Category Archives: George Gerald Stoney (1863-1942), engineer

The Sinking of the Cobra: a Heaton maritime disaster

When, on 18 September 1901, HMS Cobra sank on its maiden voyage on route from Newcastle to Portsmouth, it was a huge shock for the country and a particular tragedy for the north-east, but nowhere was the loss felt more keenly than in Heaton.

Steam

Only four years earlier, Charles Parsons had amazed onlookers by gatecrashing Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review and racing his yacht, Turbinia, between the lines of the officially invited vessels at speeds of up to 34 knots.

Sir Charles Algernon Parsons (1919) by Walter Stoneman
(National Portrait Gallery)

Turbinia was powered by marine steam turbines invented at C A Parsons and Co in Heaton by Parsons himself alongside other great engineers such as Gerard Stoney, whose home, as well as his office, was in Heaton and Robert Barnard, who worshipped at Heaton Congregational Church.

Turbinia

Turbinia’s spectacular demonstration of speed prompted local armaments and shipping firm Armstrong Whitworth to build a torpedo destroyer to be fitted with a turbine engine, confident that a buyer would quickly be found. The ship’s design was based on those of two other vessels built at Elswick and it was launched on 28 June 1899. Six months later the ship was offered to the Admiralty.  However, the turbine machinery on board was much heavier than the machinery on the earlier ships (183 v 110 tons) and 30 tons more than expected. Despite the assurances of the designer, Philip Watts, who was head of the Elswick shipyard and the firm’s chief naval architect, that the weight was within tolerance limits, the prospective purchaser expressed a number of concerns including about the  strength of the upper deck. 

Viper

While what was to become HMS Cobra was being modified on the quay at Elswick, a collier ship accidentally collided with her, delaying completion by another seven months. This misfortune allowed a sister ship, HMS Viper, ordered by the Admiralty from another Charles Parsons company, Parsons Marine (who subcontracted the building of the hull to a third local firm, Hawthorn Leslie) to become the world’s first turbine-driven warship. Sadly on 3 August 1901,  HMS Viper was grounded on rocks during naval exercises in fog off Alderney in the Channel Islands. The crew were forced to abandon ship as she sank.

HMS Viper

Disaster

Less than seven weeks later, at 5.00pm on 17 September 1901, HMS Cobra was deemed ready to leave Newcastle for Portsmouth, where she was to be armed and commissioned. On board were 79 men, 24 of whom were from the north-east, mainly employees of Armstrong Whitworth, the shipbuilders,  and Parsons, the turbine builders. 

HMS Cobra

As the weather deteriorated and the ship began to roll, the thoughts of many of those on board must have turned to the recent demise of the Viper, a ship well-known to the Parsons contingent in particular. Conditions, however, began to improve at first light until a sudden shock was felt throughout the Cobra. Within seconds, the ship had broken in two. There wasn’t time to launch any of Its five lifeboats but twelve men, including the ship’s chief engineer, John J G G Percy, were able to scramble into a small dinghy. They were the only survivors. Sixty seven men lost their lives, twenty three of them from ‘contractors’, mainly Parsons.

Local

Among those known to have Heaton connections were:

John Abel

John originated in Brighton, Sussex and, aged 28, worked for Parsons as a ‘steam engine maker and fitter’. His daughter had been born in Portsea, Hampshire in December 1899 so it’s possible that the family hadn’t been in Newcastle long. At the time of the 1901 census, they were living at 12 Morley Street but by the time John lost his life on the Cobra, they were at 44 Denmark Street.

Robert Barnard

The Essex born marine engineer was the senior Parsons Turbine representative aboard the Cobra. He was manager of Parsons Turbine Works, Newcastle and Wallsend. He had assisted in the design of Turbinia and superintended its construction. During its trials, he usually acted as steersman alongside Gerard Stoney and Parsons himself.

