Half Century, Not Out!
As well known for his charity fundraising and epic globetrotting as he is for his professional role as an Island Specialist Property and Probate Lawyer, Terence Willey notches up a landmark 50 years in the legal profession this year. We caught up with him before he and wife Alison take off on their latest adventure – a trip to South Africa paid for by the family as a birthday treat – and asked him to share his highlights of the last half century.
If house prices in Reading, Berkshire hadn’t been so extortionate in the early 1970s, then Terence Willey might never have crossed the Solent or established his business on the Island.
But then Terence says he’s a great believer in Fate – and he reckons it was certainly at work for him in 1971 when he and his new wife decided they’d have to look further afield for a house they could afford.
“Prices in Reading were horrendous – something like five or six grand for a tiny flat – so we decided to look towards the south coast instead where a semi-detached was possible for the same money.
They hadn’t even considered going ‘offshore’ until they took a holiday on the Isle of Wight around that time – and were smitten with the place.
Terence promptly approached Walter Gray and Co. in Sandown – a name he just happened to have seen on the side of a building – and asked if they had a vacancy: they did, and in no time, he and Alison had swapped their hometown Reading for Ryde. The rest, as they say, is history.
Born in Reading in 1945, Terence was an only child whose parents both worked as senior managers for the John Lewis Partnership department store in Reading, known as Heelas.
“In those days you tended to follow in your parents’ footsteps” he says, “so I was pretty much destined to be a retail manager”.
He went to London on a retail management course, but two years was enough for him to realise this wasn’t the path for him.
Back in Reading in 1966 and with no clue what to do next, he was sent by his father Eric to see a lawyer friend of his who was looking for a trainee clerk.
“My reaction to that was horror” he laughs. “I just thought ‘Oh no – how boring!’” But that was to be a pivotal move in his life, and one that set his course in more ways than one.
Firstly, he discovered under the tutelage of the late Reg Cooley that the legal profession was far from boring – and after Mr Cooley suffered a dramatic collapse that kept him off work for months, it was the young Terence, aged 20, who had to quickly step up to the mark.
“After just a year I had to take over his conveyancing and probate department, under supervision and further training, but that meant that I quickly went from £450 a year as a clerk to £1,000 a year. I was on a high and wanted to buy the town up!” he says.
The other fateful aspect of that job was when an attractive young woman was taken on as a receptionist at the company.
“She was very pretty but I was too afraid to approach her myself so I sent a message with the tea lady, asking her out to dinner”.
The young lady – who said yes to dinner – was Alison, who he went on to marry in 1971.
By this time, Terence was already a busy senior fee earner in the Practice and so had to drop the whole business of being fully Admitted as a solicitor. Then, 18 months later, the couple were on the move to the Isle of Wight for Terence’s new job and a new life in Ryde on the Island.
Terence progressed from Gray Merrill, (the forerunner to Walter Gray in Ryde), before being headhunted by the old-established firm James Eldridge and Sons also in Ryde.
He remained there for 13 years until the senior partner retired, and then moved to Paul Wilks, where he says, “my life changed”.
That was when MP Austin Mitchell’s Parliamentary Bill squashed the solicitors’ monopoly on property conveyancing and Margaret Thatcher’s Government carried it forth into legislation by Statute. The ‘Green Paper’ had described the legal profession for the first time in its history as ‘Specialist Property Lawyers’ entering the field of legal services, by qualification, to be known as Licensed Conveyancers.
This proved to be Terence’s opportunity to qualify, compete with solicitors – and ultimately, to set up in business on his own.
As it turned out, he was one of the first in the Country to qualify and get a Licence to Practice under the new system.
This was followed by a surprise invitation and formal Court Appointment by The Lord Chancellor in 1987 to join the first Shadow Council of Licensed Conveyancers, meeting regularly in London to drive forward the new system.
“I suddenly found myself in a Council of fantastically qualified people and top lawyers” recalls Terence. Aged just 40 at the time, he was one of the youngest members of the prestigious and influential committee and served as Chairman of its’ education and Training Committee. When it came to subsequent national elections for the committee, Terence was voted in for three further terms of three years, and retired, according to the rules, after a total of ten years’ service. Upon retirement from the committee, he was especially presented with an engraved clock from the Lord Chancellor’s Council, in recognition of his considerable contribution.
“They were certainly very interesting times” he says. “For a little lad from the Isle of Wight to be sitting round the table with people like the Council of Mortgage Lenders was a great coup!”
Leap of faith
The next big milestone was making the bold decision to go into business on his own account, having qualified to do so, with much resistance from solicitors nationwide.
He doesn’t mind admitting that he was ‘petrified’ about taking the plunge. There was a lot at stake, because by that time, he and Alison had three young children – Paul, Mark and Lisa, then aged just nine, five and three years old.
“I borrowed from the Bank to make sure we could pay the mortgage for six months and to hire a secretary and an accountant” he says.
“It took a month to get the first client, so it was very precarious and there were obviously times when I doubted what I’d done”.
Happily, he had sterling back-up from his father, who by that time had retired and settled on the Island.
Despite being in his 70s by that time – and already having spent a number of years running the buffet bar at Ryde Pier with his wife Connie – Eric worked tirelessly on the reception desk at Terence’s new office, rarely going home before his son did.
