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Robert Saunders, 1st April 1930 – 15th April 2012

Robert Saunders, 1st April 1930 – 15th April 2012

Robert Saunders is a man that my wife Jan and I feel privileged to have known. Many people have good ideas, but it is rare to find a person who is not only innovative, but who also has the drive and imagination to put their ideas into practice. Bob was one of those rare people.

Born on 1st April 1930, Bob certainly turned out to be no fool. Like many East Enders he spent childhood holidays hop picking in Kent, sleeping top to toe with his cousins and playing around the camp fires. As a boy, he loved to terrorise his aunts with the model aeroplanes that he made and he showed an early glimpse of his later inventiveness by rigging the planes up with a camera to take pictures.

He spent the war as an evacuee in St Just, Cornwall, together with his mother and sister Pam, later on being conscripted into the RAF, which enabled to join The Victory Services Club in London. This became one of his favourite haunts in which to enjoy himself and meet up with family and friends, something he was still doing just two weeks ago.

As a young man, he helped to run a youth club in Dagenham part of the duties being to produce its magazine. One of his articles was bizarrely, but appropriately entitled, ‘How To Make Friends on the Underground’. As many of us know Bob could make friends, young and old, absolutely anywhere and his daughter Carolyn remembers coming home from a night out with her dad when he managed to get the entire contents of a tube carriage chatting in one big conversation. Anyone here who has traveled on the London Underground will know just what an extraordinary feat that is!

Bob was 23 when Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first persons to reach the peak of Mount Everest and over the next 10 years he became fascinated with the problems experienced by Himalayan expeditions. Tents were too heavy and it was becoming more and more expensive to hire enough Sherpas to carry the weighty cotton tents up the mountains, so in 1964, Bob began producing lightweight tents using man-made fabrics, a revolutionary new idea at the time, and together with wife Joan he began to build up the business that became so revered around the world – a small family firm with a loyal and highly skilled staff, headed by a man brimful of ideas.

Over the next few years, Bob’s ability to think outside the box enabled him to revolutionise tent design and manufacture, introducing a breathtaking array of innovations, including fitted groundsheets, suspended inner tents, double skin tents and high strength ripstop nylon flysheets

The Veteran outdoors journalist Peter Lumley, who knew Bob for many years has written this, which I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting, ‘The products which bore his name helped shape – even change – an industry and the lifestyle of his customers. 

‘For years, from the early 70s just about every true innovation in tent design and tent-making came from the Robert Saunders camp, Many developments we take for granted today originated with Saunders, including tents which pitched outer first to protect the inner from rain, the first sloping ridge tent and even the transverse ridge, which developed into the ubiquitous bended hoop which is almost universally used in modern tents.

‘To put it in perspective, as recently as 2007, The Guardian’s ‘Expert Choice’ column was still recommending the Saunders Spacepacker as the number one choice for backpackers’

The Guardian wrote this, ‘The Spacepacker is the iconic backpacking tent and its creator, Robert Saunders, is a legend among those serious about the lightweight tent they carry. Sure, there are lighter tents. And tents that boast more features. But, despite being around for decades, the Spacepacker beats them all.’

Bob’s innovations won him numerous awards for tent design and also a Fellowship of The Royal Geographical Society and his tents became something to dream of and aspire to owning, and some of his designs such as the Basecamp, the Spacepacker and the Jetpacker still enjoy legendary cult status in the camping world.

One story doing the rounds is a tale of two men crossing the Kalahari Desert. They come across an old man sitting under a piece of polythene sheet.

‘Ah’, says one of the men, ‘You need to buy a tent’.

‘I will,’ comes the reply, ‘As soon as I can afford a Saunders!’

You only have to Google Robert Saunders to see in what respect he is held. Here is one quote – “Mr Saunders was ahead of his time with the revolutionary designs he produced. I bought my Satellite Plus over 20 years ago when I was in The Scouts. It wasn’t cheap but it has lasted me and still accompanies me on my travels to this day. I am now a Scout leader and I always tell my Scouts that if you want to buy a good tent that will outlast everything else then you have to buy a Saunders”.

