The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Sussex

The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Sussex

My Early Years

I was told that I was born in a nursing home in Cricklewood London we lived at 3 Broxbourne Road, Orpington. Kent on a new estate built on the former Knoll Park Golf Course. Later the address became number 13 with the building of additional properties in that road. This house remained my home until I sold it in 1973 to move to Dartford after my parents had both died, my father in 1960 and mother in 1968. I am an only child and have no direct blood relations living.

From about age 5 I went to school in Orpington but the school moved to Farnborough Kent and became known as Bassetts School. In the Summer term of 1938 I moved on to Ardingly College as a border, where my Dad too had been a pupil, and left at the end of the Summer term in 1945, having obtained an Oxford and Cambridge Joint Schools Certificate with exempt Matriculation for London University. I was accepted as a student engineering apprentice at GEC Witton, Birmingham with day release to study for a London University degree but in spite of two tries, failed the Intermediate exams.

1167-206 Peter Parker

I had from early childhood become interested in stage lighting and it just so happened that a Mr Earnshaw lived a few houses along the same road as us and used to catch the same commuter train to London each day with my dad. Mr Earnshaw  was joint Managing Director of Strand Electric who were the principal suppliers of stage lighting to theatres all over the UK. The Savoy Theatre, opened in 1881, was the first public building in the world to be lit with electricity throughout, both stage and auditorium. My dad and Mr Earnshaw became close friends and my going to GEC was partly on his advice.

Strand Electric almost

On finishing my apprenticeship in 1949 I was interviewed by GEC local management in Birmingham for a possible job and stated that I wanted to join Strand Electric as that had always been my desire. It had become understood that that is what I would eventually do. However the GEC management had other ideas and I was sent to be interviewed by the Chief Lighting Engineer of GEC at headquarters, Magnet House, Kingsway, London. The result of that was that I was offered a job as a trainee lighting engineer at Head Office in Kingsway, which I accepted, much to the annoyance of folk at Strand Electric. Stanley Earnshaw in later years made it known to me that had I joined his firm I would have been made a director in due course. He was very upset when I told him that I wanted to stand on my own feet and not be seen to have had a life set out for me because of my dad's position.

With GEC Lighting

I worked at GEC's Magnet House until its closure in the 1960s initially as a trainee lighting engineer. However in the Lighting Dept of GEC there was a man whose job it was to deal with any enquiries that came in for stage lighting, fountains and signs. GEC had operated its own stage lighting department up until the early 1930s but had done a deal with Strand and in return for Strand using GEC components, wiring, switches, lamps etc. all enquiries for stage lighting would be referred to them. This man was due to retire in 1950 and although my interest in such matters was quite unknown to the local GEC management I was offered the job to look after Stage lighting and fountains. I knew nothing about the latter. Signs were taken over by Claudegen, another GEC subsidiary. The main duty on stage lighting was to deal with enquiries from overseas as Strand did not have then any overseas representation and GEC acted on their behalf as we had branches throughout the Commonwealth and in most developed countries. I had to learn very quickly about fountain lighting and pumps, nozzles etc.

The Second World War had meant that many councils and local authorities had left decorative fountains to decay and there was quite a lot of work to be had. I remember what were known as The Carpet Gardens at Eastbourne, the fountains in which being in need of complete refurbishment, a job which fell to me. There was also work at Blackpool. Electricity for floodlighting and decorative lighting, shop windows and such like had been restricted but was suddenly allowed.

The 1951 Festival of Britain and underwater lighting

It was during 1950 that I was selected to be part of a team of four to take on roughly one quarter of the outside lighting for the Festival of Britain. The section allocated to GEC was South of the site of the Royal Festival Hall and bounded by the railway and York road. I was of course the junior of the team and dogsbody. However it turned out that the other three principle lighting companies, Metropolitan Vickers, Siemens Brothers, and British Thompson Houston did not want to get involved with any of the lighting of underwater features, and there were a lot of those including the main fountains. So I took on all that work on behalf of GEC. Of the three others in the team from GEC, one did practically nothing and the other two did conventional lighting. I became responsible for the appearance of a lot of features most of which were external lighting and all the underwater lighting for the whole site. Among my collection of videos are films taken of the Festival which show my work. We learnt the hard way as we went along and spent many hours in the early mornings around 3.00 am waist deep in fountains sorting out problems due to water leaking where it should not.

