Ben Hopkinson on instruction manuals - Slightly Foxed Issue 26

Always Carry a Spare, Good Plug

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Instruction manuals as literature? Surely not; they belong to the category of things that drive people to extremes of fury and madness. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make follow the instructions. Slightly foxed? No, utterly befuddled. Yet there is one set of Operating Instructions that I would like to put forward as literature of a very high quality – clear, sharp, understandable, interesting and very funny.

The British Seagull, The Best Outboard Motor for the World (note the unexpected preposition, immediately pulling the reader in), was originally developed in Bristol in the early 1930s but from 1938 found its long-lasting home in Poole. The company was given a big boost by the Admiralty in the Second World War, when it answered the need for a very simple engine that could run for twenty-four hours at a stretch, and be used on assault craft.

The twenty-five years after the war were the high point of production, and Seagulls were used by a huge number of boat-owners of all sorts and conditions. I first came across them when my grandfather bought one for his boat on Lake Windermere in the late 1940s, and the distinctively shaped engines of this era may still be seen in small harbours and inland lochs all round the country. My neighbour, a fine and adventurous yachtsman, has one for his dinghy that is at least thirty years old and still runs reliably. Production continued until the mid-1990s when the Seagull was gradually overtaken by flashier types from overseas, just as the days of beautiful cars have given way to a world where one make is almost indistinguishable from another. However, I am delighted to find that the name is not dead and is now owned by a firm in Moulsford, on the Thames, which makes and sells spare parts for the Seagull.


The world of engine owners is divided into two classes . . . the vast major

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About the contributor

Ben Hopkinson lives in retirement in Northumberland. He wishes to acknowledge with many thanks the help he has received in preparing this article from British Seagull Ltd., Moulsford, and from Henry Pottle, who lent him his copy of the Instructions.

Operating Instructions for Models 40 & 100 (14th edition, c. 1960), published by The British Seagull Co. Ltd., is, of course, no longer in print, but there must be many stored by boat-owners all over the world. I will happily send a photocopy to anyone who wants one. Manuals for later models are available from British Seagull, Moulsford, Oxfordshire, OX10 9HU, tel: +44 (0)1491 652 755. I am told that they are more p.c. than the earlier ones but still have the same sort of bite.

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