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Obituary: The First World War was still being fought when Jean, 101, was born

PUBLISHED: 14:31 02 October 2019 | UPDATED: 10:26 03 October 2019

A photograph used on the back of the sheet for the service celebrating Jean’s life. It was held at All Saints Church, Holbrook. She was in her 20s when the picture was taken  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

A photograph used on the back of the sheet for the service celebrating Jean's life. It was held at All Saints Church, Holbrook. She was in her 20s when the picture was taken Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Archant

Jean worked as a maid, and then the head teacher's cook, at a boarding school near Ipswich. A 'very special' lady

Geraldine and Olive with parents Jean and Francis… and fake donkey. This might be at Great Yarmouth  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONGeraldine and Olive with parents Jean and Francis… and fake donkey. This might be at Great Yarmouth Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

We really all ought to compile memory books charting what we've done in our lives, when, and what we thought along the way. Such a simple thing, but a wonderful legacy for those we eventually leave behind. How many of us do it, though?

Jean Sage did. Her "grandmother's memories" book is invaluable in chronicling her life and times - not just bald dates and places but insights about attitudes and feelings.

We know she yelled on her first day at school in November, 1922, but was all right after that. She feared spiders and hornets, and her favourite singer was Gracie Fields.

What kind of wedding presents did she receive, back in 1945? "Sensible small gifts… nothing like today." Much of the honeymoon was spent at Aunt Cinderella's house in Chiswick. (Yes, that really was her name.)

Politics? "I was a bluebottle then." (A Conservative.) Husband Francis was "a red herring" - a Labour supporter.

We should all get writing.

A simple life

Jean outside her home in River View, Holbrook, when she was likely in her 90s. ‘She was buried in that dress,’ says daughter Olive. ‘She wore it for my youngest daughter’s wedding at Hedingham Castle’  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONJean outside her home in River View, Holbrook, when she was likely in her 90s. ‘She was buried in that dress,’ says daughter Olive. ‘She wore it for my youngest daughter’s wedding at Hedingham Castle’ Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

It's incredible to imagine being 100 and looking back on all the things that have happened in one's lifetime. Jean was born during the First World War, just after allied forces secured the key Belgian village of Passchendaele. There would be another global conflict, and atomic bombs, and then man would walk on the moon.

Later came a consumer boom. We were shown cars that drove themselves, and given the freedom to watch films on a tiny wireless device in the palm of our hand, virtually anywhere on the planet.

Despite everything, though, it's heartening to hear one of Jean's children say of her mother: "She was content with life. She never wanted more."

Miller's daughter Jean Emmie Metcalfe Clark was born at Great Bricett, south of Stowmarket, on November 12, 1917. The mill was built by one of her ancestors and was still operated by the family. Suffolk Punch horses were still used in agriculture.

Jean lived at Griffin House, in Mill Lane, and went to school in the village. Her teacher was Dolly (Jean's second cousin, it's thought). When Dolly left in 1924, to get married, Jean was one of her bridesmaids.

It was a time when children went home for lunch, played rounders, and acted in plays.

"It was a simple life. They didn't have a lot, but they were quite happy, I think," says daughter Olive.

Francis and Jean Sage on their wedding day in 1945. Her dress was pink  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONFrancis and Jean Sage on their wedding day in 1945. Her dress was pink Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

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Day began at 6am

After leaving school, Jean worked in a draper's shop in Stowmarket. Then in 1933, at 15, she made the move that would set the course of her life. She became a maid at Holbrook House - the home of the superintendent (head teacher) of the Royal Hospital School, near Ipswich.

The school, which had naval roots, began life in Greenwich in 1712. It moved to Suffolk's Shotley peninsula in the year Jean started there, and was set in 200 acres of countryside by the River Stour. It's still there, of course.

Domestic service was tough. Jean's days began at 6am, with a cup of tea to fortify her for the first task: scrubbing the steps to the house until they were a pristine white.

Next on the schedule was arranging the fires upstairs, before setting the children's table in the nursery. Soon after, Jean would be making beds, cleaning fires, and dusting and vacuuming bedrooms.

That done, she went down to the kitchens to help get vegetables ready for lunch, before ensuring the kitchen was spick and span. And all this before 10am… That was when the lady of the house came to tell staff what was needed that day in the way of food and meals.

Jean Sage – missed by her family and the Royal Hospital School where she had three spells of working. Former member of staff Cynthia Anderson wrote: ‘The loss of both Peter Page and Jean Sage this summer represents the end of an era of loyal service from some very special people’  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONJean Sage – missed by her family and the Royal Hospital School where she had three spells of working. Former member of staff Cynthia Anderson wrote: ‘The loss of both Peter Page and Jean Sage this summer represents the end of an era of loyal service from some very special people’ Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

The gardeners would come in halfway through the morning for reviving cups of hot chocolate when it was cold, or lemon barley water on warmer days.

Staff had brief respite after lunch - well, once everything had been cleared away - when they had a chance to get something for themselves to eat.

Before long, though, they had to start making cucumber sandwiches for tea, and bake scones and cakes.

