Joy Cousins’ husband Derek served in the RAF, touring in Germany, Singapore, and Northern Ireland. While serving on a ground tour in Old Sarum, Wiltshire, in 1978, Derek sustained five angina heart attacks and died. Derek’s death left Joy in the middle of a large house renovation with three children. Joy talks about her early life, her career in property management, her fight for a War Widows’ Pension, remarrying, and how remembering their former spouses forms an important part in her and her second husband’s relationship. This interview was conducted by Dr Melanie Bassett on 23 October 2018.
So, today’s date is the 23rd October 2018. My name is Melanie Bassett and I’m interviewing Joy Cousins for the War Widows’ Stories project. So if you could give me your name and age please.
I’m Joy Cousins, and I am 86.
Tell me about your current life. What is it you do at the moment?
Well I am now retired, having had many, many years in property management and associated with houses and properties around the Hampshire area since I was widowed in Nov – er, March 1979. So this coming March, Derek will be gone 40 years. It was a difficult time for Derek to die. We’d had a wonderful 22 years of marriage and three lovely kids. One, unfortunately, of my daughters has learning difficulties and she was a daddy’s girl. So from her point of view, losing her daddy was really quite traumatic. She had just left a special school run by Dr Barnardo’s and was looking forward to having a life with us when suddenly daddy was gone. But she’s done very well. She’s held a job ever since she’s left school. She’s been married. She’s worked ever since and drives a car but has only an IQ of about a 10 or 12 year old but very loving and very caring and has a partner that she’s lived with for fourteen years.
So for her life, she still misses him terribly, as we all do because he was really quite a character. He was ex-Cranwell and did very well. And he won the Philip Sassoon Memorial Prize. He became a fighter pilot, flying – gosh, I’ve forgotten the name of the aircraft – Hunters. He flew Hunter 4s and Hunter 6es. We married and I joined him in Germany at Oldenburg. We had two years in Oldenburg where our first son was born.
Wonderful. So if we could just go back and talk about your childhood and your experiences growing up, where was your home town?
My home town was Gillingham in Kent. My father was a big industrialist in a small milit – military town. He was an electrical engineer but he also had an electrical engineering company, so he wired houses and estates and things like that. He also had a neon sign company called Smith Signs and he blew his own signs, his own glass.1 He also then, after the war, opened a company which was an electroplating company. He did chrome, copper, er – anodising, silver, gold, chrome, you name it, it was all done in the factory.
And I was the – he had three daughters. I was the middle one and there was three years between us. But I was the boy that he didn’t have. So whenever he wanted to clean the car, it was always Joy that helped. If he wanted to do something else, it was Joy that helped. I think at the age of 12 I was delivering newspapers and I was brought up as probably a bit of a tom boy I suppose, as much as anything else.
And then when he – when I became a hairdressing apprentice to a very famous, very well–known hairdresser, then I had my own hairdressing salon when I was about 19. And he would pick me up from work to take me home for lunch and on the way he’d say, “Come on kid, I’ll show you what I’ve bought today.” And it would have been a derelict site. One I particularly remember in Wigmore, where we lived, was an old derelict shop with a lot of ground and I remember the first time we went, it was covered in brambles and in a terrible state. And then the next day we’d go and the brambles had gone and he’d have the key for the front door. And he’d show me round the inside and he’d tell me what he was going to do with that. Then a few days later the builder would be on site and we’d be walking the grounds and he’d tell me what he was going to be building in the grounds. And then every day I would go with him and see the builder.
I would watch the footings being dug and daddy saying, “What do you need today, Tommy?” which was the builders name. He would say, “Yes, I need 200 Flettons.2 I need some engineering bricks. I need some sand and cement.” And what you don’t realise at 18/19, you’re blotting paper. You take it in and you don’t realise you’re doing it. So for me, it was an unusual background for a girl but wonderful because in my married life, Derek and I did up seven houses between us each time we were posted in the UK. And that meant we could double his salary every tour. And that’s how we got on the property market.
Brilliant. Can I just go back and ask you, just out of interest, who was the very famous hairdresser that you were an apprentice with?
He was a man called Frank Taylor3 and he was trained by Eugene. And Eugene was a very famous hairdressing company and he was actually trained by Eugene and he um – I was one of his apprentices. And later on in my career, after I’d finished my apprenticeship, I actually taught at the Eugene School of Hairdressing in London for about nine months to a year, and so I was teaching other people how to use Eugene Hairdressing, which nothing like that is ever used for permanent waving today because it’s all moved on. It’s all cold waving. But in those days you were wired up to an electric machine and it was very technical how it was wound on to the curlers. So again, that was another interesting part that one thing evolved into the next.
So how come you didn’t pursue hairdressing as a career in the end?
I did. When we first came back from Singapore, I opened a hairdressing salon in – um ah – Fair Oak, which is in Hampshire near Eastleigh and I had a ladies and gents hairdressing salon and I called it The Brush and Comb. And I ran that for three years and then Derek was posted to Odiham to fly the Puma helicopter and so I sold the business and we moved to Odiham. And wherever I’ve lived, the station commander has always allowed me to do officers wives hair on the patch but it’s not something I’ve done for many years now.
Can I ask, have you had any prior military connections? Is there any service in your family?
Yes. I have a great grandfather who was a Royal Marine, a Colour Sergeant. So I know he was in there. My father was actually trained as an Engineer at the Royal Engineering barracks in Chatham so I know that’s where he did his apprenticeship. But beyond that, no, I hadn’t but I certainly lived in a military town. Gillingham is very close to where all the Royal Marines … we didn’t have any Royal Air Force there. The nearest RAF base in that time was Detling but I did get to know the station commander of Detling and he was my dancing partner. And I have a photograph of him as a dancing partner. It’s, its lovely to look back and see those times where I was busy dancing with this RAF officer and going to competitions and things like that for dancing.
So you competed?
I competed in lots of local … we didn’t get very far but we just enjoyed doing that. I had beautiful ball gowns and things made. It was quite a glamorous time. But I was also in love with Derek at the time, so. And Derek was at Cranwell and then he was in Germany so it was nice to just have a professional dancing partner. He was the brother of Gil Graham, who was a TT motorbike racer, who was actually killed in the Isle of Man on the track, Les Graham, but this was his brother Gil Graham who was the pathfinder through the war. So he was a lot older than me. But he was absolutely charming. He realised I’d got somebody in my life so there was no complications.
Just if you could tell me about your education, obviously you trained with your hairdressing but what about before that?
Well I went to a little – I think my parents sent me to a private prep school to start with and then I, I went to Woodland Road Infant School. And then I think I went to Barnsole Road Junior School, and then sadly I didn’t pass my 11–plus so I went to Napier Road School. And my tutors, I remember the headmistress, Miss Lewis, calling me in and saying, “We think you should sit the scholarship for the technical school. Why you didn’t pass the grammar school, we don’t know but you should take a technical scholarship.” And I went home and spoke to my parents. My father, as a businessman, said, “Well if you want to do it you can but you are already 13. You’ve been offered a job as a hairdressing apprenticeship at 14,” and you could still leave school at 14 then. “And, if you go to the technical college, you will either be doing secretarial, catering or nursing. Do you want to do any of those three?” and I said, “No, I didn’t.”
And se said, “Well I think you’ll be very silly to go on to the technical school when you could be two thirds through your apprenticeship by the time you’re 16.” So sadly, I did not. I neglected my education. I only did some O Levels as a very mature student at Salisbury Tech. Back in 1976 I think. [Laughs]
So I’m just going to move on to when you met Derek. Do you remember how you met him and what your first date was like?
I do actually. I was very cheeky. I suppose because I was my father’s daughter, I wasn’t backward in coming forward. And my uncle owned a chain of hotels and a very beautiful hotel at the time was the Central Hotel. In the grounds of the Central Hotel was a beautiful ballroom where everybody who was anybody went on a Saturday evening and over Christmas. And this was the Saturday before Christmas. I’ll have to think back what year it was. Um and I had gone there. My parents were in the hotel with my uncle and I was over there dancing and this handsome man was dancing with a girl who I had known as a child. I thought, “How can such a handsome man be dancing with this girl?”
So when the ladies’ excuse me came up, I tapped her on the arm and danced with Derek. And that was the beginning because then we met up on Boxing Day for the dance. And I think after Christmas I was taken home to meet his mother, and she was quite convinced that that was the beginning. And it was.
So was your husband already in the RAF at that point?
Yes, he was. I met him in – just after the King died.4 And he was at Cranwell and h was known as ‘Granddad’ at Cranwell because he had already – he was going to be an apprentice for a chemical engineering company and he decided that it wasn’t for him and he would join – do his National Service. And he went for an interview and chose the Royal Air Force and he was selected for a commission, had got his commission. And he played hockey and his Squadron Commander was a hockey player and he asked him why he hadn’t gone to Cranwell. And Derek said he had sat the scholarship for Dartmouth and failed so he didn’t bother with Cranwell. And his Squadron Leader decided that Derek should go to Cranwell so he actually gave up his commission, sat the scholarship and went to Cranwell but he was quite senior. I think he was sort of one entry below the top limit of getting in.
So he was always known as Granddad by the rest of the group. He did exceedingly well at Cranwell. He won the Philip Sassoon Memorial Prize and his commander, when he left, the commander of Cranwell, called him in to interview him and he said, “Congratulations, Cousins, on a wonderful achievement for very little effort. If only you had worked a little harder, you would have had the Sword of Honour.” And that was Derek. He was very, very laid back. He had a wicked sense of humour but he was very laid back. He was not really somebody who was fighting to get to the top of the tree. He wanted his wife and family around him and that made him happy, and he really was not interested. He got a bit peeved over the years I think when other people were promoted above him but he didn’t feel they warranted it, but he was a very happy person and he loved what he did.
Can you tell us about your wedding day?
Yes. We were married on the 16th February 1978.5 And it was a very cold night and we had a lot of snow but I was – but in the afternoon, at 2 o’clock, when the wedding was, the sun came out. And it was very beautiful. I was married from our lovely home in Wigmore in Kent. My father gave me away. And we had a reception at my uncle’s hotel. It was a wonderful reception. And Derek’s mother was there. Derek’s father, I never knew him. He was killed in the war going to work on his motorbike. And he worked at Short’s making the Sunderland.6 My father, through the war, had to work at Sunderland, and my father was technical Production Engineer on the Sunderland. And what we didn’t realise was that Derek’s father worked under my father. But we didn’t know that at the time. So Derek was brought up by his mother who, from almost the day I met Derek, became mum to me.
She was the most wonderful mother–in–law you could wish for and a great friend. In fact, I even took her on holiday with me when Derek was away and things like that, before we were ever married. And I had a key to the house so I could always get in if I went down to the house. So I had a lovely mother–in–law. And because she was a widow, my mother had a fur coat for the wedding and I bought Derek’s mother a fur coat so she could feel part of it for her – for her son. We had a wonderful wedding reception. We married at St Augustine Church and the priest was known as ‘Father’ to me and it was where I spent my misspent youth in the youth club. And I used to dance, as a young teenager, in the church hall on a Saturday night when I was 15/16. And then we would graduate and then move on to the Central Hotel dancing later on in life.
