Margot talking about her early life in London
Margot talking about Pirton after the war
The eulogy that Francis gave at her funeral in 2018
When can you start to realize that you may be fortunate? For me it was in my early twenties, when a friend asked “How can parents like yours have a son like you?”, and it slowly started to dawn on me that Mum had a caring, interested ear for everyone.
But Mum, herself, was not so fortunate. Born on December 16th 1917, at Iverna Court in Kensington, she thought her father, Major Samuel Rigg of the Border Regiment, may have seen her once, before being reported wounded and missing on 25th March, 1918, at Biache, near Peronne. Even up to a year later, questions were still being asked of Mr. Churchill as to whether he had been interned in one of the islands in the Baltic.
A lot of Mum’s childhood was thus spent at her grandfathers’s Rectory in Monxton near Andover, where she spent her time doing one of her favourite things – climbing trees. This skill came in handy when she went away to school, and climbed up and down the ivy covered walls. Although her elder sister, Jean, excelled at academics and was head girl, it was not Mum’s forte and when she was taken very ill during a hockey game, she was withdrawn from school to be given private tuition. When Granny was asked about Mum’s lack of formal education, the answer was “oh, it doesn’t matter dear” – those were different times.
One question we struggled with on the death certificate was “Occupation”. We think her only true “job” was as Dental Assistant in Andover before the war, but fortunately JP (retired) sufficed.
She married Charles Orton just before the second war. He was supposed to have had a cushy job, having worked on radar with Watson Watt, which was a coincidence since her uncle, Robert Blucke had flown the bomber that was first detected by radar during its initial testing. But Charles was killed at Dunkirk, having reached the beach and gone back to aid others, and later Jean’s husband, John Russell, was killed breaking the German line at El Alamein. So again, fortune was not smiling on her family
She initially resisted when a dashing night fighter pilot, Mike Anderson, invited her to a squadron dinner in September 1940 while she was still waiting to hear news of Charles, but fortunately for Fiona, Pattie, Lizzie and I, she decided to take him up on the offer. She decided that there were better things that she could be doing than sitting around waiting and hoping, so she joined the Mechanized Transport Corps (MTC). She was based at Woburn Abbey, billeted in the Duke’s nursery and drove various dignitaries and spies around. There was definite competition with Bletchley Park, as to which was the more secret, but then no one knew how secret Bletchley was. It was at this time that Mum’s love of Guinness started, and when, last summer, she was no longer even drinking a half of a half, and switched to sherry at lunchtime, that I was definitely concerned that we were at the end of an era.
There are also tales of being the queen for a day, having found the bean in the bun at an Epiphany party with the Free French, with entertainment by Josephine Baker and of her having to make sure that her friends got home – but of course Mum behaved herself impeccably.
The MTC was a civilian organization, and there were rumours that it was going to be absorbed into the army, so Mum volunteered for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Although the story has been told of her teaching the Queen to drive, this is unfortunately apocryphal. She did however teach her mechanics, for which Helen Mirren was most thankful in “The Queen”. When I inquired about a callous on her right hand, I was informed that this was from riding a motorbike during the war – you can imagine my surprise on learning that my mother was a biker. With all the road signs removed, riders were required to lead tank columns to the muster points for D-Day. One time a friend turned to her to say, “If we have to stop quickly, do you think they can?”.
Mum rose to the rank of Company Sergeant Major, and when Dad returned from the Middle East where he was posted after the Battle of Britain, she was about to be posted to Wales for training for Regimental Sergeant Major. The thought of being married to an RSM was too much for Dad, so he proposed and they were married at St. Mary Abbots, opposite Iverna Court on October 10th 1945.
They lived at my grandfather’s (Walsworth House) until after Fiona was born in September 1946 and then moved to Northmead, where Pattie was born in 1948. My grandmother fell ill in 1949 and as Mum puts it, they moved back to Walsworth House with 2 children, a dog, a cat and 2 pigs! Lizzie arrived there in 1950 and then they all (with the pigs) moved back to Northmead in 1953. Eventually, I was born in Waitrose (or rather the North Herts Hospital) the day after Mum’s birthday in 1954.
Mum was a classic ’50s housewife with four growing children. She was never fond of cooking, but always managed to provide good wholesome food. As Northmead was in the middle of an orchard, apples during the winter were a staple pudding diet. We reckoned that she could go through the alphabet with different ways to cook them: Apple Amber, Baked Apple, Apple Crumble, etc. We hosted a number of village fetes, and not to boast, at one I won first prize in the baby contest as the Cow & Gate baby.
Mum was very active in the village whether with the:
- Young Conservatives – Derrick Cook will never forget “Annie get your Gun” in London, since it was the first time he left the village
- Red Cross –
- British Legion – both selling poppies and parading down Crabtree Lane
- Rands Charities – helping a number of children with grants
- Pollards and Hammonds alms houses
- School Governors
- And as a J.P she was much in demand for signatures on forms such as Passports and shot gun licenses
We moved to the Old Royal Oak in 1968, so she had lived there half her life, with half of that being without Dad, who passed in 1993, and whom she will soon be joining physically, although we know they are spiritually together right now.
For summer holidays we mostly went down to Itchenor near Chichester, for Dad to sail. We had the Hymn “For those in Peril on the Sea”, for Dad’s funeral in 1998, but it would have been far more appropriate for Mum. She and boats did not mix – neither sail nor even motor. Her story of having been rescued from an upturned Firefly and then dropped off at Bosham, soaking wet, to have to make her way back to Itchenor with no money, was always a classic.
So many people have shown so much affection for Mum. All particularly remembering her interest and amazing memory. A number of people around the village will still thank me for her wise words to a child at an awkward age, who would not listen to their parents, but would take advice from Mum. Even in the hospital this New Year, when she and Lizzie were on their way to a scan, after Lizzie had broken into a fit of coughing, Mum’s response was “We’ll have to keep you in bed for breakfast tomorrow”. She never complained or grumbled about anyone or anything and we were often told very firmly “if you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all”.
There was always a social life. Not only were we offering guests drinks at parties, but we also had to fill the cigarette boxes, and offer them around with a choice of filtered and unfiltered. Being the youngest and the only boy, the ground was broken for me by my sisters when it came to twist parties and concerts. When it came to music, apart from classical, her favourites were Bright Eyes, Leaving on a Jet Plane and Maggie May, to which she would always come out and dance, at my parties. There are, however, a couple of things for which she has never been forgiven: by Liz, for throwing away Keith Moon’s drum stick from a Who concert at Stevenage Locarno in 1965; by myself for saying no to the Pink Floyd at Knebworth in 1975 – but I had been just thrown out of Cambridge, and was working at a Holiday Camp in Gt. Yarmouth. Despite my pleas and reminding her that she gave me “Meddle” for Christmas 1971, she stuck to her guns.
With her children being scattered between the States and France, she was frequently traveling to visit us, and her routine would travel with her. As my children would point out, it was always time to eat or drink at the Royal Oak (frequently both) and her skills with the crossword always remained strong.