Allen Matthews 28.4.50 - 26.2.2010
(Picture reproduced by kind permission of Peter Scott)
I first met Allen Mathews in 1991, he had not long set up OwnerShips and was looking to buy a low voltage television set for a new boat, and I was at that time in the retail trade selling them. Over the next few years he became a regular customer at the shop I was working in in Ruislip.
In 1995 Allen was looking for a new "right hand man" in the office and I was asked if I would be interested in becoming the "General Manager". Allen recognised that I had one quality above all others that applied - I could steer a boat! (truth be told I don't think there were any applicants).
Allen started OwnerShips in 1991 with a second-hand boat, Annabelle, and quickly moved in to having boats purpose built to his own design by Pat Buckle at Stibbington Boat Yard near Peterborough. Over the years the builders changed from Pat to John Milburn and more latterly having them built in Poland, there have also been forays in to Dutch Barges in France and Ireland and many concept boats along the way, including the ill conceived Derwent, a narrow beam Dutch Barge which would not steer in shallow water. After two owners had damaged the wheel house Allen decided to see what the problem was. The boat returned to its moorings three days later minus its wheel house which was now at the bottom of the North Oxford Canal. When I asked him what happened he told me, quite calmly, that "The owners are right, it does not steer in shallow water, I will have to refund their money".
Before starting OwnerShips Allen (who had previously owned a 70' Les Allen boat called Northumberland) asked around the waterways for advice on his concept and was told by all that it would not work. "The are those that have a boat and there are those that hire a boat, there is no middle ground" was a most common response. Allen proved all the doubters wrong, and by some distance. Well over 1,000 present day "have a bits" is testimony to the drive and the determination to succeed.
Allen was totally focused on two, conjoined, things, OwnerShips and its customers. He knew exactly what he was good at, dealing with people. He also would not let anything tarnish the good name of OwnerShips and its brand.
The booking system he devised for the boats was a work sheer genius. Never bettered and never copied by anyone else (probably as they could never work it out - it took me three years) even its name was complicated, The Three Tier Rotating Booking System. It certainly was not simple, but then great things never are.....
The concept of Narrow Boat Shared Ownership was copied by many, but the model that Allen created was never even equalled, let alone bettered. OwnerShips is a great club to belong to.
There are many stories I could recount about my life at OwnerShips, but one stands out above all. It was our first day back after the Xmas break and Allen had been away in Devon for the break to see his parents, he arrived back at the office (a house in London, where the office occupied, at that time, the back room) about an hour before me to a scene of utter devastation. A pipe had bust in the loft and the water, at full mains pressure, had been pouring in to the house for, it would appear, at least a day, perhaps longer. I arrive to see water cascading down the stairs like a waterfall (and this some time after the stop cock has been turned off). Allen, totally unflappable said. "Philip, we have a bit of a problem, can you try and get the phones working first, we need to serve our customers". Two electric shocks later I am taking phone calls kneeling in the hall on sodden carpets and writing on sodden paper with a pen where the ink ran if wet and Allen saying, quite calmly "after you have done that, can you see if you can get the PC's to work, I have a letter to write". The fact that the ceiling had fallen on them and the computers were full of water was of no consequence, Allen needed to write to a customer, and that came first......
The idea of having a holiday on the canals of England began in the early 1960's, in the early 1990's one man changed the options for doing this forever with his idea, and by having the courage to make that idea into a reality, despite what everyone said.
Allen was without doubt a very caring a generous man, perhaps one of his most poignant and generous gestures was one sadly he was too unwell to see come to fruition at the 2010 February show, where the most recent boat was named after an owner who had died, Hamish Leys. This was an example of just how much Allen cared about his customers.
Allen Matthews changed the lives of thousands of people forever, mine included, and will be sadly missed by all those who knew him. I suspect a line might be drawn in the sand at OwnerShips with his passing, but long may the concept behind the model continue.
Philip Duerden - OwnerShips' General Manager 1995 - 2003
(Footnote: - Allen Matthews died on 26th February, on 22nd April it was announced that the company he left behind was as good as bankrupt)