Tribute to Muriel Purdon: First female park ranger in Ipswich. Did you know her?
- Credit: Archant
Julie Hinton is in no doubt. “What my mum went through as a child was horrific. Horrific,” she says.
Fortunately, there were many happy years to come, but we can’t sweep the early days under the carpet.
Muriel Young was born in Colchester in January, 1928. She lived in Turner Road – the youngest child, after Phyllis, Florrie and Ted. Her dad, Abraham, was a farm labourer. She’d remember watching him – wearing the agriculture worker’s waistcoat, white shirt and collar – ploughing a field with a horse.
Then, when Muriel was three or four, her mother upped and left them all, says Julie. “And with her dad being a farm labourer, the story I’ve been told is that his sister took the children on, but only to get the money.
“Mum and the other two ended up in a workhouse in Felixstowe. (Phyllis, older, went into domestic service.) My mum by then was five or six. She was in a workhouse for I don’t know how many years.”
Florrie and Ted had the good fortune to be fostered by “really nice people. They were told mum had been adopted – but she hadn’t. She was fostered out, sent back. Fostered out, sent back.
“There are lots of tales, but the last one involved a policeman. At that time they used to wear thick black belts, and he used to beat her with it.”
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In her teens, Muriel acquired the nickname that stuck for the rest of her life – a jaunty moniker that contrasted with the awful times she was enduring at “home”. Everyone called her Tooty or Tootsy.
It happened when she was 14 or 15 and working on the railway station at Colchester. American troops passing through would throw sweets from the window and cry “Hey, Tootsy.” She kept the name.
A routine medical check-up while she was working on the railway was the day Muriel’s luck changed. “The doctor noticed the marks on her back and asked her about it. He said ‘We’re not having any of that. How do you feel about going into the services?’ She always said, later, ‘I was too thick; I didn’t know what the services meant.’”
In Tootsy’s case it meant a new family – one that would look after her like a family should. She joined the Wrens – the Women’s Royal Naval Service – having been given special dispensation to do so just before she was 18.
“She said that was where her life began,” says Julie. “She’d never felt part of a family, and she loved the Wrens. So sad. She had a wicked childhood.
“She wouldn’t speak about it until she’d got a few drinks inside her. She’d been locked in cupboards… missed school when she was made to stay at home and look after other children… All the stuff you read in novels about what it was like in those days, that’s what mum got.
“One story I was told recently, from Florrie’s daughter, was that mum had once been washed and scrubbed (when she was a child) and had this really itchy dress put on. She was told her mum was coming to get her, and was really excited. But it wasn’t her mum: it was a foster mother.
“They didn’t like her, so they brought her back after two weeks. She had two or three foster homes. Can you imagine how a child could be affected… and with violence from those you should be protected by.”
Later, there was occasional contact, over the years, with Florrie and Ted. What about Phyllis? “Mum never saw her again.”
Bill from Belfast
Muriel’s time with the Wrens took her to Chelsea, and to HMS Ganges at Shotley Gate, near Ipswich. On the other side of the River Orwell (and quite a bit further on) lay Brackenbury Barracks at Felixstowe. Among the troops was the man who’d be her husband for nearly 70 years.
“They had lots of dances at Shotley and used to invite the boys. They’d get the ferry over,” says Julie. “Dad, after a few pints, plucked up the courage one night to ask this wild woman out. She was wild in those days – full of life.
“I spoke to an old Wren friend of hers at Christmas – a lady who was her bridesmaid. She said ‘Your mum was a wonderful woman. She was full of life.’ And she said ‘Oh, the poor little mite. She had nobody until she found your dad.’ That made me cry.”
Muriel and William Purdon (everyone called him Bill) married in 1947 and honeymooned in Ipswich. The Wrens baked cakes, made wedding outfits and gave the couple a reception to remember.
Bill was from Belfast. He’d seen some major action during the war – including at Tobruk, the Mediterranean port that had come under siege in 1941. It seems his bride left the Wrens fairly soon and accompanied Bill where he was sent, including to Tripoli.
They set up home in Ipswich when he was demobbed, living in a shared house in Howard Street, then Rosebery Road, followed by a shared council house in Donegal Road. Son Michael was born in 1950.
