Norwich coroner's caring and compassionate manner remembered

Outspoken coroner James Hipwell - who has died aged 85 - was held in the highest regard in his native Norwich and Norfolk for his compassion and sense of fair play.

Outspoken coroner James Hipwell - who has died aged 85 - was held in the highest regard in his native Norwich and Norfolk for his compassion and sense of fair play.

He was never afraid to court controversy, and seemed to rather enjoy the public furore, as he called for tougher action on drug abuse, bad drivers and advocated legalisation of brothels.

He became the country's youngest clerk to the magistrates at the age of 29, advising the Taverham Bench. He served two other courts including Depwade Bench at Long Stratton, where he made national newspaper headlines after using Dinky toys to demonstrate the actions of defendants in careless driving cases.

Born in Norwich on April 16, 1924, his father had moved to the city to become head brewer and later a director at Steward & Patteson.


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Educated at Haileybury, Hertford, he joined the Royal Navy as ordinary seaman and was commissioned. He commanded a tank-landing craft, which landed on Utah beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, after a 19-hour voyage across a choppy English channel. Lt Hipwell, RNVR, later served in the East Indies and Malaya.

He qualified as a solicitor in 1947, joining a long-established city firm in Tombland, Russell Steward & Co where the senior partner had been clerk to Taverham Justices since 1895.

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During his 18-year career on Norwich City Council - he was Sheriff in 1966 - he criticised the 'soulless' design of certain council houses. Elected at a by-election in 1951, he was the first Conservative to represent Mousehold but lost his seat a year later. He was returned in 1961 for St Stephen's ward until 1978 when he represented Costessey on the county council for a three-year term.

However, his most celebrated exploit, the so-called 'dressing gown' inquest also made headlines around the world in June 1991. In slippers and pyjamas, he opened a two-minute inquest at 8.30am in the study of his Town Close home one Saturday. Later, he explained that it had been a silk dressing gown and that he had looked like Noel Coward.

He was the last Norwich Coroner, having been appointed in 1983 until he retired in 1994. The Norfolk Coroner, William Armstrong, who served articles under Mr Hipwell and later succeeded him, said: 'He was a wonderful character who was a dominant figure in the legal, civic and community life of the city and county.'

'He was a caring and compassionate coroner, who was never afraid to speak his mind when he felt it necessary,' he added.

His record of public service included chairman of the Broads Society, a member of the Broads Authority, and governor of schools in Norwich.

However, his love of sailing, albeit mostly of a recreational nature, was legendary.

Married five times, he leaves a widow, Wendy, and four children, Carolyn, Rupert, Piers and Alexandra, and 10 grandchildren.

Mr Hipwell died on March 28, funeral arrangements to be announced.

Michael Pollitt

Alan Mallett, added, in the sailing column in the EDP (April 1)- One of the great characters in Broadland sailing, Jimmy Hipwell, was a recreational sailor, a long term member of several clubs including NBYC and The Ranworth Yacht Squadron, where his talents as a raconteur and bon vivant flourished.

He rarely earned mention on account of his sailing prowess, but, some 15 or more years ago, when reporting on Wroxham regatta, I included one day a mention that the previous day's winner of the Yeoman class race had finished so far down the fleet that 'he was holding an inquest into his defeat by Jimmy Hipwell'.

A delighted Jimmy bounded up to me and said: 'Do you know, Alan, that that is only the second time I have been mentioned in a racing report. The first time was in June 1977 when I was sailing a White Boat at Thurne regatta. It was blowing a hoolie, and there were three entries.

'One look at the wind sufficed to send one competitor back to bed. The other chap and I, crewed by my son Piers, started, close reefed. He immediately broached and ran ten feet or more into the reeds. That left me, and I finished the course, and won the Tunbridge Trophy, presented by Piers' grandfather, and that's how I got my one and only win, trophy, and mention in the EDP for sailing, under the headline 'Home James, a winner at last!', until you came along.'

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