Daughter’s moving tribute reveals greatest achievements and regrets of the man who ‘built Peterborough’

The daughter of the former head of the Peterborough Development Corporation, Wyndham Thomas, has paid a moving and insightful tribute to her dad after his recent passing away aged 95.

Tuesday, 24th December 2019, 6:22 am
Wyndham Thomas with his plan for Peterborough

Tessa Thomas wrote:

It was early evening when the pivotal call came in: “Is that Mr Thomas…?” “Yes.” “Or perhaps I should call you sir?”

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Wyndham with his wife Betty

The offer that inevitably followed, to set up, develop and run the Peterborough Development Corporation was ‘the invitation of my life’. It was as tailor-made as a job could be, bringing together his deeply personal interest in housing and social equality.

Why so personal? Because ‘sir’ – whom I’ll call dad – had been born into a very poor family: father a miner, mother a maid, until ill-health forced her to give up work entirely. As a union activist, her husband Robert was always one of the first to be laid off when demand dropped and the pit bosses wanted to reduce costs.

That did at least mean my father could keep his shoes on in the evening. Too poor to afford a pair each they shared some. Dad wearing them, albeit a couple of sizes too big, to school and having to give them to his father in the evening ready to wear to work.

Coal miner’s pay being low, Robert worked the night-shift as it paid slightly more. But the scant wages meant that ‘paying the rent was hard and always a worry’. Sometimes it was too hard and they would default, raising the spectre of eviction, with parents homeless and the four children at high risk of being sent to the workhouse.

Archive photo of Wyndham Thomas

The importance of housing security, then, was deep within dad, who would as a boy sit on the stairs and listen to the long conversations Robert had with the rent-collector, whose political leanings he shared. Nothing was very private, especially in a house that they had to share with another family.

Unaffordable rent, cramped living conditions and,housing costs taking priority, there was never enough for clothes or even decent food, “We spent a lot of time hungry and sharing beds too meant sleep was hard. I often got to school tired out.”

They later got a council house which “was wonderful,” he recalled: “It wasn’t big but it was ours and safe and even warm.”

They could relax, even thrive, and thus was the importance of good affordable housing embedded in his young soul.

Fast forward 30 years and in 1968 he gets the call inviting him to Peterborough, enabling him to draw on his boyhood experience and apply what he had more recently learned in his work for the Town & Country Planning Association. “Everything came together - I couldn’t wait to get started.”

He and Betty – married since 1947 – found a house in Castor and in we moved. It was a few months before he had an office to go into to match his lofty title of general manager of Peterborough Development Corporation. Until then, he and his secretary Mary Walker, who for some time together represented the totality of the PDC, worked from a basement in the Town Hall. A move into Peters Court followed as staff were recruited and the project expanded, reflecting how much the local population would.

Many came up from London where my father had held public meetings to communicate the benefits of moving out of the smoke and into a cathedral city in East Anglia (Hunts as the address then was). “The response was much bigger than I expected, with lots registering their interest – probably because we held up the promise of jobs to match the homes.”

Some of the meetings were in the then downtrodden districts of Haringey where coincidentally I now live. At last year’s 40 Years On series of events I met a number of resettled ex-Haringey residents (and reassured them time had proven the move, in light of impossible property costs in north London now, had been a well-advised one).

Buoyed by the results of the early intakes, with plans for a lot more new homes for later arrivals and a spirit of social progress, the PDC staff were driven by “a real team spirit – we operated like a big family rather than a bureaucratic service machine,’ says Glynis Titman, who joined the PDC as an 18-year-old typist and stayed for many years before transferring to Nene Park.

The first Masterplan, inherited from the consultants Hancock Hawkes, was shelved. “Too many hypotheticals and hopes,” recalled my father. “It had to be redrafted.”

He was apparently a disarmingly decisive general manager. Titman, as one of those who – with manual typewriters, carbon paper and ample staples – collated the new masterplan recalls his visits to the then small typing pool (“We called it a typing puddle”).

“He’d stride in so purposefully you’d be clocking your progress and posture instantly, looking as attentive and busy as possible.” He was, it was reassuring to hear her say, “fast and firm but fair”.

The document he was delivering would have often been written, at least in part, on our sitting-room table. With such a personal commitment to the Peterborough New Town project there was little distinction between work and home. Documents would pass between the GM’s top-floor desk in the new PDC base in Touthill Close and the three-legged old table at home by the grate.

Written in fountain pen on lined foolscap pads, we Thomas children were watching a network of plans that was to become a network of roads and of homes in construction. Not that we appreciated the historical significance of those writings or the expanded city they would create. We were too busy being kids, then teenagers and busying ourselves with village life (Brownies, bell ringing, sponsored walks, carol singing – mum and dad got us involved in all aspects of village life).

