OBITUARY: John Frank Woodhouse Read M.A. 1933 – 2020

Published Saffron Walden Historical Journal No 40 Autumn 2020

John Read, born in Winchmore Hill in 1933, was the oldest surviving child of Dr Frank Read and Margaret Woodhouse, who had spent seven years in India with the Church Missionary Society where, tragically they lost three previous babies. Soon after their return to England John was born, and the family then settled in Brighton, where at the age of five, John a bright lad, commenced his private education.

With WW2 came the inevitable disruption with his school having to close in 1940, so he was moved to another establishment in the town namely the Xaverian College. At the end of the war John’s father gained a position as a GP in Nottinghamshire, so it was decided to send John to Epsom College in 1946. He did well at GCE O Level, showing skill in sciences and mathematics, but opted for A Level languages as he had a particular interest in these subjects. He was accepted to study law at St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford at the age of 17.

National Service, however, stood in his way so in 1951 John found himself in Aldershot, but after only 6-8 weeks was on his way to Bodmin in Devon to join the Joint Services School of Linguists. This was at the height of the Cold War and the Army was looking for suitable candidates to learn Russian. John passed the assessment with ease and so was sent to Cambridge on the Interpreters’ Course. He emerged from there speaking the language fluently; indeed he added to his credits by taking and passing his fourth A Level in Russian. After another period at Bodmin to learn Military Russian, he spent the rest of his sojourn at the Intelligence Corps Headquarters at Maresfield, Sussex.

Oxford University beckoned and John went up to St Edmund’s Hall where, after a change of heart, he decided to read English – two of his tutors were J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis. Upon graduation he was snapped up by what is now the Standard Chartered Bank, which was looking for young men with a strong mathematical aptitude to work abroad in credit control. After a relatively short training stint in London John was posted abroad in 1957. He spent many years overseas in such places as India, Malaysia, Borneo, Bangladesh and particularly Saigon during the Vietnam War. His comment about that time was: ‘It was a wonderful life, it took me to parts of the world I’d never been before’. John’s final overseas stint between 1969 and 1972 was spent in Indonesia where he met his future wife, Farida who was working at the Jakarta branch.

After their marriage in 1972 they returned to the UK and settled upon Saffron Walden, as John could commute to the bank’s London office from Audley End. Additionally, although John at that time was a reluctant churchgoer, his interest was aroused by bellringing, not just because of the strange jargon used, but also the mathematical formulae of change ringing. Coupled with this, St Mary’s Church unusually has 12 bells, thus making it fairly exceptional in campanology terms.  

John then threw himself into a variety of organisations and pursuits, especially in the role of Treasurer. He was the longest-serving Council member of the Anglo-Indonesian Society at 41 years. The Saffron Walden branches of the United Nations Society and the Essex Society for Family History, of which he was a member since its inception in 1974, greatly benefited from his experience and guidance. He also spent many years as an active member of the Saffron Walden Archive Society, and until last year fulfilled the role of Auditor for the Saffron Walden Historical Society.  

One of John’s hobbies was recording old documents. He single-handedly transcribed the St. Mary’s burial records from 1558 to 2000, using the original entries in the National Burial Index; and for the last ten years had been actively involved in the St Mary’s Baptism Register project just completed by the Family History Society local branch. In 2017 John completely revised and updated Dr Kenneth Dixon’s A History & Guide of St. Mary’s Church, Saffron Walden, by using additional material from his own research on certain features of the church, notably the war memorials and ledger stones.

Mike Furlong

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