Home     Updates     Hydros     Cars     Engines     Contacts     Links     Part 2          Contact On The Wire

A.W. Martin

Albert, William (Bert) Martin was born in Glasgow in 1910. His father had been apprenticed to Yarrow shipbuilders in Poplar, East London, and relocated to Scotland with the firm when they moved around 1907. Sadly, in 1917, his father who was Turbine foreman for Yarrows became ill with TB.  The only treatment at the time was a move to better climes and so the family moved to Freshwater Isle of Wight to stay with an aunt.  Unfortunately, Bert’s father died in 1918, and the family then moved to Southampton to stay with his mother’s parents.  About a year or so later his mother remarried in Southampton.

Times were hard and when Bert won a scholarship to grammar school he could not take it up, as the family just did not have the money.  He left school at 12 and worked for his stepfather who was a painter, decorator and general builder.  It was a precarious existence in the tough times of the great depression in Britain.  However Bert loved making things mechanical and it was this passion, which eventually provided a route out of his restricted background. He decided to find full time employment and took some of the things he had made along to the British Power Boat Company at Hythe, run by the redoubtable Hubert Scott-Paine.

The company were impressed with his work and he was given a job, even though his engineering skills were entirely self-taught. It was during his employment at Hythe that much of the following narrative took place, although he mentions very little about his daily work.

His skills had developed to such a stage, that he built a scale model of a Rolls Royce Sea Merlin motor that was presented to Sir Kingsley Wood on the occasion of the opening of the new works canteen.

That he was not given credit for this rankled somewhat and following a dispute over his hourly rate of pay in 1940, moved to H.P Folland’s factory at Hamble. Follands were sub contracted to make the Spitfire's tail portion and Bert’s contribution was to devise a range of jigs and tools which speeded up production of the tricky to make tail section at a critical time. Many of the aviation projects he was involved in then and later can be seen at the Solent Sky museum.

In 1942 he married Irene Salisbury and had three children, Frank born in 1943, Tony born in 1945 and Joan born in 1949. After the war Bert worked for a few years at Vickers Supermarine in Woolston. The end of the war, however, saw a massive downturn in the fortunes of the aircraft and boat building industry around the Southampton basin leading to Bert moving to Southern Apparatus (SACOL) at Totton where he specialised in hydraulics and Power Take Off technology, including the systems used by HCB-Angus on their fire engines. He eventually retired when he was well into his 70s, but kept on working just as hard with family history, building his own telescope, including grinding the lenses and doing extensive write ups. Unfortunately, his health began to suffer and the resulting treatment caused him to lose some six inches in height, which explains references in the text to him being ‘taller then’.

Here then is Bert's own account:-

Some time ago, on a visit to a mobile library, I came across a book on flash steam. (Experimental Flash Steam. Benson & Rayman) On one of its pages I read as follows.

‘One exponent who did much to keep flash steam interest alive in the thirties was A. Martin…’ ‘His ability in lightweight construction with high output was truly remarkable….’ ‘Mr Martin made a successful post war appearance, but has not been seen around regattas for many years.’

The book had been first published in 1972, and so the ‘many years’ have eleven more added to them. Now I knew this Mr Martin very well indeed, perhaps better than anyone else. I knew his motivation, his dedication, how it all started, and why it ended. So who better to sort out the old photos, to copy them and reproduce the ME accounts, to write the story. And, being a person who eventually seems to find time for everything (thanks to an overworked providence) at long last – here it is. A.W.M 1983

This book was compiled in order to record an 18-year episode in my life, between 1932 and 1950 approximately. Although quite a bit of model work was done before 1932, very little was done afterwards, other than simple, quickly made models, such as jet driven model aeroplanes.

Kit sets were almost unknown 50 years ago, nor would I have found the least interest or joy in copying anyone else’s handiwork. And so everything had to be MY idea of the thing in hand, with no bought-in finished parts at all, other than steel balls, for even the races were home made. This also covers the design side. No drawings as such, were necessary, for I seemed to be able ‘to see’ the finished article in my mind, even before the first bit was made. Roughly scribbled outlines were made for the ‘bits’, whilst the outlines of boat hulls would be laid out on the reverse side of spare wallpaper. The various drawings, even in the book were made after completion. To say ’18 years’ is not strictly correct, for World War 2 kept me very busy indeed, both at work and in the Home Guard, over about five of those years. ‘Spare time’ was as scarce as most other things at that period.

