Inspirational Books
About the Book
Soft Words Butter No Parsnips
Click heading for
of curious title
The Life and Times of
John Iliffe Poole 1888-1979



The moving and remarkable story of John Iliffe Poole has been lovingly pieced together by his grand-daughter Lynda Franklin from boxes of yellowed and tatty papers and photos which had been stored in the attic for over 30 years. The book is filled with pathos, humour, contemporary information and lots of colour photographs.






A few words from the author


John Iliffe Poole was my grandfather, and ‘as tough as old boots’, or otherwise he would probably not have survived. The early memories I have are largely visual and auditory and very much from a young child’s perspective, the latter ones came to me via letters, notes and photos which gave me a grown up’s view of his life and times. The more I read, the more convinced I was that here, right in front of me, was a story that deserved to be told, the story of an ordinary man. Throughout his long life he battled and fought and this is the story of how an ordinary man became extraordinary and managed to survive all the odds. And there are few things more inspirational than this to we ordinary people.






Soft Words Butter No Parsnips chronicles the life of John Iliffe Poole from his birth in 188 to his death in 1979.  The book is interspersed with interesting socio-historical references such as the cost of living, happenings, inventions, entrances/exits, from around the world which put John’s life firmly in context.  Apart from the details Gassed in the Great War and labelled a mute after a pioneering laryngectomy operation in 1924, John Poole was given just six months to live.  He went on to become the longest-surviving laryngectomee in the world and an avid crusader of people's rights.

He was an ordinary man who managed to survive despite all the odds. No different to millions of other ordinary people called upon to protect their country and somehow proud to face death in the fight for freedom. No different to millions of ordinary people who found themselves struck down by a disabling illness and who faced penury because of it. 


JIP, 1920

JIP, 1971
JIP 1923  Donald Iliffe Ryder Poole 1942

John Poole started out as a humble soldier with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers in 1906. Blown up in the trenches, he was exposed to ‘a dose of gas’ which developed into cancer of the larynx. Barely able to swallow a teaspoon of water following his landmark operation at Edinburgh Castle in 1924, unaided, he taught himself to speak, and his method served as the blueprint for all future laryngectomees throughout the world.

His long fight for a commensurate pension is documented, as is losing his only son in the Second World War. He lived to be 91, having survived a further 55 years after the operation.  John Poole became an inspiration to many thousands of others and a shining example of courage in the face of adversity.

John Poole also left another legacy – a number of fragile visitors’ books which bore testament to what he did for other ordinary people in the Second World War when he couldn’t go and fight for his country.  ‘When fisherman can’t go to sea they repair nets’ - his cosy little cottage in Newton Ferrers, Devon, became “home from home” for up to 70,000 Services personnel from all over the world including Mickey Rooney (serving in Europe as part of the American Forces Network).  For many, this was to be their last taste of home before falling in action and a selection of their poignant words, poems, sketches, sentiments and signatures is reproduced in the book.



A blue plaque honours both John Iliffe Poole, the world’s longest surviving laryngectomy and the part he and Glen Cottage played in the Second World War. 


The author, in fact, was born as a result of a convalescing RAF pilot ‘Witt’ Wittridge (one of those visitors) sweeping John’s daughter Barbara off her feet and marrying her in 1947. See Witt’s book, An Evil Boy




  • John Iliffe Poole was born in 1888 when Queen Victoria had been a widow for two decades.  He enlisted in the KOSB in 1906 and saw service in Egypt, Sudan and the East Indies before returning to Berwick and active service in the First World War.

  • The Poole and Grahame families had a ‘unique record of patriotism’ with 13 members in the Army at that time. John’s two younger brothers, 19 and 20 were killed within the first year, another brother sustained horrible injuries.

  • While fighting in the trenches on the assault on Cambrai on 30th November 1917 (a ‘landmark’ battle), John was blown up and as he lay there waiting for help, he was gassed.

  • Sustaining severe injuries, John was shipped back to England, operated on and within 18 months pronounced fit to rejoin his regiment although his throat symptoms persisted.  England was not the place he left - with strikes and post-war depression taking hold, it was in a weakened state.

  • In 1923, John underwent tests and was finally operated on in June 1924, one of the first of its kind for carcinoma of the larynx. He weighed 9½ stone and was given 6 months to live. His case made history - the surgeon Dr Douglas Guthrie became an international leader in this field.  Still very much a guinea pig, John was left to his own devices to try to learn to speak again.

  • In frail health John fought to have his carcinoma declared the result of gas inhalation, but this took months and an appeal.  The authorities increased his pension but moved the goalposts. Finally declared 100% disabled, he was discharged as unfit for further duties and awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct medal for over 18 years’ service.

  • John astounded the medical profession by creating a technique for speaking without his voicebox. In 1926 he talked about his method at a Symposium attended by leading ENT specialists from around the world.  It was perfected in America and used as a blueprint for all laryngectomees to learn to speak again and John was proud to be the pioneer.

  • At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1935, John could not fight. Instead he and wife Winifred opened up their tiny cottage, Glen Cot in Newton Ferrers, Devon to over 70,000 service personnel from all over the world.  Their daughter Barbara grew in this special environment, and later joined the WRENS.

  • John and Winifred’s only son Donald (Grenadier Guards) was killed outside Paris in September 1944 but this only reinforced the Pooles’ efforts to give every visitor a wonderful welcome.  They never turned anyone away, aware that for some, it would be their last taste of home.  A penny for a bun and a penny for a cup of tea - Winifred was making up to 600 apple pies a week.

  • The visitors books dating from that time are crammed full of poems, sketches, observations, cartoons and little homilies.  They make sad but uplifting reading, as do the letters Donald wrote home.

  • The Pooles won accolades from King George VI, Lady Astor, the Lord Lieutenant of Devon, the Red Cross, all sorts of charities and the heads of all the Armed Forces. More important to them were the thanks of their visitors.

  • The war over, the couple retired, but John spent the rest of his life promoting education and awareness of cancer of the larynx and fighting to get support for those affected.  He worked ceaselessly to publicise the plight of the laryngectomee and founded several laryngectomee support clubs.

  • He was put forward for the Birthday Honours List, but didn’t make it. But he was proud to attend one of the Queen’s Garden Parties. John and Winifred were awarded the Daily Mirror Gold Medal for Humanity.

  • The longer John survived after the operation, the more interest grew in his medical case. An amazing self-publicist and something of a celebrity, he was very outspoken, always writing letters. Up until his 91st year John was a shining example of personal empowerment.  He still did his own shopping, cooking and gardening and he visited people in hospital before and after their operations: “If I can do it, surely you can. Just get off your arse and try!”

  • Guest of Honour at the 10th World Council of Laryngectomees in Marseilles, John was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest surviving laryngectomee, which, at the time he died in 1979, was 55 years from the date of that revolutionary operation.






Soft Words Butter No Parsnips
– the Life and Times of John Iliffe Poole by Lynda Franklin

ISBN 9780954877828
Paperback, 183 pages, full colour throughout
Published by Wunjo Press, printed by Advantage Digital Print, Dorchester
First published September 2008, © 2008 Wunjo Press
£15.00 including UK postage
Cover design by Joe Bath, from an original painting by Amanda Hyde