Martin Neville was fascinated by early 20th Century engineering. In his time he rebuilt a 1901 steamboat, a 1912 river launch and constructed a Humber yawl from scratch. After running a 1914 Waverly car for a while he renovated a 1921 Norton motorcycle and sidecar. Later, he discovered the initials of the dual TT motorcycle racing champion Charlie Dodson scratched on the cam-shaft of a Singer. This came as something of shock. Martin knew Charles Dodson. He was his wife’s uncle.
A Countryman, always active and often found felling a tree or shredding runner beans, Martin also held a passion for the sea. A great sailor, he renovated a number of traditional boats and kept a skiff or punt on the lake at his house in the Golden Valley. Always a voracious reader, he often devoured a book a day and built up quite a collection of marine literature.
Martin was born in Buckinghamshire at New Inn, an historic house and former coaching inn that has recently been rescued from ruin by the National Trust. Before his parents moved there it had been a hostelry for visitors to the magnificent gardens at Stowe in the 1850s but had not been used since.
It no modernisations whatsoever. His mother had to pull water by hand from a cast iron pump out in the yard and would polish the broad oak floors of her drawing-room with halved coconut shells.
Life must have been hard but she had a great sense of humour and did not complain. The room over the arch where Martin was born in January of 1929 was known to have been freezing.
Martin’s father, the artist H.W. Neville, met his wife, Marjorie in 1922 while he was running a painting holiday in Rye.
They found they both lived on the south coast near Lymington.
While he had a studio at Tile Cottage, her father, the Bournemouth TB Consultant Dr William Gardner, had retired to Woodend House in Pennington from where the couple were married in 1924.
Sadly Marjorie’s mother could not be with them. She had died of peritonitis some years before. Although a surgeon, her husband had not been legally allowed to remove her appendix.
H.W. Neville, always known as Bertie, had become the first Art Master at Stowe School where he started the library and was known for his patience and humour. A Royal Academician who had studied at the Slade under Tonks, he kept painting, typically landscape watercolours in the summer and oils in the winter, some of which can be seen here.
Their house at the school, the New Inn, soon became known as the Nevillery.
None of the other masters were married. It was in the days before tuck boxes and the ever-hungry school boys yearned for sweets. Mrs Neville made fudge and coconut ice that she sold to the boys. One of the matrons at the school, Fanny Parish, the daughter of the Dean of Salisbury Cathedral, became a great friend and soon the concept of a Tuck Shop was born. There is now a Nevillery cafe and shop at the New Inn where you can go for tea yourself.
The Nevilles had a donkey and trap when they were first married. It took them forever to drive into town. They could be seen trotting down Stowe’s magnificent avenue in the days when Lady Kinloss still owned the building.
HW Neville had been born and brought up at Ford in Northumberland, where Martin’s Grandfather was the Rector.
However, he had a great affinity for the South Coast, where the family would often spend their holidays.
Martin explained that as a small child, ‘I thought my name was Morning. When mother woke me she’d always call, ‘Good Morning.’
His brother Michael was four yeard older than him. ‘He had the word ROLAV written on his bottom. Mike once sat on the paraffin heater in the bathroom and the letters V A L O R had been scorched into his skin.’
Mike remembered his brother Martin as the little boy with the golden curls.
‘Mike once crawled under the cooker, split two paraffin bottles and caught the kitchen on fire. Luckily it was a corrugated iron lean-two.’
The Artist’s Dictionary reports that the family lived at Birlingham in Worcestershire in 1933. We think they must have spent the summer holidays at a cottage owned by WH Taylor who Bertie Neville may have met when he was a Re-mounts Officer in WWI. What is certain is that WH Taylor’s grandson married HW Neville’s granddaughter in 2004, seventy years later.
Marjorie’s sister Dulcie occasionally drove up from Lymington to come to stay. She had a box Brownie camera took some unique photographs of the interior of the New Inn, now beautifully furnished with family things. She adored her nephews. Martin was also her Godson.
‘When he was about ten Mike and the farm boy next door decided to paint Auntie’s Rover car. They dipped their hands in paint and painted the blue car white.’
The family were great car drivers owning a variety of vehicles, over the years. Being a doctor, Marjorie’s father had owned the first motor car in Bournemouth and she learnt to drive at a young age, spending WWI on a motorbike or at the wheel of an ambulance while gaining the rank of Sergeant Major in the WAC.
As a small boy Martin was fiddling with a handle while in the back of his parents’ motor car when the door sprung open. They were in Buckingham, going around a corner. He was hurled out and would have probably died had a RAC patrolman not been standing by the side of the road. He caught the boy like a rugby ball. Martin has been grateful to the organisation ever since.
In 1934 Bertie Neville went skating on one of the lakes at Stowe and fell, breaking his back. Sadly he became wheel-chair bound while his two sons were still small. Martin’s Godfathers, the author Halliwell Sutcliffe, and the artist Harry Fiddler RM RBA had already passed away.
Marjorie moved her family back to the south coast, to Milford-on-Sea where their bungalow, Bray Cottage looked out over the Solent to the Needles at the west end of the Isle of Wight.
