The man behind the concrete
Staff and colleagues remember Williams as a powerful and expansive figure, a great raconteur with a tremendous fund of stories, whose enormous good-heartedness was sometimes belied by explosions of temper or brusqueness of manner. The long in-house careers of many of his employees indicate the loyalty he engendered combined, of course, with the exciting opportunities his firm's work made available.
Sir Owen Williams & Partners remained a family business for three generations, most recently involving two of Williams' grandsons, Richard and Hugh. Now renamed "Owen Williams", the firm is part of Amey plc. Less well known is that even Nelly, the long-standing company tea lady, had been drafted in from housekeeping for Sir Owen at home.
Of all his talents, though, perhaps the most important in driving his career was Williams' prodigious talent for work. Roy Foot, who retired as Managing Director after more than 40 years with the firm, recalls how staff dreaded bank holidays because these would only give Williams an extra day to draught endless alterations to designs. Weekend visits to Williams' home in Berkhamsted by his equally hard-working son, O.T., did not represent any kind of a break for the family: aside from occasional discussion of the politics of the day, the talk was all about engineering.
Despite his ability to gather good people around him and to support them, Williams still covered a great deal of ground himself often literally. In overseeing the construction of the Montrose Bridge
, for example, he calculated that he had travelled the equivalent of two journeys around the world; decades later, scoping out the first phase of the M1 motorway
, he put his charisma to good use by making a personal visit to every landowner affected by the proposed route.
In short, in all his doings he demonstrated the energy and single-mindedness one might expect from an innovator who continued to experiment throughout his life, at no point claiming the protection of any stylistic movement or group of theorists. What mattered to him was to discover what was both new and useful, and in this he was modern to the core.
Owen Williams archive, part of Amey plc