Isle of Wight Hidden Heroes

Sir Christopher Cockerell CBE RDI FRS 1910-1999

Christopher Cockerell

Christopher Cockerell was born in Cambridge on 4 June 1910; the son of Sir Sydney Cockerell, curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, and Florence Cockerell, an illustrator and designer.

From an early age Cockerell showed an aptitude for engineering much to the bewilderment of his more literary-minded parents.

Despite their dismissal of his ‘garage-hand’ hobby they provided the financial support for his early patents that enabled him to become a great inventor and innovator.

After education at Gresham’s School in Norfolk, Christopher went on to read mechanical engineering at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. On graduating he started work for WH Allen & Sons, diesel locomotive engineers at Bedford, but after two years he returned to Cambridge for post-graduate research on radio projects.

An early pioneer
In 1935 he joined the Marconi Wireless Telegram Company and worked on pioneering aspects of television engineering.

During World War II he made a significant technical contribution by developing early radio navigation systems for the Navy and RAF.

Great vision
Cockerell left Marconi in 1950 and bought Ripplecraft, an unprofitable boat and caravan company based in East Anglia, which he turned into a flourishing concern.

He wanted to increase the speed of boats, and conjectured that by creating a thin layer of air under the vessel he could reduce drag.

In 1955 he used everyday items such as an empty cat food tin, a coffee tin and a hair dryer to demonstrate his concept, and soon built a viable working model of an air cushion vehicle, or “hovercraft”.

Standing on the shoulders
The concept of an air cushion vehicle was not new. Eminent Isle of Wight engineers John Thorneycroft and Sam Saunders had both already looked at various ways of raising boats above the water to reduce drag, but they failed to produce a craft with sufficient lift and stability.

By containing the blown air with sidewalls and concentrating the underneath-pressure around the periphery of the vehicle Cockerell finally succeeded in creating an effective new method of amphibious transportation.

Design kept secret
Cockerell struggled to get Government and industry support for further development.

The Hovercraft was seen as having no viable defence use, but the design was placed on the secret list to prevent it from being stolen.

Eventually, in 1958 the hovercraft was declassified and Cockerell was introduced to the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) who contracted Saunders-Roe on the Isle of Wight to carry out further research.

Settled on the Island
Cockerell moved with his family to East Cowes in the role of technical consultant. The first viable hovercraft, SR-N1, was shown to the public on the 11 June 1959 and on 25 July 1959 the SR-N1 successfully crossed the English Channel between Calais and Dover.

In 1961, development was continued through an NRDC subsidiary company, Hovercraft Development Ltd, based at Hythe on Southampton Water. Cockerell followed and Hythe became his home until he died in 1999.

Widespread recognition
The success of the hovercraft brought Cockerell widespread recognition. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and awarded a CBE in 1966.

In 1969 Cockerell was Knighted for services to engineering.

Henry Knight 1820-1895

Royal Victoria Arcade

Henry Knight had several patents to his name, including a horse clipping machine and an automatic weighing machine. However, he is most well-known for his tin opener.

Canned food had been around long before Knight invented his opener.

The process of preserving food in wrought iron cans was developed early in the 19th century. Opening the cans involved a hammer and chisel. By the middle of the 19th century lighter materials created the opportunity for a tin opening device.

Henry patented his tin opener in 1881. He sold the patent for his tin opener to Crosse and Blackwell who brought it into common use.

Owned Union Street Arcade
A member of Ryde Borough Council, Knight described himself as an importer of Italian sculpture and owned the ‘Arcade’ in Union Street, Ryde.

He had several patents to his name, including a horse clipping machine and an automatic weighing machine.

He earned little from his inventions and was declared bankrupt in 1890.

Henry Knight died in 1895.

John Dennett 1780-1852

Instructions for Dennett's Rockets

John Dennett (1780-1852) was a member of a well-established Carisbrooke family whose lifelong fascination with rockets led him to develop a life-saving rocket propelled device.

Describing himself as an engineer and surveyor, John is believed to have been involved in manufacturing military rockets during the Napoleonic Wars. However he later turned his skills to developing a rocket which could fire a line over to a ship in distress.

