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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt

Life and Style

The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes

Video: It is the type of thing no parent wants to hear

Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
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

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Executive - Ceiling and Flooring - £26,000 OTE

£26000 per annum + pension + career progression: h2 Recruit Ltd: An excellent ...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - Credit Reports - £100,000 OTE

£50000 - £100000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achievin...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Executive - Meetings & Events (MICE) - £40,000 OTE

£30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achieving...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager -Business Intelligence Software- £100,000 OTE

£50000 - £100000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achievin...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game