Obituary: Valerie Hunter Gordon, mother-of-six who invented the disposable nappy

Valerie Hunter Gordon, inventor of the disposable nappy. Picture: Peter Jolly/REX/Shutterstock
Valerie Hunter Gordon, inventor of the disposable nappy. Picture: Peter Jolly/REX/Shutterstock
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Valerie Hunter Gordon, mother and inventor. Born: 7 December 1921, Baslow, Derbyshire. Died: 16 October 2016, Beauly, Inverness, aged 94.

Valerie Hunter Gordon was a housewife and mother-of-six, who changed the lives of millions of women in Britain when she invented and designed the world’s first disposable nappy. She also went on to invent a number of other labour saving devices for the home.

In 1947, she was living in Camberley, Surrey, with her officer husband who was away in Borneo, expecting their third child and was becoming increasingly fed-up with washing traditional nappies describing it as the “awful labour” of washing, drying and ironing cloth nappies; the prospect of more filled her with dread. She recalled, “It seemed extraordinary that it hadn’t been done before. I thought, it’s easy, I’ll make them. But it wasn’t easy. It was quite tricky.”

Nonetheless, she persevered and, after many prototypes, created a two-part system called the “Paddi” – this replaced the absorbent cotton towelling nappies, which required washing after each use. The two-part garments were initially made out of old nylon parachutes, requisitioned by her husband, with the nylon making an adjustable waterproof outer garment fastened with poppers, with a cord around the waist; they could also be wiped clean, washed and bleached; these pants then held a discardable, biodegradable pad, made of cellulose wadding covered over with cotton wool.

The nappies were an instant success, with her new baby son Nigel wearing the first prototypes. She soon began taking orders from the wives of other senior officers at the Staff College in Camberley. With her husband cutting the pads in the attic after work, Valerie made over 400 pairs of plastic pants at her kitchen table on her Singer sewing machine, while constantly modifying the design, and sold them for five shillings each. She said later that if she had known the amount of work involved in seeing her invention through, she “would have gone on washing the damned things”.

Born in the village of Baslow in 1921, Valerie was the daughter of Sir Vincent Ziani de Ferranti, and his wife, Dorothy. Inventiveness ran in the family; her grandfather, Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, was an electrical engineer, who founded Ferranti. In 1891, he designed the world’s first modern power station at Deptford, south-east London, while her father supervised the expansion of the family business into a company that for decades was one of Britain’s leaders in electrical and electronic technology while also getting involved in defence and early post-war computing.

Growing up, Valerie spent many hours in her grandfather’s workshop listening to his new ideas and his vision for how technology might be used in the future and how it might change lives.

Valerie attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Roehampton, and in 1940 married Patrick Hunter Gordon, then a Scottish lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, who had won an MC earlier in the year after blowing-up a bridge under heavy gunfire during the retreat to Dunkirk. Her father was also involved in the retreat but he led a group home to safety on abandoned motorbikes south via the Spanish frontier.

Upon Patrick’s demobilisation in 1950, the family moved to Beauly, west of Inverness, and he took over the family business, AI Welders and Cable Belts. However, this was interrupted because he suffered post-traumatic illness. Valerie supported him constantly while shielding the children from any problems.

Somewhat surprisingly, the couple initially struggled to get any interest in the “Paddi” from potential manufacturers. Then at a business dinner her father met Sir Robert Robinson, owner of Robinson & Sons, which resulted in a hearing with the Chesterfield firm. Valerie convinced the company to produce them in bulk, paying her royalties, starting in late 1949.

At first, there was resistance and sceptism from doctors, who thought the nappies would harm babies’ skin, giving rashes, and from the general public, who were not used to throwing things away in the post-war austerity years.

However, an article in The Lancet written by an army doctor who used Paddis for his baby, helped change medical opinion and in 1950 Boots started stocking them, selling over 72,000 that year. They were advertised as “A really attractive garment, skilfully designed by a Mother, to make the whole-time use of disposable nappies a practical possibility”.

Sales increased to 250,000 the following year. They then featured at the 1952 Ideal Home Exhibition and the BBC featured the Paddi as one of the six most innovative items of the year; by the end of the year 750,000 packs had been sold. By the end of the decade six million were being sold annually. Valeri’s subsequent inventions included the Nikini, one of the first modern sanitary towels, in 1954, based on the Paddi concept. The advert proclaimed, “a little something that will save you a lot of embarrassment.”

To Valerie’s surprise, she earned more royalties overall than she had with the Paddi, though as she reflected: “There are probably more menstruating women in the world than incontinent babies.”

Royalties were used for further inventions (and luxuries), with Valerie designing the family’s hi-tech house in Bauley in 1959; it featured electric self-closing curtains and a sophisticated heating systems. At home, she constantly sought ways to minimise dull chores; for instance, to avoid ironing, she sometimes put shirts and trousers under the carpet to flatten out wrinkles. She also was frugal and made bibs out of old shopping bags.

Always someone who constantly liked to improve things, she did not believe that you could only have one Scottish tartan. Determined to find another pattern, she consulted the thread count registers collected by the Highland Society in the 19th century and reconstructed another tartan that was recorded as having been created by Gordon weavers. With its shades of pink, red, green and black, the dynamic pattern became one of the most popular Gordon tartans worldwide, marketed as Red Gordon.

In an interview last year, she was alarmed to hear about the push for washable nappies once more, noting, “Everybody wanted to stop washing nappies in my day. But nowadays they seem to want to wash them again – good luck to them.”

Patrick died in a car accident in 1978. Valerie is survived by her six children, 19 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.