Heritage Commercials

The Seventh Son
Heritage Commercials Magazine Article

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Septimus Cook was to be the youngest of the seven sons – and 11 children – born to Thomas and Isabella Cook at Consett in County Durham. And while his own subsequent transport operation may have been more modest than the one ran by his elder brother Siddle, he was still a highly respected haulier in the long load game. Sep’s son Donald talks to Bob Tuck as they go through the family archives to recall some of Sep’s many memorable times – especially about the million miles (and more) covered by the 1938 DG Foden ‘Lady Mary’.

It may be natural to have fond memories of where we were born and brought up. And while I may be totally biased, for anyone interested in road transport, my home town of Consett in County Durham was an absolute Mecca. Right up until 1981 when British Steel eventually closed what was known locally as Consett Iron Company, the place generated all sorts of haulage concerns to service the various needs of both the area and ‘The Company’. And while I’ve often waxed lyrical about my own particular Consett-based hero of Siddle C Cook, he wasn’t the only son of Thomas Cook to make his mark in the transport world.

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In most of the 28 years that Septimus Cook spent running own vehicles, generally speaking he was an owner driver although during the early 1960s, he did expand his fleet in the specialist domain of long load work. Sep’s youngest son Donald recalls his late father had regular problems with his back and it may have been these health difficulties that forced Sep to sell up his vehicles – and their respective licences – to the local firm of Stillers in 1967. “If I’d been a bit older at the time, “ reflects Donald, “then I’m sure I might well have gone into business myself.”

Turning their hand to a Clearing House Operation, Sep and his wife Mary created S & MC Transport (the company is still in existence) to handle all manner of return-load traffic. Mary was particularly active in the admin of this concern although her Christian name was also well known during the 1950s. In the guise of ‘Lady Mary’, it had been adorned on Sep’s hard worked DG Foden SPT 403. Apparently, this load carrier clocked up something like one and half million miles in its extended life. And with a speed of no more than 28-32mph, it meant Sep put a huge amount of time behind the sturdy Foden steering wheel.

Family Affair

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We’ve all heard the expression ‘The University of Life’ and it’s apparent that Thomas Cook was a great believer in that. “My Dad Sep used to say that his father – Thomas – would regularly pull him out of the school class saying to the teacher that he’d learn far more working on the back of his cart than he would behind a desk”.

Sep was born in 1913 and by then, his father had already been in the carting game for 22 years. Based then at Taylor Street in Consett, the Cook horse & cart business had originally started out by clearing up the contents of folks’ outside toilets. Donald recalls his father telling him that even as a youngster, Sep would often be required to ride on the back of the wagon. Armed with a whip, his job was to keep the thieving fingers of passing folk away from the Cook cargo. “I’m sure he drove his first vehicle – a chain drive Albion – at the age of 13,”, says Donald. “But even as a teenager, he’d work as a conductor taking fares on the Cook buses.”

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During the 1930s both Sep and his elder brother Siddle worked the clock round: “Their father Thomas got into round timber haulage,” says Donald, “but after a day out driving wagons, when the two brothers got back to the Taylor Street garage, they were expected to do all the other Cook vehicles’ repairs and maintenance.” It was to be such a situation that pushed Sep into going it alone: “I think he came in one night about 1am – after a long day’s driving – and Siddle told him he had to do the big ends on a Bedford bus before he could go to bed. Sep told him that he wasn’t going to do that as the bus was allocated to Siddle to look after. An almighty row ensued and Sep said that the upheaval was the last straw.”

The date when Septimus Cook officially started out on his own in road haulage was to be 2nd September 1939 which turned out to be the day before World War II was officially declared. Sep was to be initially supported by the timber firm of Tunnicliffe but with the general upsurge of war-time work, Sep was to work the clock round so he quickly paid for his new Atkinson six-wheeler: “Needs must,” was the mantra Sep regularly used to quote.