The end of afternoon tea - and more clearing-away and washing-up - began the countdown to the evening dinner. It would usually be 10pm by the time the kitchens were cleaned. Only then could Jean head for bed. And at 6am it all began again.

She had one weekday afternoon free each week, and invariably cycled home about 17 miles to Great Bricett to see her mother and father. Because of the early start the next morning, she'd have to ride back that night.

On Sundays, she got either the morning or afternoon off. She might go to see her family if it was the latter, or sit by the Stour and write letters.

"They used to work hard," says Olive, with understatement.

Young Jean, possibly at Needham Market  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONYoung Jean, possibly at Needham Market Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

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Cook - and wife

Jean left Holbrook House in 1936 and went to work at Belstead House, near Ipswich. She was there a year or so, then had a couple at Giffords Hall, between Bury St Edmunds and Sudbury.

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When friend Florrie left her post at the Royal Hospital School to get married, Jean returned to Holbrook in 1939 - as cook to head teacher Captain Evan Bruce-Gardyne and wife Joan. (He was a descendant of former king of Scotland Robert the Bruce, apparently.)

One thing for which Jean gained a reputation was the fruit ice-cream she made. With no electric freezers in those days, cooks had to use blocks of ice if they wanted to keep anything cold.

It was while working there that Jean met husband-to-be Francis. He'd been born in Lowestoft and then lived at Wickham Market. Later, his family moved further south still, when they came to Holbrook and his father, Charlie, became the village policeman.

Francis got a job at the Royal Hospital School as a stoker, responsible for keeping the heating system going. He later moved on to the kitchen at Holbrook House.

Jean and Francis married in 1945, after the war, at the Church of St John the Baptist in Needham Market - the town by then having become her family home.

Although we can't guess it from the photographs, her wedding dress was pink. The reception was held at The Swan pub in the High Street.

As with Florrie before her, Jean left work when she became a wife - the traditional way of doing things, in those days.

Black lead oven

The couple lived in a terraced house at River View, Holbrook - a home the family would rent for more than 70 years. Today, it's opposite homes in Heathfield Road built around about the start of the 1970s. Back then, it looked out over fields - fields where firework displays would be held.

Daughters Geraldine and Olive were born at the house, in 1947 and 1949. Olive says it still had the old red tiles on the kitchen floor. And there was an old black lead oven when she was a girl.

Her mother never did have heating upstairs. "She didn't want it. She was hardy!"

Jean and Francis had an allotment over the road, with chickens. Francis kept rabbits, too. The gardens were huge, at that time.

The family would commonly go to Chiswick, where Aunt Cinderella lived, for their annual holiday.

What was Jean like as a mum? "I can't ever remember her shouting. I can't ever remember her being cross. She never moaned about anything. And she was always happy with her lot. She always thought of other people before herself."

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Six Christmas cakes

Jean went back to the nearby Royal Hospital School in 1965, at about the time her daughters started work. The school needed someone in the kitchen. She also cleaned the offices.

She'd also make trips to Needham Market once or twice a week as her own parents were getting on by that stage.

After a dozen years at the school (during her third spell there) Jean retired. She spent a long time looking after her husband, when he wasn't too well.

Francis died early in 1981. That November, Olive moved back to her home village - to a house near her mum's.

Jean would be a widow for more than 38 years, but led a full and busy life and was well-loved in Holbrook.

Olive says: "She used to do the garden, and go away on holiday" - including travelling with a cousin from Slough. "She was in the Mothers' Union. Two ladies brought in the banner for the funeral. She also went to church in Holbrook every week.

"Mum used to knit. And read quite a lot - novels; and her Bible every day.

"She was always cooking. She used to make endless mince pies. I used to go over there when they'd just come out of the oven. Lovely! She'd make six Christmas cakes. She always made one for the church bazaar." Others were given away.

Very independent

Jean was still riding her bike around Holbrook in her 90s. She went into a care home (St Mary's, in the village) only in 2017 - about nine months before her 100th birthday (a landmark that brought the traditional message of congratulations from the Queen).

"A couple of years before that, she was still gardening," says Olive. "She always used to go up the garden and feed the birds. She was very independent. It was only when it got unsafe, and cooking was unsafe, that things changed. She said 'I think I need looking after now'."

When she died, Jean left daughters Geraldine and Olive, grandchildren Marie, Marnie, Debbie, Christopher and Natalie, and three great-grandchildren (one of them born a couple of days before her funeral).

Spoke of her kindness

The loss of Jean was also a sad time for the Royal Hospital School "family". Her death came less than a month after fellow Holbrook resident Peter Page's.

Peter, 89, spent 52 years there, looking after the headmaster's garden. He started at 14, as "the boy", before taking sole charge.

He would go every day to the back door of the headmaster's house, see the cook or the head's wife, and find out what vegetables they wanted for the day.

Peter and Jean, 12 years apart in age, got to know each other well. She was in charge of the kitchen when he started in the garden. A piece on the school's website by former member of staff Cynthia Anderson says "he always spoke of her kindness to him, as an apprehensive teenager".

It adds: "The loss of both Peter Page and Jean Sage this summer represents the end of an era of loyal service from some very special people."

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