Celebrating the life of Frank Thompson – a stylish legend in the machine tool industry

The death of a loved one is the single most difficult experience everyone goes through. Whether it has been anticipated or it came as a shocking surprise, it is truly unlike any other ordeal. Despite the pain, anger, guilt or depression we are overwhelmed with, funerals are aimed not at the loss but at the celebration of the departed’s life. It is a time for us to relive the joyful memories we have shared with our loved one. Moreover, it is a time for us to realise that life is short; that we need to make the most of our days and each waking moment.

Death is a solemn business and one shouldn’t mock what is, for most of us, so distressing that thinking straight is difficult. Choosing a song to play during a loved one’s funeral may also pose some challenges. There are indeed, a lot to choose from. Thankfully, there are popular songs that speak to us during these testing times, one of which is Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’.

Frank Thompson

The song has been named as one of the UK’s funeral favourites and it certainly brought a smile to the many family and friends that attended Frank Thompson’s memorial. It unquestionably set the tone and contributed to a happy occasion rather than a solemn one, a mood that I am sure Frank Thompson, a man with a beautiful Irish sense of humour would have approved of.

But it is unfair and an intrinsic paradox to say that the lyrics portrayed Frank’s life – we all love to do it our own way sometimes. The song has been described as being ‘a ditty of ineffable banality’, which Frank was not. He was rather a man who all his life looked outside of his circumstances and strived to improve and enhance not only his own life, but also those of his family and friends. As it was aptly summed up at his memorial: “Frank wasn’t the tallest man but he was a giant in all of our lives.” Those words captured everything that Frank was to so, so many people, be they family, friends or clients that he met through his career. His presence anywhere could not go unnoticed – his character filled the room.

Born Francis Cyril Thompson in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, on the 20th December 1937, Frank sadly succumbed to one of the dreaded diseases on the 18th July 2018. Frank was one of eight siblings – six brothers and two sisters.

Frank’s hard work ethic with strong ambitions began early in his life when he took to cycling at the age of 14. “Cycling was in my blood and all I wanted to do was race” Frank was quoted as saying. His love of cycling led to him winning a number of races in Ireland and culminated in him representing his country in the Route De France 1960, an eight day tour from La Rochelle to Pau in France. Unfortunately Frank did not finish the race as he had a bad accident due to a mechanical fault 18 miles from the finish. Even though he tried to finish he had to abandon the race because of his injuries, but by all accounts he was a threat to the leaders on all the other stages.

This was one of many accidents that Frank had during his cycling career. Always ambitious and wanting to win would lead to him breaking the same arm in three successive years from 1957. Never one to give up, despite having a plate and screws in his arm, Frank continued to race and win.

Frank Thompson with his two daughters Dorothy Thompson and Kelly McCullum

Frank’s cycling career continued when he moved to South Africa in 1962. However, it wasn’t as exciting for him as he did not have all his cycling buddies from Ireland to train with and had to do it alone. He did win a few races in South Africa before he decided to retire from competitive cycling at the age of 29. Frank then took a break from cycling for some years but he did rise to the challenge put forward by his younger brother Fred, and competed in the Cape Argus Cycle Tour in 1990 at the age of 52. This was his last competitive cycle race and he completed the 108kms in the admirable time of 3h35 with Fred beating him by five minutes, a feat that Frank would be reminded of often by Fred.

Prior to emigrating to South Africa Frank, Fred and two friends headed to London, a place of opportunity, to seek their fortune. At one point, Frank worked as a window washer and used to look in the windows, see the people inside the shops in their fancy suits, and apparently said to himself: “One day I want to be the person in a suit.” This ambition then led to him finding a position where he had to deliver the suits to customers.

This love affair with fine, gentlemen’s clothing would remain with Frank for the rest of his life and he would be recognised in the industry for being the best-dressed and most stylish machine tool salesman in South Africa.

Arriving in South Africa in 1962 with about £30 (Less than R60 at the time) in his pocket Frank had the intention of earning a fortune in the land where he believed the streets were paved with gold. He found a position as a toolmaker and married his first wife Merle in 1963. In between divorcing Merle and then remarrying her before divorcing for a second time, the couple had two children – Seamus and Kelly.

Frank would later remarry for a third time and had two more children – Michele and Dorothy. This would not be his last marriage though. His fourth marriage was to Lesley with whom he spent the last 30 years of his life.

