Face to Face with Southfields Legend John Wise

This article was originally published in Grid News in August 2011, written by Gerry Skeens.  In memory of John Wise, a Southfields Legend.  28th September 1935 – 8th January 2020.  Donations for John’s funeral are being accepted on GoFundMe.


We all know John, don’t we? Southfields’ most iconic figure.

The bike, the beard, the blue eyes, the bandana. The shorts, the shoutiness. The circular lifeboats that would have saved the Titanic, the outrage at the felled park trees, the need for a swimming pool, the idiot savant, the’ I’m not a bad man.’ Sometimes we’re in the mood, sometimes not. Personally I’ve long wanted to discover what makes him tick and recently I managed to pin the great man down and spend a fascinating couple of hours with him in Starbucks (thanks for the indulgence, Starbucks) Over mugs of tea this is what I learnt. I think.

Born on 28th September 1935 in County Cork, Ireland to Irish Catholic parents, JOHN WISE (yes, really) is the eldest of 4 siblings. His father served in the RAF during WW2 when the family moved to Balham, finally crossing to Southfields where John now lives with his brother and sister(s). Until their deaths not so long ago, he helped nurse his parents who both had Alzheimer’s.

Attending St Mary’s School in Clapham, a teacher discovered his artistic gift. He says he sees things in 3D. At 17 he received a ‘scholarship’ to Wandsworth Technical College. He became a trainee draughtsman but didn’t complete the apprenticeship, achieving an HND from night school in Mechanical Engineering/ Aerodynamics later.

Between 1957-59, he saw active service in Cyprus. An incident where the van in which he and colleagues were travelling rolled over causing a fatality left him suffering from stress. Shortly afterwards, in 1960, he hitch-hiked and bicycled his way to the Rome Olympics.

He has been an extra in many films, including Moby Dick and Anne of 1000 Days, where he was an assistant executioner! With his enormous physical strength and ability to read technical drawings he became a specialist steel fixer in construction, working in Britain, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. Once, while employed at the Barbican, his young co-worker suffered a tragic accident whereby a distraught John was found cradling his decapitated body.

He never married. A seven year love affair with a Danish lady ended with him broke and wary!

Fact File

Believes in: God, of course!
Philosophy: We’re all going to die
Favourite artist: Andy Warhol
Favourite opera: Madame Butterfly
Favourite drink: Special Brew. Why not? He says

Why not, indeed, John? You’re not bad, and not mad either.

(Photo courtesy of Southfields resident Elzbieta Smolenska.  Elzbieta is a local artist who for many years was a popular destination for the Wandsworth Artists Open House event, and she currently manages the Southfields Artists pages on Facebook and Instagram.)