Elizabeth Ann Tomsett, 2 May 1936-18 April 2020
“God give me strength to bear that which I cannot change”
Our mother, Elizabeth Ann Tomsett, was born on 2 May 1936. Her father served in the Royal Navy between the wars and was steward to Admiral Sir Arthur Power. When he left he was appointed the Admiral’s butler and lived on his estate at Littlemead Cottage, Hayling Island where mother was born.
When World War II broke out the family moved to East Grinstead and lived in a tied cottage in the grounds of Abbey School in Ashurst Wood where Prime Minister Gladstone’s nephew, Robin Gladstone, was the headmaster. Granddad was a gardener on the estate. Our grandmother did housework at Mr Gladstone’s nearby house, Heatherlands, and cooked lunch for him and six boys five days a week.
Whilst her parents were fully paid-up members of the servant classes, mother had wanted more from life. She was sharp. She read voraciously. She attended Ashurst Wood School and, in 1947, she won a scholarship to the East Grinstead Grammar School. Education offered her the chance of social mobility, to be the first one in her family to attend university. She had the opportunity to grow beyond her relatively humble origins and embark upon a professional career.
Mother’s maiden name was Browning. Her first name was Elizabeth. Whilst no poet, she could certainly write, that’s for sure. Despite her promising name mother wasn’t educated, having had to leave school when she was just 13 years old. She was diagnosed as having manic depression, now known as bi-polar.
One of those jobs she took whilst she was recovering from her first bout of depression was at a nearby dahlia nursery. She twice helped to show flowers at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London. She left there to lodge and work at a fruit farm in High Hurstwood, in deepest East Sussex, where she learned how to prune fruit trees and to pick apples to pack for market.
The winter of 1954 was a cold one. It snowed hard. The girl who worked at the village grocery shop, which doubled up as a Post Office, couldn’t make it into work. Mother took her place, temporarily at first and then permanently. The Uckfield postmen called at the grocer’s every morning to collect the mail. Mother had been tipped off by a friend that one of the Postmen was quite dishy. She sat in wait for him on the wooden gate to the house. When he arrived, he offered her one of his Player’s Navy Cut. She was impressed.
She married our dad on 27 October 1956. He proved to be the love of her life. She talked to me about those years and what a difference marrying him had made to her world:
I spent those years when I should have been at school at home, more or less. I don’t remember much about those years. I don’t think my mother understood. Dad was more amenable because he was more intelligent. Then when I met Harry it was alright. That was my salvation. Because he cared, love his heart.
With a husband postman and five kids to feed, mother had to work. She was a grafter. She would clean houses for some of the wealthiest villagers. She had a spell in the 1960s and early 1970s working at the Buxted Chicken Factory. One of the vilest tasks she was given was to cut the legs off the chickens with huge shears as they came round suspended from an overhead conveyor belt. The resulting blood blisters on her hands were the size of two pence pieces.
In order to eke out the family’s meagre finances, mother developed a weekly schedule of meals. The day of the week dictated what we would find on our teatime plate: Monday, lentil soup with dumplings; Tuesday, toad in the hole; Wednesday, baked beans on toast; Thursday, sausages and chips; Friday, mince; Saturday, fish fingers and mash; Sunday, roast dinner.
Mother’s house husbandry was expert. Seven people fed well for next to nothing. We all remember when Dad’s infamous compliment to her about the merits of her plain cooking caused a certain tea-time turbulence.
For mother, one extra loaf a week would put her in financial difficulty until dad was paid on Friday. There were few luxuries. Mother would shop cheaply, knit us jumpers, clothe us through jumble sales and buy things on the never-never in catalogues.
My siblings, Bev, Dave, Heather, Ian, and I never felt deprived; we didn’t really know how relatively poor we were but mother did. I can see her standing at the kitchen sink with her hands in the basin staring out of the window and repeating aloud her favourite mantra, God give me strength to bear that which I cannot change. I think we all realise, now, how much mother and dad sacrificed for us.
We would holiday with friends or relatives in exotic places like Hayling Island or Galashiels or Wakefield. Some years we wouldn’t holiday but have days out around Sussex instead: the beach at Norman’s Bay or a day in Battle. We could have invented the concept of a staycation.
For our more extravagant holidays, dad would borrow a car from John Billings who owned the village garage. Dad had taught John how to play golf and we usually hired the car for free.
Dad’s golf was not costly. It was working class, or Artisan golf, where we could only play on the course at nearby Piltdown at limited times during the week. And at weekends, dad would work Saturday mornings and dedicate the rest of his time off work to golf.
