How She Lived
Jackie, Richard & Camille, Emma, James, Tim, Hugh, Philippa, Sarah, Fiona, Tashie, Chloe, Clare and Anthony
I write this in the hope that it will give you a greater understanding of what made your Granny into the person you all knew and loved. In doing so, I have gained a deeper respect and admiration for her which I wish I had attained in her lifetime, for then I could have sustained her more adequately during the hard times and rejoiced with her more fully during the good.
I have tried to be as accurate and objective as I possibly can, with input from Papa, David, Jan, Suzy and Bill. The situations in which she found herself were all documented in some form or another or corroborated, and her emotions as described were either those she shared with us or could not hide from us.
If you feel that I have painted too rosy a picture of her, I can honestly say that in writing this account I have been true to myself, as it was by putting myself in her shoes and walking beside her each step of the way (a frame of mind I hope you will put yourselves into when you read this) that the full understanding of her worth and courage dawned on me – too late for me to let her know.
August 2016 – Thanks to Jackie who has created this web site for Edition 2 of the book so it can be accessed at any time.
From 1913 to about 1936
When you travel through life it is rather like packing your suitcase to go on holiday – either you put in a minimal amount of light clothing or you cram it with items to cover every eventuality. Lily Marie (Lee) came into the latter category. Her journey through life was filled with emotions ranging from great happiness to deep sadness the like of which many of us will never experience.
She was born on the 14th April, 13 years into the 20th Century, on a tea estate called ‘Orion’, near Gampola in what was then known as Ceylon. She was the fifth of seven children born to Robert Swithin Northway and his wife Anne Mary, née Finnegan.
Robert Swithin Northway was a tea planter and the Superintendent of Orion. He was the third generation of a well-known family which had lived and worked in Ceylon since the early 1800s. He also owned a small 30-acre tea estate called ‘Leo’ which was further up the track from Orion. He doted on his wife who was, by all accounts, a gentle and loving person with a deep faith which she instilled in most of her children. She had been born in Ireland to a father who was a soldier and a mother who died when she was an infant. Since her father had lost a leg and suffered several other severe injuries during the course of his military service he felt that he could no longer bring up his daughter, and so entrusted her to the care of nuns. When one of the nuns who had been given special care of her was sent to a convent in Kandy in Ceylon, Anne Mary accompanied her and there met and married Robert Swithin.
It is recorded that she became well known for her charitable works in Colombo, the capital of Ceylon.
With such parents Granny had an idyllic childhood. The children were left to run free over what was, in aesthetic terms, a magnificent estate. High on a hill, it overlooked the Mahaweli River valley and had far-reaching views of a majestic range of hills on the other side. Although a double-storey building, the house was bizarrely called ‘The Bungalow’ because, to this day, this is the name always given to the residence of the owner or superintendent of an estate. It had a colonnaded verandah along the full length of the front, and above this was a balcony which led off the bedrooms. The front of the house overlooked a formal garden, beyond which the lush distance stretched.
Behind it were sheds, home to some 30 head of cattle. This was the domain of Anne Mary and she sold the milk in the nearby town of Gampola. Further back and to the right of The Bungalow was a well-kept tennis court sheltered by a hedge seven feet high. Surrounding all this was 300 acres of tea plantation, manicured to look like undulating green carpeting and dotted with trees to give shade, and whose fallen leaves enriched the soil.
The three boys in the family were sent to school, but the girls were educated by a governess, instilling in Granny a determination that her children should be “properly” educated. The governess and her mother must have given her a love of reading as she was never without a book beside her. She was also a talented tennis player, and achieved a fairly high standard on the piano. She enjoyed dancing, and probably rode as well because there is a photograph taken many years later of her on horseback with the caption “Self trying to teach two KAR [King’s African Rifles] to ride”! Apparently she was also a good shot – a protection against snakes.
Although her parents were very sociable, Orion could only be accessed up a long, winding and unsurfaced road and was a good hour’s drive from Kandy, the nearest centre where the white population gathered. This meant that in their early years the siblings would have had to rely to a great extent on entertaining themselves and each other, lovingly assisted by their mother. The household consisted of an ayah (or nanny) and various other servants who would have obviated the need for the children to help with household chores, leaving them free to enjoy their favourite pastimes in an equable climate.
Sadly however, this carefree and happy childhood came to a sudden end in March 1928 when Anne Mary died. This left the family utterly bereft and Granny, devastated by this tragedy at the tender age of 15, found solace in the company of her much-loved brothers, Joseph Robert (Joe) and Oswald Charles (Ossie). But it was to Joe she most often turned.
