Monday, 2 June 2014

Joanne Louise Taylor (Jo Johns) 1939 -2014


Jo in my office c 1980

Jo, who died on the Isle of Wight on 12th May, was my secretary for over twenty years. She was born on 4th April 1939, the only child of Margaret (‘Peggy’) nee Allcock and Pavel Rudensky, a Polish fighter pilot with the RAF who was killed in 1941. Margaret later married Frank, an Irish Catholic. They lived in the Fazakerley suburb of Liverpool and Jo was sent to a boarding school for the children of service people. Some time in her youth she contracted TB, which was to be significant after her accident more than 60 years later. Following her schooling she took a secretarial course and at 17 she married a Jewish man (probably arranged by her mother), but the marriage was annulled after a few months. Jo maintained cheerfully that he was gay.

Jo’s best friend was Louise, and the two had a lot of fun together in Liverpool and later in London. In the early 1960s Louise’s sister Sheila (Rehm) was offered a secretarial job in London but she didn’t want to go to London and so Louise took the job. Jo came down with her and they shared a flat together. They loved the theatre and dancing – and became good tap dancers and used to practice with a group at the National Theatre. Jo liked to call herself a ’hoofer’ and she developed a huge crush on Rudolph Nureyev, and for years had a poster of him in tights inside the cupboard door of her desk…

Jo in the 1960s was working as a court stenographer, taking a verbatim record of what was said at trials. She was one of the court stenographers in the Moors murder trial of Brady and Hindley in 1966, something that must have had uncomfortable echoes when she learned of the murder of Mark in 1983.

At some time in the 1960s Jo married Mark Johns, who was a well-connected journalist some 21 years her senior.  In 1949 he’d become the world’s first full-time television critic on the Express, later worked in public relations and as campaign director for the Keep Britain Tidy campaign. They travelled widely together, once going to Cuba on a cargo ship. In 1973, citing exhaustion from the rat race, he bought the Bowes Moor Hotel on the A66, near the Durham / Cumbria border. There Jo indulged in her love of cooking and even wrote a cook book. She divorced Mark sometime in the late 70s.
Jo had joined Thomas Miller in about 1969 as a ‘temp’ – a receptionist and audio typist - and travelled backwards and forwards to Bowes Moor regularly. She was famous for the shortness of her skirts in those days. David Martin-Clark used to refer to her as the ’pocket Venus’ - but also in a note to me after her death as ‘a great lady’.  

There is a story that I told at her retirement of her going in to the old man – Dawson Miller – who in those early days personally handed out one’s next year’s salary at Christmas – to receive hers. As he handed over her salary note, he said to her: ‘And maybe with this you might buy yourself a slightly longer skirt’. Covered in confusion, Jo made for the door, to hear him say as she turned the handle: ‘But I do hope you won’t.’
She became my personal secretary in 1979. I can remember the date quite well by reference to one of the world’s largest collisions in which two VLCCs fully laden with crude oil collided in a tropical rainstorm off Trinidad. I was dealing with one of the ships and instructed a solicitor, Richard Shaw, to advise.  Soon afterwards, at the height of the investigation, Richard left the firm he was with and set up his own firm with another partner a few doors away from our office. I can well remember going round there with Jo, who became friends with Richard and his secretary, Sue Patmore with a bottle of champagne - and a good party ensued. Richard saw Jo’s quality immediately and as we worked together on many subsequent cases including one which required us to get the first fax machine in Millers. Sadly Richard himself died of a brain tumor only last October.   
I was then manager of a ‘syndicate’ of claims staff dealing with the shipping problems of shipowners from the Far East and India – and some ‘blue-chip’ Greeks.  Jo was a tireless worker and we often turned out up to 60 letters a day – and that didn’t count the telexes that were the urgent communications of the time; later faxes and of course e-mails. In my own retirement speech in 2006, I said: 'Finally, I must mention my former secretary of over 20 years, Jo Johns, who I am glad to say has made it up here tonight from playing in the panto at Cowes.  There is no denying that an exceptional secretary plays a key part in one's career.  Just to give you a flavour of Jo’s work ethic, (while keeping very quiet about her still more remarkable life and loves), she used to reach the office at 6 am every morning, and didn't leave until late in the evening.  The early mornings, she knew, were when I must reply to faxes from Japan, because the Japanese would expect to have an answer to the questions they sent the same day, before they themselves went home.  Nowadays, I suppose it's more efficient to bash out an e-mail oneself, but something is lost in the harmonious flow of work from the time when your secretary knew exactly what work you were doing.'

