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‘Godfather of geriatric mafia’ steps down after 11 years in Hampstead hot seat

PUBLISHED: 10:00 27 June 2014

New Heath and Hampstead Society chairman Marc Hutchinson takes over from Tony Hillier. Picture: Nigel Sutton

New Heath and Hampstead Society chairman Marc Hutchinson takes over from Tony Hillier. Picture: Nigel Sutton

© Nigel Sutton email pictures@nigelsuttonphotography.com

He has been called the godfather of a geriatric mafia, faced scorn for underestimating the desire to swim in cold and muddy water, and frequently “risked assault” at the hands of aggrieved cyclists.

Tony Hillier has had an eventful time at the helm of the Heath and Hampstead Society.

The 77-year-old stepped down after 11 years as chairman at the annual meeting last Thursday, handing over the baton to lawyer Marc Hutchinson.

“I’m demob happy,” he said with a smile, the morning after relinquishing the role.

“One neglects a lot of other things. I’m more than happy to get back to a more balanced life.”

Though he will continue to serve on the main committee, standing down is clearly a weight off his shoulders.

“It certainly turned out to be a very demanding role if you take it seriously – if you want to get a personal handle on all the issues,” he said.

Mr Hillier took his share of flak as the society’s figurehead. After becoming chairman in 2003, he says he received a “baptism not of fire, but of water”.

He failed to understand “how important it is for some people to swim in very cold, muddy ponds” when the City of London Corporation, which manages the Heath, wanted to bring in charges for bathing in the ponds.

“I had not been previously involved in civic amenity work, I was rather an ignoramus,” he added.

He also earned the wrath of cyclists for supporting the ban on bikes outside of designated paths on Hampstead Heath.

“I often risked assault by telling cyclists not to cycle on none-sharing paths,” he said.

Some of his biggest battles were with the late-night bars that were once a prominent feature of Hampstead.

“Gradually we changed the entire late-night economy of Hampstead,” he said.

“I was accused in the Ham&High of being the ‘godfather of a geriatric temperance mafia’. I regard that as a badge of honour.”

He cites the campaign against late-night boozing and the work on basement construction, including helping to draft Camden Council’s policies, as his most significant achievements.

As for the current battle over the future of the Heath, he believes the society has a “better than 50/50 chance” of winning a judicial review against the City of London Corporation.

He said: “If I was running the City, I think I would be shaking a little bit.”

The father-of-three’s links with Hampstead go back to his days as a University College School pupil from 1945. He then moved to the area after reading Greats at Oxford University, settling in Downshire Hill.

Aside from two years studying at Harvard Business School in the US, he remained in Hampstead until last year, when he relocated to Bloomfield Road in Highgate.

Despite his long association with Hampstead, he was not a member of the society until “parachuted in” to become chairman in 2003.

At the time, it was struggling for a candidate from its own ranks – a situation which Mr Hillier has been very careful to avoid.

He is happy to leave the group in Mr Hutchinson’s hands and in “good health”, describing it as a “well-functioning machine, instead of doddering along and spitting and stuttering”.

He urged Mr Hutchinson to “follow his instincts”, adding: “The principal skill is to keep the peace between potentially warring personalities – all of whom have a major contribution to make.”

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