WHO WAS THE WOMAN IN THE FUR COAT? by Dr Patricia Bidmead
She sat there in the lounge of her council flat a quiet diminutive figure; a perfect picture of a very ordinary little old lady. Who would have thought she would have had a priceless story to tell. Who would have imagined her as a larger than life character? Mary like so many of the older generation is the focus of a surge of interest in the past seen through the eyes of those, to put it in Mary’s own words ‘were nearer the tomb than the womb’
Mary came from Poole in the county of Dorset. and by the age of 13, she was an orphan. She was fostered by couple who ran a pub. She began at once to earn her living and learn the trade as her foster mother explained to her ‘those who don’t work don’t eat ‘.
At the beginning of the war, Mary found herself a carer for her foster mother who had become disabled and when single women were called up Mary was exempt. She recalls how one day after a bombing raid having to take a diversion in order to get home. It emerged that during that raid in Poole a lady’s house was bombed while she was visiting the loo at the end of her long garden. It was a lucky escape because the house was demolished. Mary recalled it was rumoured that it took three rescuers to get the woman off the toilet she was so traumatised. Mary’s caring duties were decreased as other relatives stepped in to help. Faced with a degree of freedom she felt she should be doing something for the war effort so she joined NAFEE
She served in a number of locations in England and while stationed at Wimborne she had a close brush with a spy. She was returning to base one afternoon when suddenly a man appeared without warning. For some reason maybe, it was because of his sudden appearance Mary felt frightened. Taking a deep breath, she resisted the urge to run and keeping an even pace until she felt there was enough distance between them she ran helter shelter back to camp. Next day there was much excitement because a spy with field classes had been caught in the early hours of the evening.
It was at Wimborne that Mary met and married her first husband a serving soldier who soon after the marriage was posted abroad. Finally Mary too was posted to the Isle of Man where she served in two different locations on the island first for the air force and then for the navy. The air-force base was situated in the North of the island and Mary remembers it was very lonely. Her next posting was a naval one. She found herself working on the HMS George which was a holiday camp converted into a ship hence the name. She remained there until the end of the war. Recounting her feelings on VE day Mary recalls she did not really celebrate. Her friends though she was odd because she went to church and quietly spent one and a half hours there thinking about all the young servicemen she had known who had not survived the war.
After the war, Mary stayed for a while on the Isle of Man. She became restless and thought a change was called for so, she decided to have a look at London and she travelled south. She soon found a job in West London as a barmaid in a pub opposite Westminster hospital. During her two years employment in London she served many celebrities including Bill Tidy and Max Jaffa. She worked in a number of bars and holiday camps before taking a hotel job in Wales. It was while working there as a chamber maid/come waitress that Mary encountered the seedier side of life. On the first night of her employment, the manager warned ‘If you here a bell ringing take no notice.’ Mary soon discovered the significance of the bell it was a signal for guests to return to their correct rooms before servers took up the morning tea.
She promptly left without working her notice and went to live with her brother who had a flat in the area. She quickly found a job in a bar. One day while working there, she met a Nuneatonian called Tom Wright, and he offered her a position in the Newidgate in Nuneaton which she accepted in 1954. While working behind the bar Mary met many well-known Nuneaton characters. She became acquainted with the Stationmaster of Abbey station who kept a beautiful garden and she visited him and his wife on many occasions. He used to come into the pub and every so often pull out his watch and announce ‘Fast train coming through Nuneaton.’ He was known by the bar staff as Mr. Fast trains.
Acquaintances invited Mary to an evening out in a Bedworth pub. Wearing her Sunday best fur coat of which she was very proud and balancing on a very high pair of heels Mary made her way to the planned rave up in Bedworth. As she approached the pub, she was horrified to find the police storming the place. She decided very quickly to make good her escape. Next day the local paper carried a headline about the one who got away ‘Who was the woman in the fur coat.’ Conversation the following day in the Newdigate was all about the newspaper story. Many customers said they would like to know who the woman was Mary said in an innocent voice she would like to know too. Now after all these years the mystery of the woman in the fur coat is solved.
Mary became manageress of the Windsor Hotel in Windsor Street it had eight bedrooms and usually housed 10 guests at a time. It catered for weddings and other celebrations. The cliental consisted of people visiting their children in training at Bramcote. Mary thought classing it as a hotel was a bit of an exaggeration and would have preferred The Windsor to be called a bed and breakfast establishment. She rented the property from a third party and this was to prove disastrous. At the time of the plans for the Nuneaton ring road, the freehold owners of the hotel sold it to the local authorities without notifying either the third party or Mary. The legal was complicated but Mary was the loser she found she had lost her livelihood and was homeless. Before panic set in she found a lifeline. Years before her husband had replaced her with a younger model who dumped him before divorce proceeding had been started.
He wanted to return to the family home but Mary refused. He vowed that she would never get her freedom. Mary received a letter a few weeks before she was due to leave The Windsor telling her he had died and she would receive a small inheritance. She took out a mortgage on a two up two down property in Edward Street. She quickly found employment behind the bar in a local club. Later she met and married her second husband Jim. Life was going well and the marriage was a happy one. Disaster struck again Jim had a stroke and Mary gave up work to care for him. Because of diminishing fiancés and Jim’s disability Mary
found she could no longer manage. The main problem being the stairs to her two up to down abode. She sold the house paid off the mortgage and asked the council to help her find suitable accommodation in order for her to manage Jim’s disability. She was allocated a one bed-roomed flat on the ground floor in Dempster Court.
At 97 years of age, Mary would describe herself as a very ordinary old lady who has so far lived a very ordinary life. The kind of person in her own words ‘that nobody would look at twice or want to listen to’ That is what makes ordinary people like Mary and their memories worth preserving and sharing with the many other very ordinary people making up any community.