The Bridge Interviews

John White

John White

February 2022

This month’s interviewee, as they say, needs no introduction to readers of The Bridge. As mayor of Burford for ten years he has made an indelible mark on the town and community. We have been hoping to interview him for some time but waited until he had stood down as mayor, thinking he might have more time to reflect on his life. Instead he seems to be just as busy as ever.


John Jameson White was born in 1938 in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, a place in the nes recently following the tragic murder of the local MP, Sir David Amess. He was the son of Richard and Betty White. His father was a manager with Lloyds Bank who rose to be chief manager of their City Office which had a turnover of £365m per day. “He was a brilliant chess and bridge player, and an international at chess.” During the Second World War he commuted to London, did his job during the day and was a fire watcher on top of the Lloyds Bank head office in Lombard Street before going home on the milk train in pitch darkness. John has childhood memories of the war including seeing American parachutists baling out when two Superfortress aircraft collided, and being hurled by his mother into their Morrison shelter when a doodlebug (V1 flying bomb) cut out near their home. “The German bombers navigated to London along the Thames. If they were attacked by fighters they would sometimes jettison their bombs in our area.”


John had two sisters, Barbara who died of ovarian cancer, and Liz who was a council gardener and still lives in Leigh-on-Sea in an apartment overlooking the sea.


He had a conventional education at a state primary school and passed the 11+ exam to enter Westcliff Grammar School for Boys.  “Southend Borough Council had a scheme by which every year they would pay for six likely lads aged 13 to go to a public school. I was one of the lucky ones and my parents chose Wrekin College in Shropshire. I’m convinced that they did so as it was the furthest from home so they wouldn’t have to visit me. Then there was an election and the control of the council changed hands and the scheme was cancelled. My father arranged with Lloyds Bank to borrow the money to cover my school fees and repay them later. I only discovered this after he died and I went through his papers.”


He had a slightly embarrassing start at the school. “The school matron unpacked my kit and held up my Marks & Spencer vests which were marked in big letters ‘Seconds’ ”. However things looked up and he enjoyed lots of sport including cricket, rugby, hockey, athletics, squash and fives. He applied for a place at Oxford but was unsuccessful. “I couldn’t cope with the Latin which was compulsory in those days”. (Dudley Moore’s coalminer had the same problem, we recall). For a time he got a job cleaning the outside of aircraft at Southend airport where he took up playing football (the Association variety, m’lud) with his workmates, this being a sport not on the curriculum at his school.


“My father said ‘Why not have a go at the law?’ ”. The bank’s solicitors were Cameron Kemm & Co (later Cameron McKenna and now known as CMS after various mergers). “They were practically Lloyds Bank’s in-house legal department”. When the chief manager of the City Office of by far their biggest client called them about his son, they not surprisingly offered him an interview. “The only question at the interview was ‘When can you start?’ ” In those days it was possible to qualify as a solicitor by serving for five years as an articled clerk and passing appropriate exams. On 14 November 1957 John signed his articles with Cameron Kemm, remaining with the firm for the whole of his professional life. On his first day he arrived at the office in Old Broad Street in a duffel coat (as used by the Royal Navy and popular with students after the war when sold off as government surplus). “The senior partner took one look at me and sent me out of the office with orders not to come back until I had a proper City overcoat.”


After John had qualified there was an attempted palace coup at his firm. The younger partners tried to ease out the senior partner by opening a branch office in Harrow-on-the-Hill, near his home, so that he could be put out to grass there. Unfortunately he was having none of it and didn’t want to give up his long City lunches. Who was going to work in Harrow? In an early display of his negotiating skills, John agreed to run the office for three years in return for being made a partner and being given a car. The latter was supposed to be a Mini Traveller but disappointingly turned out to be a Mini van.

He handled a variety of work in Harrow, starting with advising the manager of the local branch of Lloyds when his chief cashier was caught in flagrante delicto with a member of the staff. John and his first wife, Carol, moved to Oxhey near Watford and he joined the West Herts Hockey and Cricket Club. They then moved to Chorleywood but their sojourn there was cut short when their house burnt down, the result of careless work by contractors converting homes from town gas to the North Sea variety. They weren’t in at the time and returned home wondering where that big column of smoke was coming from. They had three children: Sarah (pictured with John), who has four children of her own and now works for the NHS; Matthew, who has two sons and works in procurement for a local authority; and Amanda who, after a career as a solicitor, ran a very successful nanny and childcare agency called Tinies. She also has two sons. 


After serving his term in exile in Harrow, John re-joined the London office of his firm. They had a system that one of the partners would provide what became known as a mobile surgery to the Lloyds head office. He (it was always a he in those days) would go around the office giving instant advice on whatever legal issues had come up. John understudied this role and gradually became familiar with and involved in banking work. At first this consisted mainly of advising the bank on loans they were making. Other partners dealt with insolvency work but they were lured away to join a competitor firm, Allen & Overy. John was quickly rebranded as head of insolvency and, together with supporters recruited from outside, was tasked with filling the gap.