Barnard had also superintended the erection of the works at Wallsend and supervised the building and engineering of the Viper and the King Edward as well as the Cobra. Aged 38, he had been ‘associated with the development of the modern steam turbine from the very first. No one next to Mr Parsons believed more in the possibilities’. He was also, until shortly before his death,  treasurer of Heaton Congregational Church. He is buried in Preston Cemetery, North Shields with his wife, Mary.

Alfred Bryans

Alfred’s was one of the first six bodies to be found and it was formally identified in Grimsby Hospital mortuary by the coroner’s jury three days after the disaster. An envelope addressed to him at his home address of 25 Meldon Terrace, Heaton was found on him. Alfred was born and raised in Co Durham but in 1901, aged 25, was living in Heaton with his widowed mother. He described himself as a ‘steam engine maker and fitter’.Regarded as an exceedingly promising and capable young man’, he had worked as an electrical engineer at Parsons for five years and was previously on board the Viper ‘superintending work in connection with the dynamos’ when it sank. 

He had then been sent to Stockport to be in charge of the dynamos of the new electric car system there and had just returned to Tyneside to travel to Portsmouth aboard the Cobra ‘in the same capacity as he had worked on the Viper’. He had three brothers, one of whom was a doctor at the Middlesbrough hospital where some of the survivors of the Cobra disaster were taken. His older brothers were also engineers, one in London, and the other on a railway in South America. Alfred was among the first to be buried. His funeral took place at Bishopwearmouth Cemetery. Among the mourners at his funeral were Gerard Stoney, John Barker, manager of Parsons Turbine, and Sir Richard Williams who, in 1889, had moved from Clarke and Chapman with Parsons to help him set up his own company.

Edward Lee

Edward was a foreman fitter from C A Parsons and Co. He lived at 21 Morley Street.

George McGregor

Aged only 17, George was the youngest of the Heaton victims. He lived with his widowed mother, younger brother  and  two sisters at 69 Molyneux Street and was an apprentice fitter at Parsons. His older married brother, David McGregor, aged 29, who lived nearby at 33 Algernon Road was also a fitter at the firm.

John W Webb

John, a 32 year old Parsons fitter, lived at 9 Fifth Avenue with his wife, said to be ‘of delicate health’ and his sister in law. He was reported to be ‘well known and highly respected in the eastern part of the town’,  a member of Bainbridge Memorial Wesleyan Church and superintendent of the Sunday school.

Aftermath

Among the first announcements after the disaster was one the following day from the Admiralty declaring that they would ‘cease naming vessels after  the snake tribe – first the Serpent, next the Viper and now the Cobra’ (HMS Serpent had run aground and sank in a storm off Galicia in Spain  in November 1890, less than two years after going into service. 173 of her 176 crew lost their lives).

Locally, Charles Parsons headed to London immediately and the whole Parsons workforce was given the rest of the week off. There were reports of ’the horrors of scalding steam’ adding to the other dangers experienced by those on board. ‘The Evening Chronicle’ reported that Charles Parsons had foreseen this risk and insisted that the steam pipes on the Viper (on which no escape of steam was reported) were fixed as flexibly as possible. However, on the Cobra, the Parsons Company, as engine builders ‘were bound to follow specifications and these provided that the steam pipes should be as rigidly fixed as possible.’ The war of words between the various interested parties had begun.

The Admiralty immediately absolved the ship’s captain of any blame or navigational error, reporting that the ship was in deep, clear water when it sank. It conceded that it could have struck a wreck or some floating obstruction. A Captain Smith of a Yarmouth herring drifter which was the first vessel on the scene said that he might have seen a shark’s tail but it was impossible to know. A wounded whale, seen in the area, was also implicated until it was discovered that it had been landed a week earlier. The inquest jury expressed  ‘an informal opinion that the Cobra was too lightly built and hoped the government would build stronger destroyers’.

Meanwhile a special memorial service was held at Heaton Congregational Church on Sunday 22nd, led by the Reverend William Glover.

