Tributes to retired Norfolk teacher Mary Brown, who has died at 90
PUBLISHED: 00:33 28 March 2019 | UPDATED: 16:01 28 March 2019
Mary taught at Swanton Morley for 35 years after recovering from severe TB.
Many schools have a Christmas tree, but not many trees come with a strong story and sense of tradition.
One village primary has been presented with a free tree for more than a quarter of a century. It’s because of Mary Brown, a former deputy head teacher.
The annual gifts are always Norwegian spruces. They’re sent by retired bricklayer Bernie Marsham, who had a sideline growing Christmas trees. Mary was his first-ever teacher – and, he says, his favourite teacher.
The trees are given in appreciation of the things she taught him and the way she treated Bernie and fellow pupils at Swanton Morley, near Dereham.
“Mrs Brown – Mary – appreciated every child,” says the 70-year-old. Many pupils were, like Bernie, “village boys and girls”. Others were from RAF families – perhaps more widely-travelled and maybe a bit better off – there because of the local RAF station. Mary treated all children as equal.
It’s something that’s stayed with him.
Bernie has honoured his first teacher in other ways, too. In 2007 he worked free of charge to construct a ramp and steps to help folk get up the slope to All Saints church.
Quotes for the work had talked of £16,000 or £17,000. “I said I’d go and beg, steal and borrow off different merchants, and did it for just under £5,000 – and I asked Mary Brown (who had been a Sunday school teacher) if she would cut the ribbon.”
Mary was born on November 29, 1928, at Debenham in Suffolk, where her grandfather was a butcher. Her father, George Odam, was a Londoner who’d met his wife-to-be when he was stationed in Suffolk during the war. They’d married, lived briefly in London (young Mary spent some time in Islington) and then headed to East Anglia.
George became a schoolmaster at Grundisburgh, near Woodbridge, and in 1939 headmaster of the new Beccles Area School.
“As a child she was very keen on music and singing, and developed quite a reputation for singing,” says Mary’s son Richard. It was a life-long passion.
During the war there were poster competitions to put some oomph behind War Weapons Week. Schoolgirl Mary won one with the slogan “Beccles Buys Bombers to Hit Hitler Harder”.
Highly creative, she went on to study at Bath Academy of Art. “She had a great time, but was then very ill and had to go home,” says Richard. Mary started again but was ill once more.
It turned out she had tuberculosis – a rare form called extrapulmonary tuberculosis. It (TB) is usually in the lungs, but this developed in the pelvic bones.
“She was in hospital at the Norfolk and Norwich, and the TB was cured with experimental streptomycin (an antibiotic). It was made in a lab in Cambridge every day and sent on a motorbike to Norwich.
“Then she had revolutionary reconstructive surgery of her pelvis, with bone grafts, and was in a plaster ‘bed’ for a year – both at hospital and when taken home. This is a full-body plaster – the kind of thing you will only see now in a Laurel and Hardy movie, or something like that.”
Mary was 18 when she had “this terrible illness, an internal abscess, and was saved, miraculously, really, by the surgeon at the Norfolk and Norwich”, says her brother George.
He was 10, then. “She came back to our home in Beccles and they had to take the window out to get her into the front room. She still sang, while lying flat in the plaster bed.
“People used to come into the room, where we had the piano. My wife’s grandfather was the church organist and Mary sang in the choir; he used to come in and accompany her, and she would still sing.
“You had to stay completely still for two years. How she did it, I don’t know.
“She often told the very nice story of the first meal they brought her in hospital: a kipper! It had to be eaten using a mirror above her head, and she ate it from her chest (balanced there as if on a tray). The stoicism and determination that she showed got her through.”
Fortunately, Mary managed to make what Richard called “an astonishing recovery” after her years in plaster.
“Very soon afterwards she married my father, who was literally the boy next door.” The families lived in Grove Road, Beccles.
Anthony Brown – Tony – had grown up initially in Dereham, where his father started an engineering company. Later came a move to Beccles.
Mary and Tony married in Beccles in 1954. They then moved to Swanton Morley, about four miles north-east of Dereham, where Tony had a smallholding and worked for agricultural companies. His wife began teaching at the village school.
