‘Sometimes you’ve got to step up and this was one of those times’

Having recently acquired an aircraft which harks back to the romantic era of air travel, Matt Palmer tells Tom Ogg why he wanted to preserve the de Havilland Heron and his vision for the plane’s future

Matt Palmer standing next to the De Havilland Heron that he bought for £1.00..Picture: DAVID FERGUSON. (30582795)
Matt Palmer standing next to the De Havilland Heron that he bought for £1.00..Picture: DAVID FERGUSON. (30582795)

THE list of things which can be bought for £1 seems to grow shorter with every passing year.

There is the good old JEP, of course, and perhaps a loaf of bread depending on where you shop but, otherwise, ever-rising prices and GST ensure you’re unlikely to get your hands on much of value with a pound in 2021.

Unless you’re Matt Palmer, that is, in which case you’re liable to find yourself taking possession of a historical aircraft dating from the post-war era. Yes, really.

Named the Duchess of Brittany, the plane in question is a de Havilland Heron, a propeller-driven passenger plane of which only 149 were ever built, and which 42-year-old Matt acquired for just £1.

‘It was a pound or nothing,’ he laughs, chatting during a visit to the JEP offices. ‘The reality is that the Duchess is a historical asset but she isn’t a financial asset. I think most people, if offered to swap a loaf of bread for the Duchess of Brittany, would probably decide to keep their loaf of bread.’

How, then, did Matt come to acquire the vintage aircraft at such a lowly price?

‘I got involved as volunteer treasurer at the Jersey Aero Club last year in order to try to save it from a financial crisis after everyone had stopped flying,’ he says. ‘After hearing that the Duchess of Brittany was subject to insolvency, I submitted a personal bid of £1 to the liquidator, Grant Thornton, but I only did this when it became clear that there were no other realistic bids, and when it seemed likely that 70 years worth of history was destined for the scrap-metal yard. I felt I had to make a bid. It felt wrong not to do something.’

Asked if he was surprised that more bids weren’t forthcoming, Matt offers an unequivocal ‘no’.

‘I think, had the plane been in the UK, or somewhere else where there is more access to resources and space, then lots more people would have come forward. There are a lot of people around the world who are interested in the Duchess and who are keen to see her preserved, but that doesn’t mean you can actually get the plane to them in order for them to do something with it, and especially not during a global pandemic.

‘I always had the view that if someone else were to have put in a viable bid then I’d have happily left them to it,’ he adds. ‘But that didn’t happen and, well, sometimes you’ve just got to step up – and this was one of those occasions.’

Born and raised in Burley in Wharfedale, Yorkshire, Matt went to school in Ilkley and then Bradford, and would later spend a decade as chairman of the Bradford Conservative Party.

‘I resigned when we moved to Jersey in 2012,’ he says. ‘Resigning from the council was definitely a sad moment – it triggered a by-election – but it was the right thing to do. One of my colleagues emigrated to Spain but stayed on as a local councillor, which is perfectly legal, but it is also clearly the wrong thing to do. I think politicians should really live in the community they represent.’

A married father-of-two, Matt had also come to the realisation that a career in politics was likely to prove incompatible with family life.

‘I’d stood for Parliament in 2010 but, in truth, the debate at the time was such that I knew it would be hard for me to make a difference,’ he says. ‘I was probably the only pro-European northern Tory on the planet [laughs] and I felt Brexit was both toxic and inevitable.

‘Added to that, being hundreds of miles from my family wasn’t a sacrifice I was prepared to make and so we decided to go for a complete change and it was a “stick a pin in a map” exercise to see where we wanted to go.’

Happily, the pin landed firmly on the Channel Islands and so it was Matt, his wife, Maria, and their two children, David (11) and Katie (8), relocated to Jersey, with Matt initially working in cyber security at State Street.

‘I remember there were very few people in cyber in Jersey at the time, which is why I and a few others set up the Channel Islands Information Security Forum in order to help people through their exams and so on.’

Today, Matt works both as a commissioner at the Jersey Financial Services Commission, a role which entails chairing the audit committee and helping to keep the local financial industry properly regulated, and interim chief information security officer at Aztec Group, where he is helping with the transition to cloud computing.

‘My son used to refer to Jersey as “my Jersey” because he was so pleased to be living here,’ laughs Matt. ‘It really is a great place to bring up children. It’s just a fantastic place for small kids.’

Whereas Matt was a fairly well-known figure in Bradford due to his political work, Jersey has enabled a return to anonymity, a change which he says he thoroughly welcomes.

‘It’s funny because one thing that many people say they don’t like about Jersey is that you always run into people you know when you’re out and about, whether it’s your neighbour or boss in the supermarket or whoever. But I’m used to being a local counsellor in a little village in Yorkshire where everyone knew exactly who I was, and so, for me, Jersey has offered the reverse of other people’s experience.

