Richard John Mitchell, known to us as John and Dad, was born in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, to Edith and Kenneth Mitchell. His brother Peter was born 16 months later. When Dad was young the family moved to Hutton in Essex. Dad valued his relationship with Peter. They swapped many emails about the animals and birds they saw in their gardens and the plants they were looking forward to growing this year.
Dad went to Brentwood School. He was academically very gifted and a good athlete and cross-country runner. It was at school that he met his lifelong friend David Bonner in the sixth form and with whom he shared a passion for history. Dad was a Server in his local Parish Church and a Queen’s Scout. Both of these activities helped to shape him as a Christian and as someone who believed in service to others.
After leaving school Dad worked on cruise ships for a year. He was part of a team offering educational courses to teenagers and he travelled widely. His interest in the sea and ships never left him.
Dad went up to Cambridge in 1968 with David Bonner. He also made another lifelong friend in Tom Brennan and both Tom and David, along with their wives, attended Dad’s funeral in the Church where he married Mum. After one term reading history at Peterhouse Dad switched to law, a wise decision as academic law underpinned his working career.
In 1975 Dad met Mum in Blackheath. They shared a love of literature, drama and the theatre. Mum and Dad were married in The Church of the Ascension, Blackheath on Friday 2 April 1977. Richard was born in 1981 and Christopher in 1989.
We have many happy memories of growing up, play football with Dad, our parents watching us play rugby at school and learning to swim in Greece. I remember swimmingly regularly in the Lido by the sea in Jersey. Once I asked Dad a question – it was something about the stars and the moon and it was the first and probably the only time I heard him say, ‘Hmmm – I don’t know the answer to that’. On the way home that day he bought me a children’s encyclopaedia to answer the question he was unable to answer himself.
Dad was called to the Bar in 1972 and he joined the Middle Temple which became his spiritual home for the rest of his life. He was appointed to the Judiciary first as a District Judge in 1992 and then from 2005 until he retired two years ago, as a Circuit Judge. We were so pleased that some of Dad’s colleagues and friends from the Middle Temple and the Judiciary were able to be at the funeral despite the restricted numbers on the day.
Dad became Chair of the Middle Temple Historical Society and organised many wonderful talks and supper events until Covid prevented this after March 2020. He gave well-researched talks himself and also encouraged high-profile historians to lecture to the Society. He wrote two respected books on Family Law which received highly acclaimed reviews and the books are still widely read by practitioners today. He also wrote numerous articles for Middle Temple publication. His last piece of research was on the first barrister of colour to be admitted to the Bar in the 19th Century and this is the subject of a lecture he was to give in June this year as Lent Reader at the Inn. The Readership is an honour I did not fully appreciate when he was alive, but subsequently I have realised its importance and I feel very proud of him. Fortunately, after a phone call with Oliver Muncey at the Inn on Friday 26 March 2021, John passed the first draft of his essay to Oliver, the day before he passed away. You will find that unedited re-produced in this year’s Middle Templar. The Inn most generously organised for the lecture to be given by Master Treasurer and Mass Ndow-njie on Wednesday 23 June 2021. We are hoping to celebrate Dad’s work at a Memorial Service in the Inn later this year.
Both Christopher and I have married in the last ten years and Dad and Mum wholeheartedly welcomed our wives Ali and Amy into the family. Dad was delighted when his grandchildren Emily Florence May and Hugo Thomas Johnny Mitchell were born and during Covid he regularly sent stories to them. He was looking forward to visiting Christopher and Amy in their new house in the Cotswolds, a visit he will sadly now never make.
Dad read voraciously. Mum and Dad’s home is full of books and there was very little that did not interest him. I have a vivid memory of the time when I moved out of the house. Mum stood at the front door waving to me as I drove off. I looked up and Dad was standing on my bed by the window busily making immediate use of the recently emptied bookshelves. Dad continued to learn throughout his life and extensively researched The London Charterhouse and its fate at the time of the Reformation. He wrote a play about this which was performed twice at the Charterhouse. Mum said to me after Dad’s passing that one of the reasons Dad worried about dying was because it meant there would be no further opportunity for reading or learning. When I have visited Mum since Dad’s death, I have spent time in his study and the masses of books and carefully collected trinkets beautifully capture his hobbies and interests. Dad and Mum shared many passions; running, walking, their garden, the arts, in particular the theatre, meals and outings with family and friends. I remember the parties Mum and Dad held at our house. For the Millennium they hosted 29 people to a five course sit down dinner.
