All posts by David Corns

Narrow Gauge Railways — David Williams — 19th June 2017

David Williams, a retired engin­eer, is a narrow gauge enthu­si­ast but appar­ently not a great fan of the stand­ard gauge (4ft 8.5ins). He defined narrow gauge broadly as: Big, around 3 ft; Middle, around 2ft; Small, around 15–17ins and gauges below would be con­sidered appro­pri­ate to model rail­ways.

Narrow gauge rail­ways are with us because they are cheaper to con­struct and run, more flex­ible in their con­struc­tion and can be laid and taken up rel­at­ively quickly. We see narrow gauge rail­ways in many aspects of our lives. They are used in mines, quar­ries and large con­struc­tion sites, trans­port­ing mater­i­als and sup­plies. Many large man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pan­ies have or had their own internal rail­way, often narrow gauge, trans­port­ing goods and mater­i­als around their sites, link­ing up with stand­ard gauge rail. In World War One ammuni­tion and sup­plies were often trans­por­ted by stand­ard gauge and trans­ferred to narrow gauge for onward car­ry­ing towards the front line.

‘Northern Chief’ on the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway.


Narrow gauge is rel­at­ively easy to lay and take up, a pri­or­ity in war con­di­tions.
David described the work of the early pion­eers of narrow gauge, aptly called the 15-inch club, which included Heywood, Bartholomew, Basset Lowke, Greenly and Zoborowski. Early 20th cen­tury was a time of great pro­gress for narrow gauge with devel­op­ment of more power­ful engines and improve­ments in track. He touched on a number of light rail­ways in the UK, includ­ing Northants Iron Stone (3ft), Welsh Highland Railway (2ft), Ashover to Stratton (2ft), Leek and Manifold (2ft 6ins) Vale of Rheidol (10.25ins). He men­tioned rail­ways in Japan, Denver, Rio Grande and South Africa.


Narrow gauge engines on the North Gloucestershire Railway

Perhaps the most famous narrow gauge rail­way, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch was the cul­min­a­tion of the dreams of two men, Howey and Zoborowski, and was con­struc­ted in the 1920s and opened on 16th July 1927. Operated as a 15-inch track fully work­ing steam rail­way, ini­tially it ran for eight miles from New Romney to Hythe but in 1928 it was exten­ded from New Romney to Dungeness, increas­ing the over­all length to 13.75 miles . It was reduced to a single track in 1947. During the war the line was requisi­tioned by the War Department who cre­ated their own mini armoured train which was used in build­ing PLUTO (Pipe Line Under the Ocean) which fuelled the allied inva­sion. Over the years it has been used com­mer­cially, haul­ing stone for Kent County Council and cur­rently has a school trans­port con­tract. However, today the rail­way is a massive tour­ist attrac­tion, trav­el­ling as it does through pic­tur­esque Kent coun­tryside appeal­ing to all ages.

It was an inter­est­ing talk, par­tic­u­larly for the rail enthu­si­asts but even the non-enthusiast will be temp­ted to learn a little more about narrow gauge rail­ways.

Lord Byron — Dennis Hill — 6th February 2017

Lord Byron was the greatest romantic poet of all time. Born George Byron on 22nd January 1788, he became Lord Byron, the sixth Baron Byron, at the age of ten in 1798 when he inher­ited the title from his great uncle, William Byron of Newstead Abbey.

He was a com­plex char­ac­ter who led an uncon­ven­tional life­style, but his writ­ings live on forever and pos­sibly more has been writ­ten about Byron than even Jesus Christ.

Byron atten­ded Harrow School and later, from 1805 until 1808, Trinity College Cambridge where developed a love of sport — cricket, boxing, shoot­ing, horse riding and swim­ming — des­pite having been born with a club foot.

Boxing was a par­tic­u­lar pas­sion. At Trinity dogs were banned as pets but he man­aged to work round petty rules by having a brown bear. During this time he engaged in many sexual adven­tures and fell deep into debt through gambling. After uni­ver­sity he embarked on a grand tour through the Mediterranean and the Aegean seas.

