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Chapter One

Gloucester was the furthest inland Timber port in the UK with ocean going tall ships reaching the City via the Sharpness Canal . Baxter and Nicks started in the mid 1800s in the Dock Head at Bakers Quay.   William Nicks was the second son of a builder and contractor of Warwick who came to Gloucester in the early 1840s as a traveller for the timber merchants Price & Co  . ( An interesting fact I am also the second son of a timber trader from Warwick  who came to Gloucester to sell for  timber company Williams and Farmer -what’s the chance of that ?!) There he met Robert Heane, and following a misunderstanding with their managing partner, the two young men broke away to set up their own business in 1849. Mr Nicks was 30 ( the same age I was when I left Williams and Farmer to re open The Gloucester Timber Co my first company which later merged into Nicks ! Another coincidence!?) They traded under the name of Heane & Nicks, and quickly built up a successful business importing timber for the railways being built in the Midlands. However, it seems that Heane was not very enthusiastic about business life, and in 1855 Nicks, then aged 35, took over the business in partnership with Thomas Wyatt Baxter, thus establishing a firm known as Nicks & Baxter The 1850s was a difficult time for the timber trade in Gloucester as the war with Russia in the Crimea had the effect of blocking access to Russian controlled ports in the Baltic from where many imports had previously been received. So early imports were mainly from Canada with less from Sweden. Each ship typically brought a few hundred baulks of oak or pine and several thousand sawn soft-wood deals and battens, often topped up with hundreds of barrel staves and/or lengths of lathwood. The firm also traded in slates for roofing, mainly in sizes known as duchesses and countesses, which smaller vessels brought from Portmadoc in North Wales We supplied builders and contractors in Gloucester and the Midlands. An invoice dated 1858 has survived for 29 bundles of lathwood, totalling 5050 feet in length and costing £2 18s 1d, supplied to Messrs Jones & Son who were builders based at Worcester Parade, Gloucester. Remarkably, the same firm continued as a customer for at least ninety years and probably longer . Nicks initially operated from premises on Bakers Quay with a 45 yards frontage on the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal immediately to the south of the Pillar Warehouse and straddling what is now called Merchants Road (6). (Grid Ref. 826180) A large storage area was necessary to keep at least four months stock of timber because the Baltic froze over around the end of November and first open water was at the beginning of April. Their office is shown in a photograph dated 1863, and standing by the door is William Nicks himself wearing a top hat .

Chapter Two

1860 to 1870’sIn 1860, Nicks & Baxter were joined by Henry Morgan Hooper, who with his former partner Joseph Robert Sanders had traded from the neighbouring yards to the south. These had a canal frontage of 63 yards, and the enlarged firm took them over, thereby more than doubling the previous area . The firm did not have their own saw mill and so presumably employed hand-sawyers, although they may also have used a nearby saw mill owned by Samuel Moreland (who later became a celebrated match manufacturer)  Benefiting also from the ending of the war with Russia, in 1860 Nicks & Co dealt with 13 ships from Baltic ports, 11 from Canada, 2 from Gothenburg and 2 from Savannah, Georgia. Most cargoes were primarily softwood deals and battens with some baulks, but those from Savannah comprised large pieces of pitch pine. There were also four smaller cargoes of slates from Portmadoc. Goods for customers in the Midlands could be forwarded by canal boat or via the Midland Railway which had a yard at the southern end of Bakers Quay.The prosperity of this period allowed William Nicks to build Greville House, a fine new residence on the west side of the Tewkesbury Road (now the Gloucestershire Club.As well as running his main business, Nicks was a leading promoter and founding Director of the Gloucester Wagon Company established in 1860. He also took an active role in the public life of his adopted city, serving on the city council as a Conservative and being elected Mayor in 1859(100 years prior to my birth) and again in 1862. He helped to set up the Gloucester City Rifle Company and was an active organiser of the Grand Volunteer Review held in Gloucester in 1860.During his second term as Mayor, he helped to establish penny entertainments for working men and often assisted both as singer and reader .The timber importing business must have suffered a set-back in 1865 when the two partners, Baxter and Hooper, both died when only in their late thirties.Somehow Nicks managed to keep the enterprise going.  Over the next few years, Nicks & Co dealt with 15 to 20 ships a year, bringing sawn deals, baulk timber and some railway sleepers from Canada, the Baltic ports and Archangel with occasional cargoes of pitch pine from the United States of America. The trade in slates continued but at a lower level than previously due to competition from the railways .In the late 1860’s the partners built their own sawing, planing and moulding mill at a new site at Canada Wharf, where the company still operates from with a cutting edge technology of the day a steam engine being fuelled by waste wood and cooled by water from the canal.They also built a creosoting works for preserving wood, the creosote being supplied from William Butler’s tar distilling plant on the river bank at Sandhurst.

Chapter Three

In the late 1880s  Nicks & Co dealt with 15 to 20 ships a year, bringing sawn deals, baulk timber and some railway sleepers from Canada, the Baltic ports and Archangel with occasional cargoes of pitch pine from the United States of America. ( See map for docks )To convert the wood to suit customers’ needs, the partners built their own sawing, planning and moulding mill at Canada Wharf, where the company still operates from today, the steam engine boiler being fuelled by waste wood and cooled by water from the canal created the power to drive what was in the day one of the most advanced milling set ups in the UK. The chimney that vented the steam became a Gloucester Land mark until it was finally demolished after the fire in the late 1980sThey also built a creosoting works for preserving wood, the creosote being supplied from William Butler’s tar distilling plant on the river bank at Sandhurst. There was a crane on the quayside for handling large pieces of wood, and in 1881 the partners erected an elevator nearby for landing railway sleepers which were becoming a significant part of their business.  At the same time, they laid a pipe across the quay underneath the railway to convey creosote from a boat on the canal to the storage tank in the yard. As these new premises were some way out of town, the firm also maintained an office at Ashley House (now 174 Southgate St) for several years.

Chapter Four

Death of William Nicks In the later years of his life, William Nicks sat regularly as a magistrate and was a trustee or governor of various local schools and charities. He no longer took much part in local politics, but he did establish the Conservative Club in 1883, having bought Constitution House for the purpose before selling it to the company set up to run it. Soon after this, however, his health deteriorated, and after a long illness he died in December 1885. He had no sons to carry on the business, but he was no doubt happy to see it pass into the hands of his son-in-law Albert Buchanan in partnership with Joseph Francis Hooper, the son of Nicks’s former partner. By this time, Buchanan was also trading on his own account as a coal merchant in the docks. During the 1890s, the new management of Nicks & Co continued the business much as before. Their imports increased from around 15,000 to 25,000 loads a year (a load being 50 cu ft), mostly deals and railway sleepers with occasional cargoes of pitch pine. A surviving contract from this period defines the quantities and prices of fourteen sizes of deals from 3in x 11in down to 2in x 6in being sold to Nicks & Co by the Korsnas sawmill in Finland, which was again supplying the firm a century later. The prices included delivery alongside a ship at Gefle (modern Gavle) across the water in Sweden, and the wood was to be ready for shipment at first open water in 1894 (after the ice had melted) . As the size of ships bringing timber continued to increase, Nicks & Co occasionally shared a ship-load with one of the neighbouring timber merchants. Also, more cargoes had to be discharged at Sharpness and carried on to Gloucester in barges or rafts. At busy times, Nicks & Co arranged for surplus rafts to be stored temporarily in a shallow pond adjoining the canal at Two Mile Bend . When landing wood at Canada Wharf, most pieces were carried on men’s shoulders into the yard and stored in piles until sold to a customer. Heavier pieces were lifted by crane on to trollies that ran on rails around the yard, although this arrangement was superseded in 1897 by a power-driven gantry that could move baulks direct from the waterside to the sawmill or to anywhere in between . Photos - Mr Nicks / Mr Buchanan

