Leslie Thomas obituary: Barnardo’s boy who became a reporter then drew on his National Service experience to write ‘The Virgin Soldiers’

He lost his virginity to ‘Juicy Lucy’ for 30 shillings. ‘She gave me back  10 bob because I was inept’

Leslie Thomas was a former Barnardo’s boy who became a Fleet Street journalist. But he is best known for his riotous autobiographical 1966 novel The Virgin Soldiers, which was made into a successful 1969 film starring Hywel Bennett. The book’s title was, he said, “the best three words I ever wrote.”

It was inspired by his National Service experiences in Singapore – in Who’s Who he records that he “rose to Lance-Corporal” – which included a spell fighting Malayan insurgents. “The jungle was pretty terrifying,” he said. “I remember we were sent up country on trains. This was particularly dangerous as the terrorists had a habit of jumping on to the roofs of the moving trains and firing down on to the squaddies below.”

The bawdy plot concerned a romantic triangle comprising Private Brigg (closely based on Thomas himself), a career-soldier sergeant and the daughter of the regimental sergeant-major – and featured Brigg’s obsession with losing his virginity. If not a roman a clef, it mirrored real life closely. Thomas recalled, “I remember one of the lads in my barracks saying, ‘I hope we’re not shot before I’ve known what it’s like to have a woman,’ and I thought ‘hear, hear’.”

He eventually lost his virginity with a prostitute, “Juicy Lucy” (so-called both in the book and real life) for 30 shillings: “She gave me 10 bob back in the morning because I was inept.” He saw more of her, and recalled: “She had a Chinese name, but if Doris Day was on at the cinema she’d be called Doris, or if Rita Hayworth was on it would be Rita or even Hayworth.” He said that one of his biggest regrets was that he never said goodbye properly to her: “You should always say goodbye.”

Written in the evenings while Thomas was working as a reporter, the book was, he admitted, “not even a novel when you break it down – just a series of incidents”. It was, though, a huge, if controversial, hit: he recalled receiving a letter which read: “Dear Sir, You have got to die, you bastard, you and DH Lawrence”.

Leslie John Thomas was born in Newport into a seafaring family. His father he described as “a wandering Welsh sailor”, a stoker on merchant ships who would come home, get drunk and beat his mother up. During the war Thomas recalled praying, “Make dad’s ship sink.” It duly did, killing his father, when a torpedo struck, and when his mother died not long after of cancer, he and his brother were sent to a Barnardo’s Home in Kingston-upon-Thames. One of his uncles – his mother and father had 23 siblings between them – did try to retrieve the boys, but was unable to convince the home that he was fit to be in loco parentis: “Any chances of us being allowed to live with him were dashed when he offered the Barnardo’s representative a gin and tonic.”

He trained to be a bricklayer at Kingston Technical School, and then took a course in journalism at South-West Essex Technical College in Walthamstow. His first job was reporting for a local newspaper in Woodford, Essex, and then came National Service in the Royal Army Pay Corps – Thomas would tell girls the “P” in “RAPC” stood for “Parachute”.

“I wanted to go into an infantry regiment and see the world,” he recalled. “They sent me to Singapore, but put me in the Pay Corps as a clerk in an accounts office, the worst possible place for me. Even now I am not good at the administration of money matters... I was basically a desk-bound soldier, and Singapore was an exciting place to be, particularly for an 18-year-old like me. In my off-duty moments I was even a singer at the famous Raffles Hotel.”

He came back to Britain and worked in local newspapers in London, and then in 1955 was taken on by the Evening News, with whom he stayed until he retired in 1965 to write fiction full-time. Among the stories he covered were the trial of Adolf Eichmann – “I even went back for his hanging”– and the death of Sir Winston Churchill.

The film adaptation of Virgin Soldiers was written by John Hopkins, and directed by John Dexter, would go on to win two Tony awards, one for his production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus. While Hywel Bennett played the Thomas role, Lynn Redgrave was the regimental sergeant major’s daughter as determined as he to lose her virginity. It also featured a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance by a pre-Ziggy Stardust David Bowie.

Thomas was a quick writer, generally starting a book in the autumn and wrapping it up in the spring, and after Virgin Soldiers there were 29 more novels, including a sequel, Onward Virgin Soldiers. Thomas admitted that was there was a pressure to make them all racy. “Unfortunately I am stuck with it,” he said. “I’ve started on the road and there is no turning back. Sales figures tell me that.”

Indeed, over his career he sold around 14 million copies. Probably the best known of his later books was Tropic of Ruislip, whose title evoked Henry Miller for an account of steamy goings-on in suburbia. He said he had a letter from a residents’ association when it was published saying how upset they were about it; they suggested he make reparations with a donation towards new trees in the area.

Dangerous Davies (1976), regarding the exploits of a mild-mannered CID officer in Willesden, became a well-regarded TV series, The Last Detective. In 1964 Thomas had written a memoir of his Barnardo years, This Time Next Week, and 20 years later came an autobiography, In My Wildest Dreams.

In later years he lived in the large Georgian canonry in Salisbury Cathedral Close. He became friends with his neighbour, Sir Edward Heath, who was the first of his new neighbours to invite him to lunch. Thomas found him “quirkish but often very kind.” Thomas was, he admitted, addicted to beautiful homes, and over the years had owned 26. He wrote: “I treasure memories of one particular lady who was heard to exclaim in horror when she was told of my arrival: ‘A pornographer has come among us!’ We later became great friends.”

Leslie John Thomas, writer: born 22 March 1931; OBE 2005; married 1956 Maureen Crane (marriage dissolved; one daughter, two sons), 1970 Diana Miles (one son); died 6 May 2014.

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Arts and Entertainment
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint)
newsBloomsbury unveils new covers for JK Rowling's wizarding series
scienceScientists try to explain the moon's funny shape
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
Arts and Entertainment
As Loki in The Avengers (2012)
filmRead Tom Hiddleston's email to Joss Whedon on prospect of playing Loki
voices In defence of the charcoal-furred feline, by Felicity Morse
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Education Recruitment Consultant- Learning Support

£18000 - £30000 per annum + Generous commission scheme: AER Teachers: Thames T...

All Primary NQT's

£100 - £120 per day + per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Description Calling a...

DT Teacher - Food Technology

£100 - £145 per day + Pension and travel: Randstad Education Maidstone: SUPPLY...

Supply Teachers Needed in Thetford

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Supply teachers neede...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star