John Matthews describes himself as ‘not being a typical coroner or judge’, and it is easy to see why.
John was coroner of the Isle of Wight for 18 years until 2012, and still assumes the role of assistant coroner. He was also a Deputy District Judge from 1991 to 2013, and a Tribunal Judge from 2002 – one of only two men in the whole country to have held all three positions.
But his workload did not end there. Church organist; writer; lecturer in law and history, and even stand-in Punch and Judy man to name but a few more part-time occupations. Certainly not your average coroner or judge!
John is the only member of his family not born on the Island, simply because in 1943 his father was serving in the Army in London, and his mother was also there. Two weeks later his father was sent to Birmingham to serve, and just before the Second World War ended in 1945, he was sent out to the Middle East, and his mother returned to the Island.
John’s father came from Shanklin, and his mother from Sandown. Both his grandfathers were born on the Island, and three branches of the family stretch back to living here in the 18th century. “Everyone else in the family has been born on the Island except for me, and that was purely because of the war,” he said.
But he knows how important it was to draw on his Island roots, along with his Christian faith, during his difficult and often heart-breaking role of coroner. He recalls: “I did 70 to 80 inquests a year, totalling more than 1,500 in all. Sometimes it was very harrowing, particularly when children had died, or when a husband had killed his wife and then committed suicide.
“I always felt the best days were when I saw a family looking very frightened and bewildered, but at the end of the day much calmer. I would talk to people unless they were very angry. I always felt I had achieved something if after I spoke to them they could see things clearer.
“An inquest is often the last time a person is talked of in public, and I always tried to say something nice about the person who had died. It might have been a hopeless drug addict, but it was someone’s son, and I would say to the family the world might say he did not achieve anything in his life, but the world would be wrong; you are here, and you wouldn’t be here unless you loved him.
“A person who creates love and affection in other people has not lived in vain. That was something positive for them to go away with, and if that did happen I felt I had done something for them. I am a devout Christian, and I felt it was a Ministry, albeit a strange one. I was trying to minister people in deep need, at their worst, because death hits us hard.
“I liked to put a human face on it, so I made my court as domestic as possible. I often asked if I could refer to the deceased by their first name, and parents liked that because often you were talking about their son or daughter. I tried to act like an ordinary person.
“Being on the Island it was no good putting on airs and graces in court, and for someone to say later ‘I knew what you were like at school.’ I don’t think I have changed since I was a child – I like fun and don’t take life too seriously, that is why I am not a typical coroner or judge. To work on the Island, you don’t just have to be in the community, but accepted by it, otherwise Islanders will take no notice of you.”
John was educated at Ryde C of E Primary School and Sandown Grammar School. He once worked in an ice cream factory, but later studied law at Southampton University; once wanted to be a Town Clerk, but became a solicitor at the age of 24. He was thrown in at the deep end, defending prisoners, and had one or two close encounters. He smiled: “Once I was accidentally locked in a cell with a dangerous thug I was to represent for 20 minutes before being let out by a police officer, who forgot I was in there.
“I was put on the spot once when a prisoner I was defending told me he was guilty but wanted me to continue with the case. I told him to plead guilty or get another solicitor, and he pleaded guilty. It was not my job to judge a defendant, but put over his case as well as possible. As long as I actually knew for sure that the defendant was talking rubbish, because he had told me, I carried on as best I could. If he is acquitted that was because the court decided, not because of what I did.”
He continued: “I even did a Punch and Judy Show for some kids after the Punch and Judy man couldn’t make it. I think my maddest day was when I defended burglars in the magistrates’ court; played the organ for a funeral at St John’s Church, Newport; was the Punch and Judy Man at Newport Carnival, and in the evening went back to the police cells to talk to the burglars.”
John recalls how he once conducted an inquest watched closely by three daughters of the deceased. He said: “I tried to be compassionate, and passed on my condolences, to which they replied ‘we are not sorry; we only came here to make sure he is dead’!”
“You can’t say you enjoy the role of coroner because normally you see people when they are at their most miserable and vulnerable. My job was to try to get them through the inquest as quickly and painlessly as possible.”
His workload took its toll in 2000. He said: “I felt ill and started worrying about things. I couldn’t even take telephone calls. I was worrying over the silliest cases, not being in court but the preparation. So I gave up defending crime and thought I would miss it, but I didn’t.”
As a coroner his most notorious case was the inquest of the ‘Jersey Beast’, who had a 15-year reign of terror in Jersey, killing young women, before being caught around 1975. John explained: “When he was caught he was sentenced to a long term in prison, and ended up at Parkhurst. After release he settled on the Island, married a local woman, and died of natural causes.
“The body was taken to Jersey, but there was such uproar with people wanting to throw it in the sea, it was brought back here. I held a swift inquest, and the body was buried immediately on the Isle of Wight in a grave that no one knows about.”
John spends his recreation time playing the church organ at St John’s, Newport, enjoying bridge, walking and gardening, and he has also taken up bowls, but is not finding it easy. He also recently fulfilled a lifelong ambition, saying: “As a kid I wanted to be a bus driver, and was finally given the opportunity to drive a double-decker bus as a surprise birthday present on the Southern Vectis training ground at Rookley. It was great fun!”