Chapter Five

Nicks a major supplier to the development of the rail networks in the Southwest . London & the Midlands . And Gloucester Wagon Works . New Team: Like his former partner, Albert Buchanan served on the city council as a Conservative, and in 1900 he was elected Mayor. However, he resigned after six months, following a High Court ruling against the election of a fellow councillor which put the Conservatives in a minority. In the early years of the twentieth century, there were changes in Nicks & Co.’s management arrangements. Long serving accountant John Barnett became a partner, as did Buchanan’s sons Albert Ernest and Wilfred Lawrence, and Joseph Francis Hooper left the firm. Premises: A contemporary description of Canada Wharf noted that the premises covered an area of approximately seven acres, every foot of which was required for the storage of timber. Private railway sidings extended throughout the yard and into the saw mill. An elevator on the canal side was used for lifting and conveying sleepers, and a power driven gantry carried baulks from the water’s edge to the mill. The mill contained log and deal frames, circular saw benches and planning and moulding machines. The creosoting tank could hold 7½ tons of timber at a time, and the creosote was injected under vacuum so that it fully penetrated the pores of the wood. This treatment was a speciality of the firm and was much used for treating timber for railway bridges, sleepers, sheds, fencing and blocks for road surfaces (31). In the early 1900s, Nicks & Co were prospering with foreign imports of 20,000 to 25,000 loads a year (a load being 50 cu ft) (32). A surviving ledger shows that the firm’s customers included a wide range of businesses in Gloucester and the Midlands, particularly railway companies, other timber merchants, builder’s merchants, wagon makers and other manufacturing companies. Large quantities of sleepers were supplied to the Midland Railway, the Great Western Railway and the London & North Western Railway. Gloucester customers included timber merchants Price Walker & Co, the Gloucester Wagon Co and match makers S J Moreland & Sons. Other well-known customers included the scale makers W & T Avery of Birmingham, brewers Bass Ratcliff & Gretton of Burton on Trent, cider makers Bulmer’s of Hereford, woollen cloth makers Playne & Co of Nailsworth and the Salt Union at Stoke Works, Worcestershire. Timber was also supplied to large estates, including those of Earl Bathurst of Cirencester, Earl Beauchamp of Madresfield, the Earl of Dudley and Lord Fitzhardinge of Berkeley. Of the smaller businesses, one notable example was Lewis Blakemore of Longley – his family building firm continued to buy from Nicks & Co for over 100 years, and a third generation Lewis Blakemore was a valued customer in 2003.

Chapter Six

The rhythm of normal business was dramatically interupted in March 1907 when a major fire destroyed Nicks & Co’s saw mill. The fire spread to some of the timber in the yard, which soon became one great mass of flames that lit up the whole neighbourhood. The local fire brigades set up four hoses spraying water from the city mains, and the Salamander fire-float pumped water from the canal. These combined efforts brought the fire under control in about three hours, but pumping continued for a further four hours until the fire was fully extinguished. Two further fires in the neighbouring timber yards on the following days led to suspicion that all three had been started deliberately, and a young man later confessed that he was responsible, saying that he had just wanted to see the fire-float at work! Although the damage was serious, the mill was soon rebuilt on the same site, and the business returned to normal. In later years an auxiliary fire service would be stationed at the yard permanently . Change of Management :In the later years of his life, just like Mr Nicks before him Albert Buchanan no longer took much part in local politics, but he was vice-president of the Conservative Club and a director of the company that ran it. He also served on the Gloucester Pilotage and Harbour Boards and as a Severn Commissioner. However, his health deteriorated after he sustained a stroke, and not long after a second seizure, he died in April 1913 . By this time, accountant John Barnett had become the moving spirit of the firm and had been president of the Bristol Channel Timber Importer’s Association in 1912 . He was assisted by Albert Buchanan’s two sons, Ernest and Lawrence, at what was a very critical time. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914  : War had a serious effect on the timber trade because much of the traffic from the Baltic was cut off. The partners were soon in financial difficulties, but the firm survived thanks to help from Frank Croxford, managing director of Price Walker & Co, the principal timber merchants in Gloucester. It seems that Croxford was happy for Nicks & Co to continue to supply smaller customers while Price Walkers concentrated on the larger businesses. The photo of the workforce taken in 1916 clearly shows the “ missing age group” with 14 to 17 year olds in front of the 40 plus year olds at the rear the younger being mini versions of the older in tie and cap ! 18 to 40 year olds being away at the front .

On one of her first outings she assisted the city fire brigade at a fire that started in Nick's saw mill and spread rapidly to nearby timber stacks. It took seven hours to bring that blaze under control, then just a few hours later another inferno struck - this time in Joseph Griggs’ timber yard.Again Salamander contributed sterling service, as the Gloucester Journal reported. “The fire float shook and shuddered with her tremendous exertions and tongues of fire shot three or four feet out from her funnel.”  The fire at Griggs was barely extinguished before smoke was seen rising from Price Walker's, which tested Salamander's abilities once more.Police investigating the coincidence of three fires in as many days shortly afterwards arrested an employee at one of the yards, who admitted he'd started the blazes because he wanted to see Salamander in action.  He was sentenced to six months and on release provided with an assisted passage to Canada. Salamander remained in operation until 1955, having served the city well for half a century

On one of her first outings she assisted the city fire brigade at a fire that started in Nick's saw mill and spread rapidly to nearby timber stacks. It took seven hours to bring that blaze under control, then just a few hours later another inferno struck - this time in Joseph Griggs’ timber yard.

Again Salamander contributed sterling service, as the Gloucester Journal reported. “The fire float shook and shuddered with her tremendous exertions and tongues of fire shot three or four feet out from her funnel.”  The fire at Griggs was barely extinguished before smoke was seen rising from Price Walker's, which tested Salamander's abilities once more.

Police investigating the coincidence of three fires in as many days shortly afterwards arrested an employee at one of the yards, who admitted he'd started the blazes because he wanted to see Salamander in action.  He was sentenced to six months and on release provided with an assisted passage to Canada. Salamander remained in operation until 1955, having served the city well for half a century.

Chapter Seven

Price Walker Ltd 1736 -1986 Gloucesters Oldest And largest Timber Importer kept Nicks alive and helped The Drury family step in . To strengthen the management of Nicks & Co, Frank Croxford, managing director of Price Walker & Co, who where helping Nicks out during the war years recommended introducing a new partner in to Nicks in the person of Thomas Lawrence Drury , who had been works manager of timber merchants Thomas Adams & Sons prior to its closure, Mr Croxford through Price Walker had lent money and stock to keep Nicks & Co going and probably saw in Mr Drury who brought with him substantial business, from his previous company including the supply to a new market of wood for packing cases to firms like Guest Keen & Nettlefolds of Birmingham a way to get his investment back and step away. Croxford also arranged for Price Walker’s to take over responsibility for the lease of Nicks Site at Canada Wharf until such time as Nicks could take it back . Lawrence Buchanan remained as a partner, but Ernest Buchanan and John Barnett departed the company . The Buchanan coal business evidently went through similar difficulties and eventually passed out of the family’s control, although the name was retained. Thanks to the loan from Frank Croxford, in 1916 the new management were able to build a large new shed adjoining the south side of the mill building for storing the better classes of timber under cover.However, even after the war was over, trading conditions remained difficult, and Nicks & Co’s imports were only around one third of the level before the war, mainly coming from the Baltic and Scandanavian countries . The new partner Mr Thomas Lawrence Drury would work his way up to establish the ownership and managment of Nicks for the next four generations of Drury’s at Nicks Timber over the coming 100 years .