Anne Mary’s death resulted in major changes in what had been a very happy household. Robert Swithin became a recluse. He spent all his time upstairs and took little interest in the affairs of the family or household. The reins were taken up by Mary Imelda (“Girlie”) who was the eldest girl and seven years older than Granny. It is a sad fact that Girlie was the only one of the seven children who did not inherit any of the finer aspects of her mother’s character. She was overbearing, selfish and materialistic. As all the other children remaining at home were of a gentle nature, they found it impossible to alter what had become an unhappy home dominated by an imperious sister. Girlie was by then married and had managed to dispose of her husband’s substantial riches in fairly short order. Joe was at this time working and living in his own property, so Granny could only take refuge in his company when he came to Orion or she visited him. Gladys, the sister between her and Girlie, had married and moved to the ‘New Peacock Estate’ at Pussellawa, escaping the full brunt of Girlie’s authoritarian influence on a daily basis. However, even she was not immune to Girlie’s materialism because there were frequent requests for money from her elder sister which Gladys’ husband, being of a kind and generous nature, gave in to although they could ill afford this drain on their finances. This left Granny, her younger sister Rose Marie (Rosie), her youngest brother Maurice Vincent and initially also Ossie, struggling to live out the remainder of their childhood in what had become a very much sadder environment.
Time does however cure some things. As Granny grew older and was able to enter into an independent social life, Joe would often take her into Kandy where she would compete very successfully in tennis tournaments, even becoming Ladies Champion, and enjoy the company of those of her own age. It was during this period that she met Anne Maree Barber. Maree, as she was known, became an important figure in her life. However, at this point they just enjoyed each other’s friendship when they could, often breaking away from the crowd and going to sit by the river’s edge to exchange girlish confidences.
It was only six years after the death of her mother, when Granny was just beginning to feel that life was improving, that her brother, Ossie, who had only recently married, sadly died of peritonitis. A year later, when mourning for him was just easing, a tropical storm caused more tragedy for the family. She was reading in her room when one of the estate workers rushed into the house with the news that there had been an accident. While travelling up to Orion on his motorbike, her beloved Joe had skidded off the road which by now resembled a muddy river.
Granny rushed down to where he lay, and her one and only consolation was that he died in her arms rather than alone. By the age of 22 she had lost the three people she most loved. One can only speculate on her distress and there can be no doubt that her strong faith, the seeds of which were laid by her mother, sustained her through this difficult time.
Maree had by this time moved to Uganda to look after her eldest brother, James Bertram (Jay), who had been posted there after joining the Colonial Service. While there she met and subsequently married Rennie Montague Bere, and was therefore destined to live in Uganda for many years to come. As soon as she heard of Joe’s death, Maree asked Granny to come and stay for a while. She had met Jay before but, because he had been educated in Britain, their acquaintance was only slight. However, since there was nothing to keep her in Ceylon, she gratefully accepted Maree’s invitation and set out on a new adventure. In fact she little realised what a brave step she was about to take because, in comparison to today, travel was slow and much more difficult. It was her determination to flee a home that could no longer bring her any comfort that underlay her decision.
From about 1936 to 1958
Granny travelled to Uganda sometime during 1935 or 1936. Being reunited with her close friend Maree was a boon and she would, hopefully, also have found that the similarity between Uganda and Ceylon put her at ease. The climate, vegetation and ready smiles of the people are strikingly alike.
There was however something else which lifted her spirits… she and Jay formed an immediate attachment and it was not long before they were engaged.
At this point it would be wonderful to say that heartache in her life was a thing of the past, but sadly that was not to be the case. To begin with, there was opposition to their marriage from both families. Their fathers were both planters and the mothers devout Catholics and therefore friends, so one would have thought they would welcome the union of their children. The prejudices of those days dictated otherwise. Jay’s father was one of the wealthiest men in Ceylon owning two estates called ‘Blackstone’ and ‘The Grove’ which grew among other things cacao and coconuts, and together they covered approximately 1,000 acres, whereas her father was merely the Superintendent of Orion. Although he owned Leo, it would have been considered too small to be of consequence. Owners looked down on superintendents, and they in turn considered owners to be arrogant and pretentious.
In the light of the antipathy between the two families, Granny and Jay decided to get married in England when he was next on leave (the term used to describe the 3 month holiday taken after an 18th month tour of work when most would leave Uganda for their home country). This was her first visit to Britain and, as she had never left the tropics before, what must she have thought of it? The saving grace would have been the warm welcome she got from the affectionate and motherly Queenie who was married to Jay’s uncle, Christopher Percival Barber. A further bonus was her immediate rapport with Anthony (Tony), their son. He and Jay were already firm friends from the period Jay had spent in England during his education and the three of them became inseparable during Tony’s time off from the RAF. Sadly, he was killed during the War – another bereavement she had to cope with.
Granny and Jay were married quietly at Brompton Oratory in London on the 8th May 1937. Their only witnesses were a couple they met on the street outside and her “Residence at the time of Marriage” was given as ‘The Great Western Hotel’ in Paddington. It is worthy of note that she never described her wedding day as other than “the most perfect day”. It was also during this leave that Jay was invited by Their Majesties to “an Afternoon Party in the Gardens of Buckingham Palace”.
Once Jay’s leave was over they returned to Uganda. It may well have been on this return journey that they met up with Rosie in France. Rosie’s only wish was to become a nun. However, as Girlie was against her taking such a step, she felt the only way forward was to run away to France, where she subsequently joined a Convent.
