JACK – A TRUE TALE

Jack was the last child born into a working-class family of Canterbury, England in 1929. There were two older brothers and three older sisters. According to family recollections, the boy was a bit of a handful for his ageing parents and seems to have been mostly reared by his sisters.

Jack playing at his flat in Bromley, c. 1980s.

The pivotal moment of his life came in late May and early June 1942, the Luftwaffe firebombed Canterbury Cathedral and parts of the ancient city. This brutally pointless act was one of the barbarisms known as the ‘Baedeker Raids’. The complete destruction of Coventry cathedral is nowadays the best-known consequence of these raids and was revenged several years later in equally brutal act of revenge by the allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945.

In Canterbury, fortunately, the damage was much less severe, largely through the bravery of the volunteer firewatchers who waited on the roof of the great monument, picking up and throwing down to the ground enormously dangerous phosphorous firebombs, often as their fuses were burning. The night sky around the cathedral and the city was ablaze with bright chandelier flares and the incendiary bombs that followed them down. 

On every night of the raids, young Jack rushed to the bottom of the garden of the family terrace home, transfixed by the flames, the noise and the anti-aircraft fire. They said he was never quite the same again.

In August the following year, Jack was placed on probation for stealing money. He was subsequently referred to a child guidance clinic but by October 1944 he was held at the Philanthropic Society’s Approved School at Redhill, again for stealing money. After finishing school, he worked in various jobs as a labourer, errand boy and lift porter. 

In November 1946, he enlisted in the RAF as an Aircraftman, stationed at Cottesmore Royal Airforce Station, Rutland. Eighteen months later, while on leave, he was arraigned at the Kent Assizes. Jack had been arrested for setting fire to the Canterbury Probation Office and, in a separate incident, a motor car.

It turned out that Jack had already torched four other targets in Canterbury and another four at Cottesmore, including a Nissen hut used as a cinema and a firing range. He was pronounced insane and admitted to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in July 1948. Today, he would probably be diagnosed with autism. Jack was nineteen years old.

According to the sparse records released by Broadmoor, Jack weighed eight stone seven pounds and was five feet seven-and-a-half inches tall on admission. He had fair hair, hazel eyes and was described as ‘pale and thin.’ He went to Block 7 for patients under close supervision. Here, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, together with a ‘disordered personality’ and learning disabilities. Family members were allowed to write and visit and, from 1949, began regularly petitioning for a discharge, unsuccessfully. 

In 1951, Jack went to Block 5 for convalescing patients and by 1955 he was declared free of mental illness, though still suffering from an unspecified personality disorder, seemingly due to his occasionally disruptive behavior and a lack of insight into his crimes. Discharge requests continued to be denied as he was thought to be a high reoffending risk. 

A new Mental Health Act began in 1959, allowing for tribunals to assess discharge requests. Jack’s first two tribunals were unsuccessful, but in 1966 the third recommended a discharge to a local hospital. This was overruled by the Home Office, though he was moved to the ‘parole block’ that year, where he began to join in communal and constructive activities. He contributed to the hospital’s newspaper, the Broadmoor Chronicle, and took a very active and vocal role in the Broadmoor cricket team. 

Up to this point, Jack had worked mainly as a cleaner, now he was employed in the handicraft room and became a member of the block committee. He continued his interest in bowls, table tennis and gardening, as well as cricket, and was an excellent self-taught pianist. In the parole block he became known to his fellow inmates by the nickname ‘Rasher’, possibly because of his fondness for bacon.

After another tribunal, Jack was finally discharged – with conditions – into the care of family members in October 1968. Courtesy of the Home Office, he had done his twenty years. But Jack was still not completely free, there were five years of monitoring conditions attached to his liberty.

He was sent to a clerical position at the Southern Electricity Board but left after a few months to take up a succession of jobs as a labourer, car cleaner, then a short stint at Woolworths, all punctuated by periods of unemployment. In September 1971, Jack joined the Civil Service as a messenger. His discharge conditions ended in December 1974, and Broadmoor had no further hold on his life. He moved out from the family and lived independently from that time onwards, mostly in Bromley.

Despite the bonds of affection, Jack’s relationship with the family had been severed by prison and was strained in freedom. He rarely attended family gatherings, though he was a surprisingly cheery jokester. Slight, sharp and faintly bird-like, he chain-smoked – rollies, not tailor-mades – a habit he picked up in Broadmoor. Jack was a self-taught master of the piano keys and had an encyclopedic knowledge of his passion, the cricket. He dressed neatly, lived an austere life and died alone in 1993. 

Jack, probably in his back yard at Bromley. The upturned horseshoe on the brick wall is for luck.

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