ABOVE: John judging at the Royal Smithfield Show.
An excerpt from the tribute given by Sara Willis at the funeral of John Edward Riley on August 1, 2023.
As I relate John’s story, you will find that he packed his 84 years with extraordinary experiences and people.
To live to be 84 is an achievement, but to live a life that is active, full and interesting is something many of us can only aspire to.
John was an original thinker, he had a sharp mind, a quick wit, a great sense of humour and an open and direct manner.
The comment was made that many people try and demand respect, but John was one of the few who earned it.
He was a fine gentleman with a strong character and principles.
He cared about people, he cared about their business, and he was always there when you needed him.
He was great company and enjoyed conversation and debate, particularly with a beer or glass of red wine in hand.
My earliest memory of John was taking him on a farm visit.
The producer – in awe of this international consultant – asked what he should do with one of his sheds.
In true John style, he put his hand in his pocket, took his matches out and said, “Burn it down!”
This was very typical of his tough-love style. John’s earliest recollection of me was from a seminar I’d organised, with him as a presenter, not long after he’d arrived in Australia.
He thought I was an objectionable young lady – his words not mine – because I told him to sit down and stop talking.
Though I’m sure I didn’t put it quite that way. John was capable of a good waffle, once he was on a roll.
Despite this interesting start, we formed a close working relationship, which developed into a great friendship.
As someone said recently, we were a team. John was my trusted advisor, he shared my mistakes and failures, celebrated my achievements and was my true supporter.
For me, over a 30-year friendship with John, I saw many different portraits hanging along the pathway of his life. We’ve all seen at least one of these.
John the father and grandfather, John the friend, John the Welsh pony and cob breeder, John the pork industry consultant, but there was also John the rugby player, John the backpacker host and John the show judge.
All these portraits, and so many more, make the three-dimensional picture of John. John was born in Fochriw, a coal mining village in south Wales.
His father was in the Royal Air Force and his mother, a qualified midwife, so during his early years, he was largely raised by his grandparents.
It was at age three that John first sat astride a Welsh mountain pony, owned by his grandfather. This was also his first introduction to pig keeping.
Little did John know at that time the pig industry would later provide him with a rewarding career in two hemispheres, allow him to travel the world and meet some wonderful people who became firm friends.
In 1945, when his father left the RAF on medical grounds, the family moved to the mining village of Gelligaer, where they took on the village store and post office.
During these years, John watched young school leavers go to the mine clean and tidy and come back covered in coal dust – deciding he was not going to be a collier.
John developed a passion for sport from an early age.
With no television, radio, newspaper and stories told by men at the store, on the bus or after church were his sources of information.
Their tales turned sportsmen into legends for a young lad who dreamt of playing for Wales.
John was extremely proud of his Welsh heritage.
His daughters remembered waking at an unearthly hour on match day to bellowing Welsh music playing non-stop until the match started.
At one point, his youngest granddaughter Kathryn started writing to him in Welsh.
John was impressed that she was learning the mother tongue at school, but she was cleverly using Google Translate.
The war in Europe ended in 1945 and his lasting memory was the village ‘Victory in Europe’ party.
Though food was rationed and in short supply, youngsters of his age saw items on trestle tables that hadn’t before been seen in food-rationed Britain.
From a young age, John would travel to Cardiff on his own to watch rugby and cricket matches and ride at local horse shows on his pony.
At senior primary school, he earned money delivering telegrams and would dread the telephone ringing if he was doing something interesting because it meant he had to drop what he was doing immediately.
The family moved several times during the 1950s and John attended four grammar schools.
After one of the moves, he was shocked to find he was going to a school that only played the ‘round ball game’ and there was no way he was doing that.
After a brief but lively debate, his parents realised they had a problem, and he was sent elsewhere.
Leisure time during these school years was spent fishing, ferreting, cockling, potato picking, beekeeping and most importantly, playing rugby.
The 1953-54 years were a memorable period in his school life.
He made the Junior Rugby XV, and he played every one of the nineteen games.
In his younger years, John was an avid autograph hunter.
He would write to various sportsmen enclosing a stamped-addressed envelope for their signature and those of their teammates.
When the All Blacks toured the British Isles in 1953-54, he wrote to his favourite player and sent him an autograph book, on each page of which he had inserted a picture of the players from the match-day program.
The book was returned with each player in the touring party signing the appropriate page.
John spent time in his school holidays trying to catch a glimpse of the rich and famous cruising on the River Thames.
One international beauty was Diana Dors, the British equivalent to American Marilyn Monroe.
When the local café she owned advertised for a young helper, John had thoughts of stardom as Diana Dors’ young assistant.
However, this dream was quickly quashed by his parents who decided it was inappropriate for their 16-year-old son to work for a ‘sex symbol’.
Besides his interest in rugby and cricket, John became interested in rowing and decided to take it up seriously.
However, at the first training session, he was told to jump in the Thames to prove he could swim.
John didn’t jump because John couldn’t swim.
While at school, he had nearly drowned in the school swimming pool and had to be pulled out by the physical education master.
In 1957, John was accepted into Seale-Hayne College in Devon and completed a college diploma in agriculture and a national diploma in agriculture at the University of Leeds.
He went on to complete a diploma course in farm business management.
John said taking that course was one of the best decisions he’d made.
The course content was greatly influenced by the government’s commitment to changing the widely held view that farming was a way of life to a realisation that to survive farming, businesses needed to adopt business principles.
This thinking strongly shaped his career, and he used his business and financial management skills in two hemispheres to help pork industry businesses.
At 83, he was still analysing financial data for a group of local pork producers, and keen to be involved at an industry, business and personal level with pork industry families.
