Donald F Rees (14th June 1918 to 18 April 2010)
A rare span of years indeed. From the end of World War I through World War II, moving from the glory of the British Empire to its steady, grinding dismemberment, moving from social stratification to a collecting house of its colonial components.
Britain had enjoyed industrial leadership with its abundance of fuel and cheap labour and its steady flow of innovative genius. To a high measure, its mastery of the seas had protected its markets. As the sun set on those halcyon days, the sun shone on my simple life.
Chapter 1 - 'Early Reflections'
I was born the youngest of three children of a Cockney father, William Frank (“Bill” or “WF”) Rees and a Scottish mother, Doris Lilian (“Dolly”), pictured here soon after their marriage in 1910.
My brother was William Ernest Lundie (born 28 October 1911) and my sister was Constance Ellen (born 15 March 1916) in Wales. Lundie was seven years my senior and we got to know each other better as time progressed.
Connie was only two and a half years older, so we were destined to share a great deal. We proved great chums, even as kids from the “Beetle Squasher” days through war-time experiences and then early days in Brighton.
Con was a lovely sister, a humourist, a superb dancer, a good golfer and I loved her. In the early days, of course, she had to shuttle between being a nurse to a snivelling younger brother and also a confederate in crime. She could be a bit of a cowgirl as well as a princess!
A series of interesting circumstances had taken my father from living in London to Gladsmuir, West Cross, Swansea, near the Mumbles seaside resort. When we left, I was still young but I remember much about it. It was constructed of reinforced concrete with pebbledash finish. It was a home without electricity or telephone, but a home with a railway that ran at the bottom of the garden. It was a child’s delight.
Here is an early picture of Bill and Dolly with a young Lundie.
The Mumbles Railway then ran from Mumbles Head to Swansea right along the seafront, pulled by an old Puffing Billy, an ancient steam engine, with three tram cars in tow going at the extraordinary speed of 15 miles an hour, slow enough for Lundie to jump on and ride it to school in Swansea. We children called it the Beetle Squasher, and the picture below shows Lundie (standing), me as a toddler and Connie with the Beetle Squasher in the background.
On the Brink of Crime
I learned from Lundie that the proportions of a halfpenny placed on the line might coincide with the proportions of a penny from the Mint. Crime entered the impeccable integrity of the family. In the resort town of Mumbles was a Nestlé chocolate dispensing machine where a penny would produce a delicious result.
The bonus was even greater when, in the heat of summer, two of the stacked chocolate bars might stick together and tumble out. So for ½ d, one might get the jackpot of four chocolate bars which did happen once!
There was a sweet shop in West Cross through which one passed to a staircase leading to a large kindergarten school room. I remember colouring with crayons here and also remember the thrill of having a penny to buy four liquorice shoe laces from the shop. For this treat, however, it was imperative to have a real penny!
Mumbles also sported a hairdressing salon to which my mother and I would travel by bus. The journey was enjoyable, but fear and anticipation swept over me at the thought of the actual hair cut which I deplored.
Beyond the railway was the sea. A short distance out to sea tall wooden posts with fish nets stretched from post to post for hundreds of yards. As the tides changed, fish were caught in these nets and fishermen would go by in their horse drawn carts picking the fish off the nets. They used to leave the little ones on the nets as they weren’t worth taking. We, however, liked them and we would follow the fishermen and pick these little ones from the nets and take them home to Mummy for tea – a memorable tea. We were covered with mud and welcomed with a cold hose pipe shower to wash the mud off and, in my memory still, a strawberry jam sandwich.
Lundie saved my life when I was a little boy. When we went to a favourite rocky beach, I was too young to know the dangers of the sea. Whilst climbing on the nearby rocks where the waves were surging through those rocks, I slipped into a whirling tide of danger. Without hesitation, Lundie, who was already a very strong swimmer, dived in and rescued me. Had he not, I am quite sure I would have drowned as it was savage and difficult for anyone to swim in it. Bless his heart for that.
My most lasting memory of Gladsmuir was the staircase on which I fell and cut open my top gum. It was long before antibiotics, and the wound became infected with the result that I lost all my baby teeth which embarrassed me so much that I would hide behind the sofa whenever anyone visited the house and would never smile. Unfortunately, the new teeth came through without sufficient enamel protection which resulted in premature decay; at only18 years of age, I had to have all my upper teeth removed and replaced by a denture.
It was at this home, Gladsmuir, on 7 June 1920, that my father formed his tar spraying company, William F Rees Ltd. He turned his garage into an office and bought a fine roll-top desk with secret cupboards from which he dispensed a measure or two of client entertainment. He kept this desk with him throughout his working life. Eventually it stood in its glory in new offices at 54 Victoria Street, London.
William F had a Kodak camera and developed his own photographs printed in sepia in glass-fronted frames which he propped up against the kerb of the garden path so that the sunshine would do the developing. He showed me how to make a pin-hole camera in a shoe box.
Lundie developed into a true man of the 1920s era; he loved the young flappers with their long strings of beads and often brought gorgeous young women to visit Glenmore Lodge. He was a super dancer, a good golfer and superb at water polo, playing for Cheltenham. You name it; he had a go at most of these things. I did not know him that well because of the age gap, but as the years went by we became closer, especially in the early days of World War II.
It must have been in the early 1930s that Lundie eloped with his girlfriend, Mary, to the chagrin of our parents when they learned the news. Mary was the local postmistress in Huish Episcopi, Somerset, and would not have been permitted to continue working if it was known that she had married. That was the reason for their elopement. They went on to have five children and a long life together. Mary survived until December 2009, dying eventually from Alzheimer’s at the grand age of 97.
At one time, Lundie worked, but only briefly, for William F Rees Ltd but he then moved on to enhance his experience with some of the major companies in the industry. He preferred, I am sure, to be his own boss and enjoyed new challenges.
Moving Day to Higher Plains
My father sold Gladsmuir to Mr C F Lewis on 24 September 1925 for £1,625 through the solicitors Frank Thomas & Andrews of Swansea. Mr. Lewis paid in cash, which was counted twice by the solicitor, who informed him that his payment was short by four shillings and six pence, to which he apparently replied with some choice words. My father often considered that Mr. Lewis had, in fact, purchased the sundial set on the garden lawn and that the house had been thrown in for good measure.
Years later, sometime in the 1960s, I had an appointment in Port Talbot and, having arrived far too early, decided to visit West Cross. I found the house in front of which a man was under the bonnet of a somewhat scruffy car. I explained that I had lived there as a child, to which he said, ‘You must be Mr. Rees. Your father sold the house to my father.’
He was a teacher at Swansea Grammar School. With enthusiasm he invited me in with a purpose, promptly pointing out a wall where some rusty reinforcement bars were exposed. He then asked what I proposed doing about it! I remarked that such defect could hardly be the vendor’s responsibility, especially after some 40 years, and hurriedly made my departure for my ‘urgent meeting.’ This event confirmed the wisdom of never returning to the scene of a crime!
Lundie also returned to the location of Gladsmuir some years later and found a splendid modern house set in a well-tailored garden overlooking the bay. The Beetle Squasher, however, seemed to be long squashed.
Cheltenham was a delightful spa town, popular with retired civil servants and army superior ranks. It had a great promenade, beautiful gardens, and a spa for taking the waters to say nothing about the already famous race course.
From Gladsmuir, my father purchased on September 18th, 1925, Glenmore Lodge, Wellington Square, Cheltenham, a very grand house lit by gas with vast coal cellars, a huge coal range, and a wine cellar, as well as staff rooms in the basement complete with a long row of servants’ bells activated by a complex system of wires – corresponding bells were in living room, bedrooms and even in the roof area and each one had a different tone. These provided great play for mischievous children and friends who would creep into the loft to pull the wires and set the house into a joyful musical concert.
Glenmore Lodge was purchased from a lovely old gentleman, Mr. Winterbottom, for £1,750. Well after WWII it became the office of a firm of solicitors with an artist living in the basement flat. He did a painting of the house for the solicitors and he did another one for me at my request when I happened back to visit. I have this painting still.
(After Donald’s death, Paul was contacted by John Wood who had purchased Glenmore Lodge, was converting it back into a home and was researching its history. Paul was able to fill in the gaps about W F Rees and his tenure and decided to send the painting as a gift. It now hangs proudly in Glenmore Lodge, a property valued in 2015 by Rightmove at £2.5 million.)
Mr. Winterbottom requested that the stable/studio, which occupied a corner of the garden, remain in his possession. The upper floor had an excellent art studio while the lower was a workshop used to make fishing rods and tackle. Sometimes I was allowed to ‘help’ him making the rods.
War - you're in the Army now
I had a girlfriend in London whose mother worked in the government conscription department. I asked my girlfriend to ask her mother what was happening to my call-up and it was discovered that my papers had been marked NFA which I believed meant no further action. I thought this ridiculous. I don’t know if her mother had the ability to change the markings, but eventually I did get my call-up.
I reported to the Chester reception camp where they cut your hair, made sure you hadn’t got fleas or VD and taught you how to salute. Well, I had already learned how to salute in the OTC at school. You couldn’t leave camp until you knew how to salute, so I was one of the first to leave camp.
Picture left: first call-up – Saighton Camp, Chester (end left, 3rd row up).
The camp now is a housing estate. This video shows it just before conversion: Click HERE
I went to Blossom’s Hotel (pictured below) in Chester to get a decent meal. I was about to be served when a shadow appeared at my right shoulder. It was an army officer from the camp.
‘Evening, soldier,’ he said, ‘don’t trouble to get up. I thought you had better know this restaurant is rather the preserve of the officers.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I am sorry about that, sir. But the food down in that camp is so awful that I was glad to see the sight of a decent meal.’
‘Yes, yes’ he said.
So that was that, but when they left this chap peeled himself off and came back to my table saying: ‘I thought you might like to know that I am the Catering Officer.’
That didn’t go down very well, as you can understand. That then was my entrée into the army.
Later, the Catering Officer would often appear during a meal at camp along with the Staff Sergeant murmuring ‘Any complaints?’ to which I could but reply ‘No, sir!' A considerable improvement since our last discussion.’
Blossoms Hotel, Chester
My brother, Lundie, already had joined the Army Royal Engineers and was an officer in the Mechanical Equipment Company. He said, ‘Why don’t you come into this? It is very much the sort of game you have been playing all the time in Civvy Street.’ I think he felt that as an old soldier himself he could keep a bit of an eye on me, and I think he probably did. My dream came true when I was able to get into the Engineers’ officer cadet training unit.
It was an experience of enormous magnitude to me because it was a concertinaed civil engineer training course of almost six months and probably as good as the several years equivalent in university.
My dear Lundie (pictured left) proved a damned good soldier and a brave chap. He was with the Royal Engineers on the beaches at D Day. Their job was to bulldoze sand and gravel to block the outlets of the gun emplacements and obscure their vision. This was indeed a daring task. He was wounded and the sciatic nerve in his leg was severed by shrapnel, and, remarkably, he was back in England in hospital in something like 10 or 11 hours.
The nerve was repaired and bonded together, but they couldn’t get the nerves fully matched so consequently it was far more painful after they bonded it together than before.
Eventually he had it stripped and left unbonded and he lived with the discomfort. But it did not stop him playing his golf, and other sports, although he had to withdraw somewhat from too much physical strain. He took up bridge playing and became a renowned player; he and his wife Mary would be invited on cruise liners to run the bridge school. I remain proud to this day that he was my elder brother and have always been impressed by his example of courage and determination. For me, he has always been on a pedestal. Sadly, I sensed there was a barrier between him and our father, but I never knew what caused it.
Once I began the Royal Engineer courses the initial two weeks were purgatory in which every ounce of you was drained out. The final interview was with the trick cyclist, the psychiatrist. Knock on the door. ‘Come!’ And there was a chap sitting behind his polished desk with a spot light focused on a chair in front of him - like something out of the cinema, like the third degree. ‘Sit down!’ he said. So I turned the light away from the chair, moved the chair and sat down. Silence. ‘Tell me about yourself,’ he barked. I looked at him quizzically and said: ‘I am astonished. I have been here now for two weeks. You’ve drained every ounce of me out of me. And I was looking forward to sitting here and having you tell me about myself.’ ‘That’s all,’ he said. Of course, it was all. It was obvious. They were trying this sort of shock question. And if you said, ‘I was born in Swansea and so and so and my mummy said this…’ you would not have got in. That is not what they were looking for. They were looking for a measure of response which resulted from having something thrown at you, and it was so obvious.
I was sent to Newark for a six month intensive training course with a lot of useful civil engineering design work, bridges and what have you. I had the pleasure of being there at the same time as an American, 'Jim' Boone Grubbs Miller and five Canadians. So we were seven in all. We had a whale of a time. We worked damned hard, but we played damned hard as well.
Jim was outrageous. During D-Day Jim knew he was not allowed to travel anywhere but went off to London anyway and returned AWOL. The major hauled him up: ‘Miller, you are AWOL against all instruction.’ Jim leaned on the major’s desk, and explained, with his American drawl, ‘Well, sir, it is like this. I’ve worked darned hard here and I think I have been a good cadet.’ The major sort of nodded. Jim continued, ‘Well, I thought to myself “Miller, what you need is a few days down in London to really tone you in, you know”. So, sir, I took it and I am really sorry if I did the wrong thing.’ He was the top cadet in the class, and a charming bullshitter, so maybe that is how he got away with this escapade.
Once I asked him why he had joined the Canadian army rather than the American one, and he replied that it was either the Canadian army or an irate father with a shotgun! I did not see Jim after that until quite a few years later.
I remember one very sad story with the Canadians. On a last field recce, we were examining a railway embankment. On a dual railway line a train was approaching, so one of the Canadians stepped onto the other line to let it pass, not realising that another train was approaching on that line. He was killed. He had married a lovely mill girl; we went up to her home to act as coffin bearers, staying at the vicar’s. The vicar gave us some Spam to eat, but that was about all. He said: ‘You don’t want to be sitting here talking to an old man like me. Fun will be at the pub.’ And it was a real wake. They were dancing on the tables, having a great old time.
The next day at the burial the weather was extremely stormy, but when ‘The Last Post’ sounded the clouds broke and a shaft of sun moved across the path of the cemetery. Well, there were six men there with tears running down their cheeks. It was the most moving thing ever.
As far as the girl was concerned, she had been married just less than a month and, bless her heart, the good news for her was that she was entitled to a Canadian officer’s army pension for life, which was fairly handsome. As the vicar said: ‘I think she’ll soon get over the shock.’
M172 class, Royal Engineers, OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit), Newark. Centre, row 2
I came out of intensive training as a full lieutenant. Because of my experience in constructing aircraft runways and goodness knows what, I was sent to the east coast where the Germans were flying buzz bombs in by the thousands. These were the V-1s or flying bombs and the deadly V-2s. The artillery there couldn’t get their ammunition to the beaches near enough to the tide and I was assigned to build I don’t know how many miles of roads - perhaps something like 18 miles. This was to get the ammunition down as tight as I could to the sea. Most of the men then under my command were seasoned ex-contracting company operatives who could play music with construction equipment.
My father was on a London Construction Plant Committee for just these kinds of emergencies. I phoned him and said: ‘Dad, could you get me some tipping lorries?’ ‘Well, I expect I can’ he said, ‘how many do you want?’ ‘I want one or two hundred,’ I said. ‘Oh, my God’ he said. We got them. We got bomb rubble coming up from London by the train load and we got drag lines dragging gravel off the beaches. We got it done. We worked round the clock, day in and day out, with arc lights. We didn’t worry about exposed lights as everything else was blacked out.
I suppose it went quite well, but we were being cheated by the army’s contractor. I wanted checkers but we hadn’t got any. I asked the artillery if they could help us by providing checkers, but I told them I only wanted senior ranks, from sergeant upwards, nothing below in case of bribery. They were to carry out the fairly menial task of checking the loads as they came in. The brigadier nearly went berserk, but it worked although it was quite against Army regulations.
During that time, all night we would watch the V-1s on the east coast. When they started shooting, they were getting two out of ten down. Then they bought in the American proximity fuses which would blow if they were near enough to the target. That of course would tip the V-1 over. Before we left, they were getting eight out of ten down. I mean, every night we were cheering. Those artillery boys were tough. The first thing I took over was a row of cottages to sleep, if ever we got any sleep, and I got onto four of the local breweries and they each sent a barrel of beer around, so we had free beer and we could sit our through it all in a haze, quite efficiently.
All quite fascinating times. I enjoyed everything that I did and saw. It was stimulating in a sordid sort of way. One thing was that with all the army training, I was so bloody fit. On our battle courses we were doing 30 miles with full packs and then a frontal attack after the 30 miles. It was amazing how fit the army could train you to be.
On top of that, falling out of the back of an army lorry at 40 mph was a safe way of unloading. It was intimidating at first, but you learned to do it by rolling up like a hedgehog. The first time you looked at that you say: ‘I’m not bloody well doing that.’ But then you put your fear to one side and find that it is quite easy if done the right way.
Apparently my work on the East Coast was satisfactory, and it was time for me to move into new action. It was clear that, on the War Office Records, my name was down as having worked on the Mulberry harbours. These were temporary mobile ports designed by Hugh Iorys Hughes, a Welsh engineer, in 1942 and played a crucial role in the D-Day landings in 1944.
These temporary harbours enabled the landing of Allied land troops, vehicles and equipment which otherwise would need a port large enough for the huge amount of supplies. The project was top secret and later pronounced one of history’s greatest military achievements, not least by the Germans who called the concept ‘genius’.
We had done some work advising on using Resmat, whose non-skid properties would, they hoped, stop the vehicle wheels spinning on the wet steel decks. My job had been purely to advise on speed, water resistance and direct adhesion of cold asphalt products on wet surfaces. But, because I knew a little bit about this highly sensitive initiative, I was not allowed into the European theatre od war in case I was taken prisoner and gave away information about the Mulberries. So it was decided to send me to the Japanese theatre.
I was promoted to commander of 72 platoon of 874 Company bound for Bombay, Calcutta, Assam and Burma. I joined my outfit at Redhill where we were lodged in the delightful house of one of the flour barons, which had been commandeered by the government. The cellars were taken over as well. When I joined, the kitchen was in good shape as was the wine cellar, but the somewhat naughty gentleman left by the owner to superintend things did a very nice business in selling his master’s wines.
Our ship, the Orion, was ready in Liverpool and a lot of our equipment had already gone to be loaded. It was a very fine cruise ship with a lot of top decks to enjoy a cruise. The ship was somewhat overloaded as we made our way down to the Mediterranean, but due to a submarine scare, we stood off Gibraltar and in the Atlantic for about 24 hours. I think everyone on board was sick.
Eventually, we made our way past Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, and part way through we hove to, as a battleship was coming through carrying Churchill and Roosevelt to their famous conference with Stalin. This was quite a sight, steaming some 30+ knots. Needless to say, they got loud cheers from us all.
On arrival in one port we went ashore for a march – anything for a bit of exercise, apparently. It was a riot. Little boys running alongside us as we marched. ‘You like my pretty sister? Very cheap. Very cheap. You like nice bottle booze? Very cheap.’ Well, I don’t know about the sisters, but a lot of the booze vanished because we were a dry ship. In fact, all ships were dry when the Americans came into the war. That night was SHATTERED by bottles being thrown out of the portholes onto the adjacent steel barges. You never heard such a noise in all your life! However, I think everyone slept pretty well that night.
