My husband, John King, died recently at the age of 68, on holiday in France. For thirty years he worked for Newcastle Social Services, first with children and then for twenty years he led a team of mental health social workers in the West End of the city.
John was born in London, the son of Alfred, a universal miller, and Lily (nee Flack) and was brought up in Wood Green. He passed the 11+ and was the first member of his family to benefit from a higher education. Wolverhampton Council sponsored his training as a social worker at Ipswich City College so his first job was in Wolverhampton although he soon took off for Nairobi with VSO, working for a children’s charity, the Child Welfare Society of Kenya. When we met in Kenya we made a surprising pair: I was a prim teacher of English in a girls’ boarding school whereas he was enjoying his hippy phase, sporting shoulder-length golden ringlets and riding everywhere in a cloud of dust on a motor bike. We married in 1977, nearly forty years ago.
By 1994 he realised that homeless people frequently suffered from mental illness but rarely received useful treatment because all NHS systems stemmed from the basic information of name, address and date of birth. Without an address, homeless people remained outside the system, treated at various A and E departments but without any joined up care plans. He therefore based a mental health social worker at Hill Court in Pitt Street, where the old brewery flats intended for night shift workers were being used to house homeless people. Before long, Hill Court became a model of good practice. Housing officers were on duty 24 hours a day, a GP ran sessions there and a health visitor was assigned there. The social worker was able to note all the sojourns of each client and build up a mental health record, enabling a care plan to be implemented. The good work achieved at Hill Court won national recognition when, in 1997, the Sainsbury prize for Inter-agency Co-operation in Mental Health was awarded to Newcastle City Council.
When John was forty-five years old, he was diagnosed with polycythaemia rubra vera, a relatively rare blood disease. At that time, he was told that he would live for ten years. In fact he lived for another twenty-three, thanks to the NHS which has made huge progress in the treatment of rare diseases and also to his determination to keep fit by cycling to work and participating in the Great North Run.
After retirement in 2013, he continued to support services for vulnerable people by volunteering first at the East End Food Bank and more recently at the People’s Kitchen where hot meals are provided daily by volunteers for homeless people. Four days before his death, he cycled to Tweed Street Allotments as usual, to harvest the remaining vegetables for the People’s Kitchen with their allotment team. He delighted in the shared pleasure of gardening and the companionship of the breaks in the shed.
He was an avid Guardian reader, proud to be thrice winner of the Prize Crossword. He is survived by me, his sons Aidan, Thomas and Barnabas and a grandson, Finlay.
Sue King, December 2017
A slightly shorter version of this obituary appears in the Guardian, Saturday 23 December 2017