John’s early ambition was to be a dairy farmer but, after finishing college, he secured the position of trainee agricultural advisor with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods and was based in Yorkshire.
One of his first jobs was to inspect and register bulls, which included a visit to the farm of Sir Robert Anthony Eden, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Previous inspectors had always passed the bulls because they were Sir Anthony’s, but John rejected them because they weren’t to standard, and he said so.
This was a good example of his frank and honest dealings with people, even at the start of his career.
Sir Anthony later sold that herd and started with new stock.
In 1963, while working in Beverley, John met Jo, who was also working for MAFF.
They married in 1966 and settled into life together in Preston.
John joined the Preston Grasshoppers and played as the second team captain, then later for the first team.
However, it was his role as club entertainment chairman that won him his moment of fame and glory in ‘Hopper’s folklore.
John was in charge the night the police raided the club for serving alcohol to non-members.
They closed all entrances and exits and took the names of everyone present.
John had a police escort home with flashing lights to produce a list of all the club members.
Unfortunately, that happened to be the weekend his mother-in-law was staying.
In John’s words, she was in her dressing gown ready for bed, hair in curlers, no teeth, explaining to the officer that “nothing like this had happened” in her family before.
The case eventually went to court and fortunately the club paid the fine.
It was in Wiltshire in 1970, that John’s Cwmkaren Stud was established.
True to his love of rugby, his first ponies were named after Welsh heroes such as Barry John and JPR Williams.
On moving to Queensland in 1992, he imported a colt and filly as weanlings and later followed with other imports.
In 1980, John was appointed as the national pig specialist with the Ministry of Agriculture.
By this time, he was being invited onto platforms in Europe, Canada, South Africa and the US.
He became involved with some forward-thinking people and formed the Bromham pig discussion group.
They travelled to Yorkshire, Ireland, France and Holland to look at different pork production systems.
In true John style, he would send a message to his manager and say if he didn’t hear back by a certain date, he would be travelling to a certain country – knowing that his messages were rarely read.
This bold approach allowed him to travel to many parts of the world.
In the late 1980s when working in London, John would enjoy visits from Baroness Trumpington, Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
She was a very colourful character and a passionate smoker of cigarettes and cigars.
Smoking was frowned upon at that time, so she would escape to John’s office to smoke privately.
Of course, John was more than happy to join her.
John become a member of the Royal Smithfield Show committee, which had the remit of promoting best practice in the production of quality British livestock.
It was through this association that he met members of the British royal family – Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen Mother and Prince Charles.
He was extremely proud of these moments.
In 1987, while employed by the UK Government, John was invited by the Australian Pig Research and Development Corporation to give an appraisal of research and extension services in Australia.
His recommendations at that time still stand today and included improving cooperation among the states, reducing duplication of efforts, extensions officers having a specialist area and appointing a national extension coordinator.
It was during his speaking tour that he was billeted with the Jones family and met Carole.
She was a member of the Porcollettes, a group of ladies promoting the pork industry.
When she later won a pig industry travel bursary, she contacted John and he helped her draw up an itinerary of UK pig farms to visit.
Their relationship developed and they married in the UK in 1991.
John was appointed as the chief livestock adviser for the UK Advisory Service in 1989.
He provided technical advice to the minister and his political advisors on the effect of tariffs and trade on import and export policies.
He was technical advisor to the Farm Animal Welfare Committee and advisor to the minister on UK and European Commission legislation and welfare codes.
He also worked closely with the Meat and Livestock Commission on the development of quality assurance schemes and was a director of Farm Assured British Beef and Lamb.
It was this knowledge and experience that he later used as an auditor for the pork industry in Australia.
In 1992, John and Carole left the UK and settled in Queensland.
John set up JCR Associates International and, as a pork industry consultant for farms and service companies, he travelled Australia and formed firm friendships.
After Carol’s death in 2012, John questioned the future of the Cwmkaren Stud and his life in Australia.
At this time, he was introduced to HelpX, which connects young people from Europe wishing to travel and work in rural Australia with possible hosts.
Once this was set up, his depression of 2012 and 2013 was replaced by enthusiasm for the future.
Since that time, the success of the stud had largely been due to the efforts of backpackers from America, Austria, France, Sweden, Germany, Wales and England.
For many years, these young ladies were responsible for preparing his cobs for the Queensland show circuit.
In recent years, the help and commitment of his young neighbours – Nicole, honorary stud manager and Angela, honorary stud groom – enabled him to fully enjoy his cobs.
John saw the past 30 years in Australia as a great adventure – coping with drought and floods while trying to breed Welsh ponies and cobs.
John had the knack of getting himself into interesting situations.
When he was in his early 20s, he parked alongside the Thames with a girlfriend to ‘discuss in-depth issues’ – as young people do – only to realise the river was in flood.
With water lapping at the door, he panicked and drove off, forgetting the brakes were wet and of little use.
They nearly made news headlines for floating under Tower Bridge and heading for the North Sea.
More recently, he found himself in the situation of having climbed onto his roof and then knocking the ladder down.
With no mobile, he was stranded.
Luck was with him that day – someone drove up the driveway and rescued him.
He wasn’t so lucky in 2009, when at 70, he thought he could still jump on a horse and ride.
He couldn’t and spent six weeks in hospital in traction.
There was a positive from this – he couldn’t move so had to go cold turkey with smoking.
To the end, John had a great passion for the pork industry.
He was a true supporter and made a huge contribution to both areas.
His legacy will live on.
However, John’s greatest passion was his family.
He leaves behind his daughters Karen, Jill and Megan, and grandchildren Riley, Kaylynn, Liam, Jackson, Sydney and Kathryn, and his sister Anne.
John has left behind a great legacy of family and friends, and a long hallway of portraits of those many great facets of his life.