Appeal

And on Saturday 21st, a public meeting was announced by Councillor Thomas Cairns, to be held at the Victoria Hotel on Heaton Road ‘with a view to forming a committee to give assistance where necessary to the families deprived of their bread-winners by the loss of HMS Cobra’. The meeting was said to be crowded. Letters of support had been received from the Mayor, the Sheriff, MP Mr Crawford Smith, eminent trades unionist and Heaton resident Alexander Wilkie and the Reverend J Robertson of St Gabriel’s Church among others. Councillor Cairns made a stirring speech which concluded by assuring listeners that the organisers wished to alleviate distress only where it existed and so prompt enquiries into the circumstances of every case would be made. It was stated that the appeal would only be on behalf of the bereaved of the ‘Tyneside district’. A committee was elected and a further meeting convened.

However, a few days later it was announced that a national relief fund had been opened in Portsmouth. When Councillor Cairns contacted the mayor to ask that the Heaton committee be left to support its own bereaved as they better understood individual needs and appealed for the national fund not to appeal for donations for Parsons’ families, he was told the 600 letters had already been sent to national and local newspapers and that the fund would be for the widows and orphans of all those lost, not just the naval men. Cairns responded that Newcastle wouldn’t have dreamt of setting up a national fund. ‘If it had been set up in London, that would be different’. An agreement was soon made for the Heaton executive committee to be broadened to include the mayors of all the Tyneside boroughs. Mr Alfred Howson of 8 Heaton Road was appointed secretary and local councillor Thomas Cairns, treasurer.

Armstrong Whitworth contributed £1,000 to the Tyneside fund.

Court Martial

On 10 October 1901, the naval enquiry or court martial opened at Portsmouth. The Hon Charles Parsons was in court to hear his company absolved of any blame for the accident but Philip Watts, the designer of the ship for Armstrong Whitworth, endured lengthy questioning about the strength of the vessel and what might have caused it to sink. Watts said that he believed that wave action alone could not have sunk the Cobra because of where the ship broke and he maintained that the disaster could not have been caused by striking a rock as the shock felt by those on board would have been greater still. His best guess was that the destroyer had struck some drifting wreckage perhaps with an iron mast attached. He believed that if the aft half of the boat, which was still missing, were to be found, the likely damage would show this to be the case.

Parsons then gave evidence to the court. Perhaps undiplomatically, he said that he believed destroyers like the Cobra were intended to be ‘fine weather vessels but that gradually, having been found to survive heavy seas , they were not taken the same care of as they were originally.’ He clarified that he meant that they were designed to shelter in bad weather. When pressed on the fact that heavy seas were to be expected around the British Isles, he confirmed it ‘would become a necessity to ensure that the strength of these vessels is sufficient to stand any stress they may be likely to come across.’

He confirmed that the turbine machinery installed exceeded the original estimate of 155-160 tons, being 183 tons.

The enquiry concluded that Cobra didn’t meet with any obstruction and that there was no navigation error but ‘the loss was attributable to the structural weakness of the ship’. The court also found that the ‘Cobra was weaker than other destroyers and, in view of that fact, it is to be regretted that she was purchased into his Majesty’s service.’

Defence

Armstrong Whitworth immediately contested the court martial’s findings. The company pointed out that similar boats had sailed to Australia and Japan without incident.

Asked about Parsons’ comments the following day, an Armstrong Whitworth representative said that Parsons had meant that destroyers fitted with the turbine system of propulsion were constructed essentially for their high speed and this high speed could only be obtained in smooth water.

The company authorised Philip Watts, the ship’s designer, to conduct a search operation to try to restore its and his damaged reputations.  However, the missing aft section, which could have provided evidence of a collision and exonerated both Watts and the firm, wasn’t found.

Tutor

However, Armstrong Whitworth was invited to submit an article to a literary and current affairs magazine ‘The Monthly Review’. It commissioned John Meade Falkner, the English novelist best known for ‘Moonfleet’, the classic children’s story of shipwrecks and smuggling, written just a few years earlier, to write the piece. 

