Probably the most influential woman in my early life was my Great Aunt Mary. My grandmother died when I was very little, so Mary was surrogate granny really. It was she who taught me basic needlework skills and showed me how to use a sewing machine. My mother would take us round to her house after school to be measured up in her attic work room for our next-size-up school uniform or a new best dress, which would generally be ready to wear by tea-time. I can still smell that attic room – lint and chalk dust and machine oil and dusty boxes of buttons and thread. And see the brown-paper patterns bulldog-clipped and hung on nails in the wall, and the bundles of dress parts tied up with a spare piece of fabric waiting to be assembled. I owe her much.
In many ways a very ordinary woman, Mary Bellfield was not the stereotypical wife and mother of her generation. The youngest of seven children, she was born in 1906 in east Leeds to Enoch and Mary Bellfield. Her mother died when she was very young, and she and the younger of her siblings were brought up by their older sister Louise on whom they doted.
Mary and her sister Lily (my grandmother) got jobs in the tailoring trade – a major employer in Leeds in the early 20th Century – and there Mary stayed all her working life, even during the war when she was sewing sand-bags! She worked for a lot of employers, mostly as a machinist, occasionally as forewoman, and had a lot of tales to tell from those factory floors.
Mary never married. She had plenty of opportunities and a fair few admirers, but not having a husband and children gave her extraordinary opportunities and Mary had a greater love: wanderlust. She paid her weekly subs to the Workers’ Travel Association, and so saved for trips and holidays. But not for her the average working people’s holidays to the seaside. As a young woman, Mary went on frequent hiking holidays in the Yorkshire Dales with her WTA pals, staying at farmhouses. She went on two Mediterranean cruises during the 1930s, again with the WTA who commandeered whole cruise ships.
During the 1950s and 60s she persuaded her sister (my grandmother) to join her on many trips to Paris, Spain, Italy, Poland, Finland, the USSR. Sometimes they dragged along my grandfather, but he was a bit of a homeboy, so mostly it was just the two of them. (I guess some men would have objected to their wives travelling to foreign parts without them, but my grandfather was a different kind of man.) They did all this decades before foreign travel was commonplace. As the WTA started to wind up, Mary discovered SAGA, and off she was again. When she couldn’t travel abroad, she visited towns and cities in the UK, and right up to the end, I was planning to take her back to Paris – her favourite place.
Sadly, that last trip never happened. Arthritis had finally got the best of her wandering ways by the end of the 1970s, and tragically, soon after knee replacements had given her her freedom back she became ill, and died in 1989.
In old age Mary was cantankerous and contrary. She had lost all her sisters and brothers, her beloved niece (my mother) and her best friend (and foe), my grandfather. She was lonely and sad. She made friends easily, and lost them just as easily. But she was also full of love and humour and had an open heart. Along with my sister I was her carer in her last few years. Hard work and tedious for a 23 year old, but I look back on those couple of years with a deal of fondness because it was then that I really got to know her, got to listen to her stories. It was only after her death though, with the help of photographs and memorabilia that I slowly pieced together the excellent adventures of an extraordinary woman.