Chapter Eight

1920's A LITTLE BIT OF A WINDOW ON UNIONS AND WORK IN  THE 1920's A surviving agreement between the employers and the Dock Wharf Riverside and General Workers Union who controlled the labour that every timber yard employed shows that the working hours in the timber yard on weekdays were 6 am to 5 pm in summer (7 am start in winter), and 12 noon finish on Saturdays. There were breaks of 90 minutes for breakfast, 60 minutes for lunch, and 30 minutes for bait each morning and afternoon. The British Waterways owned the canal banks and about 15 feet (4.5 m) in to each property leasing this ransom strip to each company for storage . You can see this behind Lidl next door . This gave them control over moorings , and the unloading of vessels , as soon as a boat docked only Waterway labour was allowed to cross this strip so ALL boats were unloaded by Union dock labour from boat to yard where Nicks employees would pick up and store. This was done on an agreed Piecework pay rate for men discharging lighters and carrying deals to piles in the yard, with additional money for carrying more than 80 yards, and day-work rates were agreed for taking wood from pile for dispatch. The height of the piles was not to exceed 80 three-inch deals or equivalent (20 ft) in order to limit the height of the lines of planks supported by trestles along which the men ran when carrying the wood to pile .  By the end of the 1920's, some ships used in the timber trade were too big to enter Sharpness, and Nicks & Co received some imports as part-cargoes discharged at larger ports such as Avonmouth and sent on by barge . Another timber shed was built to the north of the mill in 1927 ,

Chapter Nine

Nicks History and Succession to the Drury Family Ownership and how Timber was imported into the Uk in the 30s Managing Director Lawrence Buchanan died in January 1929. He had not played a major role in public life, but he was one of the senior members of the Gloucester Freemen’s Committee and he was a trustee of the Municipal Charities . Following his death, the Buchanan’s family wanted to withdraw their financial interest in Nicks & Co, and Tom Drury managed to find sufficient finance to pay them off, leaving him as the sole proprietor and MD at Nicks until his son Thomas Robert Drury joined him a few years later followed by other sons as they became of age . A number of surviving documents indicate how timber imports were arranged. London agents issued schedules of prices for timber (The Russian Schedule) that would be available at supply ports in the coming months. When needing more stock, Nicks & Co sent in an offer to buy so many standards of a range of specific sizes, a standard being 165 cubic feet, and the agent usually sent back a counter offer quoting slightly different quantities to suit better what he had available. Once both parties were satisfied, the agent sent a formal contract recording the names of the seller and buyer, the place and date of shipment and the agreed quantities and prices for all of the sizes ordered. Some contracts included the cost of freight and insurance while for others the buyer arranged the shipment separately. In either case, transport was arranged in accordance with a standard form of charter party appropriate to ports in the Bristol Channel, although it was common for specific clauses to be amended to suit each particular shipment. Before the ship departed, a bill of lading was prepared specifying the quantities that had been loaded – which could differ from what was ordered depending on practicalities at the time. When the ship was discharged, the numbers of each size received were checked by a tally man, and then a clerk had to enter the information into a ledger and calculate the total quantity for comparison with the bill of lading. As the dimensions were in feet and inches and the quantities shipped were in standards, the calculations were tedious and prone to error During the 1930s, Nicks & Co continued to import timber from the Baltic and Scandinavian countries with some shipments from Archangel, Canada and the United States.

Chapter Ten

Transport changes from Canal to Rail to Road. A dangerous Buisness that resulted in a death at Nicks Timer yard . In 1933, the firm stopped using G T Beard’s lighters to bring the timber from Sharpness to Gloucester, and changed over to Mousell Chadborn & Co instead. Most of their timber was sent away by rail, but lorries were coming into use and some wood was still carried up country in canal boats . One of the railway sidings in Nicks’s yard became known as Hellfire Pass because it sloped down towards the canal and wagons sometimes got out of control. If the man on the brake missed his footing, the wagon could continue on its own, rushing down to join the line alongside the canal and crashing through any planks across the line being used in discharging a lighter. It was also known for a free-running wagon to hit an obstacle and tip into the canal . A more serious accident occurred in May 1932 when four boys employed by Nicks & Co were playing hide-and-seek in the timber yard after having their mid-day meal. One boy climbed the back of a stack of timber, and as he was coming down the front by means of the projecting arms, he lost his balance and fell 10ft to the ground. He was taken to the Infirmary but did not regain consciousness and died the same evening due to laceration of the brain. An inquest jury returned a verdict of accidental death. As the accident did not occur during hours of duty, Nicks & Co did not consider they were formally responsible, but they did make a contribution towards the boy’s funeral expenses.

Chapter Eleven

In July 1939, Nicks & Co agreed to take half of a cargo of 600 standards of spruce being shipped from Digby and St Johns in Canada, with neighbours Griggs & Co taking the other half. To aid discharge, Nicks & Co asked for their half to be put up one end of the vessel and our neighbour’s half at the other end as the two firms used different lighterage firms on the canal between Sharpness and Gloucester. However, while the steamer Rimfakse was in transit, Britain declared war on Germany, and the government of Norway (where the ship was registered) ordered the ship to dock at Queenstown, Ireland, rather than sail to any country at war. After urgent communications between the various parties, Nicks and Griggs agreed to pay the extra war insurance, and the ship arrived at Sharpness on 15 September . With Britain at war, the Ministry of Supply took control of the timber trade, arranging all imports and issuing licences to recognised timber merchants to sell from the national stock. Nicks & Co then took on the role of wharfingers, receiving and storing timber and selling to approved customers. In November 1940, the coaster Ngatia brought a cargo of timber to Nicks’ yard from a big ship that had discharged at Milford Haven, and for many years this was thought to be the last coaster to discharge at the yard (but later events proved this fear wrong). In 1941, concern grew that the concentration of timber yards beside the canal at Gloucester was vulnerable to enemy action, and arrangements were made to disperse much of the local stock to sites further down the canal and to other places further inland. The photo taken at Nicks yard of the Auxiliary Fire Service which were based at Nicks during the war years . The Women’s Timber Corps was a separate branch of the Women’s Land Army and was started in 1942 due to the German occupation of Norway  causing a shortage of imported timber.This branch received even less recognition than the typical Land Girl. The WTC uniform was slightly different as ‘Lumber Jills’ had a ‘beret’ instead of a hat and had a different arm band. Their badge showed a fir tree, as opposed to the sheaf of wheat for the Women’s Land Army.More so in this type of work, the women worked alongside men who had to teach them everything about chopping of the tree, through to loading it onto a lorry. The work didn’t just include the wielding of an axe, but also the skilled work of measuring of trees and the undertaking of the administrative work out in the forests.Lumber Jills worked from 7am to 4:30 – slightly shorter when compared to the girls on the fields. This created some barriers between the different branches of the Women’s Land Army, as  Land Girls often thought the Timber Corps had the ‘soft option’. Nevertheless, as part of the interview process, Lumber Jills had to pass a stricter medical examination than Land Girls. This kick started the wider development and use of “ Home Grown “ product which today makes up 25% of Uk consumption . With his three sons now in the Buisness Tom Drury had a difficult decision to make as only one could claim reserved occupation and not enlist !