Once back in Uganda Granny set about making a comfortable home for Jay. This was not as easy as it sounds when you had to live in the house provided and furnish it with whatever the Public Works Department supplied – usually well-used and functional. Granny did however manage to find the most wonderful head boy (the equivalent of a butler). Augustino Gamba served her with diligence and loyalty till the day she left Uganda, and she described him as her “left and right hand”. She must have been on a steep learning curve during those early days as she had never run a house before and her knowledge of the intricacies of cooking, cleaning and laundering would have been minimal because she had been bought up in a house full of servants. Now she had to train up her own servants. This was no easy task considering that, with the exception of Gamba, the prevailing attitude was “polepole” (slowly) and “hakuna matata” (which loosely translated means there is no need to make an effort), allied to an inability to follow any instruction unless it had been repeated at least 30 times. However she always treated her servants with kindness and courtesy which was reinforced by Sao, Gamba’s eldest son, who described her on our last visit to him as his “second mother”.
Their first home was in Jinja, an attractive town situated on the source of the River Nile and one of the more modernised places to live. From there they travelled Uganda quite extensively because Jay, as an officer in the Provincial Administration, had responsibilities over a wide area.
To start with their marriage was blissfully happy. Jay, who had lapsed as a Roman Catholic, found his faith again due in no small part to a White Father named Arthur Hughes, who later became an Archbishop and Papal Envoy. Granny and Maree’s support and love would have been instrumental too. However, his re-conversion proved far too much for his over-sensitive nature, resulting in a deep sense of guilt for “abandoning God”. This was something that he was finding increasingly difficult to come to terms with, and the resulting depression caused him to make an attempt to end his life. Granny found him in time to save him.
She must have hoped that their shared joy on learning she was pregnant would lift him out of his depression. She gave birth to a son, David Michael, on the 31st August 1939. The delivery was difficult because he was born with one of his legs hooked round his neck. He also had a marked squint but this righted itself when he was a toddler, and he grew up to be a handsome man. They both doted on their son. Maybe she thought that now her journey through the life ahead of her would be less beset by tragedy? If only it had been so.
Once David was born she was unable to accompany Jay on his visits to rural areas. It was during one of these that he contracted blackwater fever, the cure for which was a cocktail of strong drugs. One of the acknowledged side-effects of this combination is to deepen depression in those who are already prone to it. Even a letter from her urging him to “Keep your faith in God, darling, and just live from day to day. Try and remember, my own, that worry does not right things that are wrong. It only drags one down in health and spirit. It is the way I keep cheerful, Sweetheart, by looking at things in this way.” Another letter, written by Fr Hughes to Jay’s mother, states that “Jay yearned to atone completely for the past and he was ready to sacrifice everything in an act of reparation.” Even the news that Granny was pregnant again failed to lift him out of his conviction that “God was calling him.” It was thus that, on the 29th December 1940, while staying with a friend whose gun he found, he ended his life. It does not bear thinking about the agony she must have gone through and the strength of character she would have needed to overcome this terrible tragedy. She had good reason to remember the words she had previously written to Jay. Notwithstanding the trauma and heartache he had put her through, she always retained a deep and enduring love for him. Under such circumstances, which of us would not have felt a profound sense of betrayal and anger?
To try to come to terms with life again she, together with David, paid a visit to Ceylon, and it was then that a real relationship was formed between her and Jay’s parents. Were they fully aware of his depressive nature? Their reaction at this time suggests so. She always talked of them with great affection, and made sure that David and myself wrote regularly to them until our late teens.
She went to stay with Maree and Rennie in Gulu in April 1941. It was during this visit that she, by now heavily pregnant, accompanied Maree to a cricket match in which Rennie was playing. Here, they were joined by Richard Whalley Gill (“Papa” to you) who had come over from a neighbouring station for the day. She recalled that, at the time, she couldn’t understand why he spent so much time chatting to an obviously pregnant woman!
As there were inadequate medical facilities other than in Kampala, the capital, it was the practice of the day to go down there a month before a baby was due. This is where I come in: awkward from the start, I decided to make an appearance just before she was due to leave. On the 16th June 1941 I emerged, a puny little thing, but causing her to haemorrhage and nearly lose her life. At her insistence, I was baptised almost immediately, presumably because she didn’t expect either of us to live. She was not even able to take an interest in what I was christened, so Maree had to choose my names quickly. In the panic of the moment she could only think of the name of the month I was born in – hence June, and Mary was chosen as my second name because of her great devotion to the Blessed Virgin, hoping that she would protect me. Thankfully, due to the skill of Betty Boyd a midwife friend, Granny managed to pull through although, because there were no blood transfusions available outside Kampala in those days, she remained weak for months afterwards.
Despite this she had to organise a new home for us. With two young children and no money coming in, because there were legal problems over the payment of her widow’s pension, the three of us found ourselves living in a mud-and-wattle thatched hut in the grounds of the Franciscan Sisters’ Convent in Jinja. We were joined by Gamba who, regardless of having been told that she could no longer afford to pay him and therefore he should find another job, firmly stated that all he required was food, and he would not abandon her when she was most in need of his support.
Later, through the good offices of friends she got the job of manageress of a small hotel where she astounded the proprietor by insisting on accounting for all outgoings down to the last stamp and box of matches with the result that, for the first time in years, the hotel became reasonably profitable. For someone who had never had a job, or for that matter any training, this was quite an achievement.