Upon turn­ing 21, he took his seat in the House of Lords but only made three speeches, mainly in sup­port of the Luddites who were cam­paign­ing against the intro­duc­tion of machinery which would result in put­ting people out of work. Byron through­out his life cham­pioned the under­dog.  His first volume of poetry, ‘Hours of Idleness’ in 1808, was attacked by the lit­er­ary estab­lish­ment in Edinburgh but Byron retali­ated with the satir­ical poem ‘English Bards and Scottish Reviewers’ which attacked the elite with wit and satire. This gained him his first lit­er­ary recog­ni­tion.

Byron gained a repu­ta­tion as a woman­iser and there were sug­ges­tions that he was also bi-sexual which appar­ently Byron had never admit­ted. His praise by London soci­ety pro­pelled him into a series of love affairs includ­ing with no less than Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of the future prime min­is­ter Lord Melbourne. She described him as ‘mad, bad and dan­ger­ous to know.’

In September 1814, Byron pro­posed to Annabella Milbanke and they mar­ried in January 1815, having a daugh­ter born in the December. However, the mar­riage was short-lived, fin­ish­ing in the January amid his drink­ing, gambling and affairs. The daugh­ter was Ada Lovelace, who worked with Charles Babbage the com­puter pion­eer and she was attrib­uted as being the first com­puter pro­gram­mer.

Byron’s life of debauch­ery and lust con­tin­ued but he man­aged to pen his greatest poem ‘Don Juan’ which was a change from the mel­an­choly ‘Childe Harold.’ In 1823 he accep­ted an invit­a­tion to sup­port the fight for Greek inde­pend­ence from the Turks, selling Newstead Abbey and sink­ing all his sav­ings into the cause. On 15th February 1824 he fell ill and died at the age of 36.

He became a Greek hero and to this day his name and memory are cel­eb­rated in parts of Greece. He was mourned in England and buried in the family vault at Hucknall Church, Nottinghamshire. Clearly a remark­able, tal­en­ted and com­plex man, his poems and his memory are still revered 200 years on and he is regarded as one of the greatest British poets. He is best known for his bril­liant use of the English lan­guage and also his promis­cu­ous life­style.

The History of Austin Cars — Andrew Swift — 21st November 2016.

The British Motor Car industry is famous for its illus­tri­ous marques and makes from the early 1900’s includ­ing Austin, Morris, Wolseley, Bristol., Triumph, Riley, Standard, Jensen, Reliant, Humber, Sunbeam ‚Hillman Singer, Daimler.  Sadly, not one of these car com­pan­ies is still man­u­fac­tur­ing. Andrew Swift gave us a fas­cin­at­ing insight into the his­tory of the Austin Motor Company, one of our most famous volume car man­u­fac­tur­ers.

Herbert Austin

The com­pany was foun­ded by Herbert Austin in 1905 using a derel­ict print­ing works in Longbridge, seven miles from Birmingham .  He had been inspired by the pos­sib­il­it­ies of mech­an­ical trans­port so much so he designed a 3 wheeler, powered by a hori­zontal 2 cyl­in­der engine in 1895. In the period between 1908 and the out­break of the First World War Austin’s firm grew quickly, man­u­fac­tur­ing in-house designs but also man­u­fac­tur­ing other firm’s vehicles, such as the first baby Austin, single cyl­in­der, 7 hp tourer. The firm was expand­ing and pro­duc­tion rose from 200 vehicles in 1910 to around 1100 in 1912. The Austin car com­pany made a massive con­tri­bu­tion to the war effort and took on all kinds of war con­tracts includ­ing, shells, artil­lery, lor­ries and air­craft. The fact­ory was exten­ded and the work­force grew from around 2500 to around 22000.

