Obituary: Leslie Duffield − 'Second mum' to trainee teachers at Keswick Hall
PUBLISHED: 19:08 02 May 2019
'The kindest and most understanding of people.' Any worries could be discussed around the Aga at Mangreen Hall, Swardeston
It's 1960. Home for Leslie Duffield, her husband and their three children is half a big old house outside Norwich. Another branch of the family lives in the other half. Money is tight. Then someone spots an advert in the paper – most likely the Eastern Daily Press. It will prove hugely influential.
The teacher training college at nearby Keswick Hall is looking for “digs” – lodgings for its students. “Mum and Dad” – hard-up – “thought that would be a good way to pay off the mortgage quicker,” says daughter Philippa.
Their top floor isn't being used. Perfect. They take in half a dozen second-year trainee teachers, the first of many to find a home from home at Mangreen Hall, Swardeston.
“Leslie had always enjoyed cooking – trained at Berridge House, London – and her reputation for providing good meals and a happy family atmosphere soon spread,” says sister-in-law Susan Cross. “In due course the six became nine.
“Not only did Leslie provide for their physical welfare but also their mental well-being. Any worries could be discussed around the Aga; favourite meals could be chosen; boyfriends could be introduced and vetted, hoping to get Leslie's approval.
“Over 20 years more than 120 students enjoyed the happiness and space of Mangreen. Every Christmas she would receive cards from her ex-students from far and wide; and if any were visiting the area they would get in touch: 'How lovely. Come to lunch – it's soup but I'd love to see you'.”
Leslie died a couple of months shy of her 100th birthday. The long-time “second mum” to folk away from home had over the years maintained links with 90 of her former lodgers.
“They repaid the devotion she gave to them by remaining in touch with her,” says Philippa. “My mum wrote an annual Christmas letter to all students, and included a recipe for them at the end.”
At Mangreen, Leslie had “fed them absolutely top-notch (fare) and mothered them. They all still say what an amazing couple mum and dad were, and they say it's been an influence on their subsequent lives.
“My mum's principle was she treated every one of them as if it was her own daughter. By the time she'd finished, I was daughter 126! To administer and do all that, she really was amazing.”
How did she find the energy? “I don't know, but she certainly had it in bucketloads!”
She relied on the local poacher
Leslie, granddaughter of a GP, was born in Cromer in 1919. Her mother had gone there in preparation for the birth. It was touch and go. “There were twin girls and her twin sister had died days before, so there was really no hope she would survive. But somehow she did,” says Philippa. “Her sister would have been called Philippa, so that's how I got my name.”
Baby Leslie and her parents moved to Billericay – her father working in the fur trade in London – and then to the Richmond area.
Later, Leslie's parents bought Woodrow House at Cawston, on the Holt road, west-ish of Aylsham. They'd run it as a pig and chicken farm. Their daughter took a domestic science course in London and became a matron in boys' schools during the war. Eventually she moved up to East Anglia.
“I think maybe they thought she'd be safer in Norfolk. She looked after six 'war babies' from London, with the help of two nurses. Children were evacuated, and there were also babies evacuated.
“Although she received a pittance for the feeding of them, she herself wasn't paid anything. She relied on the local poacher who occasionally popped up the drive and gave her a couple of rabbits. They had chickens, so they had eggs. She managed somehow. She was a very capable person, as shown by that.”
Always going to be together
There doesn't seem to have been much doubt that Leslie would marry WTR (Pat) Duffield.
They'd met when she was 14 and he 12, standing side by side and watching their mothers play hockey. “They didn't talk to each other because they hadn't been introduced!” says Philippa. “After the game they were introduced, and that was it. They were always going to be together.”
They married in 1943 – and were swiftly parted. Pat was set to be trained as a pilot… in Canada. “Two weeks of leave my dad was due were tagged together and they had a fortnight in the Lake District as a honeymoon. Then they didn't see each other for 18 months.”
As it turned out, the military decided they didn't need more pilots. Pat instead concentrated on meteorology in Canada.
When life finally settled down, they moved into the mill house by the flour mill in Saxlingham Thorpe, south of Norwich, and had their children.
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Duffields is still a famous name in Norfolk. It was still a flour-milling enterprise when Pat was involved in running it, but Philippa says he had the idea to introduce animal feedstuffs. Today, Duffields is in the hands of one of Philippa's cousins and concentrates on animal feeds.
Soups and breads
Saxlingham Thorpe was home until 1960. Pat, living on-site, was working too hard. A better work-life balance was needed, and some distance.
The solution was Mangreen Hall. The Duffields paired up with Leslie's brother's family and they each had half the house.
It might have been a biggish place, and relatively cheap, but it did need attention: A surveyor had reckoned the hall (dating from the 16th Century) was six months from being beyond repair. Nevertheless, with Mangreen about four miles from the mill, Pat had the required degree of separation – and the hall proved a happy place to live.
Leslie had run the young wives' group in Saxlingham Thorpe. No-one wanted to break the link, so members met at Mangreen after the Duffields moved.
Leslie developed a reputation for the soups and breads she made. There is a tale about the latter.
“When we were small, she didn't make her own bread,” says Philippa. “But someone said 'You a miller's wife... you don't make your own bread!' Then she started, and did so forever more. And was brilliant at it.”
The couple loved the hall so much that they wanted to share it with others. They installed a swimming pool used on a timeshare basis, and Pat got some secondhand buildings that became conference-type rooms. A playgroup ran there for years.
“They were very warm and hospitable,” says Philippa. “Anybody who turned up, from whatever walk of life, would probably end up sitting round the table, having a meal with everybody.
“My dad could never pass anyone walking on the road without offering them a lift. I shared the backseat with many an odd character!”
Life wasn't all plain-sailing.
Philippa's brother William developed a form of epilepsy when he was eight. He'd have seizures every three weeks or so. The cause appeared impossible to pinpoint.
Philippa says her parents wouldn't give up the search for a solution. “They looked at other forms of healing, and that's what got them interested in the spiritual side of life. They went to faith healers and all sorts of different people offering options outside traditional medicine.”
It stimulated a lasting interest. In the second half of the 1980s Leslie and Pat founded Mangreen Trust. They moved out of the house and into one of the flats in the converted stable. Most of the property was placed in the charitable trust and Mangreen offered wellbeing skills for mind, body and spirit.
It's still there today, in essence – named Mangreen Country House – offering B&B as well as retreats and courses. One of Philippa's cousins is a trustee and her younger brother does organic gardening in the grounds.
The warmest, kindest...
Pat died in 2011. Leslie continued living in the Hay Loft flat, latterly with the support of carers. “She had her wits about her until the very last,” says her daughter.
Leslie leaves children William (whose seizures stopped, without warning, when he was 27), Philippa and Christopher; six grandchildren, three step-grandchildren, a great-granddaughter and four step-great-granddaughters.
Sister-in-law Susan says: “A lifelong supporter of the Canaries, she always listened to their games on the local radio. She was the kindest and most understanding of people, with never a bad word to say about anybody, and she will be sorely missed.”
Philippa echoes that. “She was just the warmest, kindest, very, very positive person. If there was a difficulty – and there were many, because my dad had depression, my brother had epilepsy – she would never ever give in to a negative thought.
“However bad the situation, she would only ever look for a positive – even where, probably, nobody else would have found one.”
The family has received many tributes from ex-lodgers, those former trainee teachers, explaining how Leslie made them feel part of the family.
“I can't think of any aspect of her personality that was a trait you wouldn't want. She was amazing.”