John Edward Westfallen

  celebrating the life of John Westfallen                    "a man who made a big difference in his short life"

At the age of 40, John Westfallen sadly died, leaving a young wife and two teenage children.

John never got any older, but those of us who did, remembers him fondly.

John Westfallen was a true East London Cockney. But more than that, he was an “Islander” from the Isle of Dogs – An Islander who spent much of the last years of his life, working tirelessly to improve the local living conditions in this much neglected part of London.

A product of a poor working class back-ground, his actions and efforts, along with those of Local councillor, Ted Johns, led to him visiting the British Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street, following which the profile of the "Isle of Dogs" changed forever.

His other great legacy simply cannot be measured, because it is the impact he made on numerous disadvantaged children. In whom he instilled a sense of self-respect and pride, which helped keep many of them away from crime and hooliganism.

By no means a saint himself, (although at one point he was a choirboy, until the priest caught him stealing lead from the church roof!), John’s great strength was his ability to understand the problems facing local children, and he had the ability to speak to them in their own language, which ensured they listened and took note.

It is now 35-years since John died, and most of today’s “new” Islanders know little, or nothing, about him. The Isle of Dogs since John died has changed beyond all recognition, and I believe he would not have appreciated the way the “money people” came in and displaced so many of the long-standing residents. But he would certainly have appreciated the thriving businesses, railway and road network that the Island now enjoys.

The amount of investment and development on the Island has been way beyond anything that he could have imagined, and this part of London is now one of the most expensive and wealthiest square miles in London – A million miles away from how it was when he died.

John actually saw very little development take place, he died a few years before Lord Vestey would help could close the docks, and before Taylor Woodrow and others would create “the biggest building site in Europe”.

However, this is not a site aimed at discussing the way the Isle of Dogs has changed. I have created this website for the two Grand-daughters he never met Antonia and Freya: Princesses, who this proud grandfather would have put on a pedestal.

I believe it is right that these girls know something about the respect their grandfather, John, held within his community, and how he fought and gave so selflessly for the benefit of others. I hope it allows them to have some pride in knowing that they grandfather was so widely loved and respected.

I have put this information in the Public domain, mainly as a celebration of this life, and added some stories and insights which may allow other to know what happened and when (according to my, and others, recollections), as it is a small, but important part of Island History.

In his life he was called the “Prime Minister” of the Isle of Dogs, and when he died, they called him “the King of the Isle” (see newspaper copies) Personally, I know no other single person who has been “given” both titles.  Such was the man!

Admittedly, as his son, my writings are personal and I am biased. But I invite family members and other people who knew my father, to make comment and add their own stories and memories. With the hope that his grandchildren may be able to understand and respect the grandfather they never knew.

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The Short Life of John Westfallen

I am forced to use a lot of information I was told after my father’s death, which was relayed to me by his mother, Phoebe and his elder sister Doreen - my grandmother and Aunt. Other stories also come from his brothers, his cousins, friends, and of course my mother, Gladys.

Born into a Desperate World

John was born 1934 in East London, into a typical poor cockney family, during a time known as the Great Depression, a time when too many families around the world, were going through incredible hardship and poverty

It was also the year, “Mary Poppins” was written, Lego bricks were first sold, Donald Duck was created, and Maggie Smith, who plays Minerva Mcgonagall in Harry Potter, was born. Also born that year were: Actresses Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot, Brian Epstein - the manager of the Beatles, designer Georgio Armani, and the first man in space – Yuri Gagarin.

And for those interested in political history, it was also the year Adolph Hitler declared himself Fuhrer, Stalin started to kill millions in a crackdown on the opposition, and Mao Tse-tung started his march which resulted in a communist China.

It is important to understand the politics at the time, because in 1939 World War II broke out, when John was just 4 years old and it didn’t finish until he was 10. John lived much of his childhood during the blitz in London, hearing the bombs and seeing the destruction, and like the millions of others who suffered, this affected how he viewed the world and its injustices.

The War Child

When WWII first broke out, children in London and cities were “Evacuated” for their safety. Johnnie (5) and Doreen (7), were initially sent to the West Country, to "strangers" who lived in the countryside.

From what I am told, these "strangers" were not particularly nice to Johnnie and Doreen, and when their mother visited, them a few months later, she decided to take them back to London with her. However, night after night German bombs were being dropped on London, so she decided to send them off to her mother, who lived in the town of Blackpool, 200 miles north of London.

John missed his mum, and eventually, at the age of 7-years old, cycled all the way back to London, where he spent the remainder of the war with his mother.

