'We were the pioneers' - former chief engineer shares memories of Felixstowe port's expansion

John Northfield, 94, is former chief engineer of the Port of Felixstowe

John Northfield, 94, is former chief engineer of the Port of Felixstowe - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown/Archant

The Port of Felixstowe's huge expansion over the years has been amazing - and much of it was down to former chief engineer John Northfield.

Now 94, the great-grandfather vividly remembers his years at the port, from the 1960s to the 1980s, and has closely watched its further expansion since he retired.

"The port has grown so much. It's about four times as big now as it was when I started," he said. 

John Northfield, 94, looking at a book about the Port of Felixstowe, where he was chief engineer  

John Northfield, 94, looking at a book about the Port of Felixstowe, where he was chief engineer - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown/Archant

John, who lives on the outskirts of Ipswich, paid a visit for his 90th birthday in 2017 and was given a special tour.

"It was very different from when I was there. About half the port has been built since I retired," he said.

Our recent nostalgia feature with aerial photos of the port brought back memories for him.

Looking back at his days there, he said: "At Felixstowe, we were the pioneers. The whole world was beating a path to our door to see how we did things." 

A former pupil at Ipswich School, John was called up just a month after the end of the Second World War and served in the RAF, working on high-performance aero engines.

Felixstowe Port from the air in May 1972. The town is in the top left of the photograph.

Felixstowe Port from the air in May 1972. The town is in the top left of the photograph. - Credit: Archant

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He started his service halfway through doing the higher school certificate, equivalent to A-levels, and had to complete his course after returning to school, before studying civil engineering at Battersea Polytechnic.

John then worked for Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners, the Ipswich Dock Commission, Shell-Mex and BP, before being head-hunted to join the then Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company.

The size of vessels using the port is one of the things which has changed the most over the years.

John remembers how in 1967 the port welcomed its first-ever transatlantic container ship, Container Forwarder, with a capacity of just 738 20ft containers.

John Northfield, 94, former chief engineer of the Port of Felixstowe

John Northfield, 94, former chief engineer of the Port of Felixstowe - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown/Archant

He also said the first ship to berth alongside the quay was a commercial bulk carrier with a capacity of about 3,000 of the same-size containers.

Those ships were far smaller than recent arrivals such as Ever Ace, currently the largest container ship in the world, which has a capacity of nearly 24,000 20ft containers.

However, handling those early arrivals was a challenge. "We had to dismantle a 50-tonne Titan hammerhead crane that the RAF had built for lifting flying boats and air-sea rescue launches," he recalled, adding that he remembers seeing the flying boats in Felixstowe as a boy.

During his time at Felixstowe, John was responsible for all the equipment at the port, from provision and maintenance of deep-water berths and quays to roll-on roll-off bridges, cranes, mechanical and electrical plant and much more. 

Felixstowe Dock from the air in July 1967.

Felixstowe Dock from the air in July 1967, the year after John Northfield joined the port as chief engineer. Many of the buildings used by RAF Felixstowe, which had closed a few years earlier, were then still in use by the port. - Credit: Archant

The tonnage handled by the port grew from 840,000 tonnes in 1966 to around 10 million tonnes in 1986.

A huge range of cargoes arrived over the years. One of the most unusual, though, was one of the American space capsules.

It had been on exhibition in Germany and travelled through Felixstowe before going back to the US. "It was amazing to see how small it was," he recalled.

An aerial view of Felixstowe docks in 2002

An aerial view of Felixstowe docks in 2002 - Credit: Archant

After 18 years as chief engineer, in 1984 John became engineering and technical services director with Port of Felixstowe International Ltd, which involved work on overseas consultancy projects.

Then, after retiring from that role in 1989, he became a port and harbours consultant. As well as continuing to work with the Port of Felixstowe, he carried out many more overseas projects, travelling around the world.

"I've been to 38 countries and flown in 58 types of aircraft," he said.

His consultancy advised on the layout and construction of the Port of Fujairah in UAE, and he has also worked on projects in other countries including Canada, China, India, Malaysia, Japan, Thailand, Kenya and many more.

 He has also worked with the World Bank and as an expert witness.

John said one of the best places he had visited had to be Hawaii. "Not many people get the chance to go there."

He added: "China was most interesting." Shanghai's skyline has changed completely since he visited, as most of the tall buildings have only been built since then. 

Since retirement, he has has spent more time on his hobby of woodworking, building furniture such as cabinets and clock cases. 








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