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Exclusive: How Norfolk helped shape billionaire inventor Sir James Dyson

PUBLISHED: 11:45 18 June 2019 | UPDATED: 11:59 18 June 2019

Sir James Dyson, left, with Gresham’s School's former headmaster Logie Bruce-Lockhart. Mr Bruce-Lockhart gave Sir James financial support to continue his education following the untimely death of his father, Alec, who taught
classics at the school. Picture: Gresham's

Sir James Dyson, left, with Gresham's School's former headmaster Logie Bruce-Lockhart. Mr Bruce-Lockhart gave Sir James financial support to continue his education following the untimely death of his father, Alec, who taught classics at the school. Picture: Gresham's

OLIVER BLAIR

A new £18.75m education centre will be built at Gresham's School in Holt thanks to a donation by Sir James Dyson, it was announced today. In an exclusive interview, the billionaire inventor spoke to STUART ANDERSON about how his Norfolk upbringing shaped the person he is today, and the need to inspire the next generation.

Sir James Dyson with one of his iconic bagless vacuum cleaners. Picture: PA/Kirsty WigglesworthSir James Dyson with one of his iconic bagless vacuum cleaners. Picture: PA/Kirsty Wigglesworth

They say a journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step, and for Sir James Dyson, many of those early strides were made on country lanes under north Norfolk's broad skies.

For it was in running that the 72 year old found freedom and solace in between lessons at Gresham's School in Holt, the alma mater which set him on the path to becoming one of Britain's top businesspeople and the mind behind of one the world's most recognizable inventions, the bagless vacuum cleaner.

"I used to run everywhere - Holkham, Morston, Stiffkey and to Blakeney Point," he said.

"Gresham's has huge grounds but being able to get away from everybody else gave me a source of in independence - going out early in the morning and late at night."

Sir James Dyson as a young inventor. Picture: Archant LibrarySir James Dyson as a young inventor. Picture: Archant Library

Sir James was born in Cromer as one of three children, and he started at Gresham's aged nine. Alec Dyson, his father and Gresham's classics professor, died shortly after, and the school agreed to keep funding his education - which Sir James has always been "enormously grateful" for.

He said he loved school life but favoured non-academic pursuits.

"I wasn't a very good pupil," he said. "But I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I played the bugle and the bassoon, and I acted in every play I could act in.

"I did art as well, and started running competitively in my early teens. I think I made the most of my education without concentrating a lot on the academic stuff."

James Dyson, aged 16, won a cross country race in 1965 at Gresham's School. He has always been thankful to the the school for continuing to fund his education after the death of his father. Picture: Richard Bothway Howard/Gresham'sJames Dyson, aged 16, won a cross country race in 1965 at Gresham's School. He has always been thankful to the the school for continuing to fund his education after the death of his father. Picture: Richard Bothway Howard/Gresham's

In his mid teens, his mother Mary moved to Cley next the Sea, but Cromer remained his "local city" and he remembers taking part in music competitions at the Pavilion Theatre on the pier.

Sir James described Norfolk as a "wonderful place to grow up", and the relatively isolated north of the county gave him the mental space he needed to develop.

MORE: 'An immense impact' - Sir James Dyson donates £19m for education centre at his former school

He said: "In many ways Norfolk was very cut off in those days. This was long before everybody had a motorcar.

"So when I came across engineering at the Royal College of Art it came as a surprise and a delight - having been shielded from it and discovering it for myself at a very impressionable age was probably a good thing."

In the years of success that followed Sir James founded a manufacturing empire that spans the globe and, as well as his line of vacuum cleaners, he has been responsible for inventions including the Airblade hand dryer and the Supersonic hair dryer.

Sir James Dyson and family came in at number five on this year's Sunday Times rich list, with an estimated worth of £12.6bn.

James Dyson reaches for the ball during a game of rugby at Gresham's School in 1965. Picture: Gresham'sJames Dyson reaches for the ball during a game of rugby at Gresham's School in 1965. Picture: Gresham's

He was knighted in 2007.

Sir James lives at Dodington Park, a 300-acre South Gloucestershire, and he also owns property in France as well as the Nahlin, a steam-powered super yacht.

He said he did not get back to north Norfolk as much as he wanted to, but hoped that would change thanks to his partnership with Gresham's - he is also an honorary governor at the school.

Sir James said: "I live at the opposite end of the country and I travel a lot, but I hope now with the new building at the school I will have much more opportunity to."

Inventor James Dyson reveals the inner workings of one of his vacuum cleaners. Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARYInventor James Dyson reveals the inner workings of one of his vacuum cleaners. Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARY

Gresham's planned Dyson Building will focus on STEAM education - science, technology, engineering, arts and maths - subjects that link critical thinking with creativity. Sir James said he had first-hand experience at Dyson Ltd of how these areas were more relevant than ever before.

He said: "There are big issues that need resolving and solving. We need better batteries, better power generation, and scientists and engineers are the best people to do that.

"We need to produce three or four times the amount of engineers in this country that we currently are - at Dyson we've had to multiply the number we employ over the past 20 years."

But Sir James said the determination which propelled him over the finish line in the cross-country races of his youth was also an essential ingredient for success.

Sir James Dyson, centre, with Gresham’s chair of governors Michael Goff, left, and headmaster Douglas Robb. Sir James has donated £18.75 million to Gresham’s in Holt, Norfolk, to pay for new centre for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) education.  Picture: Oliver BlairSir James Dyson, centre, with Gresham’s chair of governors Michael Goff, left, and headmaster Douglas Robb. Sir James has donated £18.75 million to Gresham’s in Holt, Norfolk, to pay for new centre for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) education. Picture: Oliver Blair

He said: "The moment you feel most tired is the moment you must accelerate, because that's when everybody else is feeling tired as well.

"If you can break through that pain barrier you can achieve great things. Success is just around the corner."

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