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.

Christabella Harriet Millgate (1899-1974)

Christabella Millgate

Christabella Millgate was the daughter of John Curtis Millgate, Mayor of Newport.

Her mother being deceased, she took on the role of Mayoress of Newport in 1911 at the age of twelve.

Although she was the youngest mayoress in England it was recorded that “she performs acceptably the duties of the position on all public occasions”.

Her public acts included:

  • presenting prizes at the Newport Council Schools to the best girls in the various departments;
  • opening a ladies’ branch of the Newport Literary Society, with the presentation of a handsome clock; and helping to entertain the aged poor at a New Year tea.

At the end of her year as mayoress she was presented with a gold bracelet as a “souvenir of her Father’s Mayoralty 1911-1912”.

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.

Toné Milne

Tone Milne

Toné Horikawa was the daughter of a Buddhist abbot from Hokkaido. According to her nephew she was educated to become “a good housewife for a farmer in Hokkaido, but … did not greatly care for this idea”.

Toné met John Milne while he was living in Japan. Initially there was a language barrier and early efforts at communication involved the use of Toné’s simple Anglo-Japanese dictionary. Their different religious backgrounds also caused adverse reactions to their relationship, but they married in Tokyo in 1881.

Toné had a lively personality and irrepressible humour and was an active supporter of John’s research. At Shide Hill House she was a skilled hostess, making their guests – which included everyone from students to princes – feel welcome.

After John’s death in 1913, Toné found it hard to be without any other Japanese speakers, but WWI forced her to stay in the UK for a further six years before returning to Japan, where she died in 1925.

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.

Julia Isabella Levina Bennet, Lady Gordon (1775–1867)

Julia Isabella Levina Bennet, Lady Gordon (1775–1867)

Lady Gordon was an accomplished artist remembered as one of J.M.W Turner’s few known pupils.

She studied under David Cox and took lessons from Thomas Girtin.

Her watercolours include a painting of her home on the Isle of Wight, “Northcourt”.

Tate London and the National Trust collections have examples of her work within their collections.

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.

Award-winner
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.

Ellen Cantelo, Elizabeth Thompson and Sarah James

Suffragists

In 1866 the Women’s Suffrage Petition was presented to Parliament and included three signatories from the Isle of Wight: Ellen Cantelo, Elizabeth Thompson and Sarah James.

Signatures were gathered across the UK and Ireland via family circles and friendship networks. Ellen, Elizabeth and Sarah must have been politically engaged and aware of the latest developments and campaigns for women’s suffrage.

Ellen lived at 69 High Street, Sarah in St James Street and Elizabeth in Carisbrooke. Ellen was a well-known artist and she and her sister Elizabeth came from a Chartist family – a working class movement for political reform in the 19th century. Little is known about the third signatory Sarah although it seems likely she knew the sisters, perhaps as a member of the extended family or a close friend.

Ellen, Elizabeth and Sarah were living in a time when women’s lives were controlled by men. First their fathers and then their husbands controlled their property, children and many other aspects of their lives. The radical politics of these women and their family would have been far from the norm in the small Island communities they lived in. These three women were at the forefront of the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Including original research conducted by Hannah Griffiths, Sundni Heritage

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