Mike, who was then aged twelve, said that he’d look out of his bedroom window in the loft to hear a jazz band playing when a liner sailed past, as in those days cruise ships could take the western passage out of Southampton.
A number of marine artists lived in same area, enjoying the unique light, but although H.W. Neville tried to paint he battled with his infirmities and died of pneumonia aged sixty-two in August 1936 when Martin was only seven years old.
Martin said, ‘My Aunt Dulcie had a clinker-built dinghy made for me. It cost £1 a foot and £5 for the last foot. I learnt to sail in the Solent, exploring the mud flats and crossing over to Yarmouth where we had a cousin, Eric Marshall, who had been the doctor on Shackelton’s first expedition to the South Pole.’
At the age of nine he sailed over in a storm and was rather disappointed to receive a lecture about the dangers of sailing in strong winds, when he was expected a rapturous welcome.
Martin went to Great Ballard School, joined the Sea Scouts and was taught to swim at the Lymington sea water baths by being swung from a long pole, like a fish on the end of a fishing rod. He said it was an horrific experience that it put him off swimming of life. He would often stay with his aunt and step-grandmother Angel (nee Gabrielle Chapman) at Woodend Cottage in Boldre Lane, where he was taught how to make jam by Charlotte the cook and spent hours with George the gardener and chauffeur. They were all members of Boldre Church, which had a gooseberry bush growing on the roof.
‘Dulcie had a friend called Hilda Hayles who ran a tea shop in Lymington High Street. Every autumn she’d commandeer all the small boys to help her pick blackberries in the New Forest from which she made enough jam to serve in the shop for a whole year. She ran her car of the proceeds from her Ladies loo where you literally had to Spend-a-Penny.’
In the 1930s it was common for boys to ride on the running board of a car and hop off to open gates crossing the road, of which there were many in the New Forest area.
A year after the outbreak of WWII the Neville boys were given the chance of being evacuated by ship to Canada. Martin was offered a billet with a distant relation in the remote mining town of Flin Flon on the border of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. His brother Mike who was fifteen was all set for the 1000 Islands near Toronto in Quebec. Marjorie wasn’t happy about the boys being sent in different directions and didn’t like the idea of the mining town, but packed their trunks and took them by train on the ‘Slow and Dirty’ (the Somerset and Dorset line) to Liverpool.
‘She took Mike to a dentist in Liverpool to have a filing before he left. The dentist was shocked to find he already had unnecessary fillings and this really upset her.’ In the end one old trunk split open on the quay, she reneged, and everyone returned to Lymington. Their ship was a passenger liner called SS City of Benares, which left port on Friday 13th September 1940 in a convoy of some twenty vessels being escorted to safety by three Navy ships. 600 miles into their journey, after their Naval escort had tuned back, the City of Benares was torpedoed by a German U-boat. A force 8 gale was blowing and rest of the convoy were under orders to plough on in event of convoy attack. Only thirteen of the ninety children on board survived in the freezing waters.
Instead of Saskstewan Martin went to St Edward’s Oxford, sponsored by the Artist’s Benevolent Fund. His mother gave him a peach and sent him up by train, aged twelve. To his distress he found he had arrived two days early and had to find a hotel. For a while he was the youngest boy at the school: ‘Neville min’. Things were tough until he found himself excelling as a cross-country runner and oarsman. He kept the peach stone and persevered.
Receiving an education in wartime was not easy; Martin had seventeen Maths masters as each young teacher was conscripted. Others were ancient. ‘One house master, a chap called Tilly, had fought in the Boer War.’ Fortunately he was taught Geography by a teacher who also commanded the Sea-Cadets and ensured he gained 98% in his final exams.
Martin always remembered the time at school when one of the boys learnt that his father had been killed on active service. Other boys laughed when they found him washing the tears from his face in the cloakroom. Saying nothing Martin walked up to the basin beside him and simply started to wash his hands. It was an act of solidarity and support.
Though very active, cycling miles through the New Forest during the school holidays, Martin developed mastoids. This was a terribly painful, life-threatening condition that meant he spent a summer term assigned to bed. He only avoided having a hole drilled in his skull by the miraculous arrival of a dose of penicillin, which had been sent over from a local American airbase.
Towards the end of WWII Marjorie Neville became an ambulance driver at the wheel of a massive Daimler. In 1945 her eldest son, Michael, left for D-Day + 4 as an eighteen-year-old with the Royal Tank Regiment and she wanted to be on Southampton Docks when he returned. At one stage she forgot to engage her hand-break when the Daimler was parked on Lymington High Street near where Ben Ainslie’s golden pillar box now stands. She had to run down hill and leap inside before it hit the house at the bottom of the cobbled street.
Mike claims he was the first allied soldier to enter le Havre. He managed to survive but later had a dramatic encounter when a mine hit by his tank. ‘Luckily he was a Captain by then. His life was saved by the fact that he was wearing a beret rather than a tin helmet. The flames roared on up, rather than being trapped around his brain. He had terrible burns. It cured his teenage acne for good.’ As his eyes were bandaged, he asked who was in the bed next to him, only to be told it was a German prisoner of war with a boil on his nose.
