Ian Ferguson remembers his Grandad, Henry Bowden, at ‘Hawkers’….                        My Grandad spent his war at Canbury Park Road. He was proud of his ‘Hawkers’ time but by no means did he enjoy it. Judging by his elder brothers, he’d rather have fought.

Uncle Ken (actually of course Great Uncle) had a noticeable jaw disfigurement, having been shot out of the rear turret of a Wellington and spent time in a PoW camp. But for Grandad, the money had run out, and rather than completing his education he’d come south to seek his fortune, managing to marry the Boss’s daughter at a South West London car dealership.

The 1930s habit of “running in” cars at high power in closed garages had ruined his lungs, and he couldn’t have run a step, so when war came he worked nights as a lathe-setter at Canbury Park Road. It seems his accent was distinguished not by his Lancastrian origins but the evidence of education or class, as his nickname was “Lord Haw Haw.” However much of a foreign country* the past may be, that must have stung.                

New Perspectives On Canbury Park Road

Toptop toptoptoptop

He didn’t fit in. According to my Grandma “They were rough sorts in the factory. They wouldn’t bother to go out to wee, they’d go straight into the coolant trays under the machines – can you imagine ? Not the best people.” Perhaps some were, as she believed, the dodgers and cowards. Perhaps Grandad was, as my Mum believes, although he never admitted it, a volunteer for bomb disposal. It would have been in character with his mechanical aptitude, unflappable nature and sense of duty.

On the other hand, sitting one day by the river for his break, that accent attracted attention and made him a lifelong friend of a senior figure amongst Hawker’s management. Their children played and grew up together. John Fozard became a family friend and helped wallpaper a room. I’m told the workmanship was exquisite; and that Fozard’s water-drinking capacity was prodigious.

My childhood enthusiasm for all forms of aviation could rarely connect to Grandad’s experience; his horror at the wastefulness of war stays with me. Even a small boy’s limited sensitivity glimpsed deeper emotions as we stood at Tangmere by a heap of tangled wreckage labelled as having once been a Hawker aircraft. “My God, Mitt,” he said, pointing out a complex undercarriage root fitting. “I must have seen ten thousand of those.”

“Boy !” he’d question me. “How many thousands of man-hours go into making an aircraft, and how long did they last ? Ninety minutes was all most of them flew.” I haven’t checked his figures, but at the Heritage Centre in Warton a year or two back I saw production logs for a northern factory for a period late in the war. Astonishing outputs.

Only once did I ever see anything like a spark in his eyes about that time, “Once we got on to Typhoon and the Tempest, with the big cannon – well, they were something. They were called the tank busters.” “We won, though, didn’t we Grandpa ?” “We did, but we never did do what we set out to do.” “Why… what was that ?” “To free Poland.”

His experience gave me some emotional connection as one of the last cohort (“The Blundergrads”, 1990) through Richmond Road’s training programme and Kingston Polytechnic/University Aero Engineering’s rebrand and move. My study assignments were delivered to the top of Canbury Park’s magnificent wooden staircase, up which, family legend was, that Grandad had one day puffed his way to sort out some problem or iniquity that was hindering productivity.

Class/education/accent notwithstanding, he was the sort of man who would quietly have got his point across - to Sir Sydney or to Beaverbrook himself had that been required - and apparently the shop floor felt, whatever they called him, that he was the man to deliver the message. I wish I knew what the substance of the matter had been.    

His pleasure at my career direction was filtered through a wickedly dry sense of humour, “Nothing to it now with these modern aircraft, jets are so powerful that they just squirt themselves along”;a knowing irony, considering the subtleties of Harrier V/TOL flight of which he was quite well aware. “Nothing’s changed, then, it’s still done exactly the same way” was his wistful comment at a centre fuselage seen in-jig at a Dunsfold family day of the mid ’90s.                                 Time spent with the Kingston Aviation Centenary Project archives has given me new perspectives. It turns out that Canbury Park’s lavatories were distant, ghastly and that shop-floor timekeeping strongly discouraged visits: and that at one period, an extraordinary mix of people had been ordered into the factory by Beaverbrook to increase production.

The real gem, however has been to learn what hid behind that modest phrase “lathe setter.” Grandpa’s mechanical ingenuity, evident to anyone who knew him, had been occupied bridging the eternal gap between design and manufacture. His task was to take design drawings and come up with the tools, fixtures and process sheets to enable an unskilled operator to produce parts in volume.

How many headaches had that undercarriage fitting given him ? Apparently also, Grandpa would then “own” that design, the tools and fixtures, in some sort of piece-work competition with colleagues. The past really is a foreign country ! My thanks to the Centenary Project for the new and brighter perspectives on stories from a tough time.

*First line of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 “The Go-Between” – “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”