Our battered ship carried on in the red-hot weather. Most of the troops were below decks in hammocks, not a very pleasant way to travel in that day and age. Eventually, we arrived in Bombay. With several hours of relief before us, we set out to explore with the bar of the Grand Hotel in our sights where the drinks all around were gin and tonics, which we downed like nectar.
Our next stage was no mean feat – it meant getting to Calcutta and then crossing the top of India, right through to the Brahmaputra River into Assam, all by rail, third class, with wooden seats and cockroaches. The trains were packed both inside and outside. All you could see through the windows were bodies hanging onto the sides of the carriages.
The substantial poverty came as a shock to all of us, especially perhaps when set against the concept of India as the Jewel in the Crown.
It was a long, long journey. There were, however, frequent stops at stations where salesmen offered every kind of treasure, like bananas, tea, pineapples. As a great privilege, some of the officers en-route were treated to a meal served on a white tablecloth. That was the only white tablecloth we would see for many, many months to come. For across the Brahmaputra River lay Dimapur in the far northeast of India, and beyond Dimapur was the road through to Burma.
Dimapur was going to be my platoon’s base where we were to receive equipment for final assembly which regrettably was having great problems getting through the tunnels along the railway. A lot of it had to be dismantled to fit the tunnels, a long and slow job. Our job was to keep the roads passable and get supplies moving along the dangerous and winding road to Imphal and beyond. My 72 platoon kept supplies moving to two other platoons and they in turn were getting supplies to the battle fronts of Imphal and Kohima.
By the time we arrived, the Japanese war effort was almost at its turning point, although we did not know it at the time, of course. The British were at the point of exhaustion, but were saved medically by the introduction of mepacrine, a tablet which offered protection from malaria which affected everyone, including the Japanese.
The pill was deemed so important, that if any soldier caught malaria, the Officer in Command was liable to face court marshal. So it was the daily pleasure of the troops to stick out their tongues on a full parade to demonstrate that the pill had been swallowed. Not as easy as it sounds, however, as the Japanese had put it about that the pill would seriously diminish sexual competence.
My platoon established quite a reasonable social life. We found old Braithwaite steel panels and built a water tower, so we were able to pump water to the top for distribution through our camp. As there was not much in the way of pipelines about, we used bamboo through which we bored to make some sophisticated T-junctions and angles with the bamboo strapped together with Denso tape, a tape we used to waterproof vehicles on landing.
This allowed us to distribute water to all of our quarters. It was the first time, I believe, that the army was accommodated en-suite. It was also a good initial lesson in ‘appropriate technology’.
We salvaged some old mechanical equipment that had been left behind as useless by earlier occupants. As we were not too occupied at the time, we built the American troops a ball pitch, a rifle range, and the like. All this was done on a business basis, rewarded by the Americans with more than generous helpings of liquor.
We then established a rule: everything we earned went into a hut which we built as our pub and equipped with a radio, a darts board, and a gramophone. Saturday night was pub night and the rule was that everything should be drunk that night. Traditionally, the officers were allowed one bottle of gin and one of whisky a fortnight and the men were allowed a quart of beer a fortnight, if it ever arrived. But the Americans were flush with alcohol, especially cases of beer and Canadian rye, so the whole lot went in for everyone, officers and chaps alike. Saturday was the only night for drinks but quite a good time was had by all. Morale was high.
We also had quite a useful football team (photo left) and I might say we even took on the Americans at their own game, which we lost, of course.
On occasion, an Indian unit set up evening theatre where we were fascinated by Indian dancing.
We were the lucky ones, however, as a mere 60 miles away in Kohima, British and Indian troops were thrashing the Japanese and halting their advance into India through Assam. The battle proved to be a turning point in Japan’s plan to invade India. In 2013, the British National Army Museum voted the Battle of Imphal and Kohima to be ‘Britain's Greatest Battle’.
In May 1945 we learned of Germany’s surrender, but the Japanese were still at war. We were beside ourselves with joy at the news of the end of the war in Europe and, with the generosity of Army catering services, on V-E Day all of the troops were issued with a bottle of beer. It was quite a treat. But South East Asia command now had to swallow the bitter pill of regaining the territories commanded by the Japanese.
The company major was an awful man, Whitehouse, whom I did not like at all. Some sad stories reached us. Whitehouse was hitting the bottle on Lily gin, pure hooch supplied in little lemonade bottles with cork tops; it was poison. Whitehouse took to the poison.
On one careless occasion, he set light to his headquarters mess so the adjutant and I decided it was time that he was reprimanded or even removed. We set out establishing a court martial for the destruction of army property in terms of the building which he had set alight.
Unfortunately, it did not get anywhere. He got a bulldozer and cleared the whole area of the ruins of the fire, and brought out a map which said that no such building had ever existed. Well, of course, it hadn’t existed as it was an unofficial building. He said it didn’t exist so how could he be accused of destroying something which did not exist. Well, the so-and-so won his case and he did not like us very much thereafter.
At this time, Mountbatten was sent out to India to form an attack group to retake Malaya from the Japanese and 874 Company was taken back into India to form up for that attack.
Having been an army recruit early in the war, Whitehouse stood high on the release list. With Malaya in sight, he decided to take that release. I was ordered to take over the company, which I did. I drove my jeep in while he drove out, not even saying goodbye. His jeep, however, was stacked with liquor. Special liquor rations were issued to all of the troops going on the Malaya reinvasion; he had cleaned out this special ration. It cost me £160 to replace what he had taken, and I paid for it myself.
Months later I spotted him in the company of the madam of a bordello where he was staying, apparently having paid his rent with some of his purloined booze. His commonly mispronounced name was appropriate – I was eventually able to quote it to him when some years later in London he hailed me stepping off a train at Victoria Station. ‘My God, it’s Shitehouse! You owe me £160!’ He beat a hasty retreat.
Our target was to land on the coast of Malaya; our mechanical equipment units would be first off the landing ships with bulldozers deployed to make way for landing other vehicles on the beach close on our heels. Knowing the patriotic fanaticism of the Japanese, this looked like an unenviable task. Our lead ships arrived to be loaded and we were being briefed on the topographical nature of the landing area.
One morning while we were still in India we heard on the shortwave radio, to our astonishment, that the Americans had dropped atomic bombs on Japan. The probability was that Japan would be forced to surrender. As news came through of the horrendous damage caused by the bombs, our cheering stopped as we listened in awe to the details. So finally the war was over. But records subsequently showed that Germany was not far behind America in the development of its own atomic bomb.
Our landing went forward, but now thankfully as an unopposed landing, and for 874 Company I scheduled it as a holiday generously arranged by the King.
But when we landed, we saw the defences which the Japanese had prepared for us - they were wicked, ingenious, and lethal. I can only say it would have been slaughter. So, as far as I and many of us involved were concerned, we were glad that they dropped the bomb, cruel though it may have been. The fault lay with the Japanese, rather than the Americans or British, but the Japanese did eventually surrender. I was in Singapore when the surrender was announced in August 1945.
On landing on the Malaya coast, we found the shore areas were pretty rocky, with dead undergrowth, mucky and very spongy. We unloaded our equipment one evening when it was getting dark. My sergeant urged me out to inspect, fearing we were losing a D8, the biggest of our bulldozers. The D8 was sitting on a great slab of soil which had sheared away all around it, and it was gradually tilting and sinking. There was nothing we could do.
Eventually it vanished underground never to be seen again. We tried to hook it out, but the more we tried, the further the earth collapsed. The brigadier pronounced we should leave it and get on with our other work. Such a waste of good machinery in the war. With hindsight, of course, before parking the bulldozer there, we could have used bamboo and saved it. We certainly learned our lesson.
I never got as far as Burma and was spared the appalling conditions that so many suffered. I was on the fringe. My lucky star continued to shine.
The rubber camp
I asked my adjutant to put ashore in Malaya and find some decent digs. Eventually he returned smiling from ear to ear. I said: ‘You look pleased with yourself.’ He said: ‘I think you will be pleased too. I’ve commandeered the Dunlop Rubber Company’s holiday establishment and I think you will like it.’ He was right on that score.
On the shore a summer house boasted gents’ and ladies’ changing rooms in separate wings. Shark nets projected into the sea as the water was infested. A slope up off the shore was peppered with lovely bungalows. Oh yes! It was great!
There was only one snag. The food was not very good. We were on Pacific ration packs, and they were as boring as hell. But my sergeant major came to me one morning and said: ‘Can I have a word with you, sir?’ I said: ‘Yes, sergeant major, what is it?’ He said: ‘Come this way, sir.’ Off we went into a sizeable room full of tins. We just stood there. He said: ‘These are Pacific ration tins of biscuits, sir. The chaps don’t like them. I could get a dozen eggs or a chicken for each one.’ I said, ‘I didn’t hear that, sergeant major. You have a fine rank and carry responsibilities with it as well as the need for initiative. Good morning.’
From then on, we were Cordon Bleu. We took the big old diesel drums and turned them into barbeques. Lunch on a Sunday was chicken with duck eggs for breakfast. We even had piglets occasionally.
We ran a damned good farm. It wasn’t, therefore, remarkable that the chaplain would phone on a Friday and say: ‘Major, coming your way on Sunday and I wondered if your chaps would like communion.’ I said, ‘I am sure they would, chaplain. What sort of time?’ The chaplain would say: ‘I can make it by half past twelve.’ I would say: ‘Oh, excellent.
Would you like to stay for lunch?’ ‘Oh, yes, please’ he would say. Furthermore, I saw perhaps more of our brigadier than any other unit on the coast.
Back here in Portugal, I used to play golf with Richard Bagnell who one day said: ‘Oh, Donald. Have you met so and so? He was out in Malaya during the war.’ I asked him if he had been in the army. He said ‘No, I was out there before the war. I ran the Dunlop company’s holiday estate.’ I said: ‘Well, my goodness, I was one of its occupants.’ He said: ‘Oh, you were the bastard, were you?’ It’s a small world, isn’t it?
The coal fields
Anyway, my easy life there didn’t last very long. I got called to take my unit to Changi airstrip to improve the landing quality of the runway and then to Batu Arang, which was Malaya’s only open-cast coal mine, with instructions to gain enough coal to run Malaya’s railways. I guess because my name is Rees and I was born in Wales, the clear assumption was that I knew all about coal. Well, frankly, I did not know the first thing about coal. But you can learn.
So off to the coal fields where there were enormous excavators, all driven electrically, but the electrical railway system and the units themselves had come to a standstill because the generator plant had broken down. So the excavators wound up surrounded by soil and eventually they collapsed as well. It was a proper mess. I took one look at it and thought: ‘I’ve got to get out of this.’ So I said: ‘Who ran this place?’ ‘Malayan Collieries, sir.’ ‘Really? Where are they?’ ‘They are in London, sir.’ I said: ‘Get them out here - fast.’ And they did.
A Sunderland full of them turned up. Amongst the Sunderland load was a wee Scot who had been the engineer. I said: ‘Scottie, can you get this power station going?’ After a long pause, he said, ‘Aye. It’s a long job. There’s a lot of work to do. I know it well.’ (He had put it in.) I said, ‘Well how long of a long job?’ He said: ‘It will take me all of a week or ten days.’ I said: ‘Good, man. Get on with it.’ He had it going, and once that was going, everything else would go. Some of the old people who had been there managing the coal mine ran it and they had ensured that it was not very efficient. The Japanese had not done much to it at all.
I never admitted that the only thing I knew about coal was that it was black. By the time we got back to our resort camp, it had been taken over by an entirely different organisation.
From there on, I lost my company. I was put over to 34 Command and that was HQ in Kuala Lumpur. Well, what a boring business. I had nothing to do, so I had to invent things.
After a week of doing nothing, I said: ‘I am going to visit all the works departments’. I thought I would see something of Malaya, so off I went with a driver to see the numerous auxiliary works departments. I had a purpose. I had all of the forms that they were supposed to fill in put on a board and I would stick the board on the works table and say; ‘Now then. How many of these forms do you consider to be of importance?’ Well, they laughed their heads off. Forms took up too much time. So we carved up the form filling. I was very popular with these people, I might say. We reduced the form filling by something like 75 per cent and back I went then to HQ, where I was not very popular because they loved form filling.
Still I had nothing to do. I had a chum there and we found an old go-down full of classical records, 78s. We hijacked an old HMV radiogramme and we had a little shack in Kuala Lumpur where we lived. We would sit there playing records, or we would go to the cinema, and occasionally look in at the office. One day the brigadier said, ‘Oh, Rees. When you leave HQ, it would be helpful if you left a note where you would be, in case we need to see you.’ I said, ‘Of course, sir.’ He continued, ‘Like on Wednesday. Nobody knew where you were. By the way, where were you?’ I said, ‘Wednesday, Wednesday. Afternoon, sir?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Oh, I was in the cinema.’ He said, ‘You went to the cinema?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir. I’ve got damned all to do. I come here and maybe have a letter to sign once or twice a week, and then smoke, and do nothing. I have asked for a change of posting but without effect.’ He said, ‘Speak Urdu?’ I said, ‘No, sir.’ He said, ‘Right.’
So I found myself posted to an Indian unit where it was an absolute requirement that the officer speaks Urdu. On arrival, I ordered the men to parade so I could introduce myself. I announced, ‘Now, I want you to understand. The war is over, but it is in the interests of all Indian troops to have reasonable command of the English language in helping you into the future. So, starting from this moment I will not speak one word other than English. I hope you will find it helpful.’ That was it. I did not speak a word of Urdu! They all loved it. I said, ‘Special lessons will take place 9-o’clock every morning. For those who are enthusiastic, there will be a second lesson in the afternoon.’ The place was full.
After this posting I found myself in Singapore, which was enchanting. There we saw Mountbatten being driven through the town and saluting to the crowds (picture below). We also found our way to the only golf course where the staff had remained during the Japanese occupation.
My sister Connie also was involved in the war, and we were especially close when she went to India. With a friend, Isabel Burnside, of Wimbledon Park, Connie joined Force 136,* a civilian force operating out of Calcutta which was organising the dropping of people, food, and ammunition, etc., ‘over the hump’ as it was called, as it was over the mountains into China from India.
When I was in India I saw quite a bit of Connie. Our own equipment tended to get bottle-necked in Calcutta and one of my jobs was to leave Assam for Calcutta to relieve the problems and inspect the equipment. When I found an excuse to check on the equipment, it meant that we could have a bit of a beano as she had lots of friends there and she would have stacked up a lot of whisky, gin and beer for a party. It was there that she met a man of Scottish descent, Simpson Lees Jones, or Jonah as he was called, who worked for Price Waterhouse in India.
They came home to Britain and married in Brighton. My father not only welcomed him warmly but put him to work in his company while he found his way around the much changed Britain. He died at a terribly young age, 51, of cancer and it was a terrible shock to her and us all. They had two lovely children.
After some time, she married Richard 'Dick' Fletcher who ran a sports business on Guernsey. Also here again a sporting type, and they were very happy. Connie herself was great at sports, tennis and golf and the like. Her second husband also pre-deceased her; it was very sad but she took it on the chin, bless her heart, until she died of cancer aged 82.
After the war, Lundie, Connie and I did not stay in touch as much as we perhaps ought to have done and there was not a lot of cohesion among us. We all seemed to drift into our own ways of family and social life. I believe that Connie had a much harder life than I ever really understood. She brought up her children well, having to struggle and having lost two husbands, it must have been a pretty damned tough life for her. I fear that I was perhaps far too busy running my own life and my own family to digress and look after her when perhaps she needed it. That is just a sign of my own selfishness, but bringing up my six boys seemed to fill the hours of my day pretty adequately.
The loss of Connie left then and forever a great hole in my life as she was my sister, my friend, my dancing partner, my overseas colleague, and a lot of my fun in life as she was always so much fun with a sharp sense of humour and a true joie de vivre.
Connie's son, Bill Jones, writes:
Connie was as ever modest about her wartime role. The stories she told us were few although oft-repeated - so we got little new info beyond her well-trodden tales.
She was working for William F. Rees as his PA/right hand in London and was given (I guess in a form of 'call-up') a wartime posting to Liverpool. She wasn't keen on going and met Isabel Burnside on the street in her lunch hour one day who said the SOE were looking for people to go to Calcutta to be part of Force 136. She applied and went on a troop ship through the Med and Suez Canal (a surprising route given we were at war with Germany!) as one of only a few women on a ship carrying more than 1,000 men.
Of course she met our dad in Calcutta so lots of our stories are about him and their social life (including Donald arriving later on in the War and telling her she had got fat! All those curries!).
As to Force 136, I believe Connie was in a secretarial-admin role at Force HQ in Calcutta - she did say that curtains would be hurriedly drawn over maps when she entered certain rooms.
Connie married her second husband Dick Fletcher around 1970 and, co-incidentally, he had been one of the Force 136 officers involved in jungle warfare, fighting the Japanese behind enemy lines in Burma. I learned more from him about what they got up to in the field and at the end of the War, including the use by the British of bribes of narcotics which led to large-scale drug addiction by, e.g. the Karen in the Thai/Burma border area.
Dick was undoubtedly a war hero and, as a result of his jungle warfare experience, would break into a sweat at the sight of a Japanese person when I knew him.
My awareness was sharpened by my experiences in the Army, particularly in southeast Asia where we were desperately short of all the things we needed to function in the Royal Engineers. We were inventive, but not inventive enough. I looked and listened to see how the locals did things to achieve acceptable results.
The first major impact of this hit me when we arrived at Dimapur in Assam which is really the beginning of the Manipur road through to Burma, something like 130 miles of twisting, rock road having to carry 70 tonne tank transporters and the like; many of them failed to make the journey and fell over the side. The instruction was that the road had to be paved, black-topped. Asphalt plants, bulldozers, graders - nothing like that existed - so it had to be tackled by hand. There was plenty of stone in the adjacent quarries, and plenty of army explosives to blast out the stone, but no mixing plants or crushers.
The work was done by 3,000 local men with three to a gang, hence 1,000 gangs. Each gang, with hand hammers, would reduce the stone to three different grades – small, medium, and large - in three piles. Each gang would produce those three piles to the tune of one tonne per day. This meant that 3,000 workers were producing the amazing output of 1,000 tonnes a day of graded stone. That was carted by trucks, ordinary general service trucks not tipping trucks, to the counting point where there was bitumen which came in drums from America. The drums had their tops cut open, were rolled into a narrow trench full of wood, and set fire. They were like chimneys on their sides and would heat the bitumen.
The local women worked hard too. Using the big army tins in which fruit juice arrived and a bit of wire, they carried sizzling hot bitumen to the pile of graded stone onto which they tipped it. The men then mixed it together with shovels. A very sticky business. They loaded that onto the general service vehicles to be carted to where it was to be laid.
There was no motorised roller, but there was a derelict tandem roller which had no engine. With 30 men pulling in one direction and another 30 pulling in the other, it was rocked back and forth to consolidate a layer of bituminous road structure. What a remarkable lesson that was about appropriate technology!
Some Americans around then were fascinated by this and one commented that what I needed was a Bulyer crusher, which was a hammer-mill which would break this stone down. I said,
a) we haven’t got one
b) if we had, the wear on the tips would require ribs re-welding every day and we had no welding equipment or rods
c) we were in the wilds and if some major fault arose whereby our coating and crushing plant broke down, we would lose 1,000 tonnes a day
d) with 3,000 men, if some go sick or die, we do not lose 3,000 tonnes a day, because there are always another few who can come and take their place, so
e) our output is virtually guaranteed, which you cannot say when mechanical equipment is being used
This was all another appropriate technology lesson concerning the high rate of maintaining production.
