Chipstead Village


Norman Wates – Master Builder

Norman Wates (1905 – 1969) was a figure of national importance in the building and construction industry. He was the leading force behind the development of the Wates group of companies from the 1930s to the 1960s. Norman lived at “Elmore” in Chipstead with his wife Peggy and their six children between 1934 and 1969. Peggy and Norman played a very full role in the life of the village. The following biography was written by his youngest son, John Wates.

Noman Edward Wates was born in Streatham in 1905. His father, Edward, was the eldest of 11 children born to William Wates. Norman was the eldest of three boys and a daughter.

Norman’s father Edward, a house furnisher and builder in south London, was in partnership with his brother Arthur. Originally Edward ‘minded the shop’ and his brother Arthur was a small builder funded out of Edward’s earnings. Looking at the accounts, Edward realised that his brother was doing better than he was and went into partnership with him in 1901 at the age of 27. In 1904 the Wates company built their first two houses in Purley and by 1914 they had built 139 houses. The original business of ‘E & A Wates’ closed down in May 1921.

Norman Wates with his parents, Edward and Sarah, and Norman’s older children, Jean and Neil at his parent’s home in Streatham, c 1937

Norman and his brothers went to Emanuel School in Wandsworth. Leaving school, Norman spent a year in 1922 working for a firm of Chartered Accountants. In about 1923 Norman joined the family building company. The firm expanded rapidly building housing estates in South London. In 1926 it embarked on an estate of 1000 houses in Streatham Vale, which took five years to complete. The houses were priced at around £500 to £600 and it was said ‘even a postman’ could afford them. By 1930 Norman had been joined by his two younger brothers, Ronald and Allan, in the firm. At this time the company began to look beyond the building of houses to public works, including libraries, fire stations and drill halls.

Norman was always forward thinking and putting new ideas into effect. In the 1930s he made several trips to the United States to study American building methods and business and management techniques. He also visited continental Europe.

He was one of the first builders to reduce the amount of casual labour, introducing a system of Star Men who went onto the permanent payroll. Along with his concern for his employees, he improved housing standards for purchasers as a founder member of the National House Builders Registration Committee in 1935. After the war he was a member of the Parker Morris committee whose Report in 1961 strongly influenced housing standards.

By 1939 the firm had over 100 contracts with the War Office, the Admiralty, and the London Boroughs, including contracts for air raid shelters, lining units for trenches, and the construction of army camps and airfields. During the War the Wates firm advised the Admiralty on specialist concrete structures. It made precast concrete barges and the first precast concrete floating dock (a thing thought impossible by many people!)

Concrete barges under construction watched by Mrs Peggy Wates and Norman Wates’s mother

The launch of a concrete Floating Dock in 1944. They said a concrete floating boat would just sink. One is still afloat in a Norwegian Fjord

Norman made a significant contribution to the war effort through the construction of pontoon units (called Beetles) for the Mulberry Harbour used for the Normandy landing in 1944. This involved very strenuous efforts in overseeing the production of the units in South London and on the Beaulieu River in Hampshire and also in Barrow in Furness. They built 450 pontoons, 500 mooring buoys, and 12 Bridgehead pontoons. They had a 3000 strong workforce.

‘Beetles' under construction at Butler’s Hard on the Beaulieu River. The Beetles supported the pontoons for the Mulberry Harbour.

In early 1945, Norman went to the Unites States to learn more about their wartime construction experience. In particular, he met Webster Todd whose company had been builders to the Rockefellers, whose  biggest contract was the construction of the Rockefeller Center in New York City. Norman and Webster’s family became very close and the contact survives down three generations. Webster’s daughter, Christie Todd Whitman, lived at Elmore for a time and went on to become the first female Governor of New Jersey.

All this knowledge and skill in concrete techniques came to the fore in the post War period. There was a severe housing shortage coupled with a shortage of traditional building materials, including bricks, timber, and steel, as well as skilled site labour. The Government therefore subsidised the building of houses using non traditional materials. The Wates firm became one of the leading builders of temporary prefabricated bungalows for local authorities all over England, as part of the temporary housing programme from 1945 to 1948. The Wates firm built on its experience acquired during the war, using the pre-casting works built for the production of war materials. In particular, it developed a system of making large load bearing concrete slabs one story high for bungalows. When the subsidies ended and the prohibition on building for private ownership was lifted the Wates company built permanent precast concrete houses. Between 1945 and 1955 the company built nearly 20,000 of these - 9.6% of the total output in the country.

