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Obituary: The Land Girl who found love in Suffolk

PUBLISHED: 19:10 16 September 2019

Phyllis was born at Plumstead, in south-east London, in 1923  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Phyllis was born at Plumstead, in south-east London, in 1923 Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

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'She was a very courageous, dignified, loving, cheerful and inspiring woman, and we will all miss her dearly'

Devora Peake, centre, with ladies from Boxford who worked together in the 1950s at Hill Farm, Boxford, with Bill and Devora. Phyllis is top right Picture: COURTESY TAMARA UNWINDevora Peake, centre, with ladies from Boxford who worked together in the 1950s at Hill Farm, Boxford, with Bill and Devora. Phyllis is top right Picture: COURTESY TAMARA UNWIN

The bowl of Cadbury Eclairs is still there, just inside the front door of Phyllis Rose's cosy cottage. She rarely partook herself, but loved to give visitors a treat. "She used to buy about six bags of chocolate éclairs about every fortnight," explains daughter Rhona. "The bowl would be heaped up. Everybody who went in had a few.

"I used to get the money ready for her hairdresser, and Mum would say 'Put four next to the money.' She'd give you anything."

Originally from south-east London, Phyllis had come to rural East Anglia in her late teens after deciding to join the Women's Land Army and help the war effort.

It was hard graft. When Phyllis led a pair of shire horses up and down a field, the ploughman working behind, they'd manage to turn only about one acre a day.

One day, in the winter, the carrots were frozen solid in the ground. The Land Girls went off for a beer at the pub (not that Phyllis drank alcohol) and found themselves docked a day's pay.

Percy and Phyllis married at Boxford church on a snowy day less than a fortnight before Christmas 1946  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONPercy and Phyllis married at Boxford church on a snowy day less than a fortnight before Christmas 1946 Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Rather more happily, Phyllis met and married her beloved Percy - his laid-back Suffolk ways, contrasting with her Duracell-like get-up-and-go, proving the adage that opposites attract.

They married at Boxford church on a snowy day less than a fortnight before Christmas 1946, had their two daughters, never moved away, and were husband and wife for more than 56 years - until Percy died in 2003 at the age of 75.

Carol and Rhona remember Phyllis as quite a strict mum during their childhood: strict but lovely; kind, and with many friends.

"She used to dress us in white. White bows. White shoes; sandals. Everything white. And we weren't allowed to move!" laughs Rhona.

"And we had plaits - long plaits." The young sisters had hair long enough to sit on. "She used to brush it and we used to make a fuss, so one day she just snipped them off!"

Percy and Phyllis in front of the old Women's Land Army buildings at Leavenheath  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONPercy and Phyllis in front of the old Women's Land Army buildings at Leavenheath Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

"Our dad cried," says Carol.

Rhona again. "I had to look for something down at hers, the other day, and she'd kept them. I found them, wrapped up."

She adds: "I know if I had a boyfriend, and I'd been out to a dance or something, she'd be in bed when I came back and she'd shout out of the window 'Rhona! Will you come in!' But she was lovely.

"We've had a lot of laughs, and have some lovely memories to look back on."

Phyllis. 'We’ve had a lot of laughs, and have some lovely memories to look back on,' says daughter Rhona  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONPhyllis. 'We’ve had a lot of laughs, and have some lovely memories to look back on,' says daughter Rhona Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Wanted to be a ratcatcher

Details of her early life are a bit blurred, but Phyllis Seymour was born at Plumstead, in south-east London, in 1923. She had a sister and brother, and at some point they went to live with her grandmother in the Sussex seaside town of Littlehampton.

She'd tell Rhona, much later, how her school hadn't been far from Arundel Castle. If you did well in your lessons, the Duchess of Norfolk would send down a little boat and take a few children back for tea at the castle. "Mum said she went twice."

During an interview five years ago, Phyllis told us her mother had been killed by the first bomb the Nazis dropped on Bognor Regis (likely in September, 1940). Her father, in a factory, was apparently left stone-deaf by the noise of a bomb-strike.

It seems Phyllis went to live with a grandmother near the Woolwich Arsenal, in London, before being evacuated to Huddersfield. She worked in a Co-op and was apparently still only 17 when she came to Suffolk to join the Women's Land Army.

