Birthday Roses


Today would have been John’s 80th birthday. Because we would be travelling home from Cornwall today, we wished him ‘Happy Birthday’ yesterday, after a lovely sunny day on Polzeath beach, with a traditional Victoria Sponge for tea.

But early this morning, Rachael reminded me it was her Grandpa’s Special Day today. So we looked at the photos on this website together, and she recognised her Grandpa’s voice on the World Service radio link I played to her. And she talked about the photo she has of her Grandpa building bricks with her, and she remembered him with Mr Handkerchief, and coming to our 50th Wedding Anniversary lunch, and the last birthday we all celebrated with him in her garden in Didcot, and the flags at his memorial service, and the lifeboat from which we scattered his ashes off Harwich, when she was there at the Lifeboat Station with all her cousins.

And I was so pleased that she had all these memories, since she was only four when John died, and also so glad that this website will be there for her to read when she is older, to help her know who her Grandpa was, and what he did in his life, and the impact he had on those who knew and loved him, and on the world around him.

On the long drive back from Cornwall, I played some of the romantic Richard Tauber songs John used to play to me when we first knew each other, and cried a little, and missed him a lot. But when I got home, the roses he had planted at keast 20 years ago in our front garden had come into bloom while I was away, and they were a beautiful memory of him too.



Choirboys at Christmas

After leaving full-time employment at the BBC in 1988, John continued to work for them on a free-lance basis. One long-term  role, that he had for several years, was as researcher, writer and presenter of The Learning World, a weekly programme on education for the BBC World Service. He covered a very diverse range of topics, interviewing those involved in education of various kinds both in the UK and around the world. In the UK the programme was broadcast on World Service at about 4 a.m. So if anyone mentioned having heard it, he would say ‘Ah, you must suffer from insomnia!’

Through the World Service archive project, many episodes have been preserved and can be heard again – at a civilised hour – on BBC iplayer radio. One of John’s programmes, first broadcast in December  1990, is about the lives of choirboys at the Hereford Cathedral School. It includes some touching interviews with the boys as well as some lovely singing. You can listen to it here.

Christmas Rum Punch

imageI recently came across the recipe for the Radio Training Department’s rum punch, traditionally served at their Christmas party. For those who may have fond memories of that event, and those who just enjoy a warming Christmas drink, I have included the recipe, and John’s accompanying notes below:

RTD Punch

This rum punch was served for over 10 years at the BBC’s (then) Radio Training Department Christmas party, and gained a certain fame, or notoriety. No wine or snacks/nibbles were served, just mince pies with a limited range of soft drinks. The basis of the recipe comes from the Yachtsman’s Weekend Book, published about 1937, and as modified goes:

Required: Large preserving or similar pan, ladle, pyrex jug for serving and top-up.

Ingredients: 4 bottles cheapest red claret or other inferior red wine to approx one seventh of standard bottle of dark (cheapest) rum; generous pinch of mace, equally generous pinch ground nutmeg; 4 ripe tangerines, cut into quarters.

Allow half a bottle of wine per person. Have 2 lbs bag of brown sugar available, add to taste if required. Not used by RTD as sweetness of mince pies complements punch.

Method: Heat until nearly boiling. Do not place radiant ring on office carpet as fire may ensue.

Allow soft drinks (equivalent of 3 small bottles) for one in every five guests. About 3 mincepies is right, too.

John Turtle

Dec 2003


Family history: Wartime memories


Two years ago, in the autumn half-term of 2014, the Robbie family came to stay with us in London. Gillis, our elder grandson, who was in his first term at secondary school, had a history project to do about World War II. This involved asking grandparents for their memories of the war, and writing about them.

John, who was born in 1937, was just two when the war started but had turned eight when peace was restored. He not only had vivid memories of his own from that time but could also tell Gillis about how his immediate family had spent the war years.

Gillis sat next to his grandfather for most of one afternoon, listening to John reminiscing and taking extensive notes in a spiral bound Reporter’s Notebook. His resulting essay, accompanied by wartime family photos, won him a special prize, congratulations from the Chief Master, and an entry in the school’s Golden Book.

On Remembrance Day, it seemed appropriate to share these wartime memories. Thank you very much, Gillis, for preserving them.