In the late 1950’s, Norman’s son Neil joined the company and launched Wates Built Homes, a subsidiary company which became known for its excellent design and estate layout.

Norman played an increasing role at the national level. In 1952 he became a member of the Central Housing Advisory Committee set up by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. He was a member of the National Economic Development committee for the building industry and was on several urban renewal subcommittees. He was on the inaugural body which formed the London Business School and was a foundation Governor of the United Westminster Schools Foundation. He was on the Council of the Kings College Hospital Medical School and, in the year before his death, was elected to the Court of Governors of the London School of Economics.

All this activity put a strain on Norman’s heart. He had a mild heart attack after the war in the late 1940s. He died at the young age of 64 from heart problems on 21st July 1969 – the date of the first Moon Landing.

So much for the achievements of the man who built up one of the most significant private companies in the UK; it is still in family hands

Norman featuring in an article for the “The Builder”, a magazine for professionals in the building and construction industry. Norman Wates was a leading figure in the building industry. Mr Anthony Greenwood, the Housing Minister, wrote in The Times of him: “in bringing a sense of social purpose to building he provided an example from which the industry as a whole will lastingly benefit”.

In 1924 Norman married Margaret Sidwell – always known as Peggy. They had six children; three boys and three girls. The family moved to Chipstead in 1934. Norman played a very full role in the life of the village. He and his neighbour and friend Ken Stoddart of Longshaw gave the fields that are now known as The Meads to the village. Norman personally gave the swings and roundabouts etc for the children’s play area. He gave a Wates Limited site Hut to get the Rugby Club off the ground and also provided another one that became the Scout Hut at the top of Castle Road. He was a regular attender at St. Margaret’s church and contributed to many of the improvements in the church after the war. Peggy Wates was deeply involved in village life.

Norman hay making at Elmore c1935, with his children

Family photo at Elmore circa 1946. From the left: Susan, Neil, Norman, John, Jean, Christopher, Peggy, Julia. Also Bryn, the Spanie

Norman’s main hobby was sailing and in this he was particularly successful. Before the War he had raced National 14 Dinghies from the Ranelagh Club on the Thames Embankment in Putney. At Cowes Weeks after the War, he went on to win the major trophies: The Queen’s Cup and the New York Yacht Club Cup as well as the most prestigious Cup, the Britannia Cup in both 1960 and 1961. He was Rear Commodore of the Royal Thames Yacht Club and a member of the Royal Ocean Racing Club and the Island Sailing Club. His yacht, Fedalah, was a Cruiser/Racer designed by Charles Nicholson. She was very unusual in having been launched in 1950 but winning so many races ten years later. The reason behind this was that Norman was told by his doctors in the 1950’s that his heart could not take the strain of racing. He spent many happy years cruising with family and friends before discovering the turn of speed the ‘old boat’ had.

The Dragon “Bluebottle”, (foreground) with Prince Philip at the helm, passes the cruising yacht “Fedalah”, which is having a wonderfully successful week at Cowes. Daily Telegraph photo and caption during Cowes Week, 1962

The Duke of Edinburgh presenting the Britannia Cup to Norman Wates in 1960

The Presentation party. On the left, Charles Nicholson, yacht designer at Camper & Nicholson. On the right, Brigadier Ralph Farrant, a former Chipstead resident.

Norman benefited enormously from the calm presence of Peggy and took great delight in his family.

His old friend Admiral Sir John Hamilton knew Norman well. He was a neighbour in Chipstead - when he wasn’t running the Mediterranean Fleet from Malta!

Sir John Hamilton with Norman and Peggy Wates at Elmore


Sir John spoke movingly at Norman’s Service of Thanksgiving at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly:

“A man of restless energy, whatever his hand found to do, he did it with his might. No man strove harder for success or was more genuinely modest when he had achieved it. He hated ostentation in any form, but he loved life and he lived it to the full. Whatever Norman Wates achieved in his profession and in his chosen field of recreation, his greatest and most lasting achievement was the way he enriched the lives of his family and his friends. He had a genius for friendship, for companionship, and delighted in the meeting of minds. Norman and his devoted wife Peggy created around them at Elmore a wonderful atmosphere of love. They loved nothing better than to gather their family and their friends around them to share their enjoyment of their beautiful home.”