And Jo did indeed know exactly what work I was doing – and kept a close but always discreet eye on my private life as well. She knew everyone who called, and always recalled their names and what they were about; many of my personal friends fondly remember talking to her to this day. And she was well-known around the office as she had a great talent for making friends.
Graham Daines writes: I well remember those days in Syndicate 1 when Jo was wont to take no prisoners.  She helped to hone my verbal sparring skills, always in a forceful but friendly way.

Sadly Mark Johns was murdered in February 1983, though it was five months before anyone realized. Jo had been trying to ring him as he had stopped paying her alimony, and got no answer from the hotel for several weeks. She then asked me to try and of course I also got nowhere, so we decided to ring the police – who then went to the hotel and found bloodstains but no body. That July, two youths – former Bowes Moor employees – were arrested in Darlington for a minor burglary. “While we’re here,” they said, “we might as well tell you about the murder”. Directed to a shallow grave, police immediately began digging on the nearby moor. The youths had shot Mark from the staircase as he walked below, and then bundled him into the chest deep freeze with his Alsatian dog, which they had also shot. They had then sold what they could from the hotel and had driven his car to Hull and left it near the ferry terminal to make it look as though he had gone abroad.  The story was big in the north, but barely registered in London, which was fortunate, as Jo was left alone.
In 1984 I left my ‘syndicate’ role and we moved to a nearby office to help start a new insurance mutual for Thomas Miller, called TIM. There we were joined by Tony Payne, and his secretary Julia Mavropoulos among others. Julie became one of Jo’s closest friends as she herself developed into a seasoned executive, and Tony too was a great admirer of Jo, writing from his home in Greece: You knew her so much better than anybody else in Millers but I shall also always have fond memories of her. Coming back to work in London and being involved in a brand new business I felt very vulnerable to start with and quickly learned that Jo was a key player if I was to successfully integrate into the group. I also quickly understood that with Jo you were placed on the ‘approved’ or ‘not approved’ list and once you had been judged there was precious little chance of any change of opinion! Fortunately I got on the right list and for the rest of Jo's time at Millers found her to be a good friend and highly efficient colleague.

I also remember that Jo's idea of being supportive and mine were not always the same. During our Creechurch House days I had a secretary who had given us a number of problems and I arranged a meeting to discuss them. Jo attended in her capacity of senior secretary and to lend support (as I thought!). As I had feared the meeting became fairly heated and ended with the secretary throwing the remains of a cup of coffee over me. Jo's reaction was to burst into fits of laughter while I completely failed to see the funny side at the time. It was only some time later that I realised that of the various possibilities of what might have happened after the episode Jo's laughter was probably the best outcome.

You mention Jo's love life and I was privileged to meet the famous Maurice on several occasions. I found him to be charming and an ideal companion for Jo. I also wouldn't want to finish without mentioning Jo's complete and utter loyalty to you. She loved a good gossip but would never reveal anything beyond a certain point and it doesn't need me to tell you that she was truly one in a million’.

Tony has mentioned a companion who Jo had for several years. Despite that fact that he has also died, I won’t reveal any more details except that he was a clever and well-regarded politician and that they were well matched.   Mavis Taylor recalls her referring to him as her ‘paramour’. Jo’s attitude to her own and everyone else’s love life was joyful and she was never happier than hearing about her friends’.  She was a great admirer of Cynthia Payne - ‘Madam Sin’ as the papers called her – and always said that she herself would make a great ‘madam’. And I’m sure she would. She was extremely good with money and in the time-honoured phrase ‘could make money out of an Armenian’. She used to run the Millers’ Christmas Club and usually returned much more to those in it than they were expecting.

Another of Jo’s many great qualities was that she was at ease with and could mix with everyone – from the south London villains who she met in the pubs of Streatham where she lived at the time, to the shipowners, lawyers, brokers and agents who we worked with. And they all respected her greatly. No one fazed her, and she was admired by many for her love of fun and down-to-earth Liverpudlian sense of humour. Nor was she fazed by new technology, taking easily to computers and using e-mail as early as 1987.

Jo married a third time some time in the late 80s – Don Taylor - a painter and decorator and also a man who loved the horses and pubs. He was a charming man and did up my flat and those of my friends. But Jo became disillusioned with his drinking and gambling habits and he fell into the 'non-approved list', while Jo moved into a flat in Dolphin Square. When he died, Jo had to pay off his debts, which she did, scrupulously. Thereafter when she lived in Victoria I recall a police superintendent as a companion, but when she moved to the Isle of Wight to be close to a sick friend, she had tired of men, and devoted herself to helping others.