During this period Papa kept contact and their relationship was cemented when she offered to look after his dog while he went on holiday to Kenya. I’m not sure that, were I in such dire circumstances, I would have been so selfless! Papa then spent the last days of his holiday staying with a friend in Jinja, so he was able to see quite a lot of her. His next posting was to an up-country station some 200 miles away, but before he left they became engaged. This was quite an achievement on his part because he faced stiff competition due to the shortage of white women, notwithstanding her having two children in tow!
It is at this point that I would like to say a little about the two men in her life. They were remarkably similar. Both came from deeply religious backgrounds – albeit Jay’s was Roman Catholic and Papa’s was Church of England. Both read Classics at the University of Cambridge and both joined the Colonial Service. The descriptions I have of Jay’s character do, I think you will agree, also apply to Papa. To eliminate the danger of bias I have not used any terms she used to describe Jay but ones written by others. One letter relates that he was “intelligent, sensitive, refined and warm-hearted”. Another from his peers in the Provincial Commissioner’s Office, states that he was “a most conscientious, hard-working Officer, who in his ten years in Uganda displayed no mean ability in native affairs” and they “mourn his loss on account of his personal qualities of loyalty, consideration for others, and gentleness”. The one characteristic which was singular to Jay was that he was “too sensitive for this world”. She was fully aware that she was fortunate to have one man in her life with these qualities, so to have two was a special blessing.
Some months later Papa suffered a bad attack of malaria so she insisted on going to look after him, journeying for much of the way on untarmaced roads in a rickety bus that had hard benches and no windows, and accompanied by chickens and other such animal life belonging to her fellow-passengers. Travelling alone in this way is a rare feat for a European woman even today, 70 years later, though I know some of you have done it! At that time, however, it was unheard of. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that her spur for making such an arduous journey was that blackwater fever is a form of malaria and, bearing in mind her experience with Jay, this must have struck terror into her heart.
Fortunately for all of us Papa recovered, and it was not long afterwards that they were finally married in the Church of St. Peter Claver, Ngita, near Lira in the Northern Province of Uganda on the 27th February 1943. Her second wedding, like the first, was a low-key affair, but with the additional pleasure of having a few close friends to share this very special occasion with them.
After honeymooning in Kenya their next year was spent in Lira where, on an honorary basis, Granny organised and maintained the war-time rationing system for sugar and bread. It was also a time for Papa to get to know David and myself and become used to being a “father”, though he never ever disciplined us. He left that entirely to her, even when on occasions she found it difficult to keep a straight face at some of our more inventive transgressions. That is not to say she never lost her “cool” but, try as I might, I cannot remember the actual punishment she administered – I only remember what I did to deserve it. Isn’t that what disciplining is all about?
After a short posting in Kabale we moved to Mbarara. I recall we lived in a colonial style bungalow built on the brow of a hill with, over a road in front, a large grassy recreation field and tennis courts. There were wide steps up to the front door which led directly into the living room, on either side of which was a verandah, and behind these were the bedrooms in which, on bath days, a galvanised bath was produced and then filled with hot water. Another inconvenience was the toilet – no flush in sight, just an outside hut housing a hole in the ground! Down further steps at the back were the kitchen and laundry. In the rear garden there was a small banana plantation which housed David’s and my rabbits. When they escaped, which they did often, Granny gave us our first lesson in responsibility by insisting that it was down to us to find them – something we did with very little grace! As there were no schools in the area, she took on the job of teaching David and myself the 3 Rs with the aid of a correspondence course. But her desire that we should have a good education prevailed and she made the painful decision to send us both to school, David living with Maree and Rennie in Kampala and attending school there, and I boarding at Nairobi’s Loretto Convent in Kenya. I well remember the sadness that settled in her face several days before we were due to leave after each holiday.
In April 1947 we all came to the UK on leave, the very month in which Granny’s father died. This would not have made what was a daunting experience for her any easier. She was taken up to a mining village in Durham, with rationing still in full force, where she met the members of Papa’s family for the first time.
Initially, the fact that all of them were committed members of the Church of England, some even clergymen, and she was a devout Catholic resulted in their having misgivings about her, but with time this changed to fondness. In addition to this, what must they have thought of Papa’s latest encumbrances – David and I? Granny’s greatest worry, however, was that it had been decided to leave David, aged eight, to continue his education in England, at St. Bedes Preparatory School near Stafford. He would stay with Marjorie (Papa’s eldest sister), her husband Douglas Seymour and their son, Tony, during the holidays. Fate again made this a more difficult time than anticipated. David developed a severe chest infection which involved hospitalisation. This meant that Papa flew back to Uganda on his own when the leave was over and she and myself returned by ship two months later to join him.
With all this going on, it was only later that she learnt Girlie had sold the Leo estate, pocketed all the proceeds, and purloined or sold all the family’s possessions. This upset her, not because of the money as she was totally non-materialistic, but because she had nothing to remember those she loved by, apart from a cracked cup and saucer which Girlie sent her after she had requested some little memento.