Why him? Well, soon after the Wiltshire born, Marlborough educated Falkner had graduated in history with a third class degree from Hertford College Oxford in 1882, he was introduced to an Eton schoolboy who was struggling to prepare for his Oxford University entrance examination. The boy was John Noble, son of Sir Andrew Noble, physicist, ballistics expert and partner of Sir William Armstrong.

John Meade Falkner

Falkner came to Newcastle to be a tutor both to John and to Sir Andrew Noble’s other children. You can see the 32 year old listed among the large extended household living in Jesmond Dene House on the 1891 census, even though by this time the youngest of the Noble children at home was 20 year old Philip who was recorded as being at Balliol College. 

Falkner’s occupation then appears to read ‘MA Oxon Secretary’. There is a second census entry for him as a lodger in Elswick and ‘secretary to engineering company’. He had become company secretary to Armstrong Mitchell in 1888. ‘Moonfleet’ was published in 1896.

By the time of the Cobra disaster in 1901, Falkner was living in Divinity House, Palace Green, Durham and described as a ‘mechanical engineer’  and an ‘employer’. At some point during that year, he became a director of what was now Armstrong Whitworth. His persuasive writing skills were undoubtedly a reason for him being chosen to pen the piece.

Like the naval enquiry, Falkner, in his article, quickly exonerated Parsons and the turbines but questioned the credibility of the court by drawing readers’ attentions to its members’ lack of knowledge of marine engineering. He went on to cast doubt on the competence of the naval divers who had dragged the wreck into deeper waters, searched in poor visibility and, in one case, ‘a foreigner, and his evidence, which seemed naturally vague, was rendered still more obscure by difficulties of interpretation.’

Falkner called for a ‘properly qualified tribunal’ … ‘which will command respect, and the country will accept nothing less’. The  truth would then be uncovered ‘on better authority than the verdict of a casual court-martial.’

His words fell on deaf ears but Armstrong Whitworth survived the blow to its reputation and, like Parsons’ turbine business, went from strength to strength in the following decades. Falkner succeeded Sir Andrew Noble as Chairman of Armstrong Vickers in 1915. He later became Honorary Reader in Paleography at the University of Durham and Honorary Librarian to the Dean and Chapter Library of Durham Cathedral. 

Sixty seven men, including twenty four from Parsons and at least six who lived in Heaton, weren’t so fortunate.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.

Can You Help?

If you know any more about the people named in this article or the sinking of HMS Cobra, we’d love to hear from you.You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Sources

Ancestry

British Newspaper Archive

‘The Cobra Trail’ / George Robson and Kenneth Hillier in ‘The John Meade Falkner Society Journal’ no 9, July 2008

‘Down Elswick Slipways: Armstrong’s Ships and People 1884-1918’/ Dick Keys and Ken Smith; Newcastle City Libraries, 1996

‘From Galaxies to Turbines: science, technology and the Parsons family’ / W Garrett Scaife; Institute of Physics Publishing, 2000

www.rjbw.net/JMFalkner.html

Other online sources

The Stoneys of Heaton: unsung heroes of the Parsons’ story

Most people in Newcastle have heard of Sir Charles Parsons, the eminent engineer whose invention of a multi-stage steam turbine revolutionised marine propulsion and electrical power generation, making him world famous in his lifetime and greatly respected still. Parsons’ Heaton factory was a huge local employer for many decades. It survives today as part of the global firm, Siemens.

But, of course, Charles Parsons did not make his huge strides in engineering alone. He was ably supported by a highly skilled workforce, including brilliant engineers and mathematicians, some of whom were much better known in their life times than they are today.

Two that certainly deserve to be remembered were siblings, Edith Anne Stoney and her brother, George Gerald. Edith worked for Parsons only briefly but her contribution was crucial. Her brother worked for Parsons and lived in Heaton most of his adult life. This is their story.