Herbert Austin received a knight­hood in 1917 for his con­tri­bu­tion to the war effort.  Sadly, the firm went into receiv­er­ship in 1921, partly because of the post war reces­sion and partly because of new models which struggled in the market place. The com­pany was restruc­tured and aus­ter­ity pro­gramme was agreed with the work­force which saw them through these dif­fi­cult times. New cars launched in the 20’s and 30’s con­sol­id­ated the com­pany as a major, suc­cess­ful car man­u­fac­turer.  In 1922, the 1661cc, 4 cyl­in­der, ‘Twelve’ was launched which proved extremely pop­u­lar due to its reli­ab­il­ity and low price. However, the car which saved Austin was the Seven, designed by Austin him­self with a draughts­man Stanley Edge.

The Austin Seven RN Saloon 1932.

The Seven was launched in 1922 and remained in pro­duc­tion for 17 years, ini­tially using a 696 cc engine and finally increased to 747cc. In total 375,000 ‘Sevens’ were pro­duced before pro­duc­tion ceased .  In the 30’s Austin brought a whole range of models to the market, the most pop­u­lar being the ‘Ten/Four’ intro­duced in 1932. with a 1125cc engine. Production ceased in 1947.

Austin Motors con­tin­ued car pro­duc­tion during the Second World War, also with lor­ries, and Avro Lancaster bombers.  Commercial car pro­duc­tion got under way imme­di­ately after the war, much to the annoy­ance of William Morris because Morris Motors had not pro­duced cars during the war.

Relationship between the Austin Motor Company and Morris Cars was never har­mo­ni­ous, com­pet­ing in the same  market place with fran­chised deal­ers often in the same towns. Price cut­ting and fierce rivalry was the norm. There was also per­sonal anim­os­ity between Herbert Austin and William Morris. The feud was not helped by the defec­tion of Leonard Lord to Austin in 1938, having been M.D. of Morris Cars. Herbert Austin, by then Baron Austin KBE, died in 1941 to be replaced even­tu­ally by Leonard Lord in 1946.

Andrew Swift has a com­pre­hens­ive col­lec­tion of product and pub­li­city bro­chures and used them to great effect by describ­ing many of the models that Probus mem­bers had owned or driven in during the 60’s ‚70’s and 80’s includ­ing the Austin A50  Cambridge, Mini, A35, Princess Limousine, Austin Taxi, 1100, 1800, A40 Saloon, Maxi, Allegro, Metro, Maestro and Montego.

The Austin Metro.

In the 50’s , the British car industry was con­sol­id­at­ing, mer­ging and redu­cing such that the unbe­liev­able happened in 1952 when with others,  Austin Cars and Morris Motors  merged to form British Motor Corporation ( BMC ).    In 1966 Jaguar Cars was pur­chased and British Motor Holdings was formed.   In 1968 the industry was fur­ther con­sol­id­ated with the merger of British Motor Holdings and Leyland Motors Corporation to form British Leyland Motor Corporation with Donald Stokes as Chairman.

The brand name of Austin con­tin­ued until the early 80’s but finally dis­ap­peared under the Rover badge. .





Meet the Undertaker — Jason Heath — 5th September 2016.

Jason Heath is a part­ner in the Sheffield based com­pany of John Heath and Sons and gave us a most enlight­en­ing look into the world of under­takers and funeral dir­ect­ors.

Jason tackled a del­ic­ate sub­ject, par­tic­u­larly for an eld­erly group of Probus mem­bers, with great sens­it­iv­ity and author­ity mixed with humour answer­ing many ques­tions from the mem­bers in a relaxed atmo­sphere. John Heath and Sons have been funeral dir­ect­ors since before the 1880’s and now have 10 funeral homes across the city. Many changes have been made in the pro­fes­sion with pos­sibly the biggest being the move from horse drawn car­riages to a fleet of shiny black lim­ousines, although horse drawn car­riages are still reques­ted. Independent funeral dir­ect­ors , like John Heath and Sons are still the main­stay of the industry with nation­wide organ­isa­tions having lesser impact.

