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Gordon Sparrow 1933 – 2016

1. June 2016 | Comments (14)

It is with great sadness that we report the death earlier today of Gordon Sparrow, the last of the three Sparrow brothers, who founded the original Sparrows Crane hire and built it into a large publicly quoted international crane rental and lifting specialist, he was 82.

Gordon Sparrow
Gordon Sparrow

He leaves behind wife Sheila - the two celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary on May 21st - sons Leigh, Timothy and Mark and daughter Emma, along with eight grandchildren.

He had been unwell for the two years and doctors had warned some time ago that he did not have much time left. However he had a long track record of bouncing back from some of the most dire medical pronouncements, beginning in Germany in 2001, when he suffered a massive heart attack, during a crane buying trip. He was lucky that time to have been sitting close to doctor, who managed to restart his heart, and lucky enough that the restaurant was next door to a first class heart clinic, where he eventually received a quadruple heart bypass operation.

Gordon 1981
Gordon Sparrow in 1981 when joint managing director of G W. Sparrows & Sons

Three months later he was flown back to the UK, having spent almost seven weeks in a coma. In spite of predictions to the contrary he recovered well, and went back to work. In recent years his heart began to fade and after numerous false alarms of being given mere hours to live – he finally succumbed.

While he had a good life and lived longer than his health and fitness warranted, his passing will leave a massive hole in the family. He was also one of the few surviving founders of the modern mobile crane industry, which began to take root after the Second World War, so his passing also marks the end of an era.

A life in crane hire

The youngest of seven children Gordon Sparrow – he was never given a middle name - and his two brothers built their mobile crane hire empire on the back of a vehicle repair, service and recovery business that they had established in Bath, Somerset, on the premises from which their father ran a large filling station. The two older brothers, Alf and George started the business, after Alf returned from the war, Gordon joined them full time in 1949, although he was then drafted into the Army for his two years of national service, spent mostly in Suez Canal zone of Egypt, where he drove an armoured car with the Royal Dragoons.

Gordon Army
Gordon Sparrow starts his National Service

The brothers had built a small recovery truck from an ex-army winch tractor, and decided to buy more army surplus recovery trucks and tractors to sell on to local tree and timber companies. This led them to buy a big new American built wrecker truck at auction - surplus equipment from departing US forces. While the recovery trucks were intended for road accident call outs, they were increasingly used for regular lifting work in the area, such as unloading trucks etc.

Gordon and the cow
Gordon on the company's first recovery truck hand cranking a dead cow for a local farmer


Mack wrecker
The company's first purpose built lifting machine a Mack wrecker - Gordon claimed he was the only one who could reverse it into their tight workshop

They entered the crane hire business proper in 1949, when Alf made a home-made boom which they fitted to the front of 4x4 Chevrolet Quad gun tractors for a factory clean up job. The makeshift All Terrain crane came into its own on a contract to install concrete lamp posts in Devises, Wiltshire. They also won a contract to store and string out large steel water pipes for a new water line being installed in the Bath area.

Sparrows quads
The first Sparrows cranes - home made from quad gun tractors

Demand for crane rental began to grow and three increasingly focussed their time on this aspect of the business, and began buying second hand cranes, their first being a Michigan truck mounted crane, which they modified and improved. This put them in touch with crane manufacturers which allowed them to gain valuable experience and eventually they began buying new cranes, the first being a British-built 10 tonne Coles mobile diesel electric model with a fixed cantilever boom.

All three brothers operated the cranes, with Alf and Gordon appearing to have been the keenest. By the 1960s G W. Sparrow & Sons, as the company was officially known – they never bothered to register a separate business – was the leading UK company crane rental company, and one of the largest worldwide. By then the early make-do and risk- taking involved with the early cranes, had been replaced with a strong safety and quality culture that would still look impressive today.

The brothers’ attitude to safety and ‘doing things right’ led to increasing demand for their services from the booming offshore sector. The company’s work in the oil & gas industry had begun with onshore lifting, and led to the formation of Sparrows Offshore, established and promoted by Gordon. The new operation provided crane operators for the oil rigs, with a full offshore crane maintenance and repair service added later on. Sparrows Offshore has retained its name and is now one of the leading global players in the field.

The company was floated on the stock market in 1968 and friction between the brothers and the greater family led to it being acquired by BET in a hostile take-over bid in late 1985.

The three Sparrows
The three Sparrow brothers (L-R) George, Gordon and Alf

Gordon and two colleagues – David Flatley and Jim Hagan - then went on to acquire Coventry Crane Hire and formed Gordon Sparrow Crane Hire in Bristol. The assets of those business were sold to Ainscough in 1995, and unable to get the crane hire business out of his blood he formed a third company with his middle son Timothy, who had earlier joined the Coventry Crane /Gordon Sparrow business. The new company Sparrow Crane Hire is still operational and based in Keynsham, between Bath and Bristol.

Alf, the oldest brother died in 2012 aged 90 See Alfred Sparrow 1921-2012
George the middle brother passed away in 2013 aged 88 See George Sparrow R.I.P And unusually all but one of the four sisters -died before the boys.

Funeral

We can now confirm that a service and funeral will be held at Haycombe Cemetery, Bath, on June 22nd at 14:30. All friends, business acquaintances and ex-colleagues are welcome to attend. The ceremony will be followed by a reception at the Bath Spa Hotel.

