Not many solicitors can suddenly break into song in the native tongue of Gurkha soldiers. And not many solicitors have both defended and prosecuted Japanese Secret Police following crimes committed in the Second World War.
But clearly John Gurney-Champion is no ordinary solicitor, especially when you consider he still practises – even though he will reach the grand age of 91 in a few weeks time.
“I still find my work interesting, and I shall never retire,” insists John, who lives near Newport with Elizabeth, his wife of 62 years.The couple have six children, 15 grandchildren and one great grandchild. So Island Life caught up with John to get an insight into his remarkable life.
He was born in Taunton in 1923, but moved to the Island at the age of three. His father, grandfather and great grandfather were all solicitors; and his father had a brother and brother-in-law in the legal profession, while two of John’s sons are also solicitors. He smiled: “My father said I argued so much as a boy I ought to be a solicitor.”
John’s father was in the family firm with offices in London, Brighton and Eastbourne. At the age of 52 he bought a practice in Newport in 1926 called Parker and Gurney-Champion. Meanwhile John attended the convent in Carisbrooke, and then went to Ryde School. But he smiled: “At Ryde School I wrote a poem that had sexual comments in it; my mother found it in my blazer pocket, decided Ryde School was having a bad influence on me, and promptly sent me to the very religious Monkton Combe School near Bath.
“I was only there for a year, before my father, who wasn’t in good health withdrew me, and I started as an articled clerk for him in his Newport office in 1939.”
John, who remembers seeing the cattle market in St James Square, Newport as a boy, took the solicitors’ intermediate exam in London in 1940 during the Second World War blitz, and was called up for army duty in the war in 1942.
A member of the Royal Hampshire Regiment stationed in Colchester. He later moved to Consett in the north east, and was soon selected to train to become an officer, being commissioned in 1944 as Second Lieutenant.
But that year he was released on compassionate grounds because his father had do undergo an operation, so he ran the solicitors’ practice in Newport as an 18-year-old articled clerk, with special permission from the Law Society.
John later returned to the Army and was posted to India in December 1944, joining the Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles, where all the officers were British. He said: “I had to learn elementary Urdu, the language of the Indian Army, and did so in one month, and then learned Gurkhali, which the Gurkhas speak. I went to a jungle warfare training centre, and then into Burma as Lieutenant with the 1st Battalion 3rd Gurkha Rifles.
“I found Burma most attractive; the Gurkhas were very friendly, jolly and intensely loyal, and I can’t speak too highly of them. I learned a lot of Gurkha songs we used to sing, and I still can remember and sing them to this day.” He suddenly burst into song to prove his point!
John was in Taunggyi, Burma when the Second World War ended and after a skiing holiday in Kashmir, followed by a short spell with the Worcestershire Regiment in Burma, he successfully requested to join the War Crimes Courts in September 1946. He said: “I started in Rangoon as British Advisory Officer to the Japanese defence team. My job was to advise on British military law for tribunals. Most of the war atrocities the Japanese committed were about 50 per cent against our forces and 50 per cent against the civilian population.
“The usual defence was that the atrocity did occur, but they had got the wrong person for it – basically mistaken identity. The lawyer side of me took priority over the army side; I regarded the Japanese as my clients and it was my duty to do the best I could for them.
“I worded a lot of their appeals, and a number of appeals were a success. So the powers-that-be decided I was getting too good at defending the Japs, so I ought to prosecute them instead. I had the rank of Captain when I was defending, but when I started prosecuting I went up to Major, and moved to Malaya, based in Singapore.
“The biggest trial I prosecuted was at the age of 23 against a complete unit of Japanese Secret Police, which resulted in five death by hanging, and the rest imprisoned. All that, and my only previous experience before the War Crimes trials was two years as an articled clerk in Newport.”
When John returned home he passed the solicitors’ final exam, with honours, becoming a solicitor on May 6, 1949. He said: “There were three of us in the firm – my father, myself and one other – but my father died a month after I qualified, leaving me as the senior partner at a young age.”
A further office was opened in Portsmouth in 1958 as Gurney-Champion and Co, and John’s son Nicholas now runs that office. However, there are plans for Nicholas to return to the Island and to re-open the Quay Street premises that John still owns.
In the meantime, John still works from home, and says: “I am working flat out; at least six days a week. I shall never retire because I still find the work interesting. I was also a founder member of Newport Round Table, and still belong to both Vectis and Cowes 41 Clubs. I try to keep fit, still do a lot of walking, and lead several walks during the Isle of Wight Walking Festival. I keep myself very busy!”
John also appointed himself unofficial historian for the Gurney family, and following extensive research has managed to trace the family tree as far back as a ninth century Viking, who settled in the town of Gournay in northern France. The Lords of Gournay came to England with William the Conqueror and fought at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and John is a direct descendant.
The Gurney family also had strong links to Norfolk, and Elizabeth Fry, an English prison reformer known as the ‘Angel of Prisons’, was born in 1780 as Elizabeth Gurney.