THE family of a man who built up one of the most successful haulage firms in Cumbria has paid tribute to his life.

Robert Armstrong, who headed Longtown-based Wm Armstrong Ltd for almost five decades, died at the age of 88.

All those who knew him paid their respects at his funeral at Arthuret Church in Longtown yesterday.

His wife Margaret, 87, who he enjoyed 63 happy years of marriage with, said: “He was just a wonderful man and a wonderful husband. I couldn’t have wished for anything better.

“We had our hard times but he always finished it off with a lot of love.”

His eldest daughter Jennifer Whyberd, who is now the firm’s managing director, said he was someone who was never afraid of responsibility, taking on various roles outside the company. “He couldn’t join anything and not be committed,” she said.

Wm Armstrong was a founding member of the Road Haulage Association (RHA) Livestock Group, of which Robert was the chairman. He was also the RHA Milk Group chairman until 1994 when the deregulation of the milk industry occurred. He was also involved in the establishment of Cumberland Transport Training Board in the early 1970s.

Held in high esteem in the local community Robert also took on roles including parish council chairman and church warden at Arthuret, where he served for 44 years.

He was a dedicated member of the Rotary Club of Carlisle South, recognised with a Paul Harris Fellowship, and helped with their activities, collecting at Carlisle Fireshow until he was in his eighties. Robert was an active member of the Gretna Masonic Lodge for more than 64 years during which he served as Master of the Lodge.

In business and in life Robert was passionate about helping and supporting young people.

One of them, Gary Smith, a livestock driver who started as an apprentice aged 16, will be a bearer at his funeral today.

“In business there has always been apprentices,” said Jennifer. “We have continued that passion for training that dad instilled in us.

“He was a quiet gentleman, really unassuming.

“He is a big act to follow and we are all really grateful for the knowledge and wealth of experience that he has given us.”

His youngest daughter JulieFitzsimmins, who now lives in London, said: “I have my own business and it has been through the recession but I think it has survived because of what I learnt from dad.

“He said simple, straight forward things and one I always remember is ‘if you’re not fishing you should be mending your nets.’”

For Robert, business was a matter of doing things right and not taking short cuts.

Wm Armstrong Ltd, famous for its green livery, was founded by his father William in 1927, when he took over a smallholding at Newtown, near Irthington, that came with a single Ford Model T truck.

Robert took over 20 years later, aged just 17, and it grew from a four-vehicle operation into a 48-strong fleet of vehicles - transporting milk, livestock and general haulage - upon his retirement in 1996.

Despite retiring, he continued to help out and worked until he was 73.

The firm initially moved coal, single cows and milk churns. But when Nestle moved to Carlisle in 1928 it needed milk to be brought to the factory from local farms. Wm Armstrong got its first Nestle haulage contract in the September of that year, its first pay cheque was worth just £15 for the month’s journeys.

Robert collected milk churns from the farms and that was when he first laid eyes on Margaret. Her family farmed at Blackford. She was just 15 when she met Robert, although she lied and said she was a year older.

“It just worked well,” said Margaret. “My mother thought he was a great worker and made scones for him in the morning and he had his breakfast there.

“He told me a few weeks ago, I threw a sweetie into the wagon and he thought ‘I’m going to marry that lass’.”

In the early 1950s the family bought the site it currently occupies at Townfoot, a former Harrison and Hetherington auction mart.

Robert was joined by his brothers Harold, Jock and Cyril, over the next 10 years the firm expanded rapidly in livestock haulage, winning business from the railways which were too slow for transporting live animals long distances.

Throughout the 1970s it operated 20 to 30 trucks and when Robert officially stepped down from the helm, there were 48 vehicles in the fleet.

Foot and Mouth in 2001 devastated the business which largely relied on agriculture. The firm was looking at redundancies when it was approached by Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) to manage the 3km cull, in a bid to eradicate the disease. It was a traumatic time but Wm Armstrong was responsible for transporting animals from farms in a 3km radius of infected farms to the abattoir at Great Orton.

Robert’s knowledge of foot and mouth, from the outbreak in 1964, was invaluable and he advised his family on what moves they should make to ensure the business survived.

The firm, now run by Jennifer and Robert’s nephews Geof and Derek Armstrong, has a fleet of 130 trucks, 200 trailers and more than 300 staff. It occupies depots in Longtown, Uddingston, near Glasgow, and at Wick, near Thurso.

Robert died on January 11 at the Cumberland Infirmary. He leaves his wife, five children, 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.