End of an Era

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.

HMS Hood

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.

HMS Speaker

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.

HMS Triumph

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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16 comments for “End of an Era

  1. Rossa
    October 25, 2010 at 20:58

    Small edit. I was corrected by my father this evening. It wasn’t the propellor on HMS Speaker, it was the rudder. Apologies to all readers.

    Still makes for a good story.

  2. Rossa
    October 25, 2010 at 20:59

    Oh and another thing. She loved garlic which my grandfather hated. Little did he know that from time to time she slipped it into her cooking.

  3. October 25, 2010 at 21:39

    She looks beautiful, what a lovely tribute and a fascinating family history.

    I wish you and your family all the best for the celebration of her life on Friday.

  4. October 25, 2010 at 21:47

    I second Cherie here and found it a fascinating story.

  5. October 25, 2010 at 22:01

    Condolences. My grandmother died 3 weeks ago at 97.
    It is amazing to think of how much history passes in that many years.
    As a schoolgirl she watched Charles Lindbergh give a speech about his transatlantic flight. Less than 60 years later she was flying on the Concorde.

  6. October 25, 2010 at 22:03

    A lovely tribute for a lovely woman, Rossa.

  7. JD
    October 25, 2010 at 22:11
  8. October 25, 2010 at 22:56

    Enjoyed reading that, Rossa – thank you. My condolences to you and yours for the loss of a lovely lady – her life so well-lived!

  9. October 25, 2010 at 22:58

    And to you, Lord Somber.

  10. October 26, 2010 at 00:01

    My condolences to you Rossa.

  11. Rob
    October 26, 2010 at 00:08

    May I offer you my sincere condolences. She sounds like a remarkable lady.

    Forgive me for changing the subject, but one thing that struck me about the photo of HMS Triumph, was how narrow the flight deck was. The pilots who landed there must have had remarkable courage. I recently read a book by Laurence Gonzales called “Deep Survival” which starts with his account of pilots training to land F18s on the deck of a US aircraft carrier. These modern boats are much larger, and more stable, and the aircraft more reliable than the WW2 variety and rarely come under attack as they form the core of a defensive battle group, but the skill and bravery of the pilots training there is remarkable. How much braver were the pilots on the Triumph who had to do the same thing on a boat that is pitching and rolling on a high sea whilst being attacked by enemy ships.

    There is something about your Grandparent’s generation which never ceases to inspire.

    May your grandmother rest in peace. And let us not forget the courage of men like your grandfather who sacrificed so much for the peace we have enjoyed for so long.

  12. Rossa
    October 26, 2010 at 08:05

    Thank you to one and all.

    I agree Rob that their generation saw and went through things that we all hope we never see again.

    Interestingly while having a look online for a picture of Triumph I saw a newspaper report in the Sydney Sunday Herald saying my grandfather was subject to a Court Martial. Triumph was in the Channel with the Grenville, a destroyer, acting as “target”. The Grenville collided with an Italian freighter and 7 men were lost in the incident.

    Asked my Dad about that and apparently the Cpatain of the Grenville had been playing rugby the day before and was found to have been suffering from concussion. The Court found that it had impaired his judgement.

    My grandfather was the senior officer so he had to face the Court and account for his actions to. No action was taken against him.

  13. MadPiper
    October 26, 2010 at 13:08

    Rosa, our condolences. And thank you for such a wonderful story!

  14. Joel James
    October 29, 2010 at 00:14

    Great to read a few things I didn’t know about my grand mother, she certainly had a full life!

    It’s also funny Rob that you commented saying that she was a ‘remarkable woman’ as a short book was written about Thutha called ‘A Very Remarkable Woman’

  15. October 29, 2010 at 00:21

    Pleasure to see you here, Joel.

  16. Joel James
    October 31, 2010 at 00:47

    A correction, the book mentioned was actually written about Angela James, Fynvola’s mother in law… although the sentiment remains the same!

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