The race for space


In 1966, Ralph was at the wheel of his vintage lorry ‘Bessie’ at Walsall Show. Image supplied by Tony Winn.

Thanks to Stuart Williams of Walsall Local History Centre, I can share with readers today another piece in the remarkable jigsaw that is the Ferrie family history – the Ferries, as many old hands will recall, were a larger than life father and son who were well known in Aldridge and Brownhills for their entrepreneurialism and propensity to acts of community largesse and showmanship.

To my generation, Ralph, the son of Charles, was better known than his father; Ralph’s Rolls Royce and steam lorries were often at Brownhills Carnival, Ralph had a big trailer yard behind the Station Hotel for lorries, and he was very involved with the local Round Table.

However, the old man was not beyond a media stunt himself, and I’ve reported before his 1950s attempts to start a space program… in Brownhills. This is not a joke. You can read about that as reported in the Walsall Observer in this post here or at the foot of this one where I’ve included it for completeness. It really is a remarkable story.

Amphycar 3

Another Tony Winn image: Given to publicity stunts, Ralph got hold of an amphibious car which was demonstrated at Chasewater.

Stuart sent me this clip, which reports the sad passing of Charles, and it raises a few questions that I think would make interesting discussion points. The report is from the Walsall Observer, Friday 1st August 1958:

Space-probe patron dies in Walsall hospital


Charles was clearly a character. From the Walsall Observer, 1st August 1958. Click for a larger version.

MR. Charles Henry Ferrie, the man who offered research and manufacturing faculties in space projects to university students after Russia had launched her Sputniks, died in Walsall General Hospital on Friday. Mr. Ferrie, who was 57, lived at Grange Farm, Aldridge.

By granting research facilities, he sought to prove that Britain’s students were as brilliant as any in the world if given the opportunities to demonstrate their worth.

A workshop for three students on vacation was provided at Brownhills, while several other students were working on a space rocket building project from their respective universities.

Racehorse owner, and a leading Midland car dealer, Mr. Ferrie owned Brownhills Motor Sales, Ltd., Thompson’s Garage. Birmingham Ltd., and Brownhills Motor Sales Nottingham.

He leaves a widow two sons and two daughters.

Interment at New Oscott followed Requiem Mass at St. Francis’s Roman Catholic Church. Shelfield on Tuesday.

The owner of about 40 race-horses. Mr. Ferrie trained them at Aldridge for flat and National Hunt racing. Other trainers often leased horses from him.

I had not realised that Ralph lived at The Grange, a lost farm that stood about where the garage on Northgate is now; you can read more about that in this post here. But the racehorses: What do we know about those? Is there a history of this in Aldridge? I’m aware there was at Aldershawe near Wall but never heard of it here.

Also, were you a rocket scientist in Brownhills? I’d love to hear from you – how far did the project get? It really is a most peculiar, funny story.

If you have anything to add, please do – comment here or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com. Thanks.

Build a rocket, boys!

This just in from the ‘You couldn’t make it up’ department. Top local history ferret [Howmuch?] spotted this article in the archive of The Walsall Observer, from the issue of Friday, 3rd January 1958. Charles Ferrie was the father of Ralph, whom I believe took on his father’s business, as described by reader and friend of the blog, Godfrey Hucker, in a previous post. Sadly, the article wasn’t in an easily transposable format, so I’ve transcribed it below.

It would be very easy to mock this – but in the grip of the cold war, the space race and media paranoia was very real at the time. I guess the two companies Charles alluded to would have been McKechnie and Kynochs, which latterly became IMI. Both were specialist metal processors; the former copper and it’s alloys, mainly brass, the latter, titanium.

Did you know any of the students mentioned, or what became of Mr. Ferrie’s project? What happened to the Space Research Group? There’s echoes of the Philip Cheetham story in there, too, although he didn’t arrive in Brownhills until some years later. Please do contact me if you have anything. It seems that Charles Ferrie was every bit larger than life  just like his son…

Brownhills Boffins May Make Rocket

From the Walsall Observer, 3rd January, 1958.

In a workshop less than 30 yards from High Street, Brownhills, physicists and students of chemistry from the universities of Bristol and Sheffield are completing plans for the making of a model combustion engine, which, it is hoped, will help them develop a rocket which would take a missile into outer space.

The scientific team now officially known as the Space Research Group came about as the result of an offer, by Mr. Charles Ferrie, the Brownhills industrialist and racehorse owner, of manufacturing facilities for students interested in outer space research.

Mr. Ferrie made his offer after the launching of Russia’s Sputniks in November. He said then: ‘I believe we have the brains in this country to compete with Russia or any other country in the field of space travel. But we do not give our young scientists the financial aid and encouragement to which they are entitled.’

Fourteen students have been selected to take advantage of the facilities offered. Apart from work on the model combustion engine, experiments will soon be made on fuel injection systems, radar tracking apparatus and outer casings for the proposed missile.

Two big industrialist concerns, one in Aldridge and one in Birmingham, are co-operating with Mr. Ferrie and are supplying special metals and drawings to the students free of charge.

