A Tribute to My Mother

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By James Milnes Gaskell

My mother Patricia Milnes Coates died during my visit to England last month. It was not unexpected and all her five children and several of her grandchildren were able to visit before she lapsed into unconsciousness. The announcement said, accurately, that she died ‘peacefully’ at home, aged 92, that she was the widow of, first, Charles Milnes Gaskell (my father) and second of Robert Milnes Coates (my stepfather), and that she was the proud, devoted and loving mother of James, Andrew, Tom, Mary and Anthony, and grandmother of eight grandchildren.

Patricia was one of six children born to The Earl and Countess of Listowel. It was an affluent family, at the top of the social tree. So you might imagine that my mother had it easy all the way. This was not so. It appears that when very young she may have had bovine T.B. Anyway, she had to be kept in bed until she was seven, and was then, as what would have been called a delicate child, sent away to a boarding school on the South Coast of England ‘for the sea air’. Evidently she must have shown her character at this school for she become head girl.

She missed the opportunity to integrate into her family from her first moments and was only fully introduced into it as a young teenager. Her father was not interested in her. He wanted a daughter keen on horses. My mother’s younger sister satisfied this requirement. I suspect that it was from that time, one of her maxims developed – ‘never show favouritism to any one of your children’. Certainly none of her own five children would ever be able to say which one or ones might be considered her favourite.

Around the age of 17, as was then fashionable she was sent abroad for the language and for the art, to Paris and to Florence.

It must have been quite a shock to her mother and father, when upon her return she announced her desire to train as a nurse. Young ladies of her social background were not expected to want to take up a career in nursing. At the age of 18 or thereabouts a young lady would ‘come out’. This involved being presented to the King and ‘doing the season’. A ‘coming out dance’ would be arranged. Dinner parties, dances, Ascot Races, Henley and other engagements to fritter away the entire summer were mandatory.

My mother’s determination and the support of an aunt effected a compromise. She was allowed to train as a nurse, but she would have to be presented and accept the party invitations. I asked her one day, ‘How many of the other girls who came out with you were working?’ ‘None’ she said. Nowadays families are pretty pleased when a daughter has a nursing vocation. And most eighteen year olds do not expect to do nothing; they work or go to University.

My mother trained at University College Hospital, London – I seem to remember that Matron Tyson of Nevis was there also, much later – and became a midwife working in the poor East End of London. For years and years afterwards she made annual visits to some of those whose babies she had delivered, to whom she was always ‘Nurse’. Had she not married Charles Milnes Gaskell in 1936 I like to think that her qualities would have taken her to the top of her profession, ending perhaps as Matron in one of London’s great teaching hospitals. Those would have been the days of the real Matrons before whom even the doctors might quake.

Modern ‘improvements’ have abolished the title of Matron. Now, the poor thing is a senior nursing officer overwhelmed by paper forms and targets of this and of that. I can just imagine my mother in her Matron’s uniform, starched, pressed and immaculate all 5’1 1/2” of her, indomitable. Her eyes would have missed nothing. She would have established a ‘firm but fair’ reputation, based at all times upon a paramount concern for the welfare of her patients, the professionalism of her staff and the cleanliness of her hospital. Woe betide anyone summoned to Matron’s Office.

However, come 1936, she married my father, and produced three boys at two yearly intervals. It was a happy marriage cruelly cut short by Charles’s death in a plane crash in 1943. He was an intelligent and unusual young man. He was highly knowledgeable about Russia and The Ukraine and because of this and his military service he was one of the three man British Military Mission in Moscow during the war.

I still have a picture in my mind’s eye of my mother showing me the War Office telegram informing her of my father’s death, of her weeping, and of me aged five trying to comfort her. It was the only time I ever saw her cry. She had three little boys to bring up and she was going to get on with it. But it was her worst moment. Years later, in her eighties, she recalled that fearful time , ‘When you are young you never think it will happen to you’.

In 1946 my mother met or re-met Robert (Bob) Coates an army officer. The ‘Milnes’ part of their name was tacked on later. In two weeks they were engaged and after three more they married. This was a long and happy union, a partnership in all senses of the word, ended by his death in 1982.

Shortly after the wedding Bob, still in the Army was sent to Palestine, for which the British were responsible under the UN Mandate. From Palestine the new State of Israel was created in 1948. Bob’s plan was to leave the Army and settle down to farm on his family’s estate in North Yorkshire. So upon his return from Palestine he resigned his Commission and set about learning how to farm. We took a rambling old house in the village of Brafferton whence Bob went to work as a labourer on a nearby farm. Although he had retired from the Army as a colonel, he believed that it was best to learn from the bottom up. My mother approved. The family then went to Cambridge for Bob to take a degree in Agriculture. Looking for a book to give him for his birthday in probably 1948 my mother came upon what must have been one of the first books on organic farming. This intrigued her, and was the start of their joint interest in and later practice of organic farming. This, at that time, was on a level with grass eating. You must be barking mad conventional farmers would say. Spray to keep down the weeds and the pests, add fertilizer out of a bag to bump up the yields. Farmyard manure and compost were all very well, but that was yesterday’s game. Muck and magic were out. Modern scientific farming was in.

