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Mitchell, Sir Godfrey Waylocked

(1891–1982)
  • Robert Sharp

Mitchell, Sir Godfrey Way (1891–1982), construction engineer and entrepreneur, was born at 54 Scylla Road, Peckham, London, on 31 October 1891, the younger son (there were no daughters) of Christopher Mitchell, stonemason and quarry owner, and his wife, Margaret, née Way, of Weymouth, Dorset. He was educated at the nearby Haberdashers' Aske's School, Hatcham. From 1908 he worked for Rowe and Mitchell, his father's quarry business in Alderney, Channel Islands, from which stone was exported to Britain. He joined the forces on the outbreak of war and received a temporary commission in the Royal Engineers in December 1916. He later commanded a quarry company in Pas-de-Calais, France, with a labour force of prisoners of war, sending aggregate to the trenches. He was demobilized in January 1919 with the rank of captain but, with business conditions having adversely changed, he sought an opportunity in which to invest a decade of experience. With his war gratuity and a £3000 loan from his father, in 1919 he bought a small insolvent masonry and stone-laying contracting business in Hammersmith, London, founded by George Wimpey in 1880.

Mitchell proceeded to build up the civil engineering side of the new limited liability company he created, George Wimpey & Co. Ltd. From being a small, local subcontractor he enlarged the business to that of a main contractor, seeking building contracts with local authorities in the home counties. In 1928 he started private house building, quickly becoming one of the largest London-based house builders. In time Wimpey became the largest home builder in the world. Growth was particularly achieved by retaining and reinvesting profits rather than taking them as dividends, a policy continued after the company became public in 1934. By the late 1930s, especially with the advent of rearmament, the Wimpey organization was at the forefront of British contractors. On 31 August 1929 Mitchell married Doreen Lilian (1901/2–1953), daughter of Ernest Mitchell, a civil servant of Melbourne, Australia. They had two daughters.

During the Second World War the company's headquarters was evacuated from Hammersmith to Denham in Buckinghamshire, from where it successfully carried out some of the largest building and civil engineering projects. It built ninety-eight airfields throughout Britain, as well as factories, barrage balloon stations, docks, and army camps, and the largest underground oil storage facility then capable of being constructed. It was chiefly for his skill in organizing and administrating this diversified work of national importance that Mitchell was knighted in 1948. During the war he had also served on several ministry committees, including the advisory committee of the Ministry of Defence on scientific research, the advisory council to the Ministry of Works, the Economic Planning Board, and the Ministry of Labour's Hankey committee assessing the likely staffing requirements at higher levels in industry after the war and how to meet them. For a time he was controller of building materials at the Ministry of Works.

After the war Mitchell served for over two years on the National Coal Board's advisory committee on the structure of the coalmining industry, as well as on the restrictive practices court, the Civil Engineering Scholarship Trust, and the 1954 court of inquiry into the docks dispute. Keenly aware of the problems left by the war, he was also concerned how to re-employ several thousand demobilized former service employees. This was to be a major consideration in both setting up regional offices, thereby spreading work opportunities throughout the provinces, and creating a highly efficient overseas contracting organization which also embraced electrical and mechanical engineering and plant erection. At its peak, overseas work accounted for over one-third of total turnover.

Overseas expansion began in Kuwait in 1947 and by the 1950s very large projects were being carried out in various parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East. Perhaps the most notable was the BP/IPC pipeline and oil refinery in Aden, built in partnership with Bechtel of California, and there followed the construction of Brazil's largest hydroelectric dam at Furnas, Salaverry harbour in Peru, Hong Kong power-station, and many others. Permanent offices were also set up in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. Eventually, in recognition of such tremendous overseas efforts, the company received the queen's award to industry for export achievement in 1977.

Concurrently, the regionalization of the home-based construction activity proved highly successful. The company developed the ‘no fines’ system of house building for local authorities and built more than 350,000 homes throughout Britain. Additionally, its road surfacing activity became Wimpey Asphalt and grew rapidly. The problem now was not how to re-employ former service personnel but how to obtain a sufficiently able and mobile labour force. Sophisticated but highly practical training at all levels up to graduate engineering was undertaken and thousands of people in the construction industry became ‘Wimpey-trained’. Mitchell constantly ensured that he had around him a strong team of management and operatives. As the demand for local authority housing dropped the company increased its private housing activities and, by the time of Mitchell's death, it was the major private house builder in Britain. And overseas the company was engaged in over thirty countries with a wide range of subsidiaries covering every field of the construction industry.

Mitchell was chairman of his company from 1930 to 1973, executive director from 1973 to 1979, and life president from 1979. He was a member of the Worshipful Company of Paviors from 1924 to 1973, a livery company he had done much to revive after the Second World War, and was its master in 1948. He was chairman of the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors (FCEC) in 1948–9 and of the Export Group for the Construction Industries in 1949–51. For almost thirty years he was a member of the joint ICE/FCEC standing joint committee for the practical training of young engineers with contracts. He became an honorary fellow of both the Institution of Civil Engineers, in 1968, and the Institute of Building, in 1971. In 1955 he established a charitable trust, the Tudor Trust, to which he transferred almost the whole of his personal company shareholding and private estate and since when it has continued to make substantial payments to charities, particularly to those concerned with education, old age, and mental and physical disabilities.

Mitchell was very well read, particularly in philosophy. He had a particular interest in ancient civilizations and archaeology and enjoyed foreign travel. He died at his home, Copper Beech, 2 Curzon Avenue, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, on 9 December 1982.

Sources

  • The Times (10 Dec 1982), 14g
  • personal knowledge (1990) [DNB]
  • private information (1990)
  • obituary, 1982, Inst. CE
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Wealth at Death

£693,822: probate, 28 Feb 1983, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
(1920–)