Heritage: The virtually blind man who built his own house

PUBLISHED: 15:00 10 June 2018

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

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


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.

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.

Related articles


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Romford Recorder visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Romford Recorder staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Romford Recorder account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

Latest Romford News Stories

Readers may not have heard of Sadiq Khan’s planned expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), but it is set to have a detrimental impact on the hundreds of thousands of people who drive inside the North and South Circulars every day.

Christmas, the time of year when we are pressured to buy things no one wants for people we don’t want to buy for at prices we’re not happy with.

Yesterday, 11:38

Police tasered a man in Collier Row after he threatened officers with a meat cleaver.

Yesterday, 10:00

Wondering what the weather has in store for us this weekend? Watch our Met Office video forecast.

Yesterday, 08:00

The discovery that a man who had been jailed for using his position as a police officer to prey on vulnerable women could have been allowed to work at Queen’s hospital without a compulsory background check is worrying both for staff and patients.

Fri, 17:05

A market trader from Newbury Park has been found guilty of torching a £260,000 Ferrari during an arson attack in Emerson Park that was revenge for a business deal gone wrong.

Fri, 16:18

Two of the three teenagers accused of taking part in a fatal knife attack which killed a 15-year-old outside a party in Collier Row have claimed they played no role in the incident.

Fri, 16:00

Whether visiting friends and family or going for that bargain in the sales, the rail network helps a lot of people to get around over the festive period.


From November, The Mercury in Romford begins to celebrate Christmas. The mall has plenty of gift ideas, fun events and activities for everyone

Vauxhall has completed its sport utility vehicle range with the third, and largest, Grandland X. We put the SUV, now available at Tony LeVoi in Romford, to the test.

“The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining,” so the saying goes. So if some warm weather is making your conservatory uninhabitable, think about replacing its roof with a flat one and adding a roof lantern instead.

Newsletter Sign Up

Romford Recorder twice-weekly newsletter
Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Most read news

Hot Jobs

Show Job Lists

Education Promo

News from your area

Digital Edition


Enjoy the
Romford Recorder
e-edition today


Education and Training


Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now