30 years ago, funer­als were very tra­di­tional, less per­sonal and rel­at­ively simple. Today the trend is towards being more per­sonal with music/tunes and eulo­gies as per­sonal trib­utes. They are less tra­di­tional, cater­ing for all reli­gions, human­ists, non reli­gious and as Jason quaintly put it, for others who are hedging their bets. Burials can be tra­di­tional in church grave­yards , in wood­lands and at sea which , sur­pris­ingly, is not favoured by ex- sail­ors !. In Sheffield 75% of the deceased are cremated although this figure varies greatly across the coun­try. You can be buried in your garden but only one body is allowed as you would be infringing burial reg­u­la­tions. Further, this prac­tise can affect the re-sale value of your house as it must be declared and would make buyers a little wary. Others, leave their bodies to hos­pit­als for research and teach­ing but this option tends to be over­sub­scribed !!

Funeral dir­ect­ors take into account the wishes of the deceased ( a little earlier), the family and those attend­ing when making the arrange­ments as it is a fine bal­ance in meet­ing the wishes of all con­cerned, the bereaved as well as the deceased. John Heath and Sons make and line their own coffins. English oak has replaced the elm after the dreaded Dutch elm dis­ease but coffins can be made from willow, wicker, bamboo, banana leaves and card­board with the pic­ture coffin as an option. The most pop­u­lar is the ven­eered coffin although the casket an import from America is becom­ing more common. Funerals mean dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent people. To some it is the solem­nity and dig­nity of the reli­gious occa­sion , to others it is the cel­eb­ra­tion of life, to others it is the flowers or the cater­ing as part of the send off or to others it may be the oppor­tun­ity to give thanks through char­it­able dona­tions. The skill of the funeral dir­ector is to search out what is wanted and meet those needs.

Jason handled the sub­ject with great sens­it­iv­ity and encour­aged our mem­bers to speak freely and often with great humour. Informative yet enter­tain­ing and thor­oughly enjoyed by a group of eld­erly gents bear­ing in mind the sub­ject.

Silk in Tomorrow’s High Technology Applications — Dr Chris Holland — 6th June 2016

Many of our mem­bers (not all, one should add) asso­ci­ated silk with para­chutes, dress­ing gowns and lingerie, but no more after this fas­cin­at­ing talk by Chris Holland of the Materials Science and Engineering Department at the University of Sheffield.

Silk is the oldest com­mer­cial fibre and has been pro­duced indus­tri­ally for over four thou­sand years through the domest­ic­a­tion of the Chinese silk­worm. Silks are a group of struc­tural pro­teins spun into fibres for use out­side the body that have evolved inde­pend­ently in spiders, silk­worms, ants and bees. This very fact was sur­pris­ing to our mem­bers as I am sure all assumed silk only came from silk­worms feast­ing on mul­berry leaves. Indeed, spiders can make up to 7 dif­fer­ent types of silk as they weave their intric­ate webs.

Chris Holland’s work focuses mainly on the rhe­ology of silks which is the study of the flow and deform­a­tion of the mater­ial. Silk is stored as a liquid-like gel inside the spin­ning glands of the spider, silk­worm, bees etc. However, by pulling the gel through spin­ning glands of the animal it turns into a solid fibre because of the energy gen­er­ated. Chris demon­strated through a film clip which showed the forced pulling of silk from spiders and silk­worms. Both the pulling speed and the envir­on­ment affects the prop­er­ties of the res­ult­ing silk – the slower the silk is pulled the more stretchy it is.

Tensile test­ing equip­ment is common in engin­eer­ing labor­at­or­ies, yet we were sur­prised to see a film clip of silk under­go­ing tensile test­ing. Silk is stronger than steel weight for weight. Spider silk is strong and stretchy whereas glass fibres may be strong but not stretchy. Silks are a thou­sand times easier to spin than other mater­i­als, includ­ing common plastics. All very con­clus­ive facts demon­strat­ing that silk is such a ver­sat­ile strong and flex­ible mater­ial .

