A tribute to our mother Frances Holt, 1932-2015

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The tribute my sister and I made to our mother, who has died of cancer, at her funeral last week.

Our mother Frances was born in 1932 in Meopham, Kent, the third of three daughters of Frank and Dorothy. While she was still a baby, the family moved to Whitley Bay on Tyneside, but they returned to Kent to live in Whistable when Frances was about four and that’s where she grew up.

The war started when she was seven – and she had many stories of life as a wartime child: first hearing an air-raid siren when walking back from town with sisters Betty and Chris, and knocking on someone’s door to ask for shelter – and the anti-climax when nothing happened that time. Later, waving at an aeroplane from a bedroom window, thinking it was the RAF, only to realise their mistake when they saw it drop a bomb on the town; the terrible smell of the air-raid shelter in the neighbours’ garden and her mother – our Nana – refusing to use it, preferring to hide under the stairs.

Worried by the threat of invasion, the decision was made to evacuate the children. While Daddy stayed in Kent, sister Betty went to Reigate; while Frances her mother Dorothy and sister Chris went to stay with an uncle, aunt and cousins in High Wycombe. It was safer, but very cramped with two families living on top of each other. From these times Mum remembered walking to school carrying her gas mask in its little square box.

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After two years they returned to Whitstable and mum started at William Gibbs grammar school for girls in Faversham, travelling there each day by train – and getting up to high jinks along the way. There was an incident when an apple pie was thrown out of the train window on the way home after a cookery lesson.

At school she loved English, History and Art, and in 1949 she won a place to study book illustration and graphics at Goldsmith’s College in London. She was taught by Betty Swanwick, who had taken over the department from Edward Bawden.

It was an interesting time to be an art student in London. Mary Quant was in the year above Frances and her friends and contemporaries included Molly Parkin and the cartoonist Mel Calman, who directed a film, with Frances in charge of continuity.

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She lodged with her aunt and uncle in Brixton and later in Brockley. Uncle Alf was a proof reader at the Daily Mail and a strict Methodist. Frances was worried what her sophisticated art college friends would think when she invited them to a birthday party at her uncle’s, knowing there would be no alcohol. But apparently had a whale of time, drinking orange juice and playing Beetle.

In all, she was in London for five years – following her art training with a teachers diploma and also working part-time in the Lyons Corner House opposite Victoria Station, babysitting her sister Betty’s new baby, Jenny. It was the time of the Festival of Britain and at the Coronation in 1953 Frances camped out all night in Parliament Square to be sure of a good view.

In the holidays she worked as a postman, picking fruit and, one summer, working in a canning factory, where she told us greatly expanded her vocabulary of swear words. But she earned enough money to go on cycling holidays with her friend Jo to Ireland and Italy.

In 1954 she started teaching first at Wednesfield secondary school near Wolverhampton, living in the YWCA – where she met Carol, who became a life-long friend.

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One Sunday she agreed to accompany a friend on a walk with the Ramblers to Bridgenorth, stopping at someone’s house along the way for coffee and cake. There she sat next to a young man she described as tall and very handsome. He had just finished two years national service in the RAF and he was also an art teacher. It was Arthur Holt, who she went on to marry in 1956.

Mum retained a huge affection for the Ramblers and its capacity as a dating agency. Only a few weeks ago she was recommending it to one of the staff at Highfields nursing home- as a good place to meet a man!

Their first home was a small flat with a sofa that lifted up to reveal the bath. But then they moved to a new house in Wombourne. She carried on teaching with jobs at various junior and secondary schools. A description of Frances at this time – 60 years ago – by her headmistress at Little London school in Willenhall is one many of us recognise:

“She has a very pleasant manner with the children and seems to understand the need of the younger child for firm kindness and patience. The children are very fond of her and she handles their many individual and collective problems with tact and good humour.”

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But much as she longed for children of her own, none came along. And so in 1965 she adopted me and two years later Jane. We owe her and Arthur a huge debt of gratitude for taking us as their own, making us part of their wider extended families and giving us all they could of their love and support ever since.

We all moved to Epperstone in Nottinghamshire in 1970 and Meadow Cottage became our home. Mum sank herself into the life of the village with two young children. She started up an informal coffee morning group with other local mums who became dear friends. She was very busy in the WI – acting as treasurer for a while – and with a reputation as a very useful member of the WI darts and skittles teams.

At home she saw her role as traditional home-maker, there to support Arthur and raise children: clean, sew, knit and cook. There was always a home-cooked dinner – usually with pudding and piping hot custard. She played with us, taught us to read and write, to cook, draw and paint. But she also passed on to us a strong belief in the importance of education, particularly for women as the key to freedom and independence.

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When we were a little bit older she returned to teaching part-time at schools in Epperstone and Woodborough and, later, the PNEU school in Nottingham, where she made important and lasting friends. She also taught art to adults at Arnold and Carlton College and in Burton Joyce, where her Painting for Pleasure class became quite a social event.

Family holidays were usually a visit back to Nana and Grandpa’s home in Whitstable, with many days on the beach at Tankerton, walks down along the seafront and visits to the ice cream parlour. There were also trips to Norfolk, the Lake District, Scotland and once to Paris – making the journey there and back all crammed into Dad’s bright orange 2CV.

There were arguments – about boys, politics, what sort of clothes teenage girls should wear and the amount of freedom we should have. But she hated conflict and would often play the role of peace-maker. She believed most things could be made better by a cup of tea and a biscuit.

We knew she was proud us and also of all her nieces and nephews. She always gave them her love and support – especially Jenny, Giles and Roly after the death of their Mum, Frances’s sister Betty, at only 52.

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Arthur and Frances had great plans for life after retirement. They were going to resume walking holidays and travel further afield. But this was cut short in 1992 when Dad was diagnosed with leukaemia. In his periods of remission they managed a canal boat holiday and a trip to France, but Arthur died almost exactly 20 years ago, in April 1995.

Mum was devastated by the loss but was determined not to become a burden to her friends. She coped by throwing herself into lots of new activities: continuing education with the Mechanics Institute and University of the Third Age, studying German, Music Appeciation, and ICT amongst other things. She also indulged her love of playing games and regular Bridge and Scrabble meet-ups with Pam and other friends became an important part of her social life.

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When she became a great-aunt – and then later a grandma – she was in her element. Always loving, generous and kind. She loved family get-togethers, hosting many Christmases at Meadow Cottage. Until a few years ago she was still travelling quite independently, going on coach holidays and travelling to London on the train. She joined us for a holiday in Centre Parcs and was happily whizzing round on a bicycle at 75.

But when neurological damage to her spine eventually took away her mobility she was forced to give up first the car and then the house in Epperstone and she moved to a new home and made new friends in sheltered housing in Southwell.

Since she died, people have described Frances to us as: “a live wire”, “a character”, “joyful” “witty”, “kind”, “upbeat”, “intelligent”, “determined”, a “lovely lady”, “a good friend”.

We will also remember her as sometimes rather clumsy. Soon after I married and mum had come to stay, one morning we heard a great crash from the kitchen as the fridge door and several pints of milk landed on the floor. “Frances is up,” said my husband.

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And I will also remember how she could never sit straight on a chair – she always seemed to be half-balanced on the edge. Once, after dinner, she was regaling us with some anecdote, wine glass in hand, when she slid off the chair and under the table, still talking, and without spilling a drop of wine.

Above all we will remember her generosity, her big smile – and how much she loved us all: her family and her friends.

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