Mr Pepper

May 12, 2024

Anyone who has read my childhood memoir ‘This Boy’ will realise the importance of Mr Pepper in my life.

In 1964, following the death of our mother, my sister advised me to say nothing to my teachers or anybody who came under her broad definition of ‘the authorities’.

Our father had done a moonlight flit when we were infants and sixteen-year-old Linda worried that we’d be separated and institutionalised if ‘the authorities’ got us on their radar.

Linda had left school to train to be a nursery nurse. I was 13 and had already been the beneficiary of my sister’s extraordinary maturity. Lily, our mother, had a heart condition that required frequent stays in hospital. Linda not only looked after me she worked in various after-school/Saturday jobs to pay down the debts, re-connect the electricity and make sure our little North Kensington household was ready for Lily’s return. That final hospitalisation had lasted for five months before the operation that was meant to extend her life, ended it.

Of course Linda was capable of looking after me! That’s what she’d been doing for most of her life – but ‘the authorities’ probably wouldn’t see it that way. We were children and in those days you didn’t become an adult until the age of 21.

So we kept our heads down – until a letter arrived addressed to our mother a month after she’d died, offering a council house in Welwyn Garden City. Linda had the naive notion that we could inherit the house that Lily had spent fifteen years on the housing list waiting to be offered. So she contacted ‘the authorities’; we were discovered; a social worker was sent to explain what would happen.

I would be fostered by a family that lived close to my school and Linda would finish her training as a resident of Dr Barnados in Barking.
The social worker was Mr Pepper. He listened to Linda (who, even at 16, was impossible to ignore), saw how well cared for I was and convinced his superiors that we should remain together with my sister as what we would now call a ‘kinship carer’.

That one decision guaranteed a happy outcome to what had been a difficult childhood for Linda and me.

We were deeply moved by the attached email from Harry, Mr Pepper’s grandson. As you can see, our hero lived to a grand age. I love the fact that he was at one stage Sergeant Pepper (albeit without the Lonely Hearts Club Band).

Harry’s lovely letter and the attachments provide an opportunity to recognise the contribution of this incredible man and his unappreciated profession.


Dear Mr Johnson, 
My wife Kathryn forwarded me your message regarding my grandfather Jim Pepper. I’ve attached a few photographs of him, apologies for the quality but they’re just copies from my phone. The first few are family pictures from his childhood in Camberwell, then there are some from the time he served in the army, in India. I think some are in the Khyber pass. As a Beatles fan I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that he briefly rose to the rank of Sargeant! Less amusingly he was in India during partition and felt fortunate to have returned home in one piece. The boy he is pictured with is my father, his first son, who is two years younger than you. Then there are a couple of modelling shots from the late 40s when he was a repertory  actor going by the stage name of Julian Pepper. I have a few more pictures I can send from later in his life but this is the most I could attach to the email.
I can assure you that he was very pleased to know that you and your sister were well and appreciative of his efforts. I can remember that back in the late 90’s, when I was a teenager, he told me the story of how he had helped you both. He regularly watched the BBC parliamentary channel and took the Independent daily so he must have learnt of your election. There was obvious pride in the risk he took to his career by pushing to keep you both together, he said that it was all on his head if it had gone wrong. I can recall him saying that you were a very bright boy and he was obviously very impressed by how capable your sister was otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible. I remember being amused when he said how he thought he had done brilliantly to find you accommodation only to be told in no uncertain terms by your sister that it wasn’t acceptable, she clearly made quite an impression on him! 
Years later when you talked about this episode publicly members of the Pepper family were given instructions not to engage with anyone from the media as he was a modest and private man but I know that he read This Boy and heard you on desert island discs and kept a file of press cuttings where you mentioned him that had been collected by friends and family. 
My grandfather was a larger than life figure in the family and his charisma and thoughtfulness made a huge impression on me growing up. He lived to ninety seven and suffered dementia as the result of a stroke for the last few years but was generally in good health living with his second wife Pat in Ham for the majority of his retirement. He was an enthusiastic sailor when he was younger and loved the Thames, a regular visitor to Kew gardens and Richmond park where he would walk his dog, a voracious reader, Surrey CCC member and Fulham season ticket holder, he would reverently recall what a brilliant player Johnny Haynes had been. 
I’ll try to get a copy of the eulogy from his funeral to forward to you as that should flesh out some of the details of his life. I’m very proud to be connected to such a great man and in this time of reflection it is comforting to know what a positive influence he has had and I can only wonder how many other young people’s lives were improved by him. 
Best wishes and seasons greetings to you and your sister, 
Harry Bewick (I would have been a Pepper like my father and grandfather but was given my mother’s name!)
PS Jim said that the reason he always wore the overcoat regardless of the weather is because he was travelling by motorcycle!

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