The Home Guard, as characterised by the BBC comedy series Dad’s Army was largely made up of retired men. However Martin was a young member, kept busy as a runner – cycling around at Pennington with messages until the war ended. ‘I’d be told to wake up the old boys on guard.’
He then spent just over a year at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst where he was promoted for taking the initiative to clear out the Wish Stream and rowed with the Argonauts, an Army rowing eight based on the Thames at Reading. Interpreters courses for German and Russian were on the RMA curriculum but he had no aptitude for languages and, too free of thought for institutional life, somehow managed to purchase his discharge on 4th February 1949, at the age of twenty.
On leaving the Army, Martin went up to read PPE at St John’s College, University of Durham were he rowed on the River Wear for his college. It was part of his course to work down Branspeth Colliery, one of the deepest coal mines in the country, where he was taken down a seam 18″ high. An American student with large feet panicked when his boots jammed between the floor and roof of the seam but they emerged unscathed.
‘Then I was looking for a job.’ After gaining a Diploma from Durham he spent two terms as a school master at a prep school in the Chilterns. ‘I was turned off school mastering very quickly! It was an enclosed world. I can’t remember the name of the school but Earl Howe, a racing motorist, owned the house and a lot of well-known actors sent their boys there: Stanley Holloway, Maurice Dunham, Kaye Hammond and John Clements and the Collins chap who started Goya the cosmetics company. He became an international cross-country rider.’
Before long Martin was living in London where he had digs in a house on Chiswick Mall overlooking the River Thames. He worked for Poole Pottery, measuring up and paying the tiling team, as they tiled buildings. He then worked for a firm that manufactured fighter aircraft called Folland Aircraft, who took on sub-contract work for de Havilland, made Comet wings and latterly became part of British Aerospace (BAe). He used one of the early computer machines, a punch card system called a Hollerith. ‘The company did very well. We had an incredible man, WEW Petter, who was both the chief designer and Managing Director, who was inspirational. He’d designed three extraordinary aircraft before he had joined Folland and ended up in a monastery in Switzerland.
I should have stayed with them all my life but I was interested in hydrolyics and fluidics and moved on to a job in that area. I took a course at Southampton in aeronautical engineering but couldn’t tackle the advanced mathematics. The slide rule was well more than I could cope with.’
Martin would spend his weekends either at Corfe Castle, where his mother had a cottage overlooking the ruins, or sailing in the Solent where he spent summer after summer racing for Cosby ‘Chunky’ Smallpiece in a succession of handicapped boats ending with an 8 metre cruiser racer designed by McGruer, one of the best boatyards in Scotland. ‘Jimmy McGruer was on the Olympics committee, a lovely man.’
Martin ended up with a serious job as the Group Publicity Manager for BIP, in Oldbury outside Birmingham. He looked after the publicity for twelve companies. The group employed 97,000 people. ‘Amongst the companies there was a heavy engineering division, a tool making division…which I enjoyed. I was working direct to the chairman and twelve managing directors. They made all sorts of things. There was even a button company up at Maryport making a million buttons a day. I was the first amongst my friends to get a company car, which was most prestigious then.’
As a side-line he wrote a monthly magazine on BIP’s new products such as the use of new textiles, paint for cars, industrial resins, resins for boats and transparent corrugated roofing. He had a huge marketing budget and was able to commission a number of artists such as Piper, Martin Battersby and Ronald Searle, to produce the illustrations. ‘Piper designed the windows for Coventry cathedral. John Moore wrote some articles for me, a lovely character. Who ran Granada? … Lew Grade – He wanted to make a film about the company but I turned him down.’
‘We had two lovely London offices. My office was in the hay market. The company secretary a was a very keen sailor. I bought a 21ft Burmuda cutter, which I could spend weekends on.’ Martin’s experience helping Chunky Smallpiece to design winches for racing yachts began to pay off.
‘We went on to make the first fibre glass hulled boats.’ He rushed off to western Ireland to help launch the prototype. ‘Glass Slipper at 48 foot was the first big one. Tragically a crew of the Sea Scouts lost their lives when their aluminium-hulled boat caught fire. We made the first fire-resistant fibre glass lifeboat – or supplied the materials. It was a threshold of boat manufacturing. We were on the frontiers of modern technology. It was very exciting. I hired a helicopter and a photographer to follow one of the motorboat races so I could promote glass boats effectively. Now if you look at a marina, wooden boats are history, but getting the idea to catch on was not easy. We ran a school of glass fibre/polyester glass fibre and even instructed people like John Cooper, who made Cooper cars, and the Henson car company. From glass they stepped into carbon-fiber and aluminium frames.
In 1957 Martin was on holiday in Italy with an old friend from Stowe called Basil Dewing when he was introduced to a girl from Bedford called Daphne Dodson, a drama student at RADA. She’d been warned by her mother that he was a racy advertising type and to be cautious. ‘ I only promoted hydraulic presses. I suppose some faces look like presses.’