I have always been told this story by people who loved him, and it sounds incredible, so I don't know how true it is, but I wouldn't put it past him, as his determination was without doubt one of his strongest attributes.

The house in Poplar, where John lived with his mum, sister Doreen and new baby brother, Kenny was hit by a bomb, and they were forced to join thousands of other displaced Londoners, walking the streets and living rough, in war-time London.

This was a survival situation, during a period of great danger and desperation. Johnnie, as a young boy, with no money, did what many had to do to survive: Taking whatever he could, from anywhere he could find it. He was 7-years old, but took responsibility to helped support his family, by finding money and food

Obviously this was a time of war, and most men, especially those from poorer families, were sent around the world to fight for their country. John’s father, Harry, was in the Navy, working with Lord Mountbatten, and fighting in submarines. He was in north Atlantic to protect the Russian fleet and also in the Far East, fighting against the Japanese, which included helping to bring home the men who had worked on "the Bridge over the River Kwai". Harry was away for almost 6-years, and got home just 4 times during the whole war.

In fact, he had been away from his family for so long, that it was not long after Harry returned that his wife, Phoebe, fell pregnant with John's youngest brother Stephan.

 

After the war, things were not much better financially and food was still scarce, so many were forced to fend for their families anyway they could, and often this led to stealing. However, you cannot compare these people to criminals of today. During this time, stealing to survive was a necessity for impoverished Londoner's, and for many years shaped many Londoners’ attitudes about how to survive.

The Soldier

At the age of 19, John was called up to the army to do his "national service" and was sent to Egypt during the "Aden Crisis".

He was a good soldier (see photos) operating landing Craft, and he also worked as a motor-cycle dispatch rider. This was a very dangerous job, and I know he lost a good friend, who was decapitated by a wire, purposely tied across the road to kill these riders.

At the end of his service he immediately returned to East London, and within a week married his 19-year old girl-friend Gladys. 9-months later I was born, and after another two years Donna arrived.

The Young Father

Once back in England, he resumed his job as a lighter-man on the River Thames. He became a freeman of the River Thames, and was acknowledged by others as being one of the best.

Because, of this we always lived in East London, to be near the docks.

East London had always been a rough and neglected part of the capital, but “Cockneys” have a strong sense of family and loyal friendships. As a very poor area, it was also renowned for criminal activity and gangs. John was part of this society, as were many, with his fearless and determined spirit and muscular body, making him a respected man who you didn't "mess" with.

But, most importantly, there was another side of the coin. John was known for loving East London and hating the injustices that often fell on the "cockneys" that lived there, especially the children.

As the head of a young family, John also suffered hard times. 

On Christmas Eve 1960, a fire at our home in Grosvenor Buildings (next to the Blackwall Tunnel) completely destroyed the few possessions we had. And we were forced to live in a small apartment with John’s parents and Doreen and young Stephen.

We then moved to the Barking road for a few years, before moving back to Millwall in East London. Millwall was then the popular name used for the Isle of dogs.

 

The Islander

Then the Island was a much different place to what it is today: a few old housing estates, sprinkled amongst very busy docks and river front warehouses. Most of us who lived there were basically considered as the disadvantaged – too many people were out of work, or on very low salaries. Of those who did work, many of the men worked in the docks or drove trucks, and many of the women, including Gladys, manufactured clothing in East London’s “sweat-shops”.

Times were hard and money was always short, but I remember it as a happy time. We didn't have much, especially by today's standards, but Dad seemed always able to make something "disappear" out of the docks, or off a barge, and occasionally it might be something for the kids.

As infants, Donna and I went to the local Harbinger school. One of my oldest memories is of dad showing up at 3.30, with boxes of "Toffee Apples" which he had managed to "find".

I remember it clearly: As we came out of the school, he opened his old car, and with one eye looking for the local police, he started giving the toffee apples to all the kids in our school. - For sometime our Dad was one of the most popular parents - and this was a precursor of things to come.

In 1968, we moved across the Island, into a new, 3-bedroomed flat on the Samuda Estate, which overlooked the River Thames - A great improvement on the tiny, old, Victorian flat that we had been living in.

Being a new estate, there were some "settling-in" problems that the tenants needed addressing, and after a few months they had set-up a tenants association, which met twice a month to discuss what was needed.

Apparently there was one problem John felt passionately about, so – for the first time - he went to a meeting.

Community Responsibility

By the time he had left the meeting room, John had been voted the new chairman of the committee - Obviously other tenants either saw something in him, or was fed-up arguing, so they gave in and asked him to get on with it. Whatever it was, at the age of 33, he was taking on a small semi-official role, as the representative of the people living on the estate.

