Dorset lives — Model citizen
Roger Guttridge has been to meet Ronald Burt, Poole’s model man
Published in January ’10
Some time in the late 1970s, a Poole resident called Lucy Scott made an offer that the newly opened Poole Maritime Museum felt unable to refuse. There was a price to be paid, however, but in Ronald Burt, the museum had just the man to pay it.
Miss Scott was a direct descendant of Edward Edwards, captain of the Pandora, the Royal Navy sixth rate frigate that was despatched to the Pacific Ocean in 1790 on a mission to capture the notorious Bounty mutineers and was wrecked on the return voyage in 1791. Miss Scott was also the proud owner of a number of valuable naval artefacts including Captain Edwards’s sea chest, sword, sextant, and signal book, even an invitation to Nelson’s funeral. She was intending to give these to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, but instead lent them to the Poole Maritime Museum with an offer to make the donation permanent if they could get someone to build a model of her ancestor’s ship.
Ron Burt had already proved his worth as a handyman and was the obvious man for the job. ‘It was a bit of a challenge,’ he recalls. ‘It took me 1600 hours – 800 hours on the hull and the other 800 on the complex rigging. The museum provided a workshop on the ground floor where people could watch me working on it and see the progress.’
The project firmly established Ron’s reputation as an accomplished model-maker, even though he had lived in Poole but a short time. Although his mother was born at East Howe in 1898, when it was in the Borough of Poole, he was born and brought up in London. He developed lathe-turning skills at Thame, Oxford, during World War 2, when he made literally thousands of parts for Wellington bombers and Spitfires. After National Service with the Royal Corps of Signals in India and Malaya from 1945 to 1947, he and his father opened a cycle shop in London, followed within two years by a second shop. In a yard behind one of the shops, as an escape from the dreariness of post-war Britain, he spent much of his spare time building a 20ft cabin cruiser. ‘I was handy, but I had no carpentry or engine experience when I started,’ he remembers. ‘I bought a plan, tools, timber and an Austin 7 engine and eighteen months later, on Coronation Day 1953, I launched it at Kingston-upon-Thames and lived on it during the summer. Then I
built a forty-foot luxury cabin cruiser on the Thames, which took 3½ years. My partner and I lived on that during the summer months. I built the first boat to a plan but I made the second one myself. I had become a good carpenter by then. I lived on them every summer for seven or eight years.’
Sadly for Ron, this idyllic lifestyle came to an abrupt end in the late 1970s, when his mother, now back in her native Poole, was diagnosed with dementia as well as chronic arthritis. ‘I had no siblings and had no choice but to sell up and move to Poole to become her carer.’ Ron was financially secure after selling his shops and his boats, but still only in his mid-fifties and on the lookout for a stress-free job to occupy his time. He became a guide at the new Maritime Museum and began using his practical skills as their official model-maker. ‘Pandora was my first serious model and after that I did the Truckline ferry Purbeck, which I used to see on my way to work,’ he says. ‘As part of my preparation I got permission to travel on her to Cherbourg and back. Truckline provided plans of the vessel. I took pictures of the juggernauts, bought some toy lorries and pasted the continental names from the photographs onto the toys.’
The models undoubtedly contributed to the early success story of a museum which welcomed 100,000 visitors in its first two years and was named runner-up in the Museum of the Year awards. Some years later, Ron’s own contribution was recognised when he was made an honorary member of the Poole Maritime Trust.
In the thirty years since Pandora and the Truckline ferry, Ron has made about 90 models, including 42 Poole merchant ships from the days of sail, Scott’s ship Discovery and a Dutch state yacht. Following the discovery of the Studland Bay Wreck in 1984, Ron was also commissioned to make a model of the Spanish merchant ship that ended its days in Studland Bay in the 16th century. The model is still on display at the museum.
Ron retired from full-time work at the museum in 1987 but continued part-time until 1992. Suddenly he had more time on his hands and he used it to diversify. With one eye on the Poole Park lake barely a stone’s throw from his flat in Park Road, he made several radio-controlled models, including a three-masted schooner and a ‘Clyde Puffer’.
Given the hundreds of hours it takes to make a single model, it is clearly not a lucrative occupation, but Ron did hit on one idea that brought reasonable reward. He decided to make a series of quality, reasonably priced, fine-scale model ships, set in oak-bound glass cases and targeted at ‘the man who has everything’. The twenty-inch hulls were made of papier mâché, using modern glues, and the decks of teak veneer. Ron used a lathe to create masts and made the rigging using thirteen different sizes of rope supplied by Bridport Gundry. For the fifty items of yacht chandlery required for each model, Ron made a brass original which a Yorkshire company replicated by the hundred as tiny-white metal castings.
After advertising his new product in an international ship model magazine, Ron was inundated with orders – so many that he was never able to meet the demand. He made more than forty but gave up after discovering that some were being bought by dealers who were passing them off as antiques and re-selling at a profit. ‘And anyway,’ he adds, ‘I hated making the glass cases.’
In recent years Ron’s work has included Poole’s Barfleur and Contentin cross-Channel ferries and about thirty ‘novelty’ models such as Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, the Pushkin Chapel in St Petersburg, a working roundabout with music and horses that go up and down, a Sunderland flying boat, London Bridge, an airship and the topsail schooner Agnes in a West Country harbour, which can be seen at Compton Acres. His latest models were a couple of Viking longships of the kind that attacked Wareham in 876, one of which is now in Wareham Museum. The second of these was completed in the winter of 2008-09 but Ron, now in his mid-eighties, has not made anything since. ‘I’ve had enough of it. There is no point now,’ he says. But then he adds, ‘I still have the tools and you never know – I might see something that I want to do.’
1 Photography by Sylvie Guttridge