Chapter Twelve

The crash site viewed from Tuffley Avenue. As fireman smother the area with foam, the damage sustained by both the house and G-APAZ are clear from this angle. Courtesy Gloucestershire Constabulary At 0845 hours GMT on Wednesday 27 March, Staverton Airfield’s Senior Air Traffic Controller, William Johnson, opened the watch in the weather was reasonable for the time of year, with 60% cloud cover (5/8 or 5 oktas at 2 500ft) and a temperature of 8.7ºC, but as far as Johnson was concerned the most important factor was the wind, which was a light southerly breeze which dictated that Runway 22 was to be the runway in use for the first flights of the day. At about 0900, Kelston Thomas visited the control tower and informed Johnson that he and Palmer wanted to make a training flight with the Varsity to Pershore aerodrome and back, which was to be the final check flight of the conversion course that Thomas was undergoing.  The flight was an important one, aimed at establishing Thomas’ ability to fly and land the Varsity on one engine. As part of this flight, Palmer wanted Thomas to make to undertake an ‘asymmetric approach and landing’ at Pershore followed by an ‘asymmetric approach and overshoot’ at Staverton. In this instance, the term asymmetric referred to single-engine flight, with one of the Varsity’s two engines being shut down and its propeller blades being ‘feathered’. Feathering was a standard emergency technique where, if an engine was damaged or had otherwise stopped, the pitch of the propeller blades was altered so that they offered as little drag as possible. After receiving permission for the intended flight from Johnson and D. Close, the Pershore ATC (who had been telephoned by Johnson). Thomas then picked up a weather update after which he returned to Smith’s hanger, where he met with his instructor, Russell Palmer, who had been speaking to another of Smiths pilots, Keith Dougan, the Deputy Chief Test-pilot. While Thomas had been in ATC, Palmer had met with Smiths Chief Aircraft Engineer, Charles Kay, who had earlier made his own pre-flight inspection and had signed the Varsity off as airworthy. By this time, the Varsity had also been rolled out of the hangar onto the apron in front of the structure and it had been fuelled for the flight, with 1 548 litres (344 gallons) of fuel being pumped into the aircraft’s rear tanks. This was far more than was needed but for the purposes of the checkout flight, the aircraft was required to have a realistic fuel load. This was tempered somewhat because for operations at Staverton, the Varsity had a weight limit of 15 455kg (34 000lbs) imposed although even with full rear tanks, the weight of the aircraft was under this at 15 174kg (33 382lbs) - which in addition to the fuel, included 250 litres (55 gallons) of de-icing fluid and a flight trials recorder (which weighed a hefty 53kg / 116lb); Kay had passed this information to Palmer and when Thomas returned from ATC, the two men went into Smith’s flight offices to collect their gear prior to starting the Varsity’s pre-flight procedures. This began with a walk round of the aircraft, after which the two men went onboard to start the cockpit pre-flight checks, using the aircraft’s Pilot’s Notes. These are essentially the aircraft’s user handbook, which contain detailed instructions for the various actions both on the ground and in-flight to enable the crew to fly the aircraft safely. For the purpose of the flight, Thomas sat in the left hand (pilot’s) seat as if in command while Palmer, although officially the check-pilot, occupied the right (co-pilot’s) seat. After completing the final cockpit checks, the two men then started the Varsity’s engines. There were two sets of controls (one for each engine) located on overhead panels between the two seats and the engines were started one at a time. The start sequence required both men to operate the engine controls and once started, the engines were then put through a short test sequence to ensure that they were functioning correctly. As with all aircraft, this involved the engines being run at various extremes while fuel flow, power levels, and fluid pressures and various other systems (such as magneto and generator outputs) were checked. When this was completed, Thomas called Staverton ATC on the aircraft’s radio and requested permission to taxi. In ATC, Johnson granted permission, instructing Thomas to taxi to the holding point of Runway 22 and hold prior to receiving permission to take-off. In addition, he gave the Varsity crew a QFE (air pressure reading) and also figures for the wind strength and direction. While Thomas acknowledged the instructions, Palmer would have used the QFE reading to set the Varsity’s altimeter, essentially calibrating the instrument in order for it to provide an accurate height reading. Then Thomas taxied the Varsity to the marshalling and holding point, where he and Palmer performed a final take-off check, which involved putting the aircraft’s brakes on and then running both engines up to full power for around 30 seconds (simulating the time required for the aircraft to take off and gain enough altitude and speed to make an emergency landing). Thomas than contacted Staverton ATC and requested permission to take off, which was granted and, at 0945 hours, Varsity G-APAZ took off. Once airborne and safely climbing, the two pilots retracted the undercarriage and Thomas banked the aircraft to the left to enter the Staverton circuit [xvi]. He then radioed ATC and requested permission to make a ‘touch-and-go’ landing. This involved the Varsity making a normal descent and making a landing but, as soon as the wheels touched the ground, the pilot would open the engine throttles and take off again. Johnson gave permission for this and a few minutes later, the Varsity made its ‘touch-and-go’ landing then climbed up and out of the circuit, altering course towards Pershore. At around 1000, Thomas and Palmer were approaching Pershore when, according to the flight-plan, they shut down one of the Varsity’s engines. As part of this process one of the two men would have read the ‘engine shut down’ sequence from the Pilot’s Notes while the other carried out the required actions. The engine that they selected to shut down appears to have been the starboard engine and part of the shutdown process involved switching this engines’ ‘engine idle cut-off' (‘ICO’) switch to its cut-off position. This switch was on the central overhead panel to the left of the engine ignition switches and was covered by a U-shaped finger guard to prevent accidental activation (but which also hid the switch’s visual position). This particular switch was adjacent to an identical switch for the other engine and had two positions, ‘Run’ and ‘Cut-off’. Switching it to the ‘ICO’ position essentially stopped the fuel flow to the engine, so causing it to stop running. As soon as the engine power began to drop, the pilots activated the feathering motors for the starboard engine, so causing the engine’s propeller blades to rotate to a more edge-on aspect to the front and allowing the propeller to windmill freely with minimum drag. At 1010 hours, the Varsity arrived in the circuit at Pershore with one engine stopped and, as arranged, made a successful approach and landing, touching down on Runway 21. Later, D. Close, the Pershore ATC, couldn’t remember which of the Varsity’s engines had been stopped, but thought that it was the starboard one. After landing at Pershore, Thomas taxied the Varsity off the runway to a holding point, where he and Palmer restarted the stopped engine. After warming up the engine back up, Thomas requested permission to take off and at 1025, the Varsity again took to the skies, climbing up and heading back towards Staverton. Five minutes later, at 1030 hours, Thomas radioed Staverton ATC and requested permission to make a straight in asymmetric approach. Johnson acknowledged the request and granted permission, with the proviso that Thomas to call ATC when the Varsity was 2 miles away and, on its finals, (final approach). Not long afterwards, Thomas and Palmer again began the process of shutting down and feathering an engine. This time they selected the Varsity’s port engine and, by 1025, this had all been done successfully and the aircraft was closing on Staverton from the northeast. As the Varsity headed in toward Staverton, Thomas began reducing height following an imaginary glide path that terminated at the threshold of Runway 22. This was normal operating procedure and both Thomas and Palmer no doubt knew the characteristics of the flight path precisely, having landed the Varsity so many times. When the aircraft passed over Hayden, Thomas radioed Staverton ATC as requested and was given permission to make the approach and overshoot, at which point, observers along the aircraft’s flight path saw that the Varsity had its port engine stopped it was fully feathered) and had its undercarriage lowered. At about a mile from the runway threshold with the aircraft at an altitude of 100m (300 ft), the pilots began the overshoot procedure, which involved raising the landing gear and the flaps. A few seconds later, the Varsity crossed the threshold of Runway 22 at an altitude of 78m (200 ft) with the landing gear and flaps retracted. The aircraft flew down the centreline of Runway 22 in a straight and level attitude and, when it had passed over the far threshold of the runway, it began climbing slowly upwards along the same heading. At this point, everything seemed normal to those on the ground who happened to be watching the Varsity. Foremost amongst these was Keith Dougan who at the time was sat in Smith’s Miles Gemini, G-AKHY, which was at the holding point of Runway 22 waiting to take off. As the Varsity climbed away, Dougan’s attention was drawn away as he received permission to take-off, but before he became totally engrossed in his own aircraft, he noticed that the Varsity – which he later estimated to be about 3-4 miles away and still climbing - had begun to turn to starboard, which he thought was unusual as one of the flight rules for Staverton was that aircraft had to turn to port after take-off in order not to fly over Churchdown and the centre of Gloucester. Forty seconds or so later, Dougan had taken off and was climbing through 135m (400 feet) when his radio crackled into life with a he knew was Thomas’,“Mayday. Total engine failure. Going down on outskirts of Gloucester” Looking up from his own instruments, Dougan spotted the Varsity low over Gloucester, flying straight and level but very, very low and moments later he “lost sight of it and saw a cloud of smoke” It is likely that upwards of several hundred people in Gloucester saw the Varsity during its last moments and most tell the same story. The aircraft had one engine stopped and was flying very low and slow - much lower and slower than was usual for aircraft flying close to the city (let alone over it) – and it was also losing height all the time. When the Varsity completed the overshoot and headed away from Staverton it was still climbing, but only by virtue of trading speed for altitude. By the time it passed over the Barnwood Road, when it began its 30-degree turn to starboard, it was at an altitude of about 230m (700 ft) but at this point, its starboard engine appeared to lose power suddenly and what little engine noise it was generating ceased. A few moments later the Varsity flew past the RAF Offices on Eastern Avenue (now the trading estate adjacent to the site of the Fire Station replaced in the early 21st Century) where it was seen by the base’s commanding officer, Wing Commander R. Stevenson, who instantly realised that it was going to crash. Accompanied by Squadron Leader Malloy and another (unnamed) officer, Stevenson ran out to a car and sped out of the complex to give chase. By this time, the Varsity had straightened up its starboard turn and was passing over Tredworth, flying almost parallel to the railway line down Hatherley Road. Passing over Stroud Road and then Linden Road, it just cleared the roof of Ribston Hall High School for Girls by only a matter of feet before flying over the school playing field at an altitude of less than 30m (90 ft), scaring some girls playing hockey. At this point, it seems likely that Palmer and Thomas were attempting to put the Varsity down on playing fields of the Crypt School, which lay a few hundred feet ahead of them beyond Tuffley Avenue. Some witnesses then saw the Varsity’s undercarriage start to come down but by this time the aircraft was only 15m (45 ft) off the ground and a split second later it slammed into the gable end of the roof of number 189 - named Longmead - the left-hand side of a twin house on the north side of Tuffley Avenue. The impact was devastating, completely smashing the nose and cockpit, and killing both pilots instantly. It also tore off both wings, sending the port wing scything away to land half in the front garden and half in Tuffley Avenue (blocking the road), while the starboard wing struck the south-east sidewall of 187, and then fell in between the two houses jamming into the gap between the walls. The fuselage ended up perched precariously on top of Longmead with its tail section overhanging the rear north wall. The crash had demolished most of the roof of the building and scattered bricks, slate and wood debris everywhere. It had also ruptured the aircraft’s fuel lines and aviation fuel was pouring out of the wreckage into the house, garden and road. Amazingly there was no explosion or fire and this was probably responsible for the miraculous escape of the three female occupants of the house –85-year-old Florence Drury, Mrs Bertha Franklin (Mrs Drury’s home-help) and Mrs Edith Hitchins (Mrs Drury’s companion) – all of whom survived the impact and managed to escape from the ruins Mrs Hutchins had a particularly lucky escape as she had been in an upstairs bedroom when the aircraft hit. Though all three women were subsequently taken to hospital, none were suffering from anything worse than slight cuts, bruising and shock. They were helped from the house by Mrs T Drury (Mrs Drury’s daughter-in-law who lived next door) and also by one of the RAF officers, who arrived in time to assist them. After helping the women, Wing Commander R Stevenson and Squadron Leader Malloy saw one of the pilots (Mr Palmer) slumped forward in his seat in the wreckage of the cockpit. Despite the fire risk the two men ran into the house and went upstairs, where they climbed into the wreckage to try and effect a rescue. Upon reaching the upstairs front bedroom, they then found the body of Mr Thomas on the floor and while Malloy checked for signs of life, Stevenson continued on into the aircraft until he reached Palmer. It was soon apparent that both men were dead however and due to the situation, the RAF officers decided to leave the bodies in place until more help arrived. The City’s emergency services were already on their way as they had been alerted to the crash by scaffolder John Mansfield. Mansfield was working on the (new) Bon Marché in King’s Square and saw the Varsity start its terminal dive towards the ground. Being an ex-member of the Parachute Regiment, Mansfield not only recognised the aircraft type but also realised that the Varsity was going to crash. He immediately climbed down the scaffolding and alerted a Police motorcyclist in King’s Square, who contacted his control room at Police headquarters. As a result, the Police were already reacting when ATC Johnson made his 999 call from Staverton but whereas Mansfield could only offer a rough guess as to where the Varsity had come down, Johnson was able to provide an accurate location of the crash thanks to Smith’s pilot Keith Dougan. Dougan, in Smith’s Gemini G-AKHY, had flown straight to the scene and circled overhead as soon as he had taken off from Staverton. As a result, the first fire engine, a pump escape from Eastern Avenue fire station with Sub-Officer L Jones in charge, was reached the scene at 1042, only a minute or so after the crash had taken place. Seeing aviation fuel leaking all around and fearing an explosion, Jones detailed his crew to start spraying the wreck with foam. As the firemen were setting up their equipment, more help arrived in the form of two off-duty Police officers, PC Roy Curley and PC Williams, and Jones asked them to go from house-to-house to ensure that the inhabitants refrained from using any cookers or naked lights. Then Jones and another fireman, Fireman J Moon, took two extension ladders from the pump and erected them against the ruined front of the house in order to try and reach the cockpit and the trapped pilot. They were joined by Wing Commander Stevenson who returned upstairs and released the harness of Mr Palmer, allowing the fireman to lower him to a stretcher onto the floor. Both men were subsequently pronounced dead by a Dr Neill who had arrived at the scene and had gone upstairs to try and help. The bodies were then lowered to the ground on stretchers where waiting ambulance men collected them and then took them to the City mortuary. By this time, a crowd of onlookers had formed and was growing steadily. PCs Curley and Williams began to try and push them back due to the fire risk and before long more police officers arrived and some sort of order began to be imposed.  Soon afterwards, soldiers from the Royal Corps of Signals stationed at Robinswood Barracks also arrived and with their help, the Police were able to establish barricades at the Stroud Road and Calton Road junctions. Roadblocks and diversions were also put in place (with Linden Road replacing Tuffley Avenue) to isolate the whole area from vehicle traffic. As well as the emergency service heads – the Chief Fire Officer, Mr H Corless, the Police Chief Inspector D Baker and the Ambulance Acting Chief Officer, Mr L Rust - the Gloucester City Surveyor, Mr Pollan, also visited the site and subsequently contacted Netheridge Pumping Station to warn them of the possibility of aviation fuel being washed down the sewers. By early afternoon, the fire brigade had secured parts of the wreck with ropes, as the breeze was increasing and it had begun to rock to and alarmingly. Somewhat preposterously the main restraint was a thick rope that had been passed through the fuselage and then around the rest of the house, being tied through the windows! Overnight a guard of police and soldiers were put in place to guard the aircraft and the crash site, which remained cordoned off.  One reason for this was not just because of the possible risk of explosion, but also because the autoland avionics that the Varsity was equipped with were still classified.