You need a certain strength of character to go against the standard accepted methods especially when you are inexperienced and are just beginning your enterprise. Neither was daunted, and now it is plain to the rest of us that they were far ahead of their time.

The 100 acre Moor House Farm fell vacant in 1952. Heavy, ill drained clay and its moderate size would make it difficult to turn a profit. However, after replacing the hand water pump in the kitchen with mains water and installing a generator to give a supply of electricity we moved in. We remember that generator well. It provided electricity for our little farm house and two nearby cottages. It turned itself off when the last light was turned off. But, of course, when it did not go out at night, one never knew where the offending last light was. We did not have to pull the fridges out, as they were operated by calor gas. A damp, cold house, on its own plus two cottages, two miles from the village.

By this stage my mother had her five children, and she took up her new role as farmer’s wife with enthusiasm, and was able to say that the garden produce, the house cow, the chickens and the single pig, for home cured ham and bacon, made her household almost self sufficient. Butter making and bread making from the wheat grown on the farm were a part of her activities. She worked hard. She acquired the assistance of a lady from the village for the housework. At an early meeting my mother said to her helper ‘I only want to be told when someone in the village has died or is sick’. She hated the thought of salacious or malicious gossip and laid down from the outset the intention not to be any part of it, but she did want to visit the sick. In that capacity she had a long connection with the local Cheshire Home in the village of Alne. Shortly after the end of the war ex Group Captain Cheshire V.C. set up a number of what were called ‘homes for the incurables’. Although we do not use that word any more, the homes were for those with long term illnesses such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinsons. My mother appointed herself as outside visitor to the Alne Hall Home, and as residents/patients representative when she was co-opted on to the Board which ran the home. She visited that home every week for about 35 years. An extraordinary record. She was easy to talk to, discrete and gentle but determined. She would have been privy to the confidences of the residents and would have known their life histories. On every Christmas Day for many years she would take her children to Alne Hall for a sharing of the Christmas spirit with the residents. It was a valuable early realisation for her children to discover that for instance, the dribbling, shaking human being in a wheelchair, who could barely articulate, but was reading the latest novel, had previously been a Professor of English Literature at a well known University. It was these people to whom my mother became a special friend and a connection with the outside world. Two of the wheel chaired residents of Alne Hall attended her funeral service bringing symbolic acknowledgement of her service to their community.

Patricia did not like the word ‘ambition’, but I think that in her mind the word referred only to personal ambition, for self advancement. She had a strong ambition, and it was simply one of personal service to others, and throughout her long life that was her guiding principle, fortified by her strong Christian faith. Everything she did was unpaid and voluntary, except for her nursing for which she earned one shilling a day, the equivalent of EC$.25 cents.

She was, I believe, President of the Village Women’s Institute, and on the Parish Council. She was also President of the Board of the local St. Monica’s Hospital, and was instrumental in keeping it going in the face of central government policy to close small hospitals and concentrate investment in a few very large ones. Her interest in nursing and hospitals was so great, that even on holidays, she simply had to visit the local hospital. She and Bob stayed at Government House, St. Kitts in 1961 with their friend the Administrator, the late Colonel Henry Howard. I know she visited the Basseterre Hospital and the Hansen Home and that she would have made a contribution of some kind.

The talented family into which my mother was born became conspicuous by the public service of its members. Billy was Minister of State at The India Office at the time of the transition of that Country to Independence, and then Post Master General, both positions in the Attlee Labour Government. He went, upon special request by Kwame Nkrumah, as the first Governor General of the newly independent Ghana, previously entitled The Gold Coast. He ended as Clerk of the House of Lords. For Clerk read The Speaker. Richard was a Professor of Russian Literature at London University. John held various senior Ministerial positions in the Macmillan Government ending as Chairman of the Conservative Party. Alan served in the Foreign Office and later was Managing Director of The Financial Times. Elizabeth acted as Chairman of a well known Housing Trust.

Patricia’s service to her family, her patients and her locality was no less distinguished, but differed in that it was always conducted on an intimate and personal level. One of her dicta was ‘Always tell the truth. Never make excuses’. She would not have made a successful politician. But we did not debate the difference between excuses and reasons.

I like to think that her conviction that one had a lifetime duty to try to make the world a better place extended to her children and grandchildren. One son conducted a part time local political career, ending as Mayor of the London Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, at the same time as his full time occupation in medical research and teaching. Her daughter is a hardworking lay (voluntary) Magistrate. Of her grandchildren, two are studying medicine, one works with the elderly, one in the prison service. Yes, I think she must have instilled some sense of honour and public and personal service into her immediate family. It was clear that she enjoyed the commitment of her lifetime of service. Some few years ago, reviewing her life she said to me ‘… and I’ve had a jolly good time’.

May she rest in peace.

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