On March 13th Ambrose Barber talked to Members about what he had
been up to after retiring from BAe, having worked for HAL and HSA since
the 1950s in roles ranging from flight development engineer and flight
observer to divisional director. His new interests included the musical
theatre, owning a classic light aircraft, researching his family
history, creative writing, and sculpture, all of which were illustrated
in the talk.
Ambrose played no musical instruments but had a keen interest in the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan (G & S ). This led him to join the Godalming Operatic Society in 1971, while still working, to become a member of the chorus at the age of forty. The Chairman was Dunsfold aerodrome Manager, Fred Jeffery. Fred retired to Dorset when Ambrose was too busy to take on the responsibility but when he retired he had no such excuse, becoming Chairman in 1998. The Society staged a G & S opera with full orchestra every year, costing £30k or more, with performances at the Godalming Borough Hall and the Civic Hall Guildford. When the latter closed the Thorndike Theatre at Leatherhead was substituted. Often summer performances were also staged. Although an amateur Society the soloists were of professional standard and there was keen competition to recruit the best. The Society had built up a high reputation for the quality of its productions since its foundation in 1924 and it was Ambrose’s job to ensure that the reputation was maintained.
Initially the classic light aircraft was a 1946 Blackburn Cirrus
powered Auster owned by a neighbour who wanted to share it. Ambrose
bought a share and they flew from a local farm. The grass strip had a
significant slope with trees at the top so it was essential to take off
downhill and land uphill. Wind speed and direction were critical.
On returning from one sortie Ambrose found that the wind had changed
direction but decided to ‘have a go’ at landing. The result was major
damage to the wing a bit less to the fuselage and the engine was OK.
The Auster was rebuilt. This machine was sold, a third member was
recruited to form the Southdowns Auster Group and a more powerful DH
Gypsy powered Auster J1N (G-AHHT) was bought. Flying some 12 to 15
hours per year with shared ownership is less expensive than flying at
An interest in his family history led Ambrose to go on a researching course. He found that his was originally a West Country family from a hamlet on the banks of the Severn called Cambridge; hence Ambrose’s middle name. He has traced the family back to 1796 and has inherited a light cavalry sword from that era. Nowadays DNA can provide extra information by comparing a sample with a databank available via the internet.
A one week course on creative writing helped Ambrose to write a new operetta for the Godalming Operatic Society. He based his story, ‘A Frank Affair‘, on the ‘Franklin’s Tale’ in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Set in the 1950s it was performed at Guildford’s Electric Theatre. Ambrose has also written chapters in the nostalgic aviation series which included ‘More Tails of the Fifties’, ‘Tail Ends of the Fifties’ and ‘Shadows of the Fifties’ (Ed’s note - all compiled by Peter G Campbell and published by Cirrus Associates, these are all excellent reads). In the former he wrote about his experiences as a National Service pilot trainee in the early 1950s, a time when the casualty rate is now recognised as having been appallingly high for peacetime. Ambrose was lucky to be selected as a Vampire pilot as a total of 890 Meteors crashed. Consequently Ambrose flew on for 64 years stopping only when he reached 85!
A more prolonged course, this time at the West Dean College, Chichester, got Ambrose started on sculpture. He proved to have a talent and amongst his successes is a bronze bust of Sir Sydney Camm commissioned by the RAF Club in Piccadilly. Further castings are on display in the Royal Borough of Windsor’s Guildhall Museum (Windsor was Camm’s birthplace) and at the Royal Borough of Kingston’s Library/Museum. Ambrose’s bronze bust of Sir Thomas Sopwith is on display at the Kingston Library/Museum and also at the Royal Yacht Squadron, Cowes (Sopwith was a keen and distinguished America’s Cup challenger).
The vote of thanks was given by Editor Chris Farara who had known
Ambrose since joining Fred Sutton’s Flight Development department at
Dunsfold in 1961; in fact Ambrose was his ‘mentor’. Chris had also
flown with Ambrose in a variety of aircraft including the oldest Tiger
Moth on the civil register, G-ACDC, in which he experienced his first
aerobatics and spins!