But the wedding reception was held in the Central Hotel and I, as the bride, they had to clear the table because I was the daughter of a fairly well known Mason. They made me stand on the table and do a little speech. [Laughs] They wouldn’t let me get away with it because I gather, in Masonry, they clap the table until you stand up on your feet. And they clapped the table, all of them, until I got up on the table to say my little bit. And we had about ten or eleven RAF friends at the service as well but because I was the daughter of a very well known businessman, Burt Smith, who owned Smith Signs, it was quite a big wedding and a lovely day.
Do you remember any of your speech, what you actually said while you were up on the table?
No, I can’t, not now, no. It was so long ago. [Laughs]
So how did military life start for you?
It was interesting because Derek was at Cranwell and I have to say, we had a fairly rocky courtship because I had alr – I already owned a hairdressing salon and was a business woman. And I really – so I had a little bit of money and I owned a car and Derek, bless his heart, had nothing. And so when he was at Cranwell he had to lead his life and of course it was difficult for me, as a business woman, not to lead my normal life. And I would go to functions with my father, Masonic functions and various other business functions. And Derek was known to my father: He had a Cambridge voice and bugger all in his pocket. [Laughs] It was interesting. I had met somebody that really wanted me to marry him and I said to him, “You would have to ask me every day for a month because I really am in love with Derek.” And my father knew this.
Then one day, one weekend, I went down to Derek’s home, not knowing he was back from Germany. We hadn’t been writing to one another for several months. I opened the front door and walked in and Derek was home on leave. And we had a good old chat. After about half an hour he said to me, “What about taking me for a drive in your car?” and I said, “Yes, come on, let’s go.” So we went off in the car and I said, “Where would you like to go?” and he said, “Let’s go to Sheerness.” So OK, we were on our road to Sheerness and when we got to Iwade, not a place I really know but it was lovely countryside, he asked me to pull in to a lay-by. And I turned the engine off and he said, “Would you marry me?” And it was such a shock. I hadn’t expected it at all. I said, “I can’t give you an answer now,” and I explained about this other young man that had been asking me for a month. And so we left it at that.
I’m not sure whether we went on to Sheerness or not, I can’t remember after that. I suppose it was all a blur. And then that night I couldn’t sleep. At breakfast the next morning, I always had breakfast with daddy, and he said something about, “What’s your day?” and I said, “Well I haven’t slept all night because I’ve got a problem.” And he said, “What is it?” and when I explained to him about the situation, that Derek had asked me to marry him, he got up from the table, put his Times on the table and said, “All I can say to you is for goodness sake marry the man you love.” And so I had the awful task of phoning this other lad up to say that I was going to marry Derek. It went from there. And we got engaged a few days later and we were married the following February. So it was all very exciting and we never really looked back.
So moving in together…
We didn’t move in together at all. You didn’t do that sort of thing in those days.
So after the wedding, what happened next?
Ah, after the wedding. No well there was another interesting thing on our honeymoon. My uncle was Sup – Chief Superintendent of Tonbridge Police. There was a very nice, small hotel at Tonbridge. It was the time of the… what’s it? There was a short war on at the time, 1970 – what year was I? … 1968, and there was a short war and Derek had to get special permission to come home for us to get married.7 And we decided that we wouldn’t try and go abroad, we would just go to the small hotel near where my uncle actually lived. And I had told uncle that that’s what we were doing and I would bring Derek to meet him. And I was driving along on my way to Tonbridge from Gillingham in Kent and we were stopped by the police and told we had to report to the Chief – to the Superintendent, who was my uncle. [Laughs] So that was really quite funny and quite laughable at the time but a little bit of a shock because I hadn’t expected uncle to do such a thing. But he found my car, which was MM – MFS 313 so it wasn’t a difficult number to forget. And bless his heart, it was really quite a lovely little incident that he did.
And we had a lovely few days in this little hotel and then Derek had to go back to Germany and I had a salon to sell because I had my own hairdressing salon called ‘Joy’s Salon’ in Canterbury Street in Gillingham. And I had to sell that before I could go. And I think I joined Derek in June that year. And we cared … took a married quarter for Squadron Leader and the honourable Mrs … Champion. And they were going sailing round The Baltic and they wanted us to look after their dog so we moved in and looked after that. And then by the time they came back, they didn’t want us to move out. They were happy for us to stay and we stayed with them, sharing their quarter until we got a married quarter. And then from Oldenburg, that’s when Derek was flying the Hunter, and then from Oldenburg (it closed and went back to the Germans), and we were posted to Ahlhorn.
Then we were at Ahlhorn when Anthony was born and so he has a joint birth certificate, German and English. It had to be registered at the Bremen Consulate. And we had less than six months to do of Derek’s tour when they decided to close Ahlhorn and move to somewhere else, which I’m not quite sure I can remember the name of. And we came home. And we didn’t have a home to come back to in England and we had this little boy with us. A friend of mine, I grew up with Pat Ames. Les Ames was the great cricketer for England. He was a cricketer. And Les lived at Bearsted in Kent and Leonie very kindly offered us to stay with her, with Anthony, for the few weeks that we needed until Derek had done some more training for something else and we then moved on. But Leonie was very kind. She came with me to Dover to see me off when I first went with Derek.
She came down with me in the car and got me on the boat before she headed back to Bearsted. And I went on and Derek was at the other end to meet me. So that was the beginning of how we got there. It was quite an adventure really and truthfully. You know, to suddenly be taking your car abroad and driving on your own but I did it. [Laughs]
How did you take to military life? Was there anything that struck you as different or strange from how you’d done things before? What was the camaraderie like? Was there any different ways of doing things that you’d never…?
Well I think the one thing you had to learn is that, and having been an independent business woman, you do have to learn that there are roles for wives. In those days it was very strict. I had to have my own personal card with “Joy Cousins” written on it. It’s a different size to Derek’s cards. I had – Derek had his own cards. Then you would have to remember your place and I certainly wouldn’t go into the officers’ mess unescorted. That was the single men’s home and you treated it as such. So there were lots of things that you had to learn and the etiquette of when you went to the table. And you didn’t touch the silver on the table because if you did, your husband had to buy drinks all round. You had to make sure you passed the Madeira and the port the right way. Fortunately for me, I have never ever drunk alcohol.
I’ve been a teetotaller all my life and I’ve never smoked. So I was ribbed terribly on the squadron because I didn’t smoke or drink. There were very, very few wives. I don’t know any other wife who doesn’t smoke or drink. And the boys would tease me and they’d tease Derek. And in the end Derek would say, “If you can get Joy to drink, I’ll give you £1,” and those boys would say, “Come on, Joy, have a gin in that tonic and Derek will give us £1 and you can have it for a new hat.” But I didn’t want a new hat. Today, £1 wouldn’t go very far. [Laughs] But I’m still known as the teetotaller.
What about the relationships with the other wives? Was it a nice community?
Oh a lovely relationship. In fact, I have just been helping a friend who was widowed last year. Derek was at Cranwell with John Marriott and we’ve been great friends and our children were all on various tours together in Singapore and various places and we’ve stayed great friends. They lived at Lyneham but we still kept in touch a lot with various things and they would use our local favourite hotel, Esseborne Manor, here. And John even had his 80th birthday party there. John died last year in his sleep and Jill wasn’t happy in the house on her own. I did a lot of research to find where would be nice for her to go to be near one of her sons. And only three weeks ago I helped her move into this Lynwood House in Sunninghill in Berkshire.8 And that is half an hour’s drive from one of her sons, and she’s never been near any of her sons. And she is so happy. She was so excited when she found the apartment. That’s worked out well.
As I say, she got the keys three weeks ago and I was really worried in case she wasn’t as happy there as she thought she’d be. I’ve spoken to her nearly every day. I’m actually up there with another friend tomorrow for lunch. And she is so pleased and excited. It’s lovely, the flat, and she’s got it looking nice. And she’s got so much to do. She said, “There’s so much to do here,” that she said, “I’ve got to curb what I do otherwise I’ll overdo it.” But it has its own swimming pool. It has a hydro pool. It has a sports centre. It has four – 24 acres of land. Everything has – is glazed, and it’s not dark or dull. All the people speak to you. It has a wonderful restaurant. It has croquet. It has everything you could wish for and a nursing home on site. And Jill is really over the moon. She couldn’t be happier. So I feel really proud about that. Yes, I’ve kept up with 14 Squadron.
Up until last year, we all used to meet at the RAF club every two years and I’m still in touch probably with more of the RAF widows and wives from that but none of them are war widows like me.
That’s really interesting. I’ll come back to that. Ok, so you said that your career then became fitted around where you were posted with your hairdressing. Then maybe tell us a bit about how your property development came about?
Well my mother died the year before Derek in 1978 and left me a little bit of money. And Derek had always wanted a grandfather clock and I, at that time, was working as Purchasing Controller for a helicopter company called Heliwork. I was working at Thruxton. And I looked in the local paper on this Friday and saw there was a grandfather clock for sale. So I phoned up and asked the gentleman if I could go and view it and he said yes, I could. So on my way I stopped off, met him and, to cut a long story short, I purchased the clock for Derek. And as I was leaving, I asked the gentleman why he was selling so many things and he said he – his wife had died three weeks earlier and he couldn’t afford to stay there and he was going into a caravan. And over the years, Derek and I had done lots of development of properties. And we would manage to double his salary every three years.
And each time we posted, he’d send me off to find the right property to develop. We’d live in a married quarter for a few months until we found our way round the area. And then we would purchase it and we’d get it ready to move into and (the children were all at boarding school), and we would then move out of the married quarter and stay there until Derek was posted again. And then the same pattern would happen, you know, three years later. And at this particular house, it had two derelict cottages in the grounds and it was a pretty derelict old thatched cottage. I agreed we’d pick the clock up in the evening and a I was leaving, I asked the gentleman why he was selling and he was going to move into a caravan. And I said, “Older people don’t settle happily in caravans. It’s hot in summer, cold in winter. Why didn’t he convert one of the old outhouses?” And he said he was too old for that. I thought it could be a good project for Derek and I. And he was known to me as ‘Couz.’ I always called him Couz.
And um, so I talked to Derek about it and that evening, when we went back to collect the block, Major Darrell said would we like to see round the house and the garden. And we did, and he showed us the outhouses. And much to my amazement, he offered us a cup of coffee. And we sat down and he said, “Right, if you’d be interested in buying it, I’ll sell it to you for two thirds of the market price if you make me a home in that end cottage.” And before the evening was out, we had agreed that we’d have to have solicitors involved and we would have to use our cash from our sale of our house to do his cottage. So he would have to remain our mortgagee until we had completed it. And very sadly, three weeks before we were due to get our mortgage, unfortunately, Derek had five angina heart attacks in five days and died on the sixth day of a coronary in the Royal Air Force Hospital in Wiltshire. He was aged 46.