Another comment  says “I went halves on a Spacepacker Plus with my parents for my 18th  Birthday present in 1985. Sent it to Robert about 5 years ago for a tart up and he sent me a brand new inner, repaired the poles sleeve and provided all new rubbers. Its now as new and it is still watertight. It has been used all over the world and is an outstanding performer. Sadly, I am about to send it to my nephew in Northern Ireland. It’s hard for me to say goodbye to my faithful friend, but I know its going to a good home and it will serve my nephew well in his induction to the hills for years to come. 12 outa 10 Robert Saunders. Sad to see you off the scene, you really did under state and under sell yourself (as I remember arguing with you). Tent legend!”

That reminds me of what the great Victorian philanthropist John Ruskin once said, I believe the first test of a truly great man is in his humility,

In 1978 Bob also started the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon, now in its 34th year and scheduled to take place again this July. Some of his friends from there are with us today too, bringing Lake District weather with them! Thank you for that.

There is no doubt that Bob’s ingenuity brought a new spirit of endeavour to the camping industry, but to show the gracious nature of the man, Bob was never critical of his competitors who were following his lead and trying to emulate his innovations.

The website MyOutdoors say in their obituary, “In an age of innovation that saw some of today’s best known outdoors companies starting out, Robert Saunders not only stood head and shoulders above the rest, but unlike today’s society he did it for everyone! No intellectual copyright law suits and complicated design patents, the transverse ridge, hooped poles and fitted groundsheets were there for anyone to use.”

They close with this, “If there’s ever an outdoors ‘Hall of Fame’ the name Robert Saunders should be the first name on it – his legacy is, and probably always will be, unequalled.

Which brings me to the man that Jan and I knew. In his private life as well as in business, Bob was a kind, generous, humble man.

He adored his family and had masses of friends, both human and animal; one of the friends who will be missing him is the Robin that comes into his kitchen from the garden to be fed!

He made some of his friends, such as Josef and Aloise, during the many European camping holidays that he spent with his family. Other friends such as Jerry Moore, he met through his trade, which involved travelling all over the world. Bob made friends everywhere and there are many people scattered all over the planet who are saddened by his death, not least his friends in Naples, Florida and Ebach, Germany who would have wanted to be here today. Even on his forays into London he also made many friends among the restauranteurs around Soho and Bart’s Hospital, who have also been raising their glasses to honour his passing.

Closer to home, his friends and neighbours in Five Oaks Lane and in Theydon Bois were very special to him and he will be remembered by them for his fish and chip suppers, his BBQs and his parties.

My own two sons will never forget the huge garden party that he held during which every child could choose a large teddy bear to take home.

Bob was a very thoughtful man. He loved his family very much and was enormously proud of Carolyn, Sharon and Oliver, and his grandchildren Tom, George, Henry and Olivia.

As most of you know, Bob had been courageously struggling with his health for some time and Carolyn and Sharon want me to thank all of his friends and family who were such a support to him, especially thank you Laura for all the soup and the very kind visits! Even though he wasn’t well, his last few weeks have been incredibly positive as he has spent them doing what he enjoyed so much – visiting old haunts and seeing friends.

He even spent his 82nd birthday earlier this month with John and Maureen, and cousins Tony, Karen, Andy, Jo and Danny, remarking that he had had a great time with them!

He died peacefully in the home that he loved so much, with his cat curled up on his bed (it’s probably now eaten the Robin), and his hand being held by Carolyn.

Like all of you here, Jan and I have a life that is richer for knowing Uncle Bob. We will never forget him, especially when we and our sons climb into our Jetpackers and Spacepackers with his name discreetly stenciled on the side. In that sense he really will always be part of us, especially when we are on holiday, in a beautiful field, with a glass of wine to hand.

I personally don’t believe that death is the end and I very much hope that one day we shall all see him again.

Address given by Nigel Skelsey at the funeral of Bob Saunders
Thursday, 26th April 2012.

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