Godmanchester Cambridgeshire Community Association Online

Bill Looker

Bill Looker was known as a Godmanchester man, but many will be surprised to learn that he was neither born, nor brought up in Godmanchester.  His grandfather had been born on the family farm in Godmanchester, but chose to go into the milling business and at the time of Bill's birth, he and his sons had a flour mill in Luton.  So Bill was born in Luton in 1922.

A sudden failure of the business meant that his father had to seek work in someone else's mill which took them to Glasgow where Bill spent his primary school years. 
Another job change for his father took him to Ipswich where he went to Ipswich School.  He was good at sport - a 1st XV rugby player and Captain of Athletics, but also good at languages.  Throughout his life he was always eager to engage French and German speakers in conversation.

In his teens, Bill was very keen on Scouting.  His mother was a farmer's daughter; he often visited his grandfather's farm in Bedfordshire and also the Looker farm here in Godmanchester.

He left school at 16 and became a management trainee, at United Dairies, doing various jobs to give him first-hand experience of all aspects of the trade.  He enjoyed this; he was given a milk round with horse and float in Maida Vale where he met many people from the world of arts and entertainment, and he was given the job of making the first fruit yoghurt to be sold in Britain.

When war broke out, Bill was too young to join up, but he became a cyclist messenger with the ARP, running messages between air raid wardens.  He continued to visit his farming relations in Bedfordshire regularly, cycling up from London and camping on the farm.  On one of these occasions, he and his cousin narrowly escaped injury when a German bomber dropped the remainder of its load of bombs on them out in the field, so when his uncles suggested he avoided call-up by joining them on the farm, he concluded that it would be no safer.  At 18, he tried to join the Navy, but was rejected due to a hernia.  He had an operation to correct it and so was able to join the Navy in the following year.

After training, he joined HMS Paladin, which set off for the Far East escorting troop ships.  During his time on the Paladin, they took part in the rescue of the crew of HMS Dorsetshire and the invasion of Madagascar.  The Paladin continued through Suez to the Med, where from its new base in Alexandria, it made a number of abortive attempts to relieve the siege of Malta.  Bill was then working in the ship's magazine.  These convoys were under constant air attack, because they had to steer between Crete and North Africa, both occupied by the enemy.

A severe bout of amoebic dysentery in Alexandria separated Bill from the Paladin.  After a spell on the depot ship, HMS Woolwich, by way of recuperation, he was selected for officer training which was done in South Africa.  Soon after passing out as a Sub-Lieutenant Bill's language skills briefly came in useful.  French was still the diplomatic language and on two occasions, he was detailed to communicate the intentions of the Royal Navy face-to-face with senior officers of defeated navies.  First to the Italians (defeated by the Allies) and then to the Greeks (defeated by the Germans).  From Alexandria, he took command of one of a flotilla of Z Craft, barge-like landing craft, to be delivered to Sicily.  Being such small craft, they hugged the North African coast before venturing across the Med.

He finally got back to England after three years away from home and had 9 weeks leave before joining the HMS Denbigh Castle on one of the Arctic Convoys, taking supplies to North Russia.  Towards the end of the voyage, the ship was torpedoed, but not immediately sunk.  The crew were taken off and the officers remained on board being towed into the Kola Inlet.  They finally got into a lifeboat just before the ship capsized.  This was in 1945 and by the time Bill got back the war was nearly over, but he continued in the Navy for a further year.

After being demobbed, he went to study Dairying at Seale-Hayne Agricultural College in Devon, but cleverly made the transition from his original career of Dairy Management to Dairy Farming, closer to his real interest. 
It was here that he met his wife-to-be, Penny, who was from Cornwall.

After leaving college, they were married and Bill had dairy farm management jobs first near Lyme Regis and then at Cullompton near Exeter.  He was always very good with animals which was ironic since he ended up farming in a mainly arable area. In Cullompton, Bill and Penny had their first two children and Bill continued his naval interests by helping with the Sea Cadets.

Meanwhile, back in Godmanchester, the family farm was now in the hands of John Looker, a cousin of Bill's father.  John was a bachelor and had no one to hand the farm on to, but now there was another farming member of the family, so John invited Bill to join him in 1955.  Early years in Godmanchester were hard work for him, and family holidays were virtually non-existent.  This period also saw the arrival of Bill and Penny's third child.

He threw himself into the spirit of rural life and even insisted on curing his own pigs.  He still found time to become involved in organisations like Gransden Show of which he later took a turn as President.  When it came to fund-raising, Bill's speciality was barbecues - a flashback to his days camp-cooking with the scouts.  For Bill, the barbecue was only a substitute for what he thought was bliss - spearing your sausages on a stick and cooking them over a camp fire.

In spite of his hard work and the fact that his interests took him outside Godmanchester, Bill's sociable nature meant that he became widely known in the Town.  As a result of this, he became Chairman of the Comrades Club and was responsible for the building of the large extension to the club which is now used by them for dancing and entertainment.

Bill had a piece of land between the bypass and the Town that he decided to make available for recreation by letting it at a peppercorn rent.  The field was later named after his daughter Judith who had died as a result of breast cancer in 1983.  However, it was not enough for Bill to effectively give the land; encouraged by his success with the Comrades Club, extension he organised the building of a sports pavilion on the site. 

When the post-reorganisation Town Council was formed in Godmanchester, Bill did not really think of himself as a potential councillor, but later he was elected onto the council and became Town Mayor in 1988.

On his retirement from farming in 1987, he had more time for his interest in various ex-servicemen's associations.  At different times he was Chairman of the HMS Paladin Association and the local branch of the Royal Naval Association.  He was an active member of the Castle Class Corvette Association and represented them at the Westminster Abbey commemoration service 60 years after the end of World War II.  In the North Russia Club (founded for the veterans of the Arctic Convoys), he made visits to Murmansk, but it was the George Cross Island Association that took most of his time. 

Bill was keen on improving relations between Britain and Malta, which had deteriorated, so he enthusiastically joined in the foundation of the George Cross Island Association, which was for those who had fought in and around Malta and he became the Association's first Chairman.  Then came the idea for a memorial.  As Chairman, Bill shouldered much of the administrative burden of realising this idea, meeting in the process a number of interesting people.  The Memorial created was a large bell, which rings at noon each day, hung in a cupola which stands on the side of Valetta harbour.  His love of Malta was such that he bought a house on the smaller Maltese island of Gozo and so his visits to Malta were frequent.

In 1991, Penny, like her daughter Judith, died as a result of breast cancer.  Bill found it difficult living alone, but his sociability helped him out and in late 1993, he married Pat and went to live with her in Hartford.

Bill and Pat had many friends in Hartford and enjoyed an active social life, but later Pat developed Alzheimer's Disease.  At first Bill was able to care for Pat himself, but as her condition worsened and Bill became older, this became impossible and Pat had to go into residential care.  Soon after this, Bill moved into a flat in warden-controlled accommodation back in Godmanchester.  Even at this time, Bill was keen to get to events and meetings arranged by the various organisations of which he was a member.

Bill continued to visit Pat regularly, but she died in 2006.  Bill died on 2nd September 2009, 70 years and one day after the first shots of World War II, an event that had so much influence on his life.

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