The Society has been deeply saddened by the death of Chris Lester on 14 August following a long period of illness. Chris was a man with a passion for industrial archaeology and involved with our Society in many ways and on several levels for a remarkable 50 years.
Lincolnshire was his adopted county. Born in Liverpool, his early years were spent in South America where his father was working, firstly in Peru and then Argentina. He came back to an English boarding school and eventually determined on a career as a Chartered Engineer working in the microwave electronics industry. Employed initially in Chelmsford, he came to Lincoln to work for GEC in 1971. That was when he joined the Society and he remained a member despite a short period working in Devon, after which he returned to Lincoln.
In 1972 he became a member of what was then the Lincolnshire Industrial Archaeology Group and he remained a member of the IA Team until his death. During that time he served for a period as the Chairman and throughout he played a very full and active role.
At the same time he joined a WEA class on Industrial history led by Dr Michael Lewis of Hull University. This met regularly in Lincoln and, after Michael retired in and the course closed in 2000, Chris organized an annual reunion in Barton on Humber where friends from Michael’s Lincoln course met their Hull counterparts for a stimulating lecture by their former tutor. The last of these was in 2018.
Chris was a very strong team player. Not a man to seek the limelight he was a strong believer in the right person for the right job. He would lead our work where it was appropriate or take an enthusiastic back seat where it was not. But in either role he was equally sound. If you needed someone to organize a survey, a visit or a conference, he was the man. He was equally at home with research and was prepared to travel anywhere to accomplish this. He was also keen to support other Team members in their activities and would usually be there in the room to listen to a talk or out in town or country for a guided visit.
One of Chris’s specialisms in survey work was going into holes in the ground, however dark. Nothing put him off. If it involved baling out a flooded underground chamber, he would be at the bottom passing the bucket up. On one memorable occasion he was crawling through a very restricted and dark cable-tunnel to get inside a building to open it up when he came across a very dead fox – but he carried on.
He was also always keen to ensure that once survey work was completed the results were published. He was rarely named as the author but, credited or not, his influence was always behind it somewhere. Much more high profile will be the book on the Industrial Archaeology of Stamford. This was largely researched and drafted by Neville Birch before his sad death in 2018 but it needed some comprehensive editing which Chris took on with his usual commitment, completing it recently and working on it throughout his illness whenever he was able. Publication will follow later this year.
He was not just an ideas man. He could be practical as well, demonstrated by his restoration of a waterwheel at his Branston home, a wheel which was a critical component of the Victorian water supply to Branston Hall.
And what a breadth of subjects he was interested in: brewing and malting; bricks and brickmaking; canals and waterways; Cold War technology; country house water supply; farming history; gas works; iron and steel; land drainage; mechanical engineering; mills, wind and water; mining and quarrying; and roads and railways; in short, almost everything industrial.
It was not just through the IA Team that Chris contributed to the Society. He was on the Executive Committee for many years. He was also a Trustee and from 2013 contributed a great deal to put the Society on a sound footing and bring in the new constitution to ensure our future. He was the Society’s unofficial IT expert, though latterly he kept saying that he was not up to date with the latest developments. Nevertheless, he knew more about computers than most people in the Society and spent many hours setting up new software and machinery in the SLHA office and sorting IT problems. He also made a major contribution to the development of our website. When the Society took on the management of Bardney Abbey site, he also became a member of the Property Team. He was also a keen supporter of the Sleaford History Group.
Many of these contributions were in management, administration and technology. While they are not such high profile or as interesting perhaps as doing a survey down a hole on a wet day, he brought the same enthusiasm and support to the roles. He would draft a Health and Safety policy or analyse a legal document, for example, with the same dedication to detail. And once he said he would do something he did it. You never had to chase him up.
For 22 years Chris represented the Society on Heritage Lincolnshire’s Heritage Open Days Steering Group. He played a key role in determining the annual theme and then encouraging specific organizations, groups and private owners to organize their events. Each year there was also a booklet on the Open Days theme to leave a legacy and for two of those years he was the joint editor: in 2001 with Paula Judson for Twentieth Century – What Heritage and in 2005, with Jean Howard, Lincolnshire on the Move.
His other interests outside the Society were also significant. The Welsh slate survey work was organised originally by Michael Lewis in 1971 and from 1975 Chris went on the annual week-long summer surveys for over 40 years. After Michael Lewis retired, Dafydd Gwyn took on the role and it was he who wrote the report that led to the Welsh Slate Industry being added recently to the World Heritage Site list. If it hadn't been for this 50-year survey the World Heritage award may well not have happened. Chris was in at the beginning and stayed through to the end.
Chris had been involved with the Dogdyke land drainage pumping station since the mid-1970s. First providing occasional help, especially on the engines’ open days, later he worked tirelessly to establish the Trust as a Charitable Company in 2009 and became the Company Secretary. He continued working with the Charity Commissioners resulting in the Trust being awarded full Charitable Status in 2018. A Committee of Trustees was formed to oversee the overall running of the Trust. Chris became the Chairman of the Trustees and held this post until April 2021.
The Grimsby Ice Factory Trust was formed in 2010 to secure the future of the Ice Factory which the Victorian Society considered to be one of the ten most endangered important buildings in England. This became another project dear to Chris; he joined the campaign, became a Trustee in 2017, and gave over 50 talks to local organisations to raise its profile.
I asked his Society friends and colleagues for their thoughts about Chris. Energetic; friendly; committed; supportive; stalwart; tenacious; energetic; enthusiastic; knowledgeable; encouraging; a lovely man; indispensable; determined. These were some of the adjectives used.
So his legacy for us is all around. It is in our activities and publications over the last 50 years as well as in our sound organization and management into the future. On the wider level he had the satisfaction of hearing only recently about the success of the Welsh slate World Heritage status, and also that the Grimsby Ice Factory has been bought by a local businessman, a move that does appear to be a new and positive start for the building.
Chris Lester was truly a remarkable man who will be missed by us all.