In this episode, Charis and I speak to Cambridge University alumna, Pat Marsh. When we recorded the interview, we didn’t have any of the studio equipment with us, just a phone, but we thought it would be a crime not to share Pat’s incredible story.
Pat was the first woman in the UK to hold a gaming licence and in 1979 she brought Space Invaders, the arcade game sensation, to the UK shores.
Pat has had a distinguished business career, most recently serving as Executive Chairman of Philip-Treacy. Philip Treacy’s hats have adorned the heads of royals and celebrities alike, including Grace Jones, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Sarah Jessica Parker, Beyonce and Victoria Beckham.
I grew up in Tipton, a working class town in the Midlands. All my family lived locally so we were always in and out of each other’s houses. People always think that, if you are hard-up, things are difficult but everyone was the same, so we didn’t know any different.
My sister reminded me recently that we had to sleep with our coats on the bed to keep warm. We had a flat roof and each year someone put up a new tarpaulin to keep the rain out. But it wasn’t completely watertight so there were always buckets around.
Although we were poor we were also proud, with polished shoes. My father joined the Grenadier Guards at the age of 15 and fought with the Desert Rats in North Africa.
Since reading Malory Towers I’d always dreamed of going to boarding school. But then I heard of such a thing as university, after watching the The Student Prince and The Wild and the Willing at the local Odeon, and thought that sounded even better.
I was the only girl from my school to go to Grammar School and the only girl to go on to university. In those days girls went to secretarial or teacher training college so this was unusual. I got a place at Hull University to study geography, which was my best subject at school.
University in the 1960s was magical. One time at the Old Hill Plaza George Harrison held my hand – what more could a girl want in life?
After university, my career started with slot machines. I’d set up a business to service these machines in cafes. We started being asked about a new game called Space Invaders, so went to a trade show in Japan and ended up forming a joint Japanese company, which was the first to bring Space Invaders to the UK.
We had to file down the slots, which were just big enough for Yen, so that 10 pence pieces could fit in. Everyone wanted one and we found ourselves airlifting these arcade games to businesses all over the UK.
It was a crazy time. We had two Japanese colleagues living with us, one dealing with imports and exports, the other with technical issues. Because of this my children picked up Japanese.
Later we decided to just import the electronic components and build the machines in the UK at Ace Coin Equipment Ltd in South Wales. This meant we needed to design a circuit board for the new range of machines, which led to my first association with Cambridge. One of our directors, Keith Arnold, knew of two young men, Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry in Cambridge who were paid £20,000 to design the new board. With this money they founded Acorn Computers.
Haute couture hats have been my most recent business venture. I served as Executive Chairman of, and was a major shareholder in, Philip Treacy Ltd. Philip’s couture hats have been worn by royals and celebrities and are widely regarded as works of art. I have some hanging on my wall at home.
I sometimes feel like someone who wears lots of metaphorical hats. A year or so ago I did a course at Cambridge Judge Business School. We were asked what we would like to be doing in five years’ time. I wrote down: Magdalene College, sport and archaeology - my three loves. And here I am, organising alumni reunions, cheering on the girls on the river and supporting archaeological research. I love all my hats, real and metaphorical.
Patrick Ryan, Assistant CUWBC Coach and Pat Marsh in the launch following ‘Blondie’
This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series, which opens a window on to the people that make Cambridge University unique. Cooks, gardeners, students, archivists, professors, alumni: all have a story to share.
Pat is the Executive Director and a former Chairman of Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, a Trustee of the Hawks’ Charitable Trust, and Director of the Executive Committee of the Ospreys. She is the Alumni Secretary and a Fellow Commoner of Magdalene College. She sits on the Management Board of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and is a member of the Alumni Council at Cambridge Judge Business School.