And he died just before my birthday. He died on the 13th of November – er March. My birthday is the 17th March, and he was cremated on the 19th March in Salisbury. So it was a pretty traumatic time. And as I’d given up my job as Purchasing Controller for this helicopter company, we had a site of two skips, a team of men and all I was left with was a widow’s pension, which didn’t even pay the electricity bill for the married quarter we were in.
Wow. We’ll go on to you losing Derek in a minute. If I could just ask you about your children as well and how you coped being a mum in the Forces community.
I suppose in the days that we’re talking about, things have moved on so much and people are much more considerate today than they were in those days. I can remember when Derek was in Singapore flying, he would be home in Singapore for four weeks and he’d be up country, because it was the ‘Emergency’ in Malaya, for five weeks. So I would be left in accommodation with the children. And the officers’ mess, which is Seletar, you weren’t even allowed to go into the officers’ mess to collect your post because it was the bachelors’ home. So it was something that was regarded as we wouldn’t do. So there was no connection with the station while he was away, only while he was home. So you were very much an individual. My son, I think was nine when we went to Singapore, and Debbie must have been five, there was three years between them – no, two years between them. So nine and seven. I don’t think I’ve got the numbers right because I think when we left, we left on the 6th January 1966 to go to Singapore.
Having a daughter, my middle daughter has learning difficulties which she’s certainly overcome exceptionally well but is still very limited, it was difficult when the children had got problems. All three went to an RAF school and they would have to go on the garry to school.9 I remember that one of the teachers near us could take the children on the garry but they couldn’t come back on the garry. For some reason; they had to make sure that everybody had left the school so they weren’t allowed to come back. So I got to know a teacher who very kindly said she would take the children to the garry in the mornings as long as I would meet her daughter when she came off the garry in the afternoon. And it worked very well. And then fortunately for me, this lady got to know me very well, the head teacher of Debbie’s school said to her one day, she would very much like to talk to me about Debbie’s learning disability.
And she said, “90% of the time you can’t talk to parents straight away because they don’t want to recognise their children have a problem.” And this lady very kindly said, “You haven’t any worry about Joy. She’s been trying for the last five years to have some help for Debbie. And every time she’s tried, she’s been shunned.” And this headmistress very kindly phoned me up and said, “Would I consider her seeing the school psychiatrist?” which I was delighted about. And from there, Debbie saw the school psychiatrist and she had, because of that, a special education with Dr Barnardo’s. And she went to a lovely school at Winchester afterwards when we came back to England. Anthony had a problem too. Because he was fair, he also found that having lessons in an Attap Hut where there was so much going on, golfers all around him, birds, hedge – not hedgehogs, you’d get a mouse on a chair and all sorts of interesting things happen, daddy flying his helicopter outside, and he really wasn’t concentrating.
And he was a bright young man. And in the end we felt that, with the advice of the teachers, that we should send him back to boarding school. So sadly, he came back to boarding school as it was only Sandy, my younger daughter, that was left at the school – well, with Debbie. The two of them would go on the garry every day until we returned to England. But I, I found – I’ve always found the other RAF wives super. I’ve always got on with them. I’m not a great girl for gatherings for women. I prefer individual times with females but no, I’ve always helped with whatever they’ve been running and whatever I could do to help. I’m a natural organiser I suppose, for my sins.
So if we can jump forward then again to talk about the circumstances surrounding Derek’s death. Are you okay to relay that to me?
Yes. It was a very inappropriate time because, having given up my job, I’m relying on Derek’s salary and the money that we had. Sadly, apart from – he wasn’t insured. He didn’t take insurance out so he died uninsured. The only money I had from the Royal Air Force was his comp – the final salary that they get. I can’t remember what it’s called. And I did receive that as a widow. But beyond that, I didn’t have anything an we’d used all our savings, so even our mortgage wasn’t insured because Major Darrell was our mortgagee. So it was a very, very difficult time. But I had got a very good bank manager that I had known for a number of years when I ran my salon. And his name was Derek as well. And I rang him up and said that my Derek had just died. He said, “I can’t believe it. I had lunch with you last week to see what the project was. How come?”
And when I explained he had five angina heart attacks and then a coronary in the intensive care unit of the Royal Air Force Hospital in Wiltshire, he was absolutely amazed and asked me what I wanted to do. And I said, “Well Derek would be furious if I didn’t finish the project.” And he said, “Joy, finish the project and worry about money afterwards.” So I just ran up a huge overdraft for the next year. And then about a year later, I decided that it was a project that Derek and I had planned to live in the village for the rest of our lives. I think he thought he would send me back out to work when he retired. He wanted to be on the parish council and he wanted to play cricket for the village. And we really got our hopes set on what life would be like. But it was very difficult for me to get established in the village as widow and doing the project. But the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund also lent me a little bit of money.
But after a year, I felt I had to move on. I really felt there were too many sad memories. But one of the things that I had done was that Major Darrell lived in the first cottage and I had by that time finished the second cottage, and I had let that cottage. And really, it all began from there because a friend of mine, who was assigned to help me for the first three months of Derek’s death, was posted to Oslo and he asked me if I would look after his house when he went to Oslo. And I really thought it was a joke. But I then got a letter from Upavon, from another gentleman … [Phone rings]
It’s OK, John will get it.
Let me just pause it. [Recording is paused]
And I had a letter from a gentleman who was army. And he was at Upavon. And he actually asked me if I would manage his property because he was going to Brunei for three years. I rang him up at work and said, “Look, I’m sorry. It’s a joke between Ian and I.” And he told me that Ian was very serious and he said, “Joy, I’d really like you to look after our property. So come and have dinner with us and let’s talk about it.”
I went to see him and had dinner and met his wife. And he asked me what it would take for him to persuade me to do it. I said, “Well the trouble is, I have no experience except for myself in property management.” And, “I could only let it as if I owned it myself and if I make a problem of it, then I would have made a problem for myself.” But I didn’t have any professional skills at letting properties but I would do it providing I had managerial power of attorney and he opened a bank account in a local bank and I had a third party mandate on an account so that the rent went directly to him and not to me because I felt, as a widow, I couldn’t possibly start getting people’s pension – uh I mean rents into my account. And he said, “Right, we will go to the solicitor on Monday morning, set it up. And he’d like you to do it.” Well it was very interesting because I was still at Penton Mewsey.
One night, at midnight, I got a phone call from this gentleman’s widow – wife – to say she had got appendicitis and was being whipped into hospital at Winchester and had nobody to leave the three children with. She had an eight month old son and a daughter of nine and a daughter of eleven. So I finished up for the next three days, until her husband could come back from abroad, looking after the family. [Laughs] And so that really got me into helping her and talking to her when she came out of hospital. And then they were posted to Brunei and we set it all up that I looked after the property. And I remember cleaning the house thoroughly to RAF standards and also doing the garden. And then I advertised and I let it to a very nice family. And then Ian went to Oslo and so then I took over his house and then over people heard of me. And suddenly I found I had five houses that I was looking after. And I thought I better go and see an accountant and start a company. And I thought how nice it would be to use Derek’s name.
So I set it up as ‘Country Cousins Property Management’ and it just snowballed. People heard of me from all over the place. And I had people knocking on the front door. And one lady arrived at the front door one day to say she had been living in Italy. And she was in Rome with her husband and her house in Andover had been empty for four months and she was real – and empty – and she was really upset about it. And a naval wife said to her, “Well when you go back to England, see if you can find that little RAF widow who’s letting houses. And see if you can locate her.” She came back to find herself open, all the outhouses were open. The grass was about five foot tall and all the lawnmowers were broken. So she put them into the boot of her car and brought them to what was then an agricultural engineering company called Watson and Haigs’. She said to them, while she was chatting, “Do you happen to know of a little RAF widow who does lettings?” and they said, “You must mean Joy Cousins.”
And before I knew where I was, she was on the doorstep. And I went and looked at the property, which was absolutely appalling, and I did agree that I would put it right and let it. And, many, many different properties like that that I’ve done over the years. I’ve looked after properties for people who have then been promoted and they’ve outgrown the house and I’ve persuaded them to upgrade and I would help them sell it and then buy another house that I would let until they came back. So between – I think I started the company in January 1981 and I ran it for 25 years.10 And I did every inventory for that period of time. I had a handpicked team of workmen that worked for me. And I had a wonderful housekeeper who cleaned all the houses and a gentleman who shared their home, did all the – cleaned all the carpets. So I really was very lucky. I had a wonderful team. And I have a photograph of ‘Joy’s team’, of which they were very faithful. I have a beautiful present; they bought me a lovely lady leaning on some books, as my retirement present.
Because I felt, at the age of 70, that I ought to think of retiring because I had power of attorney for every house I managed, of the clients who were overseas and if I died, I was the only one who had access to the bank accounts. My mother died at 72. My grandmother died at 72. And Derek … I had remarried and my husband had already retired by ten years so I really thought I ought to think of retiring. And having retired, I’ve still been doing up houses and keeping myself out of mischief.
Wonderful. So if I could just go back to Derek’s death, you said he had five angina heart attacks. Can you tell me about the situation surrounding how – where he was serving, what was going on with him at the time and what precipitated his unfortunate death?
At the time of Derek’s death, I’m not quite sure what his title was from the Royal Air Force point of view, but he was lecturing at Old Sarum. And we were living in a married quarter at the time. We’d sold our house and were living in a married quarter because we were doing up this property and he had a team of students from, I presume, all over the world. And he had actually promised these students that when we did our final part of the house we were doing up, he would invite them all over for a celebration of opening the house and before they left Britain. And there were 21 or 23 of them so it was all, you know, geared towards the end of term that we would make sure we’d got the house ready. And his lecturing was a ground tour, but he’d also got his posting for his next step to go to Upavon as a BASO officer.11 But Old Sarum was closing and they were moving their helicopter lecturing centre to somewhere else and ... So it was quite a stressful time closing Old Sarum. I can remember we went to a closing ceremony down in Old Sarum. And it was uh, ‘mess dress.’
And we were on our way home from this in the Wednesday night – no Tuesday, must have been on the Tuesday night – or Wednesday night. And in the car Derek had a really nasty turn and I was very worried about him. And I was, fortunately, driving because I don’t drink. And when we got home he was in a pretty poor state, but he wouldn’t go to the doctor, and because Old Sarum was closing, it was difficult to find a medical officer. And in the morning, I said to him – he hadn’t slept very well, nor had I – that he ought to go sick. And he said, “I’m not going sick.” I said, “Derek, you must go sick. You must go and see the Medical Officer.” And I didn’t want him to drive. So I went in and saw my son and said, “Anthony, daddy is saying he won’t go sick but I think he should go sick, will you drive daddy to work when you go?” He was at the technical college doing a degree at Salisbury. And he agreed he would take him but his father was not pleased about it. And I said, “Well I’m sorry, Derek, but I think you ought to go sick.”
