A battle of will

Inspired by a stint on TV’s DIY SOS, Freemason Paul Matson set up Hull 4 Heroes, an organisation providing houses for homeless veterans. Edwin Smith talks to him about his plans to build a ‘Veterans Village’ in Hull and how Freemasonry spurs him on to do more good works

When the TV programme DIY SOS came to Hull in 2015, Paul Matson received an email. As the owner of a company that builds conservatories in the local area, he gladly accepted the producers’ invitation to help out with the project: modifying the home of a family who’d been living with the effects of motor neurone disease.

Through the show, Paul met Jason Liversidge, and played a part in helping Jason become the first virtually paralysed man to be initiated into a lodge, a story featured in the autumn 2018 issue of FMT. However, Paul was soon in front of the DIY SOS cameras again.

This time he was working on a project to build Veteran Street – a row of houses in Manchester that would be renovated to serve as accommodation for former members of the armed forces struggling to adapt to civilian life. As a veteran himself, and someone who also knew what it was like to fall on hard times, it was a cause close to Paul’s heart. ‘It inspired me,’ he says. 

‘On the way home, I pulled up at some traffic lights and noticed some derelict houses. I thought to myself: ‘What if I could get a few friends together and renovate just one house for a veteran in Hull?’ 

He got home and wrote a post on Facebook setting out his plan, and asking whether anyone could pitch in or contribute materials. ‘As soon as I put my mobile down, it nearly set alight. It was vibrating and pinging like mad: 100 likes, 200 likes, 300, 400… and loads of comments.’ And so a new charity, Hull 4 Heroes, began.

GROWING UP FAST

Paul was born in Hull and grew up in the city. He joined the army after school and served in the Royal Artillery from 1980 to 1984, rising to lance bombardier. ‘I got myself a special job,’ he says. ‘I saw the world.’ He also boxed, skied and represented the army as a long-distance runner. But it was the friendships he made that meant the most to him. ‘It’s the camaraderie. You’re surrounded by special people; people that you’d hope would be your friends for life. You knew your back was covered.’

But the job brought hardship, too. Paul served in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. ‘That was something we had to endure,’ he says. ‘It was a difficult time and a lot of us don’t talk about it. You see things that you shouldn’t see as a young man: the loss of friends. As a young kid, you feel like you’ll live forever, and that just isn’t the way.’

After leaving the army, Paul went through a rough patch. ‘I got myself into a bit of a state with drink and drugs and those sorts of things,’ he says. ‘I ended up homeless and on the streets for a year and a bit.’ But, thanks to the help of a family member, he got a place to stay, started working in the building trade and was soon back on his own two feet. ‘I learnt my craft and, through a lot of hard work, eventually set up on my own.’ Freemasonry was one of the things that helped along the way. ‘You become surrounded with nice, like-minded people,’ he says. ‘It enriches your life and spurs you on to do more.’

‘I’d thought I was the only veteran who’d fallen down, so I’ve gone through much of my life feeling ashamed, but everybody seemed to have a similar story’

FINDING PURPOSE

However, it wasn’t until Paul’s appearance on DIY SOS, and his work on the Veteran Street project in Manchester, that he realised how many other people had faced the same sort of difficulties he had after leaving the army. ‘I’d always thought I was the only veteran who had fallen down after leaving the forces,’ he says. ‘That I was some sort of weakling or that there was something wrong with me. I’ve probably gone through much of my life feeling ashamed of myself. But going on DIY SOS utterly changed that, because I spoke to everybody we were helping on the site – and everybody seemed to have a similar story.’

That realisation was a doubled-edged sword, says Paul, being both comforting and concerning. ‘I thought: “Thank god I’m not the only one,” but also: “Isn’t it horrible that there’s so many more out there?” It inspired me to do something.’

The plan – first hatched at those traffic lights – quickly evolved. Within weeks, Paul and other Hull 4 Heroes volunteers had renovated a house for a local veteran. Other projects followed, and donations came flooding in from the local community. ‘There are people running, jumping out of planes, climbing mountains, doing every sponsored thing you can do,’ says Paul. ‘I had an old lady posting £300 through my door every month. And people just stop us in the street. I can’t go to a café now without someone tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Put that in your coffers, son.”’ 

The support from the local community hasn’t just been monetary. Crucially, Paul has been able to assemble a core team of people to share the load and push Hull 4 Heroes on. He also kept in touch with Nick Knowles, meeting the presenter of DIY SOS to discuss ideas for Hull 4 Heroes over coffee. ‘Every now and then I’d come up with a bright idea,’ says Knowles. ‘It was all taking up a lot of his time, so, after a while, I think his family thought it was better if we didn’t go for coffee!’

Nevertheless, the ideas kept on coming thick and fast. After several meetings over coffee, a new plan began to take shape – not just for Hull’s answer to Manchester’s Veteran Street, but for an entire ‘Veterans Village’, the first of its kind anywhere in the UK. 

‘It’s a transitional village, really,’ says Paul. ‘We don’t necessarily want veterans to live together in the same place permanently. The idea is that when you come out of the forces, you move here and we teach you the skills to become a civilian again, help you on your way and then move you on to houses that we’ll also build.’

A 22-acre site on Priory Road in Hull has been identified. It will feature 54 log-cabin properties of various sizes, ‘a little bit like Center Parcs,’ says Paul. It will all be approved for disabled access, and there are plans for a horticultural facility, a visitors centre, a shop and a café, all of which will be open to the public.