Young Phyllis Seymour, as was  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONYoung Phyllis Seymour, as was Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

It was her neighbour's Land Army uniform that provided the motivation. The green beret caught Phyllis's eye. "She said she was a ratcatcher, so I thought 'I would like to do that.' I wanted that hat! And she was getting three pennies for every tail, and I liked the sound of that too."

Trouble was, Phyllis weighed only about six stones - too small for a ratcatcher. ("She always said she had long legs but a short body!" smiles Carol.)

Phyllis could work on the land, though. So she went by train to Marks Tey and then by truck to Leavenheath, near Nayland… and a hostel off Plough Lane where the clanging of a bell heralded the latest nit inspection.

Constable Country would influence her life in more ways than she could have imagined.

At Clacton-on-Sea, perhaps. Phyllis is on the right  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONAt Clacton-on-Sea, perhaps. Phyllis is on the right Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Dislocated shoulder

During her 2014 interview with us, Phyllis painted an evocative picture of her time as a Land Girl. The regime was demanding and the food rationed. On the plus side, a helper from Stoke by Nayland brought pots of jam made by his wife.

Phyllis loved jam for the rest of her life, explaining she'd essentially lived on jam sandwiches after rationing drew to an end.

She and her pals worked on the farm attached to the hostel. The bell would rouse them at 6am and they'd toil until 8pm, through all weathers.

Phyllis was paid a guinea a week. The Women's Land Army supplied uniforms, overalls and footwear, but the girls had to buy their own underclothes and toiletries. Nevertheless, Phyllis was able to send a regular 10 shillings back to her grandmother.

Phyllis wrote a message on the back of this photograph: ‘To my darling Percy. All my love. Yours, Phyllis’  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONPhyllis wrote a message on the back of this photograph: ‘To my darling Percy. All my love. Yours, Phyllis’ Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

One of her duties was to help with ploughing. She'd lead the pair of shire horses that pulled the plough, which was operated by local farmhand Lol Tricker.

Once, Phyllis and friend Kathleen had an accident cutting sugar beet. Phyllis lost the top of her thumb. Kathleen was cut "nearly down to the bottom". Even so, the duo had their injuries bandaged… and went back to their posts. "Oh, you didn't have time off," said Phyllis. "We didn't worry in them days!"

It wasn't the only mishap. Once, she was atop a wagon, helping stack wheatsheaves, when she fell. An initial diagnosis of bruising was wide of the mark, though it was only later, during a week's holiday at home, that she discovered she'd actually dislocated her shoulder.

It left her, forever, with a little bone sticking out slightly on her right shoulder.

Phyllis and Percy were married for more than 56 years  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONPhyllis and Percy were married for more than 56 years Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Finding love

A change of scene for the Land Girls were the two cinemas in Sudbury and the Wednesday night dances at Colchester Barracks (to which they'd catch the bus).

There was also dancing at Whatfield and Acton - the latter a United States Army Air Forces hospital for wounded airmen. Phyllis remembered dancing with a young man who had a withered arm. She also recalled Americans giving the girls pears and peaches, which would have been a treat.

However, it was Percy Rose who secured her affections, after giving her a ride on his bicycle crossbar - and later on the back of his motorbike. And therein hangs a tale.

Percy one day warned his sweetheart to hold on tight, as the clutch was a bit on the sharp side. He revved the engine and pulled away. The jolt sent Phyllis off the back and left her sitting in the road.

Phyllis 'had an indomitable spirit and was always willing to work hard and perform every job to the very best of her ability', says friend Tamara Unwin  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONPhyllis 'had an indomitable spirit and was always willing to work hard and perform every job to the very best of her ability', says friend Tamara Unwin Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

To add insult to injury, it took a while for the truth to dawn on Percy that his pillion passenger was missing and that he needed to go back.

It didn't prove fatal to their relationship. They later got engaged in Bures, bought a ring in Colchester, and wed on that snowy day before Christmas in 1946.

The land she loved

Their long-time home became Baylham House in Stone Street, which they shared with Percy's sister. Phyllis was with the Women's Land Army for seven years, but finishing didn't mark the end of a relationship with the land.