Gillis Robbie writes:

“This is a report on my extended family during World War II.
Let me begin with my great grandfather. He lived with my great grandmother and my grandfather in Hunstanton, Norfolk. One day, completely out of nowhere, some soldiers, a lorry, and a gun carrier parked by the house. They parked overnight and then they moved over to the lighthouse in the morning. One soldier came round and told my great grandfather to open all the windows because they were testing a six inch gun off the cliff. Great Grandpa didn’t seem to think that this would work, so he and his boss went to see the army and told them “If you fire that gun, the cliff will fall into the sea.” The army told them to go away because they knew what they were doing. Then guess what happened, the cliff fell into the sea! The army thought “That civilian chap seems to be smart, we should hire him.”

Great Grandpa joined the army as a War officer. He was issued with a 500 weight pickup truck and a lady driver from the ATS. She was a terrible driver and so he sent her away. He told the army, “You can’t force me to have my own driver, because I’m a civilian.”

Life during the war was not bad. Women did knitting because wool was not rationed but furniture and clocks were in very short supply. If something had the sign CC41 it meant it was pretty good. Toys were in very short supply during the war. Luckily for my Grandpa, his father was very good friends with the local auctioneer. He got some unusual birthday and Christmas presents like a toy rifle, a steel helmet that was made from cardboard, an anti-air craft gun that would fire wooden pellets, and a searchlight which he still has the lenses for.

Grandpa’s house had a coal fire, an electric one and a gas one.
The family never starved and nobody over-ate. This is why. Grandpa’s grandmother kept chickens, so there were plenty of eggs. She went gleaning (collecting fallen grain) and fed it to the chickens. Food waste was given to the pig that she also kept. Grandpa was very lucky to have a big garden. His family hired a gardener and they grew all sorts of things. Black currants, red currants, gooseberries, apples, radishes, carrots, cabbages, lettuces, cauliflowers, raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb. Grandpa’s mother bottled the fruit but then she got a canning machine, so she canned the fruit. If Grandpa was a good little boy, he would get a slice of bread and butter and an apple.

Grandpa was five when he went to school. Boys there used to play marbles with 303 cartridge casings they found. One boy found live ones and the headmaster had to search through boys’ bags to see if they had cartridges in them. At school, they did two drills, a gas mask drill and an air raid drill. In a gas mask drill, you had to take out your gas mask from the cardboard box and put it on. Grandpa was sad when he couldn’t get a Mickey Mouse gas mask because his head was too big and he was issued with an adult one. In an air raid drill, you had to dive under the desk.

Grandpa’s Auntie Myra was 17 when the war started and wanted to be a nurse. She was too young at the start so she joined the women’s land army. Her uniform was jodhpurs, a sweater and a hat. When she was old enough she was a nurse at King’s Lynn hospital for a year and then she joined as a navy nurse in the VAD. She was sent to a big naval hospital in Portsmouth in advance of D-Day. There, she was promoted to a senior VAD. There was one sailor who was fussed over by all the nurses. He had lost all his limbs and the nurses would take him to the cinema and give him other treats. Auntie Myra would give Grandpa some very unusual presents that she had nicked from the navy. A ship in a bottle, a compass, a pond yacht made from papier mache and coated in paint, and some sweets.

My Nanna was two when the war ended and she has this one memory. There was a big peace party at the end and she went round with red, white and blue ribbons in her hair saying, “I’m a peace baby.”

That is my extended family history. I hope you have enjoyed reading.”

John and KES

The Old Lennensian is the Newsletter of the Old Lennensians Association, which was revived in 2005 by and for former pupils of King Edward  VII School (KES) in King’s Lynn. The Autumn Edition of the Newsletter, which was published this month, was the first since John died last May. On the front page is an introduction by the Editor, Andrew Stephen:

I could have edited an entire edition on the subject of John Turtle and have had, for the first time, to select some of the many messages I received in an effort to give a true and adequate picture of the man. And how apt this response has been. John, as we all know, was largely responsible for the fact that we have an Association at all and was clearly admired and loved by all who knew him. 

In the rest of the Newsletter there are many lovely messages and memories of John from other members of the Association, in particular a moving tribute from his lifelong friend, David Cobbold.