Early on the morning of Thursday 28 March 1963, moves to recover the aircraft commenced.  The first element to arrive was an RAF salvage team from 71 Maintenance Unit of Aston Down, although this unit (having travelled without the heavy equipment) had first called into 7 Maintenance Unit at Quedgeley who collected a crane and recovery vehicles - which included two ‘Queen Mary’ transporters. Not long afterwards another RAF team from RAF Bicester arrived to assist but before any salvage work could begin, the RAF had to wait for the inspectors from the Air Ministry’s Accident Investigation Branch (AIB). The Air Ministry had been alerted to the crash at 1115 on Wednesday when Air Traffic Controller Johnson had telephoned the Ministry in London from Staverton control tower [xxi]The duty inspector, Mr R C Warren left London with a colleague but did not reach Gloucester until after dark and so waited until morning before visiting the crash scene at around 0900. After checking with the fire crew still on the scene that it was safe to do so, Warren and his assistant climbed up into the house and undertook a brief survey of the wreckage, concentrating on the remains of the cockpit and its instruments. During this inspection they noted that the fuel cock-levers were both in the ON position and that the fuel cross-feeds were also ON. Importantly both engine idle cut-off (ICO) switches were in the cut-off position while the magneto and generator switches were ON. The throttle levers and propeller pitch levers were found to be in the fully forward positions. He also checked the flap controls (which had been selected to 15˚) and the undercarriage levers (selected to DOWN) then compared these with the actual mechanisms, finding that they matched. With this initial inspection completed, work was able to start on salvaging the aircraft. The first large piece of wreckage to be removed was the port wing (not the starboard wing as reported in The Citizen), which was craned onto a transporter around 1000 and taken away. This was followed by the port engine, which had been wrenched free from its mounting and had ended up in the front garden. The starboard engine was still partially attached to the starboard wing and this could not be moved because it was thought that the wing was actually propping the wall up and if it was removed there was a strong chance that the whole wall would collapse. All of the recovered wreckage was taken to Staverton, which was acting as a temporary storage facility. A little later on Thursday morning, the Gloucester City Coroner Brian Wellington, of Wellington & Clifford, solicitors, opened an inquest into the deaths of the two pilots at the firm’s offices at 57 Westgate Street. The initial responsibility was to take evidence to identify the dead pilots and Smith & Sons’ Chief Aeronautical Engineer, D Brown, identified the body of Russell Palmer while Kelston Thomas was identified by his father, Mr Gifford Thomas, who had travelled up from the family home at Bristol overnight. The also took evidence of the two pilot’s personal details, employment and general background before adjourning the inquest until Thursday 18 April 1963 in order to collect witness statements, empower a jury and to await post-mortem reports – these were to be conducted by the Royal Hospital’s Consultant Pathologist, Mr Edgar Davey at the hospital later in the day. Throughout the day the salvage operation continued, until by mid-afternoon, most of the wreckage and other debris had been recovered with the exception of the starboard wing and the fuselage. The removal of the latter was problematic because of its size, weight and extraordinary position. As the RAF had nothing that was able to lift the wreck in-situ, the Air Ministry had to turn to civilian contractors to do the job and the only firm that had a suitable crane was G. W. Sparrow & Son Ltd of Bath (which, by coincidence, had a branch in Gloucester at Monk meadow Dock). The crane in question was the largest mobile crane in Europe; a monstrous American Lorain model that could lift a weight of 70 tons using an 80m (240ft) long jib on a 9.7m (32ft) long, 12-wheel chassis. This left Sparrow’s depot in Bath with a three-man crew and a Police escort early on Thursday morning but its progress was delayed for over an hour by a minor car crash on the outskirts of the city. As the crane made its slow way up the A38, Mr D Moon of Sparrows’ Gloucester branch arrived at Tuffley Avenue to take charge of preparations for the lift. To enable lifting, the crane had to be placed as close as possible to the wreck (which Moon estimated weighed around 5 tons) and the most suitable place was the Memorial Gardens of Rest that lay adjacent to Longmead to the south-east. From here, the crane would be able to lift the aircraft’s fuselage and then swing it into Tuffley Avenue where it could be placed onto a low-loader. Access to the garden was to be gained via Ribston Hall School where the school fence was knocked down to enable the crane to reverse in. This was completed by late morning when the crane arrived in Gloucester. After reversing the crane into the garden, the three-man crew then began the task of assembling the huge jib boom and lowering the crane’s lifting legs. When this was completed and the crane was functional, a spa beam fitted with two thick webbing slings was attached to the jib hook and this was swung around into place above the top of the fuselage. With Moon in overall charge, the crane team then slipped one end of each sling and the help of the RAF crew, worked them around the fuselage. The forward sling was placed around the fuselage just forward of the wing root while the rear one was fitted around the fuselage just abaft the cabin door (which was located at the rear of the fuselage just in front of the tail section). Several guide ropes were also secured to the airframe to help control the fuselage during the lift. With everything in place, the recovery operation began. The slack was taken up extremely slowly but even so, when the aircraft finally lifted free of the house, a large amount of debris was disturbed and fell to the ground causing a mass intake of breath from the large crowd of onlookers. In all the lifting operation took some three hours and it was not until around 3.30pm that what was left of the Varsity’s fuselage was lowered onto a waiting ‘Queen Mary’ trailer. As soon as it had been secured, the RAF personnel started work on tidying up the fuselage and also on removing the tailplane (the two horizontal sections of the tail). This was not a quick task and as night fell, guards were once again posted around the aircraft to prevent any interference from souvenir hunters. Work recommenced on Friday morning and by early afternoon, the fuselage and tail section were driven away from Tuffley Avenue to Staverton. Clear up work continued for most of the rest of the day and by late afternoon, the starboard engine and wing were recovered after work to secure and stabilise the end wall of the house had been undertaken. An insurance assessor from the Air Ministry estimated that the damage caused to the house, garden and school by the salvage, which worked out at £80-£90 [xxii]. Also on Friday 29 March 1963, the Coroner received post-mortem reports on the two pilots from the Gloucester Pathologist. As the injuries were all consistent with having been caused by the crash, the Coroner released the bodies and issued Burial Orders. After the crash, Daphne Palmer had gone to stay with her mother in Felixstowe and, as she had decided that this was to be a permanent arrangement, this was where the body of her husband was sent. The following day, Saturday 30 March 1963, Russell Palmer was buried in the northwest corner of the churchyard at St Peter & St Paul’s Church, Felixstowe. His gravestone was inscribed with the following epitaph:


Unfortunately, the author has been unable to locate where Kelston Thomas was buried. The most likely candidate is Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, which was the nearest cemetery to his family home in the city. Although Bristol Record Office holds the registers for this cemetery, they are currently unavailable for public consultation due to legal reasons.


A few days after its recovery from Tuffley Avenue, the remains of the Varsity were quietly removed from Staverton and taken by road to RAF Aston Down. Here, the Air Ministry’s inspectors were able to begin their work in earnest to try and determine the cause of the crash. As part of this all paperwork relating to the Varsity was checked to see whether any lack of maintenance or servicing on Smith’s part might have contributed to the crash [xxiii] Everything was in order however and this was all subsequently returned. However, one vital piece of evidence was determined quite early on from the examination of the aircraft’s fuel system. After checking the engine oil and fuel filters, both of which were clean, the fuel feed mechanisms were examined and here it was found that the electric actuators for the engine idle cut-offs for both engines were closed. This indicated that the position of the cockpit ICO switches noted in the initial examination at the crash scene was correct (i.e. were both in the cut-off position) and that the impact had not caused them to move [xxiv] A few days afterwards, both engines were crated up and shipped to Bristol Siddeley Engines Ltd where their engineers performed a full strip down inspection. This subsequently concluded that no mechanical fault had caused the engines to fail. It also revealed another fundamental piece of evidence in that the damage suffered by the engine reduction gears indicated that neither engine had been under power at the time of impact. Eight days after the crash, the Air Investigation Branch convened an afternoon hearing at the New Inn in Northgate Street, Gloucester to collect witness statements. A total of 17 were taken from witnesses whose occupations included housewives, schoolteachers, school children, engineers, policemen, RAF officers and pilots. Present at this hearing was Mr Jones of the solicitors W C Davey Son & Jones of Cheltenham who represented the relatives of Kelston Thomas and Mr Littler, of the solicitors Cartwright, Taylor Corps, representing Smiths and the Varsitys insurers. At 1430 on Thursday 18 April, the Gloucester City Coroner re-opened the inquest into the deaths of the pilots, this time at the Magistrate’s Courthouse in front of a seven-man jury Since the adjournment in March, the Coroner had taken a large number of statements from witnesses, although only 17 witnesses were actually called to give evidence. Though the purpose of the coroner’s inquest was to determine the cause of death of the pilots, one question that the coroner wanted to know the answer to was how common single-engine overshoots and over-flights of built-up areas at Staverton were. He voiced these concerns on two occasions, once to Keith Dougan when he was giving evidence and once to William Johnson. Although Dougan - pilot of Smith’s Miles Gemini G-AKHY, pictured above, on the day of the crash - replied that “This was a special occasion. It is not usual” [xxviii], Johnson contradicted this by saying that he didn’t think overshoots on Runway 22 were unusual [xxix]. This was not discussed at length however and the inquest wound up the following day when the jury returned a verdict of accidental death on both of the pilots.