Famous name

The ‘Observer’ understands that Mr. Barnes Wallis, the renowned scientist who perfected the bomb used by the ‘Dam Buster,’ will soon be approached for his observations on the project at Brownhills. Mr. Ferrie is himself negotiating for the lease of 400 acres on Salisbury Plain, where static rocket engines may be tested.

Many of the students have degrees, in chemistry and physics and are studying for their Ph.D. degree, while others are last-year students, and all intend taking up rocket research as a career. One girl is a medical student and is interested in space medicine.

Asked about the difficulties of launching a rocket,  Mr. Ferrie said: ‘We realise this will prevent a problem, but, if the students perfect the rocket they envisage, we are sure that launching facilities will be made available. The cost will not be as startling as many people imagine, because industrialists are offering to help out with materials and manufacture and the scientists demand no wages.’

I’m not sure when Charles Ferrie passed on, but this boat was certainly named after him in 1962. Image from the Walsall Chronicle.

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8 Responses to The race for space

  1. Alan says:

    Are you sure that’s a steam lorry? Looks like internal combustion to me,

    • BrownhillsBob says:

      No, you’re quite right my apologies, article corrected.

      I think Ralph may have had one – I got the idea in my head from somewhere – but could be a false memory.

      Apologies again

      Bob (On naughty step)

  2. Joan Harris says:

    Very interesting article. My husband worked for Mr Ralph Ferris at Brownhills motor sales on the A 5 in the early 1960s. If anyone has any photos we would be interested in seeing them.

  3. davidoakley says:

    Hi Bob,
    I was most interested to read ‘The race for space’ article as I worked for Charles Ferrie, as a youth, many years ago in the war years. I lived in “the Vigo”, which is less than a mile from Grange Farm, where Charles Ferrie farmed. I read the piece about the Space Research Group with mild incredibility, as anyone knowing Charles, would not associate him with any interest or concern along that sphere. Nevertheless, in the absence of any contrary proof, I accept this, and am proud that a local man was prepared to finance such a venture.
    “The owner of about 40 racehorses. Mr Ferrie trained them at Aldridge for flat and National Hunt racing”. I thought back over the years, as I read this bit. Grange Farm was a modest little farm, hemmed in on one side by Joberns water-filled disused clayholes, and at the back by other brickyards. Hmm, not much room for the daily exercise of 40 racehorses, no paddocks, no gallops, nothing, really, for the welfare and training of such a string of racehorses.
    The only West Midland trainer at the time was Bob Ward from Hazel Slade, spacious site and with Cannock Chase alongside for prolonged gallops. One could no often enter Hazel Slade without being aware of the exercise of several racehorses in the vicinity. Charles Ferrie had nothing like this, just hedged fields, on the opposite side of Walsall Wood Road (Before Northgate was built), stretching out towards Castle Road and the Fox Covey.
    Although Hazel Slade was some distance from Walsall Wood, Bob Ward’s horses created much attention amongst local gamblers, Being a small yard, Bob placed his horses wisely, in races where they had a real chance, so the local punters, three around a paper at the very least, would mutter, “what’s Wardy got runnin”. If Charles Ferrie had trained racehorses, they would have a similar response. Trainers needed a permit and the right facilities, they needed live-in stable boys or girls, for the early morning gallops, they needed miles of space, e.g. Newmarket Heath, or miles of sand like Ginger McCann, Charles Ferrie had none of those. I have looked in vain on the internet and various books for Charles Ferrie to be recorded as a racehorse trainer. No success. So, as we used to say “Duff Gen”.
    Charles Ferrie loved horses, make no mistake about that, but his interest lay mainly in trotting ponies, and he could often be seen, with a ‘high stepper’ harnessed to his trotting cart in the streets of Walsall Wood. Shared interests with Oscar Johnson of Portland street, Walsall, a man of similar interests and disposition, All round entrepreneur, Charles procured an old ‘brake’, an old horse-drawn charabanc, made it roadworthy, then ran Sunday evening trips from the ‘brickies’, into Stonnall and Shenstone, calling at a pub enroute. Very popular.
    God rest you, Charles Ferrie. You brought a little fun and interest into people’s lives, at a time whwn it was sorely needed. That can’t be bad.

  4. aerreg says:

    i remember charles ferrie comming to brownhills he took over the two garages by the the canal bason at the rear of the station hotel he designed and repared horse boxes there imet him personaly one of his employes lived in wellington at that time i had a bsa bantom motor byke and he asked me to sell it to him to provide transport for the fellow to travel to and throw to work happy days and again memories god bless

  5. Catherine Turner says:

    im.a Ferrie
    Charles was born in Stone Staffs my grandads brother. i remember g
    his son and he had a daughter Vicky..i bave a photo of his rolls with RF1 on it

  6. Tony Winn says:

    It’s quite correct that Charlie Ferrie didn’t have a lot of room to train all those race horses (36) on his own land at the farm ‘up the Castles’. His idea was to purchase horses and then lease them out to others to train and race, whilst still retaining ownership. He did race a few of his own, I believe he even had a runner at Aintree one year (not sure if it was in the Grand National itself or just the actual meeting). He was friends with many trainers, including Bob Ward (from his early jockey days).His racing colours were a single Blue Star on a White background on the cap and jersey, Ralph retained these colours and raced his horse Cheeky Charlie with them.

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