25 September 2023

The trophy son : 1969 : Charles Church & IMIC Properties Limited, Camberley

 It was the summer of ’69. My father had insisted I accompany him to his meeting. He had driven us to a wooden gateway on the south side of Lightwater Road that led into fenced farmland. He pulled in, parked our Rambler station wagon on the roadside where, on that warm sunny morning, the man we had come to meet was already waiting. My father introduced himself and then me:

“This is my son, Grant, who will be starting at Strode’s School in September.”

My father had heard stories about this local man and his wife having bought a house, moved in, then repaired, modernised it in contemporary style and furnished it stylishly before selling it a year later at a handsome profit. They had then repeated this process … twice. The strategy Americans call ‘flipping’ was unknown in Britain at the time, but this story had fascinated my parents during recent years, being a practical route to amass capital when mortgages were difficult to obtain for self-employed professionals. My parents might have enthusiastically copied this tactic, had they not already two school-age children. Finally, my father had requested an initial meeting with Charles Church.

In 1965, Australian state-owned airline Qantas had bought twenty plots of land in Camberley out of more than 200 for sale that had formed the grounds of Copped Hall, the estate of retired Captain Vivien Loyd. Between the Wars, in a small factory on Frimley Road, he had manufactured tanks sold to twenty foreign armies, as well as an ultralight plane known as ‘The Flying Flea’. Loyd even produced an engine-powered lawnmower called ‘The Motor Sickle’ that was exhibited at the 1950 Smithfield Show. Qantas built modern detached houses with large gardens in a generously landscaped development named ‘Copped Hall Estate’ intended for occupation by its pilots flying from Heathrow Airport, a twenty-mile drive away. However, for reasons unknown, its houses were never used.

One of these properties, at 18 Green Hill Road, served as the location for the 1969 film ‘Three Into Two Won’t Go’ directed by (Sir) Peter Hall, starring Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom. Scenes of the street showed overgrown front gardens of empty houses on this ‘ghost’ estate, seemingly ideal for a movie shoot. Except that filming was disturbed by noise from tanks driving around the Ministry of Defence’s vast 18-hectare wooded, hilly tank testing ground a mere hundred yards away on the other side of ‘The Maultway’ main road, a legacy of Captain Loyd’s enterprise. Sandwiched between Camberley and Lightwater, the land is still used for this purpose but is now shared with local dogwalkers and bikers.

Eventually, Qantas decided to appoint a local estate agent to try and sell its unused houses, despite their location on the periphery of Camberley, three miles from its town centre and lacking a regular bus service. This was an ideal opportunity for Church and his wife to purchase one, and then another, to transform them into more marketable homes with ‘all mod cons’ that were demanded during the 1960’s. We lived three-quarters of a mile away from the entrance to this estate, on the opposite side of Upper Chobham Road, enabling my curious parents to observe goings-on there.

Church had been born more than a decade after my father and was very smart, having attended grammar school and studied civil engineering at university before starting his first construction contracting business, Burke & Church, in 1965. My father’s background could not have been more different, having left school at age fourteen and taken an apprenticeship with Redland Cement in Bracknell. He had studied quantity surveying at ‘night school’ and eventually started his own home-based business, producing drawings for renovations and extensions to local houses, offices and factories. By 1967, he had created ‘Architectural Drawing Services Limited’ in a small Camberley High Street office where he had ‘graduated’ to designing entire buildings. His business stationery appended the initials ‘AFS, ARIBA’ to his name even though he held no architectural qualification.

What Church and my father did have in common was that both had been building their first houses, both unusually modern for Camberley, simultaneously in 1967. Both had wives who were intimately involved in their businesses. Both aspired to modern interior designs. Indeed, I seemed to have spent much of my childhood sat on Heals of Tottenham Court Road’s wooden rear staircase that curled around one of those old ‘cage’ lifts, awaiting my parents to finish their endless perusal of state-of-the-art furniture. The two men’s skills were complimentary. Church knew how to build houses. My father knew how to design them.