‘Rocket man’
In 1826 a naval report following a demonstration of John’s rocket stated that they “will answer every intended purpose in case of shipwreck”. This positive review let to the establishment of three rocket stations – at Freshwater, Atherfield and St Lawrence.

Just a few years later in 1832 a Dennett rocket from the station at Atherfield rescued 19 survivors from the wreck of the Bainbridge. The incident got national coverage and resulted in a contract of £300 a year for the rocket’s use by coastguards. The future Queen Victoria was even given a demonstration during a visit to St Lawrence.

All weather rocket
The Dennett rocket had many advantages over the mortars that had come before it. The rocket was shaped like a large firework, but instead of having a paper case it had an iron one, which meant it could be used in all weathers.

It was also light enough to be carried easily by two men, meaning it could be moved from the rocket station to the scene of the rescue quickly over rocky cliffs and beaches. It could be fired up to 230 meters away and also had a bright trail when launched which could be seen from miles away.

Saving thousands of lives
John continued to improve his rocket and over the coming years the device was responsible for saving thousands of lives all around the country.

Although other rockets were developed Dennett’s was still in use as late as 1890, when it was used to rescue 36 from the wreck of the Irex in Scratchells Bay, with the crew hauled one by one up the 400 foot cliff.

Amateur historian
As well as being a brilliant inventor John was also a keen amateur historian and shortly before his death he was appointed as custodian of Carisbrooke Castle.

He had a fascination with the history of the castle and even lived there in the last years of his life.

Legacy carried on
John Dennett died on 10 July 1852 and his son Horatio was left with the family business. Horatio continued to manufacture his father’s rockets until other innovations in rocket science eventually outdated the Dennett rocket.

By the 1870s they were almost entirely replaced with newer models and Horatio retired the business.

Edward Mourier Boxer 1822-1898

boxers rockets MIH

Edward Boxer was an English inventor who developed the “Boxer rockets” which were used for firing rescue lines to ships in distress.

A colonel of the Royal Artillery, he lived at Upton House, Ryde.

In 1855 he was appointed Superintendent of the Royal Laboratory of the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1858.

He is best known for two of his inventions.

The “Boxer Rocket”
Originally designed for war use, he adapted it as a lifesaving rocket with a line attached around 1865. An early two-stage rocket, it increased the range over earlier types, and remained in use until after World War II.

The “Boxer Primer” for firearm cartridges, invented about 1866.

He died at home, in Upton House.

Uffa Fox 1898-1972

Uffa Fox

Surely the least hidden of all our Heroes, Uffa Fox dominated the sailing world both in his comparatively younger days and in later years as the designer, builder and sailor of a long list of boats, mainly, but not exclusively, racing dinghies.

Born in 1898, he was just the age to have begun his apprenticeship locally at the very start of the First World War, but was sent off to work on the East Coast on building rescue boats, a presentiment perhaps of the later success of his important WWII Airborne Lifeboat.

Early successes
As a young man, brimming with energy and self-belief, and having served his time with influential local boatyards, he was soon inspired to strike out confidently on his own with his ideas for fast racing dinghies.

He achieved early success with the 14 foot class, which he rapidly came to dominate both as a competitor and a designer/builder throughout the twenties and thirties.

Genius helmsman
Uffa was a genius helmsman and won so many races in boats that he had built for himself and his customers that he soon became famous, and not just in Cowes.

His was an extravagant character and the stories of his exploits were legion, and mostly true. His time as Scout Master to the Cowes Sea Scouts resulted in adventures which were much appreciated by the boys, if less so by their parents.

Much-admired and in demand
Uffa sailed twice as crew across the Atlantic, making friends on both sides of that ocean. He talked as well as he sailed and was soon in demand as a lecturer, as at home speaking to students in university sailing clubs as he was to his wealthy and often titled clients.

As an employer of local men and boys in his yard, he aroused deep reactions – everyone had a story about Uffa and the unexpected nature of what working with him could entail.

Constantly short of funds, he nevertheless attracted considerable orders and his standards of work were always high – producing winning boats was his aim, and the publicity engendered by his own achievements meant that everywhere he went in the sailing world, he was known and attracted interest and attention.

Lifesaving Airborne Lifeboat
During the Second World War he produced the boat of which in later life he said he was most proud. He took on the concept of an Airborne Lifeboat and through sheer weight of personality, managed to force it into production.

