This is a lovely picture of my grandmother when she got engaged, aged 17 and still at school. She was, and always will be, beautiful.
Now, 80 years later, she passed away peacefully on Sunday 17 October, leaving behind 66 direct descendants, partners, husbands and wives. It is quite a legacy. She was our lynchpin and the matriarch of our family.
We will be celebrating her life on Friday at her local church near Bristol and on the Saturday will have, what may be, the last family get together.
So how did we all get here? I would like to share with you the story of how she and my grandfather met as it reflects a different era that has now gone into the annals of history.
Thutha, as we called her, met my grandfather when she was only 11 years old. Her father was the Captain of a small flotilla of destroyers stationed in Malta in the 1920s. My grandfather was a first lieutenant on HMS Hood (her father’s ship) and was expected, as all the young officers were, to attend various social gatherings at his Captain’s residence.
He was 22 when they met, which was the start of a relationship that spanned 67 years until his death in 1989. Initially, they were just friends and met only occasionally. However, when she reached 17 years old she was thinking about what she could do with her life. In those days the options were limited for a young lady from her background and the only work she would be allowed to do would be as either a governess or school matron.
She confided in my grandfather her concerns about the narrow course her life would take, to which he responded “You could always marry me!” The rest as they say is history.
I spoke to my father this morning and he remembered that his father attended the end of year school concert in which my grandmother was appearing. He had to sit in the audience with all of her school friends now aware of their engagement. As a 28 year old I have no doubt he felt more than a little uncomfortable knowing the giggling behind the scenes was directed at him.
And so he married the Captain’s daughter. They were married in the Cathedral in Valletta the capital of Malta. Due to her father’s position they were invited to hold their reception at the Governor’s residence, a very special honour. My father recollects that when they left the Cathedral, there was a limousine waiting outside for them. My grandfather’s fellow seamen had attached 2 white ropes to the front of the car ready to tow them away. The engine was running so it was only symbolic, but a nice surprise anyway.
They flew to Switzerland in a flying boat and landed on Lake Geneva for a brief honeymoon as my grandfather had to return to his duties. They were able to take a holiday later in France and that is where my grandfather started to learn French that would stand him in good stead later in life when he was a Naval Interpreter during the war. Dad recalls he would receive an extra 9d a week for his services translating for the Navy.
My grandparents went on to have 6 children, my father is the eldest. There are 21 years between him and his youngest brother, because after the first 3 came along, the war intervened! Thutha and the eldest 3 children were evacuated to the US and returned in 1944 on my grandfather’s ship HMS Speaker which was escorting a convoy across the Atlantic.
As a slight diversion there is an entertaining family story about HMS Speaker. Formally the USS Delgado she was built in Portland, Oregon in 1943 and transferred to the British Navy through the Lend Lease scheme. As Acting Captain, my grandfather was responsible for bringing her down the West Coast, through the Panama Canal and up to New York.
The story goes that there was a problem with the wheel, which was made of wood and kept breaking. A telegram was sent to New York asking for a new wheel to be supplied before she undertook the Atlantic crossing. On arrival in New York my grandfather and the crew were somewhat taken aback to be greeted by the Mayor and other city dignitaries, a band and a ticker tape parade.
It soon transpired that something had been “lost in translation” The wheel in American English was the rudder and as far as the Americans were concerned only the British could get an escort carrier all the way to New York and on time with a broken rudder! Not one to be found in the history books.
My grandmother clearly had her hands full and made a “career” out of bringing up my father and his siblings. She spent her life as a Captain’s wife. My grandfather retired from the Navy in the mid fifties after captaining the aircraft carrier HMS Triumph. He went on to be a Naval Attaché to the Queen and also to be heavily involved in the Abbeyfield Care Homes.
When he died 21 years ago, while she was bereft, she was also particularly pleased about 2 things. “Now I can eat smelly cheese and fish and chips out of newspaper!” The true taste of freedom.
RIP Lorna Fynvola James (nee MacKinnon). 16 September 1913 to 17 October 2010
Note: Thutha means the other grandmother.
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