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News > In Memoriam > Ian Carmichael (1936-2021)

Ian Carmichael (1936-2021)

Ian Carmichael enjoyed careers in engineering and teaching after his days at Dame Allan's.

The following was extracted from an autobiography Ian wrote for his grandchildren, shared with kind permission from his widow, Sheena.


After a slow start at primary school, I found my way in academia and managed to get a place at a local grammar school – Dame Allan’s Boys School. It was five miles from our home at 16 Gowan Terrace, with  the Town Moor in between. The Town Moor is a vast expanse  of land – one thousand acres, in fact – bigger than Central Park in New York. I used to have to cycle across it to get to school and back, come rain or shine.

My tricky commute aside, I enjoyed school. I found learning interesting, and I was lucky enough to have plenty of interesting teachers (known as ‘masters’ at Dame Allan’s). I recall that my maths  master, Mr Mallinson, had fought in the war, and now found  his right hand was fixed in the position of holding a bayonet. He would jab it into your bicep if you got things very wrong: a very painful deterrent! I thoroughly enjoyed maths, finding particular satisfaction in the fact that there was always a right answer. I preferred physics to chemistry, being more intrigued about why things work the way they do rather than just what things do. Of course, it’s often difficult to untangle the subject matter from the passion and enthusiasm that the teacher brings to the equation. For instance, as much as I leaned towards the sciences rather than the arts, perhaps my most memorable lesson came from my English master, Mr Turnbull, who once waxed lyrical about the poem In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred Tennyson, musing earnestly on the significance of the idea that “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Something about the sincerity of that lesson – and the bravery of speaking with such sentimentality to a group of teenage boys – touched me deeply, and I remember it well to this day.

I was less keen on sports: I enjoyed rugby for a while but, like many boys, soon became too skinny for it. Perhaps I might have had more of an interest in football if the facilities had been better. We did have a space for what was supposed to be a football pitch, but the war had put paid to that development. Instead, we had a rough patch of land dotted with small mounds which some of the lads would stand on, heading a ball between them. This was very popular as a competitive game between classes: a testament to the ingenuity of young people and their determination to have fun!

As for friendships, I was always more comfortable one-to-one than in groups, so I was never part of a big gang. In fact, I had two  close friends throughout school and that was enough for me. There was Neil Hepple, who was very similar to me, and Alex Hardcastle, who was a big, rambunctious lad and responsible for teaching me most of the rude jokes I learned in childhood. In all though, the three of us weren’t rebellious. Rebellion wasn’t, in fact, in evidence  anywhere in the school, other than the occasional header after the teacher’s whistle had been blown.

The overarching lessons that I learned from school were good ones which set me up well for ‘real life’: I learned to work hard – particularly at things I found difficult – and to enjoy the feeling of success.  I won only one prize at school – for ‘Best Overall Achievement’. I’d come a long way from the little boy who struggled to read, and it’s a fact that continues to make me proud, decades later. 


My school experience was cut short at 16. Dad felt that I shouldn’t continue any further in academia and, although I’ve never been entirely sure why, I suspect that he may have been seeking to prevent me from being conscripted into national service.

In lieu of continuing with my education, in 1952 I began my first real job, becoming an apprentice fitter with CA Parsons at their works on Shields Road in Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne. Before I could begin the job properly, I had to attend the apprentice training school for six months. I travelled to my apprenticeship the same way I had to school – by bicycle. The day began at 7.30 a.m. and finished at 5 p.m., and my first wage was £1.0s.6d (£1.02½) per week, with a deduction for National Insurance. Another deduction  I remember was for being late to clock in once due to a snowstorm. I was six minutes late and I recall being really cross to find that I had been deducted a full quarter-hour’s pay.

It was CA Parsons’ policy to send the more academic apprentices to night school and, on the recommendation of Harry Merton (personnel manager at CAP), I was selected for this. Consequently, in the second year, I began the long drag of attending night school. This involved travelling to Rutherford College in the Blackfriars area twice a week and studying from 7 to 9.30 p.m. Since I had to be back at work for 7.30 a.m., these were long days. Nevertheless, they were worth it in the end: I was awarded an OND (Ordinary National Diploma) for my efforts and I applied for and gained entrance to Durham University. Quite contrary to modern attitudes to education, it never occurred to my parents or me that I might be able to get a degree.

