SOUE News Issue 9


John F Coates, Queen's 1940-3

John Coates was one of two distinguished naval architects who graduated from the Engineering Department in the 1940s, the other being Ewan Corlett (obituary in SOUE News 2005). Both men were at Queen's, in successive years.

Coates was at Oxford in the first three years of World War II, and was one of just five people graduating in Engineering Science in 1942. The Examiners gave them all Seconds! He joined the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors, and saw sea service in 1944-5. Thereafter he was employed in various duties in ship design, structural research and repair. He was awarded an OBE in 1955, at the unusually young age of 33, for work on the development of inflatable life-rafts and lifejackets, including, it has been said, testing the latter himself by jumping off the sides of ships.

From 1957 he led work on the design of the County class of guided-missile-carrying destroyers, the first such vessels built by the Royal Navy. These were large vessels for destroyers, 6800 tons at full load, with combined steam and gas turbine propulsion. They carried the Sea Slug guided missile, itself very large too, primarily for use against aircraft. Later versions carried the French-designed Exocet. Eight of the class were built in total, of which two, HMS Fife and Antrim, suffered damage in the Falklands war of 1982.

He retired in 1979, as Deputy Director of Ship Design, but subsequently pursued his interest in applying naval architecture to historical ship research. He wrote papers on the strength of wooden ships, hypothetical reconstructions, and on recovered remains such as the Mary Rose and the Ferriby boat. From about 1983 he was greatly involved in the design of the reconstructed Greek trireme. The instigation of this was a lengthy controversy in the correspondence columns of The Times of 1975 about whether, and how, the trireme could have had the performance historically attributed to it (e.g. a row of 130 nautical miles in a "long day").

A typical trireme was known to have had 170 oarsmen, but how they, and their oars, were arranged, had been the subject of much dispute. The "tri...", or "three" clearly had some significance here, but was it three men to each oar, or three men on each seat pulling separate oars, or three rows of oarsmen separated vertically? The objection to this last arrangement had always been that the oars would have had to be of different lengths, so it would have been impossible to pull them in synchronism. But JS Morrison, a classics don at Cambridge, had suggested that if the upper row had their thole-pins set on outriggers, while the lower ones were in the skin of the hull, then all the oars could have the same length (as indeed they were known to be from ancient shipyard inventories). Coates and David Moss built a full-scale replica of one "unit", (three oarsmen at different levels) and showed that they could row in synchronism. A "Trireme Trust" was formed to raise funds and work towards building a complete replica trireme with the oarsmen so arranged. Coates took over responsibility for its design, including all the details of how it could be constructed, out of wood, in a historically believable way. Long planks were held each to its neighbour by hundreds of tenons to resist shear, and the hull was pre-stressed longitudinally by a tensioned rope fastened between the ends. "The Athenian Trireme" by Morrison and Coates gives a full account of all this.

The trireme was built in Greece, at the expense of the Greek Navy, christened "Olympias", and tested in the Mediterranean with volunteer crews (including at least one SOUE member) in 1987 and subsequent years (right). In 1997 she could be seen being rowed up the Thames in London. The trials showed that the reconstruction was successful in the main, though open to improvement in detail. In particular the longitudinal spacing of the oarsmen needed to be increased, so that they could generate more power without being constrained by the ship's structure. This was not only because people are bigger now than they were in Greece of the fifth century BC, but also because the spacing had been based on a written source that said it was "two cubits". It turned out that cubits had been variously defined, and they probably used the wrong conversion factor!

John Coates gave the Jenkin Lecture on the trireme reconstruction in 2005. He died on 10 July this year, aged 88.

The reconstructed trireme "Olympias"
The reconstructed trireme "Olympias"

The Duke of Hamilton

The Marquess of Clydesdale, as he was then, read Engineering Science at Balliol in the late 1950s. He had learnt to fly before he came up, and joined the University Air Squadron. After graduation he joined the Royal Air Force, following his father who had had a distinguished career in it, for example being one of the pilots of the expedition that flew over Everest for the first time, in Westland biplanes in 1933. The son flew Canberras in Malaya during the 1960s emergency there, and as a recreation drove racing cars in Singapore. In 1967 he was invalided out of the RAF, but continued to fly and motor-race. He was involved in the development of Scottish Aviation's Bulldog aircraft, as test-pilot, and also of an amphibious vehicle, the Supercat.

On the death of his father in 1973, he became the 15th Duke of Hamilton, inheriting as well as the title more properties than he could make proper use of. Three of them he managed to get sold and adapted for contemporary use. One office that came with the Dukedom was Hereditary Keeper of the Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh, which acquired fresh significance when Scotland got its own Parliament again. In politics, he described himself as a cross-bencher in the House of Lords, with interests in energy, defence and transport. Another long-standing interest was animal welfare, which he shared with his third wife Kay, who survives him. He died on 5 June this year, aged 71.

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