The Bridge Interviews
John Yeatman (or Johnnie - he answers to both) is a Burfordian born and bred. Indeed he was born in Oxford Road, just yards from his present home. It is appropriate for The Bridge to interview him this year because of two notable events. The first (the second will come later) is that this year the Yeatman family are completing 100 years of living in Burford. Research into family history carried out with help from Peter Higgs has revealed that John’s grandfather, Albert Yeatman, moved to Burford in 1920.
Albert and his first wife had lived in Dean near Chadlington. His wife died in 1916 when John’s father, Thomas, was two. Sadly two other children of the marriage died the same year. After his mother’s death Thomas (Tom) was sent to live with a lady in Milton to be looked after. However in 1920 Albert remarried. His second wife was Sarah Marshall and the wedding took place on Christmas Day. This may sound unusual to us today but it used to be quite common for the practical reason that Christmas Day and Boxing Day were the only days when working people could be sure of a day off. (Even Scrooge reluctantly had to let Bob Cratchit have Christmas Day off.)
The newlyweds moved to Gable Cottage in Witney Street and Tom returned to be with his father and his new stepmother. Albert worked as a plasterer and in fact plastered John’s present house when it was built in 1922. Tom grew up at Gable Cottage and became a motor engineer. In 1939 he joined the Royal Air Force where he served as a flight sergeant (engineer) in Egypt, Malta and various RAF stations in this country. When home on leave he met John’s mother, Phyllis, at the Three Horseshoes in Asthall (now the Maytime Inn). Phyllis (also known as Phyl or Bing) was a nurse at the Hammersmith Hospital and was a friend of a fellow- nurse whose father was the landlord of the pub. The two girls used to go to Asthall to escape from the bombing when not working.
Tom and Phyl were married around 1946 and they started their married life in a caravan at Taynton after which they lodged for a while at what is now the Burford Nursing Home (until recently Ramping Cat House). They moved to 41 Oxford Road when new houses were built there. Tom resumed his career as a motor engineer, most of which was spent as manager of the Central Garage in Bampton where cars and agricultural machinery were serviced. John was born in 1954, the youngest of four children. He was delivered by Nan Meadows, the district nurse who is commemorated by a plaque in Guildenford. The oldest child, Christopher, is a retired engineer. Michael, the second, was a welder who fitted garage doors and passed away last year. Diana, also retired, was manager of a job centre for the Department of Employment.
John was educated at Burford Primary School and Burford Grammar School. At the primary school he was taught by Mrs Francis who worked there for 42 years during which she also taught his father and his brothers and sister. Her husband, Buff Francis, used to make coffins in Witney Street. The children used to go to watch him and collect the off-cuts from which they made sledges. He was taught by Raymond Moody at the big school and recalls listening with fascination to Raymond’s lucid explanation of how the stripes were put into toothpaste.
Burford, says John, was a quiet place in the 1950s and 1960s. Such visitors as came would stay for a few nights at the Bay Tree, the Lamb or the Bull. There was no car park and car ownership was much more limited than today so day visitors were few. John was not aware of them as he was off with his friends fishing or canoeing on the (no doubt cleaner) Windrush. Many of the children were sons and daughters of farm workers. Taynton, for example, consisted largely of agricultural workers’ cottages.
After leaving school John was apprenticed at the General Post Office, working on telephones. (For younger readers - the post office was responsible for the telephone service until it was hived off as BT in 1980). He was based in Oxford, installing digital line systems and, later, optical line systems. He rose to be a technical support manager and then a field manager. When he got married, he lived in Witney for a time before moving in 1983 to the house where he still lives.
John left BT “with about 140,000 others” in 1995. Advances in technology led to huge reductions in staff. Older readers may recall the time when calls had to be connected by an operator rather than dialled. “The operator centre in Oxford had 140 people working there when I joined. When I left there were three”, John says. He then started a second career as a bookkeeper. He had no formal training for this. “As a manager I had done admin stuff and I was always good at maths. People told me what to do and I soon picked it up”. His main work was for the town council and for Vick’s garage but at one time he had around 12 other clients. He has reduced his workload more recently although he still works for the council, where his official title is Responsible Financial Officer, and a few others. John White regularly points out that John together with Maggie Andrews (town clerk) and David Buckland (lengthsman and groundsman) are the three people who keep Burford going. In fact John has been involved with the council for longer than all but a couple of the current elected councillors.