Papa’s next posting was to Jinja. It was here that Granny lived in her first double-storey house since leaving Orion. It was unusual in having the sitting room upstairs, even though the dining room was downstairs. I recall that the staircase was very grand. I then returned to school in Kenya. Janet Clare Mary (Jan) was born on the 22nd February 1949, much to the joy of all of us. For her it must have dulled the pain of David’s absence a little. For Papa, to have a child of his own was very special. As for me, I felt it was about time I had a live “doll” to play with during the holidays!
Later on that year, Granny, Jan and I returned to England in readiness for me to enter my prep school, Yateley Hall near Camberley. Marjorie was at this time living in Nottingham and she had her mother staying with her for a short while. “Granny Gill’s” forbidding Victorian manner and dress terrified us three. We occupied a flat on the top floor. Unfortunately, Papa joined us for too short a time to cushion the difficulties she was experiencing with his mother, who had become very possessive of Jan and was trying to take over from Granny. Though their relationship improved in later years, she never developed the same closeness and affection with Granny Gill as she did with other members of Papa’s family. She however stayed on in Nottingham till the birth of a bonny baby on the 4th July 1950, weighing nine pounds and named Susan Elizabeth (Suzy). There was no less joy at this latest arrival for much the same reasons as Jan’s appearance. This time she had to come to terms with leaving me as well as David behind on her return to Uganda.
Those who have never had to undergo such prolonged separations from their children would find it difficult to understand the depth of despondency and the bravery needed to endure this situation. I have no doubt that having Jan and Suzy helped her enormously during this time, but the look of sadness used to appear earlier and earlier before our partings. This resulted in her and myself developing a “goodbye” phobia. Even to this day I find parting from those I love a painful process, even if I know I’ll see them in a few days. Possibly worse, bidding farewell to someone I don’t particularly like brings a lump to my throat – how sad is that! Because of this I understand what a crushing experience this was for her – especially as she knew it would be another 18 months before she saw us again, and during the period of our schooling she would see little of us. More frequent meetings were not possible because what money she had went into the payment of our school fees. One must remember that travel in those days was very much more expensive, onerous and slower than it is today, and the British Colonial Service paid for only one leave every three years – not twice a year as it is now.
You may wonder why she put herself through such an ordeal. You have to understand the limitations of the time. Schools in East Africa were, educationally and in matters of discipline, well below the standards of those in Britain. This was borne out by the disproportionate number of colonial children going to local schools who “went off the rails”.
Papa’s next posting was to Entebbe for three years. The family were the first occupants of the house allocated to them, so she enjoyed creating a garden for the first time in her life. It was also a nice place to live – not particularly built up but it was the centre for colonial administration in Uganda, with a lively social life. It was during this period that she paid her last visit to Ceylon, taking Jan and Suzy with her.
David and myself were able to join them in Entebbe for a couple of months during one summer, and what a happy time it was. I can still picture the excitement on her face when we arrived but, equally, the sadness when we left.
Though they often took two or three weeks to reach us, the weekly letters she had written without fail to David and myself were full of anecdotes of Jan and Suzy’s pranks and achievements, so we found they were no strangers to us on this first visit back to Uganda. I have no doubt that she frequently talked to them about us too, because they didn’t seem phased in the slightest by the appearance of this “new” elder brother and sister. In fact they wouldn’t let us out of their sight.
It is a testament to her that, despite seeing each other only three times in all, totalling seven months in each others’ company in the ten years before the family were reunited in Worcester, we four siblings were never jealous of each other and remain close. Under such circumstances and without careful handling, it would have been easy for us to have become a dysfunctional family.
We three girls were of course aware that David was a bit special. After all he was the only boy and perhaps a constant reminder to her of Jay. This was never manifested by invidious comparisons, only by forgiving his misdemeanours more readily than ours! Also her ambitions for David were more intense, but this may be partly due to the climate in which she was brought up where boys were educated to achieve and girls to marry well. However this attitude changed when Jan and Suzy were in their late teens, and women were increasingly making a mark in the workplace. She was very proud of the attainments of both of them in their chosen careers in the law and nursing respectively.
The next time the family was all together was for a leave which we spent mainly in Maree and Rennie’s house in Bude. Unfortunately for her, she sprained her Achilles tendon and was therefore unable to be on her feet much for a few weeks. This upset her on two counts: not only was she unable to do all the things she planned to do with us, but she had a real conscience about having to rely on me so heavily to do the day to day chores – something I told her I didn’t mind, but it never ceased to worry her.
Their return to Uganda heralded a move to the capital, Kampala, where they had a nice bungalow surrounded by a large garden, quite near the centre of the city. I remember she enjoyed the garden and tried to encourage a love of planting in Jan and Suzy. They were given a flowerbed each to experiment in. In the fullness of time Jan’s became a riot of colour, but Suzy’s only managed to sport one cactus in the middle – something which appealed to Granny’s sense of humour.
It was in that year, 1954, that Papa received his OBE from the Queen when she visited Uganda after her Coronation, and wasn’t Granny proud of him! This was probably the only time Gamba left her for a period, other than his annual visits to his wife in Kenya which usually resulted in the patter of tiny feet 9 months later! He went up to Mweya Lodge, Maree and Rennie’s home in the Queen Elizabeth National Park, to help look after the Queen.
