Savile Snuff


Those who knew John best will be well aware of his long connection with the Savile Club. The Savile, at 69 Brook Street W1, is a traditional London gentleman’s club with membership restricted to men, although women have for some years been welcomed as guests. The Club was founded in 1868 by a group of distinguished literati, including Rudyard Kipling and Henry James, and over the years membership has always appealed to creative and eccentric people – writers, artists, actors and musicians. However, as the Club’s website records: “When electing members the Savile has always been less concerned by what a candidate does, or by who he is, than by what kind of a person he is as a man, and whether he will fit congenially into the “Sodalitas”of the club.”  The Club motto is Sodalitas Convivium which can be roughly translated as convivial companionship. John, who joined the Savile in January 1979, when he was well established in his career as a BBC writer, broadcaster, producer and trainer, was very well qualified for membership on both these counts.E4088D58-0DE0-4268-8CE0-207B6F06068B

The Club has many time-honoured traditions. One of these which definitely appealed to John was the game of Savile Snooker, with its own special and idiosyncratic rules, first written down – and possibly invented – by Stephen Potter of ‘Gamesmanship’ fame. But this deserves a separate post at a later date. The long Members Table in the Dining Room has a thriving tradition of lively conversation between those who gather round it.

Another historic Club tradition which John helped to carry forward at the Savile was that of taking snuff. The practice of inhaling snuff, or powdered tobacco, became common in Europe in the 17th century, continued throughout the 18th and the 19th centuries, and still has many adherents. The Club had a communal snuff box, stocked with different varieties of snuff, and made available for the use of members. John, as one who relished this perk, was happy to take on the not particularly arduous task of choosing and ordering snuff to replenish the contents of the box as and when required. In recognition of this role, he was awarded the title of Honorary Keeper of the Snuff.


At home, John also took snuff, which he stored in one or more of several small individual snuff boxes he collected over the years. Although whether he acquired this habit before or after he had been indoctrinated at the Savile, I cannot now remember.

The original historic Savile snuff box was – according to John himself, in an email I discovered on his computer after he died – a silver box engraved with the Club name and donated c. 1880 by one Henry John Hood, who was elected in 1869 a year after the Club’s foundation. He was Hon Secretary 1879-99 and a Trustee 1912-16 when he died. He was a conveyancing and property solicitor. There is a portrait of him, heavily moustached, in the Drawing Room. His snuff box was stolen about a dozen years ago and replaced with an inferior snuff mull, a portion of a ram’s horn surmounted with a pewter eagle.  However, a year or two before John died, this eagle was also stolen, a dastardly crime commemorated in one of John’s comic verses, Upon the Theft of the Eagle from the Savile‘s Snuff Mull. 

As the 150th anniversary of the Savile’s foundation approached, there was a proposal by John and the Club Chairman Robert Harding to celebrate the occasion by  replacing the damaged snuff horn with a new and superior snuff box, with three rather than two compartments for the snuff, and too large to be pocketed.  This proposal was carried forward by Robert, and funded by a donation from the Turtle family in memory of John. Bryony Knox, a former student of Bishopsland, a school for silversmiths run by a previous chairman of the Savile, was commissioned to design and execute the work.

AE96D85B-9636-4682-B3B0-9C114BCA4834Bryony’s beautiful and unusual design is for a three-sided mahogany box with a lid, surmounted with the silver head of a snow leopard. The lid is removed to reveal three individual silver snuff boxes lined with gilt and with airtight spring-loaded lids to keep the snuff in top condition. The lids are chased with illustrations of the tobacco plant – leaves, buds and flowers. Each side of the box has an engraved silver plaque, one of which is in memory of John.  Bryony’s more detailed description of the commission can be read in her Snowie Description.

The new snuff box is now kept safely in a locked trophy cabinet in the Dining Room, and circulated for the use of members on appropriate occasions. If you are ever in the Savile, do request a viewing – it is a splendid work of art and a fitting memorial to the most convivial of men.





A short history of the Turtle family

This illustrated history of the Turtle family, written by John in 2002-4, summarises what he had discovered, through extensive research, about the life of his great-grandfather, John Turtle.  It includes some details of John Turtle’s son, also called John, who was John’s grandfather, and his grandson, John’s father, John William Turtle, known to the family as Jack.

A copy of the history, together with a CD of family photographs, has apparently been deposited with the Bexley Borough local history archive.

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Great Uncle Walter





On Remembrance Sunday we like to remember John’s Great Uncle Walter, who died of his wounds in Bethune, France on 4 February 1915. Walter was the son of John’s great-grandparents, Mary Ann and Edward Tilson, of King’s Lynn Norfolk, and brother of John’s maternal grandfather, also Edward Tilson. After attending St Nicholas School in King’s Lynn, Walter was employed at the garage of W H Johnsons in Hunstanton and then became a chauffeur, first for the Lycett Green family in Snettisham, and then for Lord Worsley at Brocklesby Park in Lincolnshire.

Walter enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers in September 1914, afterwards transferring as chief gunner to the No. 1 Battery of the Motor Machine Gun Service.  From the goggles on his hat in the photo above, it is possible he rode one of the motor-cycles with sidecar on which the guns were usually mounted at this time. He was sent to France on Christmas Eve 1914.

Walter was just 23 when he died. The cause of death was a bullet wound in the stomach. In a letter conveying the news of his death, his Commanding Officer wrote: ‘He now lies, a brave soldier, in a soldier’s grave at Bethune. He was up to his death the same brave, fine lad, full of good spirits, as he has been since under my command. He has given his life for a noble cause. He fought well, he died well; the reward will be his.’

The following photos of Walter in some of the cars he drove in civilian life, and details of his final resting place, were assembled and carefully preserved by John, who always took a keen interest in his family’s history. The photo of his headstone in Bethune Town Cemetery was taken by John’s cousin Caroline, who visited the grave in 2015.






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.”