Larger than life entrepreneur and newspaper founder remembered

Larger than life character and popular serial Hastings and Bexhill entrepreneur, Martin Harrison has died aged 74 after a short illness.

Wednesday, 21st February 2018, 9:16 am
Updated Friday, 8th June 2018, 12:18 am
Martin Harrison SUS-180221-083436001

Martin was known to many in Hastings and Bexhill for his role in launching and running the Hastings News and, later on, the Bexhill News which were among the first free newspapers in the county.

His connections around town meant that he rarely went out without bumping into several people whom he knew and was pleased to call friends.

Martin found much happiness in his later years when he met and married Judy Carr in 2000 and moved to Bexhill.

The couple enjoyed a generous circle of friends and travelled extensively while keeping in touch with their six children and 14 grandchildren. Constant companions, they particularly enjoyed watching motor racing, attending rock music concerts and camping. Martin was a keen cook and gardener while Judy (now retired), taught at Christ Church St Leonards Primary School where she started and ran the nursery school. Martin was also a talented amateur pianist.

He met Mary Black in Edinburgh in 1960 when they were both teenagers and the couple moved to London and married in 1965. Later on they moved to Banbury, Maidstone and Lewes as Martin pursued his career in advertising sales. Their first son Richard (now living in Hastings) was born in 1967, followed a couple of years later by Nicholas (living in Dubai). The couple divorced in the later 1970s but never lost touch. Martin re-married, this time to Jill in 1981 with whom he had two further children, Christopher and Katie who both live in Bournemouth. Katie is to marry later this year.

Martin was born in Birmingham, the younger of two brothers, and brought up in Edinburgh where his father was a senior civil servant in the Post Office. He attended George Heriot’s School and after a short stint working at Burton’s biscuit factory, he took his first step in a newspaper career at The Scotsman.

By the time he arrived in Hastings in 1973 as one of the four founders of the Hastings News, one of the first free newspapers in the country, he had already had a successful sales career at the Scotsman, the London Weekly Advertiser, the Banbury Guardian, Kent Messenger and the Sussex Express.

Destined for a senior position at Sussex Express publisher F J Parsons Ltd, Martin instead chose the excitement and challenge of starting from scratch with the Hastings News – known as “The Independent One” because of its uncompromising editorial approach.

His judgement proved correct as the newspaper grew and added editions all over Sussex before he and his colleagues sold the business in 1985. By that time there were five local editions and additional typesetting, design and web-offset printing companies had been set up.

Martin and his colleagues remained with the new owners of the business (Senews Ltd, then Ladbrokes, then EMAP) for a further two years before moving on to other things.

In the early days of the Hastings News, Martin not only sold space but he and his colleagues worked through the night once a week putting the newspaper together before driving to Bristol and back to the printers. The novelty of a free local newspaper meant it took several years for the business to be safely established as a going concern and during this time Martin gradually built relationships with businesses throughout Hastings and the surrounding towns.

After selling the company, Martin took an interest in a printing business for a number of years before getting back together with one of his former colleagues, Dave Burton, as a partner in Cooke Burton Management Consultants in 1995.

In his role as sales and marketing partner, he helped build that business, forging relationships with Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) throughout London and the South East. The firm specialised in the new UK standard “Investors in People” and helped more than 500 organisations achieve the award.

He retired from the business in 2000 and spent some time as a lunchtime chef at the Horse and Groom pub in Mercatoria – because it was his favourite pub and he loved cooking!

His former colleagues remember him fondly. Andrea Hargreaves, who joined the editorial team at the News in 1974 and later became Group Editor of the News series and Editor of the Bexhill Observer said: “There was absolutely no pretension about Martin; what you saw and heard was what you got. In 1964 we were both working on the Sussex Express, he selling adverts and me as a naive junior reporter.

“He bounced into our back office in Seaford with a wide grin, having noisily dispensed charm and affability to the ladies who manned the front office. Introducing himself with a wink, his friendliness filled the room.

