A lifetime in building: Arthur Hunt

arthurhuntArthur Hunt has always cut a distinctive figure around the Wychwoods – tall, strongly built, clipped moustache with military overtones, dapper and always immaculately dressed, jacket, collar and tie being the norm. Whether standing outside his gate in Milton or peering down from the stage with the Wychwood Singers, Arthur figures prominently.

It all started very differently. Arthur was always a country boy; his family had worked for generations on the land and, from his earliest years in Westcote, he was destined to follow suit. (These years of childhood are entertainingly recalled in his own well illustrated book, ‘Arthur’s life in the Westcotes’). He had no other career in mind until, one day, his sister asked him
“Aren’t you going to try something different?”
Challenged by this thought, he approached Stanley Davies, a builder in Fifield, and was taken on. In those days, and this was back in 1953, the village builders like Stanley did all the work needed to uphold and extend the local properties. This was a model of working which served Arthur well for the rest of his career; the role of general village builder.

Following a brief spell of National Service in 1957, a period cut short by his diagnosis of TB, he moved over to Charles Pether’s firm in Burford. As another village firm, Pether’s allowed Arthur to develop a wide range of building skills and to gain a broad understanding of the trade. Knowledge, skills and experience grew steadily and, before long, he was ready to go into business on his own behalf.

So it was that in 1963, together with Alan Townsend, the firm of Hunt and Townsend was born. A strong reputation was quickly established, one dependent on reliable, suitably trained local workers. Jobs ranged from an extension at The Shaven Crown to painting the dial on the church clock in Shipton. The firm grew rapidly, first taking on Arthur’s nephew, Malcolm, and then expanding in response to the growing demands of a largely rural community. At the firm’s height, there were 110 workers, nearly all of them local to the Wychwoods, and a fleet of 14 vans. There were even two minibuses to ferry employees from site to site.

Not all work was confined to the local villages. As the firm’s reputation grew, so its geographical influence grew too. The largest project ever undertaken was in Oxford’s Park End Street where the work involved demolishing a set of old buildings and building a new Coop. The Coop turned out to be one of the firm’s leading employers with its contracted work on a full range of maintenance issues. Organisations like Sobell House were also regularly grateful for the services of Hunt and Townsend.
All the while, Alan was based in the office while Arthur circulated around the many work sites, often arriving without warning to ensure that standards were being maintained and contracts were being honoured in the way that he expected. In his later years with the firm, he spent more time in the office, where his wife, Agnes, looked after the wages for nearly 40 years, but site visits, estimates and contracts remained high on his agenda.

When he is talking about his life in the building trade, it is very noticeable that Arthur talks little about building itself, although he admits that, over time, shovels were replaced by diggers and cement mixers; it is the workers that interest him. To him, the firm was a family. His regard for his employees could not be clearer:
“You’re only as good as the men you employ,” is his regular mantra.

His style of management was firm but homely; he treasured his workforce. He was always available to them. One lovely example of this was one early evening when he was soaking in the bath at the end of a hard day and a prospective new worker, a brickie, turned up without warning at Arthur’s house. While Arthur soaked in the suds, he interviewed the brickie through his bathroom door; he got the job!

Business and pleasure went hand-in-hand. The firm often put out a football team with Arthur very much to the fore although, before one match, he overheard one of the opposition players order:
“Don’t let that bloody Hunt score.”
He did, and Arthur has fond memories of his final goal on the Milton pitch. As well as sport, and he later went on to play badminton, Arthur made sure his workers were well treated with annual Christmas parties at either The Shaven Crown, The Red Horse, now The Wychwood Inn, or The New Inn, now The Feathered Nest in Westcote. Good relationships were also extended to clients high and low; Arthur knew how to treat others, just as he expected them to treat him. When he is talking about his life in the trade, one of his favourite and probably subconscious gestures is to point to his nose and then run his hand down his chest:
“Straight down the line,” as he says, surely the motto of the contented and contenting employee.
It was in 2007 that the firm was closed down due to ill health and all the business was handed over to his son-in-law, Robin Perry (see The Wychwood Magazine: June/July 2018). Looking back on his career, two phrases stand out, phrases that are repeated many times:
“Brilliant people.”
“No regrets.”
Would that everyone could major on such sentiments at the end of their career.

August – September 2018