Family background

Dr George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911), the siblings’ father, was a prominent Irish physicist, who was born near Birr in County Offaly.  He worked as an astronomy assistant to Charles Parsons’ father, William, at nearby Birr Castle and he later taught Charles Parsons at Trinity College, Dublin. Stoney is best known for introducing the term ‘electron’ as the fundamental unit quantity of electricity. He and his wife, Margaret Sophia, had five children whom they home educated. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Stoney children went on to have illustrious careers. Robert Bindon became a doctor in Australia; Gertrude Rose was an artist;  Florence Ada ( awarded the OBE in 1919), the first female radiologist in the UK. But it is George Gerald and Edith Anne who have the Heaton connection.

Edith Anne Stoney

Edith was born on 6 January 1869 and soon showed herself to be a talented mathematician. She won a scholarship to Newham College Cambridge where, in 1893, she achieved a first in the Part 1 Tripos examination. At that time, and for another 50 years afterwards, women were not awarded degrees at Cambridge so she did not officially graduate but she was later awarded both a BA and MA by Trinity College Dublin.

After graduation, Edith came to Newcastle to work for Charles Parsons. There is, in Newcastle University Library, a letter sent by Charles Parson to Edith’s father, George Johnstone Stoney, in 1903. Parsons pays tribute to:

‘your daughter’s great and original ability for applied mathematics… The problems she has attacked and solved have been in relation to the special curvature of our mirrors for obtaining beams of light of particular shapes. These investigations involved difficult and intricate original calculations, so much so that I must confess they were quite beyond my powers now and probably would have been also when I was at Cambridge… Your daughter also made calculations in regard to the gyrostatic forces brought onto the bearings of marine steam turbines…’

It looks like the sort of reference someone might write for a perspective employer except that, a sign of the times, it doesn’t mention Edith by name and is addressed to her father.

Stoney Edith,_Florence,_Johnstone_Stoney

Edith, Florence and George Johnstone Stoney

After working in Heaton, Edith went on to teach mathematics at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and then lecture in physics at the London School of Medicine for Women in London. There she set up a laboratory and designed the physics course.

In 1901, she and her sister, Florence, opened a new x-ray service at London’s Royal Free Hospital and she became actively involved in the women’s suffrage movement as well becoming the first treasurer of the British Federation of University Women, a post she held from 1909-1915.

During WW1, both sisters offered their service to the British Red Cross to provide a state of the art radiological service to the troops in Europe. In the x-ray facilities at a new 250 bed hospital near Troyes in France, planned and operated by her, she used stereoscopy to localise bullets and shrapnel and pioneered the use of x-rays in the diagnosis of gas gangrene, saving many lives.

She was posted to Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and France again, serving in dangerous war zones for the duration of the war. The hospitals in which she worked were repeatedly shelled and evacuated but she continued to do what she considered to be her duty.  Her war service was recognised by several countries. Among her awards were the French Croix de Guerre and Serbia’s Order of St Sava, as well as British Victory Medals.

After the war, Edith returned to England, where she lectured at King’s College for Women. In her retirement, she resumed work with the British Federation for University Women and in 1936, in memory of her father and sister, she established the Johnstone and Florence Stoney Studentship, which is still administered by the British Federation of Women Graduates to support women to carry out research overseas in biological, geological, meteorological or radiological science.

Edith Anne Stoney died on 25 June 1938, aged 69. Her importance is shown by the obituaries which appeared in ‘The Times’, ‘The Lancet’ and ‘Nature’. She will be remembered for her pioneering work in medical physics, her wartime bravery and her support for women’s causes. Although her time in Newcastle was brief, she deserves also to be remembered for her contribution to the work in Heaton for which Charles Parsons is rightly lauded.

George Gerald Stoney

But Edith’s elder brother had a much longer association with Parsons – and with Heaton.

George Gerald Stoney was born in Dublin on 28 November 1863, the first child of Margaret and George Johnstone Stoney. Like his sister, he was educated at home and gained a particularly good grounding in science. For example at a young age, he learnt about the silvering of mirrors which was to become very useful in his working life.

In 1882, when 19 years old, he went to Trinity College, Dublin. After four years he left with a first class honours in mathematics and a gold medal in experimental science. The following year he was awarded an engineering degree.