In 1953 a new house in Kildare Avenue became available. “They moved themselves by putting their belongings on the sofa, which had wheels, and wheeled it around.”
Alan Sugar, eat your heart out!
“My dad was poles apart from mum, but he showed her compassion and love she’d never had,” says Julie, who was born in 1959. And her mother? “Unique. She wasn’t an ordinary woman – not a mum who made sponge cakes or whatever – but she tried everything.”
“Had mum been a young person today, with her personality and the way she was, she’d go really far. I know she would. Alan Sugar, eat your heart out! Given the chances, she would have been brilliant.”
Sum her up for us, please. “Formidable. You didn’t cross her or argue with her. Kind. She was the type who’d give you her last Rolo.
“She hated to see people suffer. As a park warden, she’d come home in tears if a 16-year-old boy had been sleeping on the park because his mother had kicked him out as his stepfather didn’t like him. Of course, it brought memories back for her. She was extremely compassionate towards homeless people.
“People said she was hard, but she wasn’t. She had a softness underneath but she didn’t like to let it show – because, to her, it was a weakness.
“I never heard her talk (badly) about another person. She hated tittle-tattle. ‘If you’ve got to say it, say it to their face.’ That was her attitude.
“She was never afraid to try things. She was the first female postlady in Claydon. (About 1963-4.) I can remember going with her in the school holidays: getting up at half-past four in the morning and cycling to Claydon on my little bike with mum. All weathers.
“She was the first female caretaker at Castle Hill primary school. She was the first female park warden. She rode a motorbike when I was in her tummy. There was nothing that woman wouldn’t try. She used to grab life.
“My dad used to do shifts. If he was on ‘nights’, she wouldn’t stay at home; she’d go to the pub, the Flying Horse. ‘What’s the point of me being alone and fed up?’
“She was a royalist through and through. Every wedding, we had parties in the garden, with red, white and blue.
“My 21st birthday, she didn’t like the disco I had – didn’t like the music played, and it was too loud – so she later went out and bought one: to prove that anyone could do it. And she could do it better! She did parties for teenagers. She’d go to Parrot Records and buy anything new… and nick mine!”
Bill worked at Ipswich engineering firm Cranes, joining the dozens and dozens cycling to the plant, and did double-shifts when he could.
Julie remembers her mum doing fruit-picking, pea-picking, potato-picking – whatever needed to be harvested – and the children would often go with her.
Muriel would even cycle to Brantham to pick produce – a journey of a dozen miles or more.
“They worked incredibly hard,” says Julie of her parents. “Even in the park, she’d start at eight, get home at quarter to five, have a quick bite to eat, then go back to work on another park (Stoke Park or Chantry Park), doing the same thing until nine, half-nine.” Valuable overtime wasn’t to be given up lightly.
The work ethic was a constant. “Everyone had to pull their weight.” At nine or 10, Michael was even changing his sister’s nappies from time to time.
Muriel passed her driving test in the early ’60s, and then persuaded her husband – generally happy on his bike! – to follow suit.
She put her licence to good use, landing a job in the early 1970s with Ipswich-based Cambridge Car Delivery. It involved delivering new Volvos to clients hither and thither. It might be to Newcastle upon Tyne; perhaps St Neots. And she hitch-hiked back to Suffolk…
“Every Sunday night was spent with dad with a map out, writing out the route for her. We’d often have a new Volvo outside, ready to go to its owner.”
Muriel also worked as a delivery driver for the town’s sheepskin and leather firm, TE and J Conder. “She really was a go-ahead woman. Nothing stopped her,” says Julie.
Park patrolman… or woman
Muriel became Ipswich council’s first female park ranger in September/October, 1981, though her letter of appointment called it “park patrolman”. She was paid 138.75p an hour, rising to 157.23 when watering was carried out. She loved it.
“She couldn’t stand being in an enclosed space, and suffered from claustrophobia. Being in the park gave her a freedom to do what she wanted.”
The EADT ran an interview with Muriel in the summer of 1984. She revealed “I did my courting in this park.”
We dubbed her “Merry Muriel”, noted for her friendly face and cheery hello.