They married in Bedford on her twenty-first birthday. Martin was twenty-nine. His 22 foot yacht Sindri was moored in the Hamble. ‘We sailed around to Beaulieu for our honeymoon and stayed at the Master Builder’s pub. The new bride kicked over a tin of white paint at the top of high tide and covered Beaulieu water in oil paint, effectively repainting the dark blue hull of Ronald Brooke’s yacht moored nearby.’
‘Ron made the leading navigation equipment at the time. His firm, Brookes and Gatehouse was a leading manufacturer of yacht navigation equipment. He was Daphne’s Godfather and had been one of the naval officers to rescue the children who managed to cling to the life boats when the City of Benares was sunk in mid-Atlantic. His partner, Major Gatehouse, lived in Captains Row in Lymington.’
Daphne’s comment on the honeymoon was,
‘Oh dear, complete disaster, poor little creature as I was. I thought it was going to be a wonderful holiday like when we met.’
As it was they spent fifty weekends of the year on Sindri. Martin’s nephew Ian Neville occasionally came down as Ship’s Boy. He said their mooring was near the Jolly Roger on the Hamble. It was his job to row them ashore and sit outside drinking ginger beer while they went into the pub.
At first Martin and Daphne rented a flat in rather a grand, isolated house on Hagley Hill, the dower house to Hagley Hall in Worcestershire. They then found an old bakery in the village, for sale at a cheap price because the former owners had kept a monkey that peed in the bread. Martin renovated the cottage, converting the Baker’s shop into a hall and long drawing-room, adding a fabulous marble fireplace he’d found that happened to feature his family crest. Friends remember that he wall-papered the dinning room with Admiralty marine charts. ‘You could buy them quite cheaply and they were wonderful, heavy paper.’
It was here, below the Clent Hills, that their first daughter Sophie was born in the autumn of 1960. They also had a sheepdog called Lupy and a couple of donkeys. The donkeys were called Armstrong, after Tony Armstrong-Jones and Lucy. One holiday was spent at Gun Wallow in Cornwall.
Martin had always loved the Lake District. When at Sandhurst he would use his military travel warrant to get to Cumberland to walk in the fells.
Once at BIP he would try to visit the button factory at Maryport on a Friday and stay at the Pheasant Inn at Brasenthwaite so he could spend the weekend exploring the area.
He took Daphne and Sophie up in the spring of 1963 before Perry was born.
The house opposite the Old Bakery had a long lawn with an archery butt at one end. It wasn’t long before Daphne and Martin were persuaded to take up archery by Tony Norris. They joined the Worcestershire Archery Society and became life-long devotees of the long-bow, winning a number of prizes over the years and amassing quite an interesting collection of bows from a long Japanese bow made of bamboo and designed to be used on horseback to a tiny, symbolic set of Bushmen arrows in a buckskin quiver.
At this time Martin also kept bees, owning a number of hives and a honey spinner. He won a prize for his mead but got so terribly stung he should have died. His interest for the hobby lapsed but he kept the empty hives as garden ornaments, a memorial to a merry evening drinking mead with David and Jane Williams-Thomas.
There were soon three little girls in white dresses. Perry arrived in 1963 and Tamzin in 1964.
Martin was able to use a small portion of his advertising budget to commission a sculpture of his daughter Sophie that was then cast in resin, rather than bronze, to illustrate the innovative materials BIP were developing.
‘I was always getting bronchitis working at Oldbury. There was so much pollution they called it the Black Country. It wasn’t until I had a big X-ray in 2013 that my TB showed up. I’d had it in the Army, maybe before.’
In 1965 Martin gained a job as Sales Director of Chritchley Brothers Ltd, a private manufacturing company in the Stroud Valley in Gloucestershire. Looking for somewhere to live nearby, he found a mill, dating from 1501, with a river running past it that seemed to only need a bit of renovation. Despite Daphne’s fears that all three children would drown in the lake above the house, the family moved to the purer air of the Cotswolds. The donkeys arrived soon afterwards in the back of a van driven by Ian Stuart, a friend who owned the cut-glass crystal company, Stuart Crystal.
Martin’s new job gave him the opportunity to travel the world, exporting electrical components and small items made of PVC such as the first cable-ties. He relished the opportunity to fly to South Africa when business trips entailed a three-week tour of the tour country, fishing rods tied to the roof rack of his agent’s car.
Of all the many overseas trade missions he relished the opportunity to visit Japan where he enjoyed touring the gardens and Thailand where he took trips up the waterways at great speed.
Martin also enjoyed working with the engineering team back at the factory on the development of products. Living just up the valley, he would return home for lunch and would be back again in the evenings in time to work in the garden, fell trees or get on with whatever restoration project had captivated him.
He’d bought a 1930’s fire engine – a Denys with a Rolls Royce engine and a dodgy clutch – for £60 from BIP. ‘It was originally the works fire engine.’ It had an open back that proved wonderful for picnics as it could accommodate a huge number of friends. He once took a party of twenty-one adults and small children to the Cirencester Polo-ground, making great savings on the price of parking.
Soon after such expeditions he’d be off to America on the QEII or flying to Johannesburg with a small case of cable markers, becoming at expert at travelling well and arriving home laden with interesting gifts from Masai necklaces to sealskin boots.
