IT'S the sad story of a Southampton man who contributed so much to his country but died alone, far away from his birthplace, and is now buried in an unmarked grave.

In his final years, Laurence Legge lived a solitary existence on board his boat moored in the south of France, where locals knew him as the epitome of an eccentric English gentleman. However, earlier this year, his frail body was found floating in the water only yards from his ramshackle home.

He was discovered just eight days before what would have been his 92nd birthday, and as there seemed to be no next-of-kin, the authorities buried Laurence in a pauper's plot and prepared to scrap the tiny, dilapidated yacht that had been his refuge for 20 years.

Laurence's body was taken to a mortuary in Nice and later returned to be buried in the cemetery of Cannes La Bocca.

Once a colleague of TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, at Hythe's British Powerboat Company, Laurence Legge went on to work for Imperial Airways and then Supermarine in Southampton before a high level position in the international petro-chemical industry.

His skill in designing boats and marine engineering was said to have been invaluable in the construction of high-speed rescue craft which saved the lives of so many RAF pilots who were shot down and forced to bale out over water during the Second World War.

Most mornings he could be seen stepping out from his yacht, Stygreg, in an immaculate white shirt, striped tie, beige slacks and panama hat on his way to do his shopping or to obtain photocopies of what he called "his papers'' which he was always writing.

The craft, cramped, barely water-tight and gently falling apart, looked out of place amongst the gleaming motor cruisers, but this was where Laurence called home.

Here, in this most elegant of French resorts, where the rich and famous spend their leisure time and thousands of pounds are regularly lost on the turn of a card or a spin of a roulette wheel, Laurence's barely self-sufficient lifestyle was funded by a weekly pension of £66 and a monthly charitable grant of about £130.

Most of the time he was on his own but every so often an English couple, Clifford and Pamela Evans from London, who also have a yacht in the Old Port of Cannes, would brighten his days with a chat over a glass of wine.

It was on Saturday, January 13, this year that Laurence's body was recovered from the water and Clifford and Pamela were shocked to hear of their friend's death.

Pamela said: "Those who found him said his face was calm with no evidence of distress. Perhaps a sudden squall had brought him up from the yacht's small cabin and maybe another gust toppled him over the side and into the water.

"As boat owners usually only visit their yachts at weekends, it is highly likely Laurie would have been alone on pontoon B when he fell.'' In August last year Pamela managed, for the first time, to put some of the pieces of his life together after spending many hours talking to him and gradually drawing out details of his earlier times.

Pamela discovered that her late friend had been born on January 21, 1915 in 165 Ludlow Road, Itchen, Southampton, the first child of Ellen and Christopher Legge, who worked in local shipbuilding.

Later his parents had four more children, two girls called Valda and Marion and two boys named Lionel and Brian.

"He spoke of his family reluctantly, believing his siblings were dead,'' said Pamela.

"He once mentioned two nephews who came to Nice. One wonders if they were initially interested in an uncle living on a yacht in Cannes, but the reality and responsibility was too much of a challenge.'' Pamela found her elderly friend had been a highly intelligent boy with an early passion for engineering but his hopes of an education ended abruptly in 1929 when the Wall Street crash adversely hit his father's holiday business.

"By that time Laurie's brothers and sisters had been born and he had to earn his living,'' said Pamela.

"Through a contact of his father, Laurie's inventiveness was brought to the attention of Hubert Scott-Paine who founded the British Power Boat Company in 1927 in Hythe.

"Scott-Paine gave Laurie a practical problem to solve and was seriously impressed by the solution and he gave Laurie an apprenticeship there and then.

"Laurie's contribution became integral to the design and construction of the original motor torpedo boat for the Admiralty and the high-speed air-sea rescue craft for the RAF in the Second World War. It was in Hythe that he worked closely with Lawrence of Arabia, who by then had the assumed name of Aircraftsman Shaw.

"It is thought sometime about 1945 Laurie was transferred to the then Imperial Airways and later to Supermarine.'' His interests then led him to fuel research for the American Gulf West Indies Company, later Esso Petroleum, where he worked closely with the organisation's chief chemist.

"It was while working there that he most likely handled chemicals,'' said Pamela.

"In the early 1960s he felt a need to break away from the confinement of the laboratory and indulge his love of the sea and became chief engineer on a large private yacht.'' By 1968 Laurence was extremely ill with TB but he refused to accept the diagnosis, saying he was convinced his lungs had been damaged by the chemicals in his earlier career.

He discovered an East German doctor who had identified a number of new lung diseases brought about by chemicals and in 1970 was recommended to a clinic in Bulgaria.

After tests the clinic told Laurence his condition was too advanced for treatment and advised him to "go home and spend your last months with your family".

At one time Laurence did marry but it was not to last and there were no children. He decided he'd go to Spain where a friend had a yacht and it was here that a remarkable twist of fate was to change his life.

"While Laurie was boarding his friend's yacht he collapsed and underwent emergency medical treatment,'' said Pamela.

"The doctor who was in attendance referred him to a clinic in Valencia where, almost miraculously, he was cured.

"After his recovery, a series of brief ventures into business followed but Laurie's integrity and talent seem to have been exploited leading to disenchantment and the solitary life he lived during his later years.

"Hopefully, the story of Laurie's life will be of interest to people in Southampton. It is too late to be of pleasure or benefit to him but I'd like to think some public record had been made of his life and I know it would have given him great pleasure,'' Pamela added.