Another bit of appropriate technology applied to the medical services. If any of my chaps were taken ill, it was rare to have a doctor within reachable distance, and even so that doctor may have had little understanding of the particular medical problem. I went to the tribal people, who had seen it all before, and they knew what to do and how to do it. I don’t think we were ever at a loss for a successful remedy.
Ants - they came by the thousands, covering in a flash anything you left. We pondered how to keep them out, and found that if a line of creosote was painted, they would not cross over it. But even with that, you could still find them. We eventually spotted their ruse - they would queue in a tree branch which occasionally would be forced by the breeze to touch the roof at which point one lot would jump off and another lot jump on. There were thousands on these little temporary bridges for access and exit. We later put bowls of water under table legs to discourage them from climbing up.
There were also flying things galore. They would often cluster beneath a light bulb. We found that putting a bowl of water on the floor below the light and extinguishing the bulb, they would all plummet to the ground so we did this periodically, resulting in a basin-full of drowned insects. They never learned the lesson despite having extraordinary survival tactics in the jungle.
So there I was, learning all sorts of appropriate technology devices. It never left me and I found it again and again wherever I went. I became appropriate technology minded which stretched to the other disease, which is called innovation.
Eventually, I got a B release for which my father had applied. The B release was designed to expedite the return of individuals deemed of critical importance in rebuilding UK businesses. But it seemed I was going to have to wait three months to get a place on a ship, so I went to the Transport Command chap who was docking people for ship places.
The sergeant sitting there looked up and said, ‘Good Lord.’ It was a sergeant who had become ill and had left my unit. It was my lucky star again. He said, ‘What can I do to help, sir?’ I said, ‘I want to get back to England.’ He said, ‘The list will take months at the earliest to clear. But wait - would you like to volunteer, sir, to be a guard officer for the repatriation of Dutch civilians from Jakarta? The ship has just pulled into the harbour and stops at Southampton before going over to Holland.’ This was all too good to be true. I said, ‘That will do me.’ He said, ‘You can only take what you can carry on your back’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll pack up a couple dozen cans of beer in a ground sheet to put on my back.
That and a toothbrush will do.’ I had my stuff in a jeep, but was prepared to leave it and take only what I could carry.
I went to the dock and a chap there, fluent in Japanese, said, ‘Hello, old boy. How is Connie?’ It was one of Connie’s friends from Force 136. He said, ‘What luggage have you got?’ I said, ‘Well, a toothbrush and some cans of beer.’ He said, ‘Oh. Bugger that.’ In Japanese, he ordered the Japanese POW to take my stuff on board. Although there were ten of us in one cabin, we were still going home and had a lovely trip on the Nieuw Amsterdam** repatriating the Dutch.
On board, I met a very nice woman whom I chatted up. The doctor on board said, ‘Come here a minute. I don’t know if you have any ideas, but if you do, I would forget them. That woman is pregnant by a Japanese man, and she wants to get her hooks onto anybody who can keep her out of Holland. If she gets to Holland, they will murder. So, take care.’ I said, ‘Thank you very much.’ I did indeed take care.
On board ship coming home, a passenger whom I knew gave me two vials containing small pieces of glass, so tiny they were almost like sand, which were called Ballotini glass beads. ‘Here’, he said, ‘see what you can make of these.’ They sat in my desk at 54 Victoria Street for some time. At the time, the company was painting white lines on roads using plastic lining material. I thought the glass if incorporated could be of some interest. I experimented and the glass gave a brilliant glow. I consulted Clares Emulsions, but they were wary of 3M and its patent. Others felt the same.
Four years later, Glitterline of Guilford broke through the patent restraints and made a fortune as it proved to be ideal for use in road markings and traffic signs, giving off a slight luminescent glow, particularly good at night. I was shattered and determined in future to always pursue what I believed could have a future.
One of my traveling companions on that trip home from Malaya was a gynaecologist who had been posted to Malaya. He was very well rewarded by his many clients, the women from Malaya who had been starved of good medical attention, with diamond rings, golden this and goodness knows what. When it came to going home, he was facing a very strictly-applied tax on imports and indeed he was carrying many thousands of pounds worth of such imports. He told me in confidence, ‘I am going sew it all into my jock strap.’ Well, he did that and showed those of his friends who knew what he was doing. He really brought the house down! Walking down the gang plank to the shore and through the Customs as a sort of bow-legged cripple put us into fits of laughter. Fortunately, the Customs officers had no sense of humour and just thought he was rather crippled. I often wonder what he did with his small fortune.
On disembarking at Southampton I was presented with an unclear choice of ‘transportation’ or ‘field.’ I should have gone field, but I said, ‘Transportation’. I breezed in and the transportation officer said, ‘You shouldn’t be here. You should be up north.’ I said, ‘I told them that, but they insisted that this is where I should come. Oh, God, these people. They do make me so cross.’ He said, ‘Oh, well. We will do you here.’ So they did me there, and I was back home in a flash. Mother had driven there to pick me up and drive me back home to Brighton. From the Army demobilisation hut, I got my new suit, my hat, my tie, my shirt, everything. I looked like something out of Woolworth’s magazine. But never mind. There I was, home and dry.
The lucky star was still with me. For those who followed instructions and went field up north were hit apparently by some disease and were detained another four weeks before being released.
The Orient beckoned
Well, together with my lucky star, I finished war time army experience and returned to the joys of Britain, but what a poor, wretched, run-down Britain it was. My hidden secret was that I had not intended to come back to it.
Towards the end of my posting, I came to be billeted in a lovely bungalow facing the sea. It was next door to a very elegant Chinese family with whom I had many a happy evening. The head of the family was a quarry master of a large business. When the Chinese boss heard that I was going home, he invited me to dine with him. I duly turned up at about half past 11 for lunch which went on until about 4 o’clock and contained about 18 courses. It was the practice to enjoy a tot of whisky between each course. And he, the cunning man, had buried a gross of Dimple Haig in his garden when the Japanese invaded. When they left, he dug them up and decided that they should now be drunk. And indeed - drunk they were!
When we finished I was feeling very buzzy and said I would go back to my mess. He said, ‘Fine. Have a nice freshen-up and a swim. I will see you at 6 o’clock.’ I said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘For the evening meal. I asked you to dine with us today, and today means today.’ So I returned at 6 o’clock and this went on until nearly midnight. The evening was 23 or 24 courses, all of which had been cooked by his mother. We sat out on his veranda after the meal and he said, ‘Now we talk.’ I said, ‘Oh, no. Now I don’t talk about anything. I am going back to sleep.’ He said, ‘OK. Then we will talk at breakfast.’
At 9 o’clock the next morning we had breakfast and he said, ‘I want to talk.’ To my astonishment he talked about offering me the job of handling the quarrying side of his company at a salary of £5,000 per year, which is those days was enormous (as a major my salary was £1,400) with 50 per cent of the shares of the company for free and a guarantee of 10 years’ engagement. It was a handsome opportunity.
So I wrote a letter to my father, but did not post it. I wrote another letter to my father, but did not post it. I thought that I could not do this, but that I would have to go home and explain to my father that I would like to return to Malaya to take on this exciting job. I explained to my Chinese friend the situation, which he fully understood, and looked forward to my return, a return which never arose.
Back in England I found things with the company were horrendous. I do not know how my dear father had kept things ticking over. He and his staff were exhausted. Companies were allowed only a strict profit limit during the war so that there would be no exploitation of work. The plant and equipment were pretty well worn out, as were those who were running it.
The nation’s economy was on the floor and there were no goods in the shops. The war had taken a deep toll in human life, leaving the country on the verge of starvation and bankruptcy. Almost everything was on rations. Little did we know then that rationing of food and goods was to last for years to come, finally ending in July 1954. And for my father facing the limitations of civilian expenditure was going to be a huge mountain to climb with new equipment and components sparse and even spares and repairs difficult to obtain. But here I was able to help by attending Army equipment auctions to convert plant to civilian purpose.
Taxation was hitting the ceiling, as the country was broke and money was needed to finance the UK’s new world – the new Health Service, repair of the railways, the new motorways, the replacement of bomb damaged structures, the repair and strengthening of roads. The country had a lot of socks to be darned. Underground services, such as water, electricity, gas, sewerage, surface water drainage, were not accessible and consequently not assessable.
What became evident was the number of road and utility services in collapse resulting from lack of servicing. In London and other major cities, holes in the roads were measured in double deckers, i.e. holes big enough to take a double decker bus, and some measured two or three double deckers. Moreover, if one service gave way, it could easily take others with it.
Clearly technology had not kept up with such a situation and old fashioned servicing was expensive and inadequate. While Resmat served us well on the surface, the sub-surface problems were seriously lacking solutions, particularly related to sewerage and water plus the damages to gas mains and electricity cables.
I concentrated on the latter and sought unique solutions. All of us, in fact, were aware of the need to find more challenging ways of doing things, and this was indeed an inspiration. It was to our eventual advantage that Resmat was efficient and became more and more popular for repairing damaged roads, playgrounds and the like.
When the war started our rather drab offices were at 39 Victoria Street which William F had taken after moving from the small office he shared with Gerald Hoyle. One morning, despite the declaration of war, my father came into the office and said, ‘We are moving.’ I asked where we were moving to and he replied that it was across the road to 54 Victoria Street. When I asked in bemusement why, he replied that he had jolly good rental for the next 15 years and that was why. The smile on his face told me he had another reason. He confessed, ‘54 is also the head office of H V Smith.’ H V Smith was the company for which he had gone tar piddling in Wales for a season. He asked if I remembered the season. I said, ‘I didn’t come for a season. I came for a job.’ He nodded, saying that they were still there and he had obtained the office suite above them which was a little bit bigger than theirs. The old devil! He never missed a trick!
(Picture left: an example of bomb damage - 102 Victoria Street in 1941)
He furnished it beautifully and held an opening party to which all the H V Smith people were invited. The man who had been cycling with him and who had asked if Bill had been working was still there, doing the same job as he had been doing when Bill Rees joined them.
But that was in more prosperous days before the war diluted everyone’s strength although the company managed to remain at 54 Victoria Street throughout the war and for quite some time afterward. Years later, an oil company started buying up surrounding offices, but I refused to move.
Another firm on the ground floor had said the same thing but the oil company managed to outfox them by building around them. But no one could possibly build around the fifth floor. Eventually we got quite a generous compensation and with London’s growing congestion and metered car parking, we decided to move out of the centre of London, finally relocating to Woking.
But back to 1945 when upon my return from the war, Bill and his co-directors gave me a wonderful, warm reception and offered me a return to the company as a director at the handsome figure of £1,000 a year, which wasn’t bad in those days. I thanked them for their generosity and accepted, never mentioning anything about Malaya.
I suppose I was a bit conceited about the experiences I had gained in managing my army company and the initiatives required against the odds, you might say. Before the war I was given perhaps more authority than I was entitled to carry, but it was a great learning curve.
The army gave me much greater confidence in analysing things and acting on my own analysis. But once home I saw for myself how great the need was. Moreover, a few family members were somewhat dependent on the company meeting their needs. The company was tired and out-of-date. The dynamic had been almost exhausted. The door was wide open to re-activate this family company and this inspired me to review the future role and explore the best of modern technology.
Sadly, for some reason, which I shall never fathom, a barrier had developed between my father and my brother which barred them from working together harmoniously.
Something had come between them that I never understood and I suppose in a way I never wanted to, because I loved both of them. I got on well with Lundie but my father said when I came back from the army that he would like me to head the company into the future, but only on the undertaking that it would never embrace Lundie because he found it difficult to accommodate Lundie in his thinking. I was very close to my father, but in those days there was nevertheless an ethos against questioning one’s parents too probingly, so I never pressed to understand the nature of their differences.
Strangely, military rank meant a lot to Lundie and after the war he asked me if I felt it appropriate that he should be known as Major Rees rather than Lundie Rees. He had, after all, been a brave and dedicated soldier and achieved a high rank. But I said: ‘No. The war is over and those are days gone. If you had taken up the army as a career it would be a different matter, but as a war-time soldier the answer is absolutely no.’ I don’t know if he ever understood what I was saying, but maybe what he was saying there was that it was the army which gave him more recognition than his father had given him.
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* 'Force 136' was the general cover name for a branch of the British World War II organisation, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The organisation was established to encourage and supply resistance movements in enemy-occupied territory, and occasionally mount clandestine sabotage operations. Force 136 operated in the regions of the South-East Asian Theatre of World War II which were occupied by Japan from 1941 to 1945.
** The liner, Nieuw Amsterdam, started her maiden voyage on May 10, 1938, arriving in New York on May 17 with return begun May 21. After only seventeen voyages, Nieuw Amsterdam was laid up at Hoboken, New Jersey in 1939 after the German invasion of Poland. She would be idle for only a year, however, and was requisitioned by the British Ministry of Transport after the Netherlands fell to Hitler’s armies. She would spend the remainder of the war years as a troop transport, despite the fact she had been constructed without the consideration of ever being used in a military capacity.
Nieuw Amsterdam, with a nominal troop capacity of 6,800 and speed of over 20 knots, was among the British-controlled 'monsters' - high-capacity, high-speed troop ships capable of sailing unescorted due to their speed, and thus critical to the build-up in Britain for the invasion of the Continent. During the course of the conflict she transported over 350,000 troops and steamed around 530,452 nautical miles (982,397 km) before being returned to the Holland America Line in 1946.
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Falling in love - the golden years
Once again, my lucky star shone brightly in the sky. I was thin to the point of being skinny and yellow from a pill we took to hive off malaria, but altogether in good heart. I soon found friends in like circumstances, breathing deeply and grateful for having survived that war-torn world. We were, of course, anxious to pick up the threads of a normal life, despite the severe rationing of goods or simply their unavailability. Our lives were there to be lived – we were the lucky ones.
My father and mother as always had made a lot of friends in Brighton, amongst them people of my age, including the Cutresses and the Braybons. The Cutress boys comprised John and Tony, both having escaped from a pretty rough war. John married June Ring and Tony wed Margaret (Peg) Braybon.
On one occasion I was invited to a party in the house of the Borough Engineer of Brighton. The guests included the Braybon family; their daughter Peg had attended school in Malvern with Mary Smith where they became close friends and Mary was then living in the Braybon household. Mary Smith trained as a nurse at Middlesex Hospital and was working in the General Hospital in Brighton. When I first saw Mary, sitting quietly at the back of the room, I thought she looked utterly gorgeous. So gorgeous that I could not resist approaching her and asking if she would have tea with me. She said she would be delighted.
A few days later I took her to tea at Drusilla’s, a romantic, traditional tea shop on the cliff side. As we sat and had tea, I think we just fell in love. By the time we finished tea, it was quite evident that we would marry. We did not talk about it, but we both seemed to assume that we were made for each other. This was the wonderful Mary Smith who joined me in marriage in 1947 for some 56 years and made my life the happiest that it could possibly ever be.
We celebrated our intention to wed at Mary’s 21st birthday party, held at the Braybon house. After the war, there were a lot of courtships and marriages, including John Cutress to June Ring, Tony Cutress and Peg Braybon, Barbara Cutress and Mr. Robertson, and Connie who was returning from Calcutta with her beau, Simpson Lees Jones. So it was a massive courtship.
We were all starry-eyed and carefree; we were all getting back to work and all looking forward to marriage and children in post-war Britain. We were lucky in that the Cutress family ran a bakery and some restaurants, which was literally manna from heaven in those heavily rationed days.
My father gave me back my old Rover 12 which he had driven during the latter part of the war and which I had had camouflage-painted. With this car Mary learned how to double declutch, as there was no synchroniser mechanism.
We did not have much petrol, as rationing was still in force, but enough for the occasional picnic. More often, we walked the romantic cliffs of Brighton.
Mary’s family home was in Newport, Monmouthshire, where she grew up with her two sisters and four brothers. By one means or another, I managed to get my restrictive petrol rationing stretched so I could visit her there.
Showing off for my first visit to Mary’s family, I borrowed my father’s very showy Alvis car. Although I was terrified, I had to ask her father, Henry Smith, a civil engineer, for her hand in marriage.
Henry was a Mason and for our meeting he had returned home after a Masonic Lodge meeting at which I believe he had calmed his nerves adequately.
So we sat down, just the two of us, in the kitchen and talked about the bridge he was building in Newport and the problems he faced with it. Not to be beaten, I talked about what I thought was the most interesting thing I had done (which was not very interesting, really) and made it sound a little more exciting than it was.
Time passed. Mary and her mother were sitting on the staircase outside the room waiting for us to finish our discussion.
As we kept on, Mary’s mother put her head around the door and said ‘Henry, you know what Donald is here for, don’t you?’ He said ‘Oh yes, he wants to marry Mary. Well, we won’t be long’ but he kept on about his bridge.
I asked him if he wanted to know anything about me, and he said he thought it was customary to ask how much I was earning.
When he recovered from the shock of learning that my income was a mere £1,000, he gave his approval.
Mary started what was called her ‘bottom drawer’ collection of goods for making a home. The job was what to fill it with, as there was nothing to buy.
We wed on 17 April 1947 when Mary was 21 and I was 28, at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Brighton and the reception was held at the Braybon family home, Copper Cliff.
Church of the Good Shepherd
My best man was John Cutress,* who stoked me up to stabilise my walk down the aisle. After the celebrations, we set off to the Grosvenor House Hotel in London for a night.
Then it was the road to Scotland with an AA guide which explained every turning all the way there. Going abroad was totally out of the question as you could only take £20 with you and it was entered into your passport. Later when we found out which ropes to pull, we managed to travel to France.
What indeed was the wonderful star that I carried around with me for so much of my life? Although on the verge of our marriage we were still without accommodation, which was difficult to obtain immediately post-war. Tom Braybon (Peg’s father) came to the rescue when he said, ‘I’ve got a fire watching* flat in Brighton. Would you like to rent it?’ I told him I would be delighted. I think it was the exorbitant rate of something like £4 per week.
It was a tiny one room studio flat, partly furnished and with kitchen on the fifth floor of Princes House in the middle of Brighton. The electricity was turned off from 9 am until 5 pm due to rationing, so you had to plan your activities carefully. The little dog we received as a wedding present from Mary’s sister Joan and her husband Bill had to be got up and down the stairs. I found a secret way through a door leading to the flat, gravel roof and so our little dog did its business on the roof and once a week I would clear it up thus saving walking up and down stairs.
It was a very hot summer indeed. My mother had a beach hut in Shoreham, and we made good use of the hut so we could splash about in the sea and cook there too.
Our first married Christmas was spent in Wales with Mary’s sister Joan and her newlywed husband, Dr. Bill Murray Jones, Welsh to the core and dedicated to the new National Health Service. We had managed to obtain a turkey, but did not have an oven large enough. It was cooked, in a time-honoured tradition, with many others in the local village bread ovens and Bill and I marched home to 2 Van Road, Caerphilly with the cooked turkey to enjoy our feast. Our first holiday was in the bomb-shattered Palace Hotel in Torquay, again with Joan and Bill, and there we all learned the rave new dance, the rumba.
The Palace Hotel after the December raid in 1942 (HERE)
On our £1,000, we did very well. One reason was that there was nothing to buy. Food was rationed, goods were a rarity. You could not go and buy a wireless set or something like that. Everything was rationed. Even furniture was standard ‘utility’ furniture made to only a few designs under a government rationing programme which lasted until 1952. It was well made but it was all the same so if you went to see a friend who was recently married, the furniture they had was exactly the same as the furniture you had.