So, I was busy on the project, and I was in the bank getting cash and sorting out fees for workmen and he phoned me to say, “I have gone sick and I have got to go to Wroughton Hospital. I’ll let you know how I get on but I have come home to do an overnight bag in case I have to stay in.” And when I got home there was a lovely little note to say, “Love ya,” and a few kisses and a tick from Derek. So he was admitted to Wroughton Hospital. He didn’t come home ever again. And um, and then as I say, he had five angina heart attacks. Then I’d been down to see him and a very dear friend of ours, Tony Quant, his wife was in Halton Hospital having been very ill and Tony came down to support me and to see Derek. And then we went over to the hospital together on the Sunday. Derek was quite chirpy but he was going for some special tests in London the following week, and so we said goodbye.
As he kissed me goodbye, he said, “Darling, I’ve not sucked my pipe at all since I’ve been in hospital.” And as I walked away I thought, “It’s a little bit late to tell me that,” having been a smoker all the time I’d known him. However, on the Tuesday – no, on the Monday, I had agreed to take Sandy from college over to see her daddy. And when we arrived at the hospital, all the bells were ringing. And um – it was very difficult to get into the hospital. And I was told there was an emergency on and the emergency was Derek having a coronary in the intensive care unit. And they did a tracheotomy to try and save his life. His heart was too tender for him to have normal heart pumping and they did a tracheotomy to save him but, unfortunately, he died.12 I can remember how difficult it was. Oh no, I don’t think he died then. He died, but we weren’t allowed to see him. Because they’d done a tracheotomy, he was in a bit of a state.
I was told that I couldn’t see him and they hoped that I could see him the next day. And I went over the next day and I think Anthony must have been with me because we saw him in the intensive care unit. He could hardly speak. He said to Anthony, “Take mum home, she can’t help me.” And so Anthony and I came home and then we got a phone call to say he’d died that day.13 That was the last I saw of him. So yes, it was difficult to cope with teenagers because they have their own grief as well. But you don’t accept – expect to lose a pilot at 46. You do expect the Padre to walk up your footpath with the Station Commander and say, “He’s had an accident,” but you don’t expect him to die of trauma at an early time because the helicopters that he was flying in Northern Ireland – he was flying to research the helicopter camera and night light and he was flying under hedges, under telegraph wires and over hedges to do the research. And that was stressful and caused to bring on the problem that he had. And he died of hypercholesterol lipoedema at 46.
So was part of his posting as a lecturer…
It was a ground tour.
Yeah. Was it a balance because he’d done this stressful job?
Well he was a QFI but he wasn’t a QHI but he had run the Standard Squadron at Odiham for three years and that was his last flying trip.14 And that’s why he was selected to lecture on helicopters to students from all over the world. And he had enjoyed doing it. He was a natural teacher. In fact at one stage, before he was promoted to squadron leader, he did seriously think of leaving the RAF and becoming a teacher. But a friend of ours, who was a teacher, talked him out of it and said that she thought that he would find it frustrating after being in the Royal Air Force, so he didn’t do it. But he was a natural teacher and did enjoy lecturing and things like that. And he could talk to an audience of 200 without a microphone. He had a beautiful deep voice. The only worry I used to have was he always stood on the edge of the stage and I was terrified he was going to fall off!
So he always lost my attention because he was so far on the edge of the precipice all the time. But he had a wonderful sense of humour and um, he was – he was a great guy.
So you said that you didn’t expect to get that sort of message from a pilot. Is there a different frame of mind do you think … Why do you think, from a RAF wife, where you’re not on the, quote/ unquote, front line, your husband is not on the front line, in the same way, that maybe an army wife would worry about, the different mentality, could you explain that?
Well I think when you’re married to a pilot … when Derek was at Cranwell, he unfortunately buried nine of his colleagues. So the accident rate in the Services, especially training, he was on Balliols15 in those days. And he trained – he buried nine of his colleagues and Derek’s ashes are at Cranwell Cemetery with his peers because we were so nomadic, I didn’t have anywhere that I felt was a suitable place for Derek’s ashes.
And so his ashes are in Cranwell Cemetery and you do, as an RAF wife, of a pilot, you do know that one day, it might happen to you, that your husband is killed. And I remember in, I think it must have been in Germany, that Derek was flying a Hunter and he was at something like 25,000 feet, with a colleague of ours – Snip Parsons –and they were in a pair. Suddenly Derek’s aircraft went into a spin and he didn’t manage to pull it out of the spin until he was only 2,000 feet from the ground and Snip always said he thought he was going to have to come and tell me, Derek had gone.
So, I guess you do know that it’s a dangerous thing and especially when they fly helicopters, they don’t have a parachute, so if they crash, they normally go with aircraft. There isn’t any solution and I guess it is something you learn to live with, you have to and it’s not good worrying every day when they go to work but you never let them go to work without saying goodbye.
So can I ask you, what support you got, following Derek’s death?
I have to say very little. The simple reason is that, Old Sarum was closing, as I said, so that was where Derek finished his days. The only form of Royal Air Force here was Amport House and that was the padre’s training school, which is only about six miles outside Upavon.16 Derek hadn’t taken up his posting at Upavon, so there wasn’t really any support.
Ian Russ… Ross lived locally and he was at Upavon and he was posted to help me sort out the paperwork for the Royal Air Force and I was in touch with Derek’s old boss from RAF Odiham and a gentleman called Fred Hoskins, who was his Wing Commander flying and I knew his wife, Pam, they had been Derek’s boss in Singapore, for a short while, and they lived at Salisbury. And I had been in touch with Pam and Fred and Fred had left the Royal Air Force and he had become a solicitor and he was very, very kind and he was shocked with Derek died.
And he said, “You must apply for being a war widow, Joy, under the circumstances.” And we filled all the paperwork in and I applied to be a war widow and I can remember very, very clearly, at Penton Mewsey, the letter arriving from the Royal Air Force saying, from a civil servant, who had said, he didn’t think I had the right to be a war widow, under the circumstances.
And in the Royal Air Force, we always used to snide about civil servants because they always got a free married quarter and we had to pay for our married quarter, so they were never part of the Royal Air Force, you know. They were out on their own, we didn’t really associate with the civil servants, they had a job to do and they did it but the RAF stuck with the Royal Air Force.
So I sat there at my desk, thinking how dare this civil servant, who didn’t know Derek, didn’t know what he was doing, had the cheek to say that I don’t warrant being a war widow? And I phoned Fred and told him and he was furious and he said, “He will fight it.” So we did and he put me in touch with the Royal Air Force Legal Branch and a very nice gentleman took me under his wing and he said, from the moment he spoke to me, he knew I had every right to be a war widow.
So, I took it forward, that wasn’t easy, as a widow and I had finished the project at Penton and I was being badgered by a friend of mine, who was owned – who was a manager of a property estate agents, to go and work for him but I felt, with two cottages and an acre of land and everything, I wasn’t ready. I didn’t feel I had mourned enough, so I said that I wouldn’t do it, at the moment, but I might think about it. But I then got a note to say, they wanted me to go to London to meet a board of Royal Air Force people to see whether I was right, that I was a war widow.
I was – it was very apprehensive because I had to go on my own, Anthony was, by that time, at Shrivenham, and so I went off to London. And I can remember going into this particular building and being confronted by four or five gentleman, sitting behind a desk, questioning me about Derek’s life. And I tried to answer as honestly as I could, about what he had done and how it had happened and then after about an hour or so, in the interview, I – they said, well if you’d like to go outside and we’ll let you know.
And I went out and sat, with the lawyer and he was absolutely convinced that I would win but suddenly the door opened, from this work room that these gentlemen were working in and they asked me to go back in. And it had – he had never, ever known anybody be called back in, ever, and he was a bit shocked by that and they asked me several questions, which again I answered as honestly as I could. And one of the difficulties is, that the Royal Air Force is, is … have many things that they – officers can’t divulge to their wives, you know, it’s not always that they can tell you what they’re doing and we learn to understand they’re doing something difficult but we can’t intrude and we can’t ask for the definitions of what he’s actually doing. It’s, it’s just not done and I had confirmed, as an RAF wife, as much as it went against my basic, independent principals, I had always conformed and I knew my role, as a wife and supportive that I couldn’t ask.
So I gave the answers that I knew but I couldn’t go into any depth of it. And so after another 20 minutes, I came back out and within two or three minutes, they opened the door and said, “We’re pleased to tell you, you are a war widow.” And I can remember that gentleman, and I don’t remember his name, seeing me to the lift and saying to me, “Joy Cousins, you’re a young wife -young woman, if ever you take anybody to live in your house, make sure you have a rent book.”
And that’s – and it went from there, really and truthfully and it did affect the pension, it did affect what I got for the children at public school, it did affect lots of things. Being a war widow, does give you some extra but I have to say, I was very unfortunate that being widowed and not being on a station; that was very difficult. My friends were scattered around the world. I had a lot of people from Odiham, who knew Derek, who came down but I wasn’t part of Odiham anymore. We had friends that came from Singapore, I had a friend who was the Catering Officer in Germany and he flew over and he was very sweet, he looked after food in the house because I was – I had so much else to think of.
There wasn’t anybody to help me with the funeral, so they had to get a Group Captain from Amport House to come and speak to me. I hadn’t got any hymn books in the house, everything was in store, we were living in a married quarter, that was furnished, so I hadn’t got anything in the house, at all, nor had the children. I hadn’t got a prayer book and it was very difficult choosing prayers and I, I didn’t – I’d never been involved in funerals.
My mother’s … I was in Singapore when my father died, and my sister organised my mother’s funeral, so I just went to that and she did all the organising, so I hadn’t been involved in a funeral and I didn’t think to ask somebody to talk about Derek’s life. I probably could have got Tony Quant to do something but he was very close to Derek and he may not have been able to do it.
So it was all done remotely, from Amport House, they arranged the funeral for him to be cremated in Salisbury and then we had a wake at Upavon and I think there were over 200 people at Upavon that managed to come to the wake, scattered from all over the world. But friends of ours heard of it in Gibraltar and all sorts of places that he had gone because it was in the RAF News and it was terribly difficult coping with Debbie, she took it very badly, still does, she still gets black moments when she says “I miss my dad.” But she’s now 58.
We have moved on, but it’s, it was a pretty black time and I think there were a lot of people who were shattered, but I found the strength to finish it. But I did and after 18 months, I decided the memories were too great, that I would actually decide to leave and sell the property. And I – Major Darrell was very happy in his house and he used to take my Springer [spaniel] for a walk every day and I thought I’d better go and talk to him. So I asked him if I could have a chat with him and he suggested I came on the next morning, at coffee time, we had a cup of coffee. So I knocked on the door and went in, sat in his little kitchen and he was a very – he was a lovely man but a very austere man and I only ever knew him as Major Darrell. And he was – he had a Bristol Cream Sherry for his elevenses and he made his coffee with Camp Coffee and sweet milk and I can remember him standing at the sink, stirring something or other and he said, “What’s the matter then, what do you want to talk to me about?”
