THE resurgence of interest in the Isle of Wight's Black Arrow rocket programme gives an opportunity to recognise the genius of inventor Paul Henry Leyton.

Paul was born in Leeds in 1914. As a small boy, his family moved to Ventnor. A neighbour was Nancy Crinage who became his wife in 1939.

Scroll through the gallery of pictures above to see more images of Paul, Nancy and the rocket programme...

Just before marriage, Nancy carved her own niche in Isle of Wight history when she became the first Island women to gain a flying licence.

Isle of Wight County Press:

Nancy Crinage as a pilot in 1939. Photo: Julian Leyton.

Leyton joined Austin Motors in 1931 as an apprentice. During the Second World War he served in the RAF and Royal Navy Air Branch, a Commander distinguished with a DSC.

In 1948, he bought a double-decker bus and converted it into a mobile home where they lived for five years with their sons. He equipped it with an Aga for cooking, heating and hot water, unconventional enough to feature in the Picture Post.

His wartime experience led to positions with engineering companies. In 1956, Saunders Roe recruited Leyton for the Black Knight project as chief rocket development engineer - Britain’s first rocket programme.

As well as the design and build of the launcher, Paul planned and implemented the building of the testing station at the Needles headland. This was a mammoth earth-moving task. Lorry-loads of chalk removal from the cliff edge kept many men employed in the remodelling of the cliff face.

Test firings of Black Knight led to modifications until the design was perfected. The next stage was to relocate to Australia.

Isle of Wight County Press:

Black Knight is pictured here arriving for testing at the Needles. Photo: John Bennett/Image Films.

The rocket was transported by aircraft which departed from Bembridge and these photos of the Needles rocket programme are from Image Films.

At Woomera, Australia, Black Arrow captured British headlines in 1958. It was hailed as a huge success, not least because it was done on a budget of only £5 million. It was the first rocket of any nation to operate successfully on its first launch.

Leyton wanted to press ahead and held realistic ambitions for a British orbital rocket. The government was less eager to continue. Frustrated by politicians, Paul resigned in 1959.

Saunders Roe and Britain’s space industry lost a man who was once described as, “one of those rare, remarkable Englishmen who are slightly eccentric without realising it and who have a versatility close to genius.”

Watch: October saw the 50th anniversary of the Black Arrow R3 rocket, with an event at Sandown Airport.

Paul joined Black & Decker power tools company as engineering director.

Typical of his restless nature, in 1961 he took a complete change of direction when he and Nancy bought a run-down country pub restaurant in Somerset.

With no catering experience, the couple soon turned around the Miners Arms. It was voted one of the most interesting restaurants and featured in the Good Food Guide and Egon Ronay Guide.

Leyton turned gastronomic heads with his creation of a snail sauce, unheard of in Britain at the time. Stretching credulity, he used his engineering brain to design an electric fence to keep 100,000 snails in a disused swimming pool — his snail farm.

Then he introduced the freezing of prepared snails and other complete dishes. This led to considerable debate. Egon Ronay wrote to The Times to express his doubt although he acknowledged that, “Mr. Leyton is a unique exception because of his scientific background and his individual perfectionist attention to the process of cooking and freezing,”

Next Paul developed an insulated container to keep food frozen for days. Then he patented the Leyton Tempstick. It indicated if food ever exceeded a safe temperature. The two inventions allowed him an early entry into the food mail-order business.

In 1973 Paul started to brew his own ale and the Miners Arms became the smallest licensed brewery in the UK. The pub’s growing reputation drew a glittering clientele including Egon Ronay, Delia Smith, Terry Wogan, Kate Adie, Malcolm MacDowell, Anthony Hopkins and Marquess of Bath.

Leyton appeared on radio as a snail expert, including a BBC broadcast about him, ‘A Man of Independent Mind.’

He sold up, age 63, and returned to the Island a year later. Leyton’s adventure was not over yet. He bought a cottage overlooking the Channel. It had no mains water, electricity, gas or drainage. The rocket genius designed and built a series of windmills to recharge a bank of batteries that provided the only means of power in the house.

A local councillor for some years, Paul spent much time studying, analysing and reporting on the rapid erosion of areas of the Island’s south-west coast.

With a lifelong passion for writing poetry and piano music, his “Lion Song,” written for the Marquess of Bath, is stored in the Old Library at Longleat. Leyton also helped in the initial design of fencing at Longleat when the lions first arrived.

In 1990, Nancy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. They sold their cottage and returned to Ventnor where they had first met 70 years earlier. Nancy passed away in 1993. Paul died five years later.

Leyton’s name should surely rank alongside eminent Isle of Wight scientists Milne, Hooke and Harcourt. Click here to read more about Paul Leyton and Nancy Crinage.

Click here to read more about the cine film of the rocket test site, as featured on the Yesterday's Island DVD, from the Isle of Wight Film Archive at Image Films. 

Did you work on the Black Knight or Black Arrow projects? If so, we would love to hear from you! Simply click on the submissions box below to send us more details and pictures.