He was able to make time to visit Tanzania and was thrilled to have been able to hold lemurs and explore the African bush. Daphne’s uncle Tony in Tanzania, a professional hunter who took him on safari.
‘We had a factory in Germiston, another factory in Sydney and exported extensively to Holland. It was a very diverse product group. We manufactured PVC race course fencing – which soon replaced wood, saving the lives of an estimated 150 horses a year. If they hit the rail it was designed to bounce away from the track instead of splinting and causing havoc. We also went into agricultural engineering in a big way, selling a lazer-controlled plough called ‘the mole’. I sold it to the deserts of the world for laying irrigation – California, Russia, Israel, Orange Free State … all over the place. The process negated leaching.’
Martin promoted the light-weight PVC land-drainage tube by employing Diana Moran to lift great rolls of it at agricultural shows while chatting up local farmers. Percy Baxter, who did so much dry stone walling at Baker Mill, was absolutely enchanted. In the early 1980s she died her hair blonde, donned a bright green leotard and became known as the Green Goddess, hosting a keep fit item on Breakfast Television.
In 1968 Daphne Neville gained an exciting job as a Newsreader and television presenter for Harlech Television or HTV in Cardiff. She was soon asked to open a transmission tower at Crymych in Pembrokeshire in west Wales. Martin had spent holidays on the coast below Newport since he’d been sixteen. He now bought a tiny orange tent, which was erected in a small field in front of a boatshed belonging to friends just above the mudflats beside the Pembrokeshire coastal path. The neighbours were amazed to see three small blonde girls emerge from the tent, dressed identically in pink rosebud dresses. They were followed by a glamorous lady in a smart suit and enormous hat who had learnt to say ‘Good morning’ in Welsh.
The whole family then went up the mountain to open the transmission tower. It is still in operation today. (Please repeat this proclamation in a Welsh accent). The family have used the boatshed for annual holidays ever since, camping there whatever the weather and sailing in the bay.
At HTV Daphne worked alongside Liz Cast and her husband Martyn Lewis, who became a national newscaster and acclaimed author. They would join the Nevilles to sail and camp in Pembrokeshire, and later bought a house at Crymych.
Critchleys also made knitting needles. His daughter Sophie appeared on BBC Points West, aged about eight, knitting with over-sized plastic needles one inch in diameter. She sat on the boardroom table knitting a scarf that was so quick to make that it grew during the programme as it went out on air.
Martin had taken over Reg Lee’s job at Critchleys. Reg was Laurie Lee’s half-brother. In 1970, when Sophie was ten she had a small part in the first BBC dramatization of ‘Cider With Rosie’ directed by Claude Whatham and filmed on location at Slad.
Sophie Neville appearing in ‘Cider with Rosie’ (1971)
In March 1973 a letter, arrived out of the blue, asking if Sophie could interview for a part in a feature film that Claude Whatham was making on Arthur Ransome’s book, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in the Lake District. They were looking for children who could sail. Martin had read all the Arthur Ransome books when they were first published in the 1930s and had already bought Puffin copies for his own children.
He assented and helped her to get her rowing and sailing up to scratch in the lake behind the house after she was offered the part of Titty.
Whilst Daphne and Sophie went up to Westmorland for the seven weeks it took to make the movie, Martin looked after his two other daughters and the animals, although he took two weeks leave over half-term to travel up to the lakes. He borrowed a 16mm Bolex camera from Critchleys to take behind-the-scenes footage while on location.
Since none of the local men below the age of seventy were prepared to have a 1929 short-back and sides haircut, Martin was also asked to appear as an extra in the film.
In the end Martin appeared, uncredited, in five scenes of ‘Swallows and Amazons’. He can be seen as a passenger, standing on the MV Tern after it nearly collided with the Swallow. He looks very relaxed.
In actual fact he was feeling very shaky. With years of experience sailing, he could foresee that the small dinghy would lose her wind in the lee of the steamer and thought that it really would end up in a terrible accident. Luckily the bow wave tossed the Swallow aside and all was well, but he said he was grateful when the Make-up designer brought him a whisky.
If you watch the feature film you can also see Martin in front of the old green boathouses at Rio, chatting to a man in a steamboat. Sophie appeared on the cover of the next Puffin edition of the book.
He had time afterwards to shoot this footage:
Martin’s footage of the making of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ was later featured on the BBC programmes Countryfile, Big Screen Britain and Country Tracks presented by Ben Fogle. Forty years on it now features in the Extras package for the DVD produced by the film company StudioCanal. You can see the clips and read more about the making of the movie on http://sophieneville.net/
It was wonderful to be in the Westmorland as a family.
Friends were also able to come and visit.
That same summer he had his hair cut for free again when he appeared in a Weetabix commercial shot locally by Claude Whatham but hanging around on set irritated him. He was much more excited about the prospect of spending his fee on a Fergusson tractor.
By 1976 there was an enormous Irish mare called Gerty and about five ponies with the donkeys in the fields below the mill and a total of eighteen other pets if one included the green parrot, dogs, cats, rabbits, gerbils, goldfish and a goat, as well as a trailer full of the descendants of Roman snails.