David and I made one last visit to Uganda before the family’s return to England. This was a bitter-sweet time for her. Rennie and David decided that David should spend all but three weeks of that two month holiday either at Mweya or climbing the Ruwenzori Mountains. She did manage to see a little more of him by taking the rest of us up there for ten days, but I do know that it upset her greatly to see so little of him during that trip.
Despite not having all her children with her, Granny did have an interesting and varied time in Uganda. There was of course the spectacular wildlife – something most people in Britain were unfamiliar with in those days before the advent of wildlife programmes on TV (and for that matter TV itself), and when travel was not in the public domain. The lush vegetation, resulting in lots of lovely fruit and vegetables, and the magnificent scenery were there to be enjoyed. She was fortunate with the many life-long friends she made who understood the trials, tribulations and joys of living in the tropics, and they certainly didn’t lack for a social life. As well as all the usual pastimes, she became a good bridge player as a result of her penchant for cards. I’m sure you remember the games and tricks she showed you. She tried her hand at golf and, whenever she could, indulged in her love of tennis. Although she never played again to the same level as she had in Ceylon, she maintained her enthusiasm for the sport. During Wimbledon Fortnight she sat in front of the TV from dawn to dusk. Another lifelong interest Granny developed at this time was stamp collecting, specialising in those from Uganda and Ceylon.
Running a house, especially in the early days, was not easy. There was no electricity and therefore kerosene lamps had to be lit every night. Cooking was done on an open fire and, because there were no fridges, food had to be bought every day. Drinking water had to be boiled, sterilised and filtered daily. Moreover, bathing was a difficult ritual because the water (often brown or green and smelling of hippos!) had to be heated on an open fire and then poured into a bathtub. Not unnaturally laundering was problematical too, due to the inadequacy of the soap powder to cope with the afore-mentioned water. All items that could be boiled, were. All laundry had to be ironed, with an iron heated on an open fire, to avoid our being infested by the dreaded mango fly larvae – one of the many things that burrowed under the skin.
She did however have one ace up her sleeve – Gamba! – and later on modern technology slowly filtered into Uganda making day to day chores easier, but it never reached anywhere near the heights that we experience in Britain today.
Mothers also had to deal with more than their fair share of illnesses in the family. There were numerous insects that stung, bit or burrowed, the latter usually having to be dug out! Furthermore, there were many unpleasant diseases not endemic to the West to contend with. A lot of them required a long convalescence during which she used Tiger Balm as her main palliative. I very well recollect how she used to stroke my forehead for considerable lengths of time while crooning to me, when I was laid low. She, however, had a fool-proof way of ensuring that we didn’t whinge unless it was really necessary – we had to down a tumblerful of Epsom Salts (think of petrol laced with acid) after every complaint we made.
One of the reasons she may have managed to retain a degree of equanimity in the face of the added trials of living in such a country as Uganda was that she, along with all the other expats, always had an afternoon nap. It was a habit she retained even when in England. In the light of the frenzied lives we live today I think this is most sensible.
By 1958 Granny and Papa had decided that the two halves of the family must be allowed time to grow up together, and that Jan and Suzy should be educated in England. Papa was unable to retire from Uganda until 1960 but they had three month’s leave due at the end of 1958, so she came back on her own three months ahead of him, Jan and Suzy to prepare a home for their arrival. I know that having to say goodbye to her faithful Gamba (for whom they bought a house in Kenya), as well as to the many good friends she would now only see infrequently, was a sorrowful experience for her. Still, she was an inveterate letter-writer so she never lost contact with them.
From 1958 to 1996
Back in England, Granny set about the task of laying roots for the family in Worcester, where David was articled to a local law firm. This was a completely new venture for her. She first had to talk a bank manager into lending money to a couple he had never met before and whose financial basis was not particularly sound.
Then after scouring Worcester, she found ‘Perry Point’ and put in an offer which was accepted. It was a five-bedroomed Victorian house with a large garden and lovely views of the Malvern Hills out the back. One of the reasons she liked the property was because of a tump in the back garden which was the site of the old Worcester gallows on which Saint John Wall had been hanged. Beside this was a shrine to which there was an annual pilgrimage.
Next Granny had to furnish the house from scratch, and she did this mainly from auctions – something else she had never experienced before. This had its amusing side when she ended up with items she had not intended to buy and a lot of clutter that came with things she did want. I never quite knew what to expect when helping to sort through her purchases. It is to her credit, remembering she had to rely entirely on public transport, that by the time Papa, Jan and Suzy arrived in England they walked into a fully functioning house.
Papa then had to return to Uganda for the final 18 months of his tour.
Following his retirement from the Colonial Service he rejoined us, the joy of which was greatly heightened when he told her that he had converted to Catholicism during their separation, something she had prayed for, for years.
Another of her challenges was, at the age of 45, to learn to run a house entirely on her own without the aid of servants. Bearing in mind that the family numbered six this was no mean task but, with her usual positive attitude to life, she stumbled through the first few years with laughter and tears until she became comfortable with the situation. To start with Perry Point was not the simplest of houses to run, and she made life more difficult for herself by her aversion to modern technology. In fact she never completely mastered either the washing machine or the vacuum, preferring the ‘hands on’ approach and delegating the machines to Papa. Those of you who know me well will realise that I understand her attitude completely in view of my antipathy towards computers and mobile phones!