The course at Durham was challenging but hugely enjoyable. I studied applied sciences (engineering by another name) and my days were filled with plenty of experiments and lots of theory to sink my teeth into.

During the university vacations, I worked on projects with the company that had organised my apprenticeship. This time though, instead of being based in Heaton near my family home, I was sent to North Wales to build turbo generators at Connah’s Quay.  The work kept us very busy on those projects. We started at 7 a.m. and finished at 6 p.m., six days a week, and there was little hope of popping out for lunch, as the site was well away from the rest of civilization. The work was pretty physical, too: building that size of turbo generator requires assembling a great quantity of bits and pieces into something the size of a house.

After three years bouncing between my university studies and my work in North Wales, I graduated from Durham and began the first year of my ‘career proper’, working in the CA Parsons research labs in Newcastle.

I stayed with CAP for a few years in a variety of roles: I was promoted into their design and drawing office, then into a sales support role, before eventually moving on in 1965.

My next role was at the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) HQ offices in London, right next to St Paul’s Cathedral.  My role involved, at first, studying turbo generator design and specification, before moving on to power systems, assessing what happens when certain faults arise. I became fascinated by the complexity of the system: the need to distribute electricity evenly from power stations via overhead lines and pylons to various areas all over the country, while accounting for the fact that operators would inevitably make mistakes that the system would need to be strong enough to survive. My days in that role involved a lot of arguing with other engineers about why things couldn’t work in the way we expected, and a lot of experimenting with systems by isolating certain areas in order to establish why things were going ‘wonky’, and how to improve the system’s response.

Possibly the best thing about that job was the people. Engineers  tend to be good people that laugh a lot, and, of course, they were all highly qualified in an area which was of particular interest to me, which made for some excellent conversations. Whilst with the CEGB, having been made a Chartered Engineer with membership of both the IEE and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), I was awarded fellowship of both institutions. I also served as chair of the local IMechE branch for a year.

I moved from the CEGB to a role with PE Consulting in 1969. PE Consulting was a world-class consulting engineering company who, put simply, specialised in transforming businesses and government departments into more efficient and sustainable enterprises.

It was while working in this role that a friend, Mike Eggleton, pointed out to me a job advert on the bulletin board at work. Dungeness Power Station were looking for a station superintendent (later renamed station manager). “That’s your job!” Mike said, pointing at the advert.  Under his encouragement, I applied for the role but was told that it was internal only. However, not long after, the company wrote to me again and invited me to interview. Then, soon after, they offered me the job!

I was only 35 when I began that role, which was particularly young for the role of station manager. In fact, station managers were invariably referred to as ‘the old man’, partly on account of their advanced years but mainly because most of the engineers were ex-sailors and were accustomed to referring to their captain as ‘the old man’. Nevertheless, I loved the job, and my seven years at Dungeness Power Station were the highlight of my career. There were 660 people working at the station, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being the boss and getting to make the decisions. I might have carried on in the role much longer if not for the fact that, in 1978, the A station was to be closed and the role was, in effect, going to be halved. Besides this, the B station was not yet operational. It didn’t feel right to carry on working in a job with half the responsibility that I was used to, so it seemed like the right  time to move on.

Ian on his appointment as Station Manager, Dungeness Nuclear Power Station (1972)

My next job was as technical director at Blaw-Knox in Rochester. Blaw-Knox made road-making equipment, and I stayed with them until the firm was sold and closed down in the UK by their American counterparts. The time that I spent there was enjoyable in its own way – the work itself was interesting, at least. However, the culture of the organisation was cut-throat and competitive, and perhaps best summed up by the phrase: ‘What’s in it for me?’

Perhaps it is becoming obvious, as I explain my career’s trajectory, that  the engineering industry has changed enormously in the UK over that time, with many of the companies and organisations that I was involved with in my early career moving abroad or being privatised  in the 1980s and 1990s. While many people of my generation experienced ‘jobs for life’, my own career journey was perhaps more comparable to the modern world of work. My industry changed under my feet and, as is true of many young people today, I had to learn to be adaptable and resilient.

