This week we received the sad news that long retired UK crane rental veteran and, more recently, crane industry historian, Frank Sumsion, has died.
He passed away peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of Tuesday morning November 29th at the age of 97. He is survived by his two children, Mike and Julie, and four grandsons, David, Lee, Barry and Sam along with four great-grandchildren. Jane, his beloved wife of 64 years, sadly passed away in 2013.
Frank Sumsion was born in the village of Combe Down, Bath, in July 1926. He left school just after his 15th birthday, and before the year end this involved a £2 fine, which he says, was levied back then for leaving school early. His parents paid it reluctantly on the understanding that he would repay them from his earnings.
His first full time job was as a truck driver’s mate – yes that was a thing until not so long ago – and he was paid 25 shillings a week - £1.05p. His work involved collecting coal from the LMS railway sidings which they delivered all over the local area. Later he joined his uncle working as an apprentice at the local water works but was lured away after a couple of years with the offer of a truck driver’s job at a local mushroom farm, followed by a similar role driving a small tipper truck for a builder.
In 1944, Frank signed up for a seven year stint with the British Army, as it allowed him to choose what he did, and he was keen to be a driver. His tours of duty included a spell in the British Mandate of Palestine, until partition in late 1947 and British withdrawal. The next stop was Kenya where the early rumblings that eventually led to the Mau Mau uprisings were of concern.
Arriving back in the UK, in October 1948, he married his wife Jane just 10 days later. They had met during the war and kept in touch. In the UK he was posted to Farnborough, where he was supposed to take up the role of a drill instructor. But when he arrived the position wasn’t vacant, so he managed to step into a sudden vacancy as mess sergeant, a role that, after some negotiation on his part, came with married quarters. He was discharged from the Army in 1952 having more than served his seven years.
His career in the crane industry came in 1958, when he joined a young up and coming business in Bath – G.W Sparrow & Sons as a crane operator and employee No 12. His first crane was one of the Sparrow brothers’ home built models based on US Army surplus Chevrolet gun tractors, with a manual boom luffing winch. His operator training was conducted by company founder and the crane’s designer and builder Alf Sparrow.
In 1964, he left Sparrows, apparently due to an argument over his brother, who had also joined business. Frank started his own business and did well until 1968 when he was obliged to sell up. He went back to driving a truck until a chance meeting with Alf Sparrow led to him rejoining Sparrows as a crane operator later that year. He was paid the equivalent of 33p an hour but often worked an 80-hour week. In the four years he had been away, Sparrows had grown beyond all recognition and was by now running a fleet of 140 cranes and 30 trucks from several locations.
In 1971, he hung up his driving boots when he was promoted to salesman at the company’s newly opened London depot. Only a few months later, he had the opportunity to become assistant depot manager in the firm’s Swansea depot followed quickly by a move to Scunthorpe where he was made depot manager.
In 1974, Frank got his biggest break when he was promoted to managing director of Sparrows Heavy Crawler cranes. The London based company had been formed from the acquisition of Plant Sales Ltd and Stanley Butterworth Cranes. A few years later a new division was created with the merging of Sparrows Heavy Cranes with all of the company’s cranes over 200 tonnes.
Frank Sumsion headed the new division and moved back home to Bath. During this time, he also became involved with the Sparrow overseas operations, which included the Rezayat Sparrow joint venture in the Middle East, as well as the company’s Universal Equipment acquisition in Houston, where he was based for a while.
In 1981 he was asked to take on a new role as group sales and marketing director, not one he relished, as he never considered himself a marketer. After two years in the job, he persuaded the Sparrow brothers to let him take up the vacancy of senior sales executive at Rezayat Sparrow, based in Saudi Arabia on a two year contract.
On returning to the UK, he moved back into sales and marketing, but in 1985 the company faced several challenges, involving the brothers, the Sparrow family, and a slower market. This led to a hostile takeover bid from BET Plc. Before the bid moved to a conclusion he was offered and accepted early retirement at the age of 59.
After departing from Sparrows, he worked as a heavy crane consultant for a few companies, including Bateman Chapman, a loss adjuster specialising in the oil and gas sector and in 1994, he joined Grayston White and Sparrow for two years.
After retiring from consulting work in the early 2000s, Frank became a prolific historian of the crane industry, writing a book about the Sparrow business called ‘Flying with Sparrows’. The book was self-published in a small print run, and he later set up a website hosting news, memories, and photographs from the Sparrows Cranes business pre-BET. He also made numerous contributions to TV programmes such as the BBC’s WW2 People’s War with information about the Bath Blitz, and The Bath Blitz Memorial project, as well as writing about his memories of Combe Down in the 1930s.
Frank Sumsion’s funeral will be held in Lincoln. We will publish details here as soon as we learn of them. Funeral arrangements
Frank Sumsion’s funeral will be held at the Lincoln Crematorium, West Chapel, Washingborough Road, Lincoln LN4 1EF, on January 8th at 13:10. It will also be live streamed at www.wesleymedia.co.uk/webcast-view and use the Passcode: 762-0402 it will also be available to view for some time after the event.