Peter Hutchinson by Brian Jones
Peter Hutchinson, a long-time benefactor of Gamlingay, was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2007 for services to the building industry. He was a foundation Trustee of the Community Centre, a position he no longer holds owing to the change in status of the centre. However he has made an offer of £50,000 towards the improvement of the Centre.
Peter was born and bred in Potton, where his family has lived for generations. His father worked on the land and his maternal uncle was Fred Tear, who was a market gardener on a large scale. In his youth Peter was a newspaper boy for Charlie Careless and his association with Gamlingay started when was thirteen. He was promoted to go round the villages by car with George Randall to collect the paper money on Saturdays. To this day he can recall which houses in Gamlingay had the Daily Herald and which the News Chronicle.
He was one of the first Potton boys to pass an exam and win a place at Luton Tech on a building and engineering course. He recalled the fees were paid and he got a bus pass. Most boys left school at age fourteen. Peter stayed on at the Tech until fifteen. Peter’s next association with Gamlingay began when he biked with his Dad to the R & H Wale factory for an interview for the post of trainee manager. The interview with the managing director, Palmer Robinson, was successful and he was offered the post. The training was for four years, the first two spent on the shop floor. He worked under the legendary Joe Harris, a skilled carpenter and joiner.
Joe had just returned from National Service in Egypt. He was a good but tough teacher and had low tolerance levels for what he regarded as incompetence. On one occasion he was working on an oak door for the boss, and Peter rested his sweaty palm on the surface. Joe screamed abuse at him, chasing the unfortunate youth round the factory and hurling, with good effect, a piece of 4 x 2. Eric and Jock Giles also played a part in teaching Peter the skills and tricks of the trade. The three of them later went to work for Peter and played key roles in the development of the business. Peter had, and still has, a great deal of regard for the skills demonstrated by the craftsmen at R & H Wale. Bob Luff of West Road was particularly skilled. The likes of these tradesmen will not be seen again. Roy Titmus was a contemporary as an apprentice, learning the art and science involved in working with wood.
The general foreman was Fred Larkins. Peter recalls him with great affection and admiration. He was a kind man with great understanding, not only of his craft, but also of people. He saw great potential in Peter, and demonstrated techniques to him saying that he would probably never use them but it was important to know how to do them to keep the respect of the workers. Sadly Frank became ill and had to give up physical work and move into the drawing office.
After two years on the shop floor Peter did a year in the accounts office dealing with time sheets, estimates and invoices. At the end of this year he moved into the drawing office to work once more under Fred Larkins. He learnt how to design packaging for the complex items that were starting to produce the staple income for the firm.
National Service was still in operation and Peter, who had been deferred for a year to complete his training, at the age of nineteen was called up into the RAF. He did his basic training at Cardington and then moved to Compton Basset to be trained as a signaller. He enjoyed his National Service, playing a lot of sport, mainly football and cricket, and learned the complex art of tug-of-war.
Peter had been courting Rita for some years and during his final months in the RAF they married. Rita, on marriage, gave up her well-paid job as a senior machinist at Kayser Bondor, where she was earning £14 a week. On demob Peter returned to the drawing office earning £8. 10 shillings per week.
R & H Wale was changing. Packaging had become the core of the business and more sophisticated design and production solutions were required. Under the tutelage of Fred Larkins Peter helped to develop packaging for such diverse items as cranes, aircraft wings and delicate electronic equipment. He believes that it was at this stage that he acquired the skills and knowledge that were to stand him in such good stead later in his professional life.
He was soon promoted to be a junior manager. He took charge of a section of some twelve women, most of whom had been with the firm for some time and were highly experienced. His section included Glad Sharp (nee Herbert) and Greta Knight (nee Hutchinson). He recalls that his initial few weeks were unnerving! He continued to be promoted within the organisation, becoming successively assistant manager to Frank Luck the factory manager and eventually assistant to Palmer Robinson the MD.
However, he had always wanted to go into business on his own account. He chatted to Tom Kitchener who owned the old Foundry in Potton, who agreed to lease him a 30 sq.ft. shed with an earth floor. Peter had met Tony Goodman, who had a relatively senior position with Montague Mayer, a timber firm, and Peter explained his plans to Tony. Peter was amazed when Tony immediately said he would join him in business and resigned his well-paid position.
In l963 Potton Timber Engineering was born. Initially they made pallets for the building industry. There were technological changes going on in both agriculture and building. Component handling had changed with the advent of the forklift truck and the partners spotted the need for better handling and capitalised on this. The firm started to prosper. The delayed post-war housing boom had started, and the Government was determined to build council housing on a large scale. The partners realised that timber frame buildings would be ideal for mass housing. The firm acquired the by now disused station yards at both Potton and Gamlingay and large numbers of houses were factory built. The firm also built hotels for the Forté chain and for a relatively long period of time a new hotel was built in the factory every ten working days. A firm called Frame Form had a great deal of technical expertise in timber frame construction, and Peter used them as consultants for a while before buying them out.
Peter’s daughter Jill was about to get married and was looking for a house. She wanted a cottage but these were in relatively short supply and expensive. Peter became interested in old cottages and how they had been constructed, and along with his architect Clive Plumb visited a number. After a great deal of study they decided that the post and beam method of construction would be ideal for factory construction. Kits of cottages would be made in the factory and then sold retail to customers for self-build. The Heritage range went into production and still continues. It has been a great success. The method of designing is now much more sophisticated and is computerised
In l969 Peter designed his own home in West Road. This was built for him by Bill Swannell.
Now almost forty years later he is building a new single storey home off the Maltings and hopes to move in this later this year.
At the end of 2006 Peter sold his building business to the Irish firm Kingspan, who intend to rapidly expand it. Planning permission has been obtained for a new factory at the Old Mill site on Potton Road. Kingspan intend to use Potton as the engine room to drive the business forward.
Peter takes still takes an active part in the running of the main business at Wyboston Lakes. He is increasingly involved in administering the Hutchinson Family Charitable Trust, which has already produced many local benefits. He is continuing to look for worthwhile local community based projects to help.