'His handshake was his word' - family pay tribute to Bill Carter, the founder of Ladram Bay holiday park
PUBLISHED: 09:30 14 January 2013 | UPDATED: 09:30 14 January 2013
Family man, farmer, entrepreneur and founder of Ladram Bay Holiday Park, Mr Bill Carter has died peacefully, aged 95, surrounded by his family.
Frank William Sydenham Carter – FWS for short, and affectionately known by his employees as “The Boss” – was born on June 3, 1917, at Westcott Farm, Rockbeare.
Despite leaving school at 14, the farmer’s son went on to become one of East Devon’s most successful entrepreneurs, writes David Beasley.
He founded FWS Carter & Sons, and over the next 50 years he and his family went on to buy land and farms at Weston, Venn Ottery, Hogsbrook and Greendale.
Along the way they built Woodbury Park Golf Course and a fishing fleet – buying the old working Exmouth Docks in the processs.
But despite these successes, it was in farming and Ladram Bay that FWS’s heart truly lay – and it was there that he could be found 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Describing a quiet and intensely private man, his eldest daughter Frances said: “He didn’t care much about material things. What he cared most about was his family, friends, and for his employees.
“He was never happier than when he was farming or ‘turning a shilling’ or ‘making sixpence’. But what gave him the most pleasure was his family, and he was overjoyed at each new addition. He was so proud of them all.”
His daughter Zoe said: “He was great at spotting a business opportunity. It was his willingness to push the boundaries and to try something new which made him successful.”
He was the first in the area to buy a tractor, and Zoe added: “Sometimes when he tried something it worked, sometimes it didn’t. If it didn’t, he just put it down to experience.”
But his success was never built on empty promises or half-truths.
“He used to make a deal with a handshake and his handshake was his word. He never broke his word and never once went back on a deal.”
Frances added: “He was very dignified, quite old-fashioned, and had Victorian values and had a Victorian work ethic.”
As a boy FWS would work before and after school, doing the milk rounds with the pony and trap and helping with the chores.
On one occasion his father bought him a bike – not as a present, but so he could get to and from school quicker to get his work done. As a teenager he would ride his pony over to relatives’ farms to help with ploughing or harvesting.
By 1939, aged 22, he took his first major business gamble and acquired the tenancy of the 250-acre Seaview Farm, thanks to a £200 loan from his sister Anne.
Frances said: “It was the only land he could get. Many of the more experienced farmers wouldn’t touch it – it was too risky.”
The land was in the flight path of Axis bombers returning to their French bases following bombing raids on Exeter.
She added: “Sometimes they dropped their payloads in the fields. Once he was riding his pony after they had dumped the bombs. It had created a huge crater. He fell down the crater and was injured.”
In those early days there were no tractors, no electricity and no running water – but there was a carthorse called Blossom and several orchards with cider apples, then the farm’s principal crop.
To supplement their income, FWS decided to allow paying guests into his home and to let them camp on the fields. His sisters Annie and Mabel were sent to help him run the home and do the cooking.
One of the earliest guests was Margaret, a young medical student. She camped overnight on FWS’s fields, and when she sought him out to pay her bill she knew she had found her husband.
They married in September 1943, and within 11 months their first son Robin was born. They went on to have three more children, Frances, Rowan and Zoe, 14 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren, with more on the way.
But in the beginning times were hard and they tried everything to make a living – from keeping a dairy herd, pigs, cattle, sheep, hens, and growing crops like corn, mangels and hay.
Frances said: “Once, after the apple crop failed, they sold Mum’s medical microscope to buy turkeys to get them through the winter.”
But once summer came round, people once again began arriving at Seaview wanting to stay.
When the house was full they stayed in radar vans, and when the radar vans were full the chicken houses were painted and turned into accommodation.
By the summer of 1943 the first touring vans were arriving, and by then the guests were staying on the fields above Ladram Bay.
Slowly the business grew. As Zoe recalls: “It was Mum’s education and Dad’s enterprise that made them a great team. Together they started to build a large and successful family business.
“[Dad] was fair but firm and engendered a sense of loyalty in everyone, from his staff and friends to the visitors who used to come back year after year.”
One farmhand, Hector Cobbledick, worked for the Carters for 50 years, while the Luedikes have had three generations of managers at Ladram, with members of the fourth generation already working in the school holidays.
And so it is with the Carter family. All of them have worked at Ladram over the years in various roles, and the tradition continues with Robin and Zoe running the day to day management now.
Frances added: “Visitors used to meet and marry and bring their children, and when they grew up they would come back with their own family.”
But the one person who did not take many holidays was FWS himself.
“Sometimes Mum would have to force him to take a break,” said Frances. “He didn’t really like going on holiday at all, and when his staff took a break he would spend much of his time at Ladram Bay keeping an eye on things.”
FWS was not all that keen on getting checked out by doctors either, as Frances recalls.
“Once, when he was in his 80s, he had a big herd of bullocks. He was supposed to be back for lunch and he was quite late. We didn’t know what had happened to him. He came in late, black and blue all over, after being kicked over the bonnet of a car by a bullock.
“He refused to sit down and rest – he said that if he did he would seize up and would not be able to work the next day. He kept moving and he kept working.”
FWS never stopped going to his farm at Houndbeare, and he never lost his interest in his business.
Gradually, he allowed his children to help him more. But he remained “The Boss” until the very end.
A public service of thanksgiving will be held at St Michael’s Church, Otterton, on Friday, January 18, from 1pm.