In 1939, the Thomas Cook business was still very modest with only five outfits being licensed under what was the relatively new “A”, “B”, and “C” Carriers Licence system. Thomas was also still running some buses then but he took over the running of that business but it wasn’t until 1945 that the Thomas Cook business was finally wound up and Siddle C Cook set up in his own name.

Lady Mary

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The 1940s was obviously a traumatic time for many and the decade ended with most large long distance hauliers losing their livelihood, as the newly elected Labour Government nationalised their vehicles to create British Road Services. While his elder brother Siddle had 11 vehicles taken into BRS in May 1951, Sep kept his operation below the radar by doing local work only until the later change to a Conservative Government withdrew that compulsory purchase threat.

In ’52, Sep was to marry Mary Elizabeth (Vincent) although it wasn’t until 1955 that ‘Lady Mary’ – SPT 403 – came into being. Prior to that Donald recalls his father had a miscellany of motors. In 1953, an ex military Canadian Dodge four wheel tipper – MPT 375 – had a dual purpose role in that it could also have tjhe tipping body removed to be adapted for long load work. While prior to that (October ’49) Sep had began using JUP 626 – an ex military DG Foden 6x4 – on contract timber work to Arthur Green: “I’m sure he sold that one to his brother Siddle,” says Donald, “as he thought it was far too heavy for general haulage work. He said the tyres on this Foden cost £100 each – they could have been 1400 x 20. He called it ‘The Roamer’ and he said the two horns on the front were 6 volt working off a 12 volt supply so they were very loud. When Siddle bought it he used it for a while still carrying my Dad’s name.”

Determined to get something that would be better suited for his line of work, Sep decided to rebuild a weathered DG Foden which had started life (in 1938) for the well-known Iveston-based cattle moving concern of Parky Bates. For something like seven years (’55 – ’62) this little 4x2 unit (powered by a Gardner 6LW engine of course) was to do Sep proud and apparently Foden went into print to extol the virtues of this hard-worked DG.

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When empty, Sep normally ran it with a tandem axle pole semi-trailer but the guys who had been involved in round timber work (like Sep) were the pioneers of extendable trailers and / or dolly work.

Looking at some of the loads Sep carried on ‘Lady Mary’, you can see that on many occasions the semi trailer isn’t actually connected to the tractor unit. Instead it’s simply positioned under the back of the load as a form of independent bogie. And the ‘pole’ is simply tied up under the load to give added stability. Using this technique meant there was almost no limit (apart from practical constraints of course) as to the length of load Sep could carry.

Longest lengths the Foden probably shifted were some 96ft long steel piling bars that went 270 miles from Middlesbrough to the new power station under construction at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex. Move those same bars today and it would still be a good test for man and machine. But when you bear in mind what sort of road structure we had 60 years ago (where very few towns were by-passed) never mind the fact that the Cook trailer wheels couldn’t be steered at all, these moves just seem incredible.

But it was to be long loads like this which Sep built his reputation with – even though there was the odd fright. In total, Sep – and ‘Lady Mary’ – moved 15 concrete beams out of Dow Mac’s Tallington works cross-country to St Athans in South Wales. Each weighing off at 22 tons, they were 74ft long and became a fairly routine job. However, one day when stopped in Ross-on-Wye – and still under Police escort – a woman drove straight under the concrete beam load without touching it and totally oblivious to what she’d done. “Apparently the Police officer with my Dad was so shocked” recalls Donald, “ that when he went to chase after her, he spun the back wheel on his motorbike and then fell off.”

Moving House

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When you become a long load specialist – like Sep – your services can be in great demand. And of course if you’re an owner driver in the 1950s, you can’t afford to turn down work even though it may play havoc with your home life. Sep may have been happy enough behind the wheel of his Foden but he could be away on the road for weeks at a time. Donald recalls that Sep found it very difficult to get (and keep) good drivers. It’s a fact of life, that no matter who you employ, no-one will probably work as hard – or put the time in – as much as someone who owns the business. And even when Sep was at home, there was still demands on his time as his vehicles had to be maintained.

