Obituary: Tributes paid to world renowned stunt man, record breaker and carriage driver John Parker
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
John Parker, who has died aged 81, was one of the world’s greatest-ever carriage drivers, so dazzlingly brilliant at controlling teams of plunging horses he became a stuntman, world record breaker, television star and renowned teacher.
At the heart of it all were his horses, and this month John, of Swingletree Stables, Wingfield, near Diss, made his final journey in a horse-drawn hearse.
John fell in love with the equine world as a child, working with shire horses on his grandfather’s farm. At 17 he gained his jockey licence and then signed up for the army, joining the Horse Transport Division. “We had pack mules, riding horses - and a regimental carriage,” John explained in an interview with this paper a few years ago. “I thought, ‘This is what I have got to do!’ I had driven carts with two horses and I taught myself to drive four.”
He excelled, eventually leaving the army to become the go-to carriage driver for films and television programmes.
In the classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang film the man driving the terrifying Child Catcher’s carriage is not actor Robert Helpmann but John. He was also the stunt-double for carriage drivers in the 1967 Dr Dolittle movie. And in The Wrong Box with Peter Cooke, Tony Hancock and Dudley Moore, John drove five out of the six carriages in a single scene.
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“I did a lot of Hammer Horror too,” said John. “But it was good money. It was silly money. I could buy a car every couple of weeks if I wanted!”
Instead he decided to buy a carriage of his own – and discovered it had been the mail coach which carried post between London and Norwich in the early 19th century.
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It had once been driven by John’s 19th century carriage-driving hero, James Selby, who held the record for the longest distance driven by a single coachman - until John broke it in 1984; and for the fastest a team of mail coach horses could be replaced with fresh horses – until John broke that record in 1996.
“He was the great coachman of the age. The fact that he had driven the coach meant everything to me,” said John.
He brought the coach back to Norfolk and, with partner Susan, who died three years ago, launched Swingletree Stables. They bought a house first and gradually added land, horses and carriages to become one of the biggest carriage driving centres in Europe.
Twenty five years ago, on the 150th anniversary of Britain’s last ever regular mail coach journey, from London to Norwich, John retraced the route, in the same coach, and broke his own world record for speed and for the longest distance driven by a single coachman. “The Duke of Edinburgh told me I was an idiot, if I remember rightly!” said John later. His six teams of horses worked and rested in relays, changing every eight to 10 miles, through the 139-mile, 21.5-hour journey. As the final team clattered to a halt outside Norwich Cathedral, the reins had to be prised from his temporarily paralysed grip.
For many years Norwich Union (now Aviva) leased the mail coach from John and paid him to take it all over Britain and abroad. The coach helped him raise more than £750,000 for charities including Save The Children and SportsAid. After more than a million people turned out to see one of his record-breaking trips, subsequent journeys were always accompanied by charity collection buckets.
John was also a champion carriage racer, representing Great Britain 11 times in world and European driving championships.
For four decades John and Susan taught everyone from the coachmen who drive carriages in royal processions to children at annual summer camps. They are remembered as gifted teachers.
They were also spectacularly talented. For many years they performed stunning manoeuvres at the Horse of the Year Show in London, including driving a carriage pulled by a team of five horses through a tunnel of fire.
John adored stunts and challenges, once pitting himself and his horses against a Formula One driver in a Ferrari and another time changing a team of horses quicker than a Le Mans pit crew could change a wheel (that one was televised as a world record.)
But there was a serious side too. John was a past chairman and president of the British Driving Society, vice chairman of the Goodwood Riding and Driving for the Disabled Association, a teacher, examiner and inspector for both the Department of Transport and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and patron of the British Mule Society.
And until recently in the lanes of the Waveney valley, a drumming of hooves, creaking of taut wood and leather and rumble of wheels might herald the arrival of the near legendary 81-year-old coachman, his face, contoured by decades outside, so full of character he could have been conjured from a fairytale.
Stephanie Evans, who worked with him for more than 40 years, said: “He was a friend and mentor to so many, a brilliant horsemen and carriage driver; he was the last of the great coachmen.”