I still have a Gilt edged invitation to attend the opening ceremony performed by the King and Queen and so far as I know was the only one of the GEC team to be so honoured. I also have a letter from Hugh Casson sent to Sir Leslie Gamage as MD of GEC thanking GEC for our efforts and singling out myself by name. Hugh Casson was subsequently knighted for his work as chief architect for the festival.

The Coronation in 1952

Almost immediately following on from the Festival of Britain, the King died and I was asked to take on the job for GEC of decorations, selling and installation, for the Coronation. I was regarded as a "natural" for the job. However I had then also been offered the job as assistant to the then Chief Lighting Engineer of GEC, Saville Anderson, who had succeeded the man who had originally taken me on. Anderson then grumbled that having selected me, I was spending all my time doing floodlighting and Coronation decoration work and not the technical engineering we were supposed to be doing. However Anderson and I got on with each other well and I knew he was regarded as a difficult man to please. We became firm friends but I really go to know him better personally after he was retired.

Train & aircraft lighting

In due course the Coronation took place and that specialised decorative work ceased. From 1953 onwards I worked on the development of control gear for discharge lamps including fluorescent tubular. Anderson and I were responsible for many very specialised designs for such as The London Underground, both stations and the trains. We provided equipment on behalf of J. Stone & Co for trains all over the world, India, Egypt and South America, some of this equipment bearing other than GEC trademarks. I was the prime designer of lighting and its control equipment for Vanguard aircraft and VC10 aircraft, but turned down work on Concorde as we could see it would be unprofitable.

The amalgamation of GEC & Philips Semiconductors and its consequences

It was during the work on Vanguard aircraft that we produced the first production of transistorised control gear for operating fluorescent lamps from a low voltage supply. No one anywhere including the Japanese had done this. We claimed a world first. Subsequently we did the same for train lighting. However we ran into severe problems on the train versions. It was at this time that GEC and Philips amalgamated their semiconductor manufacturing businesses into a single company. The first thing the new company did was to completely electrically re-rate the semiconductor devices that we were using. It meant we could no longer obtain any guarantee of the use of the particular devices in the manner in which we were using them. The new company merely said they could not support our use. Of course it was all Germanium transistors in those days. Silicon devices had not been introduced. The upshot was that I had to go cap in hand to senior management at GEC and tell them of the position. The only way we could see any future was to go to the customer, British Rail, less than half way through the contract and tell them we wished to withdraw and cease manufacture altogether. I had negotiated a large sum of money to be made available at GEC against damages we might be expected to have to pay. In the event BR were sympathetic and we only paid out about half the expected sum. We did give an undertaking that we would withdraw from supplying such equipment for the future. It was a very sad business. There were no "better/higher rated" semiconductor devices available. We did have contracts with Vickers Armstrong Aircraft and London Underground which we also had to re-negotiate but these were small by comparison. I was not held to be responsible for this debacle as when the equipment was designed we could show that the use of the particular semiconductors we were employing was within the published ratings. We paid the price of being the first in the world. Such devices have now become commonplace but using modern silicon transistors.

Wienstock reorganisations at GEC

In the early 1960s Arnold Wienstock had become MD of GEC group and one of his first actions was to close down many of the expensive showpiece branches of GEC in various towns and cities in UK including the headquarters, Magnet House Kingsway London. This meant the breakup of our lighting division. The sales side went to Hammersmith into buildings which were not being used but Anderson's department which included myself and by then two others was transferred to the main GEC site at Wembley. It meant a long commute from Orpington to Wembley and back each day. Soon after this we were amalgamated into Osram-GEC whose headquarters was on the Wembley site. I think it would be fair to comment that the directors of Osram-GEC never really understood the different sales situation between pure lamps and the sale of luminaires and technical equipment. The profits from the sales of lamps came from selling replacements but the profits from other equipment, lighting fixtures etc. came from initial first time sales. The objectives of the two businesses were poles apart. Nevertheless we persevered and continued designing and employing new technology for lighting and its control gear.