Paul and his team are awaiting planning permission for the project. Architects and ecologists are already on board and, in many cases, people have contributed time or materials for free. But fundraising will become a major priority, with the budget for the entire project estimated at £8 million. 

If anyone is able to drive the project to completion, says Knowles, it’s Paul, who recently received a Points of Light award from the Prime Minister. ‘He is absolutely determined to make a difference and he’s working very hard to make it happen. For him to have suffered from many of the difficulties we see affecting so many members of the military – and then come back from them to do this – it’s an extraordinary story, it really is.’

‘Hull should be very proud of him,’ says Knowles. Then, a little less seriously, he adds: ‘They should either put up a statue to him, or when he passes away, have him stuffed! You can tell him I said that: he’ll laugh.’

Published in Features
Tuesday, 12 September 2017 00:00

The quiet entrepreneur

As well as launching a television rental empire and revolutionising the British horse racing industry, Freemason David Robinson also shared his prosperity with worthy causes, as Paul Hooley explains

The culmination of more than a year of preparation, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 brought three million spectators to London’s streets to witness her procession. It was the first British coronation to be televised and the subject caused considerable debate, with Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill opposed
to the idea. Elizabeth was convinced otherwise, however.

The event highlighted public interest in television, but few people had been able to afford to purchase their own set – so Freemason David Robinson saw an opportunity. He formed a television rental business through his existing chain of shops, carrying out repairs in a pre-war workshop behind his garage.

Born in Cambridge in 1904, Robinson was the son of a local bicycle-shop owner. In 1930 he bought a garage in Bedford and developed it into a substantial business. Later, he opened a radio and electrical shop in the high street and then similar shops in several neighbouring towns.

By 1962, Robinson Rentals had expanded nationwide and was making an annual profit of £1.5 million. Robinson sold the business to Granada for £8 million in 1968, and turned his attention to his great love – horse racing. Over the next few years, he set up three separate and competing stables at Newmarket and purchased Kempton Park Racecourse.

RIDING HIGH

Horse racing in those days was something of a closed shop. But Robinson was his own man and had little regard for the racing establishment or the slapdash way in which the industry was run. He dismissed many antiquated ways of running stables and developing horses, bringing in his own methods.

Robinson revolutionised the ‘sport of kings’ and made it what it is today. He never bred horses himself but spent lavishly at the yearling sales, where his buyers were known as Robinson’s Rangers. He was always looking for a return on every investment, first on the racecourse and then on the resale of the horse as a stallion.

Robinson proved that efficient management could make horse racing profitable. He ranked all his horses, jockeys and the courses they ran on by colour – red, blue or green, according to ability – and woe betide any trainer who ran a red horse with a blue jockey at a green course. In the 10 years he was actively involved in horse racing, Robinson topped thenumber-of-winners table eight times, setting a new record of 115 wins in the 1973 season. At that time, he had 157 horses in training and his career total was a staggering 997 winners.

‘While Robinson’s charitable giving was legendary within the Craft, he never sought to go through the chair’

LASTING LEGACY

As spectacular as Robinson’s achievements were, it was his support of worthy causes and altruism that most impressed those who knew him. In Bedford, he paid for the building of an Olympic-sized swimming pool and sports complex, and in Cambridge his donations paid for a nursing home, an arts centre at his old school and new developments at Papworth and Addenbrooke’s Hospitals, including a maternity unit. When the Penlee lifeboat sank with the loss of the entire crew in 1981, Robinson paid £400,000 for a replacement and went on to fund a further three boats. He made many other donations – often anonymously – the greatest being the £18 million he gave to the University of Cambridge in 1973 to build Robinson College.

Although he accepted a knighthood in 1985, Robinson had little time for honours, social climbing or self-promotion. Equally, while his charitable giving was legendary within the Craft, he never sought to go through the chair, preferring instead to sit quietly among the backbenchers.

Robinson was initiated into Etheldreda Lodge, No. 2107, Cambridge, in 1929 and was made an honorary member in 1984. He was also a member of Robert de Parys Lodge, No. 5000, Bedford, from 1931 until 1982.

A devoted family man, Robinson married Mabel Baccus when they were both 18 and they had a son and a daughter. He led by example and was a remarkable entrepreneur and philanthropist, amassing a fortune so he could give it away to deserving causes. Robinson died in 1987 and was buried at sea by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Published in Features

Mason leads limb loss parliamentary group backed by PM

After receiving support from the MSF to buy a new prosthetic leg, Freemason Vernon Leigh has been selected as the northwest representative of the Associate Parliamentary Limb Loss Group, backed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Vernon met with MPs to discuss the provision of prosthetics direct to the NHS, avoiding the ‘postcode lottery’.

Published in Masonic Samaritan Fund

Raising funds, and his charity's profile, Tommy took his collecting box to meet the Prime Minister

When blind London mason Tommy Mulholland went to Downing Street to meet Prime Minister David Cameron there was one thing he was not going without – his precious Greater London Fund for the Blind charity box. Tommy, whose mother lodge is Castrum, No. 7603, lost his sight at the age of 47, but this remarkable mason travels around London to attend lodge meetings. He is a member of several lodges and learns the ceremonies with the aid of a hand-held voice recorder. Tommy uses public transport to journey through the capital on his own, and as well as his charity work he remains an active director of a building company.

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