TRIBUTES have been paid to the the Newport-born novelist Leslie Thomas, best known for his comic novel The Virgin Soldiers, after his death, at the age of 83, was announced yesterday.

The journalist-turned author found fame with his novel of national service army life, The Virgin Soldiers, published in 1966.

Mike Buckingham, a retired Argus journalist and former secretary of the Newport Branch of the Merchant Navy Association, described him as an outstanding friend.

He said: “He was an outstanding friend of the Newport Branch of the Merchant Navy Association, which he led in conjunction with the late Burt Bale.

“Leslie was born in Newport and despite his literary wanderings never left the town of his birth in spirit. His father had served in the Merchant Navy and it could be said that some of the salt ran in his veins.

“He was as bright and as lively company as the humorous tone of many of his books suggest.

“When the literary history of Gwent is written, Leslie’s name will be near the top. He was born near to another writer W.H Davies and literally breathed the same air. He was the same cut and period as the late Alexander Cordell and equally-loved by the people who have Gwent and its stories close to their hearts.”

Born into a seafaring family, Mr Thomas’ childhood was a turbulent one. His father was lost at sea when he was only 12, and although he didn’t know it at the time, his mother had already been struck by cancer and died within six months.

The rest of Mr Thomas’ upbringing was in a Barnado’s home.

His first writing job was as a junior reporter on a local newspaper in North London before a stint on Fleet Street with the London Evening News, where he covered major stories including the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

But it was his time as a national serviceman in Malaya that inspired his most famous work – The Virgin Soldiers, a comic tale of British soldiers based in the Far East that became a huge bestseller and a hit film.

The Virgin Soldiers, inspired by Thomas’ national service in Malaya, tells the story of a group of British soldiers based in the Far East.

Mr Thomas, who had more than 30 titles to his name, was given an OBE for services to literature in 2004. During his career he wrote novels, non-fiction and travel books.

He died at home near Salisbury in Wiltshire on Tuesday after a lengthy illness.

His wife Diana said: “He had a wonderful life and he travelled the world. All he ever wanted to do was write and that is what he did. He died at home with his family around him.”

He leaves his wife, four children and four grandchildren.

Susan Sandon, divisional managing director at the Penguin Random House Group said: “I am very sad to hear this news. Leslie Thomas was an immensely popular author with a huge gift for storytelling and a wonderful sense of humour.

“His books have given so many people pleasure over the years with their mix of great characters, strong sense of time and place, and unique ability to combine laughter and tears in the space of a few sentences.”

Yvonne Rodgers, director of Barnardo’s Cymru spoke on behalf of the charity and said: “We are saddened to hear the news about Leslie Thomas and would like to express our condolences to his family.

“As one of our vice-presidents, Leslie helped to promote the charity’s work with vulnerable children and their families, supporting our vision to help them achieve their potential, no matter who they are, what they have done or what they have been through.

“Leslie Thomas never forgot the support he received when he and his brother were taken into Barnardo’s care following the death of his parents. His first book, ‘This Time Next Week’, was a real life account of his childhood growing up in Barnardo’s homes. Barnardo’s is very grateful for the support he gave us.”