At this time, mid 1960s, we had taken control over the factories making equipment and lighting fittings. Up to then the factories made the stuff and we had to sell it, a very odd and old fashioned concept. Now we told the factories what to make and in what quantities. However Ballasts for lamps were by then mainly made at Erith which factory had no design or drawing office facilities. It was run by a single manager on site with only a secretary and an office clerk to pay wages. It employed well over 100 people mainly women. The production drawing office was still in Birmingham on the site of the original ballast manufacturing plant. This meant that we had my dept operating at Wembley dealing with the technical designs and specification, a drawing office at Birmingham and the production unit at Erith. This was expensive and cumbersome with a lot of travelling between the sites.

Enough was enough - left with the dirty work

Sometime in the early 1970s I decided I had had enough and had suffered from so many management changes so I resigned giving two months' notice, although only one month was required contractually. There was on one day, a management debacle in which 12 senior managers had been declared redundant overnight. This was the way Wienstock ruled GEC. Among those told leave by midday on the day concerned was my former boss Saville Anderson. He was not on site and was in the Chair of an international conference in London on standardisation matters in the industry. It fell to me to ring him at home that evening and tell him he was being made redundant. Not a pleasant thing to have to do; it was a good job we were on friendly terms.

The then technical director of Osram pleaded with me to withdraw my letter of resignation and wanted me to work from home. However I knew that would not be workable and declined. What I and my dept was doing was a highly technical operation and there were at that time only four other individuals in UK doing similar work for our competitors. We all knew each other behind the scenes, being members of the same professional institutions.

My own business however also still with GEC

 After much consideration I relented but in the process in preparation for leaving GEC I had bought a retail shop in Dartford with flat above. I moved in to the shop in February 1973. It was a very specialised business and I had known the owner for over ten years then. He is still alive aged over 100. I used to tell people I sold Chips but not edible ones! It was an electronic components retail shop which I operated under the former name of the owner as J .T. Filmer. I never became a limited company but stayed as a sole trader for tax reasons. Having the shop could be seen as having a conflicting interest and after some pressure from me I did get a letter from GEC giving me permission so long as no conflict would arise.

So then I had two jobs one with GEC as before and a shop to run. I managed to get exactly the right man to run the shop day to day. The premises were on a lease with only five years left but I was able to purchase the premises freehold when the lease expired. I sold the house at Orpington which I had inherited and also bought a single bedroom flat in Bexhill, in Belgrave Court.

It was during the period, I think in 1966 that I was promoted to set up and manage a new development laboratory for ballasts based at Wembley and at the same time to absorb the design team some 4 in number who were technically part of GEC Research Laboratories also based at Wembley and who operated on their side of the dividing fence. I had to set up a totally new department on the site of the old Glass works at Wembley. This required major alterations to the building and the provision of new facilities, furniture etc. It was known as Peter Parker's ballroom as I had laid a totally new tiled floor over what had been a concrete base. There were some 6 of us plus a secretary. We also had built a very special acoustic laboratory on an isolated Green field site on the Wembley estate to do work on sound measurements which were a perennial problem in lighting ballast manufacture.

It was becoming obvious that to carry on with designs involving three sites was unworkable and very expensive. I suggested that the best solution would be to move my entire department to the Erith site if suitable premises could be found there. This was accepted by the Osram-GEC management.  In the event we only had to re-house two people. I then worked at Erith which of course was very convenient for me personally living at Orpington but it also suited most of my staff who can come originally from Kingsway and who lived South of the Thames., one actually in Erith. The dept was expanded and we had at one time some 10 of us plus a secretary. We took control of the quality auditing for the factory among other items. At that time we were making around 4000 fluorescent ballasts per week plus about 1000 ballasts for streetlighting lamps on the Erith site. During my time there from 1967 onwards to the end of 1981 we developed and installed under my direction and design totally new manufacturing plant and systems. I still have some test equipment from that plant here in Bexhill stored in my garage. I rescued it off a skip physically.

The Erith site was shared with GEC Mechanical Handling Ltd but we had virtually no contact with them. They had a totally different business and our fields did not overlap.

Redundancy looms

In 1981 Osram-GEC decided to cease manufacture of conventional lighting ballasts and buy them in from outside suppliers. That meant giving up all design work and ceasing to trade in special devices. I was made redundant. Of course I had my shop to fall back upon so was not too worried financially although I would have been in straightened circumstances and would have had to make an effort regarding the shop activity. I then got a phone call from the Mechanical Handling Company asking me if I was interested in joining them.

