|Trumpington Local History Group
Trumpington Personalities: John
Baker, Baron Baker (1901-85)
Lord John Fleetwood Baker of Windrush was an eminent civil engineer
who lived in Trumpington at 100 Long Road and Crossways Gardens.
This paper is based on a presentation given at a Group meeting on 22
|Morrison Shelter. Imperial
A lot of people are alive today thanks to John Baker. After an initial career as a design engineer
on the R100 Airship, he was Professor of Civil Engineering at Bristol from 1933-43, and then
Professor of Mechanical Sciences at Cambridge from 1943-68, developing the Cambridge
University Engineering Department to today's position at the forefront of engineering teaching
and research. The 'Baker Building' in Trumpington Street, opened by Prince Philip in 1952, is
his memorial but there are two far more important memorials.
If we are unlucky enough to have had a car crash, we bemoan the fact that the car crumples
very easily and may be a write off when there is little apparent damage, and yet we often walk
away relatively uninjured. That hides a very simple engineering concept which Baker developed.
The earlier sub-set of this is that many civilians in World War II owe their life to the Morrison
shelter which John Baker invented and for which he was rewarded after the War and which
worked on the same principal. Because he was a people person his second achievement was
outside the normal run of teaching and research, and in this slightly different context I owe my
career to his foresight, but I will come to that later.
Biography in Brief
John Fleetwood Baker was born on the Wirral in 1901 and educated at Rossall School on the
Fylde (probably where his second name came from) where the winds blow from across the Irish
Sea. He read what was then known as Mechanical Sciences at Clare College, Cambridge.
His interest was principally, but not exclusively, in structures and civil engineering (in Cambridge,
it is basically one department and the students are grounded in all the engineering disciplines).
The 1920s was the era of the Great Depression and he initially worked at the Royal Airship
Works as an Assistant Design Engineer from 1925-28. This was the private company which built
the R100 which successfully flew to and from Montreal in Canada. After the publically built
R101 crashed at Beauvais on its first flight to India, the R100, which was more technically
advanced, was stored until it was scrapped. In a holiday lecture, I remember Professor Baker
telling tales of in-flight repairs on the R100 en route to Canada, but they made the flight/voyage
and return to the United Kingdom safely and successfully.
In 1928, he was appointed an Assistant Lecturer at University College until 1933 when he
moved to Bristol as Professor of Civil Engineering at the tender age of 32. Obviously his many
talents had been spotted early, but he was always a man of easy manner, immaculately turned
out with a bow tie and very approachable, taking a great interest in students and encouraging
them. He was a people person as well as a brilliant academic.
His big chance came when he was appointed in 1943, again at the still relatively young age of 42,
to succeeding the great Professor Sir Charles Inglis as Head of the Engineering Department in
Cambridge, a post he held for 24 years until his retirement. In 1943, there was one other
professor and 24 teaching staff. By 1968 there were 111 teaching staff and 26 had moved on to
be professors at other universities, and over 300 undergraduates started each year. That equated
to nearly 10% of the annual undergraduate intake of the whole University.
While at the Engineering Department, he held many other appointments and remained very
active after retirement at the then standard age of 67. He lived at 100 Long Road and in later
years moved to Crossways House where he would often be seen walking in the Anstey Way
crescent, immaculately dressed and wearing his trademark bow tie.
There are two projects for which John Baker deserves to be remembered.
The Morrison Shelter
In the early years of World War II, many people were being killed by being crushed in their
homes. When many materials, steel especially, are stretched beyond they elastic limit, they
absorbs far more energy than when they stretch elastically. John Baker demonstrated this by
dropping a large weight onto a steel bar beneath which was his gold watch. The bar bent
plastically and deformed, but beneath it the watch was safe. I saw him do this, with the same
gold watch, in Lecture Theatre 0 at the Engineering Department. He deduced that you could
make an air raid/bomb shelter to fit in people's homes which was easy to get into and which
protected the occupants by deforming plastically. While he was still at Bristol University he
developed the so called Morrison Shelter, which was introduced in 1941 and for which Herbert
Morrison tried to take credit for but which in his book 'Enterprise v Bureaucracy', Baker finally
gets acknowledged as the inventor. The second part of the design which was so brilliant was that
the shelter was assembled from a kit of parts using standard materials, nuts and bolts etc that
were readily available and did not detract from the War effort, it could be mass produce, it was
delivered and assembled easily and quickly by Boy Scouts needing very little training, it could be
used as a piece of furniture in lieu of a table, and inside it was effectively a bed.
It was issued free to people earning less than £5 per week or at a charge of £7. Apart from one
direct hit, I believe no one was killed while lying in a Morrison Shelter.
The principle of the energy absorbing capacity of materials when deforming plastically is now
applied to cars in a way which permits a light but very strong body. It does however deform
when hit, and you cannot just bend it back safely.
The Training of Engineers for Industry
Being a great theoretical engineer with a strong interest in research, you might assume that John
Baker was not interested on production but this was not the case, as evinced by the way he
developed the Morrison Shelter. He knew that most of his engineering graduates went into
industry and joined Graduate Training Schemes. He was convinced that unlike the Premium
Apprentices of the golden age of railways, many of these schemes were not very good. Nine
years before I graduated he asked my Tutor and Director of Studies at Emmanuel College 'to
think out of the box' (around his ideas of course). The result was what became known initially as
The Reddaway Scheme, then the Advanced Course in Production Methods and Management
and fortuitously the leader or first tutor was a young Johnian called Mike Sharman, who was
equally able to think out of the box, which he did for over 30 years teaching hundreds of
students and inspiring them to work very productively as engineers in industry. That one of the
first students is now Prof Sir Mike Gregory, head of the Institute of Manufacturing at the
Engineering Department is testimony to the brilliance of Baker's idea and drive. I took Course 8
and will be forever grateful to the three individuals I have named. As you might expect the
course was unconventional:
• you were sponsored by a company after passing Mike Sharman's eagle eye;
• there was no exam or qualification at the end of it;
• the course was 52 weeks long and you only got 2 weeks off, no such thing as university terms;
• you spent the vast majority of the time in factories looking at real problems, then presenting
your report/findings to the factory management, you had to complete it, present it and write it up
before the next Monday (quite a challenge to a student who might be accustomed to a more
• you went wherever Mike thought that best practice could be observed;
• your report on each project was typed and assessed;
• you toured continental industry to see best practice there.
At the end, you were not an expert but you had been bloodied, 'Can't do' was not an acceptable
answer and you had a very wide circle of contacts. Most ex students went on to have very
successful careers in industry. I have every reason to be grateful to Uncle Mike as we called him
affectionately, and of course John Baker.
All that, and the success of the Morrison shelter, is down to Lord Baker's foresight, his technical
expertise, his ability to spot a problem and get the best person to deal with it, but above all his
ability to relate to ordinary people, to converse with them and get the best out of them, truly a
remarkable man, who befits the many awards and honours bestowed on him.