Retired headmaster and former Ryde Church organist John Lea has become a published author in his mid-80s, with two adventure stories for children that are based on his own experience as a schoolboy evacuee in the 1940s. Jackie McCarrick has been finding out more about his eventful life.
There’s nothing quite like learning about historical events from somebody who was actually there, which is why John Lea’s books about so-called “Vackies” hold such appeal for children who find themselves studying the Second World War as part of the National Curriculum – as well as adult readers with a fascination for the past.
Having previously been invited many times into Island schools to give first-hand talks about being a wartime evacuee, John decided to put down his experiences in a more entertaining form by penning his books “The Vackie Heroes” in 2016 and then “Vackies in Trouble” last year.
With distinct echoes of The Famous Five, the adventure stories – using a bit of artistic licence – are based on the 18-month period that John, along with his older sister and three other children, were boarded with a family at a seaside guest house in lfracombe, Devon.
Now aged 86 and living at a retirement apartment in Wootton Bridge, John still has a vivid memory of the day that his eight year-old self and his older sister Thelma were put on a train by their parents, for the long, unsettling journey away from their home in Wimbledon, south London.
“It was very frightening for us, of course” he recalls. “I remember our parents being told to stand back from the train as we were herded aboard by the lady we called ‘The Commander’. It was a very long train journey and we had no real idea where we were going.”
However, it wasn’t long before the curious young John began to discover that there were distinct advantages in being away from his usual home and family routines.
“It gave me much more freedom than I’d ever been allowed at home” he recalls.
“We were billeted at a boarding house with a Mr and Mrs Jones, who had no children of their own and took on five of us altogether. I suppose because they were foster parents, they weren’t quite as strict as our own parents, and we were allowed a lot of freedom to do as we liked”.
In fact, because of the sheer numbers of children who were evacuated to the seaside town, its schools couldn’t provide full-time schooling for all of them, so they ended up having either morning or afternoon lessons, leaving them plenty of free time for adventures.
These included some of the scrapes that John describes in his books, such as coming across a German spy hiding out in a tunnel under the Bristol Channel, and exploring a spooky abandoned chapel that was reputed to have a resident ghost. There were also the friendships the children made with local fishermen, who regaled them with colourful tales of shipwrecks and spectres.
John admits that whilst his stories may have been somewhat embroidered, they’re based firmly on real-life events.
“I think that adventure stories are a very good way to teach children – much better than presenting them with dry facts and figures” he says.
And John should know, for he spent a lifetime in education, including 25 years as a headmaster – eight of them as Head of Ryde Juniors from the late 1960s to mid-70s, and then 17 years as head of a school in Croydon.
Back to the classroom
So how did a boy who wasn’t that keen on school – and in fact, was delighted when he only had to spend half days in the classroom because of the war – end up as a headmaster who worked in education for 40 years?
John admits that his schooling suffered badly during his 18 months as an evacuee, and when he returned to London at the age of 10, his mother was ‘devastated’ to see how far he had fallen behind.
“I didn’t re-adjust to school very well when I got back home, and was miles behind” he says. “In fact I failed the 11-plus.”
However he was lucky that the Wimbledon secondary school he attended was a good one, and gradually he was brought back up to speed and began enjoying his lessons. In fact he ended up doing so well that he got a place at University – although he couldn’t take it up immediately as he had to do his National Service in the RAF.
Frustratingly, during his service, the compulsory term was extended from 18 months to two years – but by what he describes as ‘a stroke of luck’ he saw an advert for trainee teachers, which were badly needed at the time, to replace all those who had retired or been lost during the war.
He applied and was accepted at the Institute of Education at London University, and in the circumstances, was allowed to end his National Service early.
A teacher in the making
John excelled in his studies, coming away with an Honours Degree, and then went on to Trinity College of Music where he developed his passion for music.
“I’m not sure where it came from” he laughs. “My father was completely tone-deaf and my mother’s musical ability only extended to singing pop songs of the time!”
It was after working as an English and music teacher for some years, that John saw an advert for the Headmaster post at Ryde Junior School in 1968.
Like many people, he had fond memories of family holidays spent on the Island with his wife Sheila and young son Jonathan, and so he applied for the job, and got it, against competition from 16 other applicants.
Here on the Island he immersed himself in school life at Ryde, and also became the organist and choirmaster at Ryde Church.
When, eight years later, he was offered the Headship of a prep school in Purley, the family were keen to maintain their connection with the Island so they kept a holiday home here, and came back to it regularly.
John and Sheila also left behind their son Jonathan, then aged 17, who had secured himself an apprenticeship with Plessey Radar and had been judged their Apprentice of the Year.
Jonathan married young and set up home on the Island when an almost unimaginable double tragedy struck the family: the young couple’s first baby died of cot death, and then just three months after his wife had given birth to a second child, Jonathan was killed in a motorbike accident.
It was naturally a harrowing time for John and Sheila, and if there were any crumb of comfort that came from their loss, it was the huge joy and pride they experienced in seeing their little grandson Jeremy, now aged 27, growing up.
Ironically, Jeremy has followed his grandfather into teaching. He was married last year, to another teacher, and is now living in Dorset.
“I suppose teaching must be in the blood” says John, who takes particular delight in visits from his only grandson.
John and his late wife Sheila – formerly a nurse at Guys Hospital – finally retired back to the Island in 1991 and he stepped seamlessly back into his role as organist and musical director at Ryde Church, almost as if he had never been away.
He finally retired from the role in 2011 and admits he does miss it – although it seems he isn’t short of many other activities to fill his time.
A life in music
As well as writing children’s stories, he loves to compose music and has had some success with several of his pieces.
In fact he wrote the music and words for the winning Millennium Hymn sung at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1999 and Portsmouth Cathedral on New Year’s Day of 2000.
Over 700 composers submitted entries for the hymn-writing competition and, according to John, nobody was more surprised and delighted than he was to be announced the winner.
He went on to write another hymn to mark the 75th anniversary of the Portsmouth Diocese in 2002, and a commemorative plate of that event takes pride of place at his home – a retirement apartment in Wootton.
Widowed when his much-loved wife Sheila died last year, John says he has been helped by the support of his many friends and neighbours on the Island.
He also keeps busy with his various projects, and has been asked by his book publisher Stockwell to come up with a third story in the ‘Vackies’ series. Hence he is currently working on ‘Vackies Go Home’ – as well as developing an idea he has for a different genre of book.
“I’m not exactly a JK Rowling, but the Vackies books are doing pretty well, and particularly in the USA and Canada, because it seems Americans like anything to do with that period of history” he says.
The books are also selling steadily on Amazon and, not surprisingly, on the Island, where John has done a few local author signing sessions.
He says he retains a lifelong fondness for Ilfracombe, and has made three return visits over the years to check out his childhood haunts.
But he’s clear where his heart really lies, and it’s here on the Island, which he describes as ‘home’, with an audible capital H.
* John’s ‘Vackies’ books can be found at most bookshops (though not WHSmith) as well as on Amazon, or the website of publisher Arthur H. Stockwell.