HENRY BESSINGER: MY STORY SO FAR
Published 6th October 2014
I was born in South Africa on 10 October 1934, Kruger Day, in Sabie, a town on the boundaries of Kruger National Park. My father's family were German settlers who originally settled in the Cape of Good Hope, and my mother's family were Scottish 1820's settlers.
My father worked as a miner and I was the youngest of four. My brother and two sisters were much older than me. I was what they would call in South Africa a 'laat lammetjie', late lamb, and was very spoilt as a child.
My father would often tell us stories about his early years in mining, which always fascinated us. When he was a young man he started his mining career prospecting at places like Pilgrim's Rest. In those days, underground lighting was often provided by putting a candle in a brown paper bag, pinching holes in the bag, and using that as a lamp.
Gold mining in South Africa during those years was so productive, and the ore so rich, that they used to blast into chambers that were just gold. I remember how one day my dad brought home a tin full of gold nuggets, as he wanted to impress my mum with how incredible it all was. The next day he took the tin back to the manager.
I don't remember much about those years in Sabie, but when I was about three or four, we moved to Johannesburg on a mine in Langlaagte. The Second World War broke out but didn't really affect us very much. We were on rations but never went hungry or wanted for anything. We had a house on the mine property with free water and electricity. Coal would arrive on a two wheeled cart pulled by a mule.
One of my greatest passions has always been cricket. This started in early childhood and I played well into adulthood until it became physically too challenging. Early on in my life it became apparent that I couldn't do any long distance running or rugby. South Africa has always been a very sports orientated country and at school the other children who would make fun of me and say things like 'Come on, you're a big guy, what's the matter with you?' It also did not help that I had polio as a child and was in hospital for eight weeks recovering from that. It left me with lasting health issues. Cricket was therefore a better option and I played as a 1st reserve for Sturrock Park in South Africa and when I eventually moved to Bedford in the 1960's I played for Igranic.
Growing up I was always fascinated by cars. One of my sisters had a boyfriend who was a pilot in the RAF. He was based out on the East Rand and would usually come to visit her by train. However, one day he arrived driving an Austin 7 and asked if he could store it in our garage. That was like heaven to me as when he was not around I would take the car out and drive it. My father found out and took the rotor out of the distributor so it wouldn't run, but I just went out and bought another one so I could continue driving it! I loved every minute of it and luckily never had an accident.
This early experience sowed the seeds for my love of cars in later life when I was very fortunate to have a fabulous collection of cars.
When I left school, I decided I wanted to follow my dad into mining but had to undergo a medical examination first. I was very upset when I failed and could not get my green ticket due to a heart condition. I was given a red ticket instead, which meant I couldn't go underground. Ironically this was probably one of the best things that happened to me.
Aged 17, I started an apprenticeship working for the same company as my dad, who was by now at the end of his mining career. Mining had taken the best years of his life and left him a sick and broken man. My brother also worked on the mines but not as a miner. I started as an electrical apprentice and ended up in the drawing office as an engineer. It was a five-year apprenticeship but I finished it in three years. Most apprentices usually stayed on but I really wanted to visit England, where many of my ancestors had originated from. This was in the early 1960's when political tensions were running very high in South Africa.
I took a job with an electronics company called Igranic Control Systems. I lived and worked in Bedford and met my future wife, Diana, a nurse at Bedford General Hospital. I had a lovely time in the UK, and was made very welcome, even though being a white South African during those years was really hard.
I married and our first two children, twin boys, were born in Bedford. Igranic thought that South Africa might be better for our future development so we returned in 1962. Diana and I also later had two daughters, born in South Africa. I realised you had to work by the book with the company, but as an engineer with experience in South Africa I could see that things could be done differently.
I applied for a job with FG Slack, selling locomotives to the gold mining industry. They didn't sell many, perhaps only two locomotives a month. I would try to convince them to increase production because it didn't make economic sense to make so few. In the main, the locomotives were very small, as the mines were so deep and there was only space for narrow gauge railways, perhaps only 18 inches, and they would scrape along the side of the rocks.
FG Slack was then bought out by an English company, Plessey, which mainly dealt with telecommunications. This worked well for a while until Plessey announced it didn't want the locomotives as they were not economically viable. They said to me 'You can take on the locomotives if you want to.' That is how H J Bessinger Locomotives was born.
When I first started the company I didn't really even know what a bank account was, but we decided to have a go. Our first problem was that Plessey imported most of its parts from America. The Americans refused to let us have the parts, as they had placed sanctions on South Africa under Apartheid, and that affected a lot of businesses, regardless of their political views.
I spoke to mining engineers and managers who I knew, and many of them said that I would never be able to build a decent DC motor to power the locomotives. But I love a challenge and knew that I would be able to build my own parts.
We started off from our small garage at our home in Kensington, just outside Johannesburg. Plessey let me have the stock they had left over for a small fee. I showed people that what I was building were good quality locomotives, and continued to supply the same mines with just one or two locomotives a month.
Of course, when the gold price shot up, it was good news for us, and we increased production up to 20, sometimes 30 locomotives a month. We managed to build a factory in Alberton. These were our 'Golden Years' and life was really good.
