RAF Pilot and Local Artist
John Samuel Crawley - 24th June 1921 to 31st March 2014
Better known to most people as Jack – and certainly to his close family as Uncle Jack. Jack was an amazing man who led a varied life so full of fun and adventure, over almost 93 years.
He was born at 78 Ash Road, Luton to Leonard Crawley and Florence Maud Crawley (formerly Hawkins). He had two elder siblings whom he adored – his sister Irene and his brother George. It was a close and supportive family.
Jack's Early Years
Luton was a very different place, a place of history and character, much now destroyed by the planners under the banner of progress. This was something that Jack lamented but faithfully recorded in many of his paintings of Luton churches, shops, pubs and other buildings. He was schooled at Dunstable Road Juniors and then at Beech Hill Boys School, just around the corner from home. Some of his school friends remained his friends for the remainder of their lives. One in particular was Ken Baldwin, a lifelong friend. Like Jack he was a character. They went on holiday together as kids – they cycled down to the south coast and then headed west until reaching Devon before heading back through Bath, Swindon, Oxford Aylesbury and Tring and home again over the Downs. They camped anywhere, picked food and occasionally bought some provisions. Nothing very remarkable until you realise they did this at just 16 years of age.
Jack left school in the summer of 1935 at the age of 14. He still had the reference given to him by the Headmaster, Mr Mander. It is dated 1st August 1935 and reads as follows:-
“John Crawley leaves the above school today after completing two terms in the highest class. He has shown himself a good all-round scholar but in all branches of drawing and art he has displayed exceptional ability. His behaviour and general bearing have always been exemplary and he has been very regular, punctual and diligent.”
After leaving school, with such a ringing endorsement, Jack joined Commer Cars as an apprentice and then later a draughtsman and illustrator.
A Stubborn Streak
When war broke out in 1939, his father Len was relieved Jack was in a reserved occupation. In early 1940, Jack tried to join the RAF but since he worked in a war industry, Commer refused to release him. Jack had a stubborn streak so he engaged in a war of his own with Commer to make himself un-reserved. Eventually, they relented and agreed to release him. Unknown to his mum and dad he again applied to join the RAF and was sent to an assessment centre. His dad hit the roof, as he would have known of the dreadful casualty rate amongst young aircrew and thought Jack was absolutely mad to give up his safe reserved job.
However, Jack passed his assessment centre and he later went to Worcester to train in Tiger Moths. Having accomplished this phase, he was sent to Canada for further training in December 1942. His trip across the Atlantic was not without incident.
Shortly after a period of little real activity, they all headed by train to Ponca City, Oklahoma. There he flew Stearmans and Harvards.
During his time at Ponca City he spent many hours practising night flights at very low altitude, clearly a pre-cursor for his activities on his return to the UK in January 1944. There is a mysterious 8 months gap no doubt putting into practice all that he learnt about night flying at low altitude. Hedge hopping as he called it. This was a period of his life that he rarely talked about. He then resumes after D Day flying Oxfords, Hurricanes, Mustangs and Spitfires – both Mark IX as well as Mark XVIs.
One of his highlights after the war ended was to take one of the Mark XVI Spitfires up to Church Fenton in Yorkshire and wring it out for the crowds at the Battle of Britain air display, putting on a marvellous aerobatic display. The day job at this point consisted weather tests at 30,000 feet in the Spits and also test work for the new airport that was later to become Heathrow.
He later joined 245 Squadron, based at Colerne, as a Meteor Jet test pilot, as part of the RAFs first Jet Fighter Wing. He was demobbed in 1946 and returned to Civvy Street and picked up where he left off at Commer Cars as an illustrator. A disappearing skill today and with the advent of computers and CAD. We will not see such skills as Jack possessed again.
He moved from Commer Cars in 1949, when he joined Percival, at Luton Airport. Whilst at Percival, he made many friends he remained in contact until the very end.
In 1952, he moved to Temple Press until 1957 at which point he became freelance and never looked back. He was every small boys hero (and some girls too) for being an ex-RAF pilot but also a keen motorcyclist. He was also something of a mystery as he used to work from his studio upstairs in Ash Road and was never to be disturbed, according to his mother. Nobody told Jack that so he was always surprised that someone was there if he came downstairs. He would always ask, “Why did nobody tell me you were here?”
Jack moved his father and mother along with himself to Flitton in Spring 1963 to his much loved Manor Cottage here in Brook Lane. Thus providing further opportunities to make many more new friends. He thoroughly enjoyed regular visits to the Moor to observe; sketch and paint in all weathers come rain or shine.
His love of motorbikes was encouraged at an early age by his brother George. It was a pastime, during which he made so many friends. He was still riding until just a few years prior to his passing. Indeed he only stopped riding a motor scooter a matter of months before his death in March 2014, just 3 months short of being 93. He had a number of vintage motorbikes. Some from new, or almost new at acquisition. He had amongst others a Rudge Ulster, Vellocettes – a MAC version, his beloved KTS (Dotty) and the KTT racing machine. He also had a ‘modern’ 1960 BMW R50 from new.
He travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles, Isle of Man and many trips to Ireland on his bikes. His gear was somewhat unusual but effective.
He enjoyed the natural world; you only have to look at his sketches and paintings to appreciate this love. He had an astonishing range of subject matters from delicate watercolours to very technical engineering drawings. He specialised in cut-aways revealing the inner workings of engines and planes.
His artistic talents of course speak for themselves, as was self evident to all. Jack though was always very reluctant to blow his own trumpet and was always self-effacing and self-deprecating of his own abilities. He would often say that if there were two ways of doing something he would pick the wrong way or the longer way.
However, his ability to draw and paint is legendary and he leaves a legacy for people to enjoy and remember him by for many years to come.
A Family Man
Jack, although single, was a family man and was always interested in what other members of the extended and extensive family were doing. Making a note in his diary, he would always remember and made you feel important and loved. He would recall where you had been for your holidays and when you were due back. If you came with photos, and woe betide if you didn’t, you would be met with a whoop of delight and an exclamation of “whizzo’ or “well I’m blowed”.
He was a most compassionate man, a remarkable man – a friend to many and an uncle to all his nephews and nieces and a Godfather to many more.
Jack Crawley packed a great deal of adventure and action into his 92 years. He would have been touched by the thought of having a barn named after him but he would have hated all the fuss.
Prepared for the Friends of Flitton Moor by Jack’s nephew, Len Aspell (June 2016)