Today would have been the 108th birthday of my mother, Rachel Marion Hall nee Gartside-Tippinge. She was born on 19th November 1909 and died on December 3rd 1990 at just 81. I remember her with great love and affection, as do my brother John and sister Ruth, and as do all her nine grandchildren and the numerous nephews and nieces who were all so precious to her.
Hardly a day goes by without my wishing I could ask her or tell her something, or wish I had taken better note of family information. I did listen, and was interested, but never actually wrote any of it down and it rather floats away. And then, as I thought about this today, I remembered that this was one of my reasons for starting the marionfsblog, so that I could pass on family information, and possibly have on permanent record something about my siblings’ and my increasingly rare colonial background.
Suitably chastened, I mean to remedy this and will start by writing a totally unplanned and unprepared biography of our mother, whose story must be pretty unusual by modern standards.
My mother, Rachel, was born in 1909, the fifth child of Ernest Arthur (1860-1932) and Jane Margaret Gartside-Tippinge (nee Hoste) (1865-1946).
Funnily enough, both she and my father were very much ‘last of the litter’ born to mothers of 44. Mum’s next brother, Hugh was already 13, and my father’s two brothers were 9 and 11, so in many ways as youngsters they must have felt like only children. Both sets of parents had very much been brought up in the Victorian era. On my fathers’ side they seemed refreshingly ‘modern’; I rather suspect that my mother’s naval officer father may have been rather distant and daunting, personally, but her parents’ approach to her education was very enlightened.
I have vague memories of mum talking about going to a prep school called Glendower House in London, but I do know with confidence that she went to Sherborne Girls’ School from September 1922 to July 1927. After passing the Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board Schools Higher School Certificate she then went on to the Sorbonne for two years, before going up to St Hilda’s College Oxford.
Her first year at Oxford she met my father, who by then – aged 21 – was in his last year and about to go out to Africa to join the Colonial Service. The course of her life was due to change dramatically.
They became engaged. This was a brave thing to do. My father was going abroad for three years, not allowed to be married even had mother had wanted to give up her degree, which she did not. In the days before mobiles, FaceTime, cheap aeroplane flights for three years they were only able to keep in touch by post, when sometimes a letter took six weeks to arrive.
People predicted it could not last, but it did. My parents had such faith in each other, and in their love for each other and when my father returned on his first leave in 1933 they got married. I remember my mother telling me that as she waited for him to disembark from the ship she worried that she might not recognise him, but of course she did.
She by this time had gained her degree and set about preparing for a lifetime in the tropics as wife to a Colonial Officer in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). She spent some time with the cook of one of her aunts so that at least she would know how to direct their African cook when the time came, and took a three week course at the Institute of Tropical Hygiene so that she might be able to provide the most basic care when there was no-one else to provide it, to locals suffering from Malaria, crocodile injuries, leprosy…
Some of the wives from equally sheltered backgrounds found it all too daunting, but strangely, what mum found most daunting of all the challenges was becoming the wife of His Excellency the Governor, when my father – to their joint nostalgia – had progressed far beyond the status of a District Commissioner to become governor of British Somaliland.
But even that last challenge she took head on. She was wonderful the way she was happy to tackle and enjoy what ever was needed. She was always genuinely interested in her families’ interests, including my father’s lifelong interest in cars and their workings. He often acknowledged that she became a better mechanic than he was. The one interest and specialised skill that neither she nor any of their children was able to support Dad with was designing radio circuits.
She learnt two African languages, chiBemba and chiNyanja, and when we went to Somaliland started learning Somali, all the while keeping her French up. For some time in Northern Rhodesia she worked for the Publications Bureau, helping produce books for local people and putting into book form previously oral stories and legends.
She loved going on tour with my father, every other month, walking on average twenty miles a day, visiting local people while he administered justice, sorted out problems and generally tried to ensure that things were progressing fairly and well. Of course we children came along too, carried by in an ‘Mshila’ – a wire ‘cage’ with a pole strung across two hoops on the roof, bathed by night in a metal tub beside the camp fire.
Living in an outstation, possibly 100 miles from the nearest town, we had to rely on a monthly order for dry provisions – in fact anything that could not be produced locally. The first fridges we had – in the late 1940s – were paraffin ones, They went out at the slightest provocation and to the end of her days mum was neurotic if anyone left a fridge door open for longer than a couple of seconds. Our milk supply tended, throughout the dry season anyway, to be powdered Klim Milk. So life was not luxurious but I think my mother – and most people – just knew there was no alternative but to get on with it, and to make the most of what was available.
The era when most of her grandchildren and wider family got to know her was after my parents retired in 1960 to Barnford, their cottage near the sea in south Devon, which became the family’s hub for 40 years. There we all learnt to cook on a genuinely antique (even then) solid-fuel Aga, and thereafter enjoyed a constant stream of visits from family and friends.
Mum became such a good cook.She and dad loved entertaining. Mum was always very modest and retiring (hence no photographs!) while my father, much more socially confident, regaled us all with his stories, only the most extravagant sometimes interrupted by a quiet shocked/amused ‘Oh Douglas!’ from my mother.
She was such a lovely, interesting and highly intelligent person. I could write so much more, and no doubt many of you might have things you would add, but I must end this instalment at least.