The last year for Mum and Dad, as for the rest of us, has been difficult. During lockdown they spent all their time together and this was made more poignant when Mum was diagnosed with cancer in September 2020. Dad devoted the last seven months of his life to caring for her. On Thursday 25 March 2021, two days before Dad died, they received wonderful news that her treatment at Guys was looking very positive. They felt they had been given their lives back and began to plan a future together after lockdown. Sadly, it was not to be as Dad died two days after receiving this news but in the knowledge that Mum’s life was no longer in danger. He died from a ruptured aortic aneurysm which is a swift traumatic event and I seek solace in the fact he was probably unaware of what was happening. I do not believe he would have been in pain or frightened just before he passed away. Mum and a wonderful neighbour Barbel stayed up all night and into the morning to sit next to Dad after he passed. I will always be grateful to Barbel for the compassion, kindness and love she gave Mum and Dad in those desperately sad hours.
Dad had so much more to give us all. I hope he was proud of what he achieved in his 72 years, because we are proud of him. He will be missed by so many. He was modest and much of his service throughout his life to others was never widely known. Many of the letters and cards which Mum has received over the last few months have referenced in particular Dad’s kindness.
I would like to finish by including a short piece from an email Dad sent to a good friend of his on Monday 22 March 2021, five days before he died. He wrote:
Since my last letter Spring has continued to appear as usual. Hundreds of different daffodils are out but I’m starting to dead head them- as well as hyacinths, some of which I don’t remember planting. The apricot is in blossom. Luckily bumble and single bees are flying so there’s a chance the blossom will be pollinated unlike last year. And an evergreen clematis called ‘Apple Blossom’ is growing strongly with some flowers opening. So I hope that the weather will remain warm so I can sit on a bench under it and look at the pond.
This is how I choose to remember Dad – in the garden, sat on his bench looking at the flowers and the bumblebees.
Dad, you will be greatly missed.
When I think of Dad particular words, images and memories come to mind.
The first is care. Dad really cared about the things in his life, his work, his possessions, his family, and friends. He was ‘careful’. Above all, Dad was ‘caring’. His love for his sons, his daughters-in-law, his grandchildren and his brother and friends were so evident. But there is one person for whom Dad cared so much and that is Mum. He supported her through the last 7 months of cancer and I think what he did went beyond what anyone could imagine except Mum who does know. His actions are a real example to us all about kindness, strength, compassion, loyalty, love and the care of others when it really matters. I would suspect that if there was one message that Dad sends to us, it would be to keep caring for others. I have found myself since Dad passed many times saying ‘thank you’ to him for caring for Mum as he did.
My next memory of Dad is his profound sense of justice. Whether that was in the context of morality, the practice of law, his understanding of history or politics, he was someone who always tried to do the right thing, and this seemed to get stronger as he got older. I have personally thought many a time, ‘What would Dad do?’ as I have needed to decide. In his work he was always fair in applying the law with empathy, trying to understand how the decisions he took could affect families and particularly children. Outside of work, he was the same. We always joked that he could spend £100 in the supermarket and get home to realise he hadn’t paid 50p for something and then return to settle the debt.
Another image I have of Dad is of how hard he always worked. I have a vivid memory of being a child and waiting for him to come home so that we could have dinner together as a family. Sometimes Dad arrived in his wet raincoat and other times in a soaked shirt from being on a crowded Southeast London train on a Summer’s evening. But it was always after a hard day’s work. What this distilled in Richard and me was to work hard and then to enjoy times together as a family too. He really enjoyed our meals together and he loved hosting them when we came back from school, university, travelling or after we moved out of the family home. He made a superb Greek salad. We have a lovely photo of Dad at the head of the table, enjoying the stimulation and company of the conversation around him.
Dad had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. For history, law, literature, economics and social sciences, art, architecture, wine, gardening, wildlife, sport and visiting foreign cities. It is easier to think about what he wasn’t interested in because there was very little. I remember Dad spotting unusual birds that occasionally came to feed in our garden. He had a canny eye for identifying mammals and birds. He loved the pond, full of frogspawn but unfortunately did not live to see this year the majestic yellow flag-irises he planted around the edge or the return of the house martins which he looked forward to each Spring.
There was one particular species of bird I would talk to Dad about and these were swifts. Amy and I saw our first few swifts of the year the day before Dad’s funeral. It was a moving moment seeing these little birds drifting skywards on the warm currents, so busy and purposeful in their lives. I will be remembering Dad when I look up and see them circling above again.
We would all give much now to spend more time talking with him today.
I want to end with a short piece from AA Milne’s, Winnie the Pooh:
How lucky am I to have had something that makes saying goodbye so hard.
This obituary was composed from the deeply personal eulogies given at John’s funeral by his sons Richard and Christopher.