My mother Betty Callander was born in 1910. Her childhood years were spent during World War 1, and she was nearly carried off by Spanish Flu in 1919. Her early life wasn’t easy as her parents were separated and she lived with her mother in a series of lodging houses. She trained as a PE teacher, married Wilf Richards in 1936 and the early years of bringing up her four small children were spent during WW2. She was a magnificent organizer and spent much of her life arranging activities for others.
When war was declared in September 1939, my parents and my older sisters Ann and Sally, then aged two and nine months, lived on the Sussex coast fifty yards from the sea. The whole area rapidly became a vast armed camp with military manoeuvres accompanied by the rumbling and clattering of tanks. There was no chance of those toddlers playing by the sea. Beaches were fenced off with barbed wire, sown with mines and protected by high iron scaffolding. Our mum watched one of the unexploded mines bob about on the waves just yards from the house before it was safely detonated at low tide.
The family did a reverse evacuation in August 1940. Mum hired a lorry, packed it with her stored logs and coal plus her squawking chickens, caged rabbits, the cat with her new litter of kittens, all her carefully nurtured cuttings, flower and veg seedlings, her preserved eggs and tinned food and somewhere in this cargo, my sisters were stowed. Using her precious saved petrol coupons, she drove the 80 miles to join our dad in a rented house in the quiet north London suburb of Stanmore, away, as she thought, from the guns, chaos and clamour of the Sussex coast. They arrived a week before the start of the London Blitz.
Once settled in, mum drove ambulances in the evening while our grandmother babysat, knitted and did all the darning and mending for the harassed mothers from their street. Mum also ran the local Sunday School, led Keep Fit sessions for women, kept rabbits and chickens and grew all the vegetables. I do marvel at the energy, courage and fortitude of those who lived through the War enduring many sleepless nights. Imagine putting your precious children to bed not knowing if bombs or rockets were going to fall out of the sky in the night.
In March 1945, the family (Ann now 8, Sally 7, Robert 3 and me 13 months) left Stanmore and returned to live in Middleton. Mum immediately involved herself in local affairs by putting herself up for election in the Chichester council elections and on to the Middleton Parish council where her campaign for the election focussed on 'houses first, and then youth centres and playing fields." She noted in a letter that “the church has games in the Church Hall, but you’ve got to be confirmed first to join, which is rather bad luck on all the other creeds.” She was elected to the Parish Council and served on it for many years. From September to May she ran weekly Keep Fit classes though these came to be known as Health through Stiffness – those fierce toe-touching, leg-lifting exercises rendered all us children immobile with stiffness but were very popular among members of the club.
Other activities mum organized were Knitter Natter sessions where friends gathered to knit or sew together with a general rule that you couldn’t say anything about anyone that you wouldn’t actually say to their face... a far cry from many Stitch ‘n Bitch sessions that were also popular! Mum wrote plays for us which we performed in the garden or, when the project grew, would involve many children from the community, raising money for local charities, and performed in a community hall.
Mum's most ambitious project started soon after the family's return to Sussex. She was dismayed to find that the beaches were still closed in the summer of 1945 so she organised a month of sporting activities for children from 10 am to midday three times a week at the Middleton Sports Club during August. This became established as an annual event and went on to run from 1945 until the early 1960s. At least 130 children with an age range of about 8-16 attended and would all assemble round her famous lists written in green ink that were pinned up on the notice board indicating the activities for that morning. It might be hurdling practice followed by a game of rounders before a session of long jump in the distant shady corner of the sports field. Other activities would include high jump, cricket skills, tennis and running races over various distances. We were in either the Red or the Blue team and it was run like a military operation with voluntary support from many members of the club. Anyone who’s used a database and spreadsheets will know just how laborious it must have been doing all the lists by hand as these things are quick and simple to do now using a computer but mum sat at the dining room table after supper and wrote everything out by hand.
As well as these morning sessions there would also be the annual Reds v Blues cricket, tennis and rounders matches. So many families came to the neighbourhood to rent a house for their summer holidays or to stay with local grandparents as this was before the era of cheap foreign travel and they were glad to participate in these organised activities before spending the afternoon on the beach. Sports Day itself was held on the last Saturday afternoon in August. Wearing our white sports strip and team bands we would march behind the flag-bearing captains to amplified military music of Sussex by the Sea. Then the competitors would wait in a roped-off collecting ring while the loyal group of marshals, all volunteers, would get into place to summon competitors, start races, measure jumps, collate results and prepare lists for the prize giving where the winners were awarded little brass medals and neatly engraved trophies. Mum presided over it all wielding her megaphone in one hand and her lists in the other.
My elder daughter was seven when her beloved granny died. She writes:
"I was lucky. Being the eldest of the 12 grandchildren, I had the longest with the woman I consider to be the best grandmother in the world. The delight she took in us all was evident, and even though the history of the twentieth century didn’t cross my 7 year old mind, we all knew that the times we shared were very special - an obvious contrast to raising her own four children during the war. She had a knack of making you feel like the most important person in the world and bringing out the best in everyone. Organisation and forward planning was a strength so when we arrived to stay there would be the magical sight of a tee-pee set up to play with in the garden where sweet peas flourished, a shop in a corner of the playroom, a birthday cake shaped like a record player with a chocolate stylus and Mr. Fox waiting to preside over whichever games we became absorbed in. These were the days when you couldn’t get what you wanted at the flick of a finger. Her love of gardening was infectious and even 46 years after her death I think of her most often when I am out in our vegetable patch. She began my passion for tomatoes and this sight of her greenhouse spilling over with the fragrant fruit that we were allowed to help ourselves to, is something I have tried to recreate for decades. A plate would be brought out, the fruit halved and sprinkled with salt and pepper and presented as ‘Kidsteaks’ - we were hooked for life. As a young teenager, I remember searching out the family albums with the few photos of her and having the mixed feelings of joy at seeing her again and the aching loss that here absence brought. As I see my own daughters, now young adults, and my mother getting huge pleasure from the deep and sustaining relationships they now have with each other, I have to remind myself of the great good fortune I had in having 7 years with my Granny, but still wish that it could have been longer."
Poor mum was outlived by her whole group of loyal friends - she died in 1972 aged 62. A member of the local Sports Club wrote this about her:
"Only when one tries to pay tribute to someone of Betty Richards' calibre one realises that words, either spoken or written, can indeed be inadequate. It is surely one of life's unexplained ironies that she, who did so much for the fitness and health of others, should herself have been stricken down long before the normal allotted span of life."
When I was a child, I asked mum how she could bear the fact that her own father was dead and she replied cheerfully in a flash, “I think about him every single day of my life.”
I too, in my turn, have thought about mum every single day since her death 46 years ago; not in a obsessive, maudlin way but I feel her bright spirit and laugh with her as she expresses shock at the fact that trains now run under the Channel and a cup of coffee can cost £2.85!