Secondly, she had to learn to cook on and maintain a temperamental solid fuel cooker, its only advantage being that it provided constant heat in one room of a house that was otherwise cold – and all the more so for someone who had lived in the tropics all her life. It certainly did not aid her fledgling cooking skills when it came to feeding a hungry family. In Africa she had been reasonably involved when a dinner party was in the offing, but production of day-to-day meals had been left to her staff. Her initial solution to this problem was to have on the go an ever-simmering hotpot to which she kept adding meat and leftovers. However, rebellion in the family ensued when it was found to be fermenting! She then progressed to endless kedgeree or scrambled eggs. It is to her credit that, despite her inexperience, she never complained when we frequently, with the thoughtlessness of youth, invited friends of ours at the last minute to join us for a meal. In the early days, her usual answer to this increase in numbers was to add baked beans to whatever was the “dish of the day” – she got through a lot of tins!
In fact I’m sure she enjoyed these invasions because she related well to all ages, having an interest in people and a real sense of the ridiculous that stopped her from taking herself too seriously, often resulting in uncontrollable fits of giggles. She always remained a particular and generous hostess and, with the passage of time, became an excellent cook – you will remember her legendary chicken curry and “21st pudding”. Amazingly, during her last months and with the encouragement of David, she wrote a cookbook.
She loved the garden and spent many happy hours there, and exhausting ones too, because Papa was by now working for Metal Castings Doehler and rarely had sufficient time to mow the large lawn. She used to do this with a 12-inch push cylinder mower. She also worked hard at making the house as comfortable as possible for the family, doing all the decorating herself, and cleaning up after us and the constantly-escaping pet mice of Jan and Suzy. Added to this she had to contend with the too-frequent disposal of the results of the extravagant sex life practised by Perry, a dog that adopted us.
In what spare time she had she joined the WI Market to make a bit of extra money. This sold home-made produce and flowers, many of the latter produced from her garden, on a Friday morning in Worcester. In time she became their treasurer, to which she applied the same meticulous accounting system she had used in Uganda. She also did door-to-door charity collections – much to my admiration because this is one of the things I cannot bring myself to do.
This was the first period for approximately twelve years that she had spent any extended time with David and myself, and it would have been natural if she had interfered too much in our lives and become very possessive, but she had the wisdom to understand that, after being separated from her for so long, we had become independent. This cannot have been easy for her in many ways, especially when we disappeared off on David’s motorbike – a constant reminder of the death of her much-loved brother, Joe. I suppose the only thing that she could have been accused of was her desire for us to mix with the “right sort of people”. In all honesty I cannot fault her over this because she had lived her life in two countries where there was a rigid class structure and, like any mother, she wanted the best for her children.
Gradually over the next few years marriages took place and she always warmly embraced her new daughter and sons-in-law. I married Bill with whom she always had a very close relationship. Next David married Ann, someone for whom she had affection and respect.
Chris, whom Jan married was special because, among other things, he fathered almost half her grandchildren! She had a good rapport with Nigel who Suzy married and when this marriage failed, she was fondly grateful to Paul for entering Suzy’s life and bringing it stability.
Granny was never an interfering mother-in-law but always ready to give help or advice when asked. That is not to say she always agreed with the various decisions or actions we took in our lives and often let us know her misgivings, which were frequently rooted in her deep faith, but she gave us the freedom to make our own mistakes. Nevertheless the divorces of two of her children caused her to spend many hours in prayer because, to her, marriage was a sacrament and therefore sacrosanct. Yet she tried to be as supportive as she could to all of those involved.
On Papa’s retirement they moved to ‘Beyond’ in Colwall, Herefordshire, where they purchased a bungalow with quite a large garden. It was at this point that she gave up being the head gardener of the family, a position she handed over to Papa when he showed an interest in taking up the reins. She still loved the garden but it was he who always made the decisions – a generous abdication on her part. However, she was in charge of indoor plants of which there were many, and often won prizes at the annual Colwall Show for her entries, usually much to her surprise.
The only time Granny ever tried to exert selfish pressure on me was after their move to Colwall when Bill and myself were set on moving house. After we had viewed each property she would question me about it. If it was near Beyond she would say it sounded like a lovely house, but if it was not within ten minutes’ driving distance she would say it sounded most unsuitable!
She was delighted when we chose ‘Kilima Lodge’ because, first it was within her ten minutes rule, and second the house reminded her of Uganda due to its colonial design – so much so that she was determined to move in every time we went on holiday, much to Papa’s disgust. But this suited me very well because, on my return, my larder and book shelves had been given a thorough spring clean. However there was one downside – her system of organisation, being different from mine, meant that it would take me weeks to find anything.
Our dog Sandy was another reason for her insistence on house-sitting. You may remember Sandy had scant regard for most humans but the two of them had a special relationship, yet another reason for Papa’s disgust.
In 1993 she and Papa celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary. She decreed that, on the actual day, the two of them would celebrate it quietly together. They decided to drive round the countryside as this was one of their favourite pastimes. Halfway through she turned to Papa and said “Isn’t it lovely just the two of us being able to enjoy this special day together?” She always related with much amusement how, instead of the expected romantic reply, the only reaction she got from Papa was an “Umph!”
