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’
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.’