Scarborough's John Senior - fighting to support British troops with Heroes Welcome
One Yorkshireman's desire to show support for our fighting forces has sparked a national crusade. Chris Titley meets him Photographs by Joan Russell
It was, he confesses, an impulsive gesture. With the encouragement of friends and staff, Scarborough businessman John Senior placed a hand-drawn poster in the window of one of his restaurants which declared a warm welcome to all servicemen, servicewomen and their families.
That simple action caught people’s imagination. Two years on it has blossomed into the Heroes Welcome scheme, a public endorsement of the work of the military adopted by towns and cities across the country.The story starts in 2008 when John was taken aback by a spate of news report showing an apparent disconnect between the armed forces and the rest of Britain. These included the fears of one RAF base that uniformed personnel were in danger of abuse and assault from civilians angered by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A former Major in the Territorial Army, John employs a number of ex-servicemen and women in his restaurants who were equally shocked. They wanted to make plain their support for the armed forces, and that poster was the result.
Other business owners liked the idea and soon the posters were found in windows all along Scarborough sea front. The mayor asked if the Heroes Welcome could become an official civic venture and the town newspaper agreed to print stickers.
‘Within about five months we had 350 businesses involved right across the town including the Crown Hotel, casinos, Stephen Joseph Theatre, all the restaurants, pubs, bars – all the way down to the donkey man on the beach.’
One of the scheme’s great selling points is its simplicity. All any business has to do is exhibit a poster or sticker in a public place declaring Heroes Welcome. Some, like John’s restaurants, also offer a discount to service personnel, but that is at the owners’ discretion. ‘The ethos is a sticker and a smile. It’s completely free,’ John says.
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After he addressed a meeting of the National Association of Civic Officers – ‘mayors’ right-hand people’ as John describes them – the scheme went national. First to take it up was the council in West Norfolk. Since then many other boroughs have done the same, adopting Heroes Welcome as civic policy.
As a result armed forces personnel are assured of an official Heroes Welcome from Stirling in the north to Brighton in the south. Drivers of London black cabs are signing up too.
‘When York wanted to join, that was a watershed moment. Beyond London it’s probably the country’s most significant historic city,’ said John.
‘I was massively humbled. I had to pinch myself. It was a great honour to go to the Mansion House and give my presentation to the great and good of York.’
He is certain the impact will be significant. ‘You can imagine a soldier getting to York on a rainy, cold night and seeing a row of taxis all displaying these little Heroes Welcome stickers. ‘It would mean a huge amount to him and the family that’s with him.’
The scheme is approved by the Ministry of Defence and has many supporters across the military. ‘An excellent idea, a simple way for communities to show their open support,’ was the verdict of Sir Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff.
John’s brother-in-law and another son of Scarborough, Lt Col Toby Gray was Commanding Officer of the 1st Bn Coldstream Guards. He said: ‘My soldiers and I really appreciated the special welcome given.’ Heroes Welcome has also achieved the near-impossible and received backing from politicians across the parties. The previous Labour government championed the cause, and David Cameron contacted John last summer to thank Heroes Welcome for doing a ‘tremendous job’ in recognising the dedication and bravery of service personnel.
Not so long ago every town had its own barracks and Territorial Army unit. Men and women in military uniform were a regular sight on the streets, and were integrated with civilian society to a much greater degree than today.
Heroes Welcome helps bridge that gap, said John. ‘As a people we are very proud of the work done by the men and women who serve in the military. I think we’ve forgotten how to demonstrate it. The British way is discreet. The soldiers don’t want a big song and dance, they don’t want American-style acclaim, they want a show of support that is appropriate to us, and appropriate to their bravery and commitment.‘Ours is gentle support, quiet acknowledgement and a warm welcome to both the soldiers and the families.’
He knows how being called up on active service affects a family. John followed his grandfather and father into the Territorial Army and became the first TA soldier to be mobilised after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
At Christmas 2001 he was given three days’ notice of a deployment in Afghanistan, flying out in the early hours of Boxing Day. ‘I was running restaurants on the seafront one day and being dragged off to Afghanistan the next. My wife and daughter were left in the UK in a pretty bereft state.’
He was deposited at a wrecked Kabul airport covered in snow and in temperatures of -20C. The hulk of a bombed out jet plane was nearby. ‘You begin to realise what Armageddon might be like.’
There were only 350 soldiers active at that time. ‘You did feel extremely nervous, you were very exposed. If anything went wrong there was no way they could get you home.’
Having faced such dangers, and knowing the sacrifices paid by many soldiers who were less fortunate, John understands the impact of a warm welcome home. And he is not surprised that Heroes Welcome originated and took off in Yorkshire.
‘It’s the Yorkshire spirit. We are practical and we know when something needs to be done, and needs to be done right. This is the right thing to do.’
John is a well-known face in Scarborough, where he runs the Golden Grid Restaurant and Princess Caf� among others, and was a part of the local mountain rescue team.
He’s about to become a lot more famous – or at least his alter ego is. Best selling novelist GP Taylor is a friend. In his Mariah Mundi series of books there’s a character called Captain Jack Charity, owner of the Golden Kipper caf�. He’s based on John. The captain also appears in a forth-coming movie adapted from Taylor’s book Mariah Mundi and the Midas Box, and John is waiting to see which Hollywood star plays ‘him’.
In the meantime, he’s hoping the Heroes Welcome scheme comes to a natural conclusion when our troops finally pull out of Afghanistan. ‘It was very much an impulsive gesture two and a half years ago,’ he said. ‘It continues to be an impulsive gesture that people wish to embrace.