“Even back then, when we girls customarily accepted behaviour that was far from PC by today’s standards, he could be a little over familiar and I was somewhat wary of the boyish grin, not then realising that it went with his huge Tiggerish personality.

“So when, 10 years later, he was one of four to found the Hastings News, a ground-breaking free paper that borrowed its publishing ethos from the Sunday Times’s Insight team, a tiny part of nascent feminist me was a little reluctant to accept an invitation to join.

“Had I declined it would have been my great loss. Not only would I have missed out on really learning how to find and deliver stories that mattered, I would not have got to know Martin as the kind, funny and deep-thinking man that he was to the end. And though he would never have admitted it, well not then anyway, he actually ascribed to the equality values he would tease us women about. I had a pair of toddlers by then and if no other child care was available he was happy for them to be brought to our office in Eastbourne where, if I had to go off on a story, he would entertain them. I returned at the end of one busy morning worried about how long I had left him with them, to find them all giggling over the comic pictures they had drawn.

“A few years later he was encouraging me to take a pregnant colleague for her first scan, believing that staff needed to be supported if they were to do their best work; soon he was standing up for that same woman when one of her sales team objected to her breast feeding in the office.

“He created a warm environment where domestic problems could be brought to work and, while our time keeping wasn’t always of the best, he realised that people were their most productive when they were not anxious. Meanwhile he was bringing the business in, with the result that this company prospered too well so far as his staff were concerned. When new owners came along our working practices caused raised eyebrows and our newspaper life – more like Play School than work for much of the time – was never the same again.

“Martin’s humour permeated everything he did, from taking part in local carnivals – usually dressed unnervingly convincingly as a woman just the realistic side of pantomime dame; his nurse might almost have seen him accepted for duty at Hastings A&E on a Saturday night – and charity events calling for physical gusto and derring-do. His store of jokes was impressive, as was his prodigious recall of past sillinesses. His memory rekindled his friends’ forgotten back stories on many occasions since.

“He was sharp and witty, pointed but never malicious, and always warm.

“A joke backfired only once, when a rusting wreck of a car he insisted was a ‘Classic’ was left in the office car park too long. He was asked, repeatedly, to take it elsewhere, then he went on holiday, to come back to find the car had been crunched up at the breaker’s yard and was now awaiting his presence for its funeral, complete with wild flower wreath. For once this lover of cars was speechless.

“Only a month ago, while out to lunch, he demonstrated with ironic pleasure and a comedy leer how his joystick-controlled wheelchair worked. Later he produced a fluffy new toy camel. ‘What does this remind you of?’ He asked, jolting my shaky memory back 35 or so years ago to when we were taking part in a motor rally bringing English wine to Paris.

“We had been on course to win the rally until we reached the Périphérique when, as navigator, I suddenly had to choose between Est and Ouest and panicked. Incorrect decision made, we came in half an hour behind the field, but did Martin, who was very competitive, mind? He mimed a Gallic shrug, grinned and found his way unerringly to the bar. At the end of the bibulous evening, on our way back to our hotel, he climbed into a skip, emerging triumphant with a battered and grubby camel. Presenting it to me with a flourish, he laughed ruefully: ‘We should have won.’

Martin, you were always a winner.”

His colleague and business partner, Dave Burton, said: “Martin was fundamental to the success of both the businesses in which I was involved. His great fortitude in the early days of the News, repeatedly approaching businesses that had been offered half price and even free advertising by the town’s established paper, was an expression of his endless optimism.

“Later, when he joined me at Cooke Burton Management Consultants, his adaptability came to the fore as he wrestled with the challenges of the odd world of consultancy.

“But I remember him largely as my best friend; the man who could lift everyone’s spirits with a joke or a ridiculous pun. A fun-loving companion on many a late-night session in the pubs, restaurants and clubs of Hastings and Brighton. I also remember his musical talent which allowed him to sit at a piano anywhere and play requests, by ear!

“I know that many people will remember, like I do, a man who always gave far more than he took.”