042 Surveying, Resilience and Rugby with John Hambly

John Hambly is a Chartered Building Surveyor and former keen rugby player, who retired in 2007 after being diagnosed with MS. Using his surveyor mindset and skillset, he established the Samson Centre for MS in Guildford in 2005 and helped develop the facility through to completion in 2018. In 2020 he published his memoir book called ‘Samson Rising.’

From Rugby Club to Surveying Business

John’s first jobs in surveying oddly came through his rugby club where he was a dedicated player and coach. He is grateful for the dynamics of a team sport that taught him a lot about running a business.

“I was skipper at a rugby club for a few years,” John says. “I don’t know whether that gave me an entitlement for people to come and ask me to do their house labour. I would do not only surveys but little bits of repair jobs for guys at the club and the rugby community within RICS. So sports and rugby, in particular, was the binder and the core value that enabled me to build up the network of contacts and develop the business with my business partner.”

He goes on to explain how his experience in sports played in his business life.

“I was transferring my skills from coaching at the rugby club and learning how to treat people rather than just thinking of yourself. Then when I set the partnership up with my friend from my previous firm at the West End, I felt that I knew how to deal with people, and not only clients but to bring in fresh blood into the practice. We remained small though because we wanted to add that control. My work culture was always to embrace everyone’s views, and not make people shy away from asking questions. So if you’re not confident about something, please ask me, I would have asked when I was in your position 10 or 15 years earlier. A big thing for me was not being frightened of asking.”

Adapting Surveying Practice to Illness  

John retired in 2007 after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. He explains how it changed his life but also how it inspired him to help other people struggling with MS.

“I probably had symptoms five or six years before I was diagnosed. But playing a contact sport like rugby, just think that you’ve tweaked a nerve or something. Once I was diagnosed in ’99, it took me a while to come to terms with it. I was very fortunate, I spent three or four months working from home and my business partner, who was very compassionate and understanding, was bringing work down to me. But I couldn’t face clients, I felt as though I fundamentally changed as a person. I was shocked and I had to deal with that life-changing moment. Once I’d got through that period, I understood that the disease wasn’t going to stop me in my tracks. MS can be quite forgiving if you respect it, but if you push yourself very hard physically and mentally, it does come back and bite you. I kept getting relapses, so I was off work and back at work. I learned after a while to change my style of work. I was still working reasonably hard, but in a different way, and that enabled me to control the illness for the first five or six years. But of course, it is a degenerative neurological illness, and it does catch up with you. I had to modify what I was doing as a professional, so I was dealing with residential refurbishment, and I concentrated on party walls and family disputes because I was more office-bound as I got more disabled. It was a very interesting period of my life, trying to adapt as my illness developed, and changing the way I practised being a surveyor.”

Samson Centre for MS

John’s skills came to the full expression with starting and building Samson Centre for MS, a charity organisation based in Guilford that helps patients get quality treatment for multiple sclerosis.

“It started with my frustration that I wasn’t able to get treatment on the NHS back in the ’90s, I’d get five or six sessions with a physio and that was it. I found a small local group that worked out of a village hall and it was good, but it clearly had its limitations. So I just put my surveying hat on and wondered whether I could create something that was bespoke and with much more facilities and proper staff. I put the costs down, and of course, the key thing was raising the money. I had no experience in fundraising, so that was my shot into the unknown. I wasn’t worried about building a building, I’ve done that before, it was raising the money that was my problem. However, we raised a quarter of a million very quickly, and we ended up being constructed in two years. Today we have 13 staff, we treat 200 people a week, which is 10,000 sessions of therapy a year; we’re providing one to one physio, group physio, gym sessions to keep people moving, and we have this wonderful Oxygen Center, where people are having 100% oxygen therapy in a barometric chamber. If you’re in the early stage of multiple sclerosis, oxygen therapy virtually stops it in its tracks if you can stay with it. A lot of people get bored, it’s a long hour and a half sitting in a chamber on your own two or three times a week. But that’s something we’re promoting at the moment because oxygen therapy is a big thing for us.”

A Surveyor’s Memoir

John had never thought about writing a book before, but long hours in the oxygen chamber led him to start writing down stories from his life. His book ‘Samson Rising’ found a great reception among everyone – surveyors, rugby fans and people sharing the experience with multiple sclerosis.

“The book goes in many different directions – there’s a bit of technical surveying stuff in it, there’s a lot of humour, and obviously there’s a lot of sports. It’s a story that shows that I’ve learned a lot along the way with my particular life experiences and certain points that were very pivotal, and I can see now why they’ve taken me in a certain direction. I’m very grateful to the surveying profession that taught me how to bring people together, how to put a project together and show people what we have now can be so much better,” he concludes.

And we do believe that more surveyors should write their memoirs because they’ve got amazing stories to share, that just happens in the context of surveying.