Never mind. It was fun and it did not matter one iota to us. We lived quite happily. I think our allowance for entertainment was about 8 shillings a week, with which we would either go to a cinema or to Lewes for a pub lunch. As chicken was not rationed, we would have a glass of sherry, a bowl of soup, chicken and some custard. That indeed was a treat!
* Members of the Cutress family were lifelong friends or the Rees family.
John Stephen Cutress was born on 9 September 1920. John Cutress enlisted as a gunner in the Royal Artillery as a young man and he subsequently received commissioned rank in the 11th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. During the Second World War Captain Cutress was awarded the Military Medal for single-handedly recapturing an observation post (vital to the overall operation) and capturing some 40 German soldiers.
Charles Anthony (Tony) Cutress, like his brother, was awarded the Military Cross during the Second World War after heroic action in the famous battle of Monte Cassino. Tony Cutress served first with the Grenadier Guards, then with the Royal Hampshire Regiment and afterwards he transferred to the Royal Army Catering Corps.
True family life begins
In good time, we thought we should get a house. Mary said, ‘What with? We haven’t got any money.’ I said, ‘That is what banks are for.’ She said, ‘Banks? My father never borrowed a penny in his life.’ Although she was very proud of this, I said, ‘Well, he must have been undertrading. We will go to the bank.’ We went to the Midland Bank, Victoria Street, which looked after the company business and where I had been a customer since the age of 16, and we made a very nice arrangement with them. It was a plan with some kind of reducing scale, but not a mortgage.
Houses were at a premium as thousands had been bombed out and a lot were needed for returning forces as well as the scores of newlyweds. The government, which had become practiced in controlling our lives, continued to do so and it soon became clear that erecting a ‘For Sale’ sign was an invitation to the local authority to commandeer the house for returning troops. Moreover, the meagre petrol rationing meant that there was never enough fuel to go looking at anything which might have been on the market. Buying consequently was a hush-hush business with confidential discussions and back-handed bribes to people ‘who knew.’
After a while, I wrote to six leading estate agents in London and sent them a rather pretty picture I drew of a little thatched cottage with a moon in the right hand corner in which was stuck a ‘For Sale’ board. It said something like, ‘We may be reaching for the moon, but we would like something like this and we have £3,500.’
A firm called F L Mercer phoned (great progress it was, too, to have a telephone) to say they had just what we wanted, with three bedrooms in Horley (which was on the mainline to London’s Victoria Street Station, which I wanted) and was in walking distance to the station. But he said that the only snag was that it was a little more money than I specified. When I asked how much, he said it was £4,500. I said that we would go and look.
A Mr. Anderson answered the door and spoke English with an unusual accent. He was German, but naturalised British. When I introduced myself, he said that he knew a Bill Rees in London.
I said, ‘My father’s name is Bill Rees. How would you know him?’
He answered, ‘He is a member of the Asphalt Roads Association, and I am the secretary.’
I said, ‘That’s my father!’
Another coincidence with my shining star. We bought the house; the maid, who had worked for them right through the war, handed the key to us as we entered, as there was no way one would leave it unoccupied. That was how strict it was.
We named the house Little Poynings, associating it with Peg Braybon/Cutress, who was then living in the village of Poynings near Brighton. It was our first little dream house, and we moved into 131 Balcombe Road in April 1948.
We did not have much to put in it, but Mary’s mother was very helpful as she had dealt with a carpet company in Newport right through her married life and was able to arrange some carpet from her ration, as she had three daughters all getting married. It was a rose coloured Wilton carpet and we all had the same.
My father spotted a nice settee in Rings furniture company and he got it put aside for us. We also managed to get a double bed, a rare treat, and we had donations of ‘spare’ furniture from the family too.
Just around the corner, a stone’s throw away, was another young couple with a young family who were just moving into their home as well. Dr. Lloyd and Betty Divers were to become friends for life. In fact, Lloyd was at my 90th birthday party in 2008.
Another neighbour was Alan Crick who worked in London for one of the ministries in quite a high office. He had bought a collapsible canoe for a week to take down the River Severn, which along with the locks and dams, had been neglected.
The boat often scraped along the bottom, but we had a great time. Every week or so, Alan had a fascinating visitor, Enoch Powell, who would stay the night and with whom I was invited to enjoy many an evening. Powell had an incredible mind and a chat with him was always stimulating. So we had a nice circle of friends in Horley. We were approached by some to play bridge, but Mary claimed that she did not play, as we did not want to get in with a local bridge circle.
I was traveling a lot driving to Stroud in Gloucestershire and up to the Midlands where the company put in a plant. It was a busy time for me, but most enjoyable.
While at Little Poynings, our first son, Richard, was born on 5 July 1950 at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in Hammersmith. At the time there was a very exciting game on the radio at Wimbledon where the match had gone to something like 29-30, as there were no tie-breakers in those days. It was so exciting that I sat in the car outside the hospital to see who would win. It did go on, and eventually I thought I had better go in and apologised to Mary who said, ‘I see, the tennis is more important than your baby, is it?’ I had to admit that it had been a bit of a pull!
In January 1953 the twins, Nicholas and Andrew, arrived. With the pressure of having three very young children, we hired a nanny, Elizabeth Barrand. Shortly, however, Dr. Divers diagnosed both the twins with cardiac defects, a diagnosis confirmed by Great Ormond Street Hospital. Nicholas underwent a cardiac operation at Great Ormond Street which was remarkably successful.
Sadly, dear Andrew never gained sufficient strength to face such an ordeal and he died on 6 November 1954, less than two years old.
I remember I had been making up a bonfire when from the window the nanny called to me to go up where I found that little Andrew had died in his sleep. Later we were told that had he lived, he probably would have been deaf and confined to a wheelchair. We had been so thrilled at having twins, and then were completely devastated by Andrew’s death, but thankful that Nicholas was doing well.
But we were to be blessed by another set of twins only two years later, David Charles and Peter Michael. So we started all over again - feeding with two bottles going through the night. Damned hard work but it was a wonderful experience.
We were very unusual in that I was Rhesus negative and Mary was Rhesus positive. In those days, the medical profession was just beginning to understand these differences.
Later on, after the first set of twins, Mary had a serious breakdown and was at a mental hospital in Coulsdon, where the doctor was very impatient with me when he discussed doing a lobotomy operation. Eventually I found out that this operation severed a part of the brain in the forehead which would change the patient's personality.
Both Mary and I said 'no way', and she left hospital. But she was still not well. We did not rate the NHS very highly, and went to a private, Jewish doctor in north London instead. He got the report from the NHS doctor and with that in his hands, he tore it in two and threw it away, saying that is where the report deserved to be. He promised Mary to have her well within a fortnight and indeed he did.
Mary at Little Poynings c. 1951
Amongst our friends were the Desoutter family. Their children were in our age bracket, and we saw quite a lot of them. André Marcel Desoutter was chairman of Gatwick, a vastly different Gatwick in those days. In fact, it was a race track in the centre of which was a structure called a beehive, a small airport terminal building serving the grass landing ground used by small aircraft. We would watch the horses exercising there and see the odd aeroplane land or take off.
When Desoutter died, I wondered what would happen to their house, which was on the perimeter of the little airport. It was a lovely house built in 1938 on two acres of land leading down to a lazy river. I learned that it was for sale for £7,200, and agreed to buy it. It proved an easy house to run and sizeable for our family
It is worth pointing out that when we started our family, the educational facilities in the UK were in a shocking state. We sent our children to a local kindergarten, but wondered where we should send them after that, reaching the grand decision that they should be educated privately. This was in sympathy with my father’s dedication to proper education as an essential component of life.
Mary queried how we were going to afford it, and I could only respond that I did not have a clue. She stated firmly, ‘Well, we will somehow.’ It was when we came to selling our Little Poynings house for White Hatch and then later selling White Hatch, that we realised that profits from our house sales would be one way to afford it. This proved to be our educational finance policy.
Eventually there was talk of a new airport at Gatwick, and a ministerial inquiry about it which was well attended by the local population. A question was put at the inquiry as to whether the airport would ever be used by the new jet aircraft which apparently would be the airplane of the future. The minister brazenly assured everyone that there was no intention whatsoever of flying jet airplanes from Gatwick. The man who put the question stood up, shouted ‘liar!’, turned on his heel and walked out. How right he proved to be!
After some years, the bulldozers moved in and that was the beginning of the end as far as we were concerned. So we embarked once more on a house hunting session which took a fascinating turn of events.
A note from Bill Jones, Connie's son:
"Donald: my confident, dynamic uncle
"Uncle Donald, my mother Connie’s younger brother, wasn’t just my uncle: he was also my Godfather. I never questioned my parents’ motives for making both my mother’s brothers my Godfathers, but as a child it always struck me as an odd decision and one I found rather irritating, entirely because I saw my sister Jenni receive presents from Godparents and uncles and aunts. That she got more than me was an early disappointment.
"Connie and Donald had always been close as children and young adults and perhaps my mother wanted the family ties to remain close after the siblings married and raised families of their own. Presents aside, God-fearing did not seem to run in the family and I remember no particular guidance on the subject from either of my Rees uncles.
"I remember first coming to Horley as a small boy and playing in the garden on slides with Richard (older than me), Nicholas (younger), David and Peter (much younger, meaning almost too young to play with). Donald always seemed to have a cine-camera attached to hand and eye and some film of me and Jenni with the boys must exist but I never saw it. After my father Simpson (always called Jay by everyone) died from cancer in the late 1950s, visits to Donald and Mary and the boys seemed to tail off. In truth, Connie and Mary did not quite ‘get on’ and, even as a child, this was something I silently understood.
"There were family ‘exchanges’ – Nicholas came to stay with us in Hove a couple of times and arrived with long instructions from Mary on all sorts of things he wasn’t allowed to do because of his heart condition. After a few days of assimilation, Nico was running around with the rest of us, roaming the district: those were the days when we children went out to play in the morning and didn’t go home until late afternoon or when we were hungry. There is a picture of Richard at one of Jenni’s birthday parties, aged 6 or 7, so there were gatherings too on special occasions.
"I also went to stay with Donald and Mary and the boys at Home Farm, Wentworth, when Connie had to go into hospital for an operation. I remember feeling a little like a fish out of water. I lived in a house with women, and suddenly there were seemingly only boys and lots of them. I remember being invited to peer into a pram in the garden at Wentworth and being told it was baby Jonathan Paul – what another boy! I remember too being shocked one morning when Donald strode naked out on to the landing and proceeded to hand out pocket money to one and all. I had never seen a naked man before!
"I remember rides in Donald’s cars – I knew every car on the road aged 5 and I have a dim memory of an Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire and strong memories of Donald’s several Mercedes-Benz. He drove fast and very close to the cars in front of him. My mother disapproved. But my driving style in my younger days was not dissimilar to Donald’s. When I was 14 or so, Donald told me to drop the ‘uncle’ and just call him Donald. I thought this was typical of the confident, dynamic man I knew Donald to be.
I never spoke to Donald as a child about William F Rees Ltd, the family firm. I had worked out before I was 12 or 13 that being a Jones and not a Rees – I had seven boy cousins called Rees and in those days you had to be a boy - meant I would have to strike out on my own and not rely on any role in the family business.
"As a teenager and in my 20s I took a great interest in the business of Rees Ltd on Connie’s behalf as she owned more than 5% of the shares. With Donald realising that Michael Wheaton, who he’d brought into the company, wasn’t an ally, I took an even greater interest and often went along to AGMs, often as the only family member present. I learned to read a balance sheet and to read the small print. Earlier at a crunch shareholders meeting I attended with Michael Wheaton, Donald and Mary, Connie and even Lundie there, it became clear we did not have the votes to oust Wheaton and that the best course of action was to restore diplomatic relations with him. I remained in touch with Michael, knowing from the figures I saw that the family should all hold on to our shares until the main asset of any value - the building in Old Woking that Donald had bought all those years before – was sold. When it was, the old firm was no more. It closed in 2002, the same year I sold my own business, which wasn’t great for my CGT on my Tax Return that year!
"Jenni and I were both delighted to be invited to Donald’s 90th Birthday celebrations in Portugal. He hadn’t changed in all the years I had not seen him: “The fucking car’s broken down,” was his opening gambit when he phoned me at the hotel to explain slight lateness. We all had a wonderful time, with Donald explaining that I was to sit on his table at his very well-attended celebration dinner because I was his Godson. Bingo! It was worth it after all!"
Six sons at Wentworth
I hadn’t seen Jim (Boone Grubbs Miller) since our commissioning in the Royal Engineers on D-Day. Then one evening I was on the dance floor with Mary at the RAC Club in Epsom along with Mary’s sister Betty and her husband Colin when someone hit me on the back. There was this bleary-eyed American who said: ‘Hi, Don. Does Newark mean anything to you, buddy?’ ‘Oh, my God,’ I said, ‘I thought I had got rid of you years ago.’ He was as incorrigible as ever and the most amazingly interesting, also the most amazingly outrageous, company. At that time, Jim was running Pepsi-Cola UK and he and his wife had acquired St Anthony, a lovely house on the Wentworth Estate near Virginia Water, which we admired greatly.
As the airport at Gatwick was shaping into certainty, Mary and I considered the possibility of moving to Wentworth. The houses were somewhat of a drag on the market because they were rather large, mid-30s, quite old-fashioned designs. Mary contacted a local agency and received numerous details including Home Farm and as I was going that way I looked it over. It had been built in 1938 with a thatched roof and was very spacious.
It was unoccupied and rather neglected, but a fantastic family home with its stables and barns. The front door, however, opened directly into the lounge, so I rejected it. Mary viewed it and quickly remarked, ‘Darling, you are hopeless. What on earth do you think architects are for?!’ It was all-in-all more room than we needed, but space we could use with a large and active family. With the birth of Jonathan Paul on 26 August 1958, we had added a fifth son to our family – no sign of a daughter yet.
Home Farm had been rented by a film company for about five years and was in a mess. The owner wanted to sell, but he gasped when I said £15,830 was the most I could afford. His wife intervened on our behalf when she learned how much we felt the house would be ideal for our five children. It really was the most wonderful family house, located adjacent to the 18th tee of the West Course at Wentworth, nicknamed the Burmah Road** near the end of the war. We moved there in the winter of 1958/59.
I had, however, not taken into account the extra insurance required for thatched houses plus all the extra properties such as the old barns, stables and cottage from the original Home Farm. But what a lovely house it was for the family. Everyone had their own bedroom, bathrooms galore, the barn to turn into a badminton court, outbuildings to turn into workshops and a big room for table tennis. As long as we could keep the house for at least a decade, its value would cover the education costs which was the fundamental issue.
The kitchens were, however, very antiquated. Jim Miller, for his house at Wentworth, had bought a tool set and started making his own kitchen as there were none available in those days – no such thing as built-in kitchens. We did the same at Home Farm, which gave us the idea to develop a kitchen design and installation business.
Much later, I took Jim on to run Rees Instruments in Woking, but his old dynamic in business had faded somewhat and our partnership gradually faded as well, but never our friendship. He was a godfather to Paul and they stayed in touch until Jim died in Scotland in April, 1988, but not before our one reunion the year before in the snug of the Crook Inn in the Borders.
The family continued to grow, with the arrival of Philip Anthony on 29 October 1963 as the last of the tribe. We were fortunate indeed that our property strategy worked and we were able to provide all six children with a public school education which we thought would help them build interesting lives for themselves in ways in which we feared the state schools could not.
Home Farm, Wentworth. The 18th tee of the famous West Course is over the hedge to the left of the weeping willow, (picture above)
Richard went to Westminster School, while the next three (Nicholas, David and Peter) went to Gordonstoun School in Scotland. This was a bit of a journey, but we were assisted by being able to combine trips with inspection visits to projects the company had in Scotland. I don’t know if the boys liked Gordonstoun, which was an outward bound type of school, different, more activities than academic, and having produced some very good men. I doubt that Peter was enamoured with it because according to a letter from his housemaster, he was trying to run the school on what he felt was a better basis from those whose job it was to run the school.
Paul also went to Westminster and like Richard he could easily hop home at weekends. Paul loved the city life and made many firm friendships that would last into adulthood.
Philip went to Lancing which was also less of a task to visit for sports days, parents’ days and the like. I think he got on quite well there. His uncle, John Cuttress, had a hotel in Brighton where Philip on occassion received a hearty lunch.
Home Farm garden, 1964. Back: Peter, Paul, David; Front: Nicholas, Philip, Richard
In 1968, my dear father died after having suffered a stroke about two years before. The year after my mother had died in 1948, William F had married Dorothy Sheppard (1895-1972), (both pictured below) who had managed the apartments on the Thames where we had lived at 70 Thames Eyot, Cross Deep, Twickenham, after selling the Cheltenham property. The marriage was perhaps not always an easy one, and he would come to work sometimes complaining about things, but it endured.
A holiday home in Wales
We took holidays, which we could not really afford, and sought variety. We all went fishing in Loch Shiel, near Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. A friend of a friend, who pronounced his title to be 'Fred the Fisher' taught us and we learned a great deal from him. Some years later, we asked him if he would like to have a working Christmas with us in Wentworth. ‘Just send me the fare,’ he replied. He happily flirted with grandma in the kitchen as well as helping with all the cooking and other preparations for the festivities. The boys simply adored him and for years afterwards contrived to post him grey squirrel tails to be used in fly tying.
We later went fishing in Norway, which was terribly expensive. With six rods in the water and everything prepared for grilling, we caught nothing the entire two weeks. The day we left in our hire car to get back to the airport, the fishing started. The plankton had come up and all the local fishermen were rowing out to catch fish while we came back without a single one.
At home, I thought what a nonsense it was to have a mere two weeks in a year for an expensive holiday which could too easily be a wash out. This led us to the Welsh coastal village of Borth in Cardiganshire where the following year we spent two weeks in a bungalow owned by Uncle Bill and Aunty Joan, Mary’s brother-in-law and sister. It was glorious in that it did not rain the entire time. We decided to buy some land and build a holiday home for our family.
In 1966, we bought a cedar wood bungalow from Gildway’s in Guildford. The land was at Ynyslas ('blue island,' in Welsh), a mile or so up the coastal road from Borth. The bungalow and the furnishings cost us the handsome sum of £5,000. Finding the land was not so easy, but I discovered that the chairman of the housing committee for Borth was a farmer named Williams. I went to see him and pleaded my Welsh credentials, explaining how disappointing I found it that I could not buy a piece of land in my own country.
Farmer Williams helped us find the plot we bought and the bulding was erected by Gethin Evans (a first for him, as I later discovered) who lived in Borth. Gethin was a wily, compact local with a twinkle in his eye, a massive beard and, to the boys' delight, a sizeable lobster fishing boat. We bought two plots to preserve the view to the mountains and built Cedar Hatch on the other. The holiday home was a huge success and lasted us year after year providing the backdrop for very enjoyable family holidays.
Cedar Hatch,Ynyslas, Cardiganshire in the mid-1960s
When the boys were more independent, we sold the property for about £24,000 some 14 years later. The building was wood, which a subsequent owner faced the bungalow in brick and pebledash.
In an ironic twist, my sister-in-law Joan Murray-Jones’ daughter Lucy and her husband Nick Napier-Andrews purchased this house for themselves in 2009 and live there happily - it has come back into the family.