So why had I been dragged along to the pair’s initial meeting? It was because my father lacked the formal education of Church but was desperate to portray himself as an equal. I had passed the ‘Eleven Plus’ examination that summer though my parents had decided not to send me to Camberley Grammar School, located opposite the infant and junior schools I had attended the last six years and the obvious, most local choice. Instead, I was to be sent to a grammar school in Egham that required a two-mile journey from our house to Camberley station, followed by a thirty-minute train ride. I was offered no say in their decision. Why was my school journey about to be made so arduous for the next seven years? Because Church too had attended Strode’s School and my father had waited to arrange this meeting until my parallel future there had been secured.

In addition to his design skills, my father could prove helpful to Church because he had amassed significant experience over the years ensuring his renovation designs were approved by the local council’s planning committee. He had joined ‘The Camberley Society’ and was attending their monthly meetings to hobnob with the local ‘great & good’, much to the disdain of my mother. Somewhere in his life, my father had adopted a neutral middle-class accent which, along with his smart suits, seemed sufficient proof to convince people he was indeed an ‘architect’. His speech contrasted starkly with that of his older brother who spoke like a character from ‘East Enders’, though success in the building industry had rewarded him with a detached house in Farnborough that had separate in and out driveways. On the handful of occasions I accompanied my father to visit his brother, I was sent up to his daughter Janet’s room, the first person I met who attended a private school. Although the same age, we had absolutely nothing in common.

After that summer’s initial introduction, Church and his wife Susanna became regular visitors to our bungalow which my father had designed and built in a Frank Lloyd Wright style with much glass and bare brickwork. The two couples became friends and my father set up a company to formalise their partnership. I was told to find a suitable name. I leafed through my copies of ‘Billboard’ magazine, the voluminous American weekly music industry publication I bought from a newsstand on the corner of Oxford Street and Regent Street whenever we visited London. I spied an advertisement for the International Music Industries Conference organised in Cannes (forerunner of ‘MIDEM’) which was abbreviated to ‘IMIC’. The company was to be named ‘IMIC Properties Limited’.

Houses were designed. Houses were built. Houses were sold. Profits were shared. My father bought an American Motors Javelin sports car. Both he and Church started flying lessons separately at nearby Blackbushe Airport. I accompanied my father on one occasion and hated the experience. Nevertheless, it remained my task to regularly test my father’s knowledge necessary to obtain his pilot licence, which is the reason I can recite the NATO phonetic alphabet to this day. For a short while, life was good.

In 1971, our family started to fall apart. My mother had terrible bruises on her face and the toilet door of our house had been kicked in as a result of my father’s temper. By 1972, he had left us for good. After an entire childhood having been required to work in his business, providing skills in mathematics, finance and administration that he lacked, I no longer wanted to even talk to him. He responded by making his family’s life as difficult as possible, stealing back every gift he had ever bought us, starving us of funds and dispossessing me and my baby sister.

Evidently, my father’s business partnership with Church must have disintegrated at around the same time though, to their credit, both he and his wife maintained contact with my mother, offering her support and practical assistance. Charles Church Developments Limited was launched by the couple in 1972 and became one of Britain’s most successful housebuilding enterprises. IMIC Properties Limited was forcibly dissolved in 1980. By then, my father had disappeared, owing thousands in unpaid court-ordered maintenance to our family. He was eventually found by US Immigration to be living illegally in Arkansas and deported. His debts to us were never paid.

On 1 July 1989, at the age of forty-four, Charles Church was killed when, after broadcasting a mayday call, the Spitfire [G-MKVC] he had restored crash landed near Blackbushe Airport. By then, he was reportedly one of the richest two-hundred people in Britain with a fortune of £140m. My mother attended his funeral. It was a tragic conclusion to the beginnings of an exciting business opportunity for my father that I had witnessed at that roadside rendezvous two decades previously … but which had ultimately impoverished the rest of our family.

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