Obituary: J. A. Speak

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The Independent Online
John A1exander Speak, surveyor: born Eccles 12 May 1905; died Weybridge, Surrey 7 May 1994.

A YOUNG surveyor in Jamaica was hard at work one morning in the late Twenties, building the first road through the high Blue Mountains, when he came across a fence. He asked his men what lay beyond. They told him that it was the kingdom of the Maroons, the fierce descendants of slaves who had escaped from Columbus; bad men. They would go no further. But JA Speak went in alone, was taken to the 'Colonel', the Maroons' chieftain, and spent the day making friends with him. It was a typical act of courage and curiosity from a man who made a friend of everyone he met.

His earliest memories were of growing up in the Mardale valley, in Westmorland, which has since become a reservoir supplying water to Manchester. Before that sad day, he would roam all over those fells, once walking with his father all the way to school at St Bees on the coast and staying en route at a pub owned by the grand-daughter of John Peel. There was one bed in the pub. 'You have whichever side you like, boy,' said his father, 'I'll take the middle.'

After leaving school, Sandy Speak became a surveyor in a Manchester office but was restless to see the world and took a job, at a week's notice, in Nigeria, where he stayed until being sent to Jamaica in 1927 for the Colonial Service. He loved the place, its people and its history. He showed the ornithologist James Bond where to find the nest of the rare Jamaican blackbird, which was then named after Bond (and later brought him unexpected fame at the hands of Ian Fleming). Late one night he took a visiting musician to hear and record the singing of what became 'Jamaica Rumba' (later 'Mango Walk') which made a fortune for his guest. He knew every inch of the island, built a house in Christiana and enjoyed being part of its development towards independence. He watched the birth of the Tia Maria business, experimented with growing grapefruit and eventually became Crown Lands Officer during the war.

Returning to England in 1945 he met and fell in love with Gerry Desmond, a war widow with three entrancing little daughters. He married her and took a job in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, assuming overall responsibility for development in the home counties. His work gave him the authority to exercise benign judgement over what should be preserved and what could be redeveloped. He was particularly glad to have been able to save the great tree-lined Avenue in Southampton.

He was a man with time for everybody and a story about everything. His knowledge of painting and poetry was vast, as was his memory, and he could - and did - recite enormous chunks of Shakespeare, Tennyson, Kipling and Lewis Carroll. The home he made with his equally generous wife and their five daughters was a haven of hospitality and every one of their 19 grandchildren was special to them. Having seen the Catholic Church at work in some of the toughest places on earth, he joined it at the age of 40 and never ceased to rejoice in it.