Devon rhymes with heaven, and for good reason. It’s all green grass, chocolate-box cottages and fishermen’s coves, wedged between three equally beautiful counties: Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset. Together, these make up the farthest corner of England -- a paradisical peninsula jutting into the Celtic Sea, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
When an Englishman thinks of Devonshire, cider and clotted cream come to mind, and wild Exmoor, where buzzards swoop overhead, and red deer and wild ponies roam free. So the very last thing anyone would associate with Devon would be the Stafford Furniture Company, Limited.
In the 1970s, the Devonshire town council of Barnstaple voted quietly for the creation of an industrial park to be tucked in a woody area on the edge of the town. This would result in jobs, and in increased business and tax income, they claimed. It would be good for Barnstaple. The local weekly paper gave the story supportive splash headlines, and not a letter was written to the editor; and not a voice raised in protest. Barnstaple’s people weren’t like that. Not at that point, anyway.
Barnstaple’s elders kept a wary eye on the kinds of plant that set up shop in their industrial park. The newcomers tended to be environmentally friendly -- which was not a phrase much used in England at that time. There was a manufacturer of duvets, for whom an environmental crisis could be nothing more serious than a cloud of goose feathers accidentally leaked into the atmosphere. There were two household furniture factories that made couches and armchairs out of local oak and imported hardwoods. Another made window shades, and others produced balls of twine, cardboard boxes, and a brand of confectionery very similar to Twinkies.
And then along came Jack Stafford, a tall, lean man in his early thirties who had bushy black eyebrows, and who, had he chosen to be an actor, would have made a perfect hero in a Bronte or Dickens movie. Jack was a furniture designer who had recently won several awards from Britain’s prestigious Design Council. However, his furniture was not comfy couches and chairs for peoples’ homes. His business was contract furniture, and his specialty was stacking chairs, for use in conference rooms, hospitals and other public places. He’d been so successful that his firm had recently been bought by the Thomas Tilling Group, a conglomerate active in everything from life insurance and laboratory glassware to engineering. Stafford’s small workshop in Norfolk could no longer cope with the demand, and Tilling agreed to invest in a new plant elsewhere.
When Stafford’s planning application reached the town council, the burghers of Barnstaple read it with care. They looked at artfully lit photographs of his award-winning chairs, and another that showed his impressive gold-plated trophy from the Design Council. The recent acquisition by the respected Thomas Tilling Group was noted, and the application was accepted.
At that time I was already a public relations consultant to several Tilling Group companies, including Stafford Furniture. Jack Stafford and I drove down to Devon to see how the new building, on a site on the edge of Barnstaple Bay, was progressing. For me, the main aim of this trip was to gather enough information to write a proposal for organizing and publicizing the official opening of the plant about a year later.
At one point we passed a rectangular building, out of which several pipes snaked toward the bay.
“What’s that going to be?” I asked.
“That? Oh, it’ll be the water treatment plant.”
“What’s it going to treat, exactly?”
Jack seemed unconcerned. “It takes the gunk out of the water we use in the plating process.”
“What kind of gunk?”
“Well, chromium and cadmium, actually. They’re deadly poisons, of course. We use them to put the chrome on the chairs. The treatment plant will filter it out, so by the time it gets into the bay it’ll be as clean as a whistle.”
That sounded okay to me, and my mind switched elsewhere.
The plant began what they called ‘pilot production’ about three months before the official opening ceremony planned for April 1971. A few days after the first shiny chrome-plated chairs came off the assembly line, Jack Stafford called me in my office in London.
“Bit of a fuss going on in Devon, John,” he said.
“Really? “ I said.
“There are people demonstrating at the gate.”
“Demonstrating? What about?”
“Some of the townspeople are in a bit of a tizzy about the plating plant. They’ve heard about the chrome and cadmium. They think our treated water could kill the fish in the bay, and find its way into the town’s water supply.”
“What’s your reaction to that?” I asked.
“Piffle,” he said. “Absolute bosh! That water’s as pure as the driven snow. Why? A baby could drink it."
In a day or so we’d fixed a press conference, at which the plant manager and I met the demonstrators and the local media. Armed with documents from the firm of consultants certifying the purity of the water, we took reporters on a guided tour of the plant. On the next day the noisy, banner-waving crowd was gone from the factory gates and, later in the week, stories appeared in the local paper and broadcast media assuring Barnstaple’s citizens that they had nothing to fear.
For the next few months all was quiet. Then, one day in the spring, Jack Stafford and his board of directors converged on the town’s best hotel, with me, of course, in readiness for the opening ceremony. Later in the day came Sir Geoffrey Eley, the chairman of the Thomas Tilling Group and others of his ilk, together with Jeremy Thorpe, the popular Member of Parliament for Devon North. With my press releases, photographs, lists of invitees, name tabs and other PR paraphernalia after weeks of preparatory work, I was there checking and counter-checking, phoning and fussing.
That evening, as we all relaxed in the hotel bar enjoying pre-dinner drinks, I heard what seemed to be raised voices in the street outside the hotel. I looked out the window, where about thirty people were gathering, unfurling banners on which the word ‘Poison’ seemed to be prominent.
“They’re back,” I whispered to Jack.
Stafford and I slipped out of the bar and into the street, where a slightly belligerent man with a red, round face asked me, “Is that Jack Stafford bloke in there?”
“He’s right here.” I told him.
Stafford strolled up to the man, for all the world like Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. But he held out his hand. “How do you do,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, you can shut down that bloody factory for a start!” the man said.
An argument began about the efficacy of the water treatment plant, at the end of which Stafford said, “Listen, my good man, I thought we cleared this up once and for all last year. Tell me, what do we have to do to convince you that this water’s perfectly safe?”
The man thought for a moment, and his colleagues craned to hear his answer.
“There’s only one thing,” he said. “If you can get one of them high-ups to drink some of that water himself, in front of the newspapers and that. Then we’ll believe ya’”
“Bargain,” said Stafford, and they shook hands again.
Who’d impress them most, Jack and I wondered. We doubted Sir Geoffrey Eley would do it. Who better, we agreed, than their own, likeable Member of Parliament?
Back in the bar I sidled up to Jeremy Thorpe and put the question to him.
With a sly grin he said. “Why not? But there’s just one condition.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“That you drink it first,” said the MP for Devon North.
In the morning I slipped out the hotel and bought an elegant crystal goblet from the nearby Dartington Glass Works, and half an hour later, the Right Honorable Jeremy Thorpe, MP, Jack Stafford, a foreman and I stood together, alone, around a faucet in the water treatment plant.
The water ran clear and clean. I raised the goblet to my lips. It was flat, but utterly tasteless. I refilled the glass and passed it to the others.
“Not a vintage year, I’d say,” Thorpe said dryly.
Three hours later the band played, Sir Geoffrey Eley cut the ceremonial tape, and the VIP party meandered through the plant under the watchful eyes of the reporters and TV cameras. At the water treatment plant, true to his word, Jeremy Thorpe drank a convincing amount of the water. Then, inviting an unbiased witness to join him, he poured himself another glass, carried it to the front of the building, raised his goblet to the crowd, and downed the entire contents. Smiling broadly, the Right Honorable Member made a little bow.
The demonstrators had watched silently among the public on their tiered benches, waiting for the show, their banners furled but ready. Slowly, a ripple of applause from the audience swelled into cheers.
And we never heard from them again.