South Africa has always had a very fragile infrastructure and the politics of the country did not help build firm foundations for the future. Generally speaking, English speaking people didn't mix with the Afrikaans, and there were tensions with the black Africans, Mixed race and Indian populations too. The country was severely divided and the different sections of the population were educated separately. During these early years, we never had any problems with the black Africans.
Sadly this was not the case many years later when our African gardener, Samson, was gunned down on our property In Bedfordview by a group of armed robbers. He saved my son and his wife's lives by distracting the robbers, but paid the price with his own life. He died in my son's arms and is another reason why our family moved back to the UK.
I wasn't interested in politics and all through my working life I employed people who could do a job. Several times, I was hauled before the Magistrates as they said I was giving work to black Africans and they were not allocated to do the work. I said 'If you can find the people who can do the work instead, then I will consider them, but until that time comes I will use who I have.' I was regularly harassed by government inspectors, who were Afrikaans, who questioned why I was employing black Africans and paying them the same wage as my white workers.
You can't keep anyone down. If they are good enough to do a job or play sport, then they should have the same chance. I was not the only person who felt like this, but there were difficult times with a lot of tension.
There was a lot of competition and a large business competitor based in South Africa would threaten me from time to time. They said I was working with the Americans and that I had no right to manufacture the
machines. Still, we gradually we built up the company.
Once closed mines began opening up again when the gold price rose and new equipment meant they could reach new areas. This meant we had lots of problems with the machinery, as often the old tracks were in a bad way or not there at all! Miners would even burn the motors out by loading them up with extra hoppers, as if they sabotaged the machinery it meant they could get out of work!
It was dangerous work, and fixing problems could take a long time. If you had a problem with a locomotive, you would have to go down one mile, walk another mile, and then go down again just to reach the bottom of the mine. It could take you two hours, which meant a lot of lost hours. Also, if you didn't watch what you where doing when fixing the motor, because as it is a DC arrangement, it can be dangerous if there is a spark in a methane area. They really did used to take a canary down the mine, as if there's methane he just drops off his perch.
This reminds me of the first time I was told about the depth of the mines. I was a bit of a naughty bugger when I was a kid, and I remember riding a bicycle over these open pits, which had been abandoned. A policeman came to see me at home as somebody reported how close I was riding to the mine. He said 'If you fall, it is a mile down and that is the last people will ever see of you, because the mines are closed and nobody will ever go down to see if you are there.' I think the penny dropped.
When I had my own company, I was in court once when a locomotive ran away. The driver jumped off and the man on the back of the train jumped off too, but the locomotive carried on and went straight into the skip area. It went over the side and fell a long way. It killed quite a few people, and the story was that it fell so far they were squashed flat. I had sleepless nights, as initially they said it was one of my locomotives that had done this. But somebody found the front plate of the locomotive from the crash, and it proved to be from another company.
My passion for classic cars grew and I must have gone through 80 cars during our boom years in South Africa. I was always looking for a better one. We started with a 1912 Hupmobile and progressed up to Bentleys. My favourite car was the 1936 Auburn Speedster Supercharger. The prices that some of these cars are now worth today makes my eyes water but sadly for me I don't have any of them any longer.
Business was successful but unfortunately the gold price went down and a lot of the mines closed. Things were not looking good in terms of business, so we decided to move on in 1990, shortly before Nelson Mandela was released. By then, the best years for the business had gone, and another problem we had is that no one was bothered about stopping companies making the same parts as you, and selling them as original equipment.
We returned to England in 1990 and I started to work on my invention, the Weed Thrasher. It is a garden trimmer replacement steel head that has the simple idea of a fast line changing system. It uses loose flexible cutters which are easy to change and means you don't have to pound on the ground hoping that the trimmer line will come out. It has received numerous international awards including a gold medal at the Inpex trade show in Pittsburgh.
The idea came about as I had to do more gardening when I came to the UK. The trimmer cord kept jamming and it's very difficult to sort out. I thought 'There must be a better way' so I created the Weed Thrasher. It was very successful, particularly in America and I have never really tried to market it anywhere else in the world.
At present, I'm working on a revised version of the head and my son and one daughter are helping with this. They have taken on a unit on the Blatchford Close Industrial Estate in Horsham so we can get my new ideas off the ground.
In addition to the Weed Thrasher, my other invention is a Dog Stop Gate. This is a revolutionary and unique retractable gate which folds away when not in use. When engaged it helps prevents your child, dog or pet escaping through the front door when it is opened to callers. It is also very helpful as it prevents the delivery person from being bitten!
It's such a simple solution, and it folds up so it's less obtrusive than a baby gate. It was a finalist at a Pets at Home Innovation Day and they will take it on, subject to some minor modifications being made to the product. Dog trainer Karen Wild even wrote about it in Dogs Today Magazine.
I still have a few ideas for inventions, including one to replace the washing up bowl that sits in the sink. My brain doesn't stop working, which is very tiring.
I will be 80-years-old this month and have numerous health problems, but I want to keep thinking as long as I can.