From our cottage it was easy to go up the mountains to the lakes, the golf course was immediately next to us and fishing was very much part of the holiday as we could easily fish from the seashore.
We bought a plastic boat, but after the first storm it was in pieces. We then bought Gwylan, a very nice little sailing and motor boat which was enormous fun but a bit frightening in a storm.
We had a Peugeot family estate car with a big swinging door on the back where the fishing rods were on the roof rack hanging over a bit. Once when I slammed the door shut, I managed to snap the ends of every one of those lovely wooden rods – an expensive disaster.
Mary as usual ran the catering. The boys would get through two shoulders of lamb in one sitting. Their appetites were absolutely enormous. When they came back from boarding school, we could not have coped had not Mary pre-cooked and frozen stews and the like.
Home Farm eventually became somewhat expensive and extravagant, and far too big, now that the family were growing up. We made a very nice profit on Home Farm which helped with educational fees and moved to another house in Wentworth called White Hatch in Woodlands Road East. It was another beautiful house into which Mary put an enormous amount of detailed thought and love for its refurbishment.
But we were destined not to live there for very long. Neither of us had been well. Mary had been very ill which concerned me greatly. We had taken advice galore from specialists, but no advice proved a remedy. At the same time, I had had pneumonia. In addition, I was gearing up to a major change in the whole of the company’s business affairs. The climate for the small or medium-sized public works contractor was increasingly grim. Unions were running amok in small and big companies alike. If a large contractor had more than 200 employees, it became a target for the unions. Britain was in a mess.
So as my retirement at 65 approached and a move to somewhere sunny was being planned, we sold White Hatch and bought a small townhouse on a new development called Fountain Gardens in Windsor as a safety net for the family as we did not want them to feel as if we were abandoning them, although our intention was to spend more time in Portugal than in the UK.
It was a modern house in a development of some 20 houses and a number of apartments near the historic Long Walk that led down from Windsor Castle’s south entrance. We were the first to buy a property there and, because developers are always anxious to secure the first purchase, we were given a very good deal with a number of free items if we signed "before Christmas." It was a nice little house, easy to run and eventually easy to sell, but before that we returned for summers there for many years.
The notion of Portugal
Dr. Foster Cooper, our old and dearest friend, advised me not to stay in the Thames Valley as it would take too great a toll on my health and recommended that we should look for a decent country with good weather. Furthermore, he told us about his house in the little village of Carvoeiro in the Algarve region of Portugal and extended an invitation for us to visit.
We liked it very much indeed and moved in stages to Portugal as we built our new home between 1982 and 1983 - 'Quinta do Sobreiro' in Porches Velho, Lagoa.
The funny thing was, with lots of friends in the area, it was not long before I was talking about my old friend, Dr. Foster Cooper. ‘Oh,’ said Wing Commander Tim Thomas, ‘they were our next door neighbours.’ Well, isn’t it a small world.
We lived at the Quinta for nearly 20 years until my darling Mary died in 2002. During that time we enjoyed our new life in Portugal very much indeed and met many interesting people who have remained firm friends for many years. Mary doted on her garden and on her children and grandchildren whose visits we both adored.
We had the great bonus of being able to enjoy the company of David and Simone and their two daughters, Emily and Adèle, over a period of about ten years when they lived and worked in the Algarve. Also, for eight or so years, Paul’s daughter Helen lived with us, giving us a great deal of pleasure and many happy memories of school days and learning, holidays, and family time. Many people who retire here are not so fortunate to be able to watch at least some of their grandchildren grow up, so we felt very privileged.
When Mary was diagnosed with cancer, we sought a house which would be easier for me to run on my own. We found a development called Presa de Moura at Sesmarias near Carvoeiro, selected a plot and ordered a villa.
As this would take a year or two to build, we purchased a nearby townhouse, in which Mary never lived, but for me was a safety net.
(Mary died in May 2002 at the Casa de Jacki nursing home near Praia da Luz after a long illness)
Having sold Quinta do Sobreiro, I moved in to the new townhouse at 52 Presa de Moura and shortly afterwards was blessed with the companionship and enormous help and support from my dear son, Paul, and his darling wife, Janet. They had decided to 'come and cheer me up' after me after Mary's death and from 2013 started a fun and fulfilling peiod without a dull moment. Their generous love and support produced for me a whole new life which helped heal the wounds of the loss of my darling wife who died on 17 May 2002.
Mary and I had fifty-five years of rich and fruitful married life and although there isn’t a day which goes by in which I do not feel her loss sorely, I relish our many happy memories. I will not allow that sadness to spoil the wonderful love and support that I have received throughout the family, and the prescious memories I savour of my golden years which I continue to treasure each day.
As I write these notes on 17 May 2007, I am sitting in my snug at Quinta Moinho de Vento (the Windmill Farm) which Paul and Janet had built in the countryside near Algoz, Silves. It's a lovely early summer’s evening with the sun shining across the fields. The peace is wonderful and I think of Mary and I think how much she would have enjoyed this scenario.
It takes me back to White Hatch and our simple two acres. We loved the openness of it and that is what we have here. Since Mary has been gone, I have tried to keep my promise to her to 'enjoy what is left.' Well, with the help and love of my family and friends, I have enjoyed what is left. But certainly I would have enjoyed it so much more with my darling wife right beside me. Basically, I am a bit of a dull chap and Mary was my inspiration. All that I have, all that I am, all that I achieved - Mary was responsible for a major part with no responsibility whatsoever for any of the bad bits.
But believe me, it was exciting when I celebrated my 90th birthday on 14 June, 2008 to be joined by so many family members from both the Rees side and the Smith side, many of whom I had not seen in years - and indeed many who had not seen each other either. So it was a great opportunity to pull the family together and utterly wonderful. The organisation was entirely down to Janet with events spread over at least a week, finishing with a gala family dinner at Vila Vita Parc, surrounded by generations of Reeses and many family members that I had not seen for decades.
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Notes: * 'Fire watch.' On the outbreak of the Second World War the British government were especially worried about the Luftwaffe dropping incendiary bombs. Some 86,000 stirrup pumps were distributed to local authorities and air-raid wardens were asked to arrange for local volunteer groups to be formed to help put out fires during bombing raids.
The government decided to establish the Auxiliary Fire Service. Around 6,000 people were recruited and they went on duty after working in their normal jobs during the day. Temporary fire stations were set up in schools and church halls. Volunteers agreed to work on low pay and without sick leave or holidays. This upset the Fire Brigades Union who were at the time trying to improve their members pay and conditions.
In September 1940, a Fire Watchers Order was issued. Men could now be compelled to fire watch for a maximum of forty-eight hours per month. Local fireman also trained new Supplementary Fire Parties (SFP). In some cases local authorities provided the men with steel helmets and armbands marked SFP.
The owners of factories and large buildings were responsible for providing firewatchers. It was therefore of great embarrassment when it was discovered that when the House of Commons caught fire in May 1941, MPs had not provided sufficient volunteers to protect it. During the war 793 fireman and 25 firewomen lost their lives and another 7,000 were seriously injured. This included a large number who were temporarily or permanently blinded by heat or sparks.
**The West Course at Wentworth became known as the Burma Road at the end of World War II when German prisoners of war from a camp in nearby Egham were brought in to clear vegetation that had overgrown the fairways while the course was closed for fear of the enemy landing by light aircraft. One officer reputedly commented, “Let this be their Burma Road.”
Post-war business life - let the battle commence
Returning home from war and picking up the threads, I had to look at things anew in a very changed industry and to assess where a fairly secure future lay, the sort of changes that the company would need to make and the assets required.
It was clear that a lot of the things we were doing were not likely to lead to a profitable future. We had to separate the wheat from the chaff and discard areas of work which had little future. The best of the strong products was WF’s patented cold asphalt, Resmat, and we had several plants in the country operating to make Britain’s existing roads safer, as many were dangerous and far from skid-proof. No one else had a product like Resmat at the time, whereas many firms were involved in patch-and-make-do road work.
But I also realised the extent to which subsurface facilities had suffered through bomb damage and lack of maintenance. I predicted that traditional servicing and maintenance of underground services such as water, gas, electricity and sewerage were going to have to change enormously in order to meet an increasing demand in peace time as well as employing new technology.
New towns were being built and most building jobs there went to the very big contractors. Rees did have some jobs at the lower end of the market, including Crawley and Bristol, although it was not very satisfying work as the major contractors had been able to cut prices considerably. The ministry in charge of financing the local authority schemes was attempting to decrease the diameters of pipes, an absurd economy, because demand for the services were bound to increase and would need better quality.
This was leading me to identifying the markets we needed to be in, steering away from the traditional public works contracts and into more specialised and innovative operations.
Risks needed to be taken, but the measure of the risk had to be calculated. And on the personal level, I had ambitions which basically comprised earning enough money to afford good education for my children and working to retire at the normal retirement age of 65 with adequate funds or assets to enjoy that retirement. On this score, I had clearly recognised the undesirable “clogs to clogs in three generations” element of many family businesses.
I had the pleasure and advantage of working under the guidance of a qualified engineer, Norman Morgan, Surveyor and Engineer for Stroud Rural District Council, Gloucestershire, who was a lovely man and a very good engineer. Guidance also came from another qualified engineer called Harry Coxhead. I learned a great deal from this wise generation who were very cautious, traditional and felt they were not paid to take risks. Their hum-drum sort of civil engineering had to my mind, even at that time, a limited future and one based upon intensive labour, which in time would become more expensive, more difficult, and which was becoming increasingly unionised.
I spent a lot of time studying soil mechanics to take us into sensitive areas where the soil quality would be a greater challenge to the competitive bidder. In this field, I engaged another engineer, Pat Patterson, who in turn engaged a brilliant North Country miner called Dave Hopson. Hopson had a team of hard-working Latvians who thrived on challenging conditions. This chain of events became key factors in eventually changing direction.
The contracts we wanted, however, were larger than we were used to and consequently, we needed a higher financial base. After an initial rejection, Charterhouse provided us such support by nominating a Board Director, Richard Strong, who was helpful but a weak man lacking in vigour. This arrangement was accepted by William F, but not with enthusiasm, as I had specified a turnover for the company of over £1 million, without which my personal ambitions could not be achieved.
Burying the hatchet
This remarkable father of mine had taken bold risks in achieving his ambitions, and I suppose it was something which I absorbed from him. But I think the transitions from more traditional fields into wider exploratory post-war growth with the need for large sums of capital must have frightened him somewhat. He lost confidence in my policy direction and I became disconnected from his wavelength. Most dialogue between us ceased.
Then, one 4th of July, American Independence Day, an American walked into my office and talked about the benefits to be achieved by using the Barber-Greene asphalt continuous mixing system instead of the batch mixing we were doing at Chelsea.
I told him that that was my father’s sacred cow and that he was particular about his Resmat production. He said I should really go to the US and see what was being done. I dragged my heels, but the American was insistent, so finally I telephoned my father and explained that this visitor considered the Barber-Greene asphalt mixer was ideal for us and that he wanted to demonstrate it to us in America. My father said, ‘Oh, alright. You had better book us both on the Queen Mary.’ So that was the end of our rather electric silence because by 8 p.m. in the bar on the Queen Mary we were back to a very happy relationship.
After New York, we flew to Chicago on a four engine propeller aircraft. At one point William F leant over and said, ‘One of engines on this side seemed to have stopped.’ I informed him that there was nothing to worry about, although I was indeed worried. Not long after, he informed me that an engine on my side had also stopped. I continued to assure him, even though my assurances were made up as I went along. However, we did land safely and we were met by the Barber-Greene rep who had been in flight control.
He commented on the engine failure, and further informed us that a third engine was on the blink and no one had ever landed an aircraft with only one engine.
The Barber-Greene system would not have worked as a continuous mix. My father spotted that right away and I endorsed him entirely. A major part of our secret was how the superfine grades were added to the mixture, and we realised this other technique could not succeed.
We had a great time. I returned by air and father by Canadian ship. This had been a critical turning point. I adored and respected my father, but we did not always agree on future channels of business to see the company progress.
I would not have broken his heart, and would have wished him well had he wanted to continue with more traditional business, but could not have worked happily in such an environment and would have found employment elsewhere.
Happily, our trip brought us back together on course and able to take decisions together.
For some years, I had been concerned about the fact that we did not own the three critical profit centres on the asphalt side.
We had a first class product, but an unpatented one which was about to come under British standard specification, so anyone could make it after that. We had some asphalt laying competence, but we were very small in the game and with the big jobs coming up, such as highways and getting the roads back into shape, we would need a lot of very expensive capital equipment, such as appropriate trucks, manufacturing centres and the likes. It was a game for the big boys.
It was also a matter of mineral resources. The company which was supplying us with crushed and graded cinders began to wonder why they did not make asphalt themselves and decided to do so. This put us into turmoil which made our plant at Chelsea seem no longer such a viable option. We needed to find a new resource for the aggregate and to develop our competence in surfacing nationwide.
That would head us into very strong competitive markets based on economy of volume. I had considered Chelsea Basin as a gem. It was an unused railway siding by Lots Road power station which my father acquired and established as our main mixing plant. It had direct access to one of the steel works from which we were drawing the crushed crystallised residues from the steel making. It became absolutely key as it was only four miles from Piccadilly Circus, making it the closest asphalt manufacturing plant in the whole of London. It was a thorn in the side of the other manufacturers who had to pay for long haul from greater distances.
But it had a flaw – on the other side of the river was a flour mill. I was tipped off that some competitors were hatching a plan so I used to go for a drink in pubs on the river just to see how flour dust was drifting over to our side. It was not all that much, but our competitors, and one in particular, were nosing around to see if they could actually stop our use of Chelsea Basin by claiming the dust was ruining our mixture.
I knew it was probably time to get out of asphalt but needed to be clever about it. I found an answer in Denmark where a new dustless plant had been produced. I bought the new plant for something like £120,000 which would not only remove the dust problem entirely, but also would make both hot and cold asphalt. If we had the security of not being thrown out of Chelsea Basin for dust, if we had both hot and cold asphalt to sell, and if we remained four miles from Piccadilly, we had then a real gem. It was a brilliant machine and the press coverage we received was excellent. This rendered it difficult for our rivals to compete because our manufacture was economical as was our delivery to London’s vast market.
The whole initiative was designed to pressure some of the big boys to buy it all, and this was exactly what happened. I had earmarked three competitors. We sold to English China Clays because they took the lot – the Resmat asphalt company, the surfacing company, and other aspects. We did very well out of the deal and it also meant that we got out of that industry which eventually would have crucified us, as in the end, only the biggest companies thrived. All of the small firms, as we were, eventually got taken over or buried. I was glad to get out and at a profit.
If my dear father had wanted a decision of the heart rather than the head, namely to keep Resmat as it was, I would have helped him do it, but would not have looked upon it as a business enterprise of any merit. But he ran along with the case that I was making, namely that we had to define our future and not just jog along with unsecured supplies which would be doomed eventually because we owned the manufacturing and the laying system, but we did not have any quarries or own any minerals. The ones who would come out on top would be the ones who owned all of those systems, namely minerals, asphalt mixing and application.
For the love of London
The company was doing a great deal of work paving the streets of the City of London, but making no profit on it. In my view we had to get out, but I don’t believe I could have sold the City of London work while my father was alive because it was his love. He loved his London and it was his challenge to himself to return to where he was born and show them what he was made of.
He had sauntered the city streets in his early days watching the masons and paviors working for the contractor who had been in place for 30 years. He decided that they were not working very efficiently and that he would tender for the work next time it came up. He applied and was called to the City Engineer’s office to be ‘examined’. The engineer was satisfied that he knew what he was talking about, but said, ‘Of course, you know, Mr. Rees, that you have to have a yard in the City in order to undertake this work.’
My father said, ‘Yes. It is lunchtime. Do you mind if we carry on after lunch?’ - the engineer agreed.
During the break, my father rushed around the City, found a yard within the bounds and put down a deposit to rent it. On his return to the office he said, ‘Now, where were we?’
The engineer reminded him that they had just been talking about the requirement to have a depot within the City. My father said, ‘Oh, yes. It is 27 John Fisher Street.’ He got the job and carried it on for 30 years.
Eventually, things changed. The arts and crafts side of things was fading as more precast concrete kerbs and slabs were being used rather than Aberdeen granite for the kerbs and York Stone for the slabs. Ultimately, the job became less profitable. The contract had always been viewed more as a matter of pride than profit, but eventually wound up costing rather than paying.
But this was something for which William F had worked hard and which remained dear to him. He was a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Paviors, although he did not live long enough to become master. I followed William F as a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Paviors, in which many of the big firms were members. In fact, I lived long enough to become Master in 1980. Seen below with Mary, welcoming the Lord Mayor.
My track record in business eventually led me to being appointed a Fellow of the Institution of Public Health Engineers, a Companion of the Institution of Civil Engineers and furthermore awarded the honour of OBE in December 1978 for services to exports.
Useful Paviour's contacts
The Worshipful Company did provide some very useful business relationships. When the Governor of Bangkok visited me, I rang the Lord Mayor of London’s office and asked if the two could meet and shake hands. I was told that not only that but the Lord Mayor would invite his counterpart to lunch at the Mansion House.
I delivered the Governor of Bangkok in our nice chauffeur-driven Bentley where the Lord Mayor was in full regalia. He came directly to me and said, ‘Ah, bless you, Rees. How kind of you to bring the Governor to see me.’ When I collected him afterwards, he came out puffing on a great big cigar after a typical Mansion House lunch.
Later at the airport for his departure, I went to Reuters to see if they would interview the Governor. They wanted to know the angle and I knew there was not a great deal in it.
Reuters did interview him, after £5 had be slipped their way, inquiring 'what brought him to London?' to which he replied, ‘I came to have lunch with the Lord Mayor of London. Although I have been here many times, it is the first time I have had lunch with him and it has been a great pleasure.’ When he got back to Bangkok, he said exactly the same to the press there. As small as this all might seem, it was not without impact, particularly perhaps for exports. The City Livery Company was a great help for exporters and this facility brought us more than the Bangkok order.
Not everything was so easy and from time to time we faced problems with local authorities in which pockets of corruption existed. I had a firm policy to avoid dealing with any authorities we knew to be corrupt. Sometimes I was challenged by the authority as to why our firm did not do business with them, and I would state that the problem in my view was corruption. Even after all this time, I am not inclined to publish the details as to which authorities, but feel it nevertheless important to point out the generalities of the situation.
All of this increased my belief that working in Britain for British organisations, mainly local authorities, was not the healthiest court to play on. I gave a talk up north in which I asked the gathering, mainly of city engineers, how much money their councils owed us – I must say that talk got wide publicity.
As a way of unblocking the logjam, I asked my quantity surveyor to list the considerable amounts local authorities owed us on outstanding claims. I went personally to the authorities and said I would do a deal – 50% of the claim within 30 days. Every one of them agreed. The point was that had we gone to arbitration, we were likely to finish up with only 50% of the claim anyway. It may be called arbitration, but the term is hollow. I was asked why I gave such a big discount. I explained that we could use the money by turning it over, maybe four or six times a year, instead of waiting year after year to go through the courts which would also cost money and the delay was frustrating our ability to utilise the money we were due.
That was the atmosphere in which we were living, an atmosphere which I deplored. The work was on a stop-go situation, the government could cut off capital spending overnight, and taxation was sky-high. Indeed, at one time, on top of the top rate of tax was a 15% surtax which took the total tax rate up to 98%.
By and large Britain’s construction sector was in trouble – the whole sector did not have sufficient funding to meet the needs and the unions were making things difficult.