No flowers please donations in lieu to the Lighthouse Club Benevolent Fund. www.lighthouseclub.org/donate
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Comments

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Paul Richards
3. June 2016 20:50

Sad news Leigh - lots of fond memories, too many to mention and a great legacy to the global lifting industry; sincere condolences, am thinking of you all at this time.

Graham Brent
3. June 2016 14:59

Leigh: You and the family have my heartfelt condolences and prayers. Gordon was a true gentleman and always a delight to meet and talk with. He was one of the first people in the industry I ever met after joining Cranes Today in 1979 and was genuinely welcoming and eager to help a young man understand his business. I have many fond memories of trips with him and his brothers over the years, and remembering them now makes me smile with warmth and gratitude. Be sure to celebrate a life well lived and much appreciated by others on June 22. God bless.

Steve Stennett
3. June 2016 11:18

My working career started with the Grayston side of the business and after the merger in 1986 I managed the Grayston White & Sparrow depot in Avonmouth. This depot was originally a G W Sparrow branch and everyone there always told me just what a professional company G W Sparrow were, how well they looked after their employees and how "hands on" the three brothers were, especially Gordon. I thought at the time they may had been been looking back through "rose coloured glasses" but later, when I joined Sparrow Crane Hire myself I soon realised that they weren't. Gordon was a true gentleman with a wealth of experience. His enthusiasm for the business was second to none and he will be sadly missed by all who knew him. RIP

Steve Shaughnessy
3. June 2016 10:25

My deepest sympathy to Leigh and to all the Sparrow family. While I knew a little about Gordon, and much more about Sparrow Cranes, the Vertikal story of his life and the history of the Sparrow businesses was both fascinating and an appropriate tribute. For me, one of the most interesting parts of the story was that following the hostile takeover of Sparrow by BET and his own serious health problems, Gordon never gave up and went on to start not one but two successor crane hire businesses. A remarkable man indeed and may he rest in peace. Steve

Paul Brown
2. June 2016 22:10

My sincere and heartfelt condolences to Leigh and all the family.
A very sad day for everyone who knew Gordon.
Paul H. Brown
(ret. ex P&H/ex Tadano)

Steve Couling
2. June 2016 21:46

Hi Leigh & Leigh,
Very sad news. What a great man! Please pass on my best wishes and sympathy to Sheila.
See you both at Vertikal Days, Steve Couling

Glenn Churchill
2. June 2016 18:49

Leigh, both myself and my father Trevor pass to you our condolences during this time, hopefully all will in time heal your loss but your memories will never fail, keep the faith regards Glenn.

Denis James
2. June 2016 18:17

To Leigh and family. I can echo all of the comments in respect of your father's passing. I worked for Gordon from 1968 to 1972 at Doncaster Depot and I was proud to do so. The Brothers were the best crane men I have ever known but more importantly thoroughly decent and professional in everything they did. I will do my best to be at the funeral.

mark thurston
2. June 2016 16:43

Leigh: So sorry to hear this news. My thoughts and prayers are with you during this time of trial.

Sherm
2. June 2016 07:29

Leigh and family,
I express my deepest sorrow for your loss of Gordon. As I read his history and observed his smiles I noticed he was not smiling while hand cranking the truck crane to lift a dead cow.
Your essay about Finding a new leader rang familiar as I read about your family business. I wondered if your dad's illnesses and grave condition was part of the basis for the essay which definitely caught my attention. While succession planning is so important it is also very difficult to execute. GOrdon's life would make a valuable contribution to a revised book by Denis Ashworth if he were to consider writing in.

David Slack
1. June 2016 23:08

As a young nervous man I first met Gordon when I attended an interview to hopefully join G W Sparrow & Sons Ltd for the position as Hire Desk Controller at their new Manchester Depot. He was a gentleman and made me feel totally relaxed. This was my introduction to the Crane Hire Industry which I totally enjoyed. I learnt a lot from his company which always offered a first class service operating the latest crane models. I adopted the Sparrow family principles when I started my own company and enjoyed meeting up with Gordon on many occasions and learning a lot from him.
I have a lot to be grateful to him for accepting me into the Crane Hire Industry.
He will be greatly missed and my condolences to his family. A true gentleman.

Ray Ledger
1. June 2016 21:13

Dear Leigh
It is with great sadness that I have learned of your Dads passing.
Gordon was one of the cornerstones of the crane hire industry and above all a gentleman.
I got to know Gordon quite well in the 70's and early 80's when G W Sparrow was at its most successful and ahead of its time particularily in heavy cranes and offshore services.
It was was always an added challenge competing for major petro Chem projects and shutdowns when it became clear that I was competing directly with Gordon.
He was very capable, honest and a genuine competitor.
Rest in peace Gordon

Sincer condolences to Gordon's family.

Ray Ledger

Jonathan
1. June 2016 21:00

Sad to hear the news today about Gordon.
A true gentleman with a passion for people and business.I still carry some wise words till this day which he gave me. An end to an era. Thoughts are with Tim and family




Neil Coles
1. June 2016 15:13

Such sad news, today the crane hire industry has lost one of its founders and forefathers. My deepest sympathy and thoughts are with Gordon’s family at this sad time. I was privileged to of met Gordon during my time while working for Sparrow Crane Hire, he was a true gentleman who was inspirational with a wealth of knowledge and was respected worldwide throughout the crane and lifting industry and will never be forgotten.
Rest in Peace, God bless his family, friends and all those that knew him.

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