John Houlder


John Houlder, a legend in aviation, shipping and marine engineering, died on 2nd February, 2012, just two weeks short of his 96th birthday.

John was born on 20th February 1916 at Epsom in Surrey.  He was a sickly child, suffering from asthma and the effects of a mastoid operation to his right ear and he did not like his public school education. Consequently, at the age of 16 his father arranged for him to be an apprentice fitter in Cox and Company’s ship-repair yard in Falmouth. He greatly enjoyed this work, earning £2 a week, sharing digs with three other apprentices and studying most evenings. His father took him away after three years and made him learn short-hand and typing at Pitmans College, London, after which he joined London shipbrokers, H. Clarkson, becoming personal assistant to the shipbroker responsible for all the chartering of tankers for Standard Oil of New Jersey, now Esso. Studying during the evenings John passed top in the examination of the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers and in 1935 was appointed a director of the family shipping firm, Houlder Brothers and Company, which operated a line of refrigerated ships between London and South America.

On 13th February 1938, just before his 22nd birthday, John started flying lessons in a Tiger Moth on the grass aerodrome at Brooklands. In May of that year he bought a sixth-hand, nine-year old Gipsy Moth in which he immediately flew to Hungary to take part in the Hungarian Aero Club’s Magyar Pilota Piknik, which he always considered to have been the adventure of his life. The outbreak of war prevented him being prosecuted for doing a low and slow roll over a friend’s house in his next aeroplane, a Miles Hawk.  His earlier ear operation however prevented him from joining the Civil Air Corps which would have led him into the Auxiliary Air Force or the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Consequently he joined the Territorial Army, Royal Artillery, and when war broke out he was posted to Hyde Park, Norway, Egypt and Crete.

While in Crete, General Wavell, the C-in-C, had lunch in John’s Battery Mess as he was a friend of Field Marshal Lord Milne, whose son was John’s Battery Commander.  As a result of discussions at this lunch, John was ordered to proceed to Tobruk which the Allies had just captured, where he found himself, at the age of 24, second-in-command of Y Docks. This comprised an ad-hoc unit of 100 New Zealanders and 50 Australians from the 3rd and 4th Railway Construction Group, the 1st and 2nd Libyan Labour Battalions, consisting of 1,000 Libyan labourers each, a Jewish Pioneer Company and a gang of Arab lightermen from Palestine. The unloading of ships was of critical importance to the Allies advance in the desert but, apart from the Arab lightermen, John believed that he was probably the only person there who had ever seen a merchant ship. He was promptly promoted to Commanding Officer.

When the Axis siege of Tobruk began the number of men under John’s command was greatly reduced and he became Major RA OC 1018 Dock Operating Company RE, with Indian pioneer labour.  The Germans had complete air superiority, so all supplies were brought in to Tobruk under destroyer escort, and merchant ships could only remain in port for two hours in the middle of the night. Throughout this period Tobruk was heavily dive-bombed but John believed that people became quickly accustomed to it and he was convinced that dive-bombing would never destroy military morale. Of greater concern, however, was the fact that the quays were within range of Italian artillery and he was ultimately hit by a shell which permanently disabled his left arm. He was repatriated to England by destroyer, en-route marrying the nurse who looked after him in hospital. John was awarded the military MBE for his services in Tobruk.

In England, John thought he would be invalided out of the Army and took a job as a civil servant in the Ministry of War Transport, but after a few months he was called in to Combined Operations, first at their Experimental Establishment at Westward Hoe and finally at headquarters in London. There he considered that he was “a round peg in a round hol’ , charged with devising and testing specialist equipment for landing stores and equipment for Operation Overlord, the forthcoming landings in Normandy. His stories of these experiments were hilarious!

Notwithstanding that he was ‘home service only’ John visited the beaches shortly after the landings to see how his equipment worked. As he modestly put it, “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is Kin” , so he took charge of the port of Courseilles which had escaped demolition. There was some surprise when John sent himself home after three weeks.  21 Army Group asked for him back, describing him as “an officer of outstanding ability” but GHQ refused and John was despatched to India in a Sunderland flying-boat to assess the needs and types of equipment required for amphibious operations in that theatre. He eventually came home in a bomber, and was conducting an experimental tow of a huge raft of American pontoon equipment behind a merchant ship when the war with Germany came to an end.

John’s main hobby was always flying, followed closely by his passion for bird watching. Immediately after the war he flew a course of aerobatics at Luton, ‘under the hood’ in a Tiger Moth, an exercise which he found very exciting  and which he said had always given him complete confidence when flying on instruments.  His father then gave him a Miles Messenger, from which he progressed to a Miles Gemini twin which he fitted with bigger engines, thereby pioneering the production of the Gipsy Gemini. John used the Gemini to land in fields near the houses of friends in the country, the nose locker containing an electric fence that he would rig around the aircraft to prevent sheep using the plane to scratch their backs. In the 1960s he moved on to a Cessna 310 on which he installed a turbo-charger of his own design to improve its performance when flying over the Alps; his design was subsequently granted a Certificate of Airworthiness.  The Cessna had an auto-pilot but the nearest maintenance facility was in Geneva so John studied its workings and obtained a CAA X license for autopilot maintenance. He also obtained an A licence (airframes) for both his Cessna and later his Aero Commander. He served on various technical committees of the Air Registration Board (later CAA) for many years.

In 1949 John was invited by the CAA, as a private pilot, to attempt the new instrument rating which had been introduced in 1947.  He passed, and subsequently held an instrument rating, uninterrupted, for 59 years, longer than any other British pilot.