That left mother alone a lot of the time. She ran the whole show, to be honest – working, washing, ironing, cleaning and feeding five kids. She was frugality personified. She read a great deal and could write with an Orwellian clarity. Here is a piece she wrote about being a contented golf widow, for the Artisan Golfer magazine:
We’ve been married twenty-one years tomorrow; I’ve spent most Saturdays and Sundays (especially in the summer) of those years at home with our children. Sometimes the air has been blue when I’ve cursed that golf club! But let me finally say this to any other golf widow who may be reading: let them go to golf. Don’t stop them playing. If you marry a happy golfer, and then say he can’t play, he won’t be that same happy fellow you fell in love with.
Mother was never going to be a feminist. Whilst Germaine Greer was publishing the Female Eunuch in 1970, mother was getting stuck into The Reader’s Digest. She read endlessly and would buy me books from the Ladybird series to encourage my reading.
My first ever homework was set by Maureen Boss. She taught me History and on the first day of secondary school we were set the question, Why did Julius Caesar invade Britain in 55 BC? Mother and I worked our way through the text book, explained how Caesar was merely preparing for future colonisation of our island and described how the Senate was so impressed it announced a twenty day celebration of the invasion. Mrs Boss duly awarded us 9/10 and a V. good comment. Mother enjoyed the feedback as much as I did.
As kids, winter Saturday evenings were the source of our greatest happiness. After an afternoon of breathless footie up the rec and tea and crumpets watching Frank Bough present Final Score, we would be scrubbed clean before settling down in the sitting room for an evening in front of the telly: Dr Who; Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game; Dixon of Doc Green; The Two Ronnies; Starsky and Hutch; Match of the Day. That BBC1 Saturday evening schedule in the 1970s was family-viewing gold.
The spectacles I wear to view those evenings of vintage TV derive their rose colour not from the brilliance of Barker and Corbett, but from the comfort gained from having the whole family safe and together for a few precious hours. Seven of us crammed into the front room, craning for a good view of the screen, talking and laughing at the telly, generated genuine happiness. My brother Dave would be sent off to the garage to buy us all a chocolate bar, the weekly treat, to be eaten with the mid-evening hot drink. Mother would always have a green thing, aka a Fry’s Peppermint Cream.
In the early 1970s mother began cleaning for Mrs Mann whose house stood directly opposite the Piltdown golf course clubhouse. It had a huge garden and it wasn’t long before she was employing dad as a gardener. It worked really well. Mother would clean every Friday and dad would garden after lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
There came a point when Mrs Mann decided to move into the closest town, Uckfield. A small two-bedroomed cottage was attached to the converted barn she had bought and she offered the cottage to my dad. So, in 1977 we left our council house and squeezed into Cherry Barn Cottage.
Some of the financial pressures they had felt for decades suddenly lifted. They were modest, happy times. By 1983 Mrs Mann had made it clear to mother and dad that she intended to leave all her worldly possessions to them. Suddenly, dad could see the end of getting up at 4.15 a.m. every day except Sundays to do his post round. And mother wouldn’t have to clean for anyone else ever again.
Mother and dad had two years imagining such promised joy. He died on 6 February 1985, six months before Mrs Mann passed away. Mother was left with grief and pain, and money she had no idea what to do with. She once said to me that she’d have been happy living in a hole in the ground with dad, rather than existing in the converted barn without him.
In the 35 years since dad died, mother had a few relationships, but nothing lasting. She lived alone, latterly in a flat; I would ring mother and ask what she was up to and she would reply, Oh, not a lot, dear. Her days drifted by in an indeterminate haze of reading, television, crosswords and the regular cigarette. Beyond Ian and his dog Sid, she had few visitors; nearly all mother’s contemporaries had passed away. She was way beyond understanding the internet and how that might entertain her for days on end. She could not be doing with another pet dog. Consequently, there was a huge gaping void facing her every time the sun rose and a day began.
We started to notice how she would ask us to repeat names of people, three or four times in a single visit. She became increasingly unsteady on her feet and two falls in a matter of days in the local supermarket led her to be hospitalised. She spent her last four or so years in a care home, as Alzheimer’s tightened its grip upon her. Trying, and failing, to reteach her the rules of snooker so she could watch her beloved Ronnie O’Sullivan, was painful.
Despite the dementia, mother had more than a little of the Livia Soprano in her; she remained a combative soul, pretty much right up to the very end.
She was resident in the Copper Beech House Care Home in Uckfield when she died. Whilst her advanced Alzheimer’s certainly helped her choose to give up on living, contracting Covid-19 made her last few days lonely, painful and confusing.
The care Gillian and her colleagues at Copper Beech gave her was exemplary. They are complete heroes. They grew to love mother’s spirit, which became increasingly funny, rude and raucous as her filters fell away.
The final testimonial comes from Kay, one of mother’s carers, which she sent to my sister Heather just an hour after she had passed away:
I spent time with her last night and this morning. I am glad we handed over to Michelle and her team this morning as I knew they would be by her side. It’s honestly heart-breaking at the mo. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to meet your mum. Utmost respect, she was her own woman…. You couldn’t but love her!! XX
Donations to the Alzheimer’s Society can be made here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/get-involved/make-donation