I said, “Well Major Darrell, I’m never going to recover if I stay here. The memories are too great, of Derek dying and I’m seriously thinking of selling the house and I wondered whether, if I do, whether I would look for somewhere with a granny annex and you come with us.” And he said, fortunately he’s still looking out of the window, “I’ve got a better idea than that, why don’t you sell the big house and move in here and we’ll get married?” And I thought it was very sweet, and I honestly don’t know how I sucked my cheeks in, he was 72 and I was 46. [Laughs] But it was very sweet of him.
Anyway, he agreed, that he’d like that, so I was looking for a house with a granny annex. I did quite a lot of research and found a couple of properties, with granny annex, and then one day, and I remember it was a very cold day, he walked down the drive and he knocked on the door and he said, “I’ve come to tell you, I’m too old to move, so look for somewhere without me and I’ll stay in the cottage.” So at that point, I decided that that would probably be the best thing but he said, “I’ll come and walk the dog every day”, and he did, bless him.
So that’s what I did, I actually sold it with him as a sitting tenant in the property and he did come every day and he said, “If I don’t come, you know the front door is open, I never lock it, you must come in and find me” and I was always a bit anxious about this but by this time, my daughter suddenly said, “Mummy it’s quarter to two and the Major hasn’t come for the dog.” So I rang the people who bought Penton Mewsey off me and they went in and found him slumped in the bathroom. I called an ambulance and took him in to Andover Hospital and they phoned me back and I met the ambulance at Andover Hospital. And I said to them that he has always said to me, that if he could not live alone, he did not want to be resuscitated and go into a home, he wanted to go, he did not want to be resuscitated, so please don’t resuscitate him.
The biggest problem I had, I was living in Andover then, in Little Croye, and I had started my business, so I was quite busy (because this must have been about a year afterwards) and I knew he had two daughters, I knew he had one in Singapore – in America – and I knew he had one and I knew the road she lived in and I’d met her once. She was plump, she rode a bicycle and she had short, dark hair but beyond that – and I knew she had five children and she was a Catholic and that’s all I knew. I couldn’t find any addresses in the house but the one thing I had to do was find his daughters, if he was dying.
And, it was natural for me to want to do the wake at my home for him and organise the funeral. And I knew he was going to go and I went to see him and he was totally unconscious and I came back and his daughter lived in Old Winton Road, and it has 300 houses in it and my son was home, at the time, and I went up and down Old Winton Road, knocking on doors, trying to find this lady, who rode a bicycle, was a Catholic, had five daughters and short, dark hair. My son came and found me, after two hours and said, “Mummy you’ve got to give up,” and I said “I can’t because I must find his daughter.” And fortunately, about 15 minutes later, I knocked on a door and they said, “We think that’s the lady next door.”
And I knocked on her door, she answered it and I could have almost thrown my arms round her and given her a hug. And I said I’ve come to tell you, your father is in hospital and he’s not expected to live and I’m really worried, I can’t find a phone number for your sister in America. And she said, “Joy don’t worry, we’re meeting her at the airport at 8 o’clock tonight, she’s flying in from America, for a holiday.” And I was so relieved and they managed to see him at 8 o’clock the next morning, before he died. And I had the wake in Little Croye, next door and his ashes went on his wife’s grave in Tidworth.
But again, another milestone, as a widow. But, you know, you have to cope with these things as they come up, don’t you? You can’t just turn your back on them and I guess it’s lucky that I’ve been an organiser all my life, everything I’ve joined, I finish up running, or managing, or doing something, and I remember, at school, I was always the house prefect, you know, even as a little girl, I was always the house prefect. So I’m lucky in a way, I’m my father’s daughter and it’s helped me through.
So, you know, yes it wasn’t an easy time but no good – you’ve just got to make the most of what you’ve got.
You mentioned earlier that you had somebody assigned to oversee things and help you through from the RAF?
Yes, he was very good and he did all the paperwork and everything else but it wasn’t – they didn’t counsel you at all, they only help with administration. And I knew Ian and his wife and three – two daughters and a son – and I managed their property for them, so I knew them quite well. But they can’t give you any counselling, they haven’t got any experience of losing anybody.
So I was very much on my own, it was unfortunate timing. If you were widowed and you were on a service base, you get the support from the Station Commander and everybody and I have to say, the Royal Air Force do look after their own, they’re very, very good. But it’s a working force and you therefore have to stand up and be counted and you do have to make your own world. They can’t look after you all, you’ve got to help yourself as well and they will help you. But I can remember, very clearly, getting a letter from the RAF to say, it was an RAF married quarter and as a widow, they needed to give me 28 days’ notice and with a roof off a house, two derelict cottages and an acre of land, going up a hill, there was no way that I was able to give them notice.
But I contacted them and told them my plight and they said “We’ll give you three months, don’t worry.” So they were very kind and then once I moved into the married quarter, I was able to scrub and clean and do what I’d always done and hand the property back and to say goodbye, but by then, it was a joint service at Odi – at Andover, it wasn’t RAF, it was joint services, so. But I did find it hard, seeing uniforms come home at night, at 5 o’clock and mine wasn’t coming home. It was difficult and there were half a dozen RAF people on the base. It’s the RAF uniform that hurt, to see them coming home and you knew he wasn’t and you open the cupboard and see all his uniforms, that’s another difficulty.
Fortunately, Tony Quant was Royal Air Force, he was a Wing Commander, up at Halton, as a um – an orthopaedic surgeon,17 and he was very kind and I think he took all Derek’s uniforms and I was very lucky because he was the same size as Derek, apart from shirts. I think Tony had a fatter neck than Derek, but he could wear everything of Derek’s, except his shoes and his shirts. So I think he was very kind and I think he took a lot of the things and that meant they’d gone. And we had spent, probably ten or 12 years, Christmas’s together, with the Quant family, we were one big family, we were guardian to Mandy and Sarah and they were my surrogate children for seven years and they were guardian to my son for three years, so. And that’s … and they were here on Sunday for the day, the two girls, I had them. So we had a girly day to celebrate, not my son because he lives in America.
But no, they were all talking about Ashford Girls School, where the girls went to boarding school, Debbie went to a special Dr Barnardo’s school in Woking, and um so she wasn’t part of it but she was here because she loves Mandy and Sarah as well.
So how did you think … did your sense of community change, how did the other RAF wives treat you or the wives that you lived in a proximity to, in the married quarters?
Well they were mostly army wives and I had got to know quite a few of them and I played Bridge in the mess and they were wonderful, they insisted I go back to Bridge. And I didn’t think I could and the chap who lived next door, were charming and he knocked on the door and said, “We’re one short,” which is, I suppose, as a Bridge player, that’s what you need to hear, and “we need you to come and play Bridge tonight, Joy.” And I said, “I can’t go back in the mess,” and they said, “Come on we need you.” If you’re a Bridge player and you’re one short, that’s what they need, so you go.
Of course that broke the ice for me and I carried on playing Bridge and I remained playing Bridge at the mess and then I would go up every, I can’t remember what night of the week it was, Wednesday night? And then I had an army guy I played Bridge with and we joined the local Bridge club and he was in the mess because his wife lived somewhere else, so we played Bridge in the mess and I did that for a number of years. And then he was posted and I then I met another chap, Gerry, I think his name was, his wife lived somewhere else and we played bridge together. And he had – his wife had an uncle who was in Australia and she wanted him to give up his commission and go to Australia and he said “I don’t want to give up my commission and go to Australia.” But I persuaded him to take an indulgence flight and go to Australia, because his wife, by that time had gone out there, to see what the score was and I said, “You know, really it will cause a broken marriage if you don’t and I think you ought to try.”
So on my advice, he took an RAF flight, went to Australia and he came back and said, “You’re right Joy, I had to do it and I will give up my commission and go.” And I had a lovely Bridge party to see him off at Penton Mewsey and he, he left me a lovely note to say how much he’d enjoyed playing bridge with me and how good I’d been at helping him with his problem, at the end, whether to go to Australia or not. But I’m sure it was the right thing for him to do. But I’ve never heard from him since, hopefully all has gone well.
Then I moved on and fortunately after eight years of widowhood, I met John and we’ve now been married 33 years. I only had 22 with Derek. Unfortunately John’s first wife died and we have photographs around the house of Shirley, his first wife, we often talk about it, she took two years to die, bless her, which is the worst? To have two years to watch somebody dying, or five days and he’d gone.
So fortunately their name stays alive in this house, we always talk about them and I think the one thing you must do, is never let their name die, you know? It’s so sad, I never heard my mother mention my father’s name after he died, and I do think it’s wrong for them not to remain part of your life, they’re my children – he’s my children’s father and I’d hate to think that they didn’t think about him periodically and the day he died and on his birthday, ‘The Glorious 12th’ was Derek’s birthday. So we always think of that and he was such a terror for pulling faces when you took a photograph, he either put his tongue out or pull a funny face or something or other.
So to have one of him in a serious uniform, is, is unusual really and truthfully, he was a real terror, it was just his sense of humour. So yes, he’s a great loss.
So can I ask how you dealt, as a family, with what happened next, how did you talk to the children about what had happened and how did you get through?
Well fortunately Anthony was at Salisbury Tech and of course he had been with me, at the time and I, I suppose because we were in married quarters, I mean we were sent a staff car to take us to the cremation. Sandy of course had been with me the day before, when she couldn’t see her daddy. And so they were very much involved in it and of course, they knew that he’d had this angina heart attack but I don’t think at 46, you ever think that they’re going to die, I mean it’s such a young age that – and I know now, that Anthony, in particular said, when he got to 46, it was a very difficult year and he couldn’t stop thinking about it, and Sandy the same, when she got to 46, how young she was.
But of course, to them, he wasn’t that young, was he, at the time? But it’s now they’ve got older, they have found that difficult. Debbie has always missed her daddy. She um – a friend of mine taught her to drive, and that’s very unusual for somebody with learning difficulties, but a bit like her mother, she’s keen on cars. And when she passed her driving test, she came home and she said to me, and she’s about five foot, six and I’m under five foot now. She said, “Mummy wouldn’t my daddy be proud of me?” and she threw herself at me and stuck her face in my neck and cried.
Yes, he would have been very proud of her because he was so good with her, he could – he would sit Debbie down and he would do things with her and he would help her with things. Because whereas a normal child does her maths at school and she can get on with it, Debbie needed help with everything she did, but he would spend hours and hours with her and I would do practical things with her, I taught her to climb a tree and I taught her to ride a two-wheel bicycle without outriders, younger than anybody else, so she got a bit of kudos on other people.
So there were lots of things we taught her to do and she’s wonderful, she really is a lovely kid and very loving but she does miss her daddy, much more than everybody else because her life isn’t as fulfilled as her brother and sister. Sandy is a Finance Director for her husband’s architectural practice, so she’s busy and Anthony lives in America and he’s got a busy job and a daughter just going – who is at university. So they’ve got busy, full lives, whereas Debbie hasn’t really got a full like and for her, she misses him terribly.