David writes:

“The Salvete section of The Lennensian for December 1945 lists alphabetically the names of the seventeen boys who had enrolled in the Preparatory Department in the September. At the end of the list, baldly, in accordance with the formality of the times, was “Turtle”. Thus began John’s connection with the School which was to last throughout his life.

John had been born in Huns’ton in 1937 and, unusually for a boy from that town who attended KES, he entered as a boarder whereas most boys travelled daily on the bus. His father, Jack Turtle, was an architect by profession and had married Dorothy, nee Tilson, whose father Edward Tilson ran a building firm in South Wootton. During the Second World War Jack was Garrison Engineer to the town of Hunst’on in which was stationed an Army contingent. This comprised men from various Regiments and included from time to time soldiers from the Brigade of Guards who used to be brought to Lynn to drill on the Tuesday Market Place.

imageAt the end of the War Jack and Dorothy Turtle purchased a plot of land in Sandy Lane, South Wootton, and built what could well have been the first post-War house in Lynn. When it was finished and the family moved in, John ceased to be a boarder – he had not been happy – and was allocated to Keene House as a dayboy.

John had a high IQ and found studying to be relatively easy. He moved up the School in A Forms and in the highest Sets. The same could not be said of his sporting achievements – as a tall rather gangling lad he was not cut out for sport, nor did it interest him.

He was, however, well suited to hold a key job in the Combined Cadet Force, that of Quartermaster. He worked closely with Alf Futter, the assistant groundsman. He had served in the Royal Norfolks during WWII. Together they were in charge of the Armoury, situated in the main building near the Cloakroom and, later, when the Cadet Hut was built beside the railway line, the inter-unit communications equipment which was used on field exercises.

He had an interest in and flair for theatrical productions, which he probably inherited from his mother who had been a keen member of the Hunst’on Players. John’s speciality was stage equipment and when he reached the lower Sixth form he became responsible for the lighting, curtains and scenery in the annual productions of Shakespearean plays and two Gilbert & Sullivan operettas which were held jointly with the girls’ High School.”

John plays Cattermole in a KES production of The Private Secretary in December 1955. Michael Begley, who later became a teacher at KES, plays the Curate.

In his later years at KES, John became a prefect and Captain of Keene House. 

Headmaster A.H. Sleigh is flanked by prefects in May 1955 in front of the statue of King Edward VII in the school grounds. Michael Begley, School Captain, is to the left of the Headmaster and John is behind him.

David continues:

“John left KES in 1956 to become an undergraduate at University College London. He lived in London from then on. But throughout his life John had an abiding love of Norfolk and was a great proponent of the continuation of the Norfolk dialect. He loved to revert to its usage and was a long-time supporter of FOND, the Friends of Norfolk Dialect. An example of this is the “About John” section of his internet Facebook page where he had added “Tha’s none o’yure blooda business, bor. Dew yew want ta be a Nosey Parker too big for yure bewts, do you understand tha’s for me to know and for yew to find out. No, oi ‘int a’ gawn to tell ya”!!

Over a lifetime we have never lost touch completely but inevitably going our separate ways made contact sporadic, particularly as I was away at sea in the deep-sea Merchant Navy for 9 years. We did manage to meet in 1962 when John and Jenny came down one evening to Royal Victoria Docks, London to visit me in the ship on which I was then serving. We exchanged greetings from afar occasionally but it was not until retirement that we resumed regular contact.

It was in 2004 when I visited John at his home in Mill Hill that the idea of reviving the Old Lennensians’ Association came into the conversation. In due course we decided to proceed and the inaugural meeting to revive the Association was held in the Library of the School which in turn led to the Centenary Reunion in 2006. John was the Chairman and his tact, diplomacy, vision and leadership were invaluable in consolidating the re-formed Association and taking it forward.

I pay tribute to a fine friend and gifted man. His approach of meeting everyone on the same level be they bishop, cabinet minister or “man in the street” was admirable and remarkable. He had no time for pretentiousness and was very sincere and genuine.