With that in mind, my time at Blaw-Knox ended the engineering part of my career, and I moved on to trying my hand at running my own business. I had always yearned to work for myself, so I decided on a complete break and finished up running a shop in Hastings – a high-street printing franchise called Prontaprint. I believe the statistic is that approximately 90% of new businesses fail within the first 12 months, whereas 80% of franchises survive. This seemed like a no-brainer to me, and I was able to make a decent enough success of the store for four years or so before selling it in 1987. I never felt that I was particularly good at the job, but I suppose I was just not particularly inspired by it. The novelty of it was exciting and interesting in the first six months, but, from then on, I found the work was largely repetitive. Perhaps I had been spoiled by the decades of tinkering with turbo generators and laughing with engineers, but running a shop never seemed to capture my imagination in the same way.

At the age of 53, with the Prontaprint business sold, I decided to retrain again, and spent a year taking a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in order to qualify as a teacher. I liked the idea of teaching design and technology, but somehow found myself teaching mainly maths and science to teenagers in a Kent comprehensive for the following five years. I found the primary phase of my training most enjoyable – the enthusiasm and curiosity of the younger children made the job particularly rewarding, whereas the relentless ‘What’s the point?’ attitude of teenagers could be pretty draining. That being said, working with teenagers was rarely boring, and I did get a great deal out of the experience. One needs to be highly organised to be a really good teacher. I am, quite frankly, not! The best thing about teaching was the children and the worst thing was the teachers.

I have enjoyed the variety of roles and functions I have had the opportunity to fill. In an era when most people had a job for life, I was fortunate to work in many very different areas.

In fact, for most of my working life I have been paid to play.


I have also been so lucky to have five children and eight grandchildren. The oldest, Glenn, is now 63 and the youngest, Ross, is 43.  My grandchildren range in age from 30 down to 4.  I am sure the grandchildren will blossom as the children have done.

One of the great successes of my life, to my mind, is the work I’ve done on my garden. In fact, it has been more of an obsession than a hobby. When we moved in, it was half an acre of wilderness – the grass was so tall that the neighbouring children used to play hide and seek in it. The original pathways around the garden were completely invisible and only became clear as we gradually cleared the undergrowth. Over the years, with the help of various gardeners and my wife, I’ve taken great pleasure in cultivating it into something more elegant and organised. The three-tiered landscaping of the garden is now packed with vegetable patches, fruit bushes and around 200 roses.

I always loved singing, especially choral singing. I sang with the church choir in Newcastle, and we regularly joined with other church choirs for concerts in St Nicholas’s Cathedral, Newcastle. These included Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and, most thrillingly, Faure’s Requiem – and my most memorable moments include singing beside my father during these performances. When I moved to London, I joined the London Philharmonic Choir. The audition was far from easy. I was accepted mainly on account of my sight- reading and being able to repeat strange melodies and phrases – it certainly wasn’t down to the quality of my voice because it was conditional that I took voice-training lessons. Their standards were really very high, and I was lucky to be allowed to join them. At a much easier level, my wife Sheena and I sang in the local Stonegate village choir after settling in Ticehurst, East Sussex.

Another interest of mine has been volunteering. I began in the mid-90s after I stopped teaching. The first charity was called ‘Talking Newspapers’, and they would gather volunteers to read aloud newspaper articles and magazines so that visually impaired people were able to access them. I enjoyed my role as a reader for over 10 years, specialising in the scientific journals. After that, I moved on and volunteered with the Citizens Advice Bureau. The Tunbridge Wells area may appear affluent, but it still has its share of hardship and people who cannot cope. Most advice was concerned with debt management and marriage problems. I also had a spell teaching children with special needs and adults to read. This was a most rewarding job: the adults in particular felt that they could start living their life, no longer needing to conceal their literacy problems.

I stopped volunteering with the CAB only when my wife and son surprised me with a voucher for my birthday which allowed me to try out being a train driver for a day. Like all men who never grow up, I had always longed to be a train driver and I enjoyed it so much that I started volunteering for our local heritage railway: the Kent and East Sussex Railway. Unfortunately, it takes several years to train as a driver, so I joined the Signalling and Telephony group.

I realised on my 80th birthday, when friends from university days and work joined with more recent friends from volunteering and our village, that I had been fortunate to have known some really interesting people from many walks of life and learned from all of them.

So, as I finish, I want to say how grateful I am to the friends and family that I have known and loved throughout my life, and who have helped me along life’s journey. The relationships I’ve had over my eight decades have been my greatest treasure and joy.

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