After working for a year with his uncle in Dublin, he came to England in 1888 to work alongside the more senior Charles Parsons for Clarke, Chapman and Company in Gateshead, earning ten shillings a week as an apprentice draughtsman. Here he first became acquainted with the compound steam turbine and did associated drawings for Parsons.

When, the following year, Parsons left the firm, after a disagreement on the pace at which work was progressing in the turbine field, to set up his own company in Heaton, Stoney was one of a dozen or so Clarke Chapman employees to follow him. He first worked as a fitter, earning £2 10s.

The 1891 Census shows Stoney living as a lodger at 69 Seventh Avenue, Heaton in the home of widow, Jane Beckett and her two working sons, John and William.

Key figure

There is ample evidence of Gerald (as he was known) Stoney’s importance to Parsons even in the early days.

In 1893, an agreement was made whereby Parsons agreed to employ Stoney who, in turn, agreed to work for Parsons for five years in the capacity of electrical engineer, ‘the duties which shall comprise the management of the mirror and testing departments, the carrying out of experiments and other such duties…’

A year later, he was given a share option. He put £200 into the company, which was matched by Parsons. And, in 1895, aged 32, he was named Chief Designer of the steam turbine department and Chief Electrical Engineer for high speed dynamos and alternators.

Stoney’s application, on 28 November 1895, to become a member of The Institution of Civil Engineers (his proposer was C A Parsons) states:

‘…appointed Manager of their Mirror Works for the manufacture of mirrors for search light projectors for English and foreign governments and is also manager for testing all dynamos and engines and technical adviser in the design and manufacture of all the steam turbines and dynamos made by the firm amounting to a yearly output of over 10,000 horsepower. These posts he now holds.’

He was elected Associate Member on 4 February 1896 when his address was given as 118 Meldon Terrace, Heaton.

Turbinia

It was around this time that Parsons was finally successful in his almost obsessive quest to apply the steam turbine to marine engineering. He had conceived and built ‘Turbinia’ which he was determined to make the fastest ship in the world. There were many trials of the ship in the Tyne and off the Northumberland coast at which Parsons and Stoney were always among the small group on board. After each trial modifications and improvements were made and the vessel was put to sea again. At every stage, Stoney was at the forefront.

Finally on 1 April 1897, as ‘Turbinia’, with Charles Parsons on the bridge and Gerald Stoney next to him as usual, made its way back up the Tyne after its latest sea trial , ‘at the modest pace allowed by local regulations‘ it was noted that ‘the river was nearly empty, the tide slack and the water smooth’ so Parsons decided to do a full power run along a measured nautical mile. A mean speed of 31.01 knots and a top speed of 32.6 knots was recorded, a record speed for any vessel. Charles Parsons had achieved his aim of adapting the steam turbine for marine propulsion.

Parsons’ first big opportunity to show his ship to the world was to come a couple of months later on 26 June 1897, when a review of the fleet to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee was held at Spithead off Portsmouth. A hundred and fifty vessels were present, in an orderly procession when, with Parsons at the helm and Stoney in his  customary position alongside him, ‘Turbinia’ made the move, which was to secure its place in naval folklore.

As the ‘Times’ put it:

‘At the cost of deliberate disregard of authority, she contrived to give herself an effective advertisement by steaming at astonishing speed between the lines A and B shortly after the royal procession had passed. The patrol boats which attempted to check her adventurous and lawless proceedings were distanced in a twinkling but at last one managed by placing herself athwart her course… Her speed was, as I have said, simply astonishing.’ (27 June 1887).

In fact, Parsons denied deliberate lawlessness. He maintained that the watching Prince Henry of Prussia requested that ‘Turbinia’ be brought alongside his flagship and show a turn of speed. Permission was apparently given by the admiralty but there is no doubt that there were a number of close shaves as ‘Turbinia’ squeezed between other crafts at previously unknown speed.