‘I feel completely anonymous again. Of course, now I’m doing this plane thing and screwing all that up,’ he adds with a laugh.

It is a sacrifice which Matt clearly feels is worth making, however, as is apparent by his description of the Duchess of Brittany as ‘a hugely important part of Jersey’s heritage’.

‘When it comes to local heritage, it is important that we both protect it and learn from it, and you can only do the latter if you have it, and can see, hear and touch it.’

Perhaps surprisingly, Matt says aviation is not his main passion, as this is reserved for technology in general.

‘I did have a shot at learning to fly in my early 30s. I took some lessons at Sherburn Aero Club in Yorkshire, which is a lovely, friendly place, but I stopped when we decided to move to Jersey. Life being what it is and families being what they are, there have been several false starts over the years. I had another shot at it recently but then the pandemic hit, which was rather bad timing.’

As a result, and as Matt jokily observes, he is perhaps the only person ever to buy a plane without actually being able to fly it.

‘I like to finish what I start so I’m sure I’ll learn to fly eventually but, even so, I don’t believe I’ll ever fly the Duchess. It’s possible she might one day fly again – we can’t rule it out – but getting her in the skies again would be quite costly. There wouldn’t only be the cost of getting her airworthy, and then keeping her that way, but also the many regulatory hurdles to overcome, plus fuel, maintenance and so on. At present, the cost is prohibitive but if anyone is keen to come forward to support getting her back in the air then it could happen.’

I suggest that it would be especially welcome to see the Duchess of Brittany taking part in the annual Jersey Air Show and Matt enthusiastically agrees.

‘Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful? I think that would be many people’s dream come true.’

Since acquiring the Duchess of Brittany, Matt has been inundated with hundreds of calls, emails and messages from Islanders, as well as from those further afield, all expressing an interest in the plane or – better yet – offering personal anecdotes and stories about its history.

‘It’s been incredible,’ he says. ‘I’ve heard from people whose parents were air hostesses or who flew the plane or who themselves have childhood memories of travelling aboard her. It’s fantastic to hear all of these different stories. And that’s before we find anything out about her 30 years in the Royal Navy. I’m sure there must be some stories there.’

As Matt says, passenger planes from the early-to mid-20th century have an undeniable allure and glamour that is altogether absent from modern aircraft.

‘There is something romantic about them because they represent the history of aviation,’ he says.

‘Aviation was once a remarkable thing to do. Today, it’s a normal part of everyday life, or at least it was before the pandemic, and we all just get on an EasyJet or Blue Islands plane without giving it a second’s thought. But aircraft such as the Duchess were remarkable because they were new technology – they were the Amazon or Blockchain of their day.

‘Back then, they were state-of-the-art and it was exciting because the general public finally had access to air travel as a means of public transport. Suddenly, international travel was easily available and it was safe, cost-effective, efficient and quick. Aviation enabled a real change in how communities, such as Jersey, lived their lives. And add to that the many personal journeys too.

‘Today, being a member of cabin crew on an airline is hard work and stressful, and all credit to them for doing it, frankly. But being a pilot or an air hostess in the 1950s would have been a truly remarkable thing to do. You would get a view of the world that no one else was able to have.

‘In many ways, that’s the more exciting part of all this. Not the technology itself, but the stories and the journeys that [the plane] allowed people to embark upon. It’s a part of the Island’s history that I feel isn’t well documented or understood.’

This, I suggest, is perhaps due to the Occupation years, which, not surprisingly, remain the key focal point of the Island’s history.

‘Jersey’s role in the Second World War was so unique in so many ways,’ says Matt. ‘It’s not a shared history with the continent or with the UK, but a history that is unique to the Channel Islands and so the focus on it is understandable. But there is a lot more to Jersey’s history than that.

‘We all learn about 1066 and the Second World War at school but there is an awful lot of other stuff that went on and which tells us more about what we should do next and about the world we live in today. There are events that are often glossed over and forgotten and they really shouldn’t be.’

Matt cites the proposed (and, thankfully, thwarted) demolition of the terminal building at Jersey Airport as evidence of how this aspect of Jersey history is not given the respect it deserves.

‘These are really important artefacts which tell us a lot about the Island, about who we are, about where we are, and about where we came from. They tell my story, as someone coming to live in the Island, and they tell the story of locals whose families have lived here for hundreds of years.

‘They tell the story of how we all came together and made Jersey what it is today, and that it something that should be preserved.’

As for the Duchess of Brittany, Matt says it is likely that his ownership of the plane will prove to be temporary.

‘Ultimately, I hope to see her handed over to a community group or local heritage organisation. I think that would be the best future for her. One day, probably sooner rather than later, I won’t own her any more and she’ll be in the right hands for a long-term future. That, for me, is the goal.’

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