Part 2 - Peter Parker by Peter Parker

Electrical Engineer - Freeman of the City of London - Authority on Gilbert & Sullivan

Return to Peter  Parker Top

Peter Parker

Return to Peter  Parker Top

Peter Parker

Another first for the UK

The staff at Mechanical Handling initially thought I would not fit in with them being a lighting man, but I had been trained in engineering matters and found I was competent to deal with the sort of jobs they gave me to do. I did a number of interesting jobs for that company, among which were; the development of a robotic welding table, work on the equipment for the Post Office in automatic letter handling, development of the phosphor dot ink jet printing equipment for letters also for the Post Office, the complete development of an automated factory for assembling surface mount printed circuit boards for British Aerospace. This latter was a first for UK so much so that the Japanese sent over a delegation to view it in operation and said they had nothing like it in Japan. We had a Royal visitor to come and inspect it but she did not open it as it was not ready. It was filmed by the Department of Trade. The entire plant could be run by two men and all the handling of circuit boards was carried out on specially made robots. I did not design the purely mechanical side of this plant but did design and install all the electronics and took overall responsibility as the senior engineer involved. I was also given the job of re-designing the Hallmarking system for the Goldsmiths Company but we were not successful in obtaining that order.

I leave GEC and ease into a 24/7 occupation - it's called retirement!

GEC Mechanical Handling was moved to Leicester in 1988 and they offered me a job there at a great increase in salary but I thought the time had come to cease and negotiated a good redundancy package. As I had not actually been made redundant before, I could claim some 43 years with GEC continuous employment. And so I retired from full time work for an employer but still had my shop. I was then 59. I carried on the shop until I was 65 in 1994 when I finally retired selling the premises at Dartford, the flat in Belgrave Court, some 12 garages that I had bought in Dartford and purchased my present home.

I was employed in a Consultant capacity by GEC Mechanical Handling Ltd after leaving their employ to deliver a paper to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers on the safety issues of employing robotic systems in production environments. I also had to finish off the work on the proposed re-arrangements for Hall Marking.

I now live in happy retirement and find myself always busy. I have developed type 2 diabetes since 1988 when I gave up working for GEC Group and have been on Insulin since moving to live permanently in Bexhill in 1994. I did some 10 years as a director of West Parade Estates Ltd who own the freehold of the flats in Bexhill. Also I did 10 years as Chairman for the St Kitts flats.

Some of my Gilbert & Sullivan associations

I am now able to devote my time to Gilbert and Sullivan matters, as a Life member, executive committee member and a Vice President of both the Gilbert and Sullivan Society (London) and the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Sussex, a member of the International Gilbert and Sullivan Association, based at Halifax and the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society

I dabble with making DVD videos to do with Gilbert and Sullivan events and interviews with Artists who have been involved. These are not for sale and may contain items which are copyright. I have an extensive collection of videos and recordings of all sorts to do with G & S and a, partly inherited, sizeable collection of books, photographs and other ephemera on this subject and the Savoy, both Theatre and Hotel. I am regarded by many as an expert on matters to do with the D'Oyly Cartes and in that capacity have provided data and background information for films including Topsy-Turvy.

My present other interests and memberships (Current at October 2013)

Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Lightmongers and a Freedman of the City of London.

The British Vintage Wireless Society

A Friend of Bexhill Choral Society, and Sussex Opera and Ballet Society.

Diabetes UK and of the Bexhill Diabetic Support Group

Founder member and on the committee of the Bexhill Rail Action Group

The Friends of Egerton Park.



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Limoges porcelain piece commissioned by Worshipful Company of Light Mongers to celebrate Millennium Year.

 They were looking for a manager but with mechanical qualifications of which I had none. I had along the way obtained membership of various sorts of institutions which conferred a professional status (see note below). However they evidently liked what they saw and took me on but not as a manager but as a Senior Development Engineer. So one morning I went to work at Erith on part of the site I had not been on before. I was then 53 years old and thought this will keep my pension contributions going. They gave me the same salary as I had been getting with Osram.

Note: These included:- a Diploma in Lighting Engineering in 1961, Fellowship of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers: FCIBSE, Fellowship of the Society of Light and Lighting: FSLL, Membership of the Institution of Lighting professionals: MILP and won the Leon Gaster Memorial Premium for a paper on Lighting Ballasts in 1969.


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