Frank Thompson is pictured with family and friends that have been involved with him in the machine tool sales business. Back row: Anton Zackey (nephew), Bill Mallet (friend), Danny Thompson (nephew), John Thompson (brother), Frank Thompson; Front row: Patrick Zackey (brother-in-law), Philip Thompson (brother) and Fred Thompson (brother)

Once Frank had settled in South Africa he began to encourage his mother, siblings and friends to join him. Subsequently his brothers Fred, John and Philip and his sisters Isabelle and Shirley all settled and had families in South Africa.

1971 was an important year for Frank. In the short period that he had been in South Africa Frank had got to learn the machine tool trade and coupled with the fact that he was not one to work for a boss, Frank decided to open up a business with his brother Fred. Aptly named Thompson Machinery the brothers traded in buying and selling used machine tools and related equipment. Initially the primary focus of the business was on used machine tools but also on locally made Colchester lathes and sheetmetal machines. Capstan lathes were part of the mix as well.

Thompson Machinery, as the company was originally known subsequently changed its name to Thompson Machine Tools. As time moved on, additional companies focusing on the metalworking industry were started and eventually a holding company – Thompson Machine Tool Group – was formed.

Being part of a large family with a strong association, the brothers always included those close to them. As a 16-year-old apprentice brother Philip joined the company in 1972, and in 1980 sisters Isabelle and Shirley joined the company on the administration side.

The sisters are no longer part of the business with Isabelle having retired and Shirley having emigrated to the US. But still keeping it in the family, Philip’s wife Debbie joined the company as Administration Manager, taking over from Isabelle. Isabelle’s husband Patrick Zackey came on board when Interprovince Engineering Supplies was formed. Fred’s sons Ryan and Danny also worked for the company as did Isabelle’s son Anton, but all three are now living in Australia.

The fourth of the brothers, John, was also briefly a director of the company before he moved to Canada.

However, Frank decided in 1983 that he wanted to control his own destiny and established Harp Machine Tools with his son Seamus. The company initially traded in used machine tools and would later import their own range of new equipment.

Over the years the company has been very instrumental in upholding the standards of the members of the Used Machine Tool Merchants Association of South Africa (UMTMA), an association that Frank and his brother Fred were founding members of in 1980. Frank served as Chairman of the association and had been a long serving, active committee member until the association closed a few years back.

Frank’s daughters Kelly, Michele and Dorethy have all worked for Harp Machine Tools at some period and brother John has been with the company since 2001 when he returned from Canada. Son Seamus is the Managing Director of the company and his son Richard now works for Harp Machine Tools.

Horse racing and more particularly becoming a racehorse owner, was a big part of Frank’s life from 1975. He and his brother Fred, through their brother-in-law, Bill Leathem, became interested in racing. Not long after this they met trainer Roy Howe and started buying horses. Fred and Frank were loyal patrons of Howe’s from the mid-1970s until his death in 2001. With over 98 winners and 100 places, they have achieved some measure of achievement. Their first runner, Art Royal, won five times but the biggest thrill came with a horse called To & Fro, which won the Gilbeys Stakes and Merchants Handicap, both feature races in 1978. The gelding eventually registered 10 wins and eight places from 21 starts. Other good performers included Captain’s Jewel and Dr Lu, who each won six races. Frank was still a regular weekly race goer until he took ill – and among the best-dressed ones. Frank was also known for being very astute at betting and they say he was one of the few to beat the bookies at their own game.

Frank will also be remembered for his friendly, generous and accommodating disposition – traits that are reinforced by his family, friends, staff and clients.

“My dad has been an inspiration to all of us, he was successful at anything he put his mind to and everything he touched turned to gold. He always had a sympathetic ear and loads of good advice for us over the years through the trials and tribulations of our lives. He has guided us, and in some cases pushed us to achieve what he always knew we were capable of,” said daughter Kelly.

“He was like a father to me and always introduced me as his adopted daughter. He even bought me my first car,” said Heather McCamlie, who has worked for Harp Machine Tools for the last 23 years.

Often you would find Frank at other machine tool dealers. He was not there with any preconceived notion but rather just there for a cup of tea and a chat in his usual friendly way. You had to concentrate on what he was saying though, as despite having lived in South Africa for most of his life, he never lost his Irish accent. You knew he was visiting as his other passion in life was to own and drive a Jaguar and Frank’s Jaguar – that looked as though it had just left the showroom – was parked outside.

Another passion of Frank’s was golf and he spent many Friday afternoons on the course. Equally was his passion for dancing. But it was his suits and the way Frank dressed that grabbed your attention. It was more than him being stylish. They represented his successes. And there were many of those.