It is with great sadness that we report the death earlier today of Gordon Sparrow, the last of the three Sparrow brothers, who founded the original Sparrows Crane hire and built it into a large publicly quoted international crane rental and lifting specialist, he was 82.
He leaves behind wife Sheila - the two celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary on May 21st - sons Leigh, Timothy and Mark and daughter Emma, along with eight grandchildren.
He had been unwell for the two years and doctors had warned some time ago that he did not have much time left. However he had a long track record of bouncing back from some of the most dire medical pronouncements, beginning in Germany in 2001, when he suffered a massive heart attack, during a crane buying trip. He was lucky that time to have been sitting close to doctor, who managed to restart his heart, and lucky enough that the restaurant was next door to a first class heart clinic, where he eventually received a quadruple heart bypass operation.
Three months later he was flown back to the UK, having spent almost seven weeks in a coma. In spite of predictions to the contrary he recovered well, and went back to work. In recent years his heart began to fade and after numerous false alarms of being given mere hours to live – he finally succumbed.
While he had a good life and lived longer than his health and fitness warranted, his passing will leave a massive hole in the family. He was also one of the few surviving founders of the modern mobile crane industry, which began to take root after the Second World War, so his passing also marks the end of an era.
A life in crane hire
The youngest of seven children Gordon Sparrow – he was never given a middle name - and his two brothers built their mobile crane hire empire on the back of a vehicle repair, service and recovery business that they had established in Bath, Somerset, on the premises from which their father ran a large filling station. The two older brothers, Alf and George started the business, after Alf returned from the war, Gordon joined them full time in 1949, although he was then drafted into the Army for his two years of national service, spent mostly in Suez Canal zone of Egypt, where he drove an armoured car with the Royal Dragoons.
The brothers had built a small recovery truck from an ex-army winch tractor, and decided to buy more army surplus recovery trucks and tractors to sell on to local tree and timber companies. This led them to buy a big new American built wrecker truck at auction - surplus equipment from departing US forces. While the recovery trucks were intended for road accident call outs, they were increasingly used for regular lifting work in the area, such as unloading trucks etc.
They entered the crane hire business proper in 1949, when Alf made a home-made boom which they fitted to the front of 4x4 Chevrolet Quad gun tractors for a factory clean up job. The makeshift All Terrain crane came into its own on a contract to install concrete lamp posts in Devises, Wiltshire. They also won a contract to store and string out large steel water pipes for a new water line being installed in the Bath area.
Demand for crane rental began to grow and three increasingly focussed their time on this aspect of the business, and began buying second hand cranes, their first being a Michigan truck mounted crane, which they modified and improved. This put them in touch with crane manufacturers which allowed them to gain valuable experience and eventually they began buying new cranes, the first being a British-built 10 tonne Coles mobile diesel electric model with a fixed cantilever boom.
All three brothers operated the cranes, with Alf and Gordon appearing to have been the keenest. By the 1960s G W. Sparrow & Sons, as the company was officially known – they never bothered to register a separate business – was the leading UK company crane rental company, and one of the largest worldwide. By then the early make-do and risk- taking involved with the early cranes, had been replaced with a strong safety and quality culture that would still look impressive today.
The brothers’ attitude to safety and ‘doing things right’ led to increasing demand for their services from the booming offshore sector. The company’s work in the oil & gas industry had begun with onshore lifting, and led to the formation of Sparrows Offshore, established and promoted by Gordon. The new operation provided crane operators for the oil rigs, with a full offshore crane maintenance and repair service added later on. Sparrows Offshore has retained its name and is now one of the leading global players in the field.
The company was floated on the stock market in 1968 and friction between the brothers and the greater family led to it being acquired by BET in a hostile take-over bid in late 1985.
Gordon and two colleagues – David Flatley and Jim Hagan - then went on to acquire Coventry Crane Hire and formed Gordon Sparrow Crane Hire in Bristol. The assets of those business were sold to Ainscough in 1995, and unable to get the crane hire business out of his blood he formed a third company with his middle son Timothy, who had earlier joined the Coventry Crane /Gordon Sparrow business. The new company Sparrow Crane Hire is still operational and based in Keynsham, between Bath and Bristol.
We can now confirm that a service and funeral will be held at Haycombe Cemetery, Bath, on June 22nd at 14:30. All friends, business acquaintances and ex-colleagues are welcome to attend. The ceremony will be followed by a reception at the Bath Spa Hotel.