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Gloucestershire Business News

Celebrating a hairdresser’s son from Cheltenham who changed the world

This week one of the county's foremost engineering firms quietly marked what would have been the 100th birthday of one of its founders, a man who put the county on the map world-wide.

Sir Robert Hunt was the right-hand man of Sir George Dowty, the engineer who built his business out of Cheltenham between the wars.

Through their work Dowty became a household name. Its clout was sufficient that it was carried by the Staverton-based landing gear specialist Safran Group in its title until 2016 and survives still in the title of one of GE Aviation's business, Dowty Propellers.

Safran still feels strongly enough to mark the occasion of what would have been his hundredth birthday.

Bob Hunt, whose parents had separated when he was 11 and whose mum was a hair dresser in Cheltenham, went to Cheltenham Grammar School.

Time spent his local garage after school fuelled his interested in all-things mechanical and he went on toe train as a mechanical engineer.

In 1935 he joined George Dowty's works and began working on hydraulics for aircrafts' undercarriages, going on to become a draftsman and part of the team which produced the landing gear for Frank Whittle's jet-powered Gloster aeroplane.

The Dowty business had started as a specialist hydraulics business making products used mainly in mining.

Mr Hunt's work was primarily in applications for aerospace. He was part of the team that made landing gear for the first prototype Harrier jump jets and the power controls for Concorde. He was on the plane on one of the early test flights.

According to the Daily Telegraph, which carried an obituary on his death, aged 86, on October 2004, "Bob Hunt was a commanding presence, a forceful manager and a dedicated engineer who built a team around him and kept Dowty at the forefront of its industry at home and abroad."

He was deputy chairman of Dowty from 1957. Sir George died in 1975 and Sir Robert went on to become chairman until 1986. He was also president of the Society of British Aircraft Constructors from 1977-78.

According to the archives he was "well respected".

But his reach went beyond engineering. He spent time in Canada in the mid-1950s where he served as a director of a hospital.

When he came back to England he also became chairman of the management committee of Cheltenham hospital and was later chairman of the county's health authority from 1974.

In 1981 he resigned from the health authority in protest over the decision by Government to split it in two. He had warned the move would cost half a million pounds a year in duplicated costs and had been promised this would not happen.

A year before he had become a director and then in 1982 deputy chairman of car maker British Leyland. He was a director of Eagle Star, the insurer, and the mining group Charter Consolidated.

The CBE came in 1974 and the knighthood in 1979. He was also a Deputy Lieutenant for Gloucestershire.

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