Judge Jonathan Crabtree: Outspoken but bereft of malice

MISCREANTS standing before His Honour Judge Jonathan Crabtree, who has died at the age of 70, would have been surprised to know that hidden by his imposing robes, this dignified figure wore a tattoo on his upper arm of a sailor smoking a cigarette.

He had acquired it during his National Service when he was an Able Seaman in the Royal Navy.

Jon Crabtree, known affectionately to colleagues as "Crabbers", was born April 17 1934, the second son of Charles H Crabtree, cotton manufacturer of Todmorden, and his wife, Elsie who had been a school teacher.

He went to three local primary schools, being taken out of one because its sanitary arrangements did not meet with his mother's approval.

He went to Ackworth and from there to Bootham School in York, their Quaker ethos remaining a life-long influence.

A teacher at Bootham inspired him with a love of history which also remained with him all his life.

Visits to his daughters when they were at Harvard invariably involved lengthy explorations of American Civil War battlefields where his knowledge and a vivid imagination allowed him excitedly to envisage the rival armies' dispositions.

Archaeology was another love, but those two passions had to compete with cricket – a formidable fast bowler, he continued to play into middle age – and hockey.

In later life, he was sometimes distracted by good food, good wine, art, architecture, music and the attractions of spending a congenial evening with colleagues and friends in a pub.

He long entertained a fantasy of having a bloodhound which he would train to follow his scent so it could track him down to the establishment he happened to be in. At school he gave indications of a formidable intellect coupled with a powerful memory. They helped him win an Exhibition to St John's, Cambridge, but it ever after rankled with him that on account of his father's income, he was denied the money that went with it.

He read Economics and Law; his brother who was also at St John's, had read Economics which may help to explain his choosing that subject rather than History.

Before going up to St John's, however, he spent two years in the Royal Navy.

Being "on the lower decks," he served with men from all walks of life, an experience which would allow him in later life to establish an instant rapport with people whose backgrounds were very different from his own.

But snobbishness was anyway alien to him; at home in Todmorden he was brought up to raise his cap when meeting the men or women his father employed in the cotton mill.

Years later when he was a barrister, he was known in his profession as a fearless defender of those he was called upon to represent whose rights, he felt, had been trampled upon.

Leaving Cambridge, he married Caroline Oliver, known as Cherry, in 1957 and they had two sons – one tragically dying at the age of 17 – and three daughters. That marriage ended in divorce in 1976. In 1980 he married Elizabeth Ward.

His first job was with the Factory Inspectorate in London in 1957.

A conscientious inspector, he grew disillusioned when time and again his recommendations were ignored. Feeling ineffectual, he studied in his spare time for the Bar Finals, which he took in 1958.

Passing them, he went to Gray's Inn and did his pupilage under the eminent barrister Henry Scott, QC, who later became Recorder of Leeds and the first Resident Judge at Leeds. Pupil and barrister held each other in mutual esteem.

In 1960, Jon returned to Todmorden to live, and joined chambers in Leeds to practice in the North-East Circuit.

In 1974 he was made Recorder, and felt he had found his niche; In 1986 he was made a Circuit Judge, and his professional life moved into phase which rewarded him with challenges he relished.

But on occasion his contentment was assailed by regrets that he had not pursued a career in politics as a Liberal MP, or alternatively have taken over the family business in Todmorden, believing he could have kept it going just as his grandfather, Abraham Crabtree had done through the Depression of the 30s.

But Jon Crabtree was not often cast into gloomy speculations. Cheerful, congenial and hospitable, he epitomised for many the outspoken, forthright Yorkshireman – sometimes causing offence but bereft of malice.

A crowded courtroom in Leeds yesterday heard Recorder of Leeds Judge Norman Jones QC deliver a eulogy for his colleague which he introduced with the remark: "We have not only lost a friend and an outstanding judge, but we have lost one of the characters of the North Eastern Circuit."

Jon Crabtree is survived by his first wife Cherry and their children Harriet, Rose, Abraham and Annie, and three grandchildren, and by his second wife Elizabeth.