There were now four daughters to accommodate. Daphne and Martin adopted a small girl of Vietnamese/American descent with her legs sadly crippled by polio, who had been airlifted from Saigon by the Daily Mail. Since the other girls became busy appearing in a number of films and television dramas with their mother acting as chaperone, Martin put Mary-Dieu in the side-car of his huge Norton motor-cycle and took her around with him. The girls also loved his steamboat.
Martin had been interested in steam for a long time. In about 1978 he added a Victorian steam engine to the 1901 teak hull that had been languishing at the bottom of the garden and launched Daffodil on the Thames at Port Meadow.
It took about 45 minutes to get up steam, but he would take off in her for a few days, sometimes taking along his chainsaw to gather fuel on the way. Every year he would invite friends to join him at Henley or to explore the upper reaches of the Thames.
At about this time he left Critchleys to start-up his own business, the Phoenix Walking Stick Company operating an historic water-mill called St Mary’s on the River Frome below the village of Chalford.
He invented a way of setting the cells in traditional bent wood handles by adapting a microwave oven. The shafts of the sticks went through holes in the door so as to remain slightly bendy, rather than snap under pressure. The machine is still working today.
Alongside this, Martin was invited to join an international team set up to make a robot that manufactured component-loading printed circuit boards. At a trade exhibition in Japan he had gathered a number of potential buyers around the incredibly expensive machine, only to find it would not work. ‘I had no idea what was wrong or how to fix it. The only thing I could think of was that the fuse in the plug might have blown. I found a screw-driver, changed the three pin plug and it worked!’
Martin Neville in 1991
In the early 1980’s Martin decided to install a modern water-turbine into the three-storey mill beside his house that had originally been built to twist silk in about 1790. He was amazed to find he needed a water extraction licence even though he owned about a mile of the river and was running the water through a mill-race that had been in existence for two hundred years or more – possibly since Doomsday.
Martin been a member of the Drapers’ Company, one of the Great Twelve livery companies of the City of London, since 1957. The membership had come down through his mother’s family who could trace their involvement back to 1327 with seven Masters in the family, including his great grandfather who ran the company throughout WWII after the Clerk was called up.
Martin supported innovative moves such as turning the silver vault into a display room and renting out the hall so that a full-time staff could be employed and company entertainments financed while enabling the hall to be used to the full rather than lie empty.
It came upon Martin to be elected Master of the Draper’s Company in 1988, a glorious year when he hosted the first ever female speaker in the guise of everyone’s heart-throb, Virginia McKenna, as well as the King of Norway and the Lord Mayor of London.
Martin was a bit worried how he would cope with living in London for ten months but he soon found a productive way of spending free afternoons. Alastair Bruce, now the Sky Television commentator, rang Sophie to say,
‘I’ve just seen your father walking through the City in his gardening clothes. What is he doing?’
He was busy building a Humber yawl at Tower Hamlets, thrilled that the subsidised materials and boat building classes only cost £12. When he left, they had to remove a window from the workshop, on the third floor, to get it out.
Daphne and Martin ended their year by entertaining HRH Princess Michael of Kent and her daughter Gabriella at an Otter Tea Party held at Drapers’ Hall to raise funds for the charity ‘Care for the Wild’. It was into the field of otter conservation that Martin and Daphne went into pretty well full-time up until the present day.
The otter conservation work started when a small Asian short-clawed otter called Bee was bought in 1980 as an ambassador to represent British otters who were in sharp decline in England and Wales. It was estimated that there were only 170 pairs left in the wild. Daphne started raising money for otter conservation by giving talks and lectures with Bee. She was soon became the under water reporter for Severn Sound radio and was invited to speak at major events countrywide with conservationists such as David Bellamy and Sir David Attenborough.
Martin Neville with his otter Belinda c 2011
Martin initially went along to help with the driving but soon found himself appearing on television with a tame otter in his arms. He relished the chance to campaign for pure waters in rivers and was seen on ITV in his gardening clothes introducing an otter called Belinda to Alan Titchmarsh. At times the otters would appear in drama serials such as Down to Earth or All Creatures Great and Small, which involved filming thought the country. The series Badger was made in Northumberland and The Chase in Yorkshire. This proved hard work but satisfying when Bee appeared on the cover of the Radio Times or commanded half-page coverage in the Times.
Martin was presented with a Silver-pintail Award by FAWAG for the conservation of his own wetlands in Gloucestershire. He had gained such expertise in the field of land-drainage that in the mid-1970’s he published a booklet on terminology used in wetland management. This stood him in good stead when he started to give lectures on British otters who need about 32 holts each with substantial sections of undisturbed river bank in order to survive.
At this time, technically after he had retired from industry, Martin found himself in a whole new career, working alongside his wife as an actor.
Daphne wanted him to do the driving and find far-flung film locations, however he was soon getting more parts than her. Directors found they often needed a tall, silver-haired Englishman, who they could rely to take on small parts. Before long he had an impressive list of movie credits. He was given the role of Hugh Lutteridge on a Touchstone/Disney movie shot at Broughton Castle called ‘Three Men and a Little Lady’, starring Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson. It became a huge box office success.
