Af­ter 35 years of run­ning Marine En­gine Ser­vices, Peter Thomp­son is down­siz­ing and trans­fer­ring it to new own­ers – but we haven’t seen the last of the Lis­ter ex­pert yet...


Al­though Peter Thomp­son is down­siz­ing, we haven’t seen the last of the Lis­ter ex­pert yet

With sto­ries cir­cu­lat­ing that Peter Thomp­son, the founder and pro­pri­etor of Marine En­gine Ser­vices, had re­cently sold the com­pany, ru­mours of its demise have been a lit­tle ex­ag­ger­ated: and we haven’t seen the last of ‘Mr Lis­ter’ just yet…

Given his knowl­edge of Lis­ter diesel en­gines, it might come as a sur­prise that he never ac­tu­ally worked for Lis­ter. In fact, Peter served an elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing ap­pren­tice­ship at GEC be­fore de­cid­ing that his ex­pe­ri­ence in the var­i­ous de­part­ments and ma­chine shops was ac­tu­ally “an ideal ba­sis for run­ning my own busi­ness”. His hob­bies in­volved any­thing me­chan­i­cal (es­pe­cially old cars and par­tic­u­larly Mor­gans), and he was mov­ing onto a boat: could he com­bine his in­ter­ests to make a liv­ing on the in­land wa­ter­ways?

A good friend from his Mor­gan club helped him get set up. This be­ing the early 1970s, there were really only two makes of en­gine be­ing put in nar­row­boats – BMC or Lis­ter – and his friend was a Lis­ter ser­vice en­gi­neer (“prob­a­bly the best they ever had”), so no prizes for guess­ing which make of en­gine he spe­cialised in. There were cus­tomers with ex-work­ing boats fit­ted with JP en­gines; while on the in­creas­ing num­bers of pur­pose-built boats, the ST was tak­ing over from the SR en­gine.

A lot of the work was in­stalling new en­gines, but there was also ser­vic­ing and on-site re­pair work – and with a move into en­gine re­build­ing, Peter needed some premises – ini­tially a “large site hut” at Bulls Bridge Junc­tion (where the Grand Union Padding­ton Arm branches off) which he and his part­ners de­vel­oped into a work­shop.

In an im­por­tant step for­ward in the late 1970s, the com­pany got the con­tract

for win­ter en­gine main­te­nance of ma­jor hire­boat op­er­a­tor Black’s Prince fleet. Peter re­calls that they stripped and re­built all the en­gines over two or three win­ters: their pre­ven­ta­tive main­te­nance “re­duced call-outs to vir­tu­ally zero”.

Cu­ri­ously it was only in 1980 that the name “Marine En­gine Ser­vices” was ac­tu­ally reg­is­tered as a com­pany – up un­til then it was “sim­ply what we did” – and what Peter hap­pened to have painted on his boat cabin side. In fact, MES Ltd was ini­tially an arm of the op­er­a­tion run as a deal­er­ship sell­ing 40-50 en­gines a year (and come the late 1980s, this meant the new Al­pha range), while the re­build­ing, ser­vic­ing and parts op­er­a­tion – by now run from larger premises by Uxbridge Wharf – was kept sep­a­rate.

It wasn’t all about Lis­ters for canal boats – there were some in­ter­est­ing other ven­tures too, in­clud­ing:

Im­port­ing a batch of Riga en­gines from Latvia, along with a load of spares, which were hardly used, be­cause the en­gines never broke down!

Re­fit­ting the lifeboats of the QE2 with Lis­ter TR se­ries en­gines.

Ex­port­ing en­gines for fish­ing boats on Lake Malawi.

The turn of the cen­tury saw MES Ltd (which by now in­cluded the whole op­er­a­tion) move to its cur­rent premises in a new fac­tory unit in Uxbridge. It also saw the com­pany grad­u­ally con­cen­trat­ing more on what Peter calls “keep­ing the en­gines run­ning”. As far as new en­gines were con­cerned, MEL worked with Lis­ter Pet­ter on marin­is­ing en­gines, re­vamp­ing electrics, de­sign­ing mount­ings, and pro­duc­ing tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion.

But while the TR and Al­pha are still be­ing pro­duced, there are a lot of other man­u­fac­tur­ers and marinis­ers of mainly oriental en­gines to com­pete with th­ese days – and Lis­ter Pet­ter went through some com­plex re­struc­tur­ings and down­siz­ings over the years which Peter feels didn’t help mat­ters. In the mean­time, how­ever, the spares busi­ness grew and de­vel­oped to in­clude making new parts for ob­so­lete en­gines when the orig­i­nal spares were no longer avail­able.

And with more than 35 years of work­ing with Lis­ters, Peter con­tin­ued to de­velop an en­vi­able rep­u­ta­tion as ‘Mr Lis­ter’. But at the same time, he also started to get slightly fed up of spend­ing so much of his work­ing day in the of­fice, an­swer­ing the phone or wrap­ping up and mail­ing out spares – not to men­tion be­gin­ning to think about re­tir­ing.

What it needed was “a dy­namic per­son” to take some of it on. So in mid-2015, Peter en­tered into an agree­ment with a new com­pany Marine En­gine Ser­vices (Mid­lands) Ltd, set up as a sub­sidiary of Richard and Sue Pow­ell’s com­pany Prim­rose Engi­neer­ing, spe­cial­ists in ser­vic­ing and restora­tion of his­toric ma­chin­ery – in­clud­ing nar­row­boat en­gines and gear­boxes.

The whole Lis­ter Pet­ter spares and ser­vice op­er­a­tion has, there­fore, been passed to MES (Mid­lands); while other parts of the com­pany have also been trans­ferred else­where – an Isuzu / Canaline deal­er­ship and Canalube lu­bri­cants sales have gone to Uxbridge Boat Cen­tre. So what does that leave? Ba­si­cally it leaves Peter free to an­swer tech­ni­cal queries, pro­vide tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance and help to push peo­ple with prob­lems in the right di­rec­tion to­wards get­ting them fixed.

He also still does some of the orig­i­nal elec­tri­cal work that he trained for back in his ap­pren­tice­ship, work­ing on ca­ble looms and pan­els for the cur­rent range of Lis­ters, but ba­si­cally he’s on the phone to pro­vide tech­ni­cal con­sul­tancy on any­thing to do with Lis­ter Pet­ter en­gines.

In other words, to still be Mr Lis­ter.

‘His hob­bies in­volved any­thing me­chan­i­cal - and he was mov­ing onto a boat. Could he com­bine his in­ter­ests?’

Peter Thomp­son (right) and the team at Crick Show

On show: Lis­ter Al­pha at Crick

At the tiller of his boat

Still in pro­duc­tion: the Lis­ter TR se­ries

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