Percy and Ernest Petter made their family name associated with aircraft and engines of all types. Sir Ernest is the grandfather of new Simon Fraser University president Andrew Petter.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 29, 2010
Andrew Petter taught a first-year law class the other day, a lecture for which he stayed up until the wee morning hours in preparation.
Mr. Petter, 56, returned happily to the classroom last year after six years as dean of the law school from which he graduated at the University of Victoria. Later this year, he will become the ninth president of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby.
His name is well known in the province, as he spent a decade in the Legislature as an NDP MLA. Mr. Petter held more ministries than a peripatetic preacher — health, forests, finance, seniors, human rights, aboriginal affairs, advanced education, intergovernmental relations, and, appropriately, attorney general.
For his work in creating a network of trails in the Greater Victoria area, he earned the nickname “minister of rails and trails.”
In the take-no-prisoners ethic of provincial politics, Mr. Petter was seen either as a calm, brainy administrator more interested in the common good than in scoring cheap, partisan shots, or as an out-of-his-element elitist brainiac for whom a balance sheet was an insolvable puzzle.
His physique and appearance — the lean build of an avid runner and cyclist topped by a shock of silver hair and professorial eyeglasses portrayed by caricaturists as being as large as his face — did little to dissuade anyone of their viewpoint.
After his stint in politics, Mr. Petter returned to academia, a public figure about whom most everyone seemed to have an opinion.
His political opponents might be surprised to learn the former social democratic MLA hails from a family including a knighted manufacturer and entrepreneur.
He has had little opportunity to explore his family’s remarkable journey from the south of England to Vancouver Island.
“I’m a little dodgy on our history,” he said the other day.
The tale begins with Andrew’s great-grandfather, James B. Petter, who received an ironmongery from his father as a wedding gift in 1865. He expanded by purchasing a foundry in Yeovil, Somerset, from which machinery and agricultural implements were produced.
Mr. Petter won a design prize for developing a fireplace grate later selected by Queen Victoria for use at her summer residence at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.
Twin sons Percy and Ernest joined the firm, developing steam engines with the engineer Ben Jacobs before producing one of Britain’s first horseless carriages. When one of their automobiles failed to win a 1,000-guinea prize in 1897, the brothers abandoned vehicles to focus instead on developing engines such as the Petter diesel and the Petter Handyman.
In time, the Petter name would come to be associated with aircraft of all types.
Away from the factory, Percy Petter, an evangelist for the Plymouth Brethren, took part in temperance parades. His cause was not helped by his twin’s occasional enjoyment of an ale at a public house. The imbibing brother was sometimes mistaken for his teetotal sibling, causing Percy to be accused of hypocrisy.
Sir Ernest Petter, who had been knighted for his role in presenting the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925, sought a refuge on Vancouver Island as war clouds gathered over Europe. He built a waterfront manor house in Comox, where he employed seven servants, later hiring a nanny to care for the 14 children evacuated from the German Blitz. Sir Ernest later moved south to Victoria, purchasing a grand Saanich home known as Lower Drummadoon, which he renamed Sinclair House.
Meanwhile, Sir Ernest’s son, Gordon, married a ballerina met in London while on tour with Gertrud Bodenwieser’s Vienna-based company.
In 1946, Gordon and Elizabeth, known as Lisl, and their three children followed Sir Ernest to Vancouver Island. Seven years later, another son, named Andrew, became the first of the family born in Canada.
Having lent money to the owner of a local clock repair shop, only to have the proprietor abscond to Australia, Gordon Petter claimed the business as collateral.
Young Andrew liked to be in the store on what is now Antique Row on Fort Street at noon, when he would be amused by a syncopated cacophony. “A real treat,” he remembers.
Before Christmas every year, the clocksmith called on Government House to service timepieces. During one visit, the chatelaine presented Andrew with a gift of opera glasses.
Raised in tony Oak Bay, Andrew’s inaugural foray into politics came at age 10, while still at elementary school. He showed his support for the Conservatives in the 1963 provincial general election by pasting leader E. Davie Fulton’s stickers on an air rocket, which he then launched from the school grounds. No one was injured in the stunt, nor were any Conservatives elected.
His father lasted 20 years in the shop, “serving time,” as he liked to say.
By 1972, the family had settled in Nelson, where Gordon Petter, an Oxford graduate, taught history at Notre Dame University. Though still a teenager, Andrew hosted a hotline radio show on which he managed to get lure both Social Credit Premier W.A.C. Bennett and NDP leader Dave Barrett, who would go on to win the election.
He soon after gave up the radio gig to become an executive assistant in the capital for local NDP MLA Lorne Nicolson, a teacher at his high school. He was just 19.
Later would come law school (from which he would graduate top of his class), then studies at Cambridge, a stint with the justice department in Saskatchewan, two years teaching at Osgoode Hall, and a return to the University of Victoria as a professor.
Andrew Petter never met Sir Ernest, who died in England not long after his grandson’s birth. It was his parents, who recited Shakespeare to one another, who inculcated in their youngest child the importance of a formal education. Yet, when he flies between Victoria and Vancouver, whether in a helicopter or a floatplane, he knows his grandfather’s innovations contributed to their development.
CAMPAIGN HIJINKS: Andrew Petter’s grandfather, Sir Ernest Petter, campaigned for a seat in the British House of Commons in a 1931 byelection in the central London constituency of Westminster St. George’s. He ran as an independent Conservative in favour of free trade within the British Empire in opposition to Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin.
The tense campaign, with the high stakes of Baldwin’s future in the balance, was not without humour. After Sir Ernest placed a large sign on a building reading “VOTE PETTER,” his opponent rented the floor above, on which a banner reading “DON’T” was hung. The Petter campaign then rented the floor below their sign, moving their banner down a story, replacing it with one reading, ‘HESITATE.”
Despite enjoying the backing of such press barons as the Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Ernest lost the campaign to Alfred Duff Cooper, a decorated Great War hero.