How did I learn the art? I didn’t. For I was born with both the capability and enthusiasm, in much the same way that artists are. I was very much a loner, and met no kindred spirit until about the same year as the start of this book. I just knew how to make things, from the simplest materials and a minimum of equipment: for I simply did not have enough money to buy them! Of course I owe debts to others. To my patron saint Bert Gardner, who showed me how to silver-solder. To Harry Puntis, a master at the art, and with whom I spent many a busy and pleasant hour. To Vic Mitchell - a man of great personality and good cheer: and of course, my trusty friend Steve Penfold – ‘Mr. do anything for anybody.’ Whatever success I enjoyed was in many ways due to such company, and to whom I will always be grateful. Scene one is at the time of the Great Depression, which served to bring out the better side of people. Or so I found

This little steam launch was made for my stepbrother, 7 yr. old Peter Collins (also seen looking very pleased with himself with a yacht that I made for him)

The launch had a boiler made from a shaving-soap tin, and a home made engine that chugged away with the right sort of noises, whilst the exhaust come out of the funnel. As can be seen from the photo, it was no slouch at getting along.

This is 1932 – and I have decided to make a boat that goes FAST – faster than anything else seen on Southampton Common. The first tiny one was so successful that the somewhat larger one, seen in the photos on the day of its official launch, was put in hand.

The name – Miss Britain II – was borrowed from a highly successful full size boat of the period. (built by Scott-Paine)

The boat had a very strong but light framework, made egg-box fashion from 1/16th three ply. It was covered with 1/32nd thick plywood. Under the removable aluminium cowling was 42 feet of 3/32 square rubber, which was lubricated with soft-soap and glycerine. This enormous power magazine was wound up by a ratchet, and drove the propeller by gearing up 12 times.

It was finished in bright blue, lined with gold and finished with three coats of Lisle Munday’s ‘Best Pale Yacht Varnish’. So it not only looked smart, it was smart and would do about 12 mph.

Now on a pond with concrete walls, it was necessary to catch it before it struck, and so such a speed was about the limit in any case, even with the most dextrous catching; it weighed about 12 oz. complete, and half of this was elastic. It would also cover quite a distance.

Actually, it was the subject of the very first thing that I had published. For I sold an account of its manufacture, complete with working drawings to a magazine.

I am glad that we had a ‘Brownie’ box camera (cost 5/- 25p) at that time, with which to take the photos seen here. For it could be said that it was a handsome craft, as well as being highly successful.

A 1933 new arrival, a steam driven launch complete with double acting oscillating engine and the exhaust coming out at the side. Yet another ‘cut from the solid’. Not with a set of chisels and gouges, but with pieces of broken glass, cheap as dirt, sharp as a razor, and a wide variety of curves – just like that.

Now there are cross-roads, there are turning points in one’s life: and I had arrived at such a point. For up to this time, I had made all of it, entirely without the aid of a machine tool of any sort.

Even my hand tools were of the ‘nothing over sixpence'. Woolworth sort. So my little wheel brace cost 1/6 only, 6d for the chuck, 6d for the body and 6d for the drive wheel, for that is how they got round it. Hand grinders could also be bought in the same way, but they actually sold one complete for sixpence.

However, by this time I knew I could only make very limited progress in the absence of a metal turning lathe of some sort: and being of a turn of mind that thought that obstacles were there in order to be surmounted, the day came when I made a start. A fortnight later – after about 2/- (10p) spent on material – there it was, all ready for use. It even had a compound slide rest!

With home-made hardened and tempered turning tools, the door was wide open now, and almost anything was possible. For with its aid I could not only cut threads, but make tools such as taps and dies, in order to cut other threads.

One of the engines made on my tiny home made lathe. It was ¾" bore and stroke, almost half the size of the lathe.

The methods were of course, quite primitive. But the sheer contriving, just to beat the obstacle, provided the pleasure, the sense of achievement. In later life, surrounded by almost everything to do things the easy way, I was to find that it was almost as though the previously puzzling crosswords were now printed with the answers alongside! Which begs the question, was I born at the right, the difficult time? And I really think that I was, for I did not so much make things, as contrive to make them: and the only interest was in such a struggle.

