Andy Garnett: Leading figure of the 1950s London set who later helped develop one of Britain's most innovative engineering firms

 

"Engineer, philanthropist and optimist" was the description of Andy Garnett given by Frances Lincoln, who published his book on conserving and documenting his meadow. Aside from the engineer ascription, it was a fair summary of an extraordinary character who was the only boy at Eton to convert to Roman Catholicism, who sped around London in a bubble car as a founding member of the London set in the 1950s and who went on to help Jeremy Fry, along with Michael Briggs, to develop the automatic-valve concern, Rotork, into one of the country's most successful small engineering innovation companies, and then did the same with his own company, Radiodetection.

In fact he was never an engineer, except by passion, and never attended university, being intended, quite unsuitably, for the army. When he joined his friend Fry in the recently formed Rotork in 1959 his reputation was more as a "flaneur", a man about town who was a joy to know but hardly cut out for serious business. He titled his autobiography Memoirs of a Lucky Dog, an archaism he relished in the same way he spoke of his friends always as "chums" and the girls of his youth as "dropsies". People he liked were "good eggs".

The only child of a forceful mother, and a father who separated from his wife when Andy was young, the boy had to work hard to be liked. Suffering from eczema, which resulted in repeated stays in hospital and a succession of ever more eccentric "cures", he was sent to Eton and shuffled around aunts and friends of his mother during his holidays. With a crippling self-consciousness about his skin he emerged from school to follow his mother's wish to go to Sandhurst, only to be turned down on medical grounds. He signed up as an ordinary conscript alongside the reluctant National Service recruits before his medical record caught up with him and he was discharged.

His life after that was one of drift and revelry; he joined a brewery in South Wales, Whitbreads in London as a ledger clerk, British Tabulating as a trainee and then the management consultant MWM, none of which stretched his abilities but which provided him with endless anecdotes with which to regale his friends. Living the bachelor life in Chelsea, Soho and the East End, gathering a band of friends for life such as Tony Armstrong Jones and George Melly, he was finally, aged 28, offered a job by his friend, Jeremy Fry, in his young automatic valve company.

Garnett proved his worth, first setting up the business in France, where he displayed an unexpected combination of determination and persistence, mastering the technicalities of his product and carefully preparing his plan of attack on markets and potential allies. He became sales director but the US proved a harder nut to crack – as it is still. Local companies were well entrenched and this idiosyncratic Englishman was an uncertain quantity, but through hard work he broke through in an industry they thought their own.

It was while at Rotork that Garnett met and wooed his wife, the writer and journalist Polly Devlin, then at Vogue. The story goes that he arrived at a dinner party with a French girlfriend. Seeing Polly, a fellow guest, his heart went "Wham Bam Boom Wow", as he put it. The French girl announced that she was asking Andy to marry her. Andy sidestepped an answer and, asked by Polly whether he was going to accept the French girl's proposal, he replied "No, I'm going to marry you."

Their wedding was in Italy – the bride given away by her brother-in-law Seamus Heaney – on 5 August 1967. The couple made two highly personalised homes, an Elizabethan manor house, Bradley Court in Gloucestershire and a farmhouse, Canwood, in South Somerset. Concerned at what he saw was growing energy shortages, Garnett rearranged Canwood around a central heat sink, doing away with internal corridors. Together with Polly he bought and nurtured a rare surviving meadow. He proposed a sprung floor in the main room of the barn so that it could be used as a ballroom for his three daughters, Rose, Daisy and Bay, oblivious of the fact that their generation no longer went in for that kind of occasion.

Tiring of the travel and with heart problems, he resigned as sales director of Rotork in 1978, taking with him a small company specialising in scanning equipment to detect underground pipes and cables. Although Electrolocation, as it was then called, had promising technology , it was in financially poor shape until Garnett, with the help of colleagues who had accompanied him from Rotork, took charge. Reorganising the management and introducing a new basic product, a handheld scanner that could be used by workmen in the field, he built up a thriving technological company until, sensing that it had grown beyond his competence, he sold it on to a venture capital group in 1993.

The great enthusiasm of his later years, and ultimately his great frustration, was his philanthropic venture into education. "Multi A", as he called it, was an effort to give confidence and self-discipline to schoolchildren in the deprived areas of Bristol through music, dance and the arts. At its height it was giving weekly classes to 3,000 children but, with it haemorrhaging money, he was forced to seek funds from the City and the Arts Council. Strangled by bureaucracy and unadventurous appointees, the venture eventually folded.

Garnett's last years were dominated by debilitating illness, Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP). Stubborn and determinedly cheerful, he survived to see daughters married and grandchildren born. He died buoyed by the faith he held close throughout his life. At his funeral his family spoke the prayers he read every day, adapted to his personal conscience and broader concerns.

At the reception, one of his 28 godchildren recalled being rung up on his seventh birthday to be sung "Happy Birthday" in a gravelly voice. "That," came Andy's voice at the end, "was Louis Armstrong." Andy had met the great jazz musician in New Orleans and persuaded him to sing his birthday wishes to the boy.

Adrian John Fortescue Garnett, businessman: born 26 September 1930; married Polly Devlin (three daughters); died 10 July 2014.

News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

News
people
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art

The Sistine Chapel is set to be illuminated with thousands of LEDs

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Sport
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Middleware Support Analyst

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Senior Java Developer/Designer

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: My client are looking fo...

Domino Developer and Administrator

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Domino ...

General Cover Teacher

£26000 - £27000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: NQT's and experienced Cov...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?