Tuesday, 22 May 2018

New clerk likes to talk

THE new clerk of Henley Town Council says she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty.

THE new clerk of Henley Town Council says she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty.

Janet Wheeler, 54, wants to get to know the town and listen to what residents have to say.

She has been in post for only two weeks and so far has spent most of her time in meetings to get better acquainted with what’s going on.

“It has been very easy because everyone has been so welcoming,” she says. “I want to get under the skin of Henley and find out what makes Henley tick and what residents love.

“I need to know what’s important for the residents. Although the town council needs to be business-like, it is there to serve.”

Mrs Wheeler has been commuting from Oving, near Aylesbury, where she lives with her husband Richard, 53, who works for General Electric.

The journey takes her about an hour, passing through Christmas Common where she enjoys spotting deer. “It’s gorgeous,” she says.

Mrs Wheeler has described landing her new job as a “dream come true” but it has been a long time coming for the one-time advertising copywriter as she first applied for it in 2007.

She was turned down without being offered an interview but went away determined to build up her knowledge and experience and was appointed town clerk in Amersham.

In 2012 she was named clerk of the year by the Buckinghamshire branch of the Society of Local Council Clerks.

Mrs Wheeler was born in Isleworth, west London, to Mike and Barbara Harrison. Her father owned several iron and aluminium foundries and her mother used to do the books.

“I grew up with black sand between the toes,” she says.

She grew up in Ashford before moving to Byfleet, Surrey, in 1968 to attend junior school. She then moved to Sheerwater and attended Woking Sixth Form College.

Her uncle, Les Harrison, used to live in Nicholas Road, Henley, and she would visit him as a toddler. She remembers that he had a massive book collection and loved the Bell Street Book Shop.    

After her studies, Mrs Wheeler found work as a library assistant while harbouring dreams of becoming a sub-editor for a magazine. “That was really hard to get into,” she says.  

After a little while she found her feet in publishing as a proof reader and advertising copywriter and she worked for a number of companies in London over the next 20 years.

Her employers included Doubleday Books, the Michelin tyre company, advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather and romantic fiction publishers Mills & Boon, where she was proof reader and picture editor.

Mrs Wheeler recalls: “I had to fib my way into the job as I didn’t know the books. It was in Brook Street at the back of Claridge’s and we used to see celebrities, such as Michael Jackson, go into the back of the Dorchester. The best part about the job was reading the unedited manuscripts. It was brilliant.”

Determined to pursue her dream, she was planning to take a writer’s course but was offered a choice of three jobs.   

She chose a firm in Farnborough and one of her first tasks was to write a script to sell a thimble.

“This thimble was tiny and you would put it on the end of your finger and think of something to write to sell it when all you could think of was rude things,” she recalls.

Other jobs included working for the Bradford Exchange, which specialises in collectibles such as Doctor Who chess sets.

Luckily for Mrs Wheeler, it wasn’t necessary to like the products she was trying to sell.

She says: “One of the worst things was a mermaid. It was so disgusting. It was meant to be a beautiful bit of porcelain in an open shell with a pearl. I used it as a door stop and people used to trip over it.”

It was nice when a new collection was introduced as she had something fresh to write about. “From a writing point of view it was interesting content but I don’t know if I am that proud of the result,” she says.

Mrs Wheeler returned to London when she landed a job with a Baker Street firm writing about fashion for the fuller figure.

She also did some work for British Airways, selling exotic locations or, as she puts it, “painting pictures of perfect sands with no litter.”

She was still working in London when she met her future husband at a conference. “When I met Richard I knew I would marry him,” says Mrs Wheeler. The couple were married in Hersham, near Weybridge, in 1989.

Soon afterwards she decided to work as a freelance. “The party life up there didn’t suit married life,” she says. “I thought it was a good idea to save my marriage.”  

The couple had two children, Sam and Lexy. Mrs Wheeler had a cabin built at the bottom of their garden so she could look after them during the day and then work after they had gone to bed.

“That was before the days of emails,” she recalls. “I had to get a motorcycle courier and send my words up to Birmingham but once the modem came in it saved me an absolute fortune.”  

Sam, who went to Shiplake College, is now 23 and on the Balfour Beatty graduate programme and Lexy, 21, is studying mechanical engineering at Nottingham University.

In 2002 Mrs Wheeler secured her first parish council job in Cookham.

“I was still freelancing in the afternoons but I wanted to do something to stay in touch with the community,” she recalls.

“The job was totally different to anything else that I had done. I used to go in the playground and sweep up the broken glass and I used to go down the footpaths in the afternoon with a pair of secateurs cutting brambles back.

“There was less pressure, not like in advertising where you were only as good as your last job. It was a different sort of pressure.”

She also helped out neighbouring councils. “Taplow was in a bit of a state financially and I sorted them out and then I looked after Hurley Parish Council for a year,” she says. “It is quite normal for parish clerks to do more than one.

“I did love working in riverside communities and I was getting closer and closer to Henley.”

After being turned down for the Henley job, she realisedshe needed more experience and two years later was taken on by Amersham Town Council.

Her husband’s job then moved to Ampthill in Bedfordshire, so the family moved to Oving as it was roughly halfway between both their places of work.  

Mrs Wheeler says the main difference between a parish and town council is the size. “I went from one part-time typist to 18 staff and a depot with 12 groundsmen,” she says.

“It was a very steep learning curve. I was led into this empty room with a computer, a telephone and three boxes and I had to get on with it.”

At the time the council was based in temporary offices while the main offices were being refurbished but the filing cabinets hadn’t made the move. “It was supposed to be for three months but we were there a year,” says Mrs Wheeler, “Every time I needed to get a piece of paper I had to get into a car and drive up the hill, put on a high vis jacket and hard hat and go through the filing cabinets.”

Mrs Wheeler began looking for new premises and eventually found Flint Barn Court in Old Amersham. She negotiated £200,000 off the asking price and the council staff moved in during February 2014. “We bought it for £760,000 and it’s now worth £1.4 million,” she says proudly.

She also showed Amersham’s councillors that she knew what she was doing when it came to process.

Mrs Wheeler says: “At one of my first meetings, a Lib-Dem councillor was rude and the councillor taking the meeting walked out in tears.

“The Conservatives said they couldn’t carry on with the meeting and I said that they were quorate and that the deputy was there.

“The councillors weren’t sure whether I had the power to do that so one went out and rang Conservative head office and they said it was allowed.”

She is proud of her time there, especially the town’s entry in the Thames and Chilterns in Bloom  competition.

“We took bloom to another level,” she says. “We have always been just behind Henley but for the last two years we have won gold.

“When people think of town or parish councils they think of The Vicar of Dibley but I am a great believer in doing the everyday things well. That is important and that’s what residents want us to do. It is easy for town councils to get carried away with projects.

“I am a practical person — if someone wanted me to pick up litter I would do it. I wouldn’t ask a member of staff to do something that I wouldn’t be prepared to do myself.”

She is looking forward to getting her teeth into her new job and says: “There is an awful lot to get up to speed with, important projects which I can maybe influence but they seem to roll along happily.

“I would like to improve the communications with the businesses, as Henley doesn’t have a chamber of commerce, and that’s where my talents lie — communication and words.”

More News:

Latest video from

VIDEO: Tributes paid after rugby player's death

POLL: Have your say