Terence pays tribute both to his late father and to his wife of 45 years.
“Alison has been fantastic,” he says. “Without her, I wouldn’t have achieved anything in life”.
By 1994 the business was doing well enough for Terence to invest in a commercial property in Ryde that was in receivership: it was a rush to complete the transaction in 28 days, but it was a huge boost to the business.
With a growing turnover Terence then bought out the Union Street, Ryde business of old friend Malcolm Daniells, who was retiring. This trade name is still used at the Cross Street branch.
Then in 2004 there was the launch of another office in the heart of the village of Bembridge –and thereafter he studied and qualified further securing a Probate Licence specialising in Wills, Trusts Probate, Powers of Attorney and management of affairs of the Elderly.
Nowadays, the business has 16 staff at the three offices, and Terence’s younger solicitor son Mark, 33, is a Director of the family Practice.
“You could say it’s a success story,” he says.
“I had one Bank Manager who told me during the last recession that if I didn’t close one of the offices we would go under – happily I have managed to prove him wrong!”
Terence was delighted when son Mark joined him in the business after leaving behind a career as a criminal defence solicitor in London.
Apart from anything else, it means that, at 70, Terence can do shorter hours and take time off for his beloved hobby of travel. He now is asked regularly to contribute to BBC Radio Solent as an expert on Property, Wills and Probate and participates on a Breakfast Show where listeners are invited to phone in questions. He’s conscious of the need to live fully – particularly after the trauma of surviving bowel cancer eight years ago.
After the removal of a 10 cm tumour, his long-term survival was not certain and staff and family stepped up to run the business in his absence.
He endured months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy and says that had son Mark not decided to move back to the Island just before the crisis, he would probably have sold the business at that point.
“Nowadays I do what I want to do in the business – I’ve pulled out of structured hours and act mainly as a consultant”.
That has freed up time for him and Alison to indulge their mutual love of travelling. To date they have visited 40 countries, and Terence shares the pleasure by writing about their destinations in travel pieces for Island Life.
He says Thailand has been the most fascinating Country from his point of view – if not exactly Alison’s cup of tea. As he points out “You are never quite sure if you’re talking to a man or a woman!
“But apart from that, it’s remarkably scenic and I loved the elephant trekking”.
Alison preferred Antigua and St Lucia, while they both loved the vibrant atmosphere and sheer culture shock of Cuba.
To mark Terence’s 70th birthday last September, the family presented him with a trip to Cape Town South Africa, where his late mother Connie was born, including time in Johannesburg and a Kruger Park safari and a trip on the famous Blue Train – which he and Alison will be taking shortly.
Their last big trip was a three-week stay in Australia last November, with the whole family, which was for the wedding of eldest son Paul, 39 – who works as a Film Post Production Freelancer – to Liz, who works in the Australian TV industry.
Among the Willey family contingent for the Down Under event were the four grandchildren – Ellie, five and William two, the children of daughter Lisa, 31, and Kevin her dairy farmer husband and George, five and Emma, two, the children of Mark and his dance teacher wife, JoJo who owns and runs her successful music and dance school on the Island known as Fusion Arts Academy.
“It was a huge trip for the 10 of us and we have some lovely memories and lovely photos” says Terence.
Family is a strong motivator in Terence’s life, and he says he gets a huge buzz from seeing the business being carried forward by Mark.
“We trade very consciously as a family firm and to us, people are never just a number,” he says. “We love the fact that we often deal with different generations of the same family, both on and off the Island, because it shows that our name is trusted by them”.
Terence is also known across the Island for his ability to have fun and send himself up. Many will remember him gamely dressing up as “The Duchess of Nettlestone” when his daughter’s primary school couldn’t find a real VIP for one of its fetes.
He also used to dress as Santa Claus for the Seaview playgroup formerly owned by his wife Alison– making sure he applied extra whiskers so his daughter wouldn’t recognise her dad!
And he has always been big on staff parties and Christmas gifts for employees.
“I’m keen on that,” he says – “not accolades, but simple appreciation of people”.
This is recognised by the fact that over half of his staff have been with the Practice between ten and twenty years.
There was some appreciation for Terence himself in 2014,when he and Alison were invited to the Queen’s Garden Party in recognition of raising £120,000 for the Earl Mountbatten Hospice and Naomi House and Jack’s Place in Winchester.
This fundraising feat was achieved through Terence’s love of a good party: when he arrived in 1971 he launched a Christmas event for local business people and friends which, over the years, has turned into a big diary event on the Island – an all-day celebration with music, carols, wine and a five-course dinner.
Held at a different venue every year, the annual lunch has raised much-needed funds for the cancer sufferers and particularly children’s cancer charities.
It’s ironic that when he began the fund raising, Terence had no idea that he would be stricken with cancer himself.
In fact he met Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex in 2008 and spoke about the fundraising – little realising that a few months later he faced a grim diagnosis of his own.
During his therapy and recuperation, he continued to be involved in running and then attending the Christmas lunch, as it was one positive action he could focus on and he says – “I want to continue this as long as I am able.”
“I guess I feel it’s my baby” he says, “and I still have a strong belief in the overriding effect of love and support – in whatever you do”.