You may like to know that one of her favourite moments was when, during their big Golden Wedding celebration at Kilima Lodge, each of you gave her a yellow rose with your own little message attached to it. I still have the book into which she pasted them all.
It was while at Colwall that she had her last visits from Gladys and Rosie (who was on leave from a convent in South Africa) as both died before her. Your great-uncle Maurice who lives in Australia, the only one of her siblings to out-live her, was also a visitor.
Always a committed Catholic, she became a stalwart member of the congregation of St. Wulstan’s Church in Little Malvern. For a considerable period she did the flowers weekly – oh how she loved flowers, although she would never accept that she had a natural ability for arranging them – and was a member of the Church cleaning team. Many of the close friends she made during this period were members of the congregation.
She in general remained in good health till her last illness, interrupted only when she broke each of her hips in turn due to osteoporosis. After she broke the first she refused to get into the ambulance until I had not only peeled down her roll-on (a heavily elasticated hip-encircling undergarment) but also put on a clean one. This is an example of how fastidious she was, and her fortitude in the face of pain. Once on her feet after each operation she made little of it, apart from easing off on some of her garden duties and, as we used to tease her, waddling like a pregnant duck. She also joined you, the younger generation, in your espousal of Reeboks. Still, these stood her in good stead when she took part in a sponsored “waddle” round Worcester in aid of the relevant hospital department.
She had to endure one further period of separation when Jan, Chris and family moved to Hong Kong for a number of years. I knew that her excitement would start to build up months prior to their leave because, well before I even contemplated giving the matter any thought, she would discuss various aspects of their stay with me. However, for her each cloud had a silver lining. Gradually as you, Tim, Hugh, Sarah and Fiona, finished your schooling in Hong Kong, you ended up on her doorstep – if not over it. The worst parting came during her final illness when Jan, Chris and you, Clare and Anthony, returned to Hong Kong after an annual leave and she thought she would never see you and them again. Prior to this she recorded that “I have many moments when I can quietly give vent to my feelings and not get caught out”. Also your return to Australia after a brief visit, Jackie, was agonising for her. Thankfully Jan managed to return just before she died.
I will not go into any further detail about this period of her life because you will all have your own memories of her to cherish, some of which I hope include the many celebrations we shared together. As you know she always loved a party, and was never happier than when she had her family and close friends around her. Suffice it to say that her greatest joys were the visits of each and every one of you and this, to a great extent, compensated for the many sadnesses in her earlier life. She was so proud of all of you, refusing to dwell on any of your faults and frequently boring me to tears with her eulogistic discourse of her beloved grandchildren!
I will now skip to her last few months. Her final illness crept up on her and, I’m ashamed to say, her very occasional comment that she “always felt so tired” was initially dismissed by me as a consequence of her age. I should have been alerted by the fact that she was never a person to complain. Having been diagnosed with Acute Myeloblastic Leukaemia she refused to have further blood transfusions after the first one. These could have prolonged her life for a short time but she had a horror of “being a nuisance” and in any event, due to her profound faith, she had no fear of death believing that in some way she would join those she had so loved and lost. Those around her at the time could not but be inspired by how she lived out her statement “I have put my faith in Our Lord and accept His decision”.
Granny’s last months were in the main peaceful and it was only infrequently that I saw her cry, and this only when some unrelated occurrence pained her – the exception being that she wouldn’t live to see the birth of her first great-grandchild whom Camille was carrying. She drew great comfort from the Sunday visits of Dom Aidan Bellinger, who was our parish priest and with whom she had built up a close relationship. He would hear her confession and give her the Eucharist, and then they would chat for a while over a glass or two of sherry. It is of some comfort to me that, being a Minister of Holy Communion, I was able to give her this Sacrament on the other days of the week, as the Eucharist was very close to her heart. It was typical of her that, during the part of the short service where each individual chooses their own intercession, she asked us to pray for people who were dying alone and without the love and support she had.
Letters written to her close friend, Mary Burston, during this time reveal no hint of self-pity. On the contrary only her customary concern for others is manifested. She had a constant stream of visitors and, because Papa had to make sure they didn’t overlap, an appointment system was set up. She wrote, when describing what was in this diary, “there is lots to look forward to”. These visits were recounted as occasions when “we have lots of laughs and we value such moments”. One cannot fault her sanguine attitude. This was probably due to the fact that, although she felt so ill, she stated that this was one of the happiest times of her life because she came to realise the depth of love surrounding her. She particularly treasured the times when each of you, her cherished grandchildren, came to see her.
She died at home on the 21st September 1996 at 3.40 p.m. with Papa, David, Jan, Suzy, Bill and myself at her bedside. Incredibly it was only a couple of days before, while being attended by one of the district nurses and near to death, that she made us laugh – what a lady!
She would have so appreciated the fact that, at her funeral service, a flower arrangement was done by each of her granddaughters and her coffin was carried by her grandsons. The final words belong to Fr. Aidan who confessed to me he was nearer to tears while delivering her eulogy than he had ever been before on such an occasion, and during which he stated “she would have been the first to admit that she was no saint. But my goodness, how she tried!”