Alresford – The UK centre for Ultrasonic Flowmeters?

Way back in 1975, as a young graduate working in electronic and industrial instrumentation, I was living in Hillingdon, Middlesex, and started work for a firm known as Bestobell Mobrey in Slough. In those days the job was fairly unique: it was to look at research work at Universities and other centres, and find some technology ideas with commercial potential that the company could license and develop into viable products for sale. Obviously the products preferably had to relate to the existing Mobrey business – which was in steam boiler water level controls and valves, with some new developments in ultrasonic liquid sensors.

One obvious market area of interest was in industrial flow measurement systems, and this was pursued separately in the eventual purchase in 1977 of a turbine flowmeter company in Baldock, previously known as EMI Meterflow. Turbine flowmeters use a rotating vane, like a windmill, driven by the flow, with sensors to measure how fast the blades rotate. This process took around 2 years, so in that period I also was searching for other more modern flowmeter devices.

Finding a new flowmeter product

One route used in those days, before the internet, was to search Patent Applications for relevant ideas. I found a patent application relating to a Doppler ultrasonic flowmeter, which was interesting because it used an external clamp-on sensor like a stethoscope to measure the flow inside a pipe! I wrote to the patentee, Thomas Evans, since his home address in Norfolk was given on the patent, and then met up with him. He was just the sort of person my bosses hated, a boffin who would not tell you anything helpful. What’s more Mr Evans was living on social security, and keen to get some form of income from his patent. So I persevered.

The patent was fairly irrelevant, not that important. But Mr Evans the boffin had actually got a little firm in Southport who was making a few of these flowmeters that were based on his ideas. This was United Automation Ltd, run by Norman Hambley, and a visit up to Southport showed there was indeed a product of potential interest to Bestobell Mobrey. There was no problem in negotiating with United Automation to continue and indeed increase production and supply the flowmeters labelled as Mobrey products, for us to sell and promote. But there was a different sort of problem that emerged, in that Mr Evans had signed an agreement with a Cheshire based flowmeter consultant, Cyril W Nugent, whom I was aware of from previous research into other different styles of flowmeter. The agreement licensed his Doppler flowmeter product to Cyril Nugent’s company.

Obviously the way ahead was for Mr Evans to terminate his agreement with CWNugent, and sign a new deal with Bestobell. But social security payments do not cover solicitor’s fees, so Bestobell had to fund a solicitor to act for Mr Evans to terminate the existing agreement with CWNugent, and sign a new deal with Bestobell Mobrey. That went well, until Mr Evans started demanding too much commitment from Bestobell: apart from a minimum royalty of around £5000 a year, then a percentage of sales after that for the life of his patents*, he wanted the company to fund him to research further developments of his patents. He was obviously looking to extend his income stream into future years. This was overcome by our MD quietly reminding the solicitor acting for Mr Evans that Bestobell was paying his bill, and it was in his own interests to come to a deal.

Production, launch and success

So Bestobell went ahead and United Automation started some bigger production runs, and the product was launched in parallel with the Meterflow acquisition in 1977. Personally I got a pay rise, with the instruction that I had to manage all the interface with Mr Evans, and keep him away from the company premises as much as possible!

An interesting aside in relation to the launch of the Doppler flowmeter to the sales force was that we provided around a dozen portable units that they could use as battery powered demonstration equipment. The sensor had to be pressed onto the side of the pipe to be monitored, with some grease as a couplant between the sensor face and the pipe wall. The best grease to use, with least effect on the salesmen’s hands and clothes, was KY Jelly. This was not available from our normal industrial suppliers, so I was despatched to buy 12 tubes of KY Jelly from the nearest branch of Boots. The pharmacist came out to see me to ask why I needed so many tubes, which would take all their stock. I just innocently explained that I needed one tube for each one of our sales engineers! I didn’t know it had other uses….but they did give me some funny looks.

The Bestobell Doppler flowmeter went on to sell well, all around the world, and sales at their peak during the 1980s I believe reached around £1m a year. By this time Mr Evans’ patent had lapsed, but he had had a really good income for about five years. Norman Hambley in United Automation undoubtedly had other aspects to his business, but he continued as the production centre for the flowmeters, and bought a Rolls Royce with some of the proceeds: he let me drive it on one visit up there in the late 1980s. Technology then moved on to develop other more accurate ultrasonic clamp-on techniques, and that product range tailed off.

How does this relate to Alresford?

In 1981 one of my old bosses from the time I spent working at the Plessey Research Laboratories in Havant as a raw graduate contacted me and recommended me for a job with Redland Automation in Kingsworthy. It was a similar business development rôle, and we knew the area, having often visited my Godmother for Sunday lunch, who lived in Ropley, so it seemed like a good opportunity to move out of London and to a better house. In August 1981 we moved to Alresford, and settled in Carisbrooke Close, a road with 10 houses.

Redland Automation then did a management buy-out from Redland, and became independent, with no rôle for me. For about a year I worked for the ex-boss in his part of the company, which put flowmeters into sewers in Birmingham, but I slowly worked out that I did not like that, it was dirty, and smelly, and that was before you went down the sewer. So I transferred back to Bestobell Mobrey in Slough, back to my old job more or less, driving up there every day.

The Carisbrooke Close Christmas party

It was maybe in 1987 that all the neighbours in Carisbrooke Close came together for the regular Christmas party get-together. Working in Slough and consequently leaving early and getting home late meant I had not met the new neighbours, who had moved in two houses away from us. At the Christmas party I was told to go and have a chat to him, because he was in the flowmeter business too! I chatted to him for a while, but knew I had never met him before: he was a lot older than I, and appeared to be retired. However he knew quite a lot about electronic flowmeters – he was mainly talking about temperature based sensor units. Eventually I asked his name – he was Cyril Nugent, the man who had been the consultant from Cheshire, whom we had manoeuvred out of his agreement with Thomas Evans. Luckily I was sober enough not to blurt anything out! We actually became quite good friends, discussing flowmeter ideas from time to time, but I never did tell him the whole history!

There must be some reason two of the main players in the Doppler flowmeter business ended up next door but one to each other in a street in Alresford!

Nick Denbow.

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