We have been very saddened by the recent death of a stalwart of the Museum and the Beamish Tramway Group – Tony Wickens. Tony died on the 12th January and his subsequent funeral was very well attended. He leaves us with a fantastic legacy in terms of both the trams and tramway but also a comprehensive collection of engineering drawings relating to our fleet. He will be much missed and his fellow BTG colleague Les Brunton has prepared the obituary that follows…
‘A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination’
Members of the Friends and Beamish Staff were saddened to learn that Tony Wickens, stalwart of Beamish Tramway Group, had died aged 87 on 12 January after suffering a stroke early last November. A Mass of Celebration for his life was held at the Church of the Holy Name, Jesmond, on 22 January, attended by a large number of his friends, family and work associates, including several from Beamish past and present.
Anthony James Wickens was born on 23 May 1926 in Romsey, Hampshire, the eldest of three children. From an early age Tony demonstrated a desire for learning, pursuing his education with vigour, gaining a scholarship to Downside School, near Radstock, Somerset. With war looming Tony made his first solo venture north when school was evacuated to Ravenstonedale, near Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria. Returning south and completing his schooling, Tony gained admission to Southampton University to study Mechanical Engineering. It was here that he began his long association with Hawthorn Leslie shipbuilders that would ultimately lead him to relocating to Newcastle. Two years into the course, having obtained prior dispensation to complete his degree before being required to undertake military service, Tony was called up and became 2nd Lieutenant AJ Wickens of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) in 1947. Duty to King and Country completed, Tony returned to his career in marine engineering, completing the final year of his degree (awarded by London University) at Sunderland. One of Tony’s contemporaries at Sunderland was the future head of British Shipbuilders. With no further demand for naval vessels at their South Coast site, Hawthorn Leslie had returned to focus activity in Newcastle and as a result Tony became an adopted Geordie and would happily remain so thereafter.
With the demands of study now satisfied Tony had more time to indulge his great interests in railways, trams, and trolleybuses. He spent much time in exploring the North East and beyond and as a keen photographer captured many transport sights and scenes, in doing so providing an extensive library for future generations.
As a Roman Catholic Tony was a man of strong faith and through membership of the Newman Association in Newcastle he met Christine in the Spring of 1956: they married on bank holiday Monday 22 April 1957 at St Charles Catholic Church, Aigburth, Liverpool. They set up home in Jesmond, the family growing between 1958 and 1964 to include Justin, Rupert, Tim and Kate.
Unsurprisingly this was a busy period in Tony’s life but he was able to combine some elements of family and personal interest. When the general manager of Newcastle Corporation Transport, Frank S Taylor, decided to scrap the city’s trolleybuses in 1963, Tony launched the ‘Trolleybus Retention Campaign’ to save the system. Justin and Rupert were recruited as activists for the campaign, launching into a chorus of ‘Down with Frankie Taylor’ each time they boarded a trolleybus – much to Christine’s embarrassment! It was through that campaign that I first met Tony, 51 years ago. As a schoolboy I was impressed by his article in the Evening Chronicle ‘Don’t scrap trolley buses’ and contacted him. The campaign of course failed, as it did nationally, but Tony had great foresight, quoting several advantages of trolleybuses: running costs, safety, noise reduction, air pollution reduction and risks associated with dependence on overseas fuel oil supplies. More recently we used to discuss how most of these qualities of electric traction came to be recognised – in most cases too late. He gave one of his wry smiles when noting that the Suez oil crisis hit home only two years after the last British trolleybus system closed in 1972, but later seven new British Light Rail systems opened and a modern trolleybus system is planned for Leeds – so he was right after all.
In his professional life Tony developed a wealth of practical experience through his hands-on approach to engineering and combined this with extensive technical knowledge to outstanding effect. Tony was recognised by his peers as highly talented and he was immensely proud to achieve the status of Chartered Engineer (CEng). He remained a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) throughout his career and into retirement.
The 1970s were turbulent times for UK shipbuilding and marine engineering with dwindling order books and increasing competition – much of it from the Far East where costs were much lower. Despite valiant efforts this eventually led to the closure of the Hawthorn Leslie works in Newcastle and the gradual decline of the residual elements of British Shipbuilders. As a consequence Tony retired from professional life in 1988.
Far from being the end of his involvement in engineering this presented the opportunity for Tony to concentrate on another of his great passions – Beamish Tramway. He had joined the Tramway Group in 1973 following a request from myself for technical information about the tramway’s motor-generator set. In his meticulous reply, I was impressed by his use of the word ‘evince’ in connection with obtaining information; I don’t think I’ve met the word since! Tony was simply the best theoretical and practical engineer I have ever met, combining this skill with the ability to produce a superbly crafted written report. On the practical side, he used to spend a lot of time with a large hammer – but he seemed to know instinctively how hard to hit things with it. I recall one day he emerged from under Newcastle Trolleybus 501 with a distorted piece of metal, announcing, almost biblically: “I shall smite this until it regains its orthogonality” – presumably it wasn’t square! The restoration of 501 occupied us all over a 17 year period and Tony was the leading light in this.
Tony was a key figure in the development of the tramway as well as the development of Beamish itself (the Doxford Engine project being one notable example) and he made a major engineering contribution to the restoration, from ruinous and incomplete states, of Newcastle 114 and Sunderland 16.
Earlier he had been heavily involved in the restoration of Oporto 196 and Blackpool 31. We have his beautifully-written calculation notebooks in our Development Office. One example which stands out for me is an 8-page calculation from first principles of the expected performance up Pockerley Bank of Tram 196 aimed at predicting the balancing traction current drawn on each acceleration notch. The ‘answer’ was 68.7 amps in full series; we fitted an ammeter to the tram and duly rode up the bank, and, yes: 69 amps observed!
A memorable occasion was Tony’s 80th birthday in 2006, which he spent weighing Sunderland Tram 16 (yes, his special method), followed by the surprise production by the Museum of a Birthday Cake:
A very full filing cabinet of drawings relating to the whole fleet, bearing his reassuring initials ‘AJW’, as well as the enormous contribution he made to Beamish, are testament to this highly regarded and much-missed man.
Tony had a wide range of interests – he passionately believed in sustainability and was very active in Tyneside Environmental Concern (TEC) in the 1970s – long before environmental issues achieved the prominence they have today. In addition Tony supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Medicin Sans Frontières. Tony’s artistic interests included cinema, theatre and listening to music, particularly classical & trad jazz.
As a person Tony was modest, steadfast, highly principled, affable and forgiving. In addition to and perhaps because of his deeply held faith, Tony was pure of heart and spirit, always had a positive attitude and was very supportive to family, friends and colleagues. He had a great sense of humour, lacked any kind of cynicism, he was a gentle, generous and thoughtful man, never malicious and had the highest standards of integrity. Tony will be treasured as a loyal, great and true friend. Professionally he would be truly honoured and proud to have been recognised as a brilliant engineer. ‘A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination’. Tony possessed these things in abundance; we have all been truly blessed by his presence in the world and will miss him dearly.
Les Brunton – Beamish Tramway Group
Article includes material from the Eulogy written and delivered by Tim Wickens, to whom grateful thanks are expressed.