John Matthews the organist in 2002.
BEHIND THE NEWS
BACK in the 1960s, when John Matthews was studying for his law degree at Southampton University, he overheard one of his law lecturers make a remark which has stayed with him for the whole of his life.
The tutor said he preferred his students to come from a public school background rather than from grammar schools — illustrating the gigantic class differences that existed in the legal profession more than a generation ago.
Clearly, it was a remark that made a large impression on the ex-Sandown Grammar School boy. And one that has informed his world view about championing the welfare of the underdog.
Last Wednesday, after 18 years’ service as coroner for the IW, the great and good of the Island, including its Lord Lieutenant Maj Gen Martin White Judge Richard Price and High Sheriff Nick Hayward lined up to pay tribute to Mr Matthews.
During the ceremony, again and again, the tributes focused on his compassion for bereaved families and the sensitivity with which he has presided over some 1,200 inquests since 1994.
As well as being the Island’s coroner, bringing his own distinctive style to the proceedings, Mr Matthews is one of the Island’s deputy Lord Lieutenants and also serves as a tribunal judge.
He also had a little known ‘supplementary career’ as a legal journalist, writing for, among others, the Solicitors Journal, The Law Society and the Local Government Journal.
Yet it could all have been so different. In fact, as a young man, Mr Matthews, now 69, did not really consider the law as a career.
Instead, it looked as though he would follow his grandfather and both parents and become a teacher (his other grandfather was a bootmaker in Shanklin).
To this day, Mr Matthews retains his distinctive Island accent. He is proud to come from generations of Islanders yet, surprisingly for such a passionate advocate of the IW, he was born in Charlton, London, in 1943 at the height of the Second World War.
He said: “My father was stationed in London at the time. Later, he got moved to Birmingham and the family lived there until early 1945. Father went abroad and mother came back to the IW where we have been ever since.”
In common with most 1940s babies, his earliest memories are of the privations of rationing in post war Britain.
He said: “Actually, it is a very foolish memory. After the war everything was rationed. I can recall in the toilet there was a bucket in which there were pickled eggs. I can also remember tinned bacon.”
The young family grew up in Ryde but in 1960 they upped sticks and moved to Newport, where they lived in his grandfather’s house at the top of Staplers.
Mr Matthews lived there until he married.
He said; “I didn’t always want to be a lawyer. I was supremely good at history. I thought I would have a career in history. I came from a generation of teachers.”
However, the profession did not appeal and he opted for a career in local government.
But Mr Matthews soon realised if he was to achieve his ambition of becoming a town clerk, he would have to get legal training and decided to study law.
Once installed at Southampton University and on the road to becoming a local government lawyer, another friend of his father’s, Percy Rolf, heard he had become a law student and offered him articles at law firm John Robinson and Jarvis (later RJR), believed to be one of the first such arrangements for undergraduates in the country.
Mr Matthews spent term time at university and his holidays as the ‘office slave’ for RJR.
He said: “When I got my degree, I already had a good knowledge of the practical things solicitors do. Instead of going in at a relatively high level, I had been the office slave. I knew exactly what the juniors were thinking because I had been there myself.”
His rise at the firm was meteoric. He was an articled clerk between 1965 and 1967, made assistant solicitor in 1967 and partner in 1970, before he reached the age of 27, in charge of 17 staff.
However, aged 31 in 1974, he joined the then Medina Borough Council where he stayed until 1986 before joining Roach Pittis and then two years later, worked with Keith Verrinder and the late Richard Henshaw at Matthews, Henshaw and Verrinder, where he became partner and stayed until 2002.
As well as this, he was chairman judge administrator of the IW duty solicitors scheme.
“We did an awful lot of criminal work and had the biggest criminal practice on the IW.”
Other strings to his bow included chairmanship of the Island’s dental and pharmaceutical committee, which heard complaints against practitioners, and an appointment as a deputy district judge in 1991 with a long- term ambition to become a district judge.
However, the coroner’s post appealed to his independent spirit.
He said: “I applied to be a recorder but I never got it. I became coroner and my judicial ambitions did not kick in any more.
“The trouble with being a judge is you never talk to anyone apart from the court usher.
“As coroner, I could still talk to members of the public. In practice, it is the top legal job on the Island.”
He has too many hobbies to count, so there is no risk of him becoming bored with retirement. He is an organist at St John’s Church, Newport, and has deep religious convictions. He also has a passion for classical music, which includes singing, and is a self-described ‘compulsive’ reader.
Favourites include Euro-pean authors, such as Cervantes — ‘there’s more to them’ — but he also loves crime fiction by P. D. James and more recent novels such as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy.
“I like flawed characters, I think they reflect some aspects of myself.”
He added: “I am crazy about history. I think that’s why I liked treasure inquests so much. Any form of history grabs me.”
In his early 20s, he volunteered as a visitor for people suffering from mental health problems. And it is clear he also enjoys going on prison visits and has a fascination for criminals.
He said: “Everyone has their dark side. The only difference between me and them is that I keep my dark side under control.”
However, after 18 years, he is ready to step down as coroner.
“I am going to miss my staff and volunteers and all the people I came into contact with. You can only do so much though and then it starts catching up with you.
“When I started, I was dynamic. I am not saying I have got cynical but I am not going to miss inquests.”
And after half a century involved in the legal profession, how does he describe himself?
“I am a natural conservative but with a strong streak of radicalism.”