Phyllis demonstrates her hairdressing skills. She's attending to Devora Peake - 'a weekly event at the farmhouse from the early days until my mum died in 1999!' says Tamara Unwin. Devora is holding granddaughter Natasha Rendall  Picture: COURTESY TAMARA UNWINPhyllis demonstrates her hairdressing skills. She's attending to Devora Peake - 'a weekly event at the farmhouse from the early days until my mum died in 1999!' says Tamara Unwin. Devora is holding granddaughter Natasha Rendall Picture: COURTESY TAMARA UNWIN

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For she and Percy went to work for Devora and Bill Peake. In 1950 the Peakes had bought the Leavenheath Women's Land Army hostel and more than 500 acres of land at Daltons Farm from the War Agricultural Department. They paid about £12 an acre.

Both Phyllis and Percy came to work for the family for the next 40 years or so. Percy was the maintenance manager and among other jobs helped to build the clubhouse at Stoke by Nayland Golf Club in the '70s (now part of the Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf & Spa complex).

"Phyllis initially helped us by working in the apple orchards - picking, pruning and driving tractors - and she also worked in our dairy to produce cheeses," says Tamara Unwin, a director of the family business today.

"After my parents created Stoke by Nayland Golf Club, Phyllis and her friend Joyce Smith worked with Bill Peake to plant thousands of trees over the two championship golf courses.

Phyllis Rose, aged 89, proudly holding her certificate of gratitude from Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the nation that was issued in 2008  Picture: COURTESY TAMARA UNWINPhyllis Rose, aged 89, proudly holding her certificate of gratitude from Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the nation that was issued in 2008 Picture: COURTESY TAMARA UNWIN

"When we launched Copella apple juice in 1969, Phyllis worked in the production area, helping to run the apple press and hand-label the bottles. She also later travelled round with Devora Peake to help promote Copella at various county shows.

"She then worked behind the bar for 12 years at our Stoke by Nayland Golf Club during the '80s, and she also became Devora's regular hairdresser in the farmhouse, right up until Devora's death in 1999. They had become great friends over the years."

Tamara knew Phyllis all her life and has described her as "like a second mother to me".

Phyllis was houseproud - always keen to be up and doing while she could: everything from making the tea to getting out buns for guests.

She and Percy were quite different in character. He was laidback and couldn't be hurried, says Rhona, "whereas Mum would do 101 things at once. She'd come home from work and be peeling the potatoes, with her coat still on, and have a sponge in the oven."

Phyllis and daughter Rhona opposite the Port of Felixstowe, during an outing to celebrate Phyllis’s 95th birthday  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONPhyllis and daughter Rhona opposite the Port of Felixstowe, during an outing to celebrate Phyllis’s 95th birthday Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

"Because she was always so busy and interested in things, I think that's what kept her going," says Carol. "She wasn't one for just sitting; she'd get up and go, regardless."

Visited Russia

Percy died of a massive heart attack a couple of days into 2003. It was particularly cruel as he'd just beaten cancer, receiving the all-clear in October.

Phyllis moved in the June. The house where they'd spent their married life, and raised their girls, was too big for just her, too far away from Boxford village, and carried too many memories. She switched to the cottage - closer to other people and not far from a bus stop - but the house in Stone Street would in her heart remain her true home.

Phyllis blows out her candles, watched by granddaughter Helen Robertson  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONPhyllis blows out her candles, watched by granddaughter Helen Robertson Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

In 2014, Phyllis told us about their diamond wedding. She'd spotted a ring she liked in a shop window "and he said 'You'd better have that.' When we went in the shop, I said there was another I liked and I couldn't decide… So he got me them both!"

After losing her husband, new memories were laid down. Phyllis widened her horizons, for instance - going on regular holidays to Cyprus with relatives. She visited Turkey, too, and even Russia, with a grandson.

"In June, 2012, she was our guest of honour at the official launch of our country lodges, which had just been developed on the old land army hostel site where she had lived as a Land Girl over 60 years earlier," says Tamara Unwin.

"Here she gave a speech to 200 guests, and was on the Anglia ITV news. A little later she featured in the BBC Look East TV news on her 89th birthday, having a tea party in the lodges with other former Land Army girls Maisie Tricker, Eileen Sargeant and Winnie Claxton. Phyllis took all this in her stride and performed like a star."