Everything had to be done ‘by the book’ – if it wasn’t in the book, you could not do it. That, I reckoned, was conquerable and while I had not belonged to many official associations, I decided I would get myself nominated into some. Having a few letters to add to your name helped the elitist segment of the industry take notice, and that in turn influences government to take notice.
Landing out biggest contract yet – Jersey – early 1950s
This project, our biggest contracting job, involved putting in a sewer from St. Helier through to St Brelade’s Bay which took several years. It proved a major turning point for us as it would take us away from the image we had prior to it and put us into a totally higher level of understanding and ability. This applied to the standard of the staff involved as well because the previous staff would not have been able to demonstrate the level of competence we found with Pat Patterson and Dave Hopson.
My contracts manager, Pat Patterson, and my general foreman, Dave Hopson, told me that there was an advert for major sewerage works in Jersey and quipped that he and Dave could do with a holiday. I told them to pack their bags and enjoy their visit.
They returned full of enthusiasm, claiming it was an absolute cracker. So we made a serious tender. In reviewing our submission, Pat spotted a critical error the engineer had made, namely that running sand in manhole shafts had been included but running sand in the trench had not, although sand was likely to be found in both. Pat thought we could, therefore, charge a high price for the shafts and a low price for the trenches and if we found running sand then we could make a lot of money by having the price quoted for the shaft also applied to the trenches. I feared that this trick would make us very unpopular, as they would soon be spending more than the estimates, and these would be reviewed directly by the Jersey parliament.
So I rang Jersey’s chief engineer, Mr. Sidney Gothard, and said, ‘I would like Mr. Patterson to return to discuss a serious error in the calculations.’ Pat met with Mr. Gothard who was delighted to discover our integrity in reporting the blunder. We tendered, but only came second. However, we got the job, because when he presented the propositions to his parliamentary body, Gothard explained that the lowest tender was from a company which did not bother to come and inspect the site while the second tender was from a company which did a thorough inspection, covered every possible detail, and showed great integrity in its tender. Gothard recommended us and the parliamentary body agreed.
One problem was that we were driving timber piling which was difficult to obtain, let alone the more useful steel which was impossible to get. We needed first-class timber to drive 30 feet below ground. Everything had to go through timber control and I got wind of the fact that a ship load of timber was coming from Canada for building priority. Quite deviously, we hijacked it and had it delivered to Jersey. It was off-loaded and on site in no time at all, but the timber control in London was furious and they asked the authorities in Jersey to thoroughly reprimand the contractors. I had to attend the reprimand where I was sternly informed that timber reserved for priority housing had been diverted to use for sewer trenches. After he reprimanded me, he leaned forward and whispered, ‘How’s the job going?’ I said, ‘Very well, indeed, sir.’ He said, ‘Jolly good. Good boy.’
At one stage, we had to put compressed air on a tunnel section under St. Helier. We hit very soft ground, which required us to keep 10 pound pressure of air on the face of the shield driven tunnel to keep it stable. We went merrily along but suddenly the face blew and the air escaped. We shut everything up but found an old masonry sewer running nearby into which the air had escaped; it had gone up a connection and actually blown an unsuspecting woman off her loo! We were surprised and embarrassed, but certainly no more so than she was.
We had to find a way to line the sewers to avoid such problems. One of my engineers, Dave Scott, who had been in the army with me, remembered a magazine article concerning a sewer in Reigate which had been lined in 1935 by prepared segments. We inspected the Reigate sewer and believed it was perfect despite having been done years earlier. So, we lined the adjacent sewers using this technique, as an extra of course, and it worked like a charm.
Bill Rees 70th celebrations
The Jersey contract was completed around the time of my father’s 70th birthday; he was still taking a keen interest in the business (in fact he maintained this until well into his 80s) and he was held in great regard by all his colleagues.
His 70th birthday was marked by the tribute below, in which Jersey gets a mention:
We had a cinema in the Old Woking office to which I used to invite engineers to demonstrate what we were doing and to get their support. One of the engineers said, ‘Oh, Donald. You ought to call yourselves Seer, not Rees – you do everything arse about face.’ I said, ‘That is just what we need.’ From there on, everything was prefixed Seer – Seergun, Seerpoint, Seerseal, Seerthrust, Seer TV Surveys, and the like. Seer became our company signal.
Development of Seergun
The sewer relining system that we used in Jersey was the beginning of what we called Seergun which proved to be an absolute winner. I thought we should be using this technique on London’s brick, egg-shaped, 150-year-old sewers, which we could tackle when the Jersey job was finished.
What a wonderful market that was! We lined about 80 miles with Seergun which was a unique lining system and it proved a real money maker. Here again, appropriate technology and in this instance bringing back a technology that was long dead.
Fortunately, the sewers were designed with a large reservoir capacity so that the sewage could drain into the system with the outlets sealed into the Thames. Tide flaps would keep it all in place and were opened with an outgoing tide so the contents of the sewer would flood into the river. Prior to effective sewage treatment, this was the best they could do in those days.
The more we got involved, the wider the markets became. Many of the old brick sewers had lost their lime mortar joints, and so we brought in a method of re-pointing these brickwork linings, which we marketed as Seerpoint.
Having re-pointed the brickwork, we did back grouting to fill voids behind the shell; this meant we were able to give sewers a totally new life.
This was not just in London, but right around the country.
Innovation and new technology
Despite the success of Seergun and Seerpoint, we were still in a domestic market of standard drab public works contracting which was a cutthroat business. There was a need to drive pipework underground with minimum disruption to the surface. We were approached by a Swedish firm and allowed them to demonstrate their pipe jacking technique on a project in Swindon. Before they were finished, we bought the system. We called this Seerthrust pipe jacking.
Pipe jacking is no more than putting a shaft down and then using hydraulic jacks to push the pipe into the ground. Our system was a first and we used it for several years.
It was a difficult animal to steer and when it made money, it made a lot, but when it lost money, it was considerable. Overall, we did not lose money on it, but it did provide us with an amazing calculation of the need for putting in 1 metre sewers.
Surveys also disclosed that some sewer sections had been laid with too small a diameter which tended to cause choking which resulted in damage and flooding. In this case, on a manhole to manhole basis, one could use a vibration system or hydraulic expansion system, to burst open the faulty joints.
Seerthrust, our pipe jacking technology, was not brand new but it had not been exploited competently and that is what gave us elbow room. It could be utilised from small diameters to larger ones, and without the need to excavate vast areas of road way.
Seerthrust could not address every problem, however. The most difficult part was maintaining accuracy of alignment, particularly tricky when going through unstable ground.
One job we called black toothpaste, where the soil was literally like squeezing toothpaste from a tube. Another job involved an almost porridge-like chalk where the only recourse was to freeze the ground to stabilise it. There were also unstable gravels and sands where we had to apply compressed air
Seerthrust expanded boldly. We devoted nearly a decade to it but examining its commercial value we found it was more or less break-even, which was not really good enough.
The development of the Mini Tunnel
I checked out what they were doing in America and discovered that their tunneling systems were very old hat, way behind the British. But I had seen one system in the US which impressed: oval pieces which could be threaded through each other.
I pushed Mike Richardson to improve Seerthrust by incorporating threaded oval pieces and other techniques. Financial incentives encouraged him and his family to move south to take on the challenge. This was the beginning of Mini Tunnel.
We used the oval idea, created a system and installed it (in Epsom where Colin Cobbett, Mary’s brother-in-law, was head engineer) but it was clumsy. Mike then introduced a system composed of three segments which we installed in one of our depots, so we launched it and it took off.
I wanted innovation and marketability as well as export potential as the world had the same problems as Britain with growing populations and the need for underground systems.
I concentrated on marketing in Japan as I knew there, that it was illegal to cut trenches into the roads so they had to build underground.
Mike took on Australia where there was no interest but, on his way home, he stopped in Buenos Aires and Brazil, which did result in a very large order.
Assessing the field
Ultimately, I did spend a lot of time sat on my behind just watching how things were getting done, but also pondering a better way of doing them. We formed a Research and Development unit within the company, but this did not flourish as people thought they had to invent things and then tell potential customers to use them, and the customers were resistant. So I approached the situation more sedately by chatting to customers, seeking their advice on problems, and suggesting to them ideas of new ways to tackle the problems. These kinds of consultations worked like a charm.
The trick was to look closely enough at a problem to form a conclusion of what could be done. Then to discuss ideas with people and put some of those ideas into clients’ heads; that meant that they often felt part of the problem-solving and had some ownership of the solutions attempted.
I knew, of course, that a lot of bomb damage still had not been repaired and, furthermore, neglect and age were taking their tolls. I approached the ministries to ascertain the extent to which they had measured the scale of all these problems and what costs they had put against bringing the underground services into better control and repair. To my amazement, hardly any information existed. I decided to conduct my own survey.
I did this with John Andrews, a City and Guilds professor of some note, who spearheaded an inquiry for every public authority in the country responsible for underground services. At that time, before reorganisation, there were hundreds, perhaps 300+ authorities. I sent out a crisp A4 investigative document which asked some pretty pertinent questions about the state of their sewers, what they knew about them, if they considered them dangerous, and the extent to which they had allocated funding to bringing them up-to-date. We offered an interview either with the professor or myself, in order ‘to allocate adequate resources to the remedial technology necessary.’ The response was amazing at something like 52%, with quite a high number agreeing to be interviewed. The analysis of this gave us a good insight into the scale of the market, and the size of each part of the market in which we were interested.
It was at this time that I was asked by Eric Reed, who was the head of Thames Water, if I would join a committee which would assess the status of its underground services and water mains. I agreed to this on one condition, namely that my company’s interests were my prime concern and Thames Water’s interests would be secondary to these. This statement bounced back at the committee of some 30 people when one member noted that it was ‘time that Donald Rees declared his commercial interests.’ Eric Reed reported that I was the only one who had.
At Eric’s first meeting he stated that we must get some idea of the scale of the problem as Thames Water did not know its extent. Thanks to the analysis of my investigations, we had already got the answers which I made available to the water research centre on a private basis to help them assess the magnitude of the problems.
Innovation though television
When laying ordinary pipes, manhole to manhole, the trench had to be left open until a smoke or water test was conducted to see if there were any leaks. This was an expensive job so we experimented with alternative ways to examine pipes, particularly some way in which we could actually see into the pipe. This would eliminate delays in leaving the trench open for testing.
I tried experimenting with cameras such as flash and cine but my first tries were without success, mostly because the overall process was long and drawn out. I wondered if CCTV would work. Eventually, through one of the workers on site, I got hold of an old Grundig camera. First we floated a plastic bottle through the manhole length by pouring water through to carry the bottle. Attached was a strong fishing line. At the end of the line we put a strong metal cable which we pulled up to the end.
This gave us a reasonably good picture and we knew that with refinement it would work much better. We had created the first underground TV picture of a new sewer, a technology which was to go around the world.
Word got around and engineers in London often asked to borrow the equipment. It became evident that there was a market for this.
We were the pioneers of underground TV inspection. The initial television systems were not good enough, so we bought up the high-grade optical company, Negretti and Zambra systems, for £25,000, including their two camera engineers.
With this purchase under our belt, we started to assemble cameras and in about one year’s time we had around two dozen vans kitted out with camera equipment and working up and down the UK.
We called our system Seer TV Surveys and the camera itself was called the Falcon. These became market leaders and won us a Design Council Award. Of course, competition came along, but we were always ahead with innovations, such as side viewing, powered trolleys, and the like.
The nuclear industry approached us to go through some extremely narrow pipes, so we took up that challenge and met it within fourteen weeks. At our next press show, we demonstrated it by putting a small coin in a large bottle of water and sending our camera in to capture and enlarge its image.
The cameras led us to thinking about other problems than leaks as we were getting good pictures of everything else. We were exposing some horrendous situations.
One major discovery was exfiltration and infiltration. Exfiltration is when sewage and water leak out, saturating the adjacent ground, unsettling the alignments and creating trouble. Infiltration is when fine sand, silt and the like get into the sewer and block it.
We had pinched an American idea of isolating pipe joints with expandable rubber rings to bridge over joints as they often deteriorated more rapidly than the pipes.
We called our technique Seerseal-Penetryn, and it involved placing, under camera supervision, a double expanding plug across the faulty joint, then pressure expanding the instrument to isolate the joint itself.
Finally a chemical grout was pumped in which would seal the inside of the joint and would fill the cavity alongside the pipe joint, giving it long-term protection.
The cameras showed exactly where the fault was so that you could avoid digging a big trench and simply go directly to the problem area; and a camera survey of the sewers and water mains would also give a good idea of their longevity.
This put you in control and you could start budgeting correctly.
This was a dream for a local authority; indeed one authority did 150 miles of survey so that they could plan ahead, although it was ultimately to their engineer’s dismay when he realised just how much work needed to be done and their budget would not stretch to cover it.
We became highly specialised, and this was part of our determination to get out of labour intensive work. We sought technically qualified people to develop new thinking and more advanced methods of doing old jobs.
We acquired a reputation for this and in no time, labour content had dropped way down while our profits and our exports went up.
This combination brought us ahead of the field and won us awards.
Seer Seal advertisement
The offices in Old Woking, Surrey
The 8 ft x 4 ft brass, or maybe bronze, plaque commissioned for the Woking office in 1965, highlighting our businesses. The original was offered back to the family from storeage by David Pegg long after the company finally was wound up. Chris Rees is the proud new owner.
Our company pioneered another first, that of trenchless technology or the ‘no-dig’ thinking. Because we had such a capability now of working below ground, we were confident we could spread the concept and thus avoid the disruption that large trenches force on the environment. In 1980 I joined a working party with a consultant civil engineer, Ted Flaxman, and we did what we could to press the industry to adapt.
We mounted a special exhibition in 1985, backed up with technical papers, for a conference on the concept. The conference proved to be the launch of the International Society of Trenchless Technology (ISTT). This group spawned the opening of a number of offices in other countries and today there are 25 such international offices, each adapting appropriate systems to their own needs.
Focus on exports
The brain drain resulting from difficult working conditions and preposterous taxation cost our country a fortune through the loss of intelligent business people. This was one of the factors which bent my mind seriously towards the export market where certain advantages would outstrip the strictures. In other words, it underlined in red ink the path for our own business policy which was to minimise the volume of business carried out within the UK and to maximise the amount of exports of our products and technology. This would mean that the company would be less vulnerable to the fluctuations of the UK economy.
I knew the value of publicity and appointed Brenda Pegg as Public Relations Officer. Together we concentrated on developing a strong relationship with all of the government’s export facilities as well as obtaining media coverage as the more our work was featured in the press, the more orders we received.
The Jersey contract had strengthened our confidence in working at long range and triggered a number of technological innovations including the highly successful Seergun systems and compressed air stabilisation technology. A further bonus was that competitors were a real threat in the cutthroat UK market. I saw the UK as a test field for innovative developments in sub-surface technology.
Things related to export tended to get greater priority as well as much lower tax rates. The British Overseas Trade Board (BOTB) was set up in 1972 and its associate, the Surrey and Hants Export Association, gave terrific export assistance by circulating stories and photos of products worldwide and all for free. I learned how to use it and the effort was rewarded as it led us into markets of which we did not know existed.
We received an impressive number of industrial awards both for our products and our marketing abilities. Our capable team and the fantastic assistance of the BOTB were certainly winning elements. Among the recognitions were the Queen’s Award for Industry for the Mini Tunnel, two Design Council awards, one for Mini Tunnel and one for Seer TV Surveys, the Smaller Companies award, and an American ‘Man of the Year’ award which I had great fun collecting myself.
Below: receiving the Design Council Award from the Lord Lieutenant of Surrey...
and the Queen’s Award for the Mini Tunnel from the Duke of Edinburgh …
In early 1974, the government decided to put an immediate stop on capital expenditure and that included the expansion and renovation of sewers. In a very short time, two dozen or so of our units were back in the depot with only three in the field. That meant we had massive unemployment for our skilled staff.
I set out the position in an editorial in a Rees Group newspaper of the time, copied below and titled, 'Continuity gap is biggest threat to industry.'
I reported this situation to Cranley Onslow, my MP in Woking. He advised me to go see another MP who had some responsibility as a member of the opposition Conservative party for this area, Margaret Thatcher. I met her at the Commons and she said she had known nothing of this problem until Onslow had raised it with her.
Now, believe me, by the time I met her, she knew a great deal about the problem. I informed her that if the industry did not want our services, that was OK as long as I knew it in which case I would close the company within two weeks unless work flowed.
She was instrumental in sorting out the problem, as she contacted the newly-formed water industry of the situation, saying that if they wanted television and the like, they had better get things working again. In two weeks, we were back at work.
My intention was to change the company from an old-fashioned public works contractor to a sophisticated business aimed at the heart of a corroded and out-of-date utilities operation. I was amazed that so many of my people preferred the old-fashioned, uninspiring technology which I assumed was now in the past.
One useful exercise I instigated along the way was the ‘Why?’ meetings in which a small team of us would spend a weekend discussing each leg of the company to see just why it was there, why it was doing this or that, why it was performing or not. Gradually it meant that we combed through those elements which were worth putting our support behind and those from which we should withdraw our support and investment. They proved to be a fantastic experience, although sometimes difficult, especially in the context of a family company with a lot of long-term employees who relied on the business for their retirement and a decision to close down an operation could result in redundancies. The favoured route was to sell the ill-fitting units to companies where they would fit. In some cases but sadly not all, it worked, although the process was sometimes marred by feelings of resentment or abandonment.
Excursions abroad - United States
As our commercial targets became more vital, I determined to investigate what was going on in other countries and to what extent those other countries might be interested in our products and services. We had already made an arrangement with an American company on the sealing of sewers against infiltration, which we were marketing in Britain under the heading of Seerseal, in which we injected a form of gel into external voids which would stop water but would not merely absorb uselessly the capacity of a sewer.
I went to America to see what was going on with smaller diameter tunneling. I took with me the BBC film of our Mini Tunnel operating in Worthing – and quite a film it was. An old Wentworth friend, now an agent in Chicago, had set up a small display in a hotel exhibition which attracted quite a strong audience. The outcome was rather interesting.
One of the first individuals to appear said, ‘Hi, Don.’ He was a press man, who had visited London some time before when he had phoned me out of the blue, wondering whether he could make an appointment to see some of our work in repairing and lining sewers. I told him I would be on his West End hotel doorstep in 45 minutes. We had a wonderful day together seeing Seergun linings and the like and finished up in a little pub in Highgate. He was impressed.
At the US show he asked if he could help, I told him I would like to meet some of his competitors so he arranged a lunch for about eight colleagues the next day. He told them all, ‘Don has some interesting news for you guys. He is building a tunnel in St. Louis, Missouri, with a contractor there. You should see his film.’ I said I would be delighted if they wanted to have a look and I would pick up the tab. Almost as one, they said, ‘Don, we’ve got credit cards, too, you know.’ None of them wanted reimbursement for the trouble of going to St. Louis.
As a result we got a terrific American press, including full front page cover and multi-page features, nearly all of which were a good run down on the Mini Tunnel.
We reached agreement with the contractor but then the unions moved in. We used three men, one at the face, one at the top of the shaft, and one at the bottom. The American union said that was not enough and that we had to have an extra man at the face who must be an engineer, another at the bottom of the shaft as a matter of safety and another at the top on the crane to ensure the crane is stopped in an emergency. I noted that would double our manpower, and they replied that was my problem. It was so ridiculous and took away so much of the strength of our system, which was in the saving of labour costs. It was typical union domination.