But I’ve always been very conscious that everybody grieves differently, whether you’re an adult or a child, you have your own grief. I remember somebody trying to say to me, “You must ask the doctor for some tranquilisers, Joy,” and I knew my doctor very well and I rang Tim James up and I said, “People keep say that I need, for the funeral, some tranquilisers.” And he said, “Joy do you feel you want tranquilisers?” And I said, “No I don’t,” and he said, “Well don’t have them. People have to work it out for themselves, whether they want them or not,” and I said, “Well I’m sure I’ll have to say something at the wake and I’ve got to help the kids through the ceremony and everything else.” And he said, “Have them if you want them and call me but otherwise don’t take them.”
I think he’s right, we do all have our way and my way of working it out, for me, was that that was our project at Penton Mewsey and I had to see it through for us, not just for me but for the children and for him. And would you believe, that these 23 people that Derek promised would come to our house warming, I did that too. I was determined to keep Derek’s promise and at 6 o’clock at night, I was still shovelling ballast on the drive, to make it possible for all these Service people to come for a celebration, to mark the house.
So I did actually carry out his promise and they were people from all over the country and they were all departing the next morning for wherever they were going. And, so I did it. [Laughs]
It was a pretty finite deadline then, didn’t you?
It was, yes but I couldn’t have stayed there, I just couldn’t. I spoke to the people who live there yesterday but I couldn’t have stayed there, there were too many memories. And then I bought this … no, what did I do? When I sold, I rented off myself for three months, I asked this chap, Roger Caplin, it was his house in Junction Road, if I could rent his house for three or four months, while I was doing a project, which was Little Croye next door and he said, “Yes, of course, you’re in charge.”
So I rented that and then I bought Little Croye and I gutted that and spent £50,000 on it in 1981 and made it my home and that’s where I ran Country Cousins from it. I actually had a big office in the house and I ran the property management company. So really, for me, although he died at a difficult stage, I’m not sure that if he’d lived, I would have run the property management company. It was how it turned out, that running that cottage or letting that cottage, was the catalyst for the company. So, you know, out of bad comes good, at the end of the day.
Can I just maybe dig a little bit deeper on your overall wellbeing? How the grief affected you, was it something that you just said, “Right I’m going to get on with this,” or can you maybe tell us a little bit about what else was going on, if you don’t mind?
No, I don’t mind at all. As I say, we were lucky that we had the Quants, who were part of our family. And one of the difficulties really, was Val was very ill at the same time and at one stage, I think we thought we would have a joint funeral for Val as well, she was so ill. I actually … and Val’s mother and Tony’s mother were grandmothers to my children, and so they were ‘Nanna Goose’ and ‘Nanna Quant.’
So we were very much a big family and I remember going up to see Val in hospital, just after Derek had died and I remember Nanna Goose talking to me and saying how I wouldn’t let the family change, would I? I would make sure the two families stayed together because her Valerie was going to die and she was convinced that Valerie was going to die. And I said, “Nanna, Valerie isn’t going to die, she’s going to recover, I promise you, she’ll get better.” And I remember sewing some medical things on Tony’s uniform for him and going in to see Val in hospital and she said, “How incredible that you can take time out from losing Derek to come and see me in hospital?”
And I said, well you’re, she was like a sister to me, if we were doing things in the kitchen and the phone rang, she could go and do that and I’d take over where she left off, whether it was peeling potatoes or putting the meat in the oven, we just did, you know? We were just one big family. In the military, you don’t have your family around you, you don’t have your brothers and sisters, and mother and father, and Val was an only child, and Tony’s sister was Mary Quant, the dress designer, so he didn’t see much of his sister because she was busy all over the world.
And, and so we had become, just like one big family. Derek taught Tony to fly, I did everybody’s hair, Tony did everybody’s teeth, Tony and Val taught us Bridge, the girls went to public school together. I enjoyed chairsiding for Tony, I would scrub for him, when he was in surgery. Derek was the biggest bookworm you’ve ever met, and he loved his drama and that sort of thing, and Val was a Drama and English teacher. So they shared books and things like that, so we complimented each other, completely, we were very lucky.
And in fact, John, my husband now, is always surprised at how close to me, Mandy and Sarah still are, and it was lovely having them here yesterday, as grown-ups. Sarah is Head of English at a public school and Mandy is in the nursing profession, I think she’s a district nurse or a caring nurse or something, in her community. So they’ve made lovely lives for themselves and got families but I just like to steal them occasionally and have them to myself and having the four girls that I brought up for seven years.
So grief is a funny thing, you can’t – there’s no pattern of grief. I think doing what I did for Derek, doing the project, was the stimulus that I needed. I would go to bed and shut the door and cry, but I wouldn’t let other people see it. It’s personal. And I’ve always talked about him, always, I’ve never, even with the children, we’ve always talked about him and I’m happy to do that. Twenty two years of your life is a lot, isn’t it, really and truthfully? It’s just sad that they go early.
Grief is a really odd thing but I think; I had to do what Derek expected of me, that’s how I’ve always looked at it. Yes, he’s up there, the old devil. And I remember after two years and I was living next door and I was humping and dumping a great big basket of logs and I looked up and I said to him, “Couz you old devil for leaving me, I’ve done everything for you, for two years, I think it’s about time I did something for me,” and I think that really was the turning point when Country Cousins had evolved and I’d got a busy office to run and I guess I moved forward from there. But it took me eight years to find John and he was a poor old widower on a shelf in Surrey. [Laughs]
So yes, can we talk about how you started to, I don’t want to say move on because I think that means you leave someone behind and I don’t think you do – evolve – how did you then meet John?
Well I guess I was lucky because … and I’d always been very, very conscious of being a widow, a young widow and I had always made up my mind that nobody stole my husband and I wasn’t going to steal anybody else’s. So I was very, very particular about my professionalism, with my business and playing Bridge, I was very much the widow. I wouldn’t go into the Officer’s Mess until my Bridge partner came out and met me and then I would go in with him because most of them, they were all married, and so it had to be a professional playing Bridge.
Bridge is a good leveller, in a way and so I was socialising with Bridge and I was very busy. And if a client came home from abroad and he wanted to take me out for dinner, I would go out for dinner with him, as long as it was a professional meeting and dinner, you know? That’s how it had to be and 90 per cent, I would drive and drop them off. [Laughs]
So, I think really from that point of view and it was really odd how I met John, because I had a friend who had gone through a divorce and I had started to meet her occasionally for coffee and things like that. And she had been to a ‘solo’s weekend’ somewhere and she’d met a lady who wanted to organise something in London for a matinee and then dinner. And she’d had this letter, from this lady, to say when it was going to be, on the 17th March18 1985, I think, ’86? ‘86 perhaps, would I go with her and I said, “Oh no, I’ve never been to anything like that.”
She said, “Well please come with me,” she said, “I don’t want to go on my own.” And I came home and had a look at my diary and I was going to a quilting exhibition in the morning, and she was a very good seamstress. So she rang me again and said, “Can I persuade you to come, Joy?” I said, “Alright you come to the quilting exhibition with me, in the morning, and then we’ll drive up to London.” And so we did and we parked the car at the Royal Air Force Club and took a taxi to the matinee, which was Bernard Shaw’s Apple Cart in the Haymarket.
And this lady was outside, taking all the names and everything else and Belinda and I stood there for a bit and a lot of people turned up (and it was getting quite a big crowd), and in the end, the lady said, “Why don’t some of you go upstairs to the bar and we’ll meet up there later?” We came – went up, and we were sitting quietly on a seat, having a tonic water together, Belinda and I, and John walked in, with this lady. And he had a lovely smile and then this lady came up and she tore all the tickets up, as singles and dished them and I was sitting next to John. And in the interval, he bought me a drink and over dinner, it seemed that we’d both had happy marriages with families and we both lost a partner very early. I nearly put him off because he found out I drove a BMW, and although he’s very much a car man, he doesn’t spend his money on metal, whereas Joy has always had a BMW.
So I think I nearly put him off, but I think he was smitten enough. And the interesting thing was and this is really an incredible situation about being a small world, we exchanged phone numbers and I said “Sometimes I’m in London three times a month, sometimes I don’t go for three or four months.” And he said, “Next time you’re up here, we’ll have some dinner together,” and that was fine.
And so I came home, got on with my life and then my daughter-in-law, who I love dearly, her mother, no her godmother, was married to a captain who took the ships from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire and you’ll never believe this, but John’s daughter’s godmother was married to a captain who took the ships from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire – and there was only eight of these blighters. However, the news got around, John had phoned Mary, the wife and told him about me and said, he’d met this RAF widow who was in property in Andover, and it went viral.
And, my daughter-in-law rang me up and said, “Who’s this chap you’ve met?” And I said “I’ve met lots of chaps, who do you mean?” And she said, “No who’s this special chap you’ve met?” I said, “I’ve no idea, I’ve only met him once,” and she said – and I honestly couldn’t think about it. And she said, “Weren’t you in London last week?” And I said, “Yes.” She said, “What about the chap you met?” “Oh,” I said, “You mean John Cooper?” And it was John Cooper, and it had gone viral, all the way round. They lived in Wales, John lived in Woking, and I lived in Andover. But because I was an RAF widow in Andover, of course, they put two and two together and made ten.
And then I had been invited, unusually, by a client, I used to call her my big black mamma, she was a very big lady, she must have been six-foot-tall and so was he and they had a son and daughter, who were at a boarding school, somewhere near Woking and they had invited me to their graduation, wasn’t that lovely? And because I was on my own, they were going to try and organise for me to go up with somebody else. However, John only lived three miles away, so when I told him where I was going and where the school was, he said, “Oh that’s jolly near me, why don’t you come and have a meal afterwards?”
So I phoned this lady up and said, “Look I’m going to meet a friend,” and she insisted I took that friend with me. So he actually came to this graduation with me! And that was the beginning, and we were married, a year to the day that we met. I was married to Derek on the 16th and married to John on the 16th, so one was May and one was February, amazing really and truthfully, isn’t it?
So yes, I’ve had quite a full life in my 86 years. [Laughs]
Can I ask you about how you remember birthdays and anniversaries? How do you mark them, especially since you …
They’re always in the diary and we usually talk to each other about; “this is Derek’s birthday, The Glorious 12th,” or Shirley’s birthday, which was last week, and the nice thing is, we can talk together about it. I had a boyfriend, at one stage, who was a Brigadier and he was so jealous that I’d got Derek’s photograph in my handbag and he just couldn’t understand this and (he’d been through a divorce) and it was just that it was alien to him, that I’d still be thinking of Couz and I realised just how lucky John and I are, that we can share our grief.
And on the anniversary of Shirley’s birthday, John takes himself off and goes up to Holbury Hill where Shirley’s ashes are buried – or, or scattered and he spends time with Shirley on that day. He doesn’t want to celebrate her death, because it was a long, traumatic time but he likes to celebrate her birthday. I don’t particularly celebrate Derek’s birthday but I always think of him and I always, we always talk about it and when John dies, his ashes are going to be scattered with Shirley’s and I won’t go to that because I think it’s very much ‘him and his family,’ to be with Shirley, so I won’t see his ashes scattered, if I’m here.