Sir John summed Norman up:  “first and foremost, he was a practising Christian who witnessed to his belief in God by the example of his life. His constant support for the church, his genuine concern to help others, his wise and generous giving and the establishment with his brothers of the Wates Foundation, the high principles and standards which he applied to every aspect of his private and public life: these were his witness to the teaching of our Lord. It was this which gave root and substance and a unifying sense of purpose to the whole.”

Admiral Sir John Hamilton GBE, CB

John Hamilton at Haifa Port, Israel, in 1966

Admiral Sir John Graham Hamilton, GBE, CB (12 July 1910 – 27 October 1994) was a Royal Navy officer who served as Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet from 1964 to 1967. He was a Gunnery Officer who planned the Naval Fire Support for the 1944 Normandy landings and 20 years later was involved in the last sinking of a naval vessel by an old fashioned broadside.

John lived with his wife Dorothy at “Keepers” in Starrock Lane in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.

John joined the Royal Navy in 1924 and trained as a Gunnery Officer. He served in the Second World War on the staff of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham in the Mediterranean Fleet. He served aboard the Queen Elizabeth Class battleship Warspite in South East Asia. This vessel later went on to distinguish itself in the Mediterranean in the Battle of Cape Matapan in 1941 by achieving one of the longest range gunnery hits from a moving ship of a moving target. It hit the Italian ship Giulio Cesare at a range of 24km. – the distance from Chipstead to Central London.

In 1944 John played a significant role in planning the Naval Fire Support for the D Day landings.

After the war, John commanded the newly commissioned HMS Alacrity in the Far East. He returned to the UK in 1950 becoming Deputy Director of Radio Equipment. He went on to be commander of the 5th Destroyer Squadron in 1952 when it was deployed to the Home Fleet. He was made Director of Naval Ordnance at the Admiralty in 1954 This put him in charge of procurement of naval ordnance.

Admiral Sir John Hamilton, Commander in Chief Mediterranean Fleet, showing the flag on HMS Galathea.

Rapid promotion followed. He was given command of the cruiser HMS Newfoundland in 1956. On 31 October 1956, the Egyptian frigate Domiat was cruising south of the Suez Canal in the Red Sea, when Newfoundland encountered her and ordered her to heave to. Aware of tensions between Britain and Egypt that would lead to the Suez Crisis, Domiat refused and opened fire on the cruiser, causing some damage and casualties. She had picked the wrong opponent! The cruiser, with the destroyer Diana, returned fire and quickly sank her opponent, rescuing 69 survivors from the wreckage. One man from the Newfoundland was killed and five were wounded.

John was promoted to Vice Admiral on becoming Naval Secretary in 1958. The Naval Secretary advises the First Sea Lord on all senior personnel appointments.

From this he became Flag Officer (Flotillas) for the Home Fleet in 1960 and Flag Officer, Air (Home) in 1962. His last appointment was as Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet and NATO Commander Allied Forces Mediterranean in 1964 with the rank of full Admiral.  He retired in 1967.

John escorting King Idris of Libya for a royal visit to HMS Surprise at Tobruk in 1966

My parents knew John when he moved to Chipstead with the rank of Captain. Obviously we saw more of ‘Lady H’, as his wife Dorothy was always known, long before he got his knighthood. The nickname referred to the wife of that other seafarer, Lord Nelson. She had many friends in the village as she was often out walking her Border Terriers.

My parents were great friends of the Hamiltons and visited them when John was C-in C of the Mediterranean Fleet in Malta, Admiral of the Blue. My father was very impressed by the Gold Lettered Board listing all the Admirals . Nelson was near the top and John’s was the last name. When the Hamiltons retired to Abbotsbury in Dorset they renewed their friendship with my sister and John became godfather to one of her children. He had a firm Christian faith.

Comments (1)

  1. Catherine Tulley:
    Mar 14, 2022 at 06:30 PM

    What a fascinating insight... Loved hearing about Norman - especially his sailing exploits.

    Many thanks

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