Her family took Phyllis to Staffordshire in the autumn of 2014. She was among 300 ex-members of the Women's Land Army and the Women's Timber Corps to see a statue unveiled in honour of those organisations by the Countess of Wessex.

Phyllis and Percy loved visiting the Mistley, Manningtree and Harwich area  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONPhyllis and Percy loved visiting the Mistley, Manningtree and Harwich area Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Unfortunately, it was a dreadful day at the National Memorial Arboretum, weather-wise, with rain and wind. "Mum got really cold. Absolutely frozen," remembers Carol.

Never complained

In recent times, Phyllis adored Saturday trips to Sainsbury's in Sudbury, and the chance to have lunch out.

"Poundland in Sudbury was her favourite," says Rhona. "I'd say 'Shall we go to the pound shop, Mum?' Her face lit up like a child in a sweetshop! She used to spend about £40, and give it all away."

Phyllis's farewell - with the Hunnaball Family Funeral Group horses she wanted, complete with green plumes  Picture: HELEN ROBERTSONPhyllis's farewell - with the Hunnaball Family Funeral Group horses she wanted, complete with green plumes Picture: HELEN ROBERTSON

Carol: "She'd say 'I've bought you some biscuits, Carol. And I've bought you some fig rolls, because I know you like them. And cake.'"

Phyllis enjoyed knitting - giving it up from time to time, but later musing "I think I ought to have my needles back" - and lacework.

As time passed, she went blind in one eye. At hospital, she had injections right in the middle of the eye, but never complained, say her daughters.

"She did have a lot of falls later in life," says Carol, "but she wouldn't use a stick. 'They're for old people.' 'Well, how old have you got to be, Mum?!'"

Rhona: "The best she used to walk was when she had a supermarket trolley. She'd zoom around Sainsbury's!"

Horses with green plumes

Phyllis died unexpectedly, but peacefully, less than three weeks before her 96th birthday.

She had talked to her family, over the years, about ideas for her funeral. Granddaughter Helen works for The Hunnaball Family Funeral Group, and at an open day Phyllis saw horses that could pull a hearse. It appealed. For her funeral, at Boxford church on Wednesday, a pair of black horses bore green plumes - green being her favourite colour.

Phyllis leaves her daughters, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren - and a host of memories. Carol and Rhona come out with story after story.

Carol recalls, for instance, their childhood in Stone Street - quite some distance from Boxford village. "I remember Mum saying 'You're five now. You've got to go to school.'

"We used to just play with neighbours' children, in our little playroom. She dumped me in this school with all these children and I burst into tears. I ran all the way home and she took me back again."

When Carol was five or six, and her sister a few years younger, Phyllis would put the girls on the bus in Sudbury, bound for London. She'd ask the driver to keep an eye on them.

The sisters would be met by an aunt at Victoria. "You wouldn't do that now, would you?" laughs Rhona. "Well, you wouldn't be allowed - saying to the bus driver 'Just look after these two, will you?'"

Then there were the piglets…

At Stone Street, Phyllis would raise piglets in the kitchen if they needed feeding up. "When they went to market, Carol and Dad would be shifting them and they'd be squealing. Mum and I would sit upstairs like this. (Rhona clamps her hands over her ears.) Just couldn't bear the sound!"

'Part of our family'

Phyllis was accompanied by a number of items in her coffin. There was a torch, for instance (she didn't like the dark), a nail-file (because she liked doing her nails), some biscuits (she loved shortbread), a card from Poundland, and lots of photographs - including her favourite image of Percy.

Tamara Unwin says: "In the '60s Phyllis had often helped to look after us as children in our busy farmhouse; and, much later, was like a surrogate grandparent to my own two children, Jess and George.

"She was indeed a part of our family and carried on coming to help me in the house with her favourite occupation of ironing until her final 'retirement' last Christmas at the wonderful age of 95!

"Phyllis had many skills and could turn her hand to so many things; but more than that she had an indomitable spirit and was always willing to work hard and perform every job to the very best of her ability.

"She was a very courageous, dignified, loving, cheerful, selfless and inspiring woman and we will all miss her dearly."

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