Finding John Eldred“These lads, I came down and they said, ‘Can you swim?’ I said yes. ‘Can you save her?’ And I said yes.”

As heard on liveline

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It was one of those unforgettable radio encounters. Like a reunion of long-lost friends – except that Mary Thompstone and John Eldred have never actually met in person. They spoke for the first time today on Liveline, 66 years after John rescued Mary’s mother Anastasia from drowning.

Mary put out the call on Liveline on Friday to try and find the man who saved her mother’s life at Cahore, County Wexford in 1953. 84-year old John Eldred at home in Mamsbury in the UK didn’t hear Mary’s chat with Joe, but a friend of his did. She got in touch with him and the circle was closed.

John Eldred was born in Singapore but his family left just before the Japanese invasion in 1942. They were on holidays in a hotel in Cahore, County Wexford in 1953. John was 17 at the time. He says he remembers what happened that day “like yesterday”:

“There was a girl who was very distressed and she was shouting for help, saying her sister was drowning, or drowned, or something. And she was very distressed. So, my father heard this and he said, ‘Quick, run down to the beach and see what you can do.’ ”

John said he tore off in the direction of the beach immediately:

“I was 17, I was fit. I ran like mad.”

As John spoke, his story was punctuated with gasps of joy and astonishment from Mary.

“These lads, I came down and they said, ‘Can you swim?’ I said yes. ‘Can you save her?’ And I said yes. I’d had life-saving training at school. So I took off a few clothes and they took the rest of the clothes off so I was standing there in my underpants. So in I went, into the water and swam like mad.”

John was a strong swimmer and had learnt life-saving at school. By another happy coincidence, Anastasia hadn’t reached the current that could have swept her far out to sea. John said that Mary’s mother impressed him with her calm and generous spirit, even in the face of death:

“She was very nice. She kept saying, ‘Are you alright, are you drowning? If you’re drowning, leave me and save yourself.’ I said ‘No, no, no.’ I was so impressed with her.”

In the tussle of the rescue, John’s underwear came off in the water. He says it wasn’t worth worrying about just at that moment in time.

“So I thought, oh blow, there are more important things to think about than this, so I carried on.”

His mother took a different view when he fetched up on the beach naked. John says she shouted at him from the sand dunes:

“She said to me, ‘Why didn’t you have any clothes on?’ That was all she could say to me. She was quite a Victorian lady.”

Anastasia went on to work as a nurse, get married and have five children and eight grandchildren. Anastasia passed away in 2016, aged 87. Her daughter Mary says she and her family are full of gratitude for what John did:

“We are all alive and well. My brothers are married and with lovely grandchildren, my mum had eight grandchildren. And that is down to you, John Eldred, you are a brave, brave man.”

You will want to listen to the whole conversation between Joe Duffy, Mary Thompstone and John Eldred here. No summary can do it justice!

Ruth Kennedy

© The Listener 2019

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