He played an Ambassador in Oliver Parker’s film ‘An Ideal Husband’ , which starred Rupert Everett, Minnie Driver, Julianne Moore and Peter Vaughan, and was Queen Victoria’s butler at Windsor Castle in ‘Mrs Brown’ with Judi Dench and Billy Connolly – who he said winked at him whenever things got too serious.
Martin enjoyed appearing in any drama that featured vintage cars and unusual period vehicles. He’d restored a 1914 Waverley car with wooden wheels, and enjoyed the chance to speak to other collectors.
Chris Menaul cast Martin as the Prison Governor in ‘The Feast of July’ for Merchant Ivory, which starred Gemma Jones, Embeth Davidtz and Tom Bell. Daphne had a small part as Mrs Mitchell. He enjoyed working on location in historic villages and ancient buildings.
Martin later played the vicar in a ‘The Clandestine Marriage’, which was fun. Directed by Christopher Miles, it starred Nigel Hawthorne, Joan Collins and Timothy Spall. His grandest part was possibly playing a peer of the realm in ‘Eugene Onegin’ directed by Ralph Fiennes.
One summer the television serial ‘The House of Elliot’ was recorded at the Neville’s house. This pleased Martin no end as the designer insisted on supplying a number of new oak gates and a set of French windows.
Martin played the part of an auctioneer on the drama and loved meeting the delightful actresses involved. They had no idea that he was Chairman of the local independent radio station, Severn Sound.
Other television work followed. By now Martin looked a bit like Richard Briers which helped. He played the vicar in The Ghost of Greville Lodge and had the role of Jim Farmer in Diggity: A Home at Last that starred Louise Lombard, who he knew well from The House of Elliot.
Daphne had fun appearing with Martin on Rab C. Nesbitt and he got to appear in some of his favorite comedies, including One Foot in the Grave when they payed the next-door neighbours of Annette Crosby and Richard Wilson.
After getting into the swing of playing estate agents, solicitors and postmen who never said very much, if anything at all, Martin had a bit of a shock. He arrived in Edinburgh to appear in a drama called ‘The Dinosaur Hunters’, which told the story of the beginning of palaeontology and the long-running feud between Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen. It was being shot at The Royal College of Surgeons. He found he was to play Richard Owen’s father-in-law and needed to learn sixteen pages of dialogue by the next morning.
‘I was playing the Director of the Hunterian Institute in a Victorian suit. My lines were quite complicated, full of Victorian intellectual statements about reptiles and their dentition.’ The other actors rallied round and kindly helped him to deliver his speech with rather a desperate but genuine sincerity.
He found out that they were selling The Royal Thamesis a 36 foot shallop that had been built only three years previously, commissioned as replica of Queen Mary’s Thames barge. It looked very like a Livery Company barge of old; a smaller version of one that the Draper’s had once designed with an eye to using it on the tideway.
This shallop could take eight to ten passengers, regally sitting on velvet cushions under a canopy, pulled by six oarsmen on fixed thwarts, one oar-a-piece. The beautifully constructed boat was going for the price of the trailer. Martin persuaded the Court of the Draper’s Company to buy it for ceremonial and charitable purposes. She was soon re-painted in the Draper’s colours of blue and gold.
Richard Norton, a former International oarsman and Liveryman of the company, stepped in as Barge Master and a crew was gathered. Kept in a barn near Oxford, it is just possible to tow the shallop with an ordinary car. As a result it has been taken all over England and even to Venice where members of the Draper’s Livery, including Gold medallist, Ed Coode rowed it in the Voga Longa, a 32 kilometre marathon row around the lagoon and down the Grand Canal.
The Royal Thamesis was used to re-create Nelson’s funeral and had the honour of being the third boat in the Queen’s Jubilee Pageant on the Thames.
Daffodil, the steamboat, was sold when the ministry introduced rather strict regulations for marine boilers. The water-turbine was switched off after the noise of running water made visitors want to go the loo on a constant basis. It was switched on again but produced so much heat that steam gushed out of the joints in the radiator pipe-work and rather alarmed everybody including a traumatised Japanese tenant who ran out of the door clutching her small baby.
Martin did have a number of rather alarming gardening accidents. He was cutting the lawn along a jetty when his sit-upon-mower tipped into the lake. He found himself trapped underwater by his foot and was only just able to dig himself out in time, knowing that the lakebed was made of soft clay. Once his tractor accelerated off by itself, hit a five-barred gate and reared up, throwing him backwards. Luckily the gate broke and he crashed forward again. The worse accident was when his garden rotavator tipped back onto him. The steel tines kept turning, cutting through his gumboots and stripping his trousers off him, leaving him trapped and half-naked in the vegetable garden, cutting himself free with a stone.
Sailing with his cousin Christopher Davies was perhaps more dangerous. They were in the North Sea, making their was along the east coast when the hurricane hit the British Isles in 1987. Martin said that the waves were so huge and water so shallow that when he looked down he could see the sand of the sea bed. They were speeding along at a terrifying pace, pushed along by wind on the mast alone.
