He lived ‘with fearlessness, style and grace’. Tributes to ex-BT engineer and Suffolk cricketer
PUBLISHED: 17:00 01 September 2019 | UPDATED: 13:29 03 September 2019
Obituary: Eighty-year-old was part of the ‘Windrush generation’ who came to England. He’d help many young adults get a good start in life
December 24, 1975. Joyce Gilkes had forgotten something she needed and so husband John popped into Felixstowe to get it. He also returned with a surprise.
He'd passed an empty house up for sale. The telecommunications engineer and his family were in rented accommodation nearby and had been looking without success for a place to buy. Maybe this was The One.
During that Christmas Eve visit to Felixstowe he called on estate agent Bannister & Co, signalled his interest, and was handed the keys so he could take a look.
"So he came home and wanted me to come out with him," explains Joyce. She was perplexed, but went. "He stopped and said 'I want you to see something.' I watched him get out of the car and walk up the drive. So I followed him, asking 'What are you doing?'
"He produced this key. In we came. He had a lot of explaining to do, because I didn't understand what was going on," she laughs. "We had a look around and just loved it. It felt right."
They moved in the following year, with children Juliet and John junior. It remains the family home - the garden still evidence of John senior's ability to nurture plants.
The couple were married for more than 55 years. They hailed from the West Indies (albeit from islands more than 200 miles apart) but met in London. Both came as Britain courted workers from its colonies to fill key vacancies.
They met after Joyce by chance befriended a lady married to John's uncle.
"I was relieved to be 'introduced' to him, because I grew up having a very sheltered life - never speak to strange men that you hadn't been introduced to," she smiles. "But I was introduced. So that was fine!
"It went on from there. He asked me out; he invited me to a wedding of one of his friends. We kept in touch, and I would see him when I came down, which was not regularly. (Joyce was a nurse in Berkshire; John lived in London.) Before a year was out, he proposed."
What had she liked about him? "He was handsome. Tall. I trusted him from the very beginning. He wasn't the sort of person for whom you had to put on airs and graces. I just had to be myself, because that was the way he was. He was just John.
"I loved him from the beginning; and it was mutual."
In tune with the seasons
John Orville Douglas Gilkes was born in the north of Barbados in 1938. He was the second-oldest of Verona and Eunis's 14 children.
Eunis managed a farm and, says Juliet, taught her father about nature, growing food, tending the land, and flowers.
There's a family story about the beautiful high bushes (flaming red Crotons) that bordered the family home in Jerusalem (Rose Hill, St Peter) and might have been uprooted.
In the mid-1950s a company made the film Island in the Sun on Barbados, starring James Mason, Harry Belafonte, Joan Fontaine and Joan Collins. "The producer, Daryl F Zanuck, wanted them all (the bushes) on the film set," says Juliet. "My grandfather said no."
Young John excelled at school - a very good mathematician. "His mental arithmetic was amazing," says his daughter. "Dad also had a love of English language and literature, and was always reciting poetry.
"And he would sing. His father was a choirmaster and they would tour the island with the family and represent, I guess, the area. He had an amazing voice."
Son John says: "He wanted to become an engineer, initially, but at the time there weren't that many engineering jobs in Barbados, so he took up an apprenticeship as a tailor."
Change wasn't that long in coming - in the shape of a Britain desperate to grow its workforce. John was wooed by London Transport; and his older brother, already living in England, encouraged him to seize the chance.
Between 1948 and 1970 nearly 500,000 people left the West Indies for new lives in Britain.
Buses, and the GPO
"He decided to come over just for a couple of years, initially, to seek his fortune," explains son John. "He had a few family members over here, but it was still quite a big decision."
So the young man sailed for Blighty, arriving at Southampton on the MV Montserrat in September, 1960, after a two-week voyage.
Culture shock for the 22-year-old? "Extreme shock!" admits Joyce. "He wanted to turn around and go home. It was so cold."
Juliet adds: "I would describe him as adventurous and courageous. He grew up with a deep interest in the motherland, because of the way they were taught at school, so it was very much what he wanted to do.
"I think what he found, as everyone did, was the cold. When it snowed, it snowed!"
John settled in the capital and initially worked as a bus conductor before becoming a driver. He also signed up with the Territorial Army, joining the Royal Signals. "That was really where he was able to take further his love of telecommunications," says Juliet.
After a few years with London Transport John joined what was then the GPO - General Post Office - as a line engineer. If there was a problem with phone wires, he was one of the people who would go up a ladder in all weathers to fix them.
Later, says Juliet, "he showed me telephone poles he had actually erected in London. I found it very moving that people were walking by and didn't know that pole was put up by my dad, who was standing there!"