The port engine and debris from the impact fill Longmead‘s front garden. Courtesy Gloucestershire Constabulary. By late autumn 1963, the Accident Investigation Branch had finished the physical investigation of the crash and Inspector Warren had started writing his report. Warren had already formulated a working hypothesis of the events that caused the crash and one aspect of his work had already impinged on civil aviation in the UK for the Air Ministry had issued two Civil Aviation Circulars or NOTAMS (Notices to Airmen) concerning single-engine flying on twin-engine aircraft. The first of these, NOTAM No.53/1963, drew attention to the risk of errors during the unfeathering and restarting procedures when aircraft were being flown with one engine stopped. The second, NOTAM No.95/1963, advised that twin-engine aircraft should not carry out practice single-engine landings and overshoots at low altitude and recommended that the power on one engine should just be reduced to the point where it was equivalent to it being feathered. Warren finished his report (Civil Accident Report No. EW/C/014) in November and after it was approved by his superior, the Chief Inspector of Accidents, J Veal, it was sent to the Ministry of Aviation in December. From his investigations into the wreckage and the engines, Warren had concluded that the Varsity had been airworthy, properly maintained and correctly loaded. He was also able to determine that there had been no pre-crash defect that had resulted in the Varsity crashing. With all the evidence behind him, Warren concluded that the cause of the crash had been that the fuel to the starboard engine had been mistakenly shut off by the act of switching the starboard ICO switch to the cut-off position. This occurred when the two pilots were in the process of trying to restart the stopped port engine and it appears that instead of switching the port ICO switch to run, one or the other simply missed and moved the wrong switch. As soon as they had moved this switch, the outcome was assured because as the fuel left in the fuel lines was used up – a process that would have taken about two seconds - the engine simply died and, being at such a low altitude and with so little velocity, the pilots did not have enough time to try and determine the problem, rectify it and restart the one or other of the engines. Warren also concluded there was no way of knowing which of the two men made the inadvertent selection of the ICO switch. Though no information had been made available prior to the report being passed to the Air Ministry, some details were apparently passed to the relatives hinting as to the probable cause of the crash. On 28 September 1963, Kelston Thomas’ father, G Thomas, wrote a letter to the Air Investigations Branch stating that he could not “accept that experienced and efficient pilots such as Mr R Palmer and my Son were, would make such an elementary mistake." [xxx] Mr Thomas argued that the reason that the ICO switches were both in the cut-off positions was that they had moved as a result of the crash impact. Warren however had checked this possibility and found that the mechanisms of the ICO switches prevented such movement.  He also gave consideration to the fact that the pilots had deliberately moved the ICO switches to the cut-off position as part of an emergency drill, but this action was not part of the Varsity’s standard rash-landing drill. Warren also made a number of other observations that he wanted brought to the Ministry’s attention. Firstly, he thought that the proximity of the cut-off switches and ignition switches might have been conducive to making errors, especially as these operated conversely (i.e. the ignition switches were On when up and Off when down, while the ICOs were the other way round). He also noted that the ICO switches were separated by a finger channel guard and covered by a spring-loaded U-shaped cover. Although this arrangement was supposed to guard against accidental operation of the switches, it also meant that if the switches were moved accidentally, then it would not be immediately obvious. This was of note because in March 1957, the Air Ministry had issued a order [xxxi] that ordered the fitting of ICO switch guards on all existing and new build Varsity aircraft due to a number of incidents when the switches had been accidentally moved. No further action was taken regarding this however and, satisfied by the report’s findings, the report into the crash of G-APAZ was published by HMSO on 14 February 1964. After the loss of G-APAZ, Smiths Flying Unit faced an escalating workload with one less aircraft. In order to rectify this, a replacement aircraft was procured and arrived at Staverton in October 1963. This aircraft was an Avro 748 srs107, registration G-ASJT, which had been selected as being typical of the current design of civilian aircraft at the time. Apart from test and development flying from Staverton and Hatfield, this aircraft also undertook sales and demonstration flights in Britain, USA, Canada, Scandinavia and Europe. The Avro however was first used to help develop the Smiths SEP6 Autopilot and control system and so it was the second Varsity, G-ARFP, which bore the brunt of the autoland programme work. This aircraft continued flying with Smiths until in January 1968 when it was withdrawn from service and returned to the RAF as WF387. Part of the reason was that the autoland programme was winding down but it was also a cost-cutting measure. By this time the escalating costs of running a flying unit was beginning to become a strain on Smith’s finances. In October 1969 the management decided it was an expense that the company could no longer afford and it was closed down. Over the next three months, the flying unit personal and the company’s three remaining aircraft were moved or sold to other establishments. The de Havilland DH104 Dove 6 G-AOSE was sold to Precise Surveys on 22 January 1970 and was eventually scrapped at Coventry four years later. The Avro 19 srs2 G-AHKX was acquired by British Aerospace and has been restored to flying status. The Avro 748 srs 107 G-ASJT was transferred to the RAF on 13 January 1970, dropping its civil registration and acquiring a military serial number, XW750 [xxxii] Initially based at Farnborough, in 1990 it was still flying as a part of the Royal Aircraft Establishment’s test fleet at Bedford. In 2007 however it was given the American civil registration N748D and flown to Robin Hood Airport near Doncaster to become an instructional airframe with Directions Finningley Aviation Academy. Among Smith's earlier aircraft Douglas Dakota G-AMZE was broken up for spares at Burnaston (Derby) aerodrome in March 1964, Miles Gemini G-AKHY was written off after a forced landing at Shebbear in Devon on 4 April 1965, Percival P34 Proctor P3 G-AHFK went on to win the 1959 King's Cup Air Race before being exported to Kenya and Percival Vega Gull G-AFIE, having been impressed into RAF service, was destroyed in an air raid on Hendon on the night of 7-8 October 1940. The other loaned Vickers Varsity, G-ARFP, continued with development flying but by 1978 was a haulk at the RN Firefighting School at Predannack, Cornwall.


When the verdict of the Coroner’s Inquest was reported on page ten of The Citizen on 19 April 1963, it wasn’t the only reference to the Varsity crash in the newspaper for by coincidence or design, Sparrow’s had placed an advert. This was a quarter page advert and showed a photograph of the Lorain crane lifting the wreck of the Varsity at the crash site with the caption “For all your lifting problems…consult Sparrows crane hire ”At the time, this caused little apparent fuss and none of The Citizen’s readers commented it on in the paper’s letter page. This was not the same 30 years later when the insurance company Commercial Union used a similar image - with the caption “Don’t worry. You’re with Commercial Union. The Citizen decided that this advert, which was only run in Australia, was in bad taste, which is somewhat hypocritical when it made no such inference with the Sparrow advert in 1963 and was also happy enough to charge the company for the advert. The Citizen justified its stance by bringing attention to the fact that the advert was misleading. This was because Commercial Union had been the insurers for 189 Tuffley Avenue in 1963 and the firm hadn’t settled the claim until 1968, five years after the crash. The newspaper also argued that the rest of the wording – that the company “settled claims quickly and fairly” was also deceptive, especially as the paper pointed out that the claim payment was made only after intervention by the then City M.P. Jack Diamond. The house itself lay derelict after the salvage of the Varsity and on 27 August 1964, it was announced that it was to be demolished. Although the Air Ministry had fairly promptly settled a claim with the Drury family for compensation, this had been based on the fact that the Longmead was to have been rebuilt, but in the space of 18 months it had deteriorated to the extent where the architect in charge had advised that both Longmead and 187 should be pulled down. This took place later in the year and the building was subsequently replaced by a modern, rather soulless three-storey structure, reminiscent of a decapitated tower block. There can be little doubt that the crash of G-APAZ was caused by pilot error and that the Air Ministry’s investigation reached the correct conclusion. In general, the Varsity was a fairly safe aircraft and some are still flying today. Of the 163 built, only 17 have been lost through accidents and all except three of these losses were RAF aircraft. All of these crashes have been attributable to pilot error and given the nature of the RAF use of the type at the time, this is probably to be expected. The worst crash in terms of loss of life was the most recent, when Varsity G-BDFT of the Leicester Aircraft Preservation Trust crashed on 18 August 1984 with the loss of all 11 onboard [xxxvi] In the intervening years since the loss of G-APAZ, much speculation has taken place discussing whether Russell Palmer and Kelston Thomas were heroes in that they deliberately avoided hitting Ribston Hall School. This attitude is not surprising as both men were popular, well-respected members of the local aviation community and their deaths came as a great shock. Russell Palmer, especially, had a national reputation as a pilot and test pilot. In all probability however and without denigrating the memories of these two fine pilots, the fact that G-APAZ avoided crashing into the two schools was more a matter of luck than judgement. Given the situation they found themselves in, the pilots were not really in a position to do much about it and in all likelihood they were just concentrating their efforts on trying to reach the Crypt playing fields – which would have appeared as a splash of green in a sea of red brick and grey roof tiles below them. Despite this there is no doubt in the author’s mind that had the two men not been better pilots then the Varsity may have crashed earlier than it did or, continued its turn to starboard before it came down. The first scenario would have seen the impact occur in the streets of Tredworth, while the second would have resulted in a crash somewhere along Southgate Street, probably close to the Docks - pictured above in 1969. If either had been the case, the impact would probably have been far more devastating and the death toll would have been much greater.

The merits of having an aerodrome so close to two major urban conurbations has often arisen and discussed by the authorities (not least by Gloucester City Council and Cheltenham Borough Council who now own and operate the facility on a joint basis). Despite the attendant risk, the author feels that Staverton – now officially known as Gloucestershire Airport – has much to offer and should remain as an active aerodrome (if only to prevent local planning authorities from building on the site!). At the time of writing the airport’s future, which was once in serious doubt now secure. Much rebuilding work has taken place and the facilities have changed beyond recognition since the days when Smiths took control. Although only one commercial airline - Citywing - operates out of the airport, Gloucestershire is still busy with a large number of aircraft movements and much commercial investment. As well as various private business jets there are several flight training schools based at the airfield together with two private flying clubs. Another frequent user is the RAF, who use Staverton as a refuelling facility for rotary wing operations (and pay for the privilege). Acknowledgements I would like to thank the Staff at the following places for their help with this article: RAF Museum, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Gloucester Coroner, Gloucestershire Constabulary, US Navy Historical Centre, Air Historical Branch (RAF) MoD and the RAF Personnel Management Agency (formerly based at RAF Innsworth), MoD. I would also like to thank Bernard Seeley (Churchwarden of St Peter & Paul Church, Felixstowe) and my colleague Vicky Thorpe (for photographs of Russell Palmer’s grave). Bibliography Card, F., 1993 Whensoever: 50 years of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service 1943-1993, The Ernest Press, ISBN 0948153237

Chapter Thirteen

Thomas Lawrence Drury

The Drury Family take controls of Nicks in 1930  but how did they get into the business ? Thomas Lawrence Drury went for an interview in August 1890 with Thomas Adams & Co of Birmingham who opened a yard on the Bristol Road in Gloucester ( see letter sent after interview) . On September 15th 1890 he was signed into a six year apprenticeship with the permission of his father Charles Drury on 6/- (shillings) .30p  a week rising to 15/-  0.75p a week by year six . And so his carrier in the trade began. The Drury family were keen sportsman with Tom playing County Hockey ( top far right ) and Badminton something he would end up running in later life as his own sons all represented the county.

