James Howden Hume

Engineer, the Power behind Battersea, Business Man, Sailor and London Olympic Yachtsman
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James Howden Hume was born in Glasgow on March 30th 1903 son of James Howden Hume (1866 - 1938) and Agnes Munn (1865 - 1949); he was known as Jimmy to his friends and family but always signed his name as J. Howden Hume.

James, given the full name of his father, was also named in part after his uncle, James Howden (1832 – 1913) the famous inventor and engineer, who founded James Howden & Co. Ltd. The Glasgow Company celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2004 and is a leading manufacturer of heat exchangers, industrial fans and rotary screw compressors, with factories and offices in 17 countries, with their largest factory in China.

James Howden Hume Jr., as he was known then, was appointed Managing Director at the young age of 31 in 1934, a post he served for the next 30 years, and became Chairman of the Board when his older brother Crawford William Hume, who had been 50 years with the Company, retired.

Jimmy was succeeded as Managing Director by his eldest son James Douglas Howden Hume (1928 – 2009), so four successive generations of the family ran the Company until 1988, when Douglas retired.

Jimmy and his wife Kathleen (Katie) came to live in Helensburgh when they bought Cromalt in East Clyde Street from the executors of Neil Munro’s estate in 1930, and this was their family home for the next 42 years. It was an ideal location for Jimmy, being within a reasonable commuting distance from the Howden Head Office and main factory in Scotland Street, Glasgow. As the house was right on the sea front on the Clyde and Jimmy was a yachtsman of considerable skill, there was excellent access to what a yacht needs most, water and wind!

Jimmy’s older brother Crawford was a highly qualified and skilled hands-on engineer, while Jimmy had a flair for financial management; the Company Journal summed this up with: ‘The cool calculating analytical mind of Jimmy Hume was able to predict long range forecasts with remarkable accuracy and his financial wizardry saved the Company on more than one occasion.’

Combined with Crawford’s gifts for engineering and James Howden Hume Sr.’s business acumen, the trio steered the Company through the difficult depression years of the 1930s: indeed, at a crisis point when the family had been obliged to sign a personal guarantee for a bank overdraft to pay the weekly wages of the workers and staff, the bank warned them that the overdraft facility would have to be foreclosed in six weeks. This meant the factory would be facing closure and family bankruptcy.

However, it was during those precise weeks that a new contract came through for Howden equipment for the boilers of the new Battersea power station in London, so the situation was saved from disaster in the nick of time. Looking back, the building of that huge and distinctive red brick power station with its four giant chimneys became something of an iconic symbol of the recovering economy of the whole nation.

Crawford and Jimmy had a younger sister, Nance, who married Morty Dykes and they lived in Ardshelach, East Abercrombie Street, Helensburgh; Morty was a businessman and was a Walker Cup golfer and Selector and won the Scottish Amateur golf championship at the age of 46.

Two Swedish inventions played a key part in Howden development during that period. The first was the ingenious rotary air preheater designed by Frederick Ljungstrom just after the First World War; the principle is that hot flue gasses from the boiler’s furnace are passed over metal plates which absorb the heat and are then rotated into the path of fresh cold air which is heated by the metal plates and finally
blown by a fan into the furnace. So the heat is retained within the system rather than lost up the chimney and the boiler is much more efficient, with a dramatic saving of fuel.

Howden obtained the licence from Ljungstrom for ‘exclusive rights for manufacturing and sales for land use within the British Empire’ and Jimmy Hume devoted his energies largely to this work worldwide; this turned out to be of great importance to both Companies and has lasted to this day, being used in power stations, oil refinery distillation and methanol, ammonia, copper & steel furnaces and many other applications, including ships.

The other invention was a unique method of compressing air and gas by the use of two parallel rotors, both fitting together but not touching in a closed vessel into which air entered at 1 atmospheric pressure and emerged at the other end at 40 and more compressed atmospheres. This is much more efficient, both in the use of power and the reduction of noise, than piston compressors. It was invented by Alf Lysholm in Stockholm in the 1940s, and licensed to Howden, who initially had on-going problem with the machining of the rotors to achieve the degree of accuracy required; however, despite a number of years before profits were made, Jimmy Hume persevered, and with the help of new special rotor-cutting machines made by Holroyd, the problems were solved. Now, all of sixty years later, these are being manufactured at the Howden Craigton factory in Glasgow and marketed wherever compressed air or gas is needed, in petrochemical plants, carbon capture & storage (CCS) and refrigeration, etcetera.

As mentioned earlier, Jimmy Hume was an enthusiastic and gifted yachtsman and was chosen to be part of the UK Olympic Games yachting team in 1948, held in Torbay. His yacht was a 6 Metre called Johan (somewhere in the world, maybe on the west coast of Canada, is she still racing, perhaps?) He also took part in the British-America Cup team races for the 6 Metre class, a competition which took place regularly on either side of the Atlantic, between a team of four yachts from each country, for a number of years following the Second War; a distinguished commentator wrote at the time: ‘It may justly be claimed for these races that for their influence in design, in rig, and in sails, they have contributed more to the improvement of keel boat racing than all other events whatsoever.’

About fifteen years earlier, Jimmy was directly involved in the introduction of the Dragon class yacht to the Clyde. When he was on a business visit to Sweden, he discovered that many of the yachtsmen there were racing in an exciting new yacht, the Dragon, designed by Johan Anker. When he returned to Glasgow, he and another businessman, Bill Paisley, who lived in Rhu, persuaded several other yachtsmen to purchase Dragons, and Jimmy sailed the first one to be imported, called Anita.

It wasn’t long before McGruer’s Yard in Clynder began building these three-man, fast keelboats for the modest sum of £280; the result was the rapid expansion of the class and by the time of the Clyde Fortnight Regatta in 1936, there was a large international fleet of Dragons taking part. In 1948, it became an Olympic class, racing in every Olympics until 1972, when, unlike some Olympic classes which were dropped and then go into obscurity, Dragons have thrived and are still being enthusiastically sailed world-wide.
Jimmy also cruised extensively in the Western Isles of Scotland, with his wife Katie and their two sons Douglas and David, which gave the boys a life-long love of the sea. Few would deny that those waters and islands are the most beautiful for cruising that can be found anywhere in the world. His other sports were pheasant shooting on the banks of Loch Lomond, and salmon fishing on the Spey, where he kept a meticulous diary for thirty years of all the salmon he caught, amounting to over 550.

This was in the days when you could keep them all! In fact, he and Katie gave most of them away to friends, who along with their extended family joined them as their guest in the fishing. In later life, Jimmy moved to the south of England, where he took to the more leisurely method of lake fishing for trout!

At a Service of Remembrance for Jimmy, who died on May 28th 1981, held in Glasgow University Memorial Chapel and attended by a great crowd of his colleagues and friends, the Rev. Joe Grant, Minister of the Cromdale Church on Speyside, who had known Jimmy for 40 years, gave the Address.

Joe’s gentle Highland brogue fittingly linked Jimmy’s place of work with one of his great loves, the Scottish Highlands and Joe spoke of “the modesty of certain ambitious men that consists of becoming great without making too much noise.” This summed up Jimmy’s contribution to both the business success of the Company he had devoted his life to and his sporting prowess, neither of which he ever boasted about.

Helensburgh Heroes is indebted to David Hume for both the copy and image of this entry