One of John’s little known talents was writing poetry, an ideal genre for his creativity as it combined his marvellous wit and wry observations of people and life in general. An anthology has been collected and printed by Jenny with an original title “Work Not In Progress”. There are still a few copies available from her in return for a donation to the RNLI.
We shall always remember you John as an appealing, charming, warm hearted, entertaining and attractive personality but perhaps pre-eminently for your clever, witty and laconic sense of humour.. The Association owes much to you for your dedication in reviving its existence based as it was on your nostalgia for the school, your detailed and unsurpassed knowledge of its history and your subsequent unwavering support.

I have lost a steadfast, loyal, sincere and entertaining friend and I shall forever cherish the memories of our many happy times together over a lifetime.

John and David

John died on the 7th May 2016 and a Service of Thanksgiving was held for him at St Paul’s Church, Mill Hill village on 20th May. Amongst the large congregation were, of course, family members, plus many former colleagues and friends including seven members of the Association.

Requiescat in pace, John, you were an inspiration.”

Thank you so much David, and all the other OLs who contributed to the Newsletter, for their memories of John.

Crossing the Bar

John was a Governor member and supporter of the RNLI for most of his adult life. Thanks to the crew of the Harwich Lifeboat Station, on Saturday 17 September Jenny, Amanda and Josie went out on the Albert Brown, the Severn class all weather Lifeboat, to scatter his ashes in the sea off Ha’penny Pier, where he had so often sailed. It was a gusty day, and it was clearly going to take a strong crew and much engine power to manoeuvre the boat safely away from its berth on the quay. But after some deliberation the decision was made to go ahead. We were allowed to board and at 10.30 a.m. the boat set off into the middle of the Harbour for the ceremony.

We set off on the Lifeboat. It’s a bit choppy.

Against the background of the Felixstowe cranes, the three of us were helped into the foot well at the side of the boat. Up above, the Coxswain read out the moving Tennyson poem ‘Crossing the Bar‘ which was read also at John’s Thanksgiving Service. Then while the lifeboat held still for a few moments, we scattered his ashes into the sea, followed by lavender and roses from our gardens. We all said a short prayer together, remembering John with love and thanks for all that he had meant to us and to so many others, and for all he had achieved throughout his life.

All this time our friend Richard, with his crew Lynne, accompanied us in Richard’s boat ‘Zoe‘ and they also marked the spot with flowers. The lifeboat circled around the flowers for a while before returning to the berth. The rest of the family, Neil, Martin, Isha, Gillis, Elliot and Rachael, were waiting for us in the crew room with its balcony overlooking the harbour, from where they had been able to watch us the whole time.

Zoe‘ accompanies the Lifeboat

We are all very grateful to the Harwich Lifeboat Station for enabling us to say goodbye to John in such an appropriate way. We are so grateful too to all of you who made donations to the RNLI in John’s memory. The total amount raised so far in this fund is over £2000.

Vanished Dockland

John’s first job after university was as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Factories,  attached to the Ministry of Labour. He joined the Department in October 1960, assigned to the Watford District under DI Miss M E Collington and SI Miss N L Forster.

John as a young trainee inspector at the Watford office in 1960

By the time he had passed all his qualifying exams and became a 1B Inspector in 1965 he had spent around two years in Southwark District, where John Fallaize was DI.

Jane Wagner (née Hodges), who worked with John, remembers this period vividly and has contributed the following memories:

‘The office was on the 1st floor above shops in Walworth Road, Camberwell. The District covered a whole range of different industries and processes, such as printing, asbestos works, skin dressing, cooperage, food processing, jam making, vintners and brewing. It also included the Surrey Commercial Docks, which in the mid-1960s were still very active, and many of the premises inspected were related to the cargoes which were shipped and unloaded there. Tooley Street, parallel to the rail tracks, was known as ‘the larder of London’ with many warehouses between it and the Thames where individually named wharves were located. There were also many yards on the Surrey Canal into which timber imports were unloaded.

Port of London Authority Plan of the Surrey Commercial Docks in 1961. John still had this framed plan in 2016.

John was tasked primarily with docks inspection, which he carried out not only in Southwark but also in four other Districts with premises subject to Docks Regulations in London (South) Division – Woolwich, Rochester, Maidstone and Brighton. This was the era of Liberty ships, almost ready for scrap, but still able to carry timber cargoes. The Thames had moorings mid-river where cargoes could be unloaded over the side into lighters (barges) by the stevedores, using on-board ships’ derricks. Two of these could be used together in a particular way known as ‘union purchase’ to lift and lower loads. Accidents were common, and the office frequently got calls either from dockers or from the Thames River Police – never from the Master of the vessel!’

