Unravelling the history of an engineer ancestor

| 15 Jan 2013

I do enjoy a bit of Who Do You Think You Are?, the TV programme in which celebrities uncover their family history and inevitably discover that they are distantly related to the Duke of Wellington.

What does interest me as a result of watching the show, however, is the odd correlation that frequently pops up between the career of an ancestor and that of the 'researcher'. I say 'researcher' because I’m quite sure that it isn’t the featured celeb who spends months trawling through parish records before finally hitting upon something worth a prime-time spot on the BBC!

Entertainers have on several occasions discovered that the great grandfather they never knew was a big player in music hall for instance, and it led me to think about my own family’s past.

I’m ashamed to say that I never really had much of a relationship with my paternal grandfather. By the time I was in my formative years he was already very hard of hearing and so conversation was limited – particularly because he carefully chose the moments when he would switch his hearing aids on (although that was more to do with his desire to hear my grandmother… or not!).

I vaguely knew that he had worked in a garage at some time and, judging by the fact that he always had a Fiat on the drive, I guessed at their speciality.

Inspired by the impressive work that my uncle has been doing in plotting the Port family tree, I decided to find out more and see if there was any link between my amateur motoring obsession and my not-too-distant ancestry.

Of course, this wasn’t difficult – I merely asked my Dad, who was all too happy to talk. As it turns out, my grandfather started out working in the village stores before persuading the owner of the local garage to take him on. This was the start of his engineering, and driving, career.

More engineering skills were picked up while in the Royal Air Force before he then learned how to work sheet metal with considerable dexterity.

An opportunity came up to put these skills to use at RAF Chilbolton in Hampshire working on the Supermarine Swift, but, unfortunately, I doubt if we will ever know if his claim to have contributed to the building of the Swift F4 WK198 that achieved a world air speed record in 1953 was correct, or just a slight stretching of the truth!

With training at BOC, he become a proficient welder and learned metalling skills that enabled him to make camshafts etc before marriage beckoned and job security and increased income became crucial.

He then landed a job at Huxford garage in Portchester, Hampshire (main image and above) and, when the company became an official Fiat importer/dealer, he developed a process for converting left-hand-drive imports to right-hand drive for the British market.

This initially involved re-using many of the original components and reversing them. Unfortunately his first attempt didn’t quite go to plan and the fact that during the conversion he had turned the steering box upside down almost ended in disaster when he tried to move it out of the workshop: turn left and the car went right.

Back to the drawing board, but eventually he got it spot on and I wonder now how many of his converted Fiats are still in existence?

So what does this mean for me? Well, I’m intrigued to find out that after failing to grasp the basics of my father’s trade (electrics), I at least have something in common with his father.

From my maternal grandfather, I gained a love of tractors, six-inch nails and woodworking, but from my paternal grandfather, there is the remotest chance that I may have inherited some vague engineering ability.

I will never have the skills he had, because for me it is a sideline to my day job – a mere hobby – yet I remain safe in the knowledge that faced with the task of converting a car to right-hand drive, I too would probably have gone for the lateral approach!

Yet perhaps the best discovery of my grandfather’s background was when I found out about his service in WWII. Never one to discuss his involvement, the only thing he used to regularly mutter was about the time he had to "bury those bloody Spitfires" in Burma…