Solicitor hit spotlight in sensational case of Prime Minister's forged letter

Wolverhampton solicitor John Lishman, who has died aged 94, was propelled into the national spotlight by one of the most sensational cases of the 1970s.

Wolverhampton solicitor John Lishman outside Birmingham High Court after making a bail application for Milhench in May 1974.
Wolverhampton solicitor John Lishman outside Birmingham High Court after making a bail application for Milhench in May 1974.

He represented crooked Midlands businessman Ronald Milhench, who forged the signature of the Prime Minister in a bid to smooth a land deal.

The case in 1974 made international headlines and came just months after an incident in which a hire car with Milhench at the wheel ran into the water at Chasewater Lake, Cannock, drowning his wife Kathleen, on whom he had recently doubled the life insurance. An inquest jury returned a majority verdict of accidental death.

Property wheeler dealer and insurance broker Milhench, from Wolverhampton and previously Bridgnorth, was represented by Mr Lishman in the court case. He faced a variety of charges including forging Harold Wilson's signature on the Prime Minister's personal notepaper to try to get support for a slagheap reclamation scheme, and trying to con the Daily Mail out of £25,000.

Police repeatedly opposed bail, but Mr Lishman was ultimately able to gain Milhench's freedom pending his appearance at Stafford Crown Court, where he was jailed for three years.

Wolverhampton solicitor John Lishman outside Birmingham High Court after making a bail application for Milhench in May 1974.

Mr Lishman had a legal career spanning more than 40 years and regularly appeared in courts in criminal cases in Wolverhampton and surrounding areas, always wearing his trademark three piece suit with black striped trousers and watch chain. Even at weekends when tending his beloved roses he still wore a jacket and tie, taking off the jacket in extreme heat – but never the tie.

Among various other roles he was president of Wolverhampton Law Society in 1984-85, and later acted as its spokesman. He was appointed chairman of the Solicitors Benevolent Association for 1998, having previously been chairman in 1994 – the first time since its foundation in 1858 that a chairman had been nominated for a second time.

John Lishman receiving his chain of office as new president of Wolverhampton Law Society in 1984 from outgoing president Kenneth Williams, with secretary Michael Kilvert, left, looking on.

In the last part of his life he and wife Beth moved from Bridgnorth to Coventry to be near their daughter. The funeral is at Coventry Cathedral on May 9 at 1.30pm.

Born in Liverpool, John Illingworth Lishman attained a place at King Edward’s Grammar School in Birmingham to start in September 1939, but war saw the school evacuated to Repton, Derbyshire, and later the Lake District, a place to which he often returned as an adult.

His father got a job for the war effort in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the family moved there. Studying law at Birmingham University, he was articled to Mr Walker of Redfern and Co, Birmingham, in 1948.

From 1950 he did his National Service in Egypt, being discharged in April 1952, and it was while on a ship to take up a job as a solicitor in Bombay in May 1954 that he met Beth, proposing marriage before the boat docked. They married on January 7, 1955.

After three years in India they moved to Blantyre, Malawi, where he continued to work as a solicitor, By now with a young family, they returned to Britain, with Mr Lishman getting a job with Dunham, Brindley and Linn solicitors (now Midlands legal firm Talbots Law) of Wolverhampton, moving to Tettenhall during the hard winter of 1962.

He was made a partner in the firm in 1966 and became senior partner in 1986.

Mr Lishman, a father of four, was a member and former chairman of MENSA and, moving to Tasley, Bridgnorth, in 1982, he became churchwarden and treasurer at Tasley Church and joined the Theatre-on-the-Steps in Bridgnorth, at one time being chairman.

He made headlines again in 1986 when he jokily offered a "free divorce" in a promises auction to raise money for the theatre – the successful bidder of £60 was an unnamed theatre member.

Also in that year his beekeeping hobby turned painful when the swarm turned on him and got inside his helmet, stinging him multiple times. While driving to hospital he felt so unwell that he pulled over and collapsed in the road, gashing his head.

Taking semi-retirement in 1993, aged 65, he stepped down from his partnership and devoted his time to the Solicitors Benevolent Association until full retirement in 1998, aged 70.

After his retirement he took up fly fishing and went on many solitary walking holidays both in Britain and abroad, and he and Beth enjoyed river cruises on the Rhine and the Seine.

They moved from Tasley to St Marys Street in Bridgnorth in 2007, allowing him to sell his car and do the shopping on foot. He also became a member of the local residents association and served on the parochial church council of St Mary's Church, Bridgnorth.

He is survived by Beth and three of his children.

As for his most famous client, Milhench was destined to be jailed again, in Hong Kong, for firearms and false passport offences. He lived in the Philippines where he had a playboy lifestyle and ran various business ventures, dying there in April 2012.

Milhench with teenage bride Kathleen after their wedding at Reading in November 1964 – she died 10 years later when the hire car he was driving ran into a lake.

Controversy continues to dog him, as one writer has suggested that Milhench was the mysterious assassin who, in the Philippines in 1994, gunned down Frederik of the 1950s and 1960s singing duo Nina and Frederik.

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