Obituary: James Young, RAF radar expert who went on to found St Jude’s Laundry

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James Coldwell Young, businessman and RAF veteran. Born: 15 July 1919 in Edinburgh. Died: 14 July 2019 in Glasgow, aged 99

James Young was a teenager from Edinburgh’s bustling Gorgie who found himself at the heart of Britain’s secret wartime radar operations in some of the most far flung corners of the country.

Having originally intended to join the Customs & Excise service, that career choice was scuppered when he was conscripted in the first wave of national service, called up before the outbreak of the Second World War as the shadow of Nazism loomed ever larger over Europe

He joined the RAF and, following Hitler’s invasion of Poland and Britain’s declaration of war against Germany, trained in meteorology – a path that would take him to locations including the Hebrides, Scapa Flow and, ultimately, to the remote Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean. Along the way he fell in love, marrying a fellow worker in one of the RAF’s top secret filter rooms, and post-war developed a career in an entirely different field that led to him championing the cause of disabled workers and co-founding St Jude’s Laundry in Edinburgh.

Born to master bootmaker James Young and his wife Flora, a couple who already had two daughters, he was the family’s third son to be named James, his two older brothers having died in infancy. Happily, the latest addition thrived and when he reached Gorgie Primary School it was evident he was academically bright. His elder sister Mary persuaded his parents to give him the best education they could so he sat the entrance exam for Edinburgh’s prestigious independent school George Heriot’s. Until that day he had used nothing but the Victorian school method of a slate. Now he completed the paper writing with pen and ink for the first time.

He passed and remained at George Heriot’s for the rest of his schooling, gaining his Higher Leaving Certificate. Tragically, while he was there, Mary died during a routine tonsillectomy shortly before her 21st birthday – another loss that profoundly affected the family.

Her brother went on to sit the entrance exam for the Customs and Excise service, coming second in the country in economics, his favourite subject. While waiting to join the service he was asked to lecture at the city’s Kerry’s College, a facility preparing candidates for civil service examinations, teaching English to non-native speakers and dictation to trainee government typists.

But war in Europe was on the horizon and in the spring of 1939 the Government re-introduced conscription. After his initial RAF training in England he worked in meteorology before returning to Scotland, where he was involved in the release of barrage balloons from an RAF base in Bishopbriggs. He then served all over Britain, becoming involved with radar and dealing with decoding messages from the French and other Resistance movements, for whom he had huge admiration.

There was a chain of early warning radar stations around the coast to spot and track enemy aircraft and he served on many of them – on Skye, at Scapa Flow in Orkney, in Londonderry and on Tiree. He was posted to the latter, in top secrecy, to scout out the location of an old First World War bunker and got himself arrested for loitering when he refused to tell the military police the nature of his mission. He was also on duty in Scotland the night in 1941 when Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess was detected flying into Lanarkshire on a so-called peace mission.

Later he was stationed at Raigmore House, Inverness, where he served in the filter room of the bunker built as HQ for 14 Group of RAF Fighter Command. The filter room received information on incoming and outgoing aircraft which, once confirmed, was passed on to other stations, allowing fighters to be scrambled – a scene often depicted in war films in which young WAAFs are seen plotting aircraft positions on a giant map table.

It was there in this high tension atmosphere of this vital work that he met his future wife Lucy, the officer’s clerk in the filter room. They married during leave in 1943, enjoying a three-day honeymoon in Perth.

However, the newlyweds were soon separated when Young was selected to pass on his expert radar skills internationally. During his foreign assignments he was attached to 127 Staging Post and No 13 Squadron and served in the Cocos Islands, where the RAF monitored Japanese Prisoner of War camps and carried out aerial reconnaissance.

While posted to the remote Australian offshore territory, his daughter Louise was born. He kept the “top secret” telegram telling him of her birth for the rest of his life.

When the war with Japan finally ended he was involved with the freed Japanese POWs who were brought to the islands for rehabilitation before being sent home and was never able to erase the memory of the condition of these prisoners.

Eventually demobbed, he returned home to meet his daughter for the first time. By now he was 26 and instead of joining Customs & Excise he enrolled in a government re-training programme at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt College, landing a management role with the city’s Inglis Green laundry and dry cleaners and capitalising on an interest in chemistry to become an expert in stain removal.

Although family was his priority – he and Lucy had a second daughter, Joyce – he was also driven to help others and became an enthusiastic supporter of Edinburgh’s Trefoil School, an institution for youngsters with special needs. He encouraged his staff to fundraise, persuading workers to donate the penny return on bottles from a works’ Coca Cola dispensing machine to school funds. They soon presented pupils with their first television set.

His involvement in founding St Jude’s Laundry came through his acquaintance with Jane Errington,an occupational therapist with the then Scottish Council for Spastics. She wanted to establish a workshop for people unable to find jobs on the open market. Together they decided on a laundry and he contributed the technical knowledge, devoting many hours of his own time and jeopardising his own job in the process as the project did not meet with the universal approval of his directors. The venture was the proudest achievement of his working life, though he also earned two Royal Warrants for his company and regularly visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse. He continued helping the disadvantaged when, aged 60, he took over the laundry at Glen Ochil Young Offenders’ Institution, training youths in the work.

After a long retirement spent in Chester, Edinburgh and Newton Mearns he died, after a fall, hours short of celebrating his 100th birthday. Predeceased by his wife of 66 years, he is survived by his daughters, three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.