Heritage: The virtually blind man who built his own house

John Ketley worked for a while at the Brewery in Romford. Picture London Borough of Havering Local S

John Ketley worked for a while at the Brewery in Romford. Picture London Borough of Havering Local Studies - Credit: Archant

The indomitable John Frank Ketley was told he was attempting the impossible. But he succeeded. Prof Ged Martin tells his story

The mile and a half of Lower Bedfords Road linking Harold Hill to Collier Row ought to make a pleasant stroll – it’s tree-lined, with a good footpath – but the through traffic is a disadvantage.

It’s a road with stories about the best and worst of the ways people behave.

John Frank Ketley was born in Dagenham in 1909, before that area was built up. Although he was actually named Jonathan, after his father, he became known as John Frank.

He married Shelagh Williams in Romford in 1937. The 1939 wartime census recorded Shelagh, in the sexist language of the time, as engaged in “unpaid domestic duties”.

John Frank was a farm produce salesman. They lived in Lower Bedfords Road. Their son, another Jonathan, was born in 1940.

Sometime later, John Frank Ketley worked in the office at Romford Brewery. Then his life changed dramatically.

Most Read

Perhaps his eyesight was already weak. Although of fighting age in World War Two, apparently he didn’t serve in the armed forces.

But when John Frank Ketley became severely visually impaired, he had to give up his clerical job.

To survive, the Ketleys started a poultry business on a three-acre block of land further along Lower Bedfords Road.

Shelagh’s “domestic duties” now included feeding hens and collecting eggs.

To protect the birds from thieves, the family needed to live on the property. John Frank decided to build a four-bedroom house.

He was not completely blind. “He could see dimly about a foot in front of his eyes.”

But he knew almost nothing about building.

“Neighbours told him he was attempting the impossible.”

However, he had a rough idea of what he wanted – a house big enough to provide a home both for young Jonathan and for Shelagh’s mother. An architect friend helped him draw up the plans.

With shortages of construction materials in postwar Britain, building was tightly controlled. Somehow, in December 1949, John Frank obtained a builder’s licence.

“For months he began work in early morning, finished late at night, squeezing all the spare time he could from his poultry-keeping.”

Much building work could be done by touch. He stuck a pin in a plumb line to help him check vertical alignments.

Jonathan was now old enough to read a spirit level and ensure that bricks were laid horizontally.

John Frank Ketley laid 32,000 of them. When the shell was built, he set about installing plumbing and fittings.

As he completed his house, in the summer of 1951, newspapers as far away as Australia carried celebratory reports.

“They told me I’d not be able to do it, but I was sure I could,” he told the press, although he admitted: “It’s been hard work and at times got me down.”

John Frank Ketley built well. The house, a private residence, still stands almost 70 years later.

In fields opposite stood Bedfords, the 18th century mansion that gave the area its name. (Vehicle access is from Broxhill Road, along one of Havering’s prettiest drives.)

Romford Council, Havering’s forerunner, bought it in 1933. The house became a museum, the park a recreation area.

After the war, Bedfords became infested with woodworm. In 1959, it was demolished.

But one local resident blamed vandalism. Youngsters had broken in at night.

“In every room, floorboards have been torn up, doors wrenched off, beautiful ceilings destroyed, all windows smashed.”

A handsome carved oak staircase had been totally wrecked.

Lower Bedfords Road had seen the best and worst of human behaviour.

Happily, in recent years, the story has once again been positive.

Formed in 2004, the Friends of Bedfords Park have cleared overgrown shrubs, and repaired fences and paths.

John Frank Ketley moved to the Braintree area, and died there in 1992. But I’d like to feel that his indomitable spirit urges on the Bedfords Park volunteers.