John Suffield was Tolkien’s grandfather, the husband of Emily Sparrow, and the father of May, Mabel, Jane, William, and two further sons. He had owned a prosperous drapery business in the city centre of Birmingham, but the business had gone bankrupt. He then became a commercial salesman for Jeyes disinfectant, visiting many factory managers and shop keepers, but still keeping his pride in his old and respectable family name. He did have his airs and graces, however, telling people untruly that William IV gave the family a coat of arms because they had done fine work for him, and that Lord Suffield was a distant relative.
His ancestors had been engravers and platemakers, and John himself could copperplate the Lord’s Prayer in a sixpence circle.
He was born in 1834, and when Tolkien was five and he was 63, John vowed that he would live to be 100. He was staunchly Protestant, having been brought up as a Methodist, but later swapping over to the Unitarian church, and was horrified when Mabel and May converted to Catholicism.
In 1904, he looked after Hilary during Mabel’s illness, and in 1923, he was staying with Mabel and her family when Tolkien caught pneumonia. Tolkien could remember his grandfather standing by his bed and saying that Tolkien and his generation were degenerate weaklings, and that he, John, was off to catch a boat to go on a trip by sea around the British Isles. He lived for seven years after that, mostly with Jane on her farm.