Despite helping to establish great innovations such as glass fibre boats, land-drainage and promoting clean water in our rivers Martin saw his greatest achievement as coming against pedophiles. In 1997 he read how easy it was to access child pornography on the internet and determined to combat it. He also identified potential problems of parental control on personal computers and became instrumental in the work to protect children from predatory adults. He put considerable energy into raising awareness of the Internet Watch Foundation and rallied the court of the Drapers company to support a crusading charity called Childnet. He was able to help them further by hosting a pivotal workshop chaired by his old friend Martyn Lewis, now a national newsreader. A motivational talk from the CEO of National Children’s Homes galvanized BT and the directors of computer sales outlets such as PC World and Dixons into protective action, providing ‘nanny programmes’ and drawing up protective policy. At the outset of the campaign there was one hi-tech policeman working with Childnet, within the year there were four, soon there were 750 policemen using the internet to gain enough evidence to effectively prosecute peadophiles. The project was deemed a great success.
Rupert Wieloch recognised that Martin was able to handle controversial issues, ‘exercising sound judgement by treasuring tradition whilst seeing the potential of modern technology in so many developments over the years…He could also see through ill-conceived proposals which might do more harm than good to nature. His ardent campaigning against the re-opening of the abandoned Thames and Severn Canal, brought him national acclaim in the Daily Telegraph after he drew on his considerable knowledge and wonderful presentational skills to demonstrate that the proposed scheme would actually decrease biodiversity by driving away precious flora and fauna.’
Martin eventually sold his collection of historic marine books and spent the proceeds on an enjoyable cruise around the Baltic before going in for a knee operation, which he needed by the age of eighty to rectify the effects of running so far in his youth. He was also able to go on a family cruise down the coast of Montenegro on MY Lallie and take a number of holidays on passenger liners, relishing a trip on the post boat up the coast of Norway as well as a trans-Atlantic voyage to the Caribbean.
Painful knees did not slow him down much. Indeed he could be found at his boatshed in Pembrokeshire or seen sitting on a small red tractor, trundling along at an alarming angle, merrily mowing the lawn above the River Frome rushing past his house.
Daphne and Martin Neville in the Telegraph
He still hadn’t retired. Even at the age of eighty-five he was driving miles and camping with two otters, despite the promised onset of freezing weather, so as to enable his wife to tell inner City kids about river ecology. In December 2014 they rushed off to Cardiff to appear in a Welsh soap opera before spending Christmas in Lymington where he grew up.
Martin spent his life using his ability and experience to help others, often encouraging young people to travel. ‘He was probably the first person to encourage me to become a teacher,’ Diana Vernon said. She is now Head of at Melbourne School for Girls. Tim Newman, the CEO of Huski, wrote that, ‘he helped to shape so many lives with the example he set.’
Richard Beharrell, once Master of the Draper’s Company commented on Martin’s kindness and outstanding sense of humour, ‘He guided me with great tact and careful consideration when I first joined the Court at the Drapers. My father also loved his company and so I felt that I knew him well before I reached the dizzy ranks. I always learned something when I spoke to Martin and he remains in my mind as one of the most fascinating men I have ever met. He had an amazing knowledge about so much and was always able to share his experiences in such a quiet and fascinating way. His ideas were always his own, never relying on rumour or gossip but always based on his broadly garnered knowledge of the facts.’
Martin Neville in 2004
If you ever visit the Norman church at Milford-on-Sea you may well come across a small pink, granite tomb made from stone brought down from Northumberland with led lettering marking it as the grave of HW Neville, Artist and his wife Marjorie. Martin was buried at St Luke’s Church, Frampton Mansell in the Cotswolds. He died at home, aged 86.
His daughter Sophie Neville portrayed certain aspects of Martin’s life at home in the country in her biographical books, ‘Funnily Enough’ and ‘Ride the Wings of Morning’ as well as ‘The Secrets of Filming Swallows & Amazons’. A few of the early stories about keeping otters can be read in Daphne Neville’s illustrated book for children ‘Bee a Particular Otter’, available on Amazon. ‘A Corner in the North’ by Hastings M Neville includes illustrations and paintings by his father Herbert W Neville.
Martin Neville edited and wrote ~
‘Sixty Seconds of Industrial Advertising’ an information booklet published by ISBA that won an award for innovation
‘Applied Pneumatics’ ~ an industrial journal
‘The Beetle’ ~ a promotional journal for BIP
‘The Mole’ ~ a booklet on land drainage terms
A number of detailed technical handbooks and leaflets on chemical engineering, heavy hydraulic machinery and presses, roofing products and adhesives.
Articles for national magazines such as ‘Classic Boat’, ‘Yachts and Yachting’, ‘Wooden Boat’ and ‘The Kitchen Garden Magazine’ and journals of the SBA, Traditional Boat Society and Drapers Company.
Royal Agricultural Society ~ Silver Medal for land drainage initiatives and irrigation schemes
ISBA Fellowship awarded for innovation in the advertising industry