In 1968 John bought his beloved Aero Commander 680E G-AWOE – ‘the black beas’ – which incorporated 40 years of his passion for engineering. He first removed the co-pilot’s seat to install a filing cabinet for charts.  He then built an auto-pilot that successfully landed the aircraft ‘hands-of’ . His interesting generational mix of avionics included the original Lear autopilot, and no less than three GPSs. Because of his unique modifications the flight manual carried a restriction naming him as the only authorised pilot.  John designed the exterior paint scheme of his Commander with pure function in mind – the orange nose increased conspicuity; the black surfaces increased skin temperature 3 degrees to melt surface ice; the white around the cockpit kept cabin temperatures cooler, and the striped propellers made them more visible when the engines were running!

In 1950, through his Montclare Shipping Company, John took a 40-year lease on Elstree aerodrome, then derelict, subsequently extending the lease, primarily, as he put it, to accommodate his aeroplane.  Until 2010 he was actively engaged in the day-to-day management of this thriving GA airfield, writing the computer programmes for all its accounting.

John’s business career centred on ship design and operation. Houlder Brothers had been family  shipowners since the middle of the 19th century, but in 1911 became a subsidiary of the Furness Withy group. Like many others they never quite lost the family business culture and John was always known as ‘Mr. John’ in the office. Deeply interested in naval architecture and technical developments, he steered Houlders from their operations in the River Plate and Australasian meat trades into the design and operation of purpose-built ore carriers, forming a 50-50 venture between Houlders and the British Iron and Steel Corporation for importing iron ore into South Wales. A conversation with Sir Eric Drake, Chairman of BP, led to experiments at Elstree aerodrome and pioneering work with gas carriers, drill ships, semi-submersibles and diving support vessels as off-shore technology rapidly advanced. Joint ventures with the Fench company Gazocean resulted in the building of a substantial fleet. Later he joined forces with Comex SA, a Marseilles-based diving company led by the rather glamorous French diver, Henri Delauze. He became a director of Furness Withy in 1954 and was Chairman and Chief Executive of many Houlder companies for several decades. His last shipping connection was as Director of Hadley Shipping on whose Board he served for 64 years.

In 1977 came John’s most notable achievement – the design and delivery of a dynamically positioned, semi-submersible, diving support and sub-sea construction vessel called ”Uncle John”, a name given to the project at the design stage as something of a joke, but which stuck! This achievement won him his CBE and a Gold Medal of the Institute of Marine Engineers as well as the President’s award of the Society for Underwater Technology, of which he subsequently became President himself.  He became a Member of Council of the Institute of Naval Architects and a member of the Board of Lloyds Register of Shipping, serving on their General, Technical and Classification committees. Sir Brian Shaw, Chairman of the Furness Withy Group, described John’s style as sometimes reminiscent of an absent-minded professor, so that it seemed fitting that he actually became Visiting Professor to the Department of Ship and Marine Technology at Strathclyde University, Glasgow in 1982, where a lecture hall has been named after him.

John regularly flew his Commander to the family cottage in the Shetland Islands to indulge his passion for bird-watching; to his wife’s family house in Ireland, and to St.Moritz to ski (at night sleeping on the aircraft’s rear seat which opened out into a bed). He made over 100 flights to Samaden in Switzerland and pioneered his own method of flying up the valleys of the Alps in IMC by comparing a series of his own photographs with the images coming up on his radar-scope! His PPL was validated to fly Argentine registered aircraft during his regular visits to his estancias where he made widespread aerial searches to discover where the flamingos were nesting.

John was an enigma to the CAA; they simply could not believe that in his late 80s he was competent to fly his Commander. During his annual Instrument Rating renewal, year after year he repelled their efforts to ground him by flying perfectly, and often on one engine, the most complicated instrument patterns that their most senior inspectors could throw at him.  At the age of 92 he himself finally decided that he should fly with a safety pilot and had the co-pilot’s seat and dual controls re-fitted to his Commander. He only stopped flying altogether at 94.

Shipping and flying anecdotes about John are legion. Shipping colleagues remember him, always ‘hands-on’, in the naval architect’s office in Houlders, on his hands and knees with a meccano set, trying out ideas for ship’s cranes. When he travelled by air to Buenos Aires to visit Houlder’s properties in Argentina, he would book three adjoining seats in Economy class, taking a screwdriver with him to remove the armrests so that he could stretch out to sleep. Sir Brian Shaw once flew with him to Newcastle in his Aero Commander and when they returned to the airport after inspecting a semi-submersible in dry dock on the Tyne, they had difficulty persuading the policeman on the gate that an elderly gentleman in a rather shabby long city overcoat carrying a brief-case was not only the owner but also the pilot of the plane to which they sought access.

John was a magnificent supporter of the Air Squadron, being one of its founding members. He flew his ‘black beast’ to Russia, Tanzania, Pakistan, Morocco, North America, South Africa, Norway, Poland and Serbia as well as to many closer destinations, often accompanied, with his wife Rody’s approval, by his dear old friend, the delightful Lady Isla Abinger. He was a regular supporter of the Squadron’s awards day at RAF Cranwell as well as the Squadron’s annual visits to RAF stations. In 2000 he was awarded the Air Squadron’s Gold Medal for his largely solo flight to North America and back at the age of 84.

A man of immense intellect, great charm and a puckish sense of humour, John was renowned for being what a Scotsman would call ‘careful’.  He always said that he belonged to the two best clubs in England Lloyds Register of Shipping and The Air Squadron.  With over 10,000 hours of purely private flying in his log-book, he was justifiably described by one aviation journal as being a ‘one-man English aviation institution’.

John is survived by his fifth wife, Rody, and by two sons and a daughter by his previous marriages.

Martin C Barraclough
4 February 2012