David Banks, a former Warrington Guardian reporter who became editor of the Mirror and the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, pays tribute to a man passionate about Warrington who died in May.

JOHN Walton was my friend for more than 50 years and, more importantly, a lifelong friend to Warrington, where he was born, lived and worked, and where he has died aged 81.

Local housebuyers might have recognised him only by his surname: Waltons’ was the family estate agency he took over in the 1960s. The housebuilder Walton and Woosey, founded by his father, Fenton Walton, in the 1930s, built streets of semi-detached homes across south Warrington before developing into the estate agent F Walton and Co.

John took over the agency in his late 20s and ran it for 25 years. He sold to Countrywide Properties in 1991, and became Yorkshire managing director of Countrywide’s Bairstow Eves, then managing director of Bridgford’s, a 50-strong chain of northern estate agencies owned by the company.

He retired in 1999 to build a respectable 10-handicap at the zenith of his lifelong membership of Warrington Golf Club, situated handily a couple of three-iron shots away from his home in Appleton.

John’s legacy is considerable. Conservationists who feared the planned 1960 town centre remodelling project, which later that decade would create Warrington New Town, will remember him as a founder member of Warrington Civic Society in 1961.

Two schemes earned his passionate attention: a campaign to re-site (using rollers beneath its foundations) the 18th-century Warrington Nonconformist Academy, where Joseph Priestley and possibly the French revolutionary Marat had taught; and a determination to preserve and win Grade II listing for one of Britain’s four remaining statues of Oliver Cromwell.

Warrington Guardian:

The Cromwell statue is returned

Both structures stood in the way of a new highway. Cromwell, restored, still overlooks the Mersey; unhappily for John, the academy, mortally wounded in the high-tech 1981 move, was condemned, demolished and rebuilt with no original features.

Warrington Guardian:

The Academy move

John rebelled against what he saw as big party politics swamping small town democracy, and as a doughty independent came close to wresting two of Warrington borough council’s strongly Tory wards – Latchford and Town Hall – from their complacent occupants.

He and I were unlikely friends: the middle-class family man with a successful estate agency and me, a penniless teen from a Warrington council estate working as a trainee reporter on the Warrington Guardian. We met when he came to complain about misprints in his For Sale ads and we discovered a shared love of Al Jolson and Warrington Rugby League club. He famously watched The Jolson Story 28 times, once travelling with me to a Wigan viewing with mounting excitement at the sight of crush barriers in the streets, only to realise as we sang along and alone in the cinema that Wigan were playing St Helens across town.

READ > 11 great pictures from the changing Warrington town centre

The son of Gwendoline (nee Hughes) and Fenton Walton, John was the sole boy of four siblings, and attended Boteler Grammar School in Warrington. He and his first wife, Jean Daniels, married early and had three children before Jean died tragically young. John’s second marriage, in 1978, to Anne Owens, brought great happiness.

He is survived by Anne, his children, Susan, Mark and Simon, and six grandchildren, and by two of his sisters, Anne and Linda.