The resulting projects that transpired from the relentless scribbling had, of course, to be discussed, developed, agreed and implemented. Their complexity meant that it could have been a tortuous and obstructive process. But there was a true spirit of cooperation within the corporation - it was like a big family – and, critically, with the council so the passage was smooth and the energy maintained.

Highlights were the opening, and more recently anniversary, of Queensgate. Though Parkinson’s and old age confined his movements and he got out in recent times rather rarely, when we went to the shopping centre (“an idea I filched from Brent Cross but I wanted it in the city, not a satellite centre”) dad invariably commented on the floor: “I’m still very pleased with the tiling I chose” - which is just as well given the impossibility of replacing it.

He was even more pleased when he overheard an old shopper sitting inside the main atrium saying “thank goodness for this – I can just sit here sometimes warm and dry and watch the world go by”.

It was always ordinary people’s responses that he took most note of – like the eight-year-old girl who wrote to him saying, ‘thank you for bringing me and my mum and my brother Mark to Peterborough and making us happy again”.

He couldn’t remember when he received that or where the family had moved from, but it meant as much to him as any award or official recognition. Perhaps it spoke to the impoverished, motherless seven-year-old boy at risk of eviction in him – a drive that also motivated him to find new PDC homes in Bretton for his sister and mother-in-law. His housing anxiety was so often expressed in personal generosity.

Regrets? “Not getting the area behind Queensgate developed and leaving the corporation before our job was finished.”

That included the development of our village of Castor into a township, an integral part of the expansion plan on which the Thatcher Government, seeing new towns as a socialist project, pulled the plug, with the loss of thousands of potential new affordable homes.

Dad could never have put into the Peterborough expansion what he did without my mother running in his absence the family and home, much of it in the days of no mod cons, with an inexhaustible persistence and energy. As his former communications manager Ken McKay said: “He was so organised I’m sure he’s put things in place for Betty to be cared for in event of his dying first.”

Driven by the anxiety of his impoverished early life, as his work – especially in consultancy after leaving the PDC – paid him well, my father invested money assiduously – mainly in bonds and pensions but also in more recent years in property.

He’d always been against using property as a currency, knowing how that distorted the market, escalating prices and putting property out of the reach of ordinary people. “Homes are for habitation not capitalisation” was his phrase. And his financial anxiety and trepidation over making mistakes had prevented him following through on his plans in the 90s to buy an old north London townhouse for conversion into flats or to buy a central London flat – both of which would have returned a small fortune.

But when he realised, having not dug into those savings, he had a good deal of money squirrelled away, he spent it on two properties for those of his children who had missed their foothold on the property ladder and were still in their mid-life renting.

For a man with such house nous, the properties in south London and Somerset were typically sound buys, the first of them tripling in value and the second doubling. Despite his resistance to ‘property currency’ he felt they might represent some insurance if Betty’s care costs escalated after his death.

Losing his mother at the age of seven was, he said at the age of 94, “something I’ve never got over”. He was reassured, however, that the other important woman in his life, who’d been by his side for 72 years, would be amply provided for.

In the face of his public accolades and awards – the Parkway Dreams musical, a CBE, Freedom of the City and (to top it all!) proud son of Maesteg – she could always be relied on to deflate any emerging self-importance with her regular tongue-in-cheek put-downs.

When being shown a photo of his great grandson Otto a fortnight ago, he said: “Seven grandchildren and now one great-grandchild. That gives me a nice warm feeling.” Her rejoinder: ‘Oi, I’m the only one who was supposed to give you a nice warm feeling.”

He chuckled indulgently as ever. It reminded me somehow of the occasion when, in his mere seventies, he came with Betty to see the house my husband and had just started buying. It was suffering years of neglect and deterioration of every sort, had been divided into bedsits and would need a mountain of work on it but was just about affordable.

Helping clear the attic of old tenants’ gubbins including beds, he happened across a porn magazine. He passed it over quickly: “I think I’m too young for this!”

Urban planner, new-town guru, Freeman - what place in history dad might have remains to be seen. He was once the youngest mayor there had been in the south-east, where as a councillor he’d served in Hemel Hempstead. Wanting to take his public political commitments further, he decided to run for MP of SW Herts.

To boost his chance of getting nominated he invited welfare state founder and fellow Welshman Aneurin Bevan to support his candidacy. Being a controversial and entertaining politician, Bevan drew the crowds as hoped. After the young Wyndham’s speech it was time for audience questions: “Does his mother know he’s out?” asked a wag in the front row. “Yes,” said Bevan, “and tomorrow she’ll know he’s in!”