This was the boat that saved over 200 aircrew lives of airmen downed into the seas around the German occupied European coast, and eventually even for the Americans in the Pacific theatre.

Living life at full speed
He lived all life at full speed in everything he did, work and play which to him were one and the same.

In 1949 at a Cowes Week party he was introduced to HRH Prince Philip who had asked to meet ‘someone interesting’ and they became lifelong friends and sailing partners.

Rooted to life in Cowes
Nevertheless, although he was known worldwide simply by his first name, he remained rooted to his life in Cowes and with much the same down to earth approach to daily work and adventures as he had always had.

Uffa died in 1972 and is buried at Whippingham, with the Airborne Lifeboat etched on his tombstone.

Tom Sopwith 1888-1989

Tom Sopwith and wife

Thomas Octave Murdoch – T.O.M. – Sopwith was first and foremost an engineer throughout his long life.

Born in January 1888 he lived to be 101, dying at his home near Romsey in January 1989.

As a young man before the First World War his primary interest was in aircraft and flying and he became famous at a comparatively young age with his pioneering activities in these fields both in England and in America.

His first flight was in 1910, and within a month he had earned his pilot’s licence, No. 31. He began manufacturing aircraft and was involved with Sammy Saunders in 1913 in the building in East Cowes of the Bat Boat, the first really successful seaplane.

Finest fighting aircraft of WWI
His new company, Sopwith Aviation, produced further well-known designs and in 1914 his Sopwith ‘Tabloid’ won the second Schneider Trophy race at Monaco.

During the First World War, perhaps his company’s two most famous designs were the Sopwith Pup and the Sopwith Camel, the latter probably the finest fighting aircraft of the WWI and, arguably, of all time.

Although a post-war slump in the aircraft market took a toll on his company, he managed to give it a highly successful new direction and name along with his chief test pilot, Harry Hawker.

Love of sailing and powerboat racing
Sailing had been one of Sopwith’s interests since boyhood and, starting in dinghies, by 1909 he was co-owner of a dilapidated 166 ton schooner, Neva.

He was also addicted to powerboat racing, in those early days so much an important sporting activity with its associated development in both engine design and manufacture. So many names that would become famous as car manufacturers began by building powerboats, Wolsey, Daimler, Mercedes, Napier.

In 1912 he won the prestigious British International Trophy in Maple Leaf IV, built by Sammy Saunders, and repeated that win two years later with a world record time of 48 knots.

In the decade after the War he also owned a series of ever larger diesel yachts, culminating in the ‘30’s in the magnificent Philante.

He was regarded as the best British 12m helmsman and was Class champion in 1928, 1929 and 1930 with his 12m Mouette, built for him by Camper and Nicholson, whereupon he was elected a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

America’s Cup
Tom became absorbed in the challenges by Sir Thomas Lipton for the America’s Cup, and on the death of Lipton in 1931, he bought Lipton’s J-class yacht, Shamrock V.

For two years he raced her around the Solent, being unusual as an owner in that he steered his own vessel, instead of merely relying on a professional skipper.

The birth of Endeavour
In 1933 he commissioned Charles Nicholson to design and build in Gosport a new J-class yacht, Endeavour, in order to challenge the Americans for the series in 1934.

This series was one that was so hotly contested that it nearly returned the America’s Cup back to Great Britain.

Endeavour, racing against Harry Vanderbilt’s Rainbow, was widely considered to be the faster of the two. However, several controversial events during racing robbed Sopwith of victory, and he went home a disappointed man, vowing never to challenge again.

Crushing defeat for Endeavour II
He did try again, in 1937, but this time his new boat, Endeavour II, came up against the American defender, Ranger, generally agreed to be the fastest J ever built, and this time defeat was crushing.

Thereafter the heavy demands of aircraft manufacture during the Second World War put a end to Sopwith’s maritime activity, his final racing yacht being the 12m Tomahawk in 1939.

Professor John Milne 1850-1913

John Milne

Professor John Milne FRS was the founder of the science of seismology, the study of earthquakes.

The first half of his professional life was spent in Japan, and the second half on the Isle of Wight, where he established the world’s first seismographic station at Shide Hill House, near Newport.

