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The Arrival of Decca Radar Ltd at Somerton, Cowes, Isle of Wight 1964

Picture of Decca opening 17th July 1964
Picture of Mark Woodnutt MP for Isle of Wight 1959-1974
Mark Woodnutt MP

In early 1962 Decca Radar were having discussion with the Board of Trade as to the location of a new 130,000 square foot factory for the building of a new range of airfield radars. The government had at that time been pressing for the establishment of a modern growth industry to be established on the island. The local MP for the Isle of Wight, Mark Woodnutt was also actively involved in these discussions pressing for the factory to be built on the site of the old airfield at Somerton, Cowes.

At this stage of the article a description of the careers of two senior member of the Decca board involved in these discussions must be given in order to give the reader of this article a wider picture to the background and development of Decca as company and how it became involved in radar.

Sir Edward Lewis [1900-1980]

Picture of Sir Edward Lewis
Sir Edward Lewis

Edward Lewis was a financier by profession who led Decca for 50 years from 1929 and built the company up from nothing to become one of the world’s leading record labels. In 1928 at the age of 28 he founded the firm E.R.Lewis and was trading on the stock exchange, this company was still trading at the time of his death. He was engaged by the Decca Company as a professional adviser, when the company changed its name to “The Decca Gramophone Company”. At that time the company manufactured recording and play-back equipment and had just produced the world’s first portable gramophone. Lewis was involved in the flotation of the company which was oversubscribed twenty times. However Lewis has reservation about the long term viability of Decca itself with its limited production range. He proposed that Decca should expand into making and selling records a more profitable business, however this was rejected by the company.

The Duophone Record Company of New Malden was in financial difficulties and Lewis tried unsuccessfully to persuade the directors of Decca to buy the company, this advice was rejected. Lewis then formed a syndicate called Malden Holding Company and bought the Duophone record company at Shannon Corner and offered it to Decca. Again the offer was rejected, in 1929 Malden Holdings then decided to go into record manufacture itself and made an offer for Decca which was accepted and the two companies were combined the group was renamed “Decca Gramophone Company”. The year 1929 was the year of the famous Wall Street crash, and the companies bankers were threatening to withdraw credit. Lewis took a very bold step, and slashed the price of Decca records to less than half of EMI, and accepted the resignation of the then managing director S.C.Newton and took over he role himself, the rest is history, the company survived and the Cowes site will be the proof. [Wikipedia].

Picture of Duophone Share Certificate
Duophone Share Certificate

Sir Edward Fennessy [1912-2009]

Picture of Sir Edward Fennessy
Sir Edward Fennessy

Sir Edward served an apprenticeship with the Swedish company ASEA. gaining a degree from the East London College in 1934 then joined Standard Telephone Company with another fellow student Geoffrey Roberts as research engineer. In 1937 Roberts disappeared into the then secret world of radar at Bawdsey Manor, Suffolk, Fennessy was seen to lack the necessary knowledge. However within months Chain Home; the code name for the defensive chain of radar station being built along the east coast had become operational and engineers with Fennessy skill were in high demand, he received a telegram and disappeared to Bawdsey.

With his hands on skills he was very involved in the installation of the new radar systems and improving software to improve accuracy. The Munich crisis of 1938 increased the threat of war and Fennessy and Roberts, had a meeting with Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding and discussed the setting up of communication/control room in fighter command, this was agreed and implemented within a very short period of time. There was a move to relocate Bawdsey to Scotland for security reasons, Fennessy objected saying that the new Chain Home radar system and fighter command should be integrated, he won the day, and was appointed head of the secret group 60 based at Leighton Buzzazd.

When he was demobilised with the rank of Group Captain in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve he took his ideas about the expansion of radar to Decca, the company had no experience in this field, but accepted Fennessy vision. In 1946 a new company was formed called Decca Navigation, with Fennessy as technical director, and by 1950 had expanded and become Decca Radar with Edward Fennessy as managing director. The company became a leader in marine navigational radar for over 10 years. In 1962 a decision was taken to build a new factory to produce civil airfield radar, Cowes was chosen, and so the story begins,[].

Development at the old Somerton Airfield, Cowes, Isle of Wight

Picture of Somerton Aerodrome, early 1930's
Somerton Aerodrome, early 1930's

An article in the Guardian newspaper on the 19th September 1962 stated that Decca Radar Limited will announce today that it intended to build a laboratory and production facility on the site; the factory will cost over £500,000 and cover around 130,000 square feet of which 45,000 ft would be devoted to laboratories.