Through his determination, things started to improve, and instead of loads of talk - which is normal for these types of associations - he managed to get lots of improvements made - Gaining a lot of respect, as "the man who can".

I don't know too much about what the Island is like now, but in those days it was still very poor and neglected. It remained that part of East London with the least public services, or investment - and that was saying something!

John eventually met with the local councillor, Ted Johns, who was a man with great interest in the local community and was using his position as councillor to do what he could for the Island. John and Ted immediately struck-up a solid friendship.

The Prime Minister

To put it in a nutshell: many people had been asking for an improvement in conditions on the Island, but those in power simply ignored them. John's strength of character and willingness to "do what it takes, to get the job done", brought a new dynamic to Ted’s previously ignored requests and demands.

John’s background, including a spell as a trade union shop-steward, came into play, and hatched a plan to protest more publicly about the local lack of amenities. The plan materialised, with hundred's of protesters blocking off the Island from the rest of London, and with Ted and John, on behalf of all the residents, declaring U.D.I. (A Unilateral Declaration of Independence) for the Isle of Dogs.

Although initially, this was meant as a "token" protest, the press had been invited which resulted in a small “demonstration and protest”, snowballing into a global media story.

Rhodesia's claim of U.D.I. occurred 4-years earlier - which is where the idea came from – and was regularly headline news, but the Island story became so popular, that it removed Rhodesia from the front pages, which was completely amazing. (Ted was interviewed by the famous American Journalist, Walter Kronkite, and John, who was seen as the most “active” revolutionary, was voted "man of the year" by one newspaper in Mexico and another in Italy).

(The other spark for the idea of the protest, and the declaration of independence,came from the 1949 film: Passport to Pimlico, starring Stanley Holloway. John knew this film very well, as Roy Carr and Joey Carr, his wife Gladys brother and uncle were actors in the film)

The success of this protest was followed by a few others. Ted Johns was made “President" and John, with Ray Paiget, who led the blockade on the west-side of the Island, were made "Prime Ministers" - they even went as far as to planning to have passports made!

These actions were widely reported, and gained a lot of international support, which resulted in an invitation to visit No 10 Downing Street, to discuss their concerns with the then British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.

It is necessary to understand the importance of this meeting in concern to the whole of London. The importance comes from the fact that it was during this meeting, that the plans for the redevelopment of this area were hatched, this meeting was the "catalyst" for the development what is now know as Canary Wharf.

The arguments put forward by John and Ted at this meeting were so well presented and thought through, that after the meeting Wilson discussed them with Lord Vestey, along with his friends at Taylor Woodrow, who - as we know now – planned the closing of the docks and started to invested millions - (sadly, little of this investment was seen until after John's death).

The very first project was establishment of a street market, which was approved by the Governing council of the Isle of Dogs. But, the vast majority of government funded projects got buried in Whitehall government offices, or at the G.L.C. (Greater London Council), others became hi-jacked by local politicians, who made a lot of noise, but actually sold-out to their political masters.

Not being the most diplomatic of people – John told it as he saw it, which often upset these less-committed, less-passionate politicians – So he left Ted Johns to handle the political side and stepped back, still offering support when needed, but he made a conscious decision to do what he could do for the children of the community, without having to rely on the support of politically-minded parasites.

Helping Children

One of the few, but the most important result of the protests, was the establishment of a secondary school on the Island. This was very much needed because all the children over the age of 11-years old, at that time, were forced to travel away from the Island to get secondary education.

As a loving father himself, conditions for children were of special interest to John. He decided to focus on the local kids, who had little in the way of recreation and entertainment. John began by establishing a very popular youth club, which started out as a small recreation club, which once a week, provided a discotheque for under 16's. But for John who was a very active man, this was not enough.

Isle of Dogs Barge Club

The need for more “exciting” type of recreation for the children was obvious, and due to John's occupation as a "Lighter-man" on the River Thames, he used his own limited money to buy a Thames Barge, and then, with the help of a few friends, businessmen, and the local children themselves, went about converting it into a boat on which children could spend the weekends.

This barge project was unique at the time. Not only had very few people converted them for any other use, but how was he going to use a boat which had no engine?

John ingeniously went back to the tradition of the River Thames and decided to propel the barge by the original method, which was rowing.

With a boat which was 25 meters long, and sticking out of the water by 2 metres, the oars needed to be a full 7 metres long. Due to the weight of these massive oars, it meant that it took the efforts of 4-teenagers to just move one! - And, all-in-all, 5 of these oars were needed to propel the boat!