A developing interest in science
Milne was born in 1850 in Liverpool, and after attending school obtained a place in 1867 at King’s College London, gaining certificates in a wide range of subjects. With a developing interest in science, he attended the Royal School of Mines, and in 1873 obtained employment reporting on the mineral resources of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In 1875, Milne became Professor of Geology and Mining at the newly formed Imperial College of Engineering, Tokyo.

Travelling overland to take up his new post, he immersed himself upon his arrival in a wide range of topics including mineralogy, volcanology, mining engineering, chemistry and archaeology.

Co-founder of the Seismological Society of Japan
Following the devastating Yokohama earthquake of 1880, he took up a special interest in earthquakes, and helped found the Seismological Society of Japan.

Milne published many papers and several books on seismology, and with colleagues developed the first seismograph capable of recording major earthquakes occurring in any part of the world.

His pioneering work was recognised through many honours, including an honorary Fellowship of King’s College London, Fellowship of the Royal Society, the Lyell Medal of the Geological Society, and conferment by the Emperor of Japan of the Order of the Rising Sun.

Seismological observatory in Shide
In 1895, Milne returned to England with his Japanese wife, Toné. They set up home at Shide Hill House, where he established a seismological observatory, from which others followed.

Milne developed his seismometers further and promoted a world-wide network to record earthquakes.

Data from around the world
Participating observatories submitted their data to him, which he published from 1899 to 1912.

His observatory became a popular destination for visiting scientists and dignitaries from around the world.

Buried in Barton
John Milne died on 31 July 1913, and was buried in the churchyard of St Paul’s, Barton. He was a man of great energy and enthusiasm, an expert geologist and mining engineer, an explorer, and a keen naturalist.

Other interests included golf, music, literature and photography. An important group of his photographs and papers are today in the care of Carisbrooke Castle Museum.

Percy Goddard Stone FSA, FRIBA, 1856-1934

Percy Stone

Percy Stone lived and worked here for over 50 years. He was responsible for repair and restoration works to Carisbrooke Castle, and many churches and historic buildings across the Island, as well as the creation of a number of memorials.

As a historian of the Isle of Wight, its ancient buildings, as well as its dialect, he produced varied publications on these subjects.

Followed father into architectural profession
Born in London in 1856, Percy Stone was the son of Mary and Coutts Stone, an Architect. He was educated at Rugby School, and then followed his father into the architectural profession.

His association with the Island dates back to his early teens. For some years he was a regular visitor, and in the 1880s moved from Goring-on-Thames, to make it his home and the scene of his life’s work. When he first moved to the Island he lived in Shanklin, and later moved to Merstone.

He studied the Island’s historic buildings
Making careful studies of historic buildings and churches across the Island, Stone was responsible for the repair of many of them, including the gatehouse at Carisbrooke Castle, which was then used to house the museum.

He later pushed for the more ambitious restoration of the chapel of St Nicholas at the Castle. He was also involved with excavations within the Castle, and wrote about its history.

Percy designed many war memorials, and also the memorial in Newport to Queen Victoria, as well as new churches at Wootton (St Mark’s) and Cowes (St Faith’s).

His part in unearthing Newport Roman Villa
As a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and secretary of the Island for them, he often engaged their support for Island projects.

He was involved in the unearthing of the Newport Roman Villa.

Published author
A number of books on architecture, history of the Island, and its dialect, were published by Stone. A key work being “The Architectural Antiquities of the Isle of Wight”, published in two volumes in 1891, with detailed illustrations. In the same year this was published, he also worked on architectural investigations at Quarr Abbey.

Stone wrote a prologue to the IW Historical Pageant produced at Carisbrooke Castle in 1907.

A member of the Architectural Committee which assisted in the compilation of the Victoria Country History of England published in 1912, he contributed to five volumes of that work which deal with the history of Hampshire and the Island.

Wrote under a pseudonym
“Legends and Lays of the Isle of Wight” was published in 1912, a volume mostly in dialect rhyme. He also wrote columns for County Press in dialect under the name “Granfer Izak”.

The redecoration of the Chapel of St Nicholas at Carisbrooke Castle, as the Isle of Wight County War Memorial, occupied him from 1919 up to 1929 when the Chapel was re-dedicated.