The announcement was made at a press conference by Group Captain E. Fennessy C.B.E. who said that in the last twelve years Decca had become a world leader in radar, and the new factory would strengthen that position. The new factory would have both research and production facilities and concentrate on producing the larger airfield radars. A number of specialist staff would be transfer from the London factory and upwards of 600 jobs would be created on the Isle of Wight for local people. The contactors for the new factory will be Beecham Buildings. Shipston-on-Stour, who have already started preparatory work on the site. The site lies adjacent the main A3020 Cowes to Newport road and will comprise a central three story administration block, with laboratory facilities on one side [southern] and the production unit on the other. Car parking for upwards of 300 cars will be provided and the factory is expected to be operational early 1964.

For a year or so there has been a handful of people working on the site operating a small production facility and the radar test site. Group Captain Fennessy said that the delay in announcing the new major development was due to the fact that laboratory staff from Decca existing factory would have to move to the island and this had created many difficulties, including convincing senior engineering staff to relocate. The need for a new site was due to the lack of space in the London area to test the new range of airfield radars that the company was developing and the Board of Trade had told the company any such application would be frowned on. These radars would be larger than those in current production and would include defence warning and height finding radars; there would also be new weather finding radars. The site would have a training and demonstration facility and would be one of the most modern site in Europe, seventy –five per cent of the company equipment was exported to over 30 countries. When the site was fully operational it is hope to carry out work on electronic space technology.

Official opening of the new factory 17th July 1964

Picture of Opening programme 17th July 1964
Opening programme 17th July 1964

Report of the opening in the County Press 18th July 1964

Picture of Formal opening of the Decca site July 1964
Formal opening of the Decca site July 1964

A significant event occurred for the working population of the Isle of Wight yesterday with the opening of the new hi-tech Decca Radar factory at Cowes, and with it comes the prospects of additional jobs. The factory was due to be opened by the Rt. Hon. Julian Amery MP. Minister of Aviation, he was unfortunately delayed in London and Mr. Neil Martin MP. Parliamentary Secretary deputised for him. The guests were welcomed by Sir Edward Lewis chairman of the Decca group of companies.

In his address to the assembled guests Group Captain E. Fennessy [managing director Decca Radar Co.] said that since the formation of Decca Radar in 1950 the company had established itself as a major player in the world of electronics and marine radar. The company’s marine radar now covered a wide spectrum included naval, coastal defence, harbour and meteorological radars and were now moving into the field of airfield radars and associated electronics. The company currently employed some 4,000 people and there was now a need for a dedicated factory, hence the move to Cowes.

Picture of Shop-floor-1964

The companies work was divided into two groups, the work for the Ministry of Defence and the commercial markets. Design and manufacture of the new advanced radars needed modern laboratories and production facilities and that what the new Cowes factory would offer. He thanked the Isle of Wight Council Council for all the help and assistance they had given and also Alderman Woodnutt who help had been invaluable. It was hoped the new factory would employed at least 600 people and possibly more when production was stepped up.

The ministerial party where taken on a conducted tour of the new factory and laboratories and were then given working demonstrations of the various radars on the test site, including the new AR1. radar launched in 1963, that was under development for the RAF.


In 1965 Decca Radar was sold, and the factory was renamed Plessey Radar Company, there follow further increase in the work force and the development of new radars. For several years Group Captain Fennessy was the managing director of Plessey Radar In 1988 the factory was again sold this time to the joint GEC./Siemens takeover of the Plessey Company. The Cowes site then came under the ownership of the German company Siemens.


Picture of strikers
Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians strike, 1968

As part of the history of Plessey this unique picture has been found and is dated early 1968.

It show’s a group of members from the Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians [DATA] who were on strike from the Somerton factory walking in the rain from West Cowes to British Hovercraft in East Cowes to gain support and publicity for their claim. Representatives of the strikers also visited other Plessey establishments on the mainland to try and enlist support. During the strike a daily picket line was maintained at the factory gates.

The strike which was over pay and conditions started in January 1968 and lasted six months, many of the striking workforce suffered severe financial hardship and some did not return to Somerton when the strike was over. After long and difficult negotiations a settlement was finally reached and a modest pay rise was achieved. There however, were other longer term benefits, the company acknowledged the union and this allowed more peaceful negotiations to take place in future years.

Some names from that era, from the left, holding the banner is Larry Brooke, holding the centre pole is Reg.White, with Eddie Boyle hidden behind him. Holding the banner on the right is Dave Downer, next to him on his left I believe is Dennis Rumbold.

Thanks must go to Dave Downer for this information.


Source: Isle of Wight County Press, July 1964 and other sources.

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This page was last edited on: 26th January, 2022 17:50:26

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