I took that into account and returned home. The inquiries followed as the various journal articles appeared. The responses were nearly all from contractors, not engineers who designed or engineers who signed the cheques. In my travels there, I had found that the engineers were dominated by antiquated technology way behind the British and this amazed me. This meant that we would have to virtually re-educate the American engineers and those who signed the cheques to accept British technology and calculations rather than their own out-dated designs and execution procedures. I reckoned that would take ten years.
I won’t go into the design detail differences, but believe me, Britain was way ahead and the Americans do not take kindly to being taught by the Brits how to do a job they had been doing incorrectly for so long. But I really enjoyed my visit to America and the openness with which I was received by the American press and contractors who were really great people and very free in discussing their businesses and their problems.
The other stumbling block was the union attitude which meant we would have to produce a fully-mechanised content instead of the semi-mechanised front end. In other words, the miner in the front would have to be dispensed with and replaced by automated cutting systems. That I reckoned that would take three to five years to perfect. I believed that it was just not worth it and put a line through the United States of America. It left our St. Louis project in a spin, but I think they understood the logic of our rejection.
Sometime later, I received a tear-out coupon from one of the publications, and scribbled across it was, ‘Don. How about lunch? 13th February.’ I cabled back ‘Sure. Would enjoy that.’ He cabled ‘Great. Forgot to tell you. You have got an award.’
This was their magazine’s Man of the Year Award of which there were a dozen or so recipients for men of the year and I was to be one. The very top Man of the Year was given to someone who had defied the unions – a very bold man who had to have armed protection as a result for his family as his workshops and offices had been burned to the ground. I had a fascinating visit to America to receive the award and was the only British recipient.
I was asked by the British consulting engineers responsible for Cairo’s sewerage master-plan to advise them on inspection and rectification of sewer faults. I was delighted and went for two weeks. An interesting entrée to this event was that when the consultants turned up at our Woking office to discuss this, one asked if I remembered him. I said, ‘Indeed! 1938. The Carinthia to the American World’s Fair.’ He said, ‘Yes! You got it first time! How’s Connie?’ He and Connie had got on very well on that trip to America and it was a joy to meet him. He was on the Cairo job and it was with him that I spent the weeks doing the investigation and survey of the Cairo sewers.
The first thing I found was that all the sewers were full of sand, which I found peculiar, as it was not a question of one length of sewer getting desert sand into it. I found the reason was that all the cooking ware was scrubbed using sand as an abrasive, which then washed down into the sewer blocking them. This would be easy to rectify.
The main problem was a generation of corrosive gases which ate into the concrete and caused total road collapses in many cases, something not uncommon. It had to be addressed by redesign rather than simple modification. That was no problem really as the whole system had to be redesigned and remodeled from end to end.
But the consultants were owed a substantial sum of money by the authorities who simply were not paying them. One British partner was about 6’ 6” and very powerfully built, so he was sent along to see the minister. When he was told the minister was not available, he said he would wait. He undid his suitcase, got out his primus stove, cooked some breakfast and settled down on a pillow to wait. He waited through the day and was ready to wait all night. It worked. He saw the minister and the contractors got paid. What a wonderful debt collector!
I was a member of the board advising the British minister responsible for the export credit guarantees. When Cairo came up, the chairman spotted that the figure proposed had doubled. The figure was around £50,000,000. I commented that it had to be re-doubled, and it was. In the end, I don’t think it went anywhere near enough for this vast scheme.
But it was interesting to see both ends of that, the job to be done on location and back home the means by which Britain was offering funding assistance to such countries to get the work done. Against competition, of course, as it was the country that put up the best proposition which got the work.
I must confess to being somewhat diversionary in character because I found things I didn’t know anything about to be absolutely fascinating. One of those things was composting.
Our biggest contracting job had been the Jersey sewer main from St. Helier through to St. Brelades Bay, which took several years. While working there, I asked the engineer, Sidney Gothard, how they were planning to treat the muck when we finished the sewer as they had abandoned the old technique of dumping it out to sea. He said: ‘We’re putting in super thickeners for the sludge, then we are mixing the sludge with pulverised household refuse to produce compost. The compost then will improve the potato and tomato crops enormously because the soil is lacking in humus.’ I was totally fascinated.
After Jersey’s occupation by Nazi Germany during WWII, the crop yield was very low and a lot of artificial fertiliser had been used. The agriculture minister commented: ‘The ground is full of bloody chemicals, but what is lacking is humus. You will not get any good crops until you have humus.’ For humus, they were collecting ‘wrack’, seaweed from the shoreline, but it was in nothing like the amounts required for their industry. So composting became very important.
They were using sort of half cylinders forming the floor of three decks and with motors these half cylinders rotated, dropping the stuff contained on them to the floor below. A mixture of compost and sewage sludge and pulverised refuse would start on the top and each day would drop another floor until it finished on the ground from where it would be mechanically shoveled into rows to mature. In fact, once it got moving, the results were fantastic, because they already had the chemicals in the soil and once the structure of the soil was improved, then the growing really started in full force.
As a result of our Jersey contract, Mary and I formed Compost Engineers Ltd. We had a series of trial compost bins at White Hatch in the late ‘50s.
I never understood why the composting of these waste products did not have a much bigger role to play worldwide where humus was lacking. In fact, today the work being done on composting is totally inadequate to my mind and that is a tragedy. But for us it was a case of saying: ‘Well, there is a market, there are means of meeting that market, let’s get down and do it.’ And we did just that. In the end, the demand was so poor that we just could not afford to keep the thing running. We did, in fact, introduce two new pieces of equipment in a different way. One was the thermos green and the other was the Seer Drum. Both of these were automated. But the market wasn’t there and the market still isn’t.
That is the tragedy of it, the lack of foresight that is wasting our valuable humus resources.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the chemical political lobby was extremely strong and was against the availability of humus which would reduce the demand for chemicals. In fact, these could both run in harmony. The stronger the humus content, then the more effective the chemicals used. But wherever we came head on, right up to parliamentary level, it was blocked by the chemical lobby.
Of course, the changing nature of household refuse also had a part to play. When the world shifted from organics to plastics, plastics clearly were a bloody nuisance. In the early days they were not recyclable, as they are becoming today. Furthermore, where refuse was called ‘controlled tipping,’ any high wind created uncontrolled plastic snowstorms as the plastic blew all over the countryside. And today we know it litters the oceans.
One day in Victoria Street the receptionist told me that a man arrived who wanted to talk about composting. He was called Gus Woolf whose family was on the metal exchange.
He came in with bowler hat and rolled umbrella and said: ‘I understand you are experts in composting waste.’ I said: ‘Yes, we are.’ He said: ‘Our agents in Bangkok have asked us to point them in the right direction because they want to put in a composting plant. Is that something you can do?’ I said: ‘Yes. Of course,’ and with tongue firmly in check, said, ‘We will have to go out and see it, of course.’ I went out for two or three weeks with the right equipment for an on-site survey. The authorities were very interested in the resulting report.
Back in London, on the morning of our planned visit with a delegation from Thailand, the deputy mayor of Bangkok was taken ill suddenly and I arranged immediate care and hospitalisation. He swore that I saved his life. This certainly helped with our later bid for the composting contract.
Celebrating the award of the Thai contract, with Dr Sueng Sudipong (centre)
When we were awarded the Thailand contract, we had to find an engineering company to do all the hardware and we looked at John Thompson Ltd of Wolverhampton, a family affair - too much of a family affair, as a matter of fact; it was a bit of a clogs to clogs situation. However, together we formed John Thompson Compost Plant Ltd. This went on reasonably although they did make some serious errors on their overseas contracts. One was in South America where on the final assembly of the plant, we found that the main conveyor (which was a vast, wide thing) was six metres short, causing red faces all around. Actually, this incompetence resulted in us parting from John Thompson.
We then joined with Vickers and with them produced the Seer Drum and eventually quite an advanced system which, in fact, was purchased and installed for Epsom council, with some helpful support from the resident surveyor and engineer, my brother-in-law, Colin Cobbett. Could it be that some family bias had crept in?
An Italian company called Boggiano Pico had put in a composting plant in Cairo which was a complete fiasco. I was asked to go out and advise on how to make it work. This was a fee-earning job but when I discussed my fees, they started arguing.
I started on Monday and by Wednesday we had got nowhere. To the charming Cambridge-educated Egyptian head of the five year plan, I said, ‘If you can’t meet my terms, do you know what I am going to do? I am going to bring those gun boats back.’
It was not long after the Suez crisis, and the four of his staff nearly fell through the floorboards. He just smiled and said, ‘You do that, old chap. We will do what we did before and bugger them all off.’
Well, by Thursday we had the agreement all signed and by the evening he suggested we go to my hotel and drink champagne, which was about £40 a bottle, so I shuddered but we went off to the Cairo Hilton. The stewards were in my room along with the champagne. This lovely man smiled and said, ‘It’s alright, old chap. This one’s on me.’
Instead of using the plant, I suggested they pulverise all of Cairo’s refuse as it turned up at the depot, put it in trucks, then onto barges up the river to the land areas to be unloaded and left for a week, before moving it to the crop-yielding areas which were screaming out for humus. For every time it was moved it would be aerated and the river used to moisten it. This, together with the hot climate, would ferment it and in no time it would mature. I told them they did not need a big expensive plant as it would compost naturally as it was moved from spot to spot. In the end, I do not think they did anything about it at all. But it would have been a simple way of disposing of the refuse profitably; it was exactly the same with my South American experience.
The government in Lima had asked my advice on composting and I offered my time at a nominal fee, about £1,200, as I was going to America anyway. The experience was quite fascinating. I flew down to Peru, seated next to an American working with the World Bank and asked him how much of the World Bank dollar ended up in the project. He reckoned they were doing well with about 25 to 28 cents in the dollar. He explained that he was on his way to a hospital job where they had assured him of all the things they could do, such as making beds rather than buying imported American ones. To do this, they would set up a factory to make beds. This was how the projects were bled.
They intended to put in quite an expensive sorting and composting outfit so I went to see the present composting arrangements. In the middle of the city was a mountain of rubbish, called El Montón (‘the heap’), which had been on fire for years and was so high that it had roads leading to the peak. I wanted to see more before making recommendations. With the help of a post-graduate who drove a taxi, the only job he could get, we followed a lorry that was being loaded with rubbish. It was time-consuming as paper was put into one corner, vegetable matter into another, bottles in another at every stop along its route. Then, while going to the mountain they would stop more times to negotiate salvage of the items on board – tins were sold in one place, bottles in another. At the top was a pathetic sight – young children wearing aprons who were doing the final pickings, such as taking the metal tops off bottles and putting them into their aprons. The stench was unbelievable and disease must have been rife.
I had seen enough. Over the weekend, the post-graduate taxi driver took me to see much of the surrounding area. With his considerable knowledge he explained how water used to shed towards the east into the Pacific, but that now it shed over the plains of Argentina into the Atlantic and the deposits of salts made the growth of plants difficult. Irrigation washed the salts down into the water table. It was an interesting, complex situation which I hoped to address.
I had warned our agent there that they would not be pleased with what I had to say, because they were obviously looking for a kick-back from a large capital expenditure. I told the gathering that they did not need a composting plant, but all that was needed was efficient screening plants and some big excavators to dig out this mountain which was a big body of well-rotted humus. If this was screened, pulverised and transported to the fringe of the fertile belt where the vegetables were grown, the belt would steadily expand with more and more humus. That would save the lives of the young people who were coming down from the Andes to work, but were dying at 25 because they were moving from clean to filthy air. In this way, they could gradually improve the quality of the food grown and the health of the community. The compost was there, and already nicely cooked.
As predicted, that was not what they wanted to hear. They never paid my fee, but I hadn’t expected they would.
That was an example of doing something that was not necessary and another case of failing to take advantage of appropriate technology. On that score, the post-grad taxi driver took me to some ancient ruins which had great blocks of masonry which he explained had been pre-cast out of sand from the desert and held together by guano, which was shipped from the islands. I was sure that a downpour would wash it all away, but he assured me that it did not rain. We were looking at things that had been there for goodness knows how many years, looking like fine pieces of masonry. This was a wonderful example of appropriate technology.
Hiring Chris Rees
I had perhaps been too hasty in promoting people. One example was Chris Rees, my brother Lundie’s oldest son, who was a qualified engineer, but was too young and inexperienced to carry the role of managing director of a construction company under which specialist operations rested.
I was getting on in years and I wanted to pass the baton to a younger man, so that I could come out of the role of managing director and act more as group chairman seeking to exploit the strong identity we had built.
I told him about one particular project involving a river crossing, and he was enthusiastic, but in the event did not know what to do. My friend, Sir Harold Harding, an expert, agreed to take Chris under his wing and Chris produced a very good job. He finished up as MD of the construction company, but this was not enough for him.
He and his associate, Mick Hough, walked into my office one day and announced that they were going to hold a meeting of top level staff to withdraw their services if I refused to stand aside and hand my chair over to Chris. I was amazed. I telephoned my solicitor and asked how to sack the pair. He said it could not be done without an extraordinary general meeting, but I could tell them to clear their desks and leave the premises. Should they hold such a meeting or even mention the idea of withdrawal of services that would be actionable in law. I told them this. I said that I was not firing them but suggested that they resign. They went pale and left.
When they tried their take-over act, I had to drop back to managing director for which I was getting too old. Unfortunately, fate played games when I took on Michael Wheaton.
Chris Rees wrote in 2017, "Your dad was an inspiration to me and I'm privileged to have learnt much from him in my early years - and very grateful for the fact that we restored our relationship as fully as we did."
Indeed, after a gap of several decades, Chris Rees renewed contact in the weeks before Donald died in 2010, visiting his uncle in Portugal, bringing a DVD of W F Rees Ltd archives and chatting over whiskey and ice. The impact on Donald was significant, as if the last ghost had been laid to rest, the last upset to a clear-enough conscience smoothed by Chris's easy manner.
These were years which were becoming hard to bear, founded upon my own misjudgments to a great extent. Things were moving rapidly in my chosen field of innovation which alone was exciting and rewarding. But I trusted some who did not justify that trust.
Michael Wheaton, my disastrous nomination, was a next door neighbour at Wentworth. He had run a company which was entirely dependent upon the success of another company which, while Wheaton was on holiday in Spain, had gone bankrupt. He returned in desperation and put his house on the market at a time when I was anxious to improve the stock records of our electronics television company. He was grateful to receive a temporary appointment from me to organise the stocks and indeed he did an excellent job. So excellent that when I returned from holiday, my board colleagues suggested that he should be appointed MD. I confess I was pleased to agree, for after the fiasco with Chris Rees and Mick Hough I had had to be both Chairman and MD, a role which I deplored. I even helped Wheaton to secure a significant number of shares in the company.
Mary was a good judge of people. When I hired Wheaton, she told me I had done the wrong thing and that he would 'have the company off me within the next ten years.' How right she was, almost to the year. But I had not recognised until much later that his intention was not to develop the specialist business we had created, but rather to change it entirely by pointing it in the direction of building and property instead. This devious man simply engineered me out of the front line.
I was approached by a number of very large companies which were interested, and in two cases anxious, to develop a relationship with us. What they had in mind, of course, was a form of take-over and it was part of my strategy not to respond prematurely. It was clear to me that certain influential members of my board found such a move contrary to their own ambitions. Michael Wheaton had already brushed aside my concept of the way that local authorities could calculate the remaining life of structures and arrange remedial or replacement expenditures in a disciplined way. At the same time, Wheaton decided to make Lundie a very close friend, inviting him to parties and the like.
I had already been called to give oral and written evidence to the House of Lords on the condition of the nation’s underground services. I continued to open doors at the right places at the right times to influence the whole subject of the maintenance of our underground systems and the costs involved. My suggestion of a sinking fund to be spent at a certain rate per annum was agreed. I had the entrée to the most relevant organizations and had striven for a number of years to set up things in this manner so that the company was recognised for its innovative role. But it was becoming evident that all this build-up would be of no avail if my board colleagues were against. The spade work was done, but just at my retirement the spade was snatched from my hands. It was a heart-breaking experience for me. The potential was there, but the executive drive was non-existent.
In all these years, I had the benefit of some really splendid, well qualified, young people. The most outstanding example was Mike Richardson, who responded to my Mini Tunnel objective with incredible competence. Upon the success of the product, he put his efforts into marketing it around the world.
The other outstanding individual was Alan Sefton, whose imaginative approach to our Seer TV product developments took us into markets of enormous potential. Both these men reacted adversely to my appointment of Wheaton as managing director. To Mike Richardson, he was the snake in the grass, while Alan Sefton said he could not work for him. Consequently, we lost the brains and the efforts and the whole potential of two remarkable people. Richardson set off on his own course for a tunneling technique which we had discussed based on the movement of a worm for which he won a £10,000 award from the Institution of Civil Engineers for his product which was sold then to Mowlem.
Alan Sefton was also planning to leave and, as I was coming up to retirement, I told Alan that if he was going, then I was too. Alan asked if he could take with him the ‘eye-on-a-stick’ concept we had discussed and I agreed. In the matter of a few years, he had worked so successfully on the theme that he became a wealthy man and finished up with a factory in Borden and another in California. He headed great advances in this field and also in number plate recognition technology. His was the sort of brain that our company needed but lost.
Even though it had always been my intention to retire at 65, it was with a certain sense of foreboding then that I closed that chapter of my business life on 14 June 1983 after 40 years. The company eventually was wound up and sold off in specialist segments, such as the CCTV business and specialist construction side. These were sold to other companies as they were extraordinary but did not perform as well after they were sold as they did not have the same dynamic. However, this produced a pretty useful break-up revenue to the shareholders who had stood by us.
It was a bitter sweet ending, but Mary and I were shortly to steal away to Portugal and start a whole new life there.
Antecedents - parents
My mother, Doris Lillian Thomson (or Dolly as she was called) (1886-1948) was a darling – warm, easy-going and a lovely mother. She did not enjoy good health and she died all too young at 63, not very long after I had the joy of marrying Mary. Dolly was a wonderful balancing force. Popular among my father’s business and social friends, she matched him superbly socially and domestically. She was always there to see fair play, particularly if there had been some misdeed, and I should know!
My father, William Frank Rees (1885-1968) was the fourth of six children (five boys and one girl) born to Sydney Rees (1853-1922) and Ann (née Turner) (1856- after 1913) within the sound of London’s Bow Bells. Sydney was a picture framer, and I can recall my father showing me the tools that his father had used to put gold leaf on picture frames. It was a skilled job, but not highly paid.
They lived for most of their lives in London’s East End. When my father was born, the family was living at 92 Pitfield Street, which was near Moorfields Eye Hospital. Later they moved to Fieldway Crescent in Highbury, Islington.
We have only one photo of my grandparents, taken in about 1913, in the company of William F and his first son, Lundie.
My father was ambitious, and not prepared to accept the general poverty into which he was born in 1885. As a youth, he did odd jobs for his brothers, two pence here and four pence there, cleaning their shoes and the like. He used his savings to buy himself an education.