He found freelance working suited him well as it could be fitted around bringing up his four daughters. He is justifiably proud of them; all four went to university and went on to successful careers. Hannah, the eldest, was married last year, lives at Rissington and is a human resources consultant working for Jacobs Douwe Egberts, producers of many brands of coffee, at Banbury. She has two children. Charlotte was married in 2018 and is a mental health nurse in Oxford. Emma is a design engineer and works on heritage windows in Shipton-under- Wychwood. Lucy, the second oldest, lives in Chicago and works for a public relations and marketing company. She has already figured in these pages when she was photographed reading The Bridge in Chicago. “I send it to her every month. The postage is £5”. The second notable event for the Yeatman family is that Lucy is getting married later this year.
In addition to his two careers in telecommunications and bookkeeping, John enjoyed a third, spectacular career in the world of sport. When The Bridge interviewed Peter Radford in July 2016 we described him as the fastest man in Burford. It turns out that John could give him a run for his money, at least with the aid of a powerful internal combustion engine. The story starts in the 1930s when Tom Yeatman was a speedway rider, and his two older sons took this up in the 1960s. In 1971 Mervyn Hoare and Linda
Westmacott were competing in sidecar racing but Linda had a bad accident after which Michael Yeatman took her place. The following year he acquired his own bike and John, who was still at school, was press-ganged into stepping into the sidecar. The main skill required was to move into exactly the ight position to balance the bike when going round bends.
From there John graduated to solo motor cycling racing. He competed at different times in 125, 250, 350 and 500cc races but mostly in the 350cc class. He raced at all the leading tracks such as Brands Hatch, Donington Park and Snetterton. He set lap records at Long Marston and Colerne and came within 0.1 of a second of the lap record set by Barry Sheene at Thruxton. He was sponsored for part of his career by Mike Wheeler Motorcycles of Witney who supplied his last two bikes. “I raced on the Isle of Man TT course in 1979. It was foggy going over the mountain and I couldn’t see. I had to take my visor off. Four competitors were killed that year”. In all his career he had 11 crashes, twice breaking a rib and also suffering concussion, but he won 47 races, 37 of them in the 350cc class. “I got an international licence and took part in the Powerbike International race at Brands Hatch. That was my last race. I was spending 40 hours per week working and 40 hours working on the bike. I had a really good time but when Hannah was born in 1983 I decided it was time to pack it in.” Instead he took up pedal cycle racing in which he competed for another 12 years.
Closer to home, he has played a big part in the life of the community in Burford. He was chairman of the Scout Group for seven years, during which the new headquarters was built, and was a governor of the primary school as well as involved with the Friends of Burford Primary School. He was also active in the Burford School Association and helped with the Uganda link for the school. “Lucy and Emma went to Uganda and Lucy later went as a representative to a UN summit in South Africa”. He was chairman and then treasurer of the (old) Warwick Hall when it was still run by the town council, and is now heavily engaged on the Burford community archive project. He has also taken part in some hair-raising activities for charity including a four man parachute crossing of the English Channel. He is clearly a man who enjoys an adrenalin rush.
Does he have time for any hobbies? “Mainly looking after the house and the garden, and spending time with my children and grandchildren”. There is a wonderful view from his garden across the valley to the west and he has created a patio area where there was once a pigsty. He also looks after his three motor bikes and two cars. “I go out on a bike with Frank Triggs and a couple of other mates, and I go to local bike race meetings”.
John tells the following story which neatly encapsulates his life. “I attended a mayor's dinner in the old Warwick Hall when Keith Davies was mayor. Keith proposed a
succession of toasts starting which the Queen, progressing through various criteria with only those fitting the bill remaining standing. The final was that all those born in Burford should remain standing, I was the only one remaining and was toasted as John of Burford”. A true Burfordian indeed.