Aerial view of the Greenland Dock and surrounding area in 1962. The entrance to the Surrey Canal can be seen on the right.
The Henrique Lage, a Brazilian ship, unloading timber in the Surrey Docks in 1958

Jane recalls staying late one evening to help John type out a large number of informations about an unsafe ship he had visited that day, so that the Master could be prosecuted at Tower Bridge Magistrates’ Court next morning. Speed was essential so that proceedings could be taken and the problems dealt with before the ship finished unloading and departed on the next tide. The case of Turtle v. Anthanossios Pipinnos, Master of S.S. ‘Virginia’, was reported in a Circular Minute in August 1964. It involved a large number of contraventions of the Docks Regulations, ranging from damaged ladders and unprotected steam pipes to unsafe steam-powered winches with broken brakes. Altogether, 17 informations were laid ‘as a representative sample of the conditions of the ship’. The fines imposed by the magistrate came to a total of £82. John had kept this Minute for over 50 years!

John thoroughly enjoyed his time in Southwark, and built up a great rapport with the dockers, who referred to him affectionately as ‘Mr Tuttle’. He shared with Jane a curiosity about ‘industrial archaeology’, many examples of which could still be found in use in some of the premises they inspected. They would gleefully report to each other extant gas engines, water mills milling flour, and of course the famous 1835 beam engine still in use until 1976 at Young’s Brewery in Wandsworth! Most of this fascinating world vanished when increasing containerisation of cargoes in much larger ships led to the docks closing in 1970. John later lectured on industrial archaeology to design students at Hornsey College of Art, and built up a large library of books on the subject (anyone interested in inheriting these, please contact this website for further details!).

John’s wife Jenny takes up the story: ‘John left the Department in 1968 for a new career in broadcasting at the BBC, as previous posts on this website have documented.  Initially he worked in Further Education Radio, where the knowledge gained from his time in the Factory Inspectorate helped him make programmes on management and industry, and then moved on to Consumer Affairs, Magazine Programmes and investigative journalism (You and Hours’ and ‘Checkpoint’). He subsequently transferred to the Radio Training Department, ending his career at the BBC as Head of Radio Training. After leaving full-time employment in 1988, he continued to work in broadcasting, training and consultancy for the World Service, British Forces Broadcasting Service, Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, British Council and the ODA. Many of his consultancy assignments were with radio stations in developing countries, most notably Nepal which he visited 16 times!

As mentioned in earlier posts, John was a keen sailor, owning three boats over more than 20 years and sailing with Jenny many times to Normandy, Brittany and beyond. He was also active for many years in the Mill Hill Preservation Society, a registered charity with over 1000 members, as a committee member, Chairman and President, as well as press spokesman for this and other amenity groups, and advocate at local public inquiries on planning, licensing justices’ hearings and at the Crown Court. His experience all those years ago at Tower Bridge Magistrates’ Court was invaluable….’

John always remembered his time in the Inspectorate and kept in touch by joining the Association of Former HM Inspectors of Factories and the Dining Club, often attending the dinners in London.

 Centenary Dinner of the Dining Club, Claridges, October 1988

Angus Murdoch writes: ‘I was the 1B at Clapham district office, opposite the ‘Arding and Hobbs’ store and John would come over from Southwark Office to help out. He worked mainly on the Surrey Commercial Docks where he had earned a good reputation for enforcing safety standards on the Liberty ships that arrived and unloaded timber using their own steam winches. They were in such poor condition that the clutch would not stay engaged resulting in a falling load. John would stop unloading with a court order from Tower Bridge Magistrates which he nailed to the mast’.

John’s family would very much welcome other comments contributing to this memoir of a vanished dockland world from former members of the Inspectorate.

This post is an amended version of the article that appeared in the Autumn 2016 edition of the Newsletter of the Association of Former HM Inspectors of HSE. Many thanks to the Editor, Pam Waldron, for her help in publishing this memoir.