1929 – 2004
Sir Alastair Down
On 16 July 1962, Mrs Walker sold Fir Hill to Colonel Alastair Frederick Down (1914–2004).
Army career of Sir Alastair
Colonel (later Sir) Alastair Down had a distinguished war record. Being a Scot he had joined the Royal Scots but, when war broke out, was posted to Egypt to join the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders as the nearest Scottish regiment. He was twice mentioned in despatches and was awarded the Military Cross for distinguished bravery at the battle of Sidi Barrani, during which he had been severely wounded and had lost his sight in one eye. He was later posted with the rank of Colonel to serve with the Canadian army in the Netherlands, as a result of which he had been awarded an MBE, followed by an OBE and a Dutch honour.
BP and Burmah Oil
Colonel Down was also a very well-known and highly respected figure in the oil industry. He had originally joined Anglo-Iranian Oil in Iran in 1938, but joined BP Iran after the war and was head of BP Canada from 1954 to 1962.
In 1962 he was transferred to the BP head office in London, which was probably the reason he bought Fir Hill that year. Initially he was responsible for the company’s US operations but in 1969 he became deputy chairman of BP, a position he held until he retired from BP in 1975. Meanwhile in 1972 he sold Fir Hill and moved to Wiltshire.
In 1975 he was asked to rescue Burmah Oil which had got into serious financial trouble during the oil crisis, and he was appointed Chairman and Chief Executive of the company. Over the next few years he saved the company, returning it to profitability, and was knighted for his efforts in 1978. When Burmah Oil was forced to sell its stake in BP to the government for less than one-sixth of its eventual value, Colonel Down campaigned for many years for the rights of the shareholders and launched a High Court action to try to retrieve funds.
He stepped down as Chairman and Chief Executive in 1980, but remained as non- executive Chairman until 1983 when he finally retired. Burmah Oil was bought by BP in 2000.
Sir Alastair was married to Bunny Mellon (not the American Rachel Lowe Lambert Lloyd Mellon) and they had four children, including Melinda (Mindy), Caroline and Nigel, the youngest.
Sir Alastair was a modest man and never used his army title but, instead, referred to himself as plain 'Mr Down' or 'Alastair' until he was knighted.
Sir Alastair Down, 1975.
Source: BP plc (1975, ARC176863)
Modernising Fir Hill
During the period of their ownership of Fir Hill, Colonel and Mrs Down built a swimming pool in the walled garden and laid a crazy-paving terrace along the east side of the main house. They also modernised the kitchen and the two main bathrooms as well as installing central heating in the main house.
They obtained permission to insert a new window on the street-side of the stable block in 1963 since their head gardener, Mr Foskett, was then living in the flat over the stables and coach houses.
The remains of the conservatory erected by the Rev King that had stood against the east side of the south wing was finally demolished, having been badly damaged in a storm in the 1950s.
The Fir Hill gardens were very fine in the 1950s and 1960s with at least four full-time gardeners employed to maintain them. In addition, Mrs Down was a keen gardener and loved the many roses that she grew . Fir Hill is still remembered by Sir Alastair's children as a most happy family home, with memories of spending many hours in the branches of the copper beech tree, which is as old as the house and still stands in the garden today.
The large room in the 19th century wing was the children's playroom. They used the cellar to set up their Scalectrix car race track and dangled Meccano cranes load lines through the balusters that spanned the gap caused by different ceiling heights.
What had been the housekeeper's parlour (now the utility room), was used as a family dining room; and there was a Rayburn in the room next to the kitchen (now part of the family room) that had to be fed with coal, a task assigned to the children.
Fir Hill and the rose garden in about 1968
Fir Hill from the border to the south-east of the house.
Fir Hill and its rose garden. Note the door in the 19th century wing with a staircase leading down to the garden. Originally there was a wooden staircase inside the glasshouse that was pulled down in the late 1950s. The door and staircase had been replaced by a window by 2004.