Life is not always about people achieving fame and success. More often it is about some unforgettable characters who may appear to lead ordinary lives – such as Mary.
We first met Mary 30 years ago. A down to earth Geordie she was our cleaner for ten years until retiring at 70 because of her ‘gammy knee’.
Mary was born in 1925, the fourth of five siblings in South Shields, a coastal town near Newcastle at the mouth of the River Tyne. Her family were Catholics who came to England from Ireland during the Potato Famine (1845-54) to seek employment. Small scale iron making had existed here since the 12th century but after the Industrial Revolution the Cleveland Main Seam was discovered locally at Skinningrove in 1837 which created a boom for the iron and steel industry, railways and shipbuilding. The town of Jarrow became known as ‘Little Ireland’ and the 1861 census recorded that 67% of Newcastle’s population were immigrants.
When Mary was growing up her mother worked in a fish and chip shop and her father found occasional work at the shipyards when weather permitted the boats to dock. He mostly worked on the ropes of cargo ships – a dangerous job. On one occasion he fell into the docks. He was wearing a dirty white mackintosh which his wife had been urging him to throw away – this saved him as he was seen floundering in the water and rescue
WW2Bomb damage in South Shields
Mary was 13 when WW11 began. She remembers clearly the night that all eight
bridges in Shields were bombed, leaving massive craters in the road. The area suffered constant raids from enemy aircraft targeting the iron and steel works, chemical plants and shipyards. Over 1,000 civilians were killed or maimed by Luftwaffe bombing raids. Her elder brother was called up to serve in the prestigious 51st Highland Division – the only Englishman recruited.
Mary left school at 14. She and her siblings had to support their parents struggling on a small pension. Her siblings worked in munitions factories and Mary’s first job was at Carricks Catering with 100 cafes in the north east. She stayed four years until the company was bought out just before the war ended and everyone lost their jobs.
Social life was a weekly visit to the ‘pictures’ and going to the beach in summer, although this was often out of bounds because of the land mines that had been buried there to deter the Germans.
Mary never married. “I was too busy working for the family to bother”, she said, though she once got engaged to a Irish pen-friend from Belfast. He came to meet her family but, whilst on the train, she saw him take a purse out of his pocket and was instantly put off. “I couldn’t marry a man who used a purse!” she told her mother, a forthright and direct character, who agreed, saying he might have been alright as a pen-friend, but was much too sedate – not rough and ready like our real men. Since then Mary never met anyone she fancied.
Post-war there was even less work available in the north so in 1945 she tried her luck in London, finding a job with the BBC in Bayswater where she spent a year working in their staff canteen. She earned £4 a week with £2.12s.6d deducted for bed and board.
It was about this time that she met Moira, who became her dearest friend and with whom she lived for the rest of her life. Moira was ‘adopted’ by Mary’s family – her mother regarding her as a daughter – the only one whose cooking she would eat.
They met whilst working for a Miss Drew who who ran a small hotel in Fitzjohns Avenue, Hampstead just 200 yards from where we now live. Moira was the housekeeper and Mary a waitress. One day the unimaginable happened – Miss Drew committed suicide, (Man trouble, says Mary). For Moira, a devout Catholic, this act was an unforgivable mortal sin so she left her job and Mary followed suit – “Moira didn’t have a soul in the world and I couldn’t bear to think of her managing on her own”. So they went back home for a month, returning to London courtesy of Miss Smith’s agency for young ladies.
Back in London their first night was spent in a Soho attic next to the boiler which was so noisy they couldn’t sleep. Next day they left early, spent the day trudging around London and finally found work and a room, but with little left for food after paying the rent. Their treat for the week was to share a bottle of lemonade on a Sunday.
Eventually they put their names down for a council flat in a block they watched being built and 15 years later moved into Weedington Road, (Kentish Town) where she remains today.
She and Moira travelled together to Ireland, Lourdes, Rome and Jerusalem when they came to stay with us for a holiday. She reminded me of the Independence Day concert we all attended and also recalls their visit to an area where all the men wore long curls ( Mea Shearim)
In London Mary visited ‘the bingo’ weekly, but now finds it too noisy and has transferred her loyalty to the Irish National Lottery. If she wins she says she wants to come back to Jerusalem.
Sadly Moira died in 2011 aged 95, Mary continues to live in the flat with Benjy her small white fluffy Bichon Frise who she found at the Battersea Dogs Home. Benjy is central to her life. He loves her dearly and sleeps at the top of her pillow with his head drooping down onto hers.
However Benjy is discriminating and refuses to eat tinned dog food. Every day they visit a local cafe – Benjy eats chicken nuggets or a bacon sandwich and she has a latte. I observed that he ate the filling but left the bread – evidently a gluten conscious dog. Mary meanwhile sits enthroned on her buggy surveying the world. Everyone passing by knows and loves her.
Mary is a regular Church-goer, but for some reason Benjy categorically refuses to go. We think he must belong to a different religion. He waits at home barking constantly until her return.
Mary gets on well with all the neighbours however ‘her upstairs’ complained about Benjy. Mary apologised, but the neighbour continued grumbling until Mary eventually said “Fine, I’ll get rid of Benjy if you get rid of that fancy man of yours who comes for fun and games with you four nights a week leaving his wife and children at home”. Nothing more was said. Since then the fancy man is off the scene and ‘her upstairs’ actually now loves Benjy.
At 92 Mary’s mobility is limited, but she compensates by travelling on the Rolls Royce of buggies – scarlet red with, as she puts it, a ‘saucy’ horn. She is critical of those pedestrians who incessantly use mobiles, presenting a hazard to her and everyone else on the pavements.
The first time Mary visited us on her supermobile, we were astonished by the speed at which she travels. “Don’t break the limit”, cautioned Charles, which prompted the response “why is it always the men that don’t like me to race around!”
Every day, weather permitting, she rides up to Parliament Hill where she reigns supreme for a couple of hours chatting to many of the friends she has made. She has become something of an institution in Kentish Town. On a recent visit I went the wrong way and asked a postman if he knew Weedington Road. I was maybe a mile or so away. I said “I’m visiting a good friend”Oh you must mean Mary” he said. “Give her my love”.
Her special long term friend is the local priest, Michael – no spring chicken at 86, but that does not stop him visiting her every morning at 9.am plus Wednesdays at 3pm when they have a glass of gin and tonic. They also take trips to Richmond or Brighton – put the buggy on the train and they’re off.
I have never met anyone with such determination and enthusiasm for life. For months she was housebound as the ramp to allow her buggy out of the flat was not fixed despite frequent pleas to the Council. Mary was frustrated but, true to form, she developed enduring friendships with the local squirrels who now visit several times a day for their peanuts. Mary hates asking for help, but she eventually overcame her stubbornness and the neighbours now get her in and out of the flat. She is ‘back on the road’.
Mary will tell that you she has had a great life. Thanks to her humour, stoicism and beliefs, she is the most uncomplaining person I know – an indomitable character, who has enriched the lives of many. Incidentally she is also the staunchest Conservative – as she says my mother would never have allowed anyone in our family to vote differently.
God bless her.