John Russell has been a Royal British Legion member for nearly three decades. Born and bred in Byfield, the son of a local grocery shopkeeper, he has been active in village life throughout his eighty plus years. This past ten he has been our very effective Poppy Appeal Organiser, accommodating without any outward sign of difficulty the gradual expansion of our Branch’s area, as others nearby have closed. The irony of that is in all that time, despite repeated representation to the hierarchy, and increasing this very rural area’s annual collection to over ten thousand pounds in the process, he has yet to be officially acknowledged in that post. No matter, after just short of another thirty years of his life as a government official, John was never one to be shackled by bureaucracy; he would often grab a problem and wrap himself around it, not unlike his goalkeeping tactic that became known locally as the “Russell roll”. Conversely, he would often find a way around a situation by seeing a rapid resolution that could have but didn’t, leave him in hot water.
Having said that, Byfield School’s records go back over one hundred years and there’s no escaping the entries in its punishment book; he was a prankster and today might be deemed disruptive but he still passed his “11+”, which secured him a place at Towcester Grammar School, to where he commuted every day by steam train from Byfield railway station. In his mid-teens, being of a practical rather than academic nature John, began a motor mechanic’s indentured apprenticeship with a garage just across the Northamptonshire county border, in Banbury, Oxfordshire. In the image on the right, note one of John's Dad's railway waggons - to find out more, take a look at his auto-biography - see below.
Those were the days of compulsory National Service but because of his apprenticeship his call-up was deferred until that was completed; eventually he joined the RAF. Some old hands might say surprisingly, the RAF acknowledged his new-found knowledge of vehicles and allowed him to expand his experience of the same, rather than making him a cook.
The majority of his time in the forces was spent at the RAF Cottesmore V-Bomber base in Rutland. This was at the height of the Cold War, with many thinking a nuclear holocaust was almost inevitable but he still managed regular trips over the sixty or so miles home to Byfield, the attraction being courting his future wife Jill, and his goalkeeper’s position in Byfield Athletic Football Club, for whom he continued to play for another twenty years.
He did return to that garage in Banbury after his bout in the RAF but not for long; he subsequently secured a job maintaining plant, equipment and a fleet of lorries for a company a couple of villages away across the other border, Warwickshire; he still has a family connection with that firm, which is in the same business today.
His past experience got him a job with the Ministry of Transport in Northampton that ended with him managing the Ministry’s testing station at Weedon. That station checked thousands of heavy goods’ vehicles and not a few public service busses to ensure they met current roadworthiness regulations. In days of yore it was not uncommon for vehicles to be randomly channeled into a lay-by set-up as a temporary testing station; in this area, which included the newly opened M1, any serious violations required the vehicle to go to Weedon for deeper analysis! These days those temporary checks are few and far between because of the MOT vehicle test requirements; a service that John helped to set-up. After that, he went around testing the testers!
In parallel to his work, and taking-up most of his spare time, not to mention nearly all of his life after his retirement, were his community commitments both local and national. He seemed to be into everything, not only local politics, as Chairman of Byfield Parish Council for nearly a quarter of a century but wider afield, as a Daventry District Councillor; during that time John was elected Chairman for two separate terms. Even further afield he was a member of The Sports Council and the National Committee of Personal and Human Resources. Not only that, although he has never played cricket in his life, he was President of the Byfield Cricket Club for a long time, during which he was instrumental in saving that club, and the football club from eviction by rallying the villagers and raising money, tripled by Government grant, to add to, refurbish and maintain the Brightwell recreation ground in the middle of the village. All of this was eventually recognized in 1990 by John being awarded the British Empire Medal.
The image above shows John being presented with hia medal by John Lowther, the Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire.
It must be said that he is winding down now but he and Jill still lovingly maintain their large vegetable garden, and their lawns and borders. His active although not abstemious life has stood him in good stead; his 80th birthday present to himself was to swim eighty lengths of Daventry Leisure Centre’s 25m pool. And, finishing where we started, John still runs our Poppy Appeal like a business, and we’re all the better for that.
If you want to know more about Byfield, and John in particular just pick-up a copy of his books “Discovering Byfield” (ISBN 0 – 9551505-0-7 2005) and digitally, “A Country Boy at Heart” via http://www.blurb.com/b/6982230-a-country-boy-at-heart . That’s the story of John’s life and as a piece of social history, its worth reading.
You could also visit our village and view its hard-copy photographic history, another of John’s claims to fame; a series of albums containing over three thousand photographs of our village over this past hundred years. John quite rightly maintains that a photographic print will still be easily readable in a hundred years’ hence but it’s questionable if today’s digital storage will be decodable by the man in the street then – does anyone remember 8” floppy disks? OK, you might find those album’s whereabouts a challenge to locate but be assured, they are available to view, if you are persistent.
Or if you like your pictures in motion, you could view John’s “An Oral History of Byfield” on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUkTcCWk4Yk . There’s another of those, exploring deeper into Byfield out later this year of 2018, and plans for at least one more in the future.
Councillor Russell, when Chairman of Daventry District Council, with his boyhood sweetheart and wife, now of nearly sixty years, Jill.