Former Borough Councillor John Stevens – who in 1981 was one of the leading figures in a political earthquake in Colchester which has continued for four decades – has died at the age of 89.

His colleague and friend over the past 40 years, Colchester’s former MP Sir Bob Russell, pays his tribute.

John William Stevens was born on 22nd August 1932 in North London. He died at his home in Colchester on 2nd September 2021 having battled cancer since it was diagnosed in March 2017.

He leaves his wife Jenny of 32 years who was Mayor of Colchester in 1997-98. John was her Escort.

From his first marriage he also leaves daughter Susan and son Nicholas; grandchildren Laura, Jonathan, Annie, Gracie and Beatrice; great grandchildren Edward, Charlotte and Tabitha; and Jenny’s children Jamie and Libby for whom he was a father figure from their mid-teens when Jenny and John married in December 1989.

His sister Valerie, three years younger, predeceased him.

I had the great honour of being John’s Best Man at the wedding at the Registry Office. The reception was held in the Mayoral Suite at the Town Hall.

John was educated at Kingsbury Grammar School in North London before doing his National Service, joining the Education Corps where he completed three years leaving with the rank of Captain.

He was based at Oswestry where he taught fellow National Servicemen who could not read or write. While proud to have been an Army Captain, he never used his military title and I suspect few people knew.

John then spent three years at Magdalen College, Cambridge, where in 1956 he graduated in European languages with his specialities being French and German.

It was while at Cambridge that he met his first wife Ann, who was a student nurse at the city’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital. She came from Norfolk.

They married in 1957 and moved to Yorkshire where John started work for a consultancy firm before he became a salesman for Mobile Oil.

They lived in Redcar. John greatly loved his time in the North-East and enjoyed holidaying there on many occasions in the years after he moved to Colchester.

It was while living in Redcar that John’s daughter Susan was born in 1958 and son Nicholas in 1962. He and Ann suffered the sadness of the death of their first son Jeremy who died in 1960 four days after he was born.

John and his family moved to Colchester in 1967 where he took the plunge to start his own philately business. He had dabbled in stamp dealing when he was at University, and decided that he would rather do this than continue to be a salesman for an oil company.

He chose Colchester because for wholesale purchasing of stamps he needed to be close to London.

His first shop was near to where Southway now carves through Butt Road and Headgate, in premises owned by the Council but which were due to be demolished when Southway was built in 1972-73.

Ahead of this happening John bought a shop nearby in Crouch Street from where he sold stamps, and other collectables, as well as running a catalogue business and organising auction sales each month held in the upstairs tea room of Jacklins restaurant in the High Street.

John and Ann’s first home in the Colchester area was in Stanway, then Maldon Road followed by Cambridge Road, before moving to Birch.

The couple celebrated 25 years of marriage before they parted. A longer marriage to Jenny meant that John celebrated two Silver Weddings, while not unique it is certainly rare.

It was the political upheaval in British politics in the closing years of the 1970s and into the early 1980s which brought John Stevens and myself to meet for the first time, and to forge a friendship which lasted 40 years and five months.

A new national political party was formed in 1981 – the Social Democratic Party, better known as the SDP. John was a member of the Crouch Street Traders Association, and with newsagent George Flint they initiated the formation of a Colchester branch of the SDP with the first meetings held at the nearby Embassy Suite. John was aware, through reports in the local newspapers, of my unhappiness with the Labour Party (I had been a Labour councillor for ten years) and phoned me for a chat. In the May I joined the SDP and my friendship with John began.

I will go as far as to say that had he not made that phone call I may have drifted out of politics completely. Instead, my interest was rekindled – and I am now in my 51st year of public life of which being Mayor (1986-87) and later 18 years as MP for Colchester would probably not have happened. Nor would I have been Knighted.

John was elected as a Borough Councillor for Berechurch Ward in May 1984, with Jenny – elected in New Town Ward the previous year – as his agent. He defeated the sitting Labour councillor with a majority of just eight votes. John remained a Councillor for 16 years before stepping down in 2000. Had he wished, he could have become Mayor.

His main interest was in housing, and for a time he was Chairman of the Housing Committee. He represented Colchester Borough Council at national level on the Local Government Association, and through the LGA he served for several years on a national housing association.

John also had Parliamentary ambitions and was the SDP-Liberal Alliance candidate at the 1983 and 1987 General Elections, finishing second both times in the Colchester South and Maldon constituency. The Liberal Party and SDP later merged to become the Liberal Democrats. At the 1964 General Election he stood as the Liberal candidate in Cleveland, coming second.

John Stevens’ funeral will take place at Colchester Crematorium on Monday 27th September, at 1.15pm. The service will be conducted by the Rev Christine Shillaker who knew John and Jenny Stevens throughout their marriage.