Obituary: Harry Dutfield

HARRY DUTFIELD revived the art of carpet-making in the Devon town of Axminster some 100 years after the industry had died out in that part of the world.

Over the past 60 years the company he founded has covered the floors and walls of living rooms and hotels all over the world and, in an industry that is typically dominated by public companies, conglomerates or importers from the Middle East, Axminster Carpets remains one of the few firms under family control.

The son of a carpet designer, Dutfield was born in Glasgow in 1908 and at a young age moved to Kidderminster, near Birmingham, where he was educated at King Charles Grammar School. Sport and fishing occupied much of his free time but one wet day, when the River Severn was in flood, the 17- year-old Dutfield helped his father perfect a reversible carpet on a handmade loom in the family's attic. A subsequent reward of pounds 5 from his grateful parent led Dutfield to produce more carpets and within a couple of years he had taken premises in the town.

Disaster in the form of fire struck as Dutfield recovered in hospital from an appendicectomy. Worse still, owing to his incapacitation, he had failed to renew his fledgling company's insurance cover. When the Royal Insurance Company agreed nevertheless to pay out, Dutfield declared he would remain loyal to the firm for the rest of his life, a promise he honoured.

Working in partnership with a former schoolfriend, Stephen Quayle, he started again as Dutfield and Quayle in 1929. Beset by the aftermath of the Depression and union problems in Kidderminster, Dutfield journeyed by train to the Motor Show in London in 1935 where he purchased his first Jaguar car for pounds 299. By chance he shared a carriage with a West Country parson who related to him the story of Thomas Whitty, a pious cloth weaver who had achieved renown in the 18th century as a carpet manufacturer in Devon.

After four generations the Whitty family business died out in 1835, but Dutfield - conscious of the proximity of Axminster to the fishing waters of Lyme Bay as well as its distance from the stifling atmosphere of Kidderminster - resolved to relocate and revive the town's historic industry.

During the Second World War the Axminster factory was used to manufacture stirrup pumps and later aircraft parts, while Dutfield himself was an officer in the Home Guard. Once peace had been declared, the availability of raw materials such as woollen yarn was limited. Consequently he acquired a rundown spinning mill at Buckfast to provide the necessary materials. With the mill came some very welcome fishing rights on the River Dart, where Dutfield would often bag a pair of salmon.

He also pursued an interest in marlin fishing for which he became internationally renowned. When he was approached by the government of New Zealand in 1959 to establish a carpet manufacturing plant in that country, he named the new business Marlin Carpets Ltd. Much of his time was now spent in New Zealand, where he worked extensively with Dr F.W. Dry of Massey University, who was developing a heavy-fleeced strain of sheep which became known as Drysdale sheep. Dutfield introduced these to the UK in 1976 and the family firm still owns the only flock of Drysdales in Western Europe, based at Axminster. This year it produced 450 lambs.

While in New Zealand he again encountered difficulties with the trade unions. On one occasion a particularly militant shop steward maintained that it would be impossible for staff to work at the proposed speed. Dutfield's response was to remove his jacket, sit at a loom, and weave at a rate far in excess of that which he was asking of his employees. Thereafter he encountered no further labour problems.

Fiercely loyal to his family, his staff and his country, Dutfield pursued a vehement policy of "buying British" and on one occasion turned away the Conservative MP Sir Peter Emery, who had driven into the company car park in a foreign vehicle. When she was Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher paid a high-profile visit to the factory and the Princess Royal followed in her footsteps in 1996.

Although Harry Dutfield never truly retired, with his son Simon installed as joint managing director he devoted an increasing amount of time and energy to big-game fishing, in particular at Shimoni in Kenya, where he became known to the local beach boys, to whom he donated football kit and equipment, as "babu yetu", "our grandfather". On the eve of his 90th birthday he landed a striped marlin weighing some 137lb.

Back in the office a sign on his desk summed up his philosophy in later life: "Work is for people who don't know how to fish."

Tim Bullamore

William Henry Dutfield, carpet-maker: born Glasgow 12 December 1908; chairman, Axminster Carpets 1937-99; MBE 1997; married 1938 Daisy Huxter (died 1989; one son, one daughter), 1992 Marjorie Huxter; died Axminster, Devon 21 May 1999.

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