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Most people reading this won’t know who Sir Jack Petchey is but there is a good chance that their children will. Most these people wouldn’t know that Jack Petchey was born in Plaistow in 1925 and learned his considerable business skills selling fruit and veg off a barrow in a street market in east London… and they wouldn’t know that over the years he has given away nearly £100 million pounds to thousands of young Londoners to inspire and raise their aspirations and celebrate their achievements.

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Last week it was the turn of hundreds of scouts, explorers and leaders living in our own area – the Greater London South West Scout County – to benefit from Jack’s benevolence. Hundreds of uniformed young people gathered last Wednesday at the King’s Centre in Chessington to receive their Jack Petchey awards each worth £250. These ‘achievers’ had been nominated by their leaders for their commitment to Scouting, their ability to encourage and inspire their friends and their willingness to help others. In return the ‘achievers’ had to suggest ways in which their prize would be used. Ideas included purchasing new equipment for their group like tents or canoes or paying for new adventures like camps overseas or learning new skills like gliding or waterskiing. In this way Jack Petchey believes it helps develop young peoples’ confidence and motivates them to take on new challenges.

Jack was never much of a scholar himself and left school at the age of 13 to work on a fruit and veg stall in Goldsmith Avenue in East Ham. There he learned the art of buying and selling…

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One day his boss, Eric Woods, turned up with a load of tomatoes. He told Jack to pile half the tomatoes at one end of the stall and price them at sixpence a pound. The rest of the tomatoes he told Jack to pile at the other end of the stall and price them at one shilling a pound – twice the price of the other tomatoes. Jack wondered why that might be. They were the same tomatoes, weren’t they? “Ah” said Mr Woods. “Some people like to buy cheap and some like to buy expensive. Now we can satisfy everybody!”

One day Jack, who was carrying a load of tomatoes at the time, was taken to East Ham Police Court and charged with selling vegetables underage. The evidence against him were the tomatoes. When asked by the magistrate how he pleaded, guilty or not guilty, for selling vegetables underage Jack replied “Not Guilty”. When the magistrate asked why that might be Jack said “Tomatoes are not a vegetable. They are a fruit!” Jack was instantly dismissed!

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At the start of the 2nd World War Jack joined the Royal Navy and there he got his first real academic education – mathematics, geometry, science and physics. When he was discharged at the end of the war he noticed that the world he had left behind in the East End had changed. No longer content with their previous rather impoverished lives people wanted more – better homes, better clothes and travel.

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With his discharge money Jack bought a car and rented it out. With the profit he bought a second car and then a third and so on. Next he bought a warehouse to store the cars in and then another. Soon Jack had built an extremely successful business empire which by 2017 was valued over half a billion pounds.

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Jack has always had enormous faith in young people – and their ability to rise and surprise. He was also aware how often they were misrepresented. In 1997 he founded the Jack Petchey Foundation, a reward and recognition initiative which enables schools and youth organisations to celebrate the achievements of their young people as well as receive additional funding. Almost 2,000 schools, colleges and youth organisations across London and Essex run the scheme, which contributes millions of pounds each year. Among the organisations benefitting from the scheme are sports, music and performing arts clubs, uniformed and disability groups and youth clubs.

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Jack Petchey was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2004 and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2011 Birthday Honours for charitable services. He was knighted in the 2016 New Year Honours for services to young people in East London and Essex through the Jack Petchey Foundation.

His personal credo and driving principle is “If You Think You Can – You Can!” and Jack who is 92 years old and still working every day, does and has.

A short clip about the Jack Petchey Foundation

… and the young people that benefit.

— from Martyn Day