This became John’s area of expertise for the rest of his career. He reels off the various financial storms, seemingly one per decade, that he and his clients weathered: “In the sixties it was secondary banking; in the seventies there were factories closing; in the eighties it was commercial property; in the nineties there was the dot.com boom and bust.” He missed out on the 2008 financial crisis as he had retired by then. He normally acted for the lenders to the company in liquidation or administration, dealing with the representatives of the company and other creditors on the other side. Some of the deceased businesses are familiar names: Maxwell Communications, Dan Air, Rush & Tompkins, Railtrack. Others are more eccentric such as Eagle Trust: “A mini-conglomerate set up by a 17-year-old.  They sold grass grown on felt which sheep grazed on and promptly died, and a motor bike with a petrol tank that exploded between your legs. It was unfortunate that they had sold them to the Chicago Police Department.”


John’s first wife, Carol, died in 1991. He met his second wife, Carolyn, when she was working as an in- house lawyer for French Bank Société Générale. “She wrote me a nice letter after Carol died. I thanked her for it and mentioned that I had two tickets for the opera if she was interested.” (There followed a brief argument about which opera it was). “We hit it off and got married quite quickly.”


John retired in 2003 and decided that it was time to get educated. As he had not gone to Oxford at the beginning of his career, he applied at the end of it and was accepted to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Harris Manchester College. “I expected to be the oldest fresher in the college and was looking forward to a life of orgies and raves.” Instead he was joined by Sir Oliver Popplewell, a distinguished retired judge who amongst other accomplishments was a former President of the MCC, who was ten years older. They formed a small team of mature students and occupied nearby rooms for the three years of their life of study.


During their earlier married life John and Carolyn had several homes in London including two flats in Lincoln’s Inn. While John was at Oxford they came to Burford at weekends and lived in the house which had been owned by Carolyn’s parents. This became their permanent abode after John graduated. After a while John was invited to join Burford Town Council. David Cohen was mayor. “He was a brilliant mayor. Then in 2010 he told me he was he was giving up, it was an easy job and he thought I could just about cope with it. I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.”


“My first task as mayor was to open the new lavatories in the High Street. My second was to welcome an enormous tortoise from the Seychelles to the Cotswold Wildlife Park. Then there was Cole’s Field followed by HGVs and what to do about the ageing playground on the Rec. There have been constant battles with the people who dig up the pavements in the High Street and replace the goldcrete with black tarmac. It was not quite a full time job but far more than part time. On one occasion a lady called up and asked us what we were going to do about the aliens who had landed on the Rec and were displaying mysterious lights. It turned out that it was on the last day of term at the Top School.


“The twinning arrangement with Potenza Picena in Italy started because Burford School had sent an orchestra and sports teams there. Now they have links with schools in France, Germany, Spain and one in Africa and they don’t teach Italian so the link has fallen away. Councillors have been to their wine festival, the Grappolo d’Oro, when their town is divided into four teams who compete to put on the best cultural events, but that hasn’t happened for the last two years. Derek Cotterill is trying to revive the relationship.

“Setting up the Burford Emergency Action Plan (BEAP) and the Burford Emergency Action Team (BEAT) was a good move following a snowy winter. Before that we had lots of volunteers to help but no organisation.  I would have liked to be able to reinstate sport on the Rec but we don’t have the numbers to set up teams. In Burford we are better suited to providing members of the Bowls Club than for a football team. ”


Earlier this year John handed over his mayoral chain of office to the capable hands of Peter Higgs. That didn’t mean he would be putting his feet up. He remains on the council and is at the forefront of the battles on Cole’s Field and HGVs. He is president of The Arts Society Cotswolds where he delivers witty votes of thanks to guest speakers as well as working behind the scenes. He has been a governor of both schools, although this has now stopped, and is chairman of the Burford Roman Catholic Parish. He was formerly treasurer of the Burford and District Society and is now a committee member. And he’s a library volunteer.


For relaxation (he says he does manage some) he reads, writes letters and writes articles for The Bridge while he and Carolyn are keen opera-goers. He is still very interested in sport and watches it as much as possible. For many years he played in an annual cricket tournament in Portugal between a club in Oporto originally set up by British wine merchants and teams from the Law Society and the House of Commons. “That is made up of clerks and librarians. There was a team of politicians but that stopped because they were too badly behaved. I go as their barmy army. I have played every sport apart from golf and skiing. I am going to take them up when I am old.”


Someone said that there are 30 people who do everything in Burford. Sometimes it seems as if John is about 27 of them.

John White
John White