Mr James Walker 1


One of the joys of my role is to hear from people that I haven’t met before. There is an Irish saying, ‘a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet’ and while I have come to know a great many people in the Sedbergh community over the last 45 years, there are still many whose acquaintance I am yet to make.

It was with delight therefore that we received a letter from James Walker (known as Jim), a fellow Luptonian who had been in Sedbergh from 1946 to 1949. Within the letter, Jim had also included a very generous donation to the Foundation. Being most grateful, and also intrigued, I arranged to meet him in his hometown of Tunbridge Wells.

All that running around the fells, and the cold baths, in post-war Britain had done him good. Jim, now 90, greeted me with a big smile, looking very sprightly, and with a sparkle in his eyes, that told me he was on top form and enjoying life. Everyone has a story to tell, and over coffee, he told me his.

There are three themes that run through his life. His Christian faith, his time as a surgeon, and his family.

Jim joined Lupton House in 1946. Mr Christofferson had just left, and Mr Collinson was in situ as Housemaster. Those days were strict. Shorts were worn even in winter, and hands in pockets weren’t allowed during your first term. Second term you were allowed one hand in one pocket and by the end of the year you were allowed to keep your hands warm if, that is, you hadn’t already succumbed to frostbite. ‘It was a hard school’, Jim reflected, ‘but if you were prepared to do your best, you were welcomed into the family of Lupton House’.

Of all the aspects of Sedbergh, it was the Headmaster, Mr Bruce-Lockhart, who had the greatest influence on him. Jim came from a devout Christian family in Ireland, and while Mr Bruce-Lockhart demanded respect and fear in equal measure (a fact that was persuasive upon Jim’s father in the choice of school), he was a deeply religious man. In 1947 when Jim was confirmed, he was told to visit the Headmaster one evening. Petrified, Jim was ushered into Mr Bruce-Lockhart’s room, where he was invited to sit in front of a warming coal fire.

‘It was like going home’, said Jim, ‘Mr Bruce-Lockhart wanted to know about my character and I have never forgotten our fireside chat’. Jim went on ‘Mr Bruce-Lockhart (I noted the respect even now for his old Headmaster by the continued use of his surname) didn’t want to be thought of as an extraordinary man, although he was, and tried to bring things down to your level. His sermons were at times deeply moving and I still remember his sermon about the bird’. Jim looked upwards as he recollected ‘I couldn’t hear the bird because I had shut the window. But it wasn’t the bird who was the fool, it was I’. Jim smiled as he could tell I was trying to make sense of what he had just said.  

A large part of Jim’s life at Sedbergh was dominated by sport. ‘A keen rugby player, a good fullback and a strong kicker’ said Jim but with suitable modesty. Added to this was his love of tennis and shooting.

In 1949, however, while enjoying the full extent of activities that Sedbergh had to offer, life was to take a new direction. While in London with his parents that summer he started coughing up blood and was diagnosed with pulmonary TB. At the time treatment was in its infancy, but a new cure, streptomycin combined with para-aminosalicyclic acid, over a period of up to two years was thought to be a more effective way to treat the disease, than bed rest and surgery. Thus, Jim became one of the first in the UK to undergo this new regime of drugs.

‘For six months I wasn’t allowed out of bed and had daily injections which became sore after a time’ said Jim, but with typical Sedbergh stoicism. Eventually, and by degrees his health improved, and eventually he was allowed back to Ireland, transported by rail in a carriage completely to himself. While, sadly, he never returned to Sedbergh, the three years he had had in Lupton House, were formative, and he has never forgotten those happy times and the friends he made.

Jim went on to study medicine, inspired in part by his experience with TB, and also by his aunt who had been a missionary doctor in Africa. During this time he met Shirley, later to become his wife, and whose father was an Old Sedberghian. ‘We have now been married for 60 years’ said Jim with great pride and affection.

Encouraged to specialise, Jim trained to become a surgeon, and such were, and are, the demands of the discipline, and despite being in the top 10 of 120 in medical school, Jim admits it took him a while to pass the exams. But in 1964 he was finally elevated from Dr Walker to Mr Walker and having spent some time post qualification in Jamaica, in 1967 he, with his wife and three young children, took up a post in Rwanda with the Church Missionary society. ‘We had to learn the language when we got there’ said Jim, ‘but we were made most welcome, almost revered, because my aunt had also served there as a doctor and had been greatly mourned when she was killed in a car crash while travelling between Rwanda and Uganda some years earlier’.

Jim spent six years in Rwanda, alleviating people’s suffering, although he himself talks about it with great modesty. Smallpox, at the time, was still prevalent in Africa, a deadly disease now eradicated from the planet, and he was tasked with treating it as best he could. Indeed, while the UK had established the NHS in 1948, in Africa there was little access to modern medicine, or surgical skills. His work, I’m sure, would have been life changing for many. No wonder the name ‘Walker’ carried such currency in central Africa.

By 1973 however, and with the children becoming teenagers, it was time to return to the UK. For the last 15 years of his working life he headed up the A&E department at Tunbridge Wells which explains why, many years later we found ourselves there, talking about his life, while enjoying a coffee. He is a tremendously spirited man, gentile, happy, and deeply interesting. There is much to this man, and so much to tell, but that would need a book with many chapters.

We ended by my asking him what had persuaded him to donate to the School. ‘Because’ he said, while looking me in the eye, ‘I owe so much to Sedbergh. Those three years set me on a course in life such that I never looked back. I am indeed most grateful’.

We shook hands; it had been a great privilege to meet him and to hear his story. One of many thousands whose journey had started at Sedbergh, defined by a process which has become the happy parent of so many generations over a span of half a millennium. He may have come from a different era to me, and our backgrounds are quite dissimilar, but we are both Old Luptonians and Sedberghians, and by the end of the coffee, it felt like we were old friends. Thank you Jim, it was a great pleasure to meet.

Jan van der Velde