In the late ‘50s Sep realised he could cut out some of his dead mileage by moving house. Home for his wife and children had been Dacre Gardens in Consett. But with most of his traffic being generated out of the long load steel mills on Teesside – or even further afield – it seemed common –sense to move the 30 miles South to Darlington and use that as a start of point.

First Septimus Cook motor to have the Darlington address on the door was to be 789 GPT – a 4x2 Atkinson. Although fitted – as standard – with the Gardner 6LX engine, it came in 1960 with an extended wheelbase to enhance long load stability. The Atky was coupled to an extendible semi-trailer (with four-in-line running gear) which was built by the Gateshead-based fabrication specialist of Wright Anderson & Co. Also coupled to a pole semi-trailer was the 4x2 Guy Invincible – 3456 PT – that was new in April 1963. This had the similar Gardner 6LX-150 engine as the Atkinson and probably replaced the DG Foden which was sold on to keep working.

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Sep was a huge fan of the Gardner engine but delivery times for any vehicle with that power pack were normally measured in years – such was the demand. So instead Sep ordered a 4x2 Leyland Beaver, 7766 UP, although he tried to change that order while it was in build: “He wanted a six wheeled tractor unit,” recalls Donald, “but when Leyland told him it couldn’t be changed, he ordered a single axle bonus loader / jeep dolly which converted this into a 6x2 tractor unit.”

Coming with four axles was the ERF eight-wheeler CPT 945B priced at £4915-15s. Dow Mac – the company Sep did a lot of work for – were moving a lot of concrete made sleepers to replace the wooden ones used on the railway. The eight-wheeled rigid could do that but running with an independent bogie (and equipped with a suitable form of turntable) could also be used for long load work.

S & MC Transport

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Sep’s last purchases were a six-wheeled Leyland Hippo – EUP 249B – and the 6x4 Atkinson RPT 676D. However, in 1967 the decision was made to sell up: “I was only about nine at the time,” says Donald, “but I’m sure my Dad sold the ERF eight-wheeler to his brother Martin – who then had a general haulage business at Riding Mill near Stocksfield – and the others went to Stiller’s who were then based at Middleton St George near Darlington.”

Sep may have sold his vehicles but he stayed in the trade. At first he sold trucks for the Guy agency of Harrogate Hill Garage in Darlington but then moved to the Middlesbrough depot of Cooper Transport Services as a transport manager.

In 1972, Sep and Mary decided they could make a go of it as a clearing house. The change to ‘O’ Operators Licensing in 1970 had done away with the restrictive Carriers Licensing and this allowed almost anyone to enter the road haulage world. With all his knowledge and expertise, Sep reckoned he could be a conduit to these newcomers by providing them with back loads through his assortment of contacts. And of course, such a service could be operated from their Dalrington home which was suitably equipped with extra telephones. “My dad always had a fantastic knowledge of roads,” says Donald, “and many times I heard him explain to drivers exactly where to go – and how to get there – using the individual road numbering.”

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Sep and Mary operated S & MC until 1982 before they decided to retire. But the good standing they generated meant the trading name was retained when the business was then sold to Paul Taylor and Nick Lyons. Sep lived to the age of 78 while his wife Mary died in 2007.

While their son Donald didn’t go into road transport he obviously inherited a lot of mechanical knowhow as he went on to make engineering his trade of choice. Naturally, he all sorts of personal memories about Sep: “He always liked to wear the bib & brace style of overalls,” says Donald, “while even at work he normally wore a tie. He was always keen on appearances and while I got my leg pulled for it, I must have had the best polished shoes when I was at school.”

Looking back through the archives, it seems amazing what Sep moved with the most basic of equipment. What is perhaps easier to understand is why he adopted the mantra of: “Needs must.”

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