On My Doorstep (20)

I am always interested in tracking down famous people whose earthly remains lie in the graveyard of my local church, St Peter’s, in Frimley Green. Lucean Arthur Headen certainly fits the bill, an African American inventor and engineer who spent the latter part of his life in the area.

Born to former slaves in Carthage, North Carolina, in 1879, he learnt to fly in 1911, one of the first African Americans to do so. Part of the reason he was keen to earn his wings was to more easily test an aeronautical stabiliser he had developed. During the First World War Lucean demonstrated to the American and British navies a form of optical camouflage which allowed spotter planes on the hunt for German U-boats to evade detection.

By the 1920s he had turned his hand to designing and building sports cars, his factory in Chicago producing the “Headen Pace Setter”, “the Headen Six”, and by the middle of the decade the “Headen Special”. Not only did Lucean make cars but he also raced them, forming the first national African American car racing association.

What sparked Lucean’s move to Blighty was his battle with racial prejudice and segregation in his homeland which, he believed, frustrated his attempts to capitalise on his inventions. With Henry Petit, a fellow inventor but, importantly, a white man, he had developed and patented in 1930 the Headen-Petit spark ignition system which allowed vehicles designed to run on petrol to make use of the plentiful supplies of cheap, crude oil. Lucean had also that year been granted a patent, this time without having to share it with anyone, for a device which turned thick, crude oil into a dry, fine vapour, thus improving its combustibility. But he found attracting investment and sales difficult.

Lucean took the momentous step to board the S.S Majestic in May 1931 to sail to Britain, ostensibly to demonstrate his invention to the Royal Automobile Club. Finding that England was more amenable to a man of his talents, he never returned. What was America’s loss was Britain’s gain. By the time of his death in 1957, Lucean had received eleven patents for his inventions, some relating to ways of improving the way vehicles burnt crude oil, but others included a replaceable plough tip which tripled the life of a plough, raingear for cyclists, and, in 1939, an apparatus for de-icing aircraft propellers.

Lucean established his first company with George Hamilton, Headen Hamilton Engineering Ltd, and opened his first factory just off Victoria Avenue in Camberley, producing an engine converter kit which allowed petrol engines to run on vapourising oil. By 1934 he had changed business partners, teaming up with James Keil to form Headen Keil Engineering Ltd which produced gaskets and carburettors. By 1937 Lucean was regarded as one of the leading lights in the development of Camberley as an industrial centre.

The outbreak of the Second World War brought with it petrol rationing and Lucean’s convertor kit became increasingly more sought after, as it allowed farmers to continue to use their farm machinery, particularly their tractors, without diminishing the military’s supply of precious petrol. His invention made a significant contribution in allowing the vital production of domestic foodstuffs to continue unabated.

Despite never relinquishing his American citizenship, Lucean answered the King’s call by joining the Camberley regiment of the Surrey Home Guard’s 1st Battalion in September 1940, one of the few Americans to do so. Once the war ended, he married a local girl from Frimley Green, Gladys Hollamby, and moved to the village, settling at 153, Worsley Road and later adopting a child, whom they named Lucean Arthur Headen Jr. Lucean Senior suffered a heart attack, dying on September 17, 1957 and was buried seven days later.

Although a lifelong Methodist, he was buried in the graveyard of St Peter’s church, later to be joined by Gladys. The photographs are of his grave which I tracked down and visited when I was putting this article together.

To find out more about Lucean, follow the link

I am grateful to Penny Drage for setting me on Lucean’s trail.        

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