EXTRAORDINARY LIVES: Dad fixed Spitfires during the Second World War

EXTRAORDINARY LIVES: The corgis licked Nana’s toes as she modelled for the Queen! Maria Levy spent a lifetime chasing new experiences after leaving school aged 14

  • My great-grandma Maria by Eliza Gill, 17: Modelled for the Queen into her 40s
  • My father Len by Ron Taylor: Repaired Spitfires during the Second World War
  • My father Jim by Cath Matthews: A green-fingered gentleman quick with a joke
  • My daughter Michelle by Sandra Peterson: A kind soul who battled kidney failure

Britain is full of unsung heroes and heroines who deserve recognition. Here, in our weekly obituary column, the moving and inspirational stories of ordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives, and who died recently, are told by their loved ones…

My great-grandma Maria by Eliza Gill, 17

My great-grandma Maria by Eliza Gill, 17  

Even on her deathbed, my beloved great-grandmother was still saying that she wished she had done more with her life.

This from a woman who had spent a lifetime chasing new experiences. But then, as my great-grandfather often said, his wife was dedicated to what she called bettering herself.

Nana was born in Yorkshire on a cold January morning and, like many of her generation, left school at 14. Along with one of her three sisters, her introduction to working life started in the local pubs, where she worked as a singer for two shillings a song.

Harry Corbett, the pianist who accompanied her, would later go on to find fame as the creator of the glove puppet, Sooty. When war broke out, she was rejected by the WAAF on health grounds and instead worked as a progress chaser — checking the work was up to scratch and on schedule — for Lancasters and Spitfires at the Blackburn aircraft factory. It was relentless: 12 hours a day, seven days a week and the war’s end was a blessed relief.

By then she had met her future husband John who, like her, wanted to sample life in London.

In 1949, she started work in a women’s tailors as an ordinary shop girl — until the day one of their models didn’t turn up for the fashion shows they put on.

Nana took her place and, as she later said, that was that: ‘Something clicked inside me.’

Big-name fashion designers came calling, among them Sir Hardy Amies. Then, in the late Sixties, she was approached by Sir Norman Hartnell, dress designer for the Queen.

Nana was in her mid-40s with a grown-up son, Franklin, but Sir Norman made her his chief model — ‘Mara’, he called her. That meant visits to Buckingham Palace to parade his designs before Her Majesty.

Nana recalled her thrice-yearly visits as a rather casual affair, with corgis tugging on Hartnell’s trouser legs and licking her toes while she was barefoot between changes. As for the Queen, ‘delightful’ was Nana’s verdict. Friendly and not at all stand- offish, she always made a point of asking after Nana’s family.

Nor was this her only brush with celebrity. While working for Hartnell, Nana went to get her hair cut at a Mayfair salon.

The man gave her a bob which Sir Norman loved so much that he then sent all of his models to get the same style. The hairdresser? Vidal Sassoon. He and Nana remained friends for life.

One of my favourite stories is the time she auditioned for a part in Coronation Street and was told to invent her own role.

She suggested she become the long-lost lover — and bearer of the illegitimate child — of the famous love rat Len Fairclough. The producers said it was a bit too risque, but told her to keep in touch. It was one of her greatest regrets that she never did.

Just one of Nana’s memories, recounted to her five adoring great-grandchildren. We loved sitting at the foot of her armchair while she held court, clad in leopard-skin and swathed in gold.

For the past few years, Nana wasn’t in great health, but her spirit was unwavering. Her funeral song choice says it all: You’re The First, The Last, My Everything by Barry White. She was fabulous and we all miss her so much.

Maria Levy, born January 31, 1924, died April 26, 2018, aged 94.

My father Len by Ron Taylor

My father Len by Ron Taylor

When I think about Dad now, I remember the ‘mystery tours’ of our childhood.

A devoted family man, most Sundays he would gather his four children — me, and my younger sisters Sue, Tricia and Karen — and take us for an afternoon out.

‘Wait and see,’ he would say with a twinkle in his eye whenever we pleaded with him to tell us where we were going.

Of course, we didn’t venture far. There were picnics, bluebell-picking, kite-flying and rock-pooling — all happy family times and typical of the zest for life of a man who as a young boy would dive off the roof of one of Broadstairs’ seafront restaurants (much to the harbourmaster’s irritation) and who as an 80-year-old was still nimbly climbing trees in his garden.

Dad grew up in that Kent seaside town, a butcher’s son who found that his own skills lay in carpentry.

It’s something he did all his working life and at home, too — usually at the kitchen table, much to his wife Dolly’s dismay. There was little his nimble fingers couldn’t turn their hands to: he once made a model of Salisbury Cathedral out of matchsticks.

His skilful hands were put to use during the war when, after enlisting in the RAF, he was set to work repairing Spitfires and Hurricanes.

Based in Wiltshire, he saw action in Normandy during the D-Day landings, and was recommended for a bravery award after trying to rescue a pilot from a flaming aircraft.

Typical of Dad: the same week he was threatened with court-martial after taking it upon himself to cannibalise three grounded Spitfires, using various parts to get two flying during an air battle.

‘There’s no pleasing some,’ was his verdict.

Dad met Dolly during the war, agreeing to be her date at the last minute when her intended suitor dropped out.

It says much about the man Dad was that, when he realised they were due to spend their first Christmas apart, he walked 40 miles on Christmas Day and slept on a bench just to be by her side for a few hours on Boxing Day.

