Geoffrey Parker; Pilot, Husband, Artist and Entrepreneur
Born in 1915 Fulham, London but spending most of his early years in Tottenham, London; Geoffrey grew up in a loving working class family, his father being a Master Brewer and later cinema manager. Geoffrey excelled at English, sport, and art, and achieved a place at Tottenham Grammar school after which he took an apprenticeship as a gas engineer (his father demanding that Geoffrey should obtain a “trade”), and during this time, Geoffrey attended Hornsey Art College where his love of oil painting and in particular the works of Vincent Van Gogh were established.
During trips on his bicycle to his “road gang” installing gas pipes for London’s rapidly expanding suburbs, Geoffrey, sought out publications of his favorite poets and playwrights which could be easily stowed in his pocket for break-time reading – little did he know that in years to come this simple requirement was to form the launch of Geoffrey Parker the Company. Moving out of London into the Hertfordshire countryside, Geoffrey had developed a small collection of benefactors who helped to keep a cottage roof over his head as he expanded his skill as a painter.
Geoffrey’s self-portrait, circa 1939 To supplement his irregular income, Geoffrey became a manager of a local glove making factory, specializing in Chamois leather. As war broke out in 1939, Geoffrey was asked to continue overseeing the factory which was now making gloves for the war effort. But eventually Geoffrey’s desire to help in a more significant way persuaded his employers to release him and he joined up in the Royal Air Force.
In 1941 he was sent to California, in civilian clothes (this was before American had officially joined the war) with a small group of 30, hand picked RAF cadets, to train as pilots as Britain was painfully short of both pilots and aeroplanes. The young airman enjoyed Hollywood hospitality given graciously by famous stars of stage and screen, however, for Geoffrey the glamour of Beverly Hills was surpassed by the kindness shown by a family of lawyers who had moved out from Los Angeles to the high Mojave Desert to a Dude ranch. Geoffrey loved “The Ranch” and would spend his days off riding, swimming and of course painting!
To this day, the family are proud to continue the special relationship which has developed over the generations with this special place and family (and still remaining on one of the adobe walls of the “play house” which formed a secret bar on the teetotal ranch, are RAF wings painted by Geoffrey, later joined by U.S. Air Force insignia).
On his way back to England, now as a commissioned officer and with his “wings”, his train pulled into the station at Chicago, the Tannoy announced the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war.
Geoffrey arrived back home as a much-needed instructor, teaching new recruits how to fly and was then picked to form an elite squadron specially created to lead allied bomber raids as a Pathfinder. With no armaments, and only speed and altitude to defend himself and his navigator, Geoffrey flew numerous missions in his Mosquito, ahead of hundreds of heavy bombers; British, American and Canadian, using the then very secret “Oboe” system of bomb marking. Geoffrey was promoted through the ranks and as a Squadron Leader was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Love & Marriage
During this time, he met his wife to be, Betty, a WAAF officer from Birmingham, and they were married in uniform amidst the London blitz after one night of “leave”, dancing to Carol Gibbons at The Savoy.
Being stationed at Bourne, near the university city of Cambridge, Geoffrey and Betty toured the surrounding countryside in search of a home. This they found in “Hodges” in 1944, which remained the family home until 2015 when Betty sadly passed away at the great age of 99. Dilapidated but charming, this ancient farmhouse with 11 acres was lovingly restored by the couple over the years and despite being built without foundations, still stands after over 650 years! During this same year Geoffrey and Betty’s first child was born, a girl they named Cynthia.
Following the end of the war, Geoffrey spent some time at the Air Ministry making the inaugural tests on air-sea rescue culminating in a fog-bound trip across The Channel to France in a rubber dingy! But his love of English literature drew him to Cambridge University and to the ancient college of St. John’s (where his elder brother, Kenneth, had studied before the war and then going on to work with Churchill within the Cabinet War Rooms as a Civil Servant). Obtaining a special dispensation to be allowed to return home to his young daughter and wife, he travelled the 20 miles by motorbike each day. To make ends meet, Geoffrey, started to rear pigs on his smallholding, while Betty, tended her chickens, producing eggs for locals, and later for Londoners when Geoffrey travelled on business up to Town on the train, laden with trays of eggs and other country produce!
St John’s, Cambridge (The Bridge of Sighs on The Cam) Graduating with a Master’s in English Literature, Geoffrey returned to Wimbish, to expand his pig farm, which at its height of free-range production, was home to 450 extremely happy Wessex Saddle Back and Large White pigs.
During his trips to university, Geoffrey would pass the tannery where he bought the chamois for his pre-war glove making. Over many visits and numerous cups of tea, Geoffrey was asked by the owners to try and save a leather bindery they owned in Whitechapel in London’s East End. Combining Geoffrey’s love of painting, literature and his knowledge of leather, the company, Shrove (established in 1871) was a perfect match, producing leather-bound books with hand-painted images on the covers. Sadly the writing was already “on the wall” and the Company was too troubled to continue and finally closed. However, a seed was sewn in Geoffrey’s mind for his own company. In 1958, after the chickens were moved out of the “chicken hut”, Geoffrey and Betty, working side by side, started to produce a range of leather-bound books, from classics to stationery – most of the pocket size (remembering his practical requirements of his “gas” days). From “Beefeaters” to Ocean liner’s “flags”, the books were lovingly hand painted and sold to tourist gift shops, museums, great cruise companies such as P & O and Cunard, to exclusive boutiques and designer labels. One such was Alfred Dunhill, whose grandson, Richard Dunhill (current Life President of this World famous luxury brand), approached Geoffrey and asked him to make a chessboard – he tried and found that the ancient skill of inlaying leather was a particular craft which came easily to him and his growing team of craftsmen, and the rest, as they say, is “history”.