One of London’s wealthiest philanthropists - who set thousands of youngsters on the path to a better life - has left a legacy to inspire those from deprived backgrounds like his own.

Sir Jack Petchey died last Thursday, just three weeks short of what would have been his 99th birthday, having gone from rags to riches making a fortune that he simply gave away.

He was the businessman who got east London on the road in the 1960s with his used car business in Forest Gate and put people into timeshare properties that made him millions.

But Jack — raised in poverty in a rented house in Plaistow, often with just a penny bag of chips for supper — ploughed the wealth he made back into the community, giving away £170 million in the 25 years before he died.

Giving back

He set up his Jack Petchey Foundation in 1999 with cash for schools and youth clubs, launching programmes for volunteering, internships and promoting sport, science and art.

Perhaps his biggest gift was £1 million for the Sea Cadets at HMS President in Wapping, a stone’s throw from his home on the waterfront, to buy their own 90ft training vessel kitted out with computer technology. He took the helm on its maiden voyage on the Thames in 2013.

Jack Petchey aboard the Navy Cadets' £1m Thames training vessel that he paid forJack Petchey aboard the Navy Cadets' £1m Thames training vessel that he paid for (Image: Sandra Rowse)

Among his breakfast-time reading was always his East London Advertiser, which he bought to keep up with community life. He would make notes in the margins on the front page when spotting something that might be worth following up. His foundation gave cash awards to outstanding youngsters, who would choose where to donate the money.

“It gives them a sense of contributing back to society,” he once told the paper. “They make the decision that gives them influence in the right direction.

“That’s what I’ve done with the money I’ve made over the years, putting it back into the society that made my fortune.”

Jack Petchey before his knighthood thumbing through his local paper looking for community causes to supportJack Petchey before his knighthood thumbing through his local paper looking for community causes to support (Image: Mike Brooke)

Rags to riches

Jack was born to working class parents in July, 1925. Money was scarce and so was food. He would pop out for a penny bag of chips for lunch and another for supper. It was all the family could afford.

He started work at 13 as a delivery boy for the greengrocer’s at the end of the street — but had a brush with the law at 12 when his parents got a police summons for him working underage. The prosecution at East Ham Police Court charged him in 1937 with “carrying vegetables” after a school board officer caught him hauling boxes of tomatoes.

But the case collapsed when the defence pointed out that “tomatoes are a fruit”.

The young Jack Petchey growing up in PlaistowThe young Jack Petchey growing up in Plaistow (Image: Petchey Foundation)

War broke out when Jack was 14 and he worked as a fire brigade messenger during the Blitz, stationed at East Ham Town Hall.

But he was off to join the RAF as soon as he was old enough, where he learned his first trade in electrical mechanics servicing fighter aircraft, then later joining the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm.

'You'll never make a businessman'

Jack worked in the post-war years as a clerk at a law stationers in the City. He applied for a management job but was told he wasn’t suitable and would “never make a businessman”! This was the lad who went on to make millions on the international business stage.

“They didn’t know what they missed out on,” Jack reflected years later. “That rejection taught me to think outside the box when dealing with people.”

Jack Petchey looking back on his early days in the motor tradeJack Petchey looking back on his early days in the motor trade (Image: Mike Brooke)

Jack quit the firm with £60 savings, bought a motorcar and started his Forest Gate hire business, which soon expanded into the Petchey car sales empire with his famous ‘smiling Jack bow tie’ logo.

He invested the profits, spotting opportunities in the ‘time share’ holiday business in the 1970s, then expanded to Mediterranean property with deals in Tenerife and the Algarve.

Jack’s first property deal, ironically, was back in 1948, when he bought the house he grew up in from the landlord for £800 — then sold it for £1,200 and moved the family into plusher premises in Manor Park which doubled as his office.

1825231118252311 (Image: Mike Brooke)

Sometimes he would take a fancy to a company he wanted to buy and would pose as a customer, studying their methods, particularly the motor trade. He dropped in at one car dealership on a Saturday afternoon “to buy some petrol”. But an assistant asked why he had been hanging around earlier taking photographs of the place — Jack had been rumbled!

He was always in a ‘buying’ mood, putting in offers with any cash to spare, like buying Watford football club in 1990, having also been appointed a director of West Ham FC.

Profits were ploughed back into the community, sponsoring 14,000 achievement cash awards every year.

Sir Jack at one of the many youth projects he fundedSir Jack at one of the many youth projects he funded (Image: Petchey Foundation)

Sir Jack always avoided early business meetings. He would rather let the day run its course, arriving around 10am at his spacious second-floor office in at Clements Court tucked behind Ilford Broadway. There was no lift. The four flights keep him fit. He played squash until he was 82.

His meetings were often about sponsorships like the annual ‘Speak Out’ contest, giving 20,000 youngsters public speaking confidence, and the ‘Step into Dance’ events, which put 8,000 young talents on stage.

Sir Jack, who was knighted in 2016, was made an Honorary Freeman of Newham and the City of London, given Honorary Fellowships of Queen Mary’s and East London universities and made Honorary Commodore of the Sea Cadets.

Jack Petchey and the Cadets' training boat named after himJack Petchey and the Cadets' training boat named after him (Image: Sandra Rowse)

Yet the ‘family man’ came through it all, devoted to his three daughters and their children. They were his ‘fire break’ from the hectic business world.

There aren’t many young people in London and Essex who don’t know the name ‘Jack Petchey’. Their dads and granddads might even recall the name from that second-hand Ford Cortina they once bought from his used car showrooms.

He had the Midas touch with the way he could spot a business opportunity — anything he touched turned to gold.

Sir Jack Petchey is survived by his wife Lady Frances Petchey, his daughters Jackie, Susan and Amanda, grandchildren and great grandchildren—but will also be missed by the young people he put on the path to a better future.