My ashes, I’m having half of them up with Derek, at Cranwell, because there’s room for me up there and then I’m going to have the other half in a little cremation grave, in Charlton, near here and Debbie, there will be room for Debbie as well, because she’s not married to chap she’s living with and he’s not got the best of health, so I think Debbie will probably be on her own. And I think it will be somewhere for Derek to join me – for Debbie to join me and then we can have daddy’s name on the grave as well. So that’s what we’ve decided to do, and that’s all planned. I haven’t actually bought the plot, but nearly. [Laughs]
Do you find that’s had an effect, because you’ve been surprised by it, that you’ve wanted to plan for funerals?
John has a sister who was a spinster until she was 45 and then married a lovely man called Paul. And he died at 90, and Jean had no children and John and I had to turn out her house and plan everything for her. I have to say (and I had to turn John’s house out, after Shirley died, I mean he carried on living in the house that Shirley died from), and having turned that house out and gone through Shirley’s personal things, I felt terrible, I just felt – John couldn’t bear to do it, he was in the garage and I had to do it. And it’s terrible turning somebody’s personal things, not knowing what to do with them, where should they go? I think he had got rid of the clothes by then, but it was so terribly difficult.
And I don’t want somebody else to do that for me, I want to know that when I go, it will be straightforward. I’ve already turned out my jewellery and I made these two surrogate daughters choose some jewellery, when they were here yesterday. Some of it they’ve taken with them and some of it will go when I die but it will be listed and it will be theirs, their name is already on it and why not? And I’ve done the same with my daughters, that I want them – I want to know what they want and what they don’t want and I think it’s up to each of us. It’s not fair to ask somebody else to do it. I do wonder what they’d do with the photograph albums. They probably go in a skip, well you don’t know. People do, do things like that, I know somebody who spent 15 years doing research of their family and they threw everything in the skip, that’s wicked because they should have sent it to the archives, because it’s family history.
I’ve researched my family history and Derek’s family and I’ve got a photograph of his great-grandfather downstairs. He was an engineer in Kent, in a water mill … in a, in a paper mill. And he was an engineer and he would inspect the vats and everything, after everybody had gone at night and one night he didn’t go home and they found him floating in the vat, he must have been checking, and he was drowned in a vat and they found him the next morning.
Wow. Can I ask you a bit about the War Widows Association and how you got involved with that?
I must have been at a function somewhere and met somebody who was fairly well up in the War Widows Association and I’d been so busy, I hadn’t really been involved in it at all. I’d had no contact from anybody and this lady said to me, “Well that’s terrible, you must have the brochures and you must come to some of the things.” But I was still running the business, so I didn’t have a lot of spare time. So I’ve always received the brochures and everything else.
And um, and so I suppose I’ve always taken an interest in it but I’ve always felt a bit like a fish out of water because I don’t quite fit, somehow or other. I suppose it’s because of how Derek died and how lonely it all was. I do belong to the Royal Air Force Club in London for wives, but I don’t really like female groups terribly much, I always find they’re very cliquey and I’ve always avoided it.
I ran the Hampshire Genealogical Family History Group for three years, and it was wonderful, it was mixed, men and women. And I fin – and I started with 18 members and finished up with 85, in three years and I loved it because it was not – there was none of that bitchiness or cattiness or cliqueness, nobody ever wanted to sit with this person because they knew them and things like that. It was lovely, but if you get a lot of females on their own, they tend to be cliquey and I’m not very fond of that. I suppose being a business women, I, I don’t quite fit in.
Because you did mention earlier, that out of your peers, you’re the only war widow?
Yes, as far as I know, I mean, I could phone Pam Burston who we send our i – itinerary to, when we’re going to a meeting and there’s one in London on the 7th November, yes 7th November. And I’ve got a friend of mine, who’s an artist and she’s doing the talk in the club, that day. So John and I are driving up and John will be a guest of mine, to have lunch and her husband will be a guest, because he’s doing all the graphics.
And so, I belong to that, but it’s only – I think we have seven or eight meetings a year. So it’s not cliquey really, but it can – personally, if you’re with a local group, they can get very cliquey for females, I don’t know how you feel about that? But for me, there’s a ladies luncheon circle. [Pauses] It’s not for me. [Laughs]
So can I ask you how you feel about the term ‘war widow’?
When somebody refers to you as a war widow, what’s your reaction?
I g – I guess because I wasn’t a member, for many years, after Derek died, I can’t say I ever really think about it. I guess my life has been … my life with my family, my mother and father; it’s been in sections all my life. So that section, then there was a section, when I was a business women, as a single woman, then I married Derek and there was that section of my life with Couz and then when he died, my business life. So I feel, all my life, I’ve had lots of sections in my life, so I don’t feel I’ve ever thought of myself in that category, it’s not something that, because I’ve not been involved in organising it, perhaps if I’d been involved in some of the organising of it, but you can’t run a property management company and be successful if you’re going to spending your time flitting all over the country, helping war widows. [Laughs]
But just the term in general, as a label to you?
Well I guess I am a war widow, and it’s something that I’m happy to accept, that’s what happened. It was a very sad part of life, to make me a war widow but I think many war widows need support, and they find that from the War Widows Association and I think it’s wonderful. I wasn’t privileged enough to be in that category at the time, and I guess I’m an independent spirit. Whereas many wives are wives to their husbands and their lives are shattered when they die and they need an anchor to hold onto, to help them come through their grief.
I’ve done mine in a different way, haven’t I? I haven’t conformed, if you like. I haven’t met any other woman whose done property like I have, ever. I mean I’ve gutted properties and been Site Foreman and Project Manager of so many different projects, over the years that it’s just something I’ve always done but my dad is here, on my shoulder, saying “Come on kid, this is what you do.” So I don’t know.
I remember once saying to Derek when we were living in married quarters at Andover, “I’m the same as all these other wives on the base,” and he said, “You’re joking woman, there’s nothing about you that fits into that category.” So, you don’t see yourself, Mel, do you, you just don’t, you just get on with it.
I wondered as well, something that came up earlier, you talked about how you went to see the board about the decision to have the war widow’s pension, whether you were eligible or not, and as you were being escorted to the lift, one of them said, keep a rent book.
No, it was the lawyer. The lawyer who was helping me.
So he mentioned about making sure everything was kept above board in terms of if you have someone co-habiting, keep a rent book and stuff like that, did the idea that you were a war widow … how did that affect your behaviour or the way that maybe … was there anything that you were –
I was shocked actually. I, I guess, when you’re widowed, you do need to go through a period of grieving and you grieve in your own individual way. I think, I think when he said it, I think he was hinting that if I co-habited, that’s what I needed to do but it hadn’t ever crossed my mind. I mean it wasn’t something that I’d ever thought of, I couldn’t have thought of anybody else in an emotional way because I was still grieving for Couz.
So I think I was a bit shocked that he had said that, but he was trying to be a guardian to me, if you like, with his professionalism. I found it a very traumatic thing to have to do on my own, and I’d have loved Anthony to have been with me, my son, because I think that would have been a good support. But he was at college and there was no way he could do it. Sandy was a naughty girl at the time and wouldn’t have been any use whatsoever, and of course Debbie, with her problems, I wouldn’t have encouraged her to do that. So, um, I, I just think I’m not the normal, I gather, housewife, and so it’s hard for me to look at it all.
I never had a prop when Derek died and I coped, but perhaps I’m just… You see, I have a funny philosophy, Mel, whether it’s right or not – ‘the good Lord only makes the people suffer that can cope with it’. So, to me, I was chosen to lose Derek because I could cope with it, and, and that’s how I always felt, that I’d just got to get on with it because the good Lord expects me to cope with it. And, perhaps that’s how I cope, but some people don’t cope, do they? This person was telling me on the phone this morning that her mother was in a terrible state for six solid months. But I think that’s not the right way to behave. I, I think you need to stand up and cope for the person who’s died’s sake – turning into a bag of jelly isn’t going to help anybody, really, truthfully. And certainly, if you’ve got children, how are they going to cope if their mother goes to pieces? And none of it is going to bring them back. Every time we see a white cloud on a blue sky, that’s Derek with his pipe. [Laughs]
I wondered as well, because the Widow’s Pension, when you would have received it, was contingent on certain eligibility grounds, did you…? That’s what brought me to the rent book, the idea of making sure that you carried on being eligible because there was this idea that if you…
Cohabited or married, you lost it.
You’d lose your pension. Was that something that ever…?
Yes, it did. I would not cohabit, and I – when I married John, I lost my War Widow’s Pension straight away, and I can only get it back if John dies. So we always joke about the ‘peas on the stairs’, that if there’s peas on the stairs then I might get my War Widow’s Pension back. So no, I lost it. In fact … Nadine was saying she thought I ought to get it back because circumstances have changed. Now, I’m a member of the Officer’s Pension Association – a permanent member – and I have been ever since Derek died, and I am sure that I do not qualify because he died in 1979 and I would not get it back unless John died, and then I could apply for it. The concession they’ve made to people like me is that it’s not – oh, I’ve forgotten the word again. They don’t check what other income I’ve got, what do you call it?
Means tested. I’m not means tested now, I would automatically get it back. I wouldn’t be means tested. Because I have got a private pension from my company, and I’ve got my very, very meagre – because when your husband dies, like Derek did, I lose the rights of his pension. So I lost out on every front in the end. But there you are. I’m still here, I’m 86 and I’m reasonably healthy so who knows? [Laughs].
Can I quickly ask you about remembrance as well? How do you feel about Remembrance Sunday?
Oh, I think it’s wonderful.
How do you mark…?
Yes, we always listen to the Memorial Service. I’ve never been to one because there’s a lot of standing around and I’m so old, I couldn’t stand around for all that length of time, so. But we always watch it on the television. Sometimes I’ve been in Andover when they’ve had the Memorial Service round the cenotaph in Andover, so I’ve done that. And I think it’s right we remember those that fought, they have given up their lives, many of them. And John and I went to this wonderful film we had on in Andover, only one session the other night, about the First World War. Have you, have you heard about it? It’s very graphic and very gruelling. This man from Australia has done the filming of it. He’s used old archives and he’s had them all improved and he’s had somebody else from… No he came from – did he come from? He came from abroad. New Zealand, perhaps, he came from. And the man from Australia has done the colouring as well. Have you seen it? It’s graphic. It is absolutely mind-bending, and he’s done wonders. They’ve lip read what people… and they’ve used a voice to say what these people were saying. But I mean it’s absolutely marvellous and I’m sure they’ll go through archives more but it’s very expensive to do. But it’s a great tribute for 100 years, there’s no doubt about it. No, I think it’s wonderful. And I have to say, from this area you’re sitting in here, the man who owned this estate in the First World War, donated ten acres of land for our wonderful Andover Memorial Hospital. He lost two sons in the First World War and only his daughter survived. And so the Gamman Estate, this is what it was, and I think it had 200 acres and he gave 10 acres to that, and it’s still a very thriving little hospital. And it’s now called the Gamman Drive, which is lovely. There’s a little road going up to the hospital, it’s called Gamman Drive. And this was all his land at one time so um... No, I think, in fact, we have a lot to be grateful for. I think the War Widows supporting each other is wonderful.