She was working 7.30am to 4.30pm, then returning to patrol the park from 5.30pm to 9.30pm, but it was a labour of love. She didn’t mind cleaning the public loos, or spearing rubbish with her spiked stick.
Folk did leave too much litter, she said. But most people behaved as she asked, when she pointed out it was for the good of everyone using the park.
Muriel’s duties could include tending to children’s bumps and grazes, more-serious accidents that needed an ambulance, and dealing with drunks and stray dogs.
At weekends, she relaxed by running her own disco for friends. “I’d love to be a disc jockey,” she said, adding that her fervent ambition was to be a docker, “but I’m leaving it a bit late!”
You wouldn’t have bet against it. Muriel seemed highly skilled at spotting job adverts in the Evening Star and pitching for any that took her fancy. And little put her off.
“Once, I think one stipulated ‘male’ and she said ‘You don’t need a male to do that. I can do it.’ And so wrote off for it. She wouldn’t let being a woman stop her doing what she wanted to do,” says Julie.
“I used to try to stop her belittling herself because she thought she was uneducated, though. She’d left school at 13, but she had so much common sense. Heaps and heaps.
“I can remember saying ‘Mum, you really could do something different to being a delivery driver. You’ve got it in you.’ But she wouldn’t work in an office, because she couldn’t spell.”
There are some funny work-related stories, like the one from 1966: They had a week’s holiday in Jersey and Muriel sent the boss a postcard, saying: I’m having such a lovely holiday that I’m taking another week off. “And she did! The boss didn’t argue with her.”
‘Active and courageous’
Muriel retired in 1991. Sort of. She became the council’s first female gardener, tending Christchurch Park. “Another one came soon after,” says Julie, “but she paved the way for lots of women.”
Of course, her mum was never going to put up her feet. She also did part-time park work, patrolling places such as Chantry Park and Stoke Park in the evenings, after her “day job” with flowers, plants and shrubs.
The family has a letter sent to Muriel in the summer of 1991. It’s from Joe Orr, director of the borough’s leisure services. He understands that “as a result of your vigilance on duty whilst patrolling Chantry Park on Friday evening, three men were arrested by the police”. He adds: “It is good to know that vandalism and theft was prevented by your swift response” and her “active and courageous part in a successful outcome”.
Bill became a patrolman, too, going round the parks by motorbike. “They wore their uniforms with pride. Mum always did her hair and always wore make-up. Always had her lipstick on. They never had any money, but they always, always looked smart.”
When they eventually retired-retired, they enjoyed the retirement present Muriel had always promised herself: a cruise on the QEII. “It was her lifelong dream.”
They took on, too, a couple of allotments off Colchester Road in Ipswich – so passionate about growing things that they’d even go in the rain in their 80s. “Even when dad was diagnosed with cancer they were still out there digging.”
By the mid 2000s Muriel didn’t fancy living in a house any more, so she and Bill moved to a residential park at Martlesham Heath. “Looking back, mum had Alzheimer’s then,” says Julie. “It’s not so much about the memory going, it’s how they are as a person.
“Knowing what I know now, she started to get Alzheimer’s 12, 13 years ago. She started not wanting to socialise; she stopped wanting to go out – and that’s one of the things she loved more than anything. We all lose our memory. Look for other things.”
An official diagnosis came in 2015. “But they both lived in denial. ‘I haven’t got Alzheimer’s. What are they talking about?’ And dad, being dad, supported her in every way.”
Bill died the following year. “Dad always thought he was going to get better. They were such positive-thinkers. Nothing would knock them down.” That November, Muriel had to go to hospital with a bad infection. She later lived in a number of care homes, latterly the “brilliant” Spring Lodge at Woolverstone.
The grandmother of five (she also had four great-grandchildren) died two days after her 91st birthday. Her funeral is at the church of St Mary the Virgin, Martlesham, at 11am on February 13.
“She never looked back. I asked her lots of times about her childhood. She said ‘You can never look back. You’ve got to look forward.’ I remember saying ‘Well, mum, sometimes you have to look back to see where you’ve been and where you’re going.’ But looking back for her hurt. I know that now.”