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Tribute to John Armstrong

John Armstrong
John Armstrong
  John Cochrane Highet Armstrong, CEng  MIMechE 1936-2013

John was born 1936 and educated at New College School, Oxford; Westminster School; and the University of London. For many years he worked for Heinz. When he took early retirement he bought Thanetcraft, a company building aluminium boats. He and Rosamond were married in May 1991.

Among his many local activities he was a member of the Richmond Orchestra, the U3A Orchestra, the Strawberry Hill Residents' Association, former Vice Chair of the Friends of Radnor Gardens, Chairman of the Inward Investment Group of the Twickenham Town Centre Management Board, and most recently the Hon Secretary of the York House Society.

Index of Contributors:

Meg Prichard: my brother
The Rt Rev Edward Holland: early years
John Del Mar: orchestra
Maurice Parry-Wingfield: the music and the life
Judith Lovelace: local notes
John Austin: Twickenham Town Centre Management Board
Yvonne Hewett, Chair, the York House Society

Meg Prichard, John's Sister

Both my parents were born in Belfast. My Father was one of two boys and as was usual in those days, one boy was encouraged to go into medicine and the other (in this case my father) was encouraged to pursue a career in Irish Linen – this in order to keep the industry alive. Thus it was that my Father imported and exported Irish linen around the world almost until his death. He was an avid collector of antique furniture and was intensely interested in design.

He served on the Parish Church council of St Mary's Church, Twickenham, for many years. The Memorial garden was originally part of the Vicarage garden but due to its size had been allowed to fall into a state of wilderness. My Father redesigned the garden for its present use. He was also instrumental in the original rebuilding of the organ (there is a book about that somewhere in the church). My Father died in 1974, just a few days before his 70th birthday.

John was born in Kensington, June 8, 1936. My parents lived in South Kensington.

Shortly after war was declared my Father, Norman, moved the little family complete with Nanny to Richmond where they lived for a couple of years. However, the bombing became so intense that the family moved once more to the village of Madeley, Staffordshire. They lived in the Vicarage at Madeley, the bachelor Vicar occupied the ground floor and was looked after by his worthy housekeeper. My parents and John had the top floors – the Vicarage was large, old and very cold – having been built in the days of large families. My Mother often spoke of those terrible years. John attended the local Church school until he wrote the exam for New College., Oxford. He attended New College from the age of 8 until he was 13 years old.

I was born in 1943. After the war my Father brought us all down to London, 1946. We lived in Teddington until the house on Spencer road , Strawberry Hill, was purchased at auction in 1949.

John was accepted as a student to Westminster in the same year. He was a member of Wrens House. During these years his interests became more focused on music, he played the oboe and became a very proficient musician. Very many evenings were spent in our drawing room making music with other like minded colleagues - strings and wind ensembles etc. He often performed with my Mother, Flora, who was a pianist of great note, (she was a scholar at the Royal College of Music) so music was a huge part of our life as young people – (My Mother served as assistant Organist at the Parish Church of St Mary for very many years). John so wanted to encourage and promote young community string players. While a student at Westminster his physical strength allowed him to scull for his school and he excelled in the very many rowing regattas. We seemed to have a large collection of prize mugs and teaspoons!

His passion for boats – and "simply messing about in boats" (to quote Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame) stayed with him always. From an early age in Teddington I have memories of homemade boats being sailed and even ones sporting an inboard engine! - while perching precariously on the river bank, usually with my Father holding onto John – I was but a small onlooker!. Later he purchased and sailed his own Merlin Rocket – (14’ sailing boat ) – he belonged to a sailing club in Kingston. I was allowed to crew for him!!

After graduation from Westminster he entered the University of London to study for his degree in Mechanical Engineering – and yes at that time he became good friends with John Del Mar.

After university his main employer was Heinz – where his focus became Process Engineering – he was with them until his early retirement.

He purchased the boatbuilding company, Thanetcraft, after his retirement. He was intensely interested in boat design – our table was often covered with drawings and designs. It was from one of his boats that the Plimsoll line (water line) was painted around the newly built Cunard ship – the Queen Mary.

Sometime in the early 90’s he met his to be wife, Ros Wilkinson whom he married in May, 1991 at the Parish Church of St Mary.

The Rt Rev Edward Holland, former Bishop of Colchester

I can remember very clearly the day when I first met John – in April 1945. He was standing with another boy, Philip Comley, by a notice-board in the entrance to New College School in Oxford. It was the beginning of term and boarders were arriving.

I was feeling very out of my depth as I was new and for various war-time reasons had just arrived from Northern Ireland where my father had been stationed in the army. As we were homeless and my mother knew the wife of the Headmaster my mother, brother and I were actually living in the school with my mother working as assistant matron, cook and general dogs-body in those days of staff shortages.

But now with the beginning of the Summer term it was time for me to take my place in this school and it was quite intimidating. John, and Philip, were friendly, kind and reassuring. We all remained at the school for the next few years until the summer of 1949 when we each moved on to our next stage of education and I did not see John again until at my retirement in 2001 I came to live in Hammersmith when John got in touch with me again and invited me with Dickie Dutton, another New College boy living locally, and his wife Pippa to supper with him and Ros.