In 1905 he married , by now Thomas Adams & Sons had moved to Monk Meadow Dock on the Hempstead side of the Canal . A gift of “ an Electro Tea Service was given to the happy couple by the company ( see letter signed by all management ) . Thomas Adams & Sons closed in Gloucester at the end of the First World War as trade was difficult and supplies were controlled by government, by this point Tom L Drury had risen to General Manager at the company with a full knowledge of their client base and order book . Price Walker, Gloucester's oldest and largest timber company at that time as mentioned in previous chapters had not only supplied Nicks with stock, loaned them money and payed the rent at Canada Wharf to help Nicks keep going but also recommended to the Buchanan family who controlled Nicks at that time that they should employ Tom L Drury as he would bring business with him and strengthen their team ( keen I feel to protect their investment) So Thomas L Drury joined Nicks around 1920 and so the Drury connection to the company began and would remain until the present day over the next three generations . By 1930 he had managed to raise enough money (again we think with help from Price Walkers MD ) to by out the Buchanan brothers after the death of their father who had been owner MD and who wanted out to become the sole owner of Nicks & Company (Timber)

Chapter Fourteen


Thomas L Drury MD had three sons, seen here on the beach at Bournemouth in 1929, Tom Senior and Junior at the back with John left and Kenneth right. Having secured sole ownership the family started to build a highly successful business but Tom L Drury needed some help, so to keep it in the family he brought his oldest son, and namesake, Tom, into the business to help him, at the age of 14 removing him from school to do so, as his other two sons came of age John and Kenneth they too joined the firm to learn the trade. Tom Senior ruled the company with an iron grip, having taken a holiday at the very upmarket Compton House Hotel Bournemouth in 1933 he wrote every single day with instructions for son Tom on who to and not to pay, enclosing the required cheques, instruction on movement and purchase of goods. He even requested that they posted the reply to letters earlier in the day as they were not reaching him until lunchtime. The GPO at this time operated two daily next day deliveries (who needed email) and so his ability to keep his finger on the pulse was evident right up to his retirement. When the Second World War broke out all three sons were old enough to join up to fight. As Timber traders, the company held “reserved occupational status” so one of the boys could stay to help run the business.

To make it fair, their father made them draw straws to see who could / would stay. Thomas the oldest (moustache) was the lucky winner with his brothers John (suit) and Kenneth (uniform) going off to war. Having both been in the Territorial Army for many years, John joined The Gloucestershire Regiment and Kenneth The Royal Engineers. Luckily, both brothers survived, returning after the war to take up managerial positions within the company. Tom became the General Works Manager; John became Accounts Manager and Kenneth was the Yard and Production Manager. With Dad T.L. Drury as MD .

The Government controls over the trade continued for a few years after the war and were only relaxed in stages. Private Limited Companies, such as Nicks & Co, were readjusting to the role of being independent Timber Merchants  again as they entered into the 50's when the next change at the top would take place .

Chapter Fifteen

1955 T. L . Drury Dies and the sons step up .

Owner MD Thomas L Drury died in August 1955, leaving the business to be carried on by his three sons Tom, John and Kenneth.  Oldest son and senior manager Thomas Drury could have taken the lions share of the ownership of Nicks under his fathers Will but he decide to make all three brothers equal partners . Tom immediately  took over as MD , and in January 1960, the three brothers converted the business into a private limited company, and like his father before him Tom brought one of his sons Chris Drury into the firm in the Christmas of 1960 so securing the transition to the next generation when the time came , they also went on to  purchase the freehold of the Canada Wharf site securing the companies long term future on the Bristol Road and giving themselves the ability to raise money for them to upgrade the mill, including replacing their  by now old fashioned steam engine - belt driven machinery which was still in use to a new fully electric powered Mill in 1963 .

The 1960s was a time of great change in the timber trade, particularly due to the new practice of packaging timber in the country of origin and the use of machines for handling timber in the yard.  To set up new supply lines Tom took his son Chris on a tour of  the Baltic ports to persuade suppliers to package their timber in the way they wanted it so they could  arrange for this to be shipped in coasters that could deliver up the Seven Canal direct to the Canada Wharf site . This saved the expense of transhipment into lighters at Sharpness, but the Gloucester dockers claimed it was their work to unload a coaster and insisted on the employment of a much larger gang than was really needed. This at a time when unions could dictate to management despite the cost . This new method of import became the norm and timber would arrive at the yard directly from Europe in this way for the next 23 years .

But 1963 was to be a year the family would never forget and it had nothing to do with Nicks Timber .

Chapter Sixteen

The Tuffley Avenue Plane Crash 1963 .

This event has appeared on various FB pages over the years but always with the key pieces of info missing . In 1963 the last two houses on the left at the Stroud Road end of Tuffley Avenue were owned and lived in by the Drury Family owners of Nicks Timber  . On 27th March 1963 a Vickers Varsity plane on a training flight out of Staverton crashed on top of the last house which was occupied by two Mrs Drury,s and their companion all three woman survived despite the fuel flooding the house and running down the Avenue . Regrettably the two pilots RUSSELL A PALMER & KELSTON THOMAS died instantly. For the full story follow the link

For the TV coverage from 1963 follow And

These images have circulated around the world and have even been used by an Austrailian Insurance company as an advert to promote the need to insure   in the 1980s before being removed as a result of the Drury family taking legal action . Ironically at the time there own insurance company argued the claim saying the house only needed a new roof ! Both properties were damaged with the other one having the wing embedded in it . It took a year to get resolved and then only with the help of the local MP getting involved . The property was finally demolished and the block of flats built that are there today . In retirement Tom Drury lived in one of the flats which were still owned by the family . The other house was fully repaired . Another occasion when Nicks history entwines with the historic events of the city .

Chapter Seventeen

The three brothers successfully managed the company through the 50's, 60's and 70's Tom Drury MD had brought his son Chris Drury  into the Company in 1960 to start the training program that would prepare him to eventually take over the company, Chris’s siblings went on to have Professional careers  outside of the company . Jack Drury also brought one of his sons Tony Drury into the business aged 18 on Monday 3rd July 1972. He started his training working full time in the yard under the watchful eye of his Uncle Ken Drury . Tony’s siblings and Ken Drury’s own children also went on to have successful professional careers  outside of the company but when needed bringing those skills in to help as Accountants in John Drury and Solicitor in Richard Drury . Seven of the eight children that made up the next generation of Drury’s would ultimately inherit both the company and the Canada Wharf site .

The Transition to the next generation:

In 1979 with little or no notice Tom Drury stepped out of the company and into retirement. Having been involved in it all his life he didn’t quite know how to say goodbye so went on holiday and just never came back . His son Chris Drury was immediately thrust into the hot seat as MD. Jack Drury (Tony's Father) who had been the companies book keeper since the war also stepped away leaving only Ken Drury from that generation still involved but not wanting to take on the full responsibility of the MD ship.

Tony Drury, (Chris’s Cousin) would also step up into a General Works Managers role and eventually when Ken retired into a Directorship along side Chris . Deliveries of stock direct onto the Canada Wharf Quay  would continue until July 1986, when MV Eos arrived from Oskarshamn, Sweden, with 1062m3 for Nicks & Co and J Romans & Co Timber docked and discharged, It would be the last cargo the two companies would receive in this way.