Here we are during 1934, at the side of one of the ponds on Southampton Common. I have often wondered, had I not lived within about a mile of the common at the time, would I have centred my activities on model speed boats? I think not. A most odd extension follows from this: For I innovated the use of a single cylinder instead of the previously used twins.

Also, my very success with steam served to inspire others themselves to have a go. Which begs the question, would their lives have been different, due to nothing more than where I just happened to live? There seems to be very little doubt that such would have been the case. It is most strange that our lives can be very much influenced by trivial events in the lives of others.

However, here we see the Southampton Model Power Boat Club, newly formed and ‘on parade’. Vic Mitchell, in a typical stance. Then myself – about nine inches taller then! But wearing my usual unsmiling face. A most odd thing, for it hides an inside very cheerful person. Then one of the Schutz brothers, and Don Stonely. AND the spectators! No lack of them. For this was the era when vast numbers strolled on the Common, just for the sheer pleasure of it.

The boat on the extreme right bears the name Sirocco. It was made for ‘straight course’ competition. In which the boat was aimed at a set of goalposts. With marks for scoring. A slow boat was liable to be blown of course by a side wind, and so most went reasonably fast. Sirocco did about 12 mph.

Came the day when an Echo photographer persuaded my friend Harry Puntis and myself to set our boats off at the same time. However, Harry’s much larger boat stopped right in the path of mine: which holed in the bows by a previous ‘failure to catch’ after leaping over Harry’s boat, slowly filled with water and sank. It was the end of Sirocco, although I later salvaged it.

  Flash Steam Years

At this point in our history, the plot really starts to thicken. For in less than a year, I would be the proud possessor of a Model Engineer Silver Medal, which was the Olympic Gold of the model world. This was for a 300 yard run, officially timed, at a speed of over 26 mph. To quote the Model Engineer ‘which must qualify as a world record for its class.’

It all started something like this. An announcement was made in The Model Engineer that the winner of the new lightweight class in their annual competition was a boat named Marocette – at a speed of 12 mph. To put it mildly, I was astonished at such a low performance. Why, with boats totally unworthy of the name ‘racing’ boat, I was already going as fast as that, and I felt sure that with a specially designed boat I could literally ‘lick the pants’ off it: and so the blue touch paper was lit: for time was at a premium.

By this time I had another small, but much larger than my midget; - lathe. It was old with ‘Briggs No 1 cast on the base, It is probable that he never got as far as No 2. This cost me a whole 30/- which with a similar sum for a 3 jaw chuck, cost a total of £3.00. On this machine – after rebuilding it – I did some extremely accurate work.

I still have it, it is ‘old faithful’. If one now looks at the photos, it will be seen that it bears evidence of hurried finish. However the ‘bits that matter’ were not hurried. But it had a few teething troubles. Nor was the plant first put in this hull, but in a much heavier one called Tornado.

Following the loss of Sirocco, I fitted this boat with watertight compartments. This made the whole affair much too heavy, and so the featherweight Tornado II hull was quickly made. One or two more ‘mods’, and I had a really fast boat (for those times!)

Nor was I at all ‘kind’ to it, for it would do 20 laps of the centrally tethered circular course at one filling – 2000yds, and many of these would be put in in a single evening, simply to entertain the spectators.

However, this was ‘playing at home’. The away game served to surprise some people.

The Club made its first ‘away’ visit to a regatta held at Farnborough in September 1935. It was here that I found out that the very surface of the water varied from lake to lake: and so my boat, which had never ‘gone under’ before now did so – twice.

However the Model press had some very nice things to say, such as a ‘startling turn of speed’ – ‘none who have seen this boat in action will any long question the possibilities of flash steam’. – ‘and the roar from its tiny single cylinder engine was exhilarating’.

But I did not win, and however much my vanity was flattered, changes would be required. Also the gearbox on our borrowed car failed, in that selection was impossible, and much pushing was done on the way home – around Winchester!

However ‘winning’ was not far away, as this 1936 photo shows. I also had a visit from an Echo reporter, who splashed his story – not mine – into about a quarter page of the most sensationalised, inaccurate nonsense. No copy of it is shown, for it went straight into the dustbin, where it belonged.