Silk has many applic­a­tions and is used in the med­ical device called ‘sur­gical suture’ which is used to hold body tis­sues together after injury or sur­gery, involving a needle with attached length of thread. Other applic­a­tions involve ortho­paedic implants, treat­ments of knee car­til­age, replace­ment corneas, vas­cu­lar and nerve repairs, bio-medical devices, fibre optics. The applic­a­tions to the med­ical world seem end­less.

A most inter­est­ing talk on a sub­ject that most of our mem­bers had never given a second thought presen­ted by Dr Chris Holland whose know­ledge and enthu­si­asm shone through.

Ernst Krenkel, Hero of the USSR.-Mike Hewitt-15th February 2016.

An inter­est­ing talk by Mike Hewitt ( G4AYO), a radio ham, describ­ing the life and work of Ernst Krenkel( RAEM) who was made a hero of the Soviet Union for his work as a radio oper­ator in the per­il­ous, explor­at­ory exped­i­tions to the Arctic .Later the paths of Mike Hewitt and Krenkel crossed through their shared interest as radio hams.

Mike was brought up in Kent and did his national ser­vice with RAF Signals. After gradu­at­ing from radio school, learn­ing morse code, he was posted to Hong Kong where his work involved mon­it­or­ing the chat­ter and mes­sages over the radio waves, work which was clearly sub­ject to the offi­cial secrets act. On his return to civy street, he resumed his career with the bank in the com­puter depart­ment. During this time and later in retire­ment developed his interest and pas­sion as a radio ham, con­tact­ing fellow enthu­si­asts all over the world includ­ing Ernst Krenkel and col­lect­ing their call­ing cards.

So who was Ernst Krenkel ? How did he become a hero of the Soviet Union ?

He was born in Belostock in 1903 and in 1921 gradu­ated from the radio tele­graphy course with top marks for morse code at 30 words a minute. His early ambi­tion was to go to sea as a radio oper­ator but instead joined an exped­i­tion to a remote Arctic island. A year later he was called up and joined the Radio Telegraphy Battalion. Around 1926, Russia was laying claim to all lands north of the Russian coasts as far as the Bering Straits and exped­i­tions were sent to rein­force the claims, together with exped­i­tions to create a sea pas­sage so that raw mater­i­als could be trans­por­ted from Siberia. The solu­tion was new icebreak­ers, radio sta­tions and encamp­ments ser­viced by air­craft. Krenkel was act­ively involved in these ven­tures as a radio oper­ator.

Mike gave us vivid descrip­tions of some of these exped­i­tions, two in par­tic­u­lar involving the icebreaker, Sibiryakov, and the mer­chant ship Chelyuskin.
In 1932 the Sibiryakov headed east along the north­ern route, lost all pro­pellers drif­ted at the mercy of the wind and cur­rents and even­tu­ally, under sail, reached Vladivostok after 61 days. This was the first time the chan­nel had been nego­ti­ated in one season. Krenkel played a sig­ni­fic­ant part in com­mu­nic­at­ing pos­i­tions and pro­gress to the Russian author­it­ies. In 1933, the Chelyuskin set out from Leningrad on an ill-fated jour­ney to repeat the single summer transit of the North East pas­sage first com­pleted by Sibiryakov. In February 1934, the crush­ing ice pres­sure put a 60 foot gash in the ship’s hull. The ship sank. Krenkel, now a Chief Radio Operator, resumed radio oper­a­tions for 2 months on the ice from inside a tent !. Finally, 7 months after the ship had first become ice blocked Krenkel with 5 others were the last to leave the ice flow. Krenkel had played a major role in keep­ing the ice bound group in touch with the shore sta­tion.

Krenkel was presen­ted to Stalin and became a Hero of the Soviet Union. He was given the title of No1 Radio Amateur in Russia which meant he was the only one able cor­res­pond with per­sons out­side USSR, using the call sign RAEM , the call sign of the ship Chelyuskin. Affectionately, he was known as the’ Radio Man of the Arctic.’ So here we have the story of a Russian feted by Stalin and party lead­ers, and a Kentish Man joined over the air­waves by their mutual pas­sion as radio hams.