnes, one of the directors, researched for an original type engine and it was given to me to basically rebuild, to the best of what you could with what spares you could access.
Experimental hydroplane (Bat boat) powered by Spanish fighter engine
One was a stepped hull hydroplane. They were called bat boats and they were built for experimental work for the shape of the hulls on seaplanes. They were using the hull designs to try to get them out of the water earlier. The one that I was involved in actually had a Spanish SPAD fighter engine in it, but where the engine was researched from and sourced I haven’t a clue. It was an absolute monster twelve litre V8, and you needed a shoe horn to get it back in to the hull.
My involvement with Reedham ferry was one of those things that just happened. I was phoned up one day by a gentleman saying that the ferry had come back from a refit the previous week and it had suffered a complete failure on the hydraulics and they could not get anybody out to deal with it.
I put down what I was doing and went out to it. I found that one of the steel lines had corroded and burst, the proprietor Mr Archer was not impressed as it had just come back from refit.
I spliced a temporary repair into it and got it running again. I said to him ‘really all these lines should be in stainless steel, you can get stainless steel hydraulic lines’. ‘Will you make them up and fit ‘em’ he said, so I did and this is how my association with Reedham ferry started, and it continued for the rest of my working life.
The old ferry at Reedham
Running a ferry after the Marchioness disaster and new guidelines
When the Bowbelle ran the Marchioness down on the Thames in 1989 it opened the door to basically a total panic situation about all the passenger carrying craft. Although in actual fact, a chain ferry or cable ferry is no more than a winched pontoon if you think about it, but they come under the heading of a passenger carrying boat.
There are eight ferries in the United Kingdom that are operated by cable or chain and the owners have formed an association to try to deal with the conflicting instructions and information they were receiving from various sources after 1989.
In the end sanity prevailed and a surveyor was seconded from the board of trade to look at each ferry in turn, and work out the best options for that particular ferry. The surveyor was a real no nonsense Yorkshire man nearing retirement, I took a great liking to him.
We had to do various tests on the ferry as regards buoyancy, and its loading capacity, their biggest problem was fear of capsize, but it actually came out with flying colours and it did have a good safety record.
The construction of the ferry was quite advanced, it is steel framed, with oak planking, very heavily built. There is a ballast tank on each end of the ferry that can be flooded to adjust its height to according to the tide, because Reedham is very tidal.
It is powered by two diesel engines, both running the hydraulics, it will run on either engine it doesn’t need both. I replaced these engines with modern diesel engines. It had listers in which you could hear running all over the village. As a by product we discovered by putting smoother engines in we extended the chain life. Instead of the chains jumping and leaping on winch gypsies they run smoothly, because the power delivery was smoother.
The ferry had to be shrunk slightly as it needed to go through Mutford lock at Oulton Broad.
Word of mouth is worth more than a million adverts
As my business became more established I got better known, and through Des Drummond who was still running the business in Newmarket I started getting calls for work in the Newmarket and Cambridge area on the Cam, word of mouth is worth more than a million adverts.
I got a call from a professional photographer to the racing fraternity, Laurie Morton. He had a petrol engine seamaster and wanted to dieselise it, and despite his efforts nobody could do it.
Rebuilt diesel engine for twin screw cruiser
He wanted to dieselise it because it is nearly impossible to buy petrol on the Cam anymore, it was a case of taking tins of petrol with you, and petrol engines are notoriously thirsty. I liaised with Peachment Marine at Brundall, and I was given the job of doing it. Over a number of weeks the old engine was taken out, new one put in, and re-engineered, Mr Morton was delighted, the boat had a lot more torque and the handling was easier.
He wrote an article in one of the yachting magazines which brought me another identical job.
The conversion to diesel is expensive, basically the value of the boat again, so a lot of people just sold their petrol engine boats and bought a diesel one.
It was interesting work and a lot of my customers I still have contact with, they have almost become personal friends, which is not good in business as you tend to be too kind to them.
Repairing a boat moored on the river Seine
I was approached by a gentleman who was acting for the owner of a boat that was having gear box problems, and I was recommended to him as an expert on Newage mechanical gear boxes, quite where that came from I don’t know. But in due course I went over to France with him and looked at the job.
The boat was moored just one berth down from the Eiffel tower, a prime mooring and was owned by Mr Mort Rosenblum, who was a worldwide correspondent for Associated Press, he had various holdings including a ranch in the mid west but his idea of pleasure in life was living on the leaky hundred year old boat moored in the Seine. Mr Rosenblum wanted the boat to be a runner, but it had a history of gear box problems, when I first investigated I couldn’t work out the problem it was too badly damaged, I came to the conclusion that the propeller had failed.
On the Seine
He promptly phoned the fire brigade who arrived in a high speed launch with a diver who went down to investigate. He came back up and said ‘I don’t believe this, one of our fireman’s tunics was wrapped up round the propeller’.
The boat was a substantial size, fifty four foot long, weighing twenty two metric tonnes. As far as we can establish it was built in about 1900, and was originally steam driven. It had to be pulled out every third year for insurance survey, and it used to go down stream to Limay where there were facilities to slip it.
The first time I went down with the boat as Mort said he would feel happier if I was on board. I was astounded when I saw the propellers, I suspect they were still the ones fitted to the steam engine, they were enormous. After some work on them, back in the United Kingdom, I managed to clip an inch and half off them and the boat was faster and smoother and the gear boxes didn’t keep blowing up, so you can say it was a success in a lot of ways.
I retired in 2003, I didn’t want to, but the doctor retired me, one’s own business can be a very hard taskmaster, eventually your health will suffer.
I still kept my hand in, doing bits and pieces here and there, being careful as of course I was no longer insured for third party liability.
I worked for two days a week as a car valeter, because I could just not be idle, it drove me absolutely mad. There is a lot more to being a car valeter than you realise, the salesman liked the car to be better than when it had come out of the factory.
I also worked for four years as a museum attendant at Caister Castle, on the car collection, a job I really loved. Believe it or not the proprietor still sends me a free pass every year, so I must have been appreciated.
Reflecting on a career in engineering
There were no bad points for me with engineering, you got totally involved with what you were doing, every job was different and you learnt about that particular industry as you went along. I have no regrets and am satisfied with my life as an engineer, it has always stood by me.
I would say to a young person today, apprenticeships are coming back in vogue, so if you want a career in engineering , you have got five years to come out with the ability to earn your living for the rest of your life, so pick one carefully and apply yourself.
John Cooke (b. 1943) talking to WISEArchive on 31st August 2018 in Rollesby
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