‘Outstanding servant’ to Alliance and Royal British Legion

Tribute has been paid following the death of East Antrim Alliance and Royal British Legion stalwart John Brice Erskine.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 2nd January 2020, 11:37 am
John Erskine.
John Erskine.

Family, friends and colleagues paid respect for the life of John, known to those close to him as ‘Johnsies’.

His son, Andy, delivered a eulogy to his father at Roselawn Crematorium as he was laid to rest in a humanist ceremony on Friday, December 27.

He stated that he was an incredible man, adored by his wife, Rosemary, as well as three sons and six grandchildren. His hard work, his caring nature, his humour, his generosity and his love of life just some of the many traits that characterised this amazing and loving person.

Johnsies, who passed away peacefully on December 22, aged 94, was born on March 31, 1924 in Whitehouse, where he spent his childhood on the family farm with his sister Heather, next to where his wife Rosemary lived, and before he went on to board at Campbell College school. His final two years at Campbell were spent in Portrush, as the school was moved there whilst the Belmont site was turned into a military hospital.

He joined the Army immediately after leaving school to the dismay of his mother. Rather than joining as an officer, as would have been expected from his peers, he joined the ranks as a private in the Royal Engineers. In his own self-deprecating words, he would have been more dangerous to his own side with a gun, so he let his spanner and tool kit do the talking.

He saw active service in France, going over two days after D Day to build the pontoon bridges for the British and American tanks on the front line, often being shot at, and rarely thinking of his own safety. At the end of the war he was posted to India due to a clerical error as they were looking for a draftsman, as opposed to an engineer. There he often risked court martial by frequenting the officers’ mess dressed as an officer. It was during this time he got to know people from diverse backgrounds and putting into perspective everything else. This sense of inclusion stayed with him for the rest of his life.

When he was de-mobbed shortly after the war, he joined the family firm in Whitehouse manufacturing roofing felt. He took over the running of the felt works along with Eric Robb when his father Tom passed away in 1960. ‘Master John’, which Jim Shaw who worked with him for 50 years called him, carried on working full time at the felt works until he was 80.

John and Rosemary had three sons: Ross, Andy and Mark. Family holidays were not at the beach as Johnsies had suffered with prickly heat in India and was not one for beach holidays. The family holidays involved amazing trips in the Austin Maxi to far flung places like England, Sweden and Norway.

During the long summer holidays Johnsies always had ‘projects’ which he conjured up for his sons to be involved in like building a bookshelf, a rockery, or table tennis.

Outside of work and the family, for over 60 years John volunteered to organise the annual Poppy Appeal for the Whitehouse Royal British Legion with the family spending many an evening assembling the poppies. His loyalty to those friends and comrades he lost in the war drove him on until he just could not physically do the role anymore.

This sense of inclusion that Johnsies found while in the army, led him to become actively involved in the Corrymeela community, which at its centre was to bring people of different backgrounds, politics, religions and identities together. During the dark times of the Troubles this was a beacon of hope.

This sense of reconciliation also spurred him on to become an active member of the Alliance Party. He was one of the longest serving members of the East Antrim Alliance Association and was its treasurer for over 30 years, only stepping down in November 2019 when he suffered a stroke.

Former Alliance Association chair, Wing Commander Noel Williams, said: “John Erskine was an outstanding servant to the Alliance Party, not only as a treasurer, but as an activist who would spend days addressing envelopes and other election material to help others get elected to the Assembly and the local councils that fell within the East Antrim constituency.

“Moreover, as a former serviceman myself and organiser of the RAF Associations Wings Appeal campaigns, I am astonished that John could devote so much time to both the Royal British Legion and the Alliance Party.”

In his later years, John suffered badly from arthritis. Though his mental capability and ‘can-do’ attitude overcame all obstacles, to the point where he would regularly cycle three miles every day on his exercise bike, which must have been incredibly uncomfortable. His love of gardening and, in particular his tomatoes, kept him out in the fresh air for hours.

Stewart Dickson, East Antrim Alliance MLA, said: “I will really miss John as a fixture at our monthly association meetings where he would present our financial statement, even though he had to suffer physical pain to get there due to his arthritis.

“He was an incredibly well-read man and would always have a book close to hand; from the classics through to modern day fiction he devoured thousands of books, from which he gained immense pleasure. There is little doubt that he was, above all, a progressive liberal at heart.”

Johnsies was so proud of his daughters-in-law, Khamla, Ceri and Moni and his six grandchildren; Ella and John, Nye and Owen and Gabby and Jake. As he often quipped, he had no grandchildren and then suddenly six came along in the space of three years. They were never far from his thoughts or he from theirs.

John Erskine will be sadly missed. His life touched so many people and his humour, honesty, kindness and selflessness will continue to inspire those who were lucky enough to know him and be loved by him.

The Alliance Party was represented at John’s funeral by former leader David Ford and former association chairmen Cllr Robert Logan and Ald Noel Williams.