Many people said it couldn’t be done, which only meant to John, it had to be done! And it was.

The novelty of such a large boat being rowed up the Thames, by children, again received national coverage in the media. John wanted to expand the club and knew that he could no longer finance this himself, so he needed to quickly find a way to raise sponsorship.

It must be obvious by now that John was an expert on boats, being a skilled and fearless Captain. In fact, when we lived in Barking road, employment was hard to find, so he went to Kuwait and got a job as the Captain of a tug-boat, pulling Oil rigs around the Gulf.

The Channel Crossing

Having this ability and knowledge, he hatched an ambitious plan to row this massive boat across the English Channel, with the sole intention of using the publicity to gather sponsorship to finance additional facilities for the club.

Much work and planning was needed, but after a year’s work, miles of practice trips up the river, and with the boat and children prepared, the attempt was made.

A flat-bottomed, Thames barge set off from Ramsgate Harbour in the early hours one July morning. It was being rowed by a crew of twenty eight, 12 -17 year old boys and girls, who were using massive wooden oars. The object: row all the way to Calais, France, crossing one of the busiest pieces of water in the World, The English Channel

This had never been attempted by anyone before, yet alone a crew of children.

After 18 hours of rowing, with darkness arriving, the barge was within 4 miles of the French Port. However, the wind started to blow and conditions became dangerous.

John was a very determined and strong individual, who - had he been alone,, would have continued and finished the trip. However, there were children on-board, and although many pleaded to continue, he would not risk any one of them being hurt. So, foregoing his personal pride for the safety of others, he asked the escort boat for a tow into Calais harbour.

It was heart-breaking to be so close and not making it, but this attempt was far from a failure. There were big celebrations on the return.

The London Barge Race

It is important to understand, although there is still an annual Barge Race on the Thames in London, which was originated by John, and a race he won with "children against men" every year until his death. There has never been another attempt at this type of Channel crossing, even by a crew of grown men. This is said to be because of the danger involved, but also because there are no people alive, with the skill and ability that John had in handling these boats.

The strength of the man, both physically and mentally, and his ability to handle these massive boats safely is said to be unparalleled.

 More Boats and Kids

On his return, John planned another attempt at crossing the Channel, but due to the ridiculous costs for a "safety-boat", he bought another Barge, one with an engine, and set about refurbishing it in a similar manner to the first, with bunks, toilets, and a galley. All laid out in the main storage hold.

"The Isle of Dogs Youth Club" became so popular around England that many other youth groups asked to be taken out on it. Clubs even from the very north of England, including clubs for severely disabled, children.

John never refused children, and although these trips with other clubs delayed his attempt at a second Channel crossing, he enjoyed sharing his time with as many children as he could, and never refused requests. 

Another barge was offered, a smaller Canal barge, and it was whilst this was being refurbished that John suffered his first heart-attack. All he complained about was that this attack was a set-back; however, it did not deter him from quickly return to his club, working night and day for the children of the Island.

But the second attempt was never made.

THE TRIBUTES

 On February 25th 1975, John suffered a second heart-attack at home and died on the way to hospital.

The Funeral Mass at Christ Church on the Island was made by the Arch-Bishop Trevor Huddleston, Bishop of Stepney, who was a friend of Nelson Mandela and had a few years earlier been exiled from Africa for fighting against Apartheid. He asked if he could do the mass – because of his respect for John’s dedication to his community and the children.

John's death, at such a young age, devastated everybody who knew him, and by this time he was a well known character in London.

This could be measured by the thousands of people who went to his funeral. Schools were given the day off, and as the funeral procession travelled around the Isle of Dogs, children lined the streets to pay farewell to the "Children's favourite" and "King of the Island".

For John, the docks were unusually allowed to open, so the procession could pass through the place he spent much of his life.

As his coffin passed the place where Canary Wharf stands today, Hundreds of strong and hardened Dockers stood in silence, many of whom with tears in their eyes, such was the strong feeling of the loss of this very special and respected person

John is buried in East London cemetery.

 FOR ANTONIA WESTFALLEN AND FREYA DAY

Many of his friends have now left us, and those who are still here, still remember him fondly.

For my mother, my sister Donna and myself, the loss was unbearable and he has never left us. 

But most of all, it is important that his Grand-daughters: Antonia (Nini) and Freya, have some knowledge of their grand-father's life, and therefore, I dedicate these pages to my father and his Grandchildren.

Go to  Photos to see pictures and also read some of the amazing things said - by others - about John Westfallen