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Updated Jan 2011
Somerleyton Hovercraft Celebration
The Sir Christopher Cockerell Centre
Lowestoft College Today's Date -- 25th April 2007
Introduced by Lord Somerleyton, Frances Cockerell today opened a wondrous new training facility at Lowestoft College. Costing £6.5 million, it is surely a major star in the firmament of local further education providing state of the art facilities for construction and engineering.
Sir Christopher Cockerell is something of a local maritime hero as it is thought the new Centre will be the only building in Lowestoft with a personal dedication. It could not be more appropriate as the invention of the Hovercraft at Somerleyton in the aftermath of WW2 is of international significance. He would himself be particularly pleased to be associated with this seat of learning as it encompasses the wide spectrum of training he had long advocated. Narrow attitudes to education are fast crumbling and the creation of a multi-skilled workforce needs the life-long learning facilities provided by the new Sir Christopher Cockerell Centre.
Sir Christopher was himself a multi-skilled all rounder, indeed before he came to Somerleyton in 1951 he worked for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company at Chelmsford as Technical Head of Aircraft Research and Development. The importance of his vital war work, particularly for his leadership of the team that produced the R1155 receiver and the T1154 transmitter for Bomber Command, is impossible to overstate. When the end of the war came both he and his wife Margaret needed a complete change, he began thinking seriously about boats and designed his first Broads Cruiser called Teal, and from this a new industry came into being.
Powered transport had evolved through wheels that roll and ships or aircraft that slide, but it was the concept of using a deep cushion of air to minimise friction and distribute the weight that gave birth to the Hovercraft. A thorough and systematic engineer, Sir Christopher was awarded the first of his 59 Hovercraft patents in 1955. Success did not come easily and it was an impressed Lord Somerleyton who in 1956 contacted Lord Louis Mountbatten, then the First Sea Lord and whose support made so much difference. From a standing start, Sir Christopher’s boatyard endeavour produced a new world-wide industry, today with multi-billion pound international contracts changing hands.
As a result of this introduction, in November 1956, the prototype model was demonstrated to R A Shaw, the Assistant Director of Aircraft Research at the Ministry of Supply and representatives from the Admiralty. This took place in the basement of the London offices of Heseltine, Lake & Co., the patent agents. Cockerell later recalled ‘the model whizzed round the room, ... the noise was terrific, and the fumes were awful.’
Initially the Hovercraft project was classified as secret leaving Cockerell committed but unable to talk to anyone about it and consequently making it impossible for him to raise funds to develop it. This state of limbo went on through 1956 and 1957 until unauthorised disclosure of the work by a third party caused the Ministry to de-classify the project. This allowed him to approach the National Research and Development Corporation for funds and in September 1958 they decided to back the project. Thus after what was for Cockerell a horrendous self supporting wait of two years, a contract was placed with Saunders-Roe on the Isle of Wight, to evaluate the design principles and later to produce a prototype, the SR-N1. Its evaluation and the construction was reported to the Royal Institution of Naval Architects on November 19th 1959, in a paper by P.R. Crewe and W.J. Eggington entitled ‘The Hovercraft — a new concept in maritime transport’. From this point in time there was no question about the validity of the concept or who the inventor was.
Today’s opening of the Sir Christopher Cockerell Centre coincides with the 50th Anniversary of the earliest cine film showing a Somerleyton Model Hovercraft in flight at Somerleyton Hall. One of the models is here today for all to see by courtesy of the Hovercraft Museum at Lee-on-Solent. Before it could take shape, over two years of research took place. This included extensive work with a five metre (16ft) motor launch called ‘Spray’ that has survived the past half-century in the care of Mr Douglas Rushmer. He has gifted it to Lowestoft College and the Boatbuilding Dept will restore it as a permanent exhibit in the Atrium of the new Centre.
Founded 133 years ago Lowestoft College has fulfilled the highest aspirations of Victorian idealists like Birkbeck who began to establish Mechanics Institutes as early as 1820 with the intention of bringing further education to all. A success story we can celebrate today with considerable satisfaction.
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