John received promotions and began working in telephone exchanges. Later he moved to the GPO research station in Dollis Hill. His dreams were coming true.
A real family man
Joyce, who'd come to Britain from Trinidad, was working in psychiatric nursing. She was based on the Berkshire-Oxfordshire borders and visited London from time to time. That's how she met the lady married to John's uncle, and then met John himself.
They married in August, 1963, at a register office in Tottenham, with friends as witnesses, and lived in east London. There wasn't a honeymoon. That effectively had to wait until their 50th anniversary, when the family went to Barbados and more or less re-staged the wedding.
Joyce explains: "He always wanted to do more and do better. So we decided then that we needed a house. Therefore the marriage (the wedding) was a very small affair. It worked; within a year we had the deposit, and that was it."
By this time Joyce had given up psychiatric nursing and joined the civil service, working at Somerset House.
Their new home was in Walthamstow. "We had a lovely garden at the back of the house, with flowers down one side. There were a couple of fruit trees, cherry trees, and at the very back he planted vegetables. He kept that beautifully. The lawn was always mowed."
The family grew, with the arrivals of Juliet and then John junior. "My dad was a real family man," he says. "He would come home early to take us out. We'd go to Greenwich to see the Cutty Sark. We'd go to Alexandra Palace..."
His sister remembers: "We used to go to Heathrow Airport and the observation deck, watching planes coming in."
Leather on willow
With cricket a national passion in the West Indies, it was little surprise John took to the field in his adopted England.
He was a founding member of the Leyton Cavaliers Cricket Club, a West Indian team based in Walthamstow in the early 1970s.
"He was a very talented cricketer," says his son. "That moulded our lives as well, because summer Saturdays and Sundays would find my dad playing and us going to watch.
"My mother would do teas and get involved in scoring. Other children would be there, so we just ran around - at home and away matches. It was just a wonderful time, growing up."
John was a committed supporter of the West Indian cricket team (ace batsman Brian Lara a particular favourite).
"When they toured, we'd go down to London; and if they were (later on) playing a match in Essex, we'd go to Chelmsford," says John junior.
"Our dad would get mistaken for Clive Lloyd, actually! Clive Lloyd" - the Windies' captain during their period of dominance - "had the same moustache. Dad always laughed that one off."
"We got mobbed once, leaving the ground," remembers Juliet. "Dad had to say 'Clive Lloyd's over there!'"
Going to matches was also a great way of meeting other West Indian amateur cricketers and keeping up with the social scene, says John. "A lot of the club players would go to these matches - people he hadn't seen for a while - and sometimes relatives as well."
With both children spending their first decade of life in the capital, just about, the prospect of leaving their friends and the city they knew was anathema. Or, as John junior puts it, they hated the idea.
It followed the decision to wind down Dollis Hill and decamp to a new Post Office Research Centre at Martlesham Heath, outside Ipswich.
The family went - and, as son John remembers, the move from the city was organised brilliantly.
"Our parents were very smart. When it looked as if this opportunity would come, my mum and dad would drive us up to Suffolk every weekend.
"We would spend time driving around, looking at prospective schools - this was summer, so schools were out, but we walked around and got used to the general idea. By the time we did move, it was like we'd been living there already.
"By then my mother had left the civil service and was a teacher. So she knew about the education system in Suffolk, and really helped us transition from London. It was seamless in the end."
And the youngsters of Trimley St Martin gave the newcomers a warm welcome when the Pickfords removal van pulled up in the late summer of 1975.
Thinking about it gives Juliet goosebumps even now. "They asked Dad if they could play with us. He unloaded our bikes and we were off" - blackberry-picking, recalls her brother - "for the rest of the day."
A patient mentor
The Martlesham Heath complex was officially opened by the Queen in November, 1975. Its name would morph over time: BT Research Laboratories; shortened to BT Laboratories; and, about two decades ago, reborn as high-tech hub Adastral Park.
John worked at Martlesham Heath for 17 years or so, in telecoms research and engineering. Fibre optics and high-definition television were some of the projects in which he was involved. He loved the work.
His experience wasn't allowed to dwindle away when he retired from BT. John began teaching. He worked for Pelcombe Training, helping young adults develop skills that increased their chances of getting a job.
John taught subjects such as electrical engineering and maths, and took to it. "He had a strong desire to mentor," says his son.
Juliet: "He had this patient, quiet, empathetic nature, and was able to teach young people who perhaps didn't follow a conventional educational path. He really enjoyed that and, I believe, made a difference."
Joyce says that years later her husband would bump into former students who told him how grateful they were for his dedication and teaching skills.
Joyce, by the way, taught at Tower Ramparts school in the middle of Ipswich. When it closed, she moved to Stoke High School. Early on, she was the only black teacher working for the local education authority.
