Harold Kemp -

Model Engine Maker

Jean Hards-Nicholls (ne Kemp), April, 2009.

In early 1946, after leaving Short Brothers in Rochester for whom he had worked during the war, my father, Harold Kemp, set up his own business, Kemp Engines. He had a workshop at 7 Bank Street, Gravesend, Kent where he designed and manufactured model aircraft engines.

The first engine Harold designed and manufactured in 1946 was a 4.4cc diesel engine which he sold for 7 Guineas (£7-7s). The Series I 4.4cc was made in bare alloy, but following complaints about corrosion he produced the Series II which was anodised black. This engine earned a very good reputation for being well made and reliable and was a very good seller. He also made an 8.8cc twin cylinder in-line engine (two 4.4cc engines joined together) which was labour intensive to make and consequently very expensive, so not many of these were produced. In 1947 Harold designed and manufactured a second engine, a smaller 1cc diesel engine, which he sold for £2 17s 6d. It was also a good seller but was never produced in such large numbers as the 4.4cc engine. Also in 1947, Harold designed and put into production a very small 0.2cc diesel engine, which was usually sold complete with a 5 or 6 inch alloy propeller. This proved to be a very popular engine and sold in large numbers.

In addition to working in the workshop himself, Harold also employed three men. Two were full-time and one was part-time—Les Duffy, who was still an apprentice at Short Brothers in Rochester during the day. Les worked at Bank Street in the evenings for a couple of hours, turning, milling and honing engine parts, before returning to his home in Tilbury, Essex on the ferry across the River Thames. The Town Pier was at the bottom of High Street and Bank Street was a turning on the left just a short walk up the High Street from the pier. The first building on the left in Bank Street, number 1, was a large three storey red brick warehouse building, then numbers 3, 5 and 7 were a terrace of smaller two storey buildings, which may have originally been houses. Next to that was an area of waste land where the buildings had been demolished after having been bombed in the war.

Les remembers the workshop at 7 Bank Street—on the left there were large opening doors to the workshop, on the right a large window to another room, and there was usually a motorcycle leaning against the wall outside. The workshop had a large Capstan lathe and a really oily work bench, also used for counter sales which were usually handled by Mr Kemp himself. The downstairs front room with the large window also had lathes and other machinery in it. Upstairs one room was used for assembling the engines, after which every single one was test run. They were then packed into plain brown cardboard boxes ready for despatch. Some of the engine castings were made from magnesium and were cast at a foundry nearby in Gravesend. They were delivered loose in hessian sacks and all had to be carefully checked for defects before assembly. The castings were emptied out onto the workbench, examined and sorted, and usually some of them had to be returned to the foundry for reprocessing. Les says the men had great fun burning the magnesium shavings from the engine production out on the waste ground next door, as they burned with a very bright blue flame! Opposite the Kemp Engines workshop there was another engineering firm with whom they would sometimes exchange materials and other bits and pieces.

The engines were sold through a main selling agent—Gamages, of 116-128 Holborn, London, and were despatched to them by carrier from the workshop, two dozen at a time. A second outlet was soon added—H J Nicholls, 308 Holloway Road, London. The engines could also be bought by mail order or in person over the counter from the workshop at 7 Bank Street, Gravesend.

At the end of 1948 at the height of success of the 0.2cc engine, Harold Kemp sold the Kemp Engines business and "K" Model Engineering Co Ltd was set up, also trading from 7 Bank Street, Gravesend. Len (Stoo) Steward was the leading light of the new company and immediately scrapped the old 4.4cc Kemp engines. The 4.4cc engine was thought too bulky and slow revving as designs had moved on by then. He did however keep production of the very popular 0.2cc engine, renaming it the K Hawk. Around 1949, the K Hawk Mk II was introduced. This was a modification of the original Hawk Mk I design. Other new engines produced by "K" Model Engineering Co Ltd, Bank Street, Gravesend over the next couple of years were K Falcon, K Vulture, K Kestrel, K Eagle, and K Tornado. It would appear that "K" Model Engineering Co Ltd folded sometime around 1950. Les Duffy says this is backed up by the sudden disappearance of their advertisements from aeromodelling magazines. The reason is unknown, but it may have been as a result of drop in sales caused by the hefty purchase tax imposed on engines at that time, or maybe there was just too much competition from other manufacturers.

It is unclear whether or not Harold was involved with the new company "K" Model Engineering Co Ltd. Some members of the Kemp family have said from information passed down to them from Harold's brothers that they believed Harold only sold part of the business and was actually a partner in the new company. But Les Duffy, who no longer worked there at that time (he had moved on to Rolls Royce when Shorts closed, and was elsewhere in the country), thinks Harold sold the business in its entirety. Unfortunately I can find no documentation to back up either story, but I do know for certain that Harold did remain living at 3 Bank Street, Gravesend until late 1951 as this is confirmed by the address on my sister's birth certificate. He also married our mother in Gravesend in 1949. I can also clearly remember my father always referred to the model aircraft engines he had once made as "Model K" engines. Harold died in 1975 and Len died in 1992. Sadly they have both taken a lot of information to their graves with them leaving many unanswered questions regarding "K" Model Engineering Co Ltd, so unless anyone can provide any evidence I can only suggest you draw your own conclusion on this one.

Harold finally left Gravesend around 1952 and started a new job as a development engineer for Gyproc (later renamed British Gypsum) in Rochester, Kent. He designed machinery for them to produce plasterboard products such as coving, foil-backed plasterboard and ceiling tiles, and worked there until he retired in 1969.

If there is one thing that I am absolutely certain of, it is that my father Harold Kemp would be so proud to know that some of the engines he designed and produced over sixty years ago are still going strong and in use today.

Jean Hards-Nicholls (nee Kemp) - April 2009


I would like to thank everyone who responded to my recent request with photos and information and for putting me in touch with Les Duffy, who I would especially like to thank for passing on much of the information that enabled me to write this. I have produced this to the best of my ability so that the memory of my father lives on. I have used information both from Les Duffy and from my family, and I accept no responsibility for any errors or omissions.



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