I came to know John Butters (“JCB” to all) in my training as a lowly planning assistant at Ipswich Borough Council. John had been with the then County Borough Council since 1958 where he had worked in the Borough Engineers Department, rising to become Chief Assistant Architect . In this role he had been responsible for the replanning and design of the Cumberland Tower development which, of course was very innovative and technically challenging at the time, and also included the lower blocks of flats between the top end of Bramford Road and Norwich Road. He had also been responsible for the last “wild flowers” phase of the Chantry estate. In the mid 1970s he took a career change to join the Planning Department, giving us valuable architectural advice on development schemes and playing a significant part in the progress of the Conservation agenda.
John was Ipswich born and bred and had Ipswich in his bones - he was a great grandson to Frank Woolnough, an early curator of Ipswich Museum. After school he studied architecture and was articled to the Ipswich firm of Johns Slater and Haward. Studies were interrupted by a call-up to join the Royal Air Force in 1941. After qualifying he returned to JSand H who, under the guidance of Birkin Haward maintained a reputation as one of the country’s leading specialist educational practices. One of John’s claims to fame was responsibility (under the guidance of BH no doubt) of the first secondary school built after World War II (for Essex County Council). He moved to the County Borough in 1958, being promoted to Chief Assistant Architect 3 years later.
John was a delight to work with and to learn from - mildly mannered, unfailingly courteous and quietly spoken, with an impish sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye. However these softer attributes masked a man firm in his opinions and always resolved to do the right thing. Maybe he did not always relate to some of the new ways – I remember his astonishment on learning that the corridors of the Wolsey Theatre were not to be plastered, but the block work just painted! This and other points were put to the very patient Roderick Ham – but they parted on good terms. John knew when to set aside his own opinions and to suspend his considerable powers of persuasion and accept the architect’s vision.
He had a great eye for proportion and detail and his neat and stylish hand can be seen in his exhibition survey drawing of the Unitarian Meeting House still on display at the back of the premises.
He enjoyed his latter working years researching the history and buildings of his home town. He finally retired in 1982, though his name could often be found at the end of lengthy and closely argued letters in the Star on matters relating to the town.
JCB – an Ipswich gentleman. What a pity he could not quite make his century, which I know he had his eye on.
Mike Smith (an Ipswich planner 1974 – 2007)