Died unexpectedly
In 1934, at the age of 78, Stone unexpectedly collapsed and died in his garden, his wife finding him when calling him in for lunch.

His funeral was held at Arreton Church, where he had worshipped for many years, and the interment followed at Shanklin Cemetery.

FSA: Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries
FRIBA: Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects

Lawrence Holofcener 1926-2017

Lawrence Holofcener

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, Lawrence Holofcener served in the United States Air Force towards the end of the Second World War.

He met Jerry Bock at the University of Wisconsin, with whom he wrote songs and Broadway scores. As an actor he performed on Broadway with Carol Channing and Ginger Rogers and appeared in films.

Hugely talented
Became better known in his later years as the self-taught sculptor. His first exhibition was in 1979.

Lawrence was responsible for ‘Allies’, a life-size bronze of Winston Churchill chatting with Franklin D. Roosevelt on a park bench (Bond Street, London).

He also undertook a major series of sculptures celebrating the contributions made by 20th Century Icons, including Einstein, Kennedy, Mandela, Mother Teresa and Anne Frank.

Inspirational character
Lawrence Holofcener inspired many people whilst he lived on the Isle of Wight and had an infectious passion for life.

The poet, lyricist, playwright, novelist, actor and director sadly passed away on 4th March 2017, just a week after celebrating his 91st birthday.

Image: © With kind permission of Growing Bolder – taken when Lawrence was 85.

Rev. Charles Paterson

Rev Charles Paterson

The Rev. Charles Paterson was Vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Cowes and Hon. Chaplain to the Royal Yacht Squadron. In addition to these duties, he was Hon. Chaplain to the Missions to Seamen, in charge of their very active branch in Cowes.

On 30th July 1936 he conducted the dedication service for a new launch for the Mission, the Nai Louis, a boat donated by a lady who lived in a house overlooking Wootton Creek.

Mrs Leonowens’ late husband, Louis, after whom the boat was named, was the son of Anna Leonowens, one-time governess to the children of the King of Siam, and immortalised in the musical The King and I. (Nai being Siamese for ‘Master’).

A variety of talents
Charles Paterson lived in the Vicarage on Cowes Esplanade, opposite his Church, and was a keen photographer and a gifted amateur painter. Remarkably he also kept a log of the work that might otherwise have gone largely unnoticed.

When the Second World War began, there came to anchor in Cowes Roads a vastly increased number of ships of all sizes, awaiting orders, waiting to be assigned to convoys before setting out on the dangerous sea routes patrolled by enemy submarines.

The County Press of February 1946 reported that, for security reasons, a veil of secrecy was drawn over the activities of the Mission throughout the war, but several times a week, promptly at 9.30, Charles Paterson would go aboard the Nai Louis which had been brought round from its moorings in Wootton by her skipper, Capt. William Brooker of Ryde, and, with a third crew member, they would set out in all weathers to visit three, four, five ships a day.

Visiting all
If it was sometimes too rough or too foggy for the Vicar to board the ships safely, Capt. Booker would steer up the River Medina to visit the many ships and boats sheltering there.

They also paid regular visits to the Trinity House lightships at Calshot, and the Warner, which was off station, having had been brought inside the submarine barriers in Spithead.

Meticulous record-keeping
They took with them all manner of comforts for the ships’ captains and crews, books, magazines, warm clothing, cigarettes. Charles Paterson kept a list of the donors of all these welcome supplies and although a number of names were of local people, many addresses were on the mainland.

He also took photographs, almost certainly against wartime regulations, and painted small portraits of many of the ships he visited.

Link to the outside world
Charles Paterson, very much no longer a young man, had to climb up steep ships’ ladders, often icy and always wet, in order to deliver these gifts and to take back ashore everything the crew needed help with, mostly letters to post and telegrams to send to relatives, cards, messages and often farewells for family and friends.

None of the crew were able to get ashore themselves, so this small 35 ft. launch and its complement of elderly men was often their only contact with home and the wider world.

Many letters were received expressing the gratitude of the crews for the work of Rev. Paterson and his friends, who heroically kept this service to seamen afloat throughout six long years of War.