As I have said, Jo moved easily in any circles and as part of her job with me quite often travelled for shipowners’ brokers’ and agents’ directors’ meetings, which she of course also helped to organise. She had a long check-list of things that I should have or not forget (like injections!) and I don’t think I ended up anywhere without anything important. Here is a photo of her with the TIM board of directors in Hamburg in 1991; quite at home. And she came several times to Bermuda.

Jo among the TIM board in Hamburg
Sue Dunning can also recall her going to Directors’ meetings in Seoul, Dubrovnik, Paris, Zurich and Monte Carlo – and Julie says that whenever you mentioned anywhere to Jo, she had always been there!  She often travelled with Sue and they invariably had marvelous times – I can well remember their laughter!  Sue recalls them making so much noise as they ordered ‘Black Russians’ in their room at 2am, that Stephen James had to bang on the wall so that he could get some sleep.

Jo retired from Thomas Miller in 1999 and moved to the Isle of Wight to care for a friend who was ill with cancer. She found another office job working for the Co-Op in Cowes and helping with the Ever Green Charity, where her money-raising talents came in very useful. I remember her ringing me with the news that she had helped secure a £25,000 grant for them. She enjoyed the company of her dog, 'Daisy' and she joined the Panto Players, usually being cast as a pirate!

Being the only woman with a car, used to take several friends shopping each week and out to their various clubs and to bingo where they shared all their winnings – which, as one might expect with Jo, actually happened quite often.

Her friends Rose Newman and Paddy Sower formed a mutual support network; they all went shopping together and made meals which they shared with each other, and they shared newspapers and saw each other every day.

She loved driving and in 2011 managed to have an accident in which she shunted a police car into the car in front – a three-car pile-up. Fortunately no one except her was hurt, and the police soon realised that they had met their match; so much so that when they sent an officer round to take a statement, he told her that he would nod when she should say yes and shake his head when she should say no or nothing – and that way she was only cautioned. Sadly, the x-rays she had taken after the accident revealed that she had lung cancer, and she spent time having radiotherapy in Southampton General but they couldn’t operate owing to her lungs being so weak from her childhood TB.

As her illness progressed, Rose went to every hospital appointment and chemotherapy session.  Paddy would drive Jo to all her hospital appointments and collect her.

In her down-to-earth way, Jo couldn’t abide people being miserable or talking about their illnesses and hated going to hospital in the bus as she was sure to have to sit next to a ‘moaner’. Her own illness was sadly long but she never ever complained, though she was clearly frustrated by her diminishing eyesight. Ian Jarrett recalls ‘I spoke to her just before Christmas and she was laughing and joking even though she knew that she didn't have long’. 

When she became really ill, her close friends, together with June Mortimer-Hume, a retired nurse, who also lived close by, took it upon themselves to look after her in relays, get her up and dressed, make her meals and feed her.  They were the ones who called in the doctor when it became obvious she was beyond staying at home.

Once she was in hospital, all her close friends visited her - particularly Paddy, who went in twice a day and he made sure he was there at meal times to feed her.  The same happened when she went into the nursing home, where June sewed name labels in all her clothes.

In addition to her close friends on the Island, Mavis Taylor visited her the day before she died, but several others had come from London including Julie Mavropoulos, Angela George, Lyn Horn, and her childhood friend Sheila Rehm provided enormous support and also took the main burden of settling her affairs.

Apart from those quoted here I have seen lovely messages about Jo from many of her former colleagues at Thomas Miller including – Terence Coghlin, Stephen James, Francis Frost, Nigel Lindrea, Luke Readman, Nigel Carden, Bob Grainger, Mark Holford, Karl Lumbers, Nick Whitear, Colin Lewin, Richard Carpenter and Malcolm Bird, and many more will have shared their memories of her with each other. But perhaps her best epitaph was a simple ‘get well’ card beside her bed in Southampton General Hospital in 2011, containing loving messages from over a dozen of her close friends from Thomas Miller, more than ten years after her retirement. She gave much love and joy, and received much in return, and no one who knew her well will ever forget her.

Herry Lawford
2nd June 2014

PS I have very few photos of Jo – she didn’t like having her picture taken. There is a photo of the syndicate taken in 1980 which has everyone in it but Jo  – but fortunately Sheila brought a collection of early photographs to the funeral and I have added them to an album on Flickr here

1 comment:

  1. Hi Henry

    I would love to hear from you, I was a relative of Jo, please contact me on


    Viv Frankcom