Allan Willett: Lord Lieutenant of Kent

In August, Kent says farewell to its hugely popular Lord Lieutenant, Allan Willett CMG, who steps down on his 75th birthday having successfully modernised this ancient office

Allan Willett: Lord Lieutenant of Kent

In August, Kent says farewell to its hugely popular Lord Lieutenant, Allan Willett CMG, who steps down on his 75th birthday having successfully modernised this ancient office

"The aims of the Lieutenancy of Kent are to provide a focus for county identity, unity and pride, give a sense of stability, recognise achievements, success and excellence, and promote service to others. Our aspiration is to celebrate Kent, its unique history and culture, serve its communities and contribute positively to its future"

Allan Willett CMG, Lord Lieutenant of Kent


Looking back over almost a decade as The Queen’s representative in the county, Allan Willett describes it as “a wonderful journey with the people of Kent.”

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As the founding Chairman of the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA), he was one of those consulted when a replacement for the then Lord Lieutenant, Lord Kingsdown, was being sought.

The county Lieutenancies date back to Tudor times and were originally responsible for the maintenance of order and local defence. Allan recalls: “I said I thought that after more than four centuries of male Lord Lieutenants the next should be a woman. So I was taken aback when I was asked if I would accept the appointment myself.

“I love Kent and thought it a great honour, so I accepted, it having been made clear to me by the Prime Minister’s Office and Buckingham Palace that they wanted to modernise this ancient office – just as the monarchy itself is modernising – and I felt I had something to offer.”

As soon as he took on the role in 2002 Allan set about modernising the Lieutenancy to play an increasing and significant role in serving the monarchy in the county, celebrating Kent’s identity and projecting the interests of its people.

During his time as Lord Lieutenant he and his Deputies have welcomed 95 Royal visits to Kent and taken on some 700 commitments each year. He has personally led major campaigns – encouraging greater public support for our Armed Forces and their families, promoting volunteering in the community, and celebrating youth achievement.

Growing up on a Thanet farm during the Second World War, the young Allan Willett could not have imagined what an extraordinary life he was to lead.

It was thought he would follow his father’s footsteps into farming. But disaster struck. An American bomber returning from a raid over Germany unloaded its bombs on the farm, causing severe damage.

The family moved to another Thanet farm – and that too was devastated, this time in the 1953 floods. So instead of becoming a farmer after his National Service fighting the Mau Mau in Kenya, Allan set himself up in business on a shoestring.

There was something special in his make-up – an entrepreneurial spirit, a creative and decisive mind, flint-like determination and courage born perhaps of his wartime childhood and Army experiences. The fact that he has talented artists and Waterloo victor Lord Wellington in his family tree could also be significant.

It is appropriate that the motto on his coat of arms is: Be brave for there is much to dare.

At 26 he founded what became Willett International which grew to be a world leader in electronic coding and labelling systems with subsidiaries in 30 countries and won two Queen’s Awards for Export.

He also took on public sector roles including Locate in Kent and chairmanship of the East Kent Initiative and Forum.

In the early 1990s the then Conservative government invited him to become founding Chairman of the Industrial development Board for London and the south east.

And in 1998 under the Labour Government he was asked to establish SEEDA and became the founding Chairman, promoting sustainable wealth creation, re-generation and social inclusion in a region with a population of eight million people and a �150bn economy.

The sale of Willett International enabled him to launch his philanthropic fund and since taking office he has given more than �3m to Kent causes and the funding of Lieutenancy activities and events.

Lieutenancies do not run on public money, and Allan has gifted a considerable amount from his own pocket to set up and run the modernised organisation so that it can be carried forward by his successor on a largely self-sustaining basis.

Major beneficiaries of his philanthropy have included Canterbury and Rochester Cathedrals, the New Marlowe Theatre, the Turner Contemporary and a host of community organisations across Kent.

He chaired Canterbury Cathedral Trust for the launch of its fundraising campaign, and is President or Patron of a score of Kent organisations and voluntary bodies from the Men of Kent and Kentish Men to the Royal British Legion.

He created the Spirit of Kent Award to recognise outstanding service to the county, the first to receive it being The Duke of Kent; other recipients have been Lord Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, Edwin Boorman and both Lord and Lady Kingsdown.

As Chairman of the County’s Advisory Committee on Justices of the Peace he has created a special award for magistrates who have given exceptional service. He has presented many Queen’s Awards for Voluntary Service to community groups – and Enterprise and Innovation Awards to Kent businesses.

