Heritage: Tribute to brave Royal Liberty School teacher Roy LeMin 60 years on

Roy LeMin taught at the Royal Liberty School in Gidea Park. Picture: Ken Mears

Roy LeMin taught at the Royal Liberty School in Gidea Park. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

Professor Ged Martin explores the fight for life of a Romford schoolteacher who died 60 years ago

Before the lockdown, I was chatting to an old friend about our days at Royal Liberty School (we left in 1963!). Out of the blue, I threw him a name to test his reactions: Mr LeMin.

My friend sat bolt upright. “Short man,” he said, delving six decades into memory. “Very well dressed.”

Later, others added “a thoroughly nice man who was respected” and “a gentle personality and an effective teacher”.

Alas, I can’t say that Mr LeMin taught me much. His subject, physics, wasn’t my favourite. And he was often absent on sick leave.

One morning in November 1960 came news that he had died. Everyone was sad, but, at fifteen, if you’re lucky, you don’t really understand death.

It’s taken me 60 years to realise that Roy LeMin was a very brave man.

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His unusual surname comes from a tiny place in Cornwall. His forebears must have decided to Frenchify it. I expect they disliked being called “Lemon” – the nickname Royal Liberty boys tried to fix upon him, but it never stuck.

Roy LeMin was born in 1918, shortly before the end of the First World War. His family lived in the Devon fishing village of Brixham. I think he learned to swim there.

I assume he acquired his enthusiasm for science at secondary school in Torquay. He was lucky: good science teachers were rare in the 1930s.

Although few students went on to higher education, there was a small college in Exeter – today the mighty Exeter University. Roy LeMin became one of the few hundred undergraduates there.

When war broke out in 1939, he joined the Fleet Air Arm, the Royal Navy’s flying reconnaissance force. Like most men who served, he never talked about his experiences. They’d seen things they preferred to forget.

Roy LeMin was trained as an observer, work which included taking aerial photographs to identify enemy forces.

The Fleet Air Arm worked closely with the RAF. Roy LeMin became a liaison officer in the Mediterranean theatre.

One day he was on a flight that crash-landed in the Libyan desert. He was lucky to be rescued: Libya is eight times the area of Britain. But he’d endured days of punishing heat and freezing nights, without water.

Roy LeMin was invalided home, finished his degree and trained to be a teacher. In 1947, he was appointed to Royal Liberty. He and his wife Eileen – she was from Brixham too – bought a house in Ardleigh Green, near the corner of Kingsley Gardens and Rowan Walk.

When a colleague got married, the LeMins generously hosted the reception in their quiet garden. In the 1950s, poorly paid teachers couldn’t afford lavish weddings.

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Despite his fragile health, Roy LeMin organised swimming competitions and cheered school football teams from the touchline.

By the mid-1950s, it was clear that his desert ordeal had caused permanent kidney damage. There were no transplants. Only hospitals had dialysis machines. He cheerfully coped with long periods as a patient.

His students never knew how ill he was. Eileen lovingly nursed him, and never gave up hope.

In Cold War days, Royal Liberty had a cadet force. In September 1960, the cadets joined Romford’s Battle of Britain parade, flourishing a new standard. The school borrowed a cine camera to film the event.

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Who better to direct the movie than the trained Fleet Air Arm observer, Mr LeMin? It would be his last contribution. He died two months later, aged just 42.

At the funeral service in St Michael’s, Gidea Park, his headmaster, Mr Newth, spoke movingly of Roy LeMin’s courage and his faith.

Eileen returned to Devon, where she died, aged 98, in 2019. They had no children.

When we see names neatly carved on a war memorial, we tend to think it was all over in 1945.

But some brave men and women were war casualties long afterwards.