Saturday, 25 December 2010

John Herbert Thom 1891 to 1986 - Part I - the early years

Herbert Thom was born in Cardonald in the outskirts of Glasgow. He came from a family who had worked for generations on or by the sea, his grandfather John Thom having been a Clyde fisherman. John Thom's wife is rumoured to have been the daughter of an English army officer, who had eloped with him.

Herbert's father, also John, was born at Inverkip in 1855 and on leaving school went into the drawing office of Scott & Co in Greenock. Scotts was one of the oldest Scottish firms, founded by John Scott in 1711. By the time John started his training the firm was building almost exclusively steam-powered ships rather than sailing vessels.

John Scott IV had developed new types of high pressure compound engines and John Thom would have been trained in an office at the cutting edge of steam technology. Once trained as an engineer he moved to the Barrow Shipbuilding Company, where he progressed rapidly to become the chief engineering draughtsman. While there he designed and patented various technical improvements, the best known the "Thom Patent" for a special type of piston valve. These were adopted world-wide, an interesting example being the new steam yacht built at Delaware for Mr W K Vanderbilt in 1886. In 1887 Thom's patent slide valves were used in the Royal Navy's state-of-the-art torpedo boat Fearless.

John Thom holding important but indecipherable paper
Thom family, Herbert the little boy in the middle

John Thom's health broke down and forced him to leave Barrows. It's now not entirely clear whether he had developed a severe respiratory problem or angina, but in any event he was never to make a full recovery. After spending time recuperating in Algeria, which would suggest the former,  he  returned to Glasgow . He joined the Scottish Institute of Engineers and Shipbuilders in 1889 and commenced work as a consulting marine engineer and naval architect. He became associated with George Lennox Watson in designing engines for the latter's elegant steam yachts. At some point after his return John Thom acquired the pump-making company Lamont & Co Limited and renamed it Thom, Lamont & Co Limited. In due course Herbert would spend his working life in this company.

In common with a great many West coast businessmen John Thom's main relaxation was sailing. He owned the 17/19 class yacht Daisy Bell (designed by Watson in 1894), then the 19/24 footer Susette, followed by Susette II and then Sapphire, all designed by Alfred Mylne.

Susette I

Susette 1903
From his earliest years Herbert was sailing dinghies and taught himself the principles of steering and tacking without a rudder, by weight distribution alone. He never forgot these lessons and later applied what he had learned in boats right up to 12 metre size to ensure correct trim.

By the age of seven Herbert was sailing with his father. He later recalled memories of his father sending him out on the bowsprit to hold the jib-boom to weather and getting dooked in steamer wakes. At the age of ten he was sent up the mast to clear the winning flags that had got tangled up and returned to deck in tears when his father gybed the boat. He was told to stop filling the boat with water. In 1903 he won his first yacht race aboard the Rose, one of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club fleet.

In the early years of the Twentieth Century the Thom family lived in a large flat in Westbank Quadrant, near to Glasgow University and with a great view over Kelvingrove Park. Herbert didn't ever get to university, but in later life he maintained that he had been educated at five schools. I have traced four of these, Woodside, Glasgow High, Glasgow Academy and Alan Glens, all excellent institutions and it's a real puzzle why he moved about so often.

From 1905 John Thom was a semi-invalid and unable to sail, so his yachts were raced by his wife until in 1908 the entire family gave up sailing. By this time Herbert, aged 17, was undergoing training in the office of Thom, Lamont & Co and working very hard to master the business. When John Thom died in September 1909 Herbert became by default the chief breadwinner for the family and was not  to return to sailing for seventeen years. His younger brother Dorian had little interest in making pumps and his interesting career will be the subject of a later post.

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