How act of kindness set Black Country millionaire on road to success

It was a small act of kindness that could have helped pave the way for him becoming the millionaire he is today.

The award-winning photograph of Harold Thompson, taken by late Express & Star photographer Peter Garland, in 1961
The award-winning photograph of Harold Thompson, taken by late Express & Star photographer Peter Garland, in 1961

As a young man, Tony Whittaker paid for the funeral of a homeless man called Harold Thompson, from Brierley Hill.

Harold was well known in the area and the keen violinist was believed to have served in the First World War.

But come the day of his death, in the late 1970s, there was only £2 available to finance his funeral. It looked like he was going to have a pauper's funeral.

Mr Whittaker could not let that happen and, with just £80 to his name, paid £62 out of his own bank account for Harold to be given a proper service. He was the only person to attend the funeral, he says.

Tony Whittaker is pictured with his wife Marlyn and daughter, Shirley Shipley, at Harold Thompson's grave

Not long after the funeral, a gipsy woman called Myra Bradley, who knew Harold, made a comment to Mr Whittaker that has stayed with him to this day.

"She said, 'you will be very lucky from now on for doing that'," said Mr Whittaker, now aged 76.

He always thinks about her words and says it was almost like a prophecy.

Today, Mr Whittaker owns an industrial estate in Brierley Hill worth £6 million. He has also owned Rolls Royce cars and is a helicopter pilot.

But the very first piece of land he ever bought was Harold's grave, which is still located at Addison Road cemetery, in Brierley Hill.

"When you think about it, I turned out to be a multi-millionaire," said Mr Whittaker.

"But the first piece of land that I bought was Harold's grave. I look back now and wonder about it."

Who was Harold Thompson?

Harold Thompson

It is believed Harold became homeless after he returned home from the war.

He began living in the brickyard where Mr Whittaker worked as a young man, because the kilns, which were lit on fire to make the bricks, provided Harold with warmth.

But the brickyard eventually closed down and Harold then started sleeping at some horse stables.

It was there Harold died due to hypothermia, said Mr Whittaker.

During his earlier life, Harold was part of the Brierley Hill orchestra where he played the violin.

A famous picture was taken of him in 1961, by the late Express & Star photographer Peter Garland, showing Harold playing the violin against an industrial backdrop.

This photograph went on to win an award.

From brickyard to building fortune

Upon leaving the brickyard, as a man in his 20s, Mr Whittaker got into operating JCB diggers.

This led him onto a path that made him the multi-millionaire he is today.

He began building factories on behalf of clients and soon ended up building them for his own company, Unit 67 Ltd.

When 1,300 people lost their jobs with the closure of the Round Oak Steelworks - now the site of the Merry Hill Shopping Centre - in 1982, Mr Whittaker decided to turn the brickyard into an industrial estate.

Mr Whittaker who bought the Delph Industrial Estate when it was a brickyard

Today, there are around 40 factories on the estate, which employs about 400 people.

He also built a set of shops and doctor's surgery in Withymoor village, and a pub called the Nine Locks and Chainmaker, which is today known as the Corn Exchange.

He said: "Including the shops I built and the pub, we have probably created over 600 jobs. That isn't bad going is it when you think it is just me having a go at it with my wife."

As a youngster, he told his father "if ever I was a millionaire, I would build him his own pub".

"My dad kept a pub when I was three years old," he said. "I got a chance to build a pub.

"I went and built that pub [the Nine Locks and Chainmaker] in record time. But my dad passed away and never saw it."

For all his good work creating jobs, and an enjoyable life he built through hard work, Mr Whittaker very nearly died on the day he was born.

It was in 1944 and the Germans dropped a bomb near his home, in Mill Street, Brierley Hill, which thankfully landed in a canal and never blew up.

He explained: "Strangely enough, I was born under the table. What happened in Mill Street, where I was born, there is a steelworks opposite, and the Germans were bombing it.

"Two bombs dropped. One in Delph Road, in the field, and another one right opposite in the canal.

"They found it only a few years ago. Our house was right opposite, and just as the bombs were coming down, the midwife dragged my mother under the table in the kitchen. And that is where I was born, under the table.

"Had the bomb had gone off, it would have taken the street out. It was one of the big ones."

It is fair to say Mr Whittaker has lived a happy and thorough life.

Still happily married to his wife, Marilyn, they will soon celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

He is also a father to four children, has 10 grandchildren, and lives his life as a devout Christian.

But for all his achievements and successes, Mr Whittaker always remembers back to Harold and the words of that gipsy woman in a pub.

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