Do you think – sorry to interject. Do you think that there is any change between now and then?
[Pause]. Is there any change between now and then? Yes. I think women are much more independent than they were in those days. I mean, my mother never worked after she married my father, and John’s mother never worked after she married his father. And, and I have to say that I think women have moved on and I think – and many women are now professional, they don’t live in their husband’s pockets anymore. So I think the whole world has moved on and I think that’s good because many were left poverty-stricken and with no goal or ambition to move on, and I think wives are not like that anymore. I mean, put yourself in your position, you’re a wife but you’ve moved on, you’ve got your own career, haven’t you? And you try and dovetail that, presumably, with your husband. I think that’s healthy. I think whereas, you know, when you married and your husband paid seven shillings and sixpence to the vicar for you, or took on the “hire purchase” of you, as Derek used to tease me about – “the most expensive hire purchase I’ve ever taken on,” he used to say. My father said – when he asked my father for my hand – he said, “You are welcome to it. You won’t keep her in pocket handkerchiefs so don’t ever blame me that I didn’t tell you.” [Laughs]. But there you are.
Are there any topics that you want to cover? I’m just thinking maybe we could talk a bit about how you keep active now and what you’ve done with your properties and things?
Well, I’ve, I’ve had a swimming pool. When I bought Little Croye, I had a swimming pool there that was in a disgusting state when I bought the house, and the neighbours wouldn’t let their children swim in it because it was always green. And I remember one day, in the middle of doing the gutting of it and all my workmen, and one day, one of the workmen said to me, “Mrs C, why get another skip; if you’re not going to use this swimming pool, why don’t we use it as a skip?” I said, “Oh no, I haven’t made my mind up about swimming pools. I might develop it. I’ve got three children and they might – we might use it as a pool. I haven’t made my mind up.” But it was those words that made me think I’ll develop it. So I did develop it. I put a Roman end in and I have to say, eventually, I made it into a salt swimming pool and it was beautiful. We used it and I swam every day for nine or ten months of the year. So that kept me fit, and I also used to go to the gym.
And then when we were downsizing to here, I was determined I wasn’t going to move without my swimming pool because I lived in next-door for 37 years and I was not going to suddenly not have a pool. And I decided we’d have a swimming pool here but it’d be a bit smaller and it would be well-insulated and have an electric cover for this old girl not to have to wind the cover back off and on. And we swim – John swims first thing every morning when he gets up at 7, then he brings me up a tray of tea, and then I have my cup of tea, watch the news, and then I swim. Sometimes in the summer, we will swim again in the evenings. And we’ve had lots of happy parties. I’ve got a friend who has two grandchildren, she brings her grandchildren to swim and we love it. And Sarah swan yesterday when she came. She said, “Oh, I must have my swim.” So she went off and had her swim. And, and that’s the sort of exercise I do, and I tread water and things like that. But I don’t go to the gym anymore. I’ve decided that when I put the pool to bed, I’ve got a cycle – a bike in my study and that will be where I’ll go for half an hour, once I put the pool to bed. I think that’ll be more gracious for an 86-year-old. [Laughs].
Any other topics you think you want to cover?
No. I’ve enjoyed my property management, I’ve enjoyed developing properties for other people, and um, and I’ve encouraged… I’ve always said to my tenants, “Don’t rent for too long because it’s dead money.” I’ve always tried to make them see that it’s logical to try and buy a property. I had a lovely tenant who rented off me a flat from me for a couple of years. Then he went abroad with his wife. He’d left a very special part of his camera behind in the property and I brought it back and put it in one of the filing cabinets in my office, and two years later, he came back to rent a property again. And I went to him and said, “What about this? Does it belong to you, young man?” And he couldn’t believe I’d kept it for two years for him. And I got to know him really well. He’d had an accident as a little boy on his bike and had lost an arm. And he was into IT, nice man, married to a Filipino girl. They rented from me for a long time and I tried to persuade them to actually rent a prop – buy a property, I said, “You know, you’re getting older and you ought to buy.” They said, “No, we’re going through HR…” No, what do you call it when you want to have a baby?
IVF. “And it’s costing us quite a lot of money so we can’t afford to do that.” So I said, “Okay, fine.” However, after I sold my business, I bumped into them again in town and said, “You’re not still renting that farmhouse, are you, off Country Cousins?” They said, “Yes.” And I said, “You’ve got to think that you’re that much older now, you really ought to think of buying.” I gave them a bit of a lecture and invited them up to the house, and said, “Let’s talk about it.” And um, she wasn’t successful with IVF but she’d got three cats and she did not want to be anywhere where a cat would be run over, so she was being very precious about her pussycats. Anyway, I did persuade them, and I took them shopping and we looked at various properties. And I met his parents, he brought them up one day, and we didn’t find somewhere secluded enough, for her, for the cats, so we left it. Then I suddenly got a phone call to say, “We’ve found somewhere, Joy.” And they’ve been in there three years now. I have to tell you, Mel, it was wonderful.
I went into a little lady, Sui’s in town, who does alterations – dress alterations, and I opened the door and walked in. She was behind the curtain, just getting dressed from trying something on. I walked in and she said, “Joy!” She came up and gave me the biggest hug and squeeze and said, “We’ll never be able to say thank you enough for making us move.” It was so satisfying. And Sui was standing there thinking ‘what’s all this going on?’ [Laughs]. Because Sui is Chinese and she didn’t know what I had done in life. [Laughs]. But she was such a sweetie. She was really so thrilled. So yes, it’s nice helping people, really. I think I’ve enjoyed doing that. I‘ve made people move on when they’ve outgrown a property. I had one client who sent a message via a friend to say his house was empty, would I consider taking it on? I said, “No, I’m sorry. I couldn’t possibly do that. If he’d like to come back from Hong Kong and meet me and take it back from the agent, then I’ll take it on, but I would not take it on from another agent because he would need to see the state of it. And he was very cross with me – “How dare this woman say that! Why can’t she take it on?” He was really quite shirty. And I have to tell you, he came back from Si – from Hong Kong and he took the house back. I agreed to meet him down there, and he was in tears. He said, “You were right. I could never have realised what a state it was in.” And so we agreed what I would do to put it right, and get rid of the carpets. They’d had pets upstairs and the carpets were ruined, and it was in a terrible state.
And so he agreed with what I could do and he set up Power of Attorney while he was here, and a bank account, and I managed it for a number of years. But it had a very funny access point; it was in a corner of a development, and beyond it, it had two small mewses beyond it in this corner, which was rather strange. And the access to their front door was to the side of somebody else’s garage, so it was a really strange set up. I’ve never seen a property developed like it, I don’t think it’s right that it should have been done. And the man who owned the house with the garage was very, very naughty, and he would park his car, not only in front of his garage, which blocked them getting to their house, but he would park it partly on their drive too. So it was not very sociable. And he was a bit of a stroppy person. And so I arranged for a vicar to live in it. He rented it, and he had it at a special price for ‘keeping the peace,’ and he did. Then I wrote, or phoned him up, and said, “Chris, you’ve outgrown that house, you don’t want to come back…” He’d been promoted. “And I think you ought to sell it when this guy goes.”
And we sold it. And I bought him a house just over here. And gutted it and refurbished it and made it into a nice home. He lived in there, and he died there, actually. And his wife came round and saw me and said he was very ill, and could I help her? She hadn’t got a clue. She didn’t know how much he earned, she didn’t know whether she could get a pension. She hadn’t – he hadn’t opened the mail because he’d been so ill. She didn’t even know whether she half-owned the house. She only had a bank account in her name, but she didn’t have access to his bank account at all. It was very sad. And I went round there and I looked through everything for her, and then Chris was upstairs dying. He went into the hospital – a hospice for the last three weeks. But I went up and saw him and asked him what these were on his bank statements and things, and he was able to tell me, and she didn’t own half the house. And she didn’t – and the joint account, his salary wasn’t joint. And so I had three weeks to get the house in joint names and to get her a bank account opened, she just didn’t want to think he was going to die, that he had cancer and was going to die. And so we did manage to set it all up in time. And I knew all three of the kids: one’s a doctor, one’s a vet and the other one’s in…. a chap who lives in London, he’s in import and export. All very intelligent, but she wouldn’t listen to them, that he was going to die.
And she lived in the house after the tenants had gone and Chris had retired from the army. She lived there for about 15 years. And … But it was terribly sad, she just couldn’t get her head around the fact. She didn’t know anything about anything. She wasn’t savvy at all about how to cope. And because I’d been through it, I was able to help much more than the average person could. Especially being a military wife, because we do have military etiquette – you don’t step out of line with military etiquette, you, you have to respect that it’s got its own etiquette and you have to fit in with it. I was very conscious of that. I hope wives today are still conscious of it but I’m not sure. I’ve been out a long time. [Laughs].
Okay, so the final question for the formal part of the interview, what would you want people to know about war widows and war widowhood?
I think, in fact, they’re very good. I’m not sure that nationally it’s advertised very much. I think it’s very much kept on the … For the November situation, war widows are very involved in it, but it’s very much just that part of the year that the public have any vision of war widows, whether it could be extended … The biggest problem I think, for war widows, is that they’re scattered around the world and the country. They’re not in one place. I mean, we haven’t got anything in Hampshire at all. There might be somebody down near you, but there’s nothing or anybody here that I know here, that’s a war widow. So I think it’s very difficult for me, having been an independent person, to see how they could bring that more to the fore. I’m not sure. Scattered people … A lot of women, of course, don’t use the internet. I haven’t got any peers of my age that use the internet like I use it. You know, if they’ve got a mobile phone, it’s in case of emergency and it’s turned off. It hasn’t got any other facility except to speak to them. Well, I’ve got an iPhone. [Laughs]. I’ve got an Apple Mac on my desk. But I think it’s difficult for me to make a judgement, Mel, because I don’t quite fit into the format. I think you need to ask somebody who fits into the format better than me.
Well, I think it’s one of the things that people could possibly take away, isn’t it, that being a war widow isn’t necessarily what they would expect?
Well, we’re all individuals and we all have a different background and a different upbringing, and you do have to conform when you marry into the military. And for some wives, that takes away their individuality perhaps, and they just become a housewife and don’t go back to work, and, and a mother. So, for them, they do need a crutch from something like the War Widows [Association] that, that is there for them. Whether there is anybody individually, or a panel of people who can help with advice, I don’t know. Sometimes just talking to one person is all you need. I mean, I was, I suppose, for Heather, I was here, but she knew me well because I managed for them – she was able to pop round and say, “Joy, will you help?” Some people don’t have that facility. And because of my own background, I was able to do it. I mean, SSAFA offer that sort of thing, don’t they? So maybe there could be an element of [the] War Widows [Association] that could have a little section that we would be able to put out to say, “If you want to talk to somebody with experience that could help, we would be on the end of a computer or phone or …”. But you couldn’t visit. It’s bad enough with what you’re doing, getting out and meeting all these old birds. [Laughs]. Or starting to. [Laughs].
[End of Recording]