Whappet - the car driving German Shepherd from Windermere

Whappet in the driving seat

Whappet in the driving seat - Credit: Archant

Emily Rothery meets a remarkable man who has owned some equally remarkable dogs

Passengers and Whappet enjoying a cruise

Passengers and Whappet enjoying a cruise - Credit: Archant

Roger Mallinson is a softly spoken Lake District gentleman and an accomplished engineer who has restored and built steam engines for people all over the world. But whatever the project, you can guarantee there will be a dog by his side.

Whappet in waterproof

Whappet in waterproof - Credit: Archant

I am introduced to Roger’s four-month-old pup at his tiny Windermere cottage. She is his third German Shepherd called Whappet, a name which started off as Puppy and went to Whuppy, Whoppy and, finally, morphed into Whappet.

‘I lost my old dog in November,’ he tells me. ‘The new pup is shaping up but is going through the terrible toddler stage. The previous Whappet was a remarkable dog. She was so trustworthy and quick to learn and loved anything to do with steam.’

Whappet No 2 was well known for accompanying Roger on trips in what remains his only means of road transport, a 1931 Austin Seven, bought for £25 in 1958.

Over the years, Roger’s work has taken him all over the country with Whappet sitting sedately in the passenger seat, wearing her distinctive orange waterproof should the weather take a turn for the worse. ‘People would often photograph her or simply stop and stare,’ chuckles Roger.

And then, I think I have misheard as Roger tells me that Whappet No 2 also used to drive the car. It transpires she had learned under Roger’s commands of ‘this way’ and ‘that way’ to steer the car slowly around a circuit at the annual Austin Seven rally in Scotland. Roger would engage the hand throttle, Whappet would place her front paws through the steering wheel and off they went to the delight of the crowd.

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This remarkable man recently received a lifetime achievement award from Prince Michael of Kent on behalf The Transport Trust for services to the restoration of steamboats, notably the 1906 SL Shamrock.

The Trust celebrates restoration excellence and commitment to the preservation of our unique transport heritage and Roger’s talents were rightly recognised. ‘I couldn’t believe it when I heard the news. It’s such an honour.’

Roger had pre-arranged to take Whappet along but when they arrived at the Brooklands Heritage Site in Surrey an over-zealous official refused to allow the dog past the gate. Roger refused to budge and a queue built until the pair were admitted.

‘Soon afterwards Prince Michael arrived, in goggles and helmet and driving a 1925 Bentley at great speed,’ says Roger. ‘He made a great fuss of Whappet and later proclaimed that she could have the freedom of the site including the members’ clubhouse.’

Roger duly received his award, spent time chatting with the Prince and fellow enthusiasts and then, on returning home, was delighted to receive a letter stating that Whappet had also been awarded her own lifetime achievement badge and was declared star of the show.

The Shamrock, built at Bowness in 1906 for wealthy Manchester cotton baron, William Birtwistle, was in a terrible state and about to be placed on a bonfire when Roger rescued it in 1976. He lovingly restored her and then launched her three years later.

Many people, on occasions dressed in Victorian costume, have enjoyed the privilege of sailing on the graceful craft on Windermere. Lancashire’s Fred Dibnah, an old friend, sailed with Roger and Whappet on his last visit to the Lake District.

Roger, now in his eighth decade, is also involved in The Windermere Steamboat Museum project as a valued volunteer. Whappet No 2 is much missed there. One friend wrote: ‘I feel privileged to have spent time with her. One of my special memories is being allowed to drive your car with her beside me. She remained as calm and elegant a lady as ever, but I felt sure she would place a paw on the steering wheel if anything went wrong. She was so gentle and brought so much happiness.’

The gentle dog’s love of steam also included trains. ‘If there was a carriage empty she would just jump in, but only if it was steam. She never took to electric but went on footplate rides on Furness Railway, never flinching.’

Roger’s cottage is crammed with photographs and paintings, heritage memorabilia and magazines, cuckoo clocks and a chiming grandmother clock. In one corner sits the biggest gramophone trumpet speaker that I have ever seen, made by his late identical twin brother Miles, and against one wall there is a magnificent organ, complete with pipes and reeds.

‘I wanted to teach myself to play but I couldn’t find an organ to fit into my small house so I built one.’ Roger believes that his cat, Mr Moses, taught him to play the organ. It used to sit on his knee and swipe him every time he hit a wrong note.

It now falls to little Whappet No 3 to accompany Roger on adventures. The pup is already an old hand when it comes to travelling in the Austin Seven and has had her first successful sailing on Shamrock. Only time will tell if she is up to passing her driving test.

Find out more about the Shamrock at www.theshamrocktrust.org.uk and details about the steamboat museum are at www.steamboats.org.uk

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