I was asked by The Model Engineer to give an account of my exploits with flash steam boats. The word ‘flash’ steam simply denotes that there is no boiler as such is used, for water is pumped into one end of a heated tube and steam comes out of the other.

Such steam can be hot, very hot. Any idea of steam as being ‘wet’ would soon be dispelled if one saw cigarettes being lit with steam, or steel wool glowing bright red hot when placed in a jet of steam. However its very violence would often destroy the engine that was put in its way.

And the very essence of success was to find a way of taming the beast in such a way that would utilise such violence without harm to the engine. In this respect I did things that angels had feared – and got away with it – most of the time.

One of the engines, (seen left) complete with its three pumps had a long and successful life during which time it must have driven the boat at least one hundred miles – or even two.

Edgar Westbury introduced the readership of Model Engineer to Bert Martin in 1936 via a 7 part article entitled 'Suggestions for improving flash steam plants'. Although it appeared under ETWs name it drew very heavily on the work and writing of Bert. The name A. Martin would feature regularly in articles and regatta reports for many years to come. Throughout June 1944 Bert published The Further History of the "Tornados" in Model Engineer, describing 'The development of a very famous dynasty of flash steam hydroplanes'. This series started with Bert trying to solve the stability problems with his hull, virtually the same place as his own narrative continues here....

I was now face with quite a problem. For I had a boat that was quite stable on local water, however rough. But on other waters it would leap right out of the water and capsize: and no-one hands out medals to boats that were fast, but are now on the bottom. Also, one can experiment on local water as many times as necessary. But fifty or more miles is a long way to find out that something was no good. So what to do?

Now it so happened that on a visit to Victoria Park, I saw a boat that greatly impressed me, but was in the larger class. It seemed to run very smoothly indeed, and I thought – that’s for me. What I did not know, was that on other occasions, this boat would do quite a bit of aerobatics, possibly by being prone to being caught by the wind. For if a regatta was held, then you ran your boat, irrespective of the weather. And so Tornado III was dreamed up, but freely borrowed from a very cooperative Mr. A.D. Rankine – who promptly abandoned his boat, on account of its troubles!

However, whatever differences were brought about in my translation, I now had a hull that was totally free of temperament. It was remarkably stable, and never on any occasion, went to the bottom. This in itself could win races, for at one event, mine was the only boat to finish the wild and windy course. For the other nine boats went to the bottom – twice.

Now circular course running – the only way possible with fast boats was not done one against the other, but against the clock: one had to cover the distance, which was three laps of 100 yards each at that period, in less time than the opposition. Now such opposition was almost entirely petrol driven boats, both two and four-stroke. Such a choice had been made by their owners, on account of the fact that although the potential was there, by their very nature, had over the years proved to be unpredictable and unreliable.

The very history of the adventures of many flash steamers was proof enough for anyone. Even my club mate Fred Marsh was plagued with such trouble, year after year. Although his craft was quite powerful, he was lucky just to make a second place. And so it was to fall to my lot, to be the first one to prove that flash steam boats could be quite reliable, perhaps even more so than the petrol driven boats at that time.

Whatever contribution I was fated to bring to the scene it was this: for I breathed new life into the corpse of flash steam, and inspired, others.

For I now had the best combination of all – an almost trouble free plant, and a hull that never sank. I had learned the hard way, the most important lesson – that speed itself must take second place to reliability.

Now there are those that say that just to participate is enough reward. This is nonsense, it is just the placebo of those who are just plain unlucky. For I set out to win, and when I did win, time after time, it served to flatter my vanity, but not without compassion for the losers.

Now the class limit was 7lbs. But I had never taken full advantage of this and had now set myself an eventual goal of 40 mph. The photo shows the first public appearance of Tornado IV – all 6lbs 15ozs of it.

Brand new, unlaunched, and held by the entire works staff – the designers, the draughtsmen, the workers, even the sign writers. (for I once earned quite a useful penny that way – it all helps!) As you can see, the man at the top is quite faceless, as they always are.

Of all the Tornados, this one was due to be the most famous of the lot. It was a popular boat, both with the spectators and those that wrote the words of flattery in the model journals. There was a reason for this, for all my boats provided both spectacle and entertainment. For some reasons, all things driven by steam seem in some strange way to live – they do not just go. Just think of railway locomotives – for diesels are only things.


Part 2