Cultured women did not hold down jobs, but some were willing to teach people aspiring to a better life. Perhaps it was one of these that William F paid to teach him to speak correctly, to learn the social graces and, in fact, to help him establish a path through life as a real and trusted gentleman, a role which he played with masterly success. He was a man of ambition who sought to enjoy the pleasures of life, and to work hard to achieve them. His family nickname was ‘Gentleman Bill’. When he died in 1968 at 83, the firm created a memorial magazine with this obituary:
I asked my eldest son, Richard, to delve into the family tree; he tells me the following:
“Donald, you asked me to find out what I could about William F’s family. It hasn’t been straightforward, but from census returns and other public documents I have compiled the following family tree:
His father, Sydney, was born at 3 Ebenezer Place, Shaftesbury Street, Walworth, East London and his mother Ann at St Osyth in Essex.
Ann was the daughter of agricultural labourers and her family (back to the late 1700s) are all traceable to St Osyth, Little Clacton or Great Oakley, in Essex.
By 1861, Ann’s family had moved to London and in 1871 they were living at Whitfield Street, Shoreditch, where Ann’s father Stephen was working as a brewer’s labourer; he is described as a brewer at the time of Ann’s marriage to Sydney Rees in 1877.
Sydney’s father, John Whitbread Rees, is variously described as a ‘ticket writer’ or ‘ornamental writer’ – this is someone who hand wrote or painted the price tickets on goods displayed for sale and painted the signs that go up to make a window display.
This artistic ability must have transferred itself to Sydney; he was a ‘carman’, the Victorian equivalent of a van driver delivering goods, in his 30s and 40s, but later established a living as a picture frame maker. I recall you telling me that Bill Rees had, in the basement at Cheltenham, some gilt that his father had used on his frames.
After living at various addresses in the East End, Syd and Annie had moved to 7 Fieldway Crescent, Highbury, and this is probably the house shown in the background of the only photo we have of them, which must date to about 1913, with Bill and a young Lundie.
The Rees name must go back to Wales at some stage, but I have had no success getting out of London; Sydney’s parents were John Whitbread Rees and Sarah O’Brien. John W was born in St Marylebone in 1813, and Sarah O’Brien, was the daughter of an Irishman 'of independent means,' Pierce Hall O’Brien, living in London.
Sarah was John W’s second wife; he had had two sons (William Whitbread Rees and Robert Rees) by an Elizabeth Whitfield, whom he married in about 1846.
Elizabeth was born in Whitechapel, and was alive in the 1851 census return, but disappears without trace after that. John W married Sarah in January 1853; they had Sydney that December, then another 4 sons and a daughter. If I could find out more about his marriage to Elizabeth Whitfield, I may be able to glean more details about John W’s background and parentage, but there seem to be no records.
All we know of John Whitbread’s parents are that his father was a brewer called John Rees, and his mother was almost certainly an Elizabeth Morrison. When they were married in 1811, John Rees was living in St Marylebone and Elizabeth Morrison in the parish of St Georges, Hanover Square.
The ‘Whitbread’ name is extremely unusual and was added after birth – JWR was christened plain ‘John Rees’ in the parish register in 1813. In view of this, the brewing background and the location in the East End, I feel there must be some connection to the Whitbread Brewery in Chiswell Street, but have no evidence for this at the moment – I will keep looking for this, and ultimately for any Welsh heritage.
I have a great deal more background, but this is the bare bones of it – no photos anywhere at all, I’m afraid. Richard”
Uncles and aunts
Of William F’s brothers, the oldest, Arthur Sydney, born in 1878, was a salesman in a silk warehouse (probably the same one that my father was working in when he had the contretemps with the managing director about the buyer).
Arthur was with the First (City of London) Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, and was killed in World War I in October 1917 at the infamous Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium which raged from July to November 1917. The encounter went down in history for the scale of the casualties - more than half a million - and the constant thick mud so deep that countless men and horses had drowned in it.
The second eldest, Stephen Henry, born in 1880, was a cellar-man. He served with the 36th Imperial Yeomanry in the Boer War, and was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal. He also spent five years of peacetime military service in the First London Regiment, Heavy Brigade, before his discharge in February 1914.
Stephen Henry’s oldest son, also Stephen, emigrated to Auckland, New Zealand in 1926 when he was 19 and became a pig farmer. Stephen’s son Stewart lives in New Zealand. Stewart remembers a return trip to London with his father, who told him that Stephen Henry Snr had had pubs in London.
I remember William F telling the story of having been asked for a loan for his nephew Stephen to acquire a motorbike which William F had shipped out. Recently, we unearthed several photos with Stephen and motorbike, which confirmed the tale.
Another of Stephen’s daughters, Maisie Baldock, emigrated with her husband and four children to Australia in 1955. We made fresh contact with both sides of the family in 2009.
William F’s other older brother, Charles Herbert, was born in 1883, but died in 1886 of diphtheria, only a year after William F was born.
His younger sister, Annie Beatrice, born in 1887, married Alfred Gawen, a printer; again, this is a side of the family that we only rediscovered in 2009. Her grandson, Jim Gawen is in the Bristol area.
The youngest brother, Edgar James, was born much later in 1894. He is the only one I met and the only one with whom William F kept in touch; he worked in his youth for a cloth wholesaler. He went on to hold quite a useful role in the post office (GPO as it was then called) on the telephone side of post office work.
Indeed, during the war when I was doing construction work mainly on defence, wherever we went we needed telephones and it was Uncle Edgar who ensured that we got them on site promptly. He must have had quite a pull in London.
Edgar had twin daughters, Marie and Grace. Marie had a crush on me, but I was not that interested in a relationship other than being cousins. She eventually married a Canadian and they moved there after the war. I was able to visit them twice in Canada.
Through the clubs he joined, Bill began to mix with some middle class people, and in this way he met Dolly Thomson. They married on 17 December 1910 in Islington, London.
Dolly’s father John Lundie Thomson (pictured below) was born in Glasgow, and had worked for the London Midland and Scotland Railway, ending up in the pensions department which operated in Whitstable. His first marriage to Ellen Boxall had ended when she died of cancer, aged 50, in 1905.
John Lundie Thomson
He went on to marry Edith Norah Reeves, nicknamed Mops, a fun-loving character. They lived at 24 Tankerton Road, Whitstable. I remember it very well because I spent many a summer holiday there and we all got on very well with grandpa and Mops.
The house was lit by gas but with the innovation of having a switch by the door where the gas could be lit rather than rushing around to each lamp with matches and taper.
I remember the Reeves girls being very strong swimmers; they often swam in the sea a considerable distance from Whitstable and I had a job keeping up with them jogging as I was along the cliff top with a few others.
In a rash moment, I became engaged to one of the daughters, Betty Reeves, who had been married to a soldier who had either been killed or was missing in action. The fear that he might still return was the reason why, when I came to my senses, I decided against the course of action.
The holiday feature at Tankerton Road was the slopes which lead down to the beach. On the slopes were a variety of huts, cheaply constructed but great fun, and served as holiday social centres. Every day fishermen came pushing their trolleys along the paths between the bungalows, shouting ‘All morning boiled’ to sell their winkles, cockles and muscles. A short walk away was a shack in which they did all their boiling. Often we would go and watch and we got generous bags full of their shellfish.
Whitstable is famous for its oysters and on some rare occasions I would be given the opportunity of going out with the oyster boats at 6 a.m. when the first things loaded on board were cases of Guinness. The oyster beds were quite shallow and were dredged through with nets to pull up the oysters, along with a number of flat fish nesting in the beds which became our breakfast. They were taken to the cook onboard and fried.
Whitstable held an annual oyster festival and the local hotel, the Tankerton, had a menu containing nothing but oysters prepared in a variety of ways. I recall one year in my teens when mother, father, Connie and I stayed at the hotel during the festival. It was great, but at the end of the week we were quite happy to return to toast, marmalade and boiled egg for breakfast.
My memories of Whitstable are very happy ones. Sadly I was taken there when Grandpa Thomson died. Mops took me to his bedroom where he was laid out, fully dressed. I had never seen a dead person before, and was quite shocked. For many weeks, I would wake up from a nightmare. From there on, I wanted only to think of people living, not dead.
My mother’s sister Elsie married Bob Hall, an accountant. Bob was quite a Victorian type, rather unambitious but very charming. He went to work for William F Rees as company secretary, a post he held for many years. We saw the family quite often.
Their son Charles Hall was a bit older than I. He married Cynthia and I was best man at their wedding. He worked for William F Rees for a time and he and I became quite close. Charles and Cynthia looked after Elsie in her old age after Bob had died. Their daughter, Di Chabot, has done a considerable amount of work on her family tree.
My mother’s brother Colin took his family to Argentina where he worked on the railroads which had been built and were run by the British. When the railway system was nationalised, the pensions of British employees were discontinued, so the family emigrated again to Australia.
When we lived in Cheltenham we had a visit from the Thomson family from Buenos Aires - Colin, his wife Christina (who I think was called Chrissie), and their children Jack and Dimps. They stayed with us quite a long time and Connie and Dimps got on very well, as did I with Jack.
I had not been in touch with them for years, but in 2007 I managed to contact Jack who was living in a care home in Australia. He was enjoying good health and good care. I was thrilled to speak to him again after so many years, but was very saddened by the news of his death in 2008. Dimps was then in poor condition in a home in Australia.
I may have done some of them an injustice in identifying them in this photo – identities become a little fuzzy with age!
Back row from left: Bob Hall, “Babs” with ?, Charles Hall in front, Christina Catt, ?, Colin Thomson
Seated: Elsie Hall, Grandpa Thomson, Mops Reeves, Jack Thomson
Front: Dorothy (Dimps) Thomson, Bruce Thomson
Cars through the decades
Before I was born, my father had owned several motor bikes, at least one complete with side car which made it a devil to steer. His earlier ones had no clutch or carburettor. Instead there was a pad of spongy cloth above which was a tap attached to the petrol tank; the more you turned the tap on, the more petrol flowed.
The engine sucked the air through the pad into the cylinder which was ignited by the spark plug. Instead of a clutch, you got the bike ready to start, then ran along with it until it caught, then jumped on. Those pioneering days must have been very exciting.
An Arrol-Johnston (1896 – 1931) was Bill’s first car, but he moved up to a Star (1898 – 1932), which was made in Wolverhampton. That stood in the front of the office and I used to go and sit in it. I loved the smell of the leather. An electric light in the back was cut glass, but once going over a bump a friend of my father’s smashed his head and the glass. He did not much like the Star as the engine sounded like a steam roller.
Then he bought an American car, a Buick, followed later by an 8-cylinder Packard. It used a lot of petrol. He tried to reduce consumption by reducing the cylinders to 4, but it used as much petrol, if not more.
At Cheltenham, my mother had a Standard Eight with a straight gear box while my father had a Humber Super Snipe which he had to get the garage to start several times a week. After the Depression and our move to Twickenham, my father bought a Vauxhall which was a good family car. Following this was a Wolseley, luxury with walnut trimming and pig skin seats.
Cars were a fun lot. My first car, in 1938, was a company car, a little Ford Eight, brand new, £97 and 15 shillings. I was assigned to do some work in Finchley, quite a distance from Twickenham, so I was awarded this new car. It was very simple and easy to maintain. My father was buying a fleet of these every year, because they exchanged them at a very good price. Altogether he had about 10 little Fords.
The car had vacuum driven windscreen washers, but the windows steamed up because there were no air vents, you could connect strips of Bakelite with wire which you could connect to your battery to make hot air. Car radios were just coming in, and I had one put in. The Ford would do 60 to 65 miles per hour.
Petrol was 11 pence a gallon, and 10 pence if you bought rationed oil products. I must say it was a bonny little car. It took me all over Britain. People today say: ‘Good lord, was it only £100?’ But it is important to bear in mind that £100 was actually my year’s earnings as I was on £2 per week. So it took a year’s earnings to buy the cheapest car on the market. Well, you look today and it is about the same. The cheapest car is about one year of the lowest earnings – in fact, people may be better off today than they were then.
When the war started, I swapped the Ford Eight for a Standard Eight with the Union Flag on the bonnet. They were not well received by the industry and it was a wash-out. At a local garage in Twickenham, I swapped the Standard Eight for a second-hand Rover 12 with four cylinders and 12 horse power which had done 14,000 miles. It would do 80 mph, never 8l, and that was going some, I tell you. That Rover also took me all over the country and saw me through until I went into the army. My father drove it during the war.
At one point during the war, my father and I had an Armstrong Siddeley Lancaster which was pretty up-market and had a relatively small body and engine. We wanted to use it on one occasion, but we had no spare petrol ration.
I managed to come home with six gallons of petrol and poured it into the nearly empty Lancaster tank. When we started it, it blew up and the bonnet went flying into the air! Turns out it was aero petrol! We never reported this in case the illegal use of petrol was discovered, for which there would have been a heavy fine. Eventually we managed to off-load it for £5 or £10 to a RAF man.
Mary learned to drive my Rover 12. Sometimes the engine would stop and you had to hand pump the petrol diaphragm. Mary got adept at it. She stopped once in Brighton and a policeman approached offering help. She declined saying she knew just what to do. She whipped the bonnet up, did the pump, and started the engine. We did our courting in that Rover. But it was time for a change, so Lundie bought it and ran it for something like 500,000 miles.
Lundie’s first car was an Austin 7, but an open one which he called The Bug. He drove it to Glenmore Lodge where it was greatly admired. Then it started smoking. Something had fallen on the battery terminals which was fusing the battery. When he was working with Sunderley’s he had an old Lagonda. The brake lever was outside the door of the driver’s seat.
In the early ‘50s, I bought an old Austin Ten for Mary to end her isolation at White Hatch. It was about £120 and we gave it all the polish we could. Unfortunately the car itself was old and rusty, but it worked – more or less. We were returning from a wedding with some of the children in my car and some in Mary’s. Along the Salisbury Road, I discovered a traffic jam only to find Mary and her Austin were the cause. The brakes had failed and she skillfully had ran into another car without causing any harm to anyone.
At some point I had a simple Jowett estate car, much like a van. I think I bought this because it had a special licence for selling goods. I remember I got stopped carrying some goods in the back and the police insisted that it was not a goods van but a personal vehicle, and therefore on an incorrect licence. I took advice and found that the police were wrong. That Jowett did dozens of miles to the gallon.
I got a new Ford Prefect which we took to France soon after we were married in 1947. Its leaf springs made it bounce like a yo-yo. The back seat was full of books, and in the boot was a primus stove which we used to make coffee for breakfast. The cross channel ferry was very crude and the car was hoisted aboard.
Then, I had an Austin saloon car, easily the worst car I ever drove. I felt it was dangerous and persuaded my father to exchange it for an Alvis, a lovely quality car.
On the whole in those busy working days, I was doing well over 1,000 miles a week, some 50,000 or 55,000 a year. It was a lot of driving all over the place, and I needed a decent car to do it in. My father nearly had a fit that I had bought a German car, but I countered with the car’s reliability.
An Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire, which cost the horrendous sum of £1,500, was our vehicle for our next trip abroad sometime in the early ‘50s. It had a bench front seat and a tiny gear box attached to the steering column. It was beautifully appointed, fast and comfortable. But they stopped making them in 1960. We took it to the Italian lakes and were being followed by a local man in his sporty car. He tried to overtake us but failed. When we stopped at a garage, he asked what is this English gentleman’s car that goes so fast?
Public telephones were not so easy to find except in towns or cities, although there was the occasional RAC or AA phone on some of the roads. In order to keep in touch with London clients, I had a radio system set up on top of a block of flats in Highgate and had several cars fitted. My call sign was Sapphire. ‘Sapphire to Rees. Sapphire to Rees. Come in Rees.’ Clients were impressed by its modernity and our company’s efficiency.
Then came more Mercedes, big ones, for company car use which I always bought second hand. One, however, had a faulty cylinder block but the main agent of Mercedes did not seem to want to fix it. I cabled Mercedes in Stuttgart and reported it. They cabled the agent saying ‘Satisfy this customer’ and they did.
At one point my father got a special bodied Bentley, a beautiful car, but someone ran into it and damaged it. It was sent for repair and in the meantime, he bought another one second hand. After about six months the first one had been mended and was returned. He gave me the second Bentley. It was at a time when we had to pick people up and go to posh events, so it was a benefit. I acquired a chauffeur-gardener, Ron Halsey, who moved with his wife into the cottage at Home Farm. Halsey had a uniform which, on rare occasions, he wore.
One of the most fun cars of all was a German car, the NSU Ro 80 with a twin-rotor Wankel engine which was really fun. Mercedes – give me a Mercedes every time as they were wonderful.
Audi NSU RO-80
During the oil crisis in the ‘70s, I changed my gas-guzzler for a VW Golf. The other directors who also were keen on cars said they thought it was a poor show if the chairman of a British company turned up with a little Golf. I disagreed.
My co-directors thought it would be good for me to have a Rolls Royce and pressed me on it. I insisted we build a garage for it on the premises and it was to be used for any director for good reason. I did not like it at all. The suspension was such that it made people feel ill. We used it with a chauffeur at my father’s funeral. When Mary saw it she said I could do what I liked with it, but never to ask her to travel in it.
There was also a Daimler version of the Jaguar, 12-cylinder, and quite amazing as well as a shocker. It kept going wrong. There were two petrol tanks and it did something like 9 or 10 miles per gallon. Mike Richardson borrowed it on business and as he was assuring his clients that it was a British car and not a German one, they hit an expansion joint on the motorway. The driver’s window dropped down into the car and the rain poured in. Later that evening they could not start the car at all so the mechanics worked on it overnight.
Within a few weeks, I was at the Earl’s Court Motor Show and saw my model on display. To their sales rep and head of engineering, I listed all the problems. Two days later the MD of Daimler rang and said they would replace the car at cost but I emphasised the poor quality control. He admitted that if too much pressure was put on the quality control department, they would go on strike - an illustration to the mess that the unions were making. We simply disposed of the car.
However, the most impressive car I ever drove was my Army jeep. Those simple vehicles were an innovative miracle. Crude in many respects, it was capable of going everywhere and could keep going all the time. I had one right through my time in the Army. The jeep made an incredible contribution to the war effort.
Donald Rees died peacefully at 03:42 on 18th April 2010, at his son Paul and daughter-in-law Janet's house, Quinta Moinho de Vento, Algoz, in the Algarve countryside.
At his death were Janet and Paul, his long-term love Brenda Pegg, son Richard and nurse Barbara. Other sons were prevented from being in Portugal due to the 'ash cloud' eminating fromthat affected air traffic across much of Europe.
Donald's body was cremated at the facility in Ferreira do Alentejo were Mary's remains had been cremated eight years earlier.
A celebration of Donald's life was held at Nossa Senhora da Luz in Praia da Luz, Lagos in a service of thanksgiving led by the Reverend Haines Hubbard. The church was full.
The service date of June 14th would have been Donald's 92nd birthday and the lunch at the Fortaleza da Luz opposite the church would have cheered him immensely, overseen by the restaurant's frequently inebriated owner but, somehow, going off without a hitch.
The years after Mary's death in 2002 could have been empty and painful, no doubt they were filled with an inner sadness, but Donald had promised her to 'enjoy what's left' and this he set out to do with vigour and enthuiasm.
Donald managed to dodge the nursing home route by moving in with Janet and Paul at a house he had designed for them - night after night, with pencils, a rubber and a good malt.
The resulting property is tall and impressive, open, welcoming, flexible, great for parties and technologically advanced - much like the great man himself.
Note for family and friends.
As is the way with memoirs written by those of mature years, there may be events and places, names and locations that are incorrect or incomplete.
If you find such an error, please let us know.
Similarly, please send in any personal memories that you wish to include in an additonal section yet to be added to this memoir.
Paul and Janet