Heritage: The life of Havering's well-loved Peter the Painter
- Credit: Martin Garwood
Historian Andy Grant explores the life of Peter "the Painter" Blundell, the well-known local creative who could often be seen at the side of the A127.
Peter Blundell was an affable, unassuming character who won the acclamation of Havering’s residents, attaining almost local celebrity status.
He was a familiar sight as he walked from the Hall Lane flyover in Upminster to Romford Market. Here he would exhibit his paintings of ships, hanging them on the railings outside the library.
Although many still remember him with affection, he remains an enigma – urban myths abound and rumours still circulate that he was actually very wealthy. Peter was not born into poverty and homelessness; on the contrary, he came from a well-to-do family.
His father, Henry Blundell (b1891), had married Lizzie Louisa Robbins (b1890) at Canterbury in 1915. Their first child was Margaret Lucy (b1917). Peter was the second child and his birth on January 10, 1920 was registered in Tendring, Essex.
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Two further sisters followed. By 1939, the family were living in Hacton Lane, Hornchurch, with Henry employed as clerk of works to the council, having previously retired from the Royal Navy.
The advent of World War Two necessitated a return to navy service and Henry attained the rank of an acting-lieutenant commander. He was awarded an MBE in the King’s Honours List of 1946.
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The family subsequently settled in Well Lane, Stock, Essex, and when Henry died on April 16, 1957, he left an estate of £2,432 to Lizzie. He was buried in All Saints' Church, Stock, as was Lizzie when she died in 1970.
As for Peter, it would appear he joined the Merchant Navy in the mid-1930s. Records indicate a Peter Blundell of around the right age was employed as an assistant pantry steward onboard the RMS Queen Mary, which was retrofitted as a troopship for World War Two and dubbed the Grey Ghost.
On Boxing Day 1970, Peter was broadcasted on London Weekend Television's Aquarius programme. He openly acknowledged that he had been married and added that he used to paint portraits of women in a caravan, but started painting ships after he had split up with his wife.
Asked about his life on the road, Peter said he had “tramped from Scotland to London” and also to Bideford and Cornwall.
Known locally as Peter the Painter, his work was representational, rather than an accurate depiction; the details of the ships were often wholly incorrect and executed in an almost child-like fashion, using bold and vivid colours.
His paintings were usually rendered upon cardboard, using "British household paint" and artist’s paint, according to Peter. He had no particular association with any of the ships he painted.
Among his chosen subjects were RMS Conway, RMS Titanic, RMS Celtic, SS Volturno, SS Glencoe and HMS Warspite, to name but a few. In 1971, Romford’s Chamber of Commerce made him an honorary member at a presentation held in the Town Hall.
An illness necessitated a six-week stay in Harold Wood hospital during 1975. He later left Romford for Chatham for three years before returning. Peter could often be seen at the side of the A127 under the flyover, tending a fire upon which he heated his meals and a brew in a billycan.
As he became older, life on the road took its toll and his health inevitably deteriorated. He was monitored by Havering Social Services, occasionally having to be admitted to Harold Wood Hospital, where he would often be cleaned up and treated.
On January 5, 1987, he was admitted to Harold Wood Hospital after feeling unwell.
It was here that he died on January 23, aged 67. His sister Margaret organised his funeral and revealed that his family tried to get him to live with them, but he preferred to live rough.
His cremation took place at Chelmsford on January 27 and his ashes were buried in Stock churchyard. Peter shunned wealth and the comforts of home, but undeniably, he was a true gentleman of the road.
- More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford History Facebook group.