Ex-Army man bids farewell to wife whom he first saw on Wellingborough newspaper's front page

A Burton Latimer man who first laid eyes on his future wife when he picked up a copy of a Wellingborough newspaper has said his last goodbyes to her.

Tuesday, 15th January 2019, 2:48 pm
Updated Wednesday, 16th January 2019, 6:37 pm
Peter Johnson was serving in Malay when he saw this picture of Valerie Wright which appeared on the front page of Wellingborough News paper to announce her as that year's Irthlingborough carnival queen

Peter Johnson saw Valerie Wright for the first time when a picture of Irthlingborough's carnival queen was published on the front page of the Wellingborough News in 1953.

At the time, a 19-year-old Mr Johnson was serving with the Royal West Kent's in Malaya - now Malaysia - after the Government sent troops to the region to fight a Chinese guerilla army.

The newspaper was part of a bundle left behind by Mr Johnson's platoon sergeant who had returned to his home in Northamptonshire.

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"I was the elected scribe for my platoon, reading letters from home to those with poor education and helping with their replies," said Mr Johnson.

"So it was probably no surprise that I was goaded into writing to Valerie congratulating her on her appointment and wishing her a successful year.

"Over the next 14 months, Valerie and I corresponded on a regular basis and when my battalion returned to England at the end of three years in Malaya, I was invited by her mum to visit the family in Irthlingborough and meet the girl I had been writing to.

"Our romance proceeded rapidly and before leaving for Germany to finish the last four months of my service, we became engaged, but when I returned to civilian life our romance hit a sudden snag."

In 1954, a girl under 21 needed the permission of her father to get married and Val's dad refused because he was in a bitter relationship with his wife at the time.

So Mr Johnson had to take his case to the Magistrates' Court in Wellingborough where, for nine shillings and six pence, he was granted permission to marry.

"A rather embarrassing feature of having to take this action was that a local reporter, having listened to the case, wrote a story and sold it to the national press," said Mr Johnson.

"And suddenly I was faced with headlines screaming 'Jungle fighter fights for the girl he loves’ - something which my workmates seized on with glee."

Peter and Val married in 1956 and settled in Kent and had two daughters, later moving to Burton Latimer in the 1960s.

In 2016 they celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary with a letter from the Queen, but sadly after a long illness which followed a fall, Val died on December 22 surrounded by her family.

After watching a James Bond film which featured a horse-drawn hearse proceeded by a jazz band, she often told the grandchildren that this was what she wanted for her funeral and giving the boys the cardboard centres from toilet rolls; she said 'these are your toot-a-toots’ now you are my jazz band,' Mr Johnson recalls.

"I don’t think Val ever thought seriously about the prospect of a jazz band leading her funeral, but the family decided to celebrate her life rather than her death.

"And so with the help of our marvellous funeral director at Avril Phillips, we had a horse-drawn hearse led by a jazz band and followed by the mourners as we threaded our way through the streets of Burton Latimer on a beautiful sunny day, on the way to the Baptist Chapel in Meeting Lane.

"If Val was looking down on us, she would have been delighted.

"And so ends the love story which started 9,000 miles away in the jungles of Malaya and finished 64 years later in a churchyard in Burton Latimer."