Turbiniaed_resized

Turbinia with Gerald Stoney below Charles Parsons on the bridge

Growing recognition

Stoney continued to be indispensible to Parsons. For all Parsons’ genius and drive, Stoney seems to have had the better understanding of theory and he could also apply it in practice. In fact, there is evidence that, on occasion, Parson’s intransigence even held Stoney and his own company back when he refused to agree to their suggestions. If a solution to a problem had been found by a competitor, especially a foreign one, rather than adopt it and move on, Parsons more than once insisted that his engineers found a different, original answer. For the most part, Stoney seems to have accepted this trait in his employer and risen to the challenges it posed.

In 19 December 1900, Stoney became a full member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He was now General Manager of C A Parsons and living at 7 Roxburgh Place, Heaton. By 1902, according to the Electoral Register, the Stoneys had moved to ‘Oakley’, an imposing,  three storey, semi-detached villa on Heaton Road.

OakleyGGStoneyHeatonRoadres_edited-2

‘Oakley’ on Heaton Road

In 1903 Stoney was involved in the establishment of the ground breaking Neptune and Carrville Power Stations, which were so crucial to the economy of Tyneside. And in 1904, Parsons again rewarded his trusted lieutenant. He opened a bank account for him into which he deposited £5,000. 4.5% interest could be drawn half yearly or yearly. If Stoney stayed at the firm for another ten years, the capital would be his.

Stoney was by now well known in engineering circles. He published many papers and submitted patent applications and he gave lectures throughout Britain and Ireland.

In 1905, George Gerald Stoney and Charles Parsons were joint recipients of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Watt Gold Medal for excellence in engineering and in 1911 Stoney, by now Technical Manager of the entire Heaton works, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) by his peers, evidence that his part in Parsons’ work was recognised outside as well as within the firm.

Temporary departure

But in 1912,  ‘in a moment of extreme vexation’ as he later put it (rows between senior staff at the company seemed common), Gerald Stoney left C A Parsons. At first, he set up as a consultant and he was secretary of one of the Tyneside Irish battalions before, in 1917, being appointed to the Chair of Mechanical Engineering at the Victoria University in Manchester. Stoney’s eminence is shown by a photograph, taken at this time, being in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

Stoney GeorgeGerald-Stoney

George Gerald Stoney (courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)

However, Stoney’s wife Isabella, was by this time an invalid and didn’t make the move from Newcastle. Stoney increasingly had to travel between the two cities and when, in 1926, Charles Parsons became aware of the toll this was taking, he offered his old employee the chance to return to Heaton as Director of Research. Stoney’s career had turned full circle as, in his new role, he found himself once again conducting experimental optical work, this time for the recently acquired Grubb Telescope Company, now called Grubb Parsons. He eventually retired in 1930 following the death of his wife.

George Gerald Stoney died on 15 May 1942 at his home ‘Oakley’ on Heaton Road. He is buried in Corbridge Cemetery alongside his wife.

StoneyGrave

The Stoneys grave in Corbridge

At the time of his death, he was the last surviving member of the original Turbinia crew. Obituaries and tributes show that he was widely appreciated as one of the pioneers in the development of the steam turbine and high-speed dynamo electric machines. We hope that by retelling his story here, Gerald Stoney, like his sister Edith, will be remembered once again in Heaton and beyond.

Can you help?

If you know more about Edith or Gerald Stoney including their connections with Parsons and the Heaton area, we’d love to hear from you. Please either leave a reply on this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or email chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Arthur Andrews and Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group.

This article is part of Heaton History Group’s project ‘Brains, Steam and Speed: 250 years of science, engineering and mathematics in Heaton‘, funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional funding from Heaton History Group and the Joicey Trust

Pupils from local schools will study mathematicians, scientists and engineers associated with Heaton and produce artworks, inspired by what they have learnt, some of which will be exhibited at the People’s Theatre in July 2018.

Key Sources

From Galaxies to Turbines: science, technology and the Parsons Family / by W Garrett Scaife; Institute of Physics Publishing, 2000

Scope (December 2013) ‘Edith Stoney MA; the first woman medical physicist’

and a range of online and local archival sources.

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