The "child is father to the man" is what comes to my mind immediately as I think about it, for it seems to me that John had really changed very little in either appearance or character. The kindness and interest was still there and meeting John again reminded me of many characteristics that were there in the 8-13 year old boy then.

John was a very whole person. complete. With his feet placed firmly on the ground he had the confidence to be very open and interested, wanting to play his part and make his contribution. He was the sort of boy a headmaster could rely on and as he went through the school I believe Colin Baynes the headmaster did trust him and use him. Ros the other day mentioned some sort of bell system that John had put together for the school, and while I can’t remember that it is precisely the sort of thing he would do. I have a feeling he became Head Boy.

John was full of curiosity, wanting to know how things worked, and if possible wanting to make them work better. He was a practical man but one who enjoyed the theory and beauty of things as well as their usefulness.

He was a stalwart friend as I think was shown by his seeking me out after so many years; friendships once made continued to be valued. And of course the great friendship of his shared life with Ros was at the heart of his being. He and she together I am sure have given much pleasure, reassurance and strength to others over the years – and fun. John and I am sure Ros with him enjoyed the quirkyness of life and of people, the funny and the fun side of things.

And then their marvelous parties which were so generously inclusive, and I think especially of the dinner at Strawberry Hill in 2011. But alongside the fun there was also a quiet companionableness about John when he would be intent upon the person or the object of his attention at any one particular moment. John live life fully, with enthusiasm and interest, digging into its nature, discovering its meaning and seeking its potential – whether it was people or things.

We can give great thanks for John, for all he has given to us and to others in so many different ways, and for the strength and reassurance of his character. In this service we place him into the good hands of our God and we can believe that this is not much an end as a beginning. I am sure that whatever happens after death that if it is possible John will be looking at it with a quizzical and enquiring eye, wondering how it works and how he can play his part in making it work well.

Life whether here or beyond death is to be lived and to live is to grow and change and develop and that is how it has been for John and we pray that that is how it will be for him now. Of course that small boy whom I met that day must have changed, but the kindness and interest and re-assurance I received then was still there when I met him again so many years later.

John Del Mar

My memories of John go back to 1959 when we first met as players in the University of London Orchestra. At one stage the conductor of this orchestra was my uncle Norman Del Mar.

The attached images show that John (as an Oboe player) was Concert Manager at the time.

  University of London Orchestra concert programme cover  
  University of London Orchestra concert programme  

Maurice Parry-Wingfield

For some 35 years or more John has been a valued and close friend, and Catherine and I will miss him hugely. Whenever we met he had a cheerful word to say and was never without interesting news, often accompanied with a chuckle.

What a legacy he has left behind him! He was immensely energetic, brimful of ideas and a skilled organiser. He threw himself into a wide variety of activities, whether music, sailing, boat building, governor of Newland House School, the revitalisation of Twickenham town centre, or a powerhouse in the York House Society.

He was a man who enjoyed to the full the pleasures the available to him, particularly with his deep love of music, whether as performer or concert-goer, and of wine (I remember his glee when he became a successful wine-maker, first with strawberries then with grapes). And of holidays – the description in this year's Christmas card of his travels, sights seen and wines tasted and brought back, stand as a good description of his attitude to life. And a poignant signing-off paragraph hinting that he didn't have long to live.

I realise now that, intuitively, John’s guiding principle was "if a thing is to be valued, do something about it".

What do I mean by this? Well, it was typical of him that he turned the set-back of losing his engineering job at Heinz to his advantage by setting up his own business and allying it to his interest in the river and boating. He acquired a boat-building enterprise, in which he had aluminium boats built for rowing in public parks and imported fast, rigid inflatable's from New Zealand. I don’t know how many people remember the old, noisy Hammerton’s ferry. He designed and had built the wonderfully quiet electric ferry-boat we now have. Long may it stand as a testament to this part of his career.

Then there was music, which was his passion both to play and listen to. I don’t know how long ago he joined the Richmond Orchestra but it must have been something like 50 years. Not only did he love playing oboe (and had a particularly affinity with the cor anglais). It was natural that he should quickly become the chairman and hold the position for decades (‘do something about it’). In that role he guided the orchestra skilfully, and didn’t flinch from the occasional necessity of making a harsh decision. I remember him as both foreman and chief pair of hands in the herculean task of erecting and dismantling the precarious lighting, together with the platforms and seating, when performances were held at Christ Church, Kew Road. Responsibilities he took on also involved the storage of music stands and certain larger and weirder instruments. Philip Hesketh, the orchestra’s conductor, well summed up all this at John’s farewell concert to prolonged applause: "John has been of enormous importance in the life of the orchestra and its very existence has depended on him".

Typically, when he discovered that as many children were learning to play wind instruments as string players, whereas a concert orchestra needed as least twice the number of string players, he did something about it for the Borough; he formed a string ensemble, encouraging people to join young.