Their chance meeting was obviously providential: they were due to celebrate 72 years of marriage the day after Dad passed away.

As children, we grew up hearing tales of Spitfires, interspersed with trips to Dad’s three allotments because he was a keen gardener, too. In fact, he was wonderfully creative all round: an avid amateur painter, he sold many of his paintings at the annual Broadstairs art show.

There was just one area where Dad fell short. He was slow to open his wallet, and if there was a padlock available he would have used it.

While he had stretched to ordering Mum a bouquet of flowers for their anniversary, we joked that he timed his passing to make sure he didn’t have to buy a celebratory drink on the day itself.

Dad would have chuckled at that too: right until the end he kept the sense of humour which all the family loved him for. ‘Just chuck me on the compost heap,’ he would say with a laugh when we asked him what he wanted us to do once he’d gone.

In the event he was sent off in style, his coffin decorated with the letters NLD, the wartime codename for the Spitfire he worked on. We did, though, ensure the handles were screwed on at odd angles — our way of teasing his artistic fastidiousness.

‘You can sort those out Dad,’ we all thought as we said our goodbyes. We like to think that wherever he is now, he will be joining in the laughter.

Len Taylor, born August 21, 1922, died November 14, 2017, aged 95. 

My father Jim by Cath Matthews

My father Jim by Cath Matthews

As a volunteer at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden in Wisley, Surrey, my father, Jim, was once approached by a lady who wanted some advice.

‘When is the best time to take cuttings?’ she asked. Dad replied with the cheeky smile familiar to all who knew him: ‘When no one’s looking.’

Gardening was in Dad’s blood. His parents were both in domestic service at Ricketts Wood, a country house near Horley, in Surrey, his mum Winnie looking after their employer’s children while his dad James was the gardener.

Sadly, they both fell ill and died during the war. This left Dad and his younger brother Stanley, then 13 and 11, in the care of an uncle and aunt in Horley.

These relatives were kind, but never loving. On the day he and Stanley arrived, his aunt had to go out to work. Sending them into the street and locking the front door behind her, she told them to amuse themselves until she got home.

On leaving grammar school, he wanted to study horticulture, but couldn’t afford the college fees, so instead he went into a bank. He was called up for National Service in 1947, spending two years in the Royal Artillery and rising to sergeant.

After he was demobbed, he joined the Crusader Insurance Company, becoming an underwriter specialising in medical expenses, and working for them for 41 years. But, because perhaps of the love missing in his own upbringing, family was always the most important thing in his life.

He married my mother Monica, a nurse, in 1953 and they set up home in Redhill. I was born the following year and my sister Margaret in 1957.

Nothing was too much trouble for him and he loved spending time with his two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

He died peacefully in hospital, a kind, caring man much loved and missed by the family and friends, who often referred to him as ‘Gentleman Jim’.

Jim (James) Peters, born May 27, 1929, died January 24, 2018, aged 88.

My daughter Michelle by Sandra Peterson

My daughter Michelle by Sandra Peterson

When I think of Michelle I like to remember her laughing, whether it was over a silly TV programme or something someone had told her.

Naturally cheerful, she had a wonderful sense of humour that stood her in good stead given the trials she had to endure.

Born a month premature, Michelle had chronic kidney failure and by the age of six we had no choice but to start her on peritoneal dialysis (a means to cleanse her blood, which took up to four hours a day), which was so new that Michelle was one of the first children in Bristol to use it.

Her first kidney transplant came a year later, but it failed immediately. Two years later, we tried again and this time it lasted eight months, after which Michelle made it clear she did not want to go through the ordeal again.

So, for the next 17 years dialysis was her daily home routine. It was never easy, but Michelle just got on with it.

She didn’t invite praise: when Michelle was seven she took part in a Blue Peter TV appeal for dialysis children and was horrified when the headmaster showed the footage to the whole school!

Life got harder still when, in her 20s, Michelle had to move onto haemodialysis to purify her blood, which involved going to hospital three times a week. She hated it, but rarely complained. I remember her collapsing in a fit of giggles in A&E when one of the nurses told us about a hair dye disaster.

That was typical of her. She was never resentful of other people’s good fortune.

Complications from her surgeries and condition meant Michelle knew there was no way she could have children, so she threw herself into being a wonderful auntie to her two nephews.

‘I want to be a fun auntie, not a sick one,’ she told me. She also offered her services as a counsellor for others with similar problems. In her 30s, Michelle gained an Open University degree — a 2:1 in English and literature of which she was proud. She also took up cross-stitching — her designs cover our walls and give us some comfort.

Last year, Michelle was offered another transplant, which we knew was high risk. But her quality of life was deteriorating, so she gave it a go.

At first, the future looked hopeful until, eight weeks later, she succumbed to a massive infection. She passed away only six days later. Michelle was very grateful to the donor for giving her the last chance to live a normal life, and would have done everything in her power to look after it.

I am only sorry that we couldn’t have our wonderful, kind, generous and gutsy daughter with us for many years more than the 41 we were blessed with. It has been a privilege to have loved her.

Michelle Elaine Peterson, born November 16, 1975, died June 10, 2017, aged 41

  • Is there someone who’s died recently, whose life you would like to celebrate? Email: [email protected] or write to: Extraordinary Lives, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT

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