She taught humanities - geography, history and RE - and was also a head of year at Stoke High.
A sporting gentleman
Did John put away his bat and pads when he left London? Of course not.
"He wore his love and enjoyment of cricket when he came to Suffolk," confirms his son. John had many successful seasons (often as captain) for sides that included the British Telecom works team, Achilles Cricket Club in Ipswich (and its sister side, Paul's) and Suffolk Over 50s.
John also loved encouraging and developing young talent.
"He was a good all-rounder," says John junior. "Batting was his primary speciality, but he was also an effective medium-pace right-arm bowler and right-hand batsman who generally opened the innings for Achilles."
His opening partner for many years, former accountant John McNally, says of his pal: "He was a credit to West Indies cricket and the finest batting partner I had in more than 50 years of playing cricket. A complete sporting gentleman."
A lifelong optimist
John developed bowel cancer towards the end of his life, but never lost his sense of humour.
The family says he fought with determination to the very end. "In the face of heavy odds, he would simply and humbly say 'Let not your heart be troubled'." It's from the Gospel of John: Chapter 14, verse one.
The family posted a photograph on social media, showing John giving the thumbs-up sign - a symbol of his eternal optimism and strength of character.
"The glass was never half-empty. It was always half-full," says Joyce.
When it was clear John didn't have much time left, the hospital arranged "leave" for him to come home. It turned out to be three days before he died. So he came home for the last time - listened to music; had lunch. "Though he had to be readmitted, it was nice for him to do that," says John junior.
His father died peacefully, surrounded by his family, less than a fortnight shy of his 81st birthday. He leaves wife Joyce, children Juliet and John, daughter-in-law Kristin, sisters Iola and Mendelle, and brothers Owen, Ricky, Terry and Rawle.
And, of course, great memories.
Lessons for life
"He was such a good gardener," says Juliet, who has strong recollections of her father mowing the lawn, tending fig trees and harvesting green beans.
"I'd try to grow them in London and they'd be attacked by greenfly, but he managed a profusion of produce. We'd never need to go to Sainsbury's for tomatoes or fresh spinach. He was so close to nature."
John: "He was very curious. He was a DIY guy. If there was something that needed doing, he would learn how to do it, and do it himself.
"Sometimes it would be cheaper to bring someone in, but he was curious about how things worked. I think that ran through his career, and was why he liked the type of engineering research he was doing.
"He also liked to get his hands dirty. His garage was always full of tools: he liked to build; he liked to create. He'd sketch something out and work out the problems as he went.
"I liked that about him. It was something he taught us - that nothing is beyond you. 'Try. What's the worst that could happen?'"
Juliet and her brother remember their father building an organ for them, and remote-controlled planes. He'd consult Haynes Manuals so he could do his own car servicing and repairs.
Joyce remembers her husband inventing a useful gadget after a stroke in 2015 affected the left side of his body and limited what he could do in the garden, the practical work he relished, and everyday tasks that would usually have been so simple.
John designed something to hold his hot water bottle while he filled it using his "good" hand.
"He was very pragmatic," she says. "I don't recall him getting in a big flap about something, if there was something that could be done about it. 'This has happened; what can we do about it? What is the next step?'
"He wouldn't dwell too much or too long on what was happening and ignore moving on. He'd do something about it. I think it was a good example for Juliet and (son) John: when things happen, you get busy."
Juliet - who became a journalist with the BBC, reporting from countries such as Ethiopia and Haiti, and is now a playwright whose work has been staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company - remembers the day before her driving test.
Dad took her out to practise… and she hit a car while trying to negotiate a roundabout in Ipswich.
"He got out, sorted it all out, and said 'Yep. Take it again!' I had to do the roundabout again. It was that thing about 'getting back on the horse'. And then he had me drive home. He didn't take over because there had been a problem. I think that's something we've carried forward."
John junior, who works in forensic accountancy in the United States, says his parents were great believers in education, and made many sacrifices so their children had the widest opportunities.
His father continued gaining knowledge, too. "He always wanted to learn something new. It was a good lesson."
Joyce looks through the window to the garden wall at the front of the house. It curves pleasingly into the driveway. Her husband built it.
"He wasn't a mason; he wasn't a bricklayer. But he worked that out. That's his handiwork - as a complete novice. Every time I come in there, I remember that."
Their son sums up John in eight words: "Warm sense of humour, excellent sportsman, great father.
"With his strength of personality and optimism he made a lot of friends very easily. He was also a very good singer. Loved Welsh male-voice choirs, country and western music, Nat King Cole."
The family says: "John touched many lives during a life well lived, which he conducted, like the great batsman he was, with fearlessness, style and grace."
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