He felt passionate about the Twickenham as a place, another opportunity for doing something about a thing he valued. He was active on the Town Centre Management Board, seeking to reverse the decline in local shops and businesses. Some years ago he did a survey of eating establishments in Twickenham, since they appeared to be ousting shops, and came up with the then incredible number of getting on for 100 (it’s more than that now). He fearlessly criticised local politicians who he thought could do more for the community, even garnering a good number of votes when a candidate for Council elections.

There was a crowning moment in John’s life when, apparently a confirmed bachelor, he met, fell in love with and married Ros. Undoubtedly this was the making of him. He looked and sounded more relaxed, carved out more leisure time and was better able not to let challenges get him down. As a couple he and Ros were obviously made for one other. Catherine and I were sorry to miss their twentieth wedding anniversary celebration a few years back, in style at Strawberry Hill House.

Judith Lovelace, Former chair, Friends of Strawberry Hill, the Twickenham Society etc

I met John twenty odd years ago – we compared notes on our life experiences and both found connections in Ipswich in Suffolk; John found a family member living there. I was living there and at school at Ipswich High School. The family member was working with my father and I did babysitting for his young family when I was about 15! During that conversation we also discovered our mutual liking for John Piper.

Later on John and I were both on the Strawberry Hill Residents Committee where I became Chair. I then moved on to the Twickenham Society – John followed. I then followed John and Ros to the York House Society. In all he did John was promoting the very best for Strawberry Hill and Twickenham…… Shops, boats, buses, roads, parking.......pigeons!!!

Most recently John and Ros made a great double act with Ros as Secretary of YHS and John providing the IT backup. Then John took over as Secretary. Between them they provided an amazing amount of admin backup never mind the managing of the Twelfth Night Dinner, the Summer Receptions and all the meetings in between.

God Bless John

(Note from John's sister Meg: My Mother (Flora)’s brother was Dr Trevor Shaw, Pathologist and Chief Coroner for the city of Ipswich – hence Judith’s comment.)

John Austin, Chairman, the Twickenham Town Centre Management Board

John Armstrong joined The Board in 2008 and was very active and supportive in a number of ways. He was part of the "executive" team, and inter alia, helped select Town Centre Managers for the Board, and on a number of occasions represented the Board at outside meetings.

Five years prior to the present Council claiming credit for initiating improvements to Twickenham Town Centre, John as Chairman of the Board’s Inward Investment Working Group was very active. he first identified all the landlords and agents for the retail properties in Twickenham, and invited them to a well attended meeting (Vince Cable among the speakers).

He then developed a strategy to bring new retailers to Twickenham and gathered together traders representatives, commercial property estate agents, individual retailers, local councillors and professionals and produced attractive brochures and newsletters. These were sent to businesses and organisations around the country and resulted in a number of enquiries. Amongst John’s successes was the arrival of Laverstoke Park Farm Butchers and Ruben’s Bakehouse, to name just two.

John was also a key player in organising events for The Twickenham Festival, and other initiatives. At Board meetings he was a lively contributor, being particularly critical of the Council, Councillors and others when they steadily withdrew their support for the Board.

To see Twickenham prosper was a passion and he will be greatly missed for his enthusiasm and ideas.

Yvonne Hewett, Chair, the York House Society

I've known John and Ros for about 15 years, most of that through involvement in local affairs in Twickenham. As the tributes above show, John was a man of broad interests and deep passions: opera and music, gardening, wine and food, travelling, and photography.

He loved designing and building boats. He bought Thanetcraft, the aluminium boatbuilding company, in 1990. They built the Peace of Mind, the Hammerton's ferry that plies across the Thames between Marble Hill Park and Ham House, and the Black Swan, on the lake at Leeds Castle. (See pictures below). He also designed and built boats for rowing and pleasure: Thanetcraft boats were entered in the annual Great River Race for several years, and John was a great supporter of the river and river-related activities. He was a long-time member of the River Thames Society.

He was also a passionate advocate for making Twickenham a better place. He was adamantly against the proposed redevelopment of Twickenham railway station. He put a great deal of time and thought into traffic management, pedestrian and wheeled, for the station area, in an attempt to alleviate the problems that occur on rugby match days and when there are big events at the RFU.

John also devised the Small Car Show, which involved persuading local dealers to have a display of smaller, eco-friendly cars in front of York House during the Twickenham Festival. Despite appalling weather the show attracted a lot of attention, and, had he lived, it could have become an annual event.

From my point of view he was a vibrant, energetic, larger than life personality, with an immense capacity for detailed work and a willingness to carry huge administrative loads without ever complaining, or even making clear how much he was doing. He was a very creative thinker, and though I didn't always agree with him I always found him to be stimulating company. We're much the poorer without him.

Hammerton's Ferry: the Armstrong designed and built Peace of Mind crosses the Thames between Marble Hill House and Ham House
Hammerton's Ferry: the Armstrong designed and built Peace of Mind, crosses the Thames between Marble Hill House and Ham House
John at the helm of the Black Swan at Leeds Castle. Photo courtesy Thanetcraft.
John at the helm of the Black Swan at her launch on the lake at Leeds Castle, 2012. Photo courtesy of Thanetcraft.