In the past few years Allan has been dogged by illness. He has been upfront about his heart problem, now under control, his prostate cancer and, more recently, a form of Parkinsonism that affects his mobility.

Regardless, he has carried on – and just a few hours before his cancer operation he insisted on going to Dover to honour Dunkirk veterans returning to the beaches on the 70th anniversary.

The support of his wife Anne, has been steadfast throughout, and their 15th-century Chilham hall house has been the venue for dozens of hospitality events, from a lunch honouring war heroes to the launch of a youth initiative.

Highlights of his Lieutenancy have been five visits by The Queen, his own community visits around Kent, the major parades honouring the Armed Forces and Cadets, and the annual Civic Services he initiated which rotates between Canterbury and Rochester Cathedrals and All Saints’ at Maidstone.

Among his most enjoyable ventures have been his community visits. After thanking community volunteers at Kemsing, one woman said: “I have been doing voluntary work here for 30 years. I’ve never looked for thanks, but it’s a great morale booster when The Queen’s representative takes the trouble to come and thank you. It makes you want to keep on volunteering!”

Allan has mixed with visiting Native Americans at Gravesend, been bandaged up as the pretend patient of a group of St John Badgers, stood in the rain with the veterans on Battle of Britain anniversaries at the Capel-le-Ferne Memorial, and ridden a quad bike while visiting Kent Army Cadet Force annual camp.

But his favourite memory is of another visit when, in his uniform resplendent with medals and shiny buttons, he was confronted by a small boy who looked him up and down and asked: “Are you real?”

When Allan was presented with the Kent Invicta Award for his exceptional service to Kent, County Council leader Paul Carter praised his generous charitable contributions and his outstanding public sector work.

He said: “You have transformed the Lieutenancy of Kent. You have been, alongside your wife Anne, totally dedicated to the job and exceptionally generous with your time. And your lead on the support to the Armed Forces in Kent and encouragement to young people has been second to none.

“Despite suffering bouts of illness in recent years you have carried on with dogged determination, keeping to extremely demanding schedules of duties and ceremonies in Kent.

“On behalf of the County Council, but more importantly on behalf of the Kentish men and women and the men and women of Kent and all our young people, we thank you.” And he added: “You have touched hearts and put a smile on so many faces.”

As his “wonderful journey” with the people of Kent draws to a close, Allan says: “No-one is more proud than I am of our lovely county’s extraordinary history.

“But however proud of it we are, the past is the past. The really important thing is the future. My last simple message as Lord Lieutenant is this: let us now go forward together, proud of our past and confident of our future.”

The Lieutenancy of Kent

•           Lieutenants have been appointed by the Monarch since Tudor times to organise defence of counties when danger threatened

•           The office became permanent from 1585 when held by William Brooke, 10th Lord Cobham, during the Armada threat

•           Today the Lord Lieutenant represents the Sovereign in the ancient and ceremonial county of Kent which includes Kent County Council and Medway Council administrative areas

•           The Lieutenancy maintains close relationships with the Armed Forces, reflecting the ancient office’s original responsibility for the maintenance of order and defence

•           Duties include looking after members of the Royal Family and Heads of State when on official visits to Kent, and presenting honours and awards on behalf of the Crown

•           The role of the Lieutenancy is entirely non-political. There is no pay


The Deputy Lieutenants

The Lord Lieutenant leads the 60 or so influential Deputy Lieutenants countywide who use their local and specialist knowledge and experience for the benefit of Kent’s varied communities. They include:

•           Nadra Ahmed who was made OBE for her services to social care in Kent, nationally and internationally

•           Kelvin Holford, County Commissioner for Kent Scouts

•           Jools Holland, who was appointed OBE for his services to music

•           George Jessel, farmer and Chairman Kent County Agricultural Society

•           Rosalind McCarthy, retired head teacher and now a Trustee and Governor of the Duke of York’s Royal Military School

•           Brigadier John Meardon, former Royal Marines officer and currently Receiver General of Canterbury Cathedral

•           Group Captain Patrick Tootal OBE, former RAF pilot and currently Secretary, Battle of Britain Memorial Trust

•           Ann West MBE JP, former Chairman of North Kent Bench and of the Independent Monitoring Board at Cookham Wood Prison


Do you have a favourite memory of meeting the Lord Lieutenant? Email me at: and we’ll print the best.

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