Richard says his mother hadn’t been able to stomach the idea of starting afresh, again, at Bath Academy of Art – though clearly talented. Instead, she’d trained as a teacher at Trent Park, in north London – a place that had held imprisoned Nazi officers during the war, whose conversations were monitored secretly.
Mary became a much-loved deputy head at Swanton Morley. She took time off to have children Richard and Rosemary (who both went to the school), but otherwise taught there until retiring in 1989.
She told us then that, when she began in 1954, the school was lit by paraffin Tilley lamps that were pumped until they glowed.
The school was heated by open fires. The lavatories were outside – buckets – and water was pumped from a well.
Mary said: “I think the children’s thirst for knowledge and their energy and enthusiasm have not altered, and that is the thing which interests me the most.”
She told us “I think I shall miss the children and the very happy family atmosphere that I have been part of for so many years”.
Sense of natural justice
Richard says his mother was “very, very committed to children. It’s exhausting, but she was someone who was very focused on high quality in everything she did. “She had no problem controlling children, but was also very compassionate – particularly with the poorest and the weakest. She was very keen that everybody got a chance.
“The way she talked was in a respectful way that made them feel important. Of course, if they began to get a little bit above themselves, she would let them know about that!
“But she was certainly interested, and would encourage children to have confidence in what they did. It was the same with adults.”
On the other side of the coin, Mary had no truck with petty bureaucrats. There’s also a story about her standing up for a neighbour accused of something he hadn’t done. She had a strong sense of natural justice.
“She didn’t want to move on to be a school inspector or a head teacher somewhere else; she just wanted to continue teaching. And, of course, she taught up to three generations.
“For my own children, she wrote little books and illustrated them – stories about her grandchildren: the clothes they wore, the things they liked to do, and the things they said.
“They were similar to the style of Edward Ardizzone” – the illustrator once an Ipswich schoolboy – “and each one personal. For my daughters, they’re the most treasured possessions. And she did the same for my sister’s sons.”
Richard adds: “She was very strong, fair and devoted to children. She had a great sense of humour and also quality. It was important to her that what she did was of the highest standard.”
Hid light under bushel
Mary moved to Dereham following her husband’s death in 1977.
In retirement she volunteered at the town’s Bishop Bonner’s Cottage Museum. A major project involved making pen-and-ink drawings of clothes and exhibits. The drawings went in the museum catalogue.
A leading lady with Dereham Operatic Society in the 1950s and ’60s, Mary continued her involvement after the loss of Tony. She was, for instance, the Mother Abbess in 1978’s The Sound of Music.
Mary also had many years with choral group Mid-Norfolk Singers. She was, too, a regular member of All Saints church – at times organist and Sunday school teacher. Mary also served on the parish council.
Richard says his mother was an “absolutely superb” singer.
“She was particularly keen on singing Purcell. There’s a song called Music for a While. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces I know, and she would sing that in such a way that you couldn’t ever forget it.
“She would sing it at the top of her soprano voice, even though it’s actually written for a countertenor – a man with a very high voice – but she sang it beautifully. Her singing and phrasing of Purcell was extraordinary.”
Mary’s brother George was head of research and staff development at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London and professor of music at Bath Spa University. He agrees his sister was a magnificent musician.
“She had a superb soprano voice when she was young. If things had been otherwise, I think she would have gone on to sing professionally.”
George was also impressed by her artistic skills.
“Do you know, she never had an exhibition. She just kept all her paintings privately; the house was full of them. She was a brilliant artist, but hid her light under a bushel.”
Lost ability to talk
It was more than 20 years ago that Mary had a stroke while staying with George. It happened on the top of a double-decker tourism bus in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. She was in hospital in Weston-super-Mare for three months.
“She had a huge left-brain stroke, which meant she couldn’t talk; she couldn’t use her hands,” says Mary’s brother. “They gave her an electric piano keyboard in hospital and by practising she got herself back moving her fingers.
“She painted after that. In fact, I’ve got a lovely picture of Swanton Morley church and she said her painting was better after her stroke because she couldn’t do so much fine detail. It made her think-through the expressive side of painting even more.”
She got her voice back enough to perform with the Mid-Norfolk Singers, too.
“She’d lost the ability to talk and the ability to write, and through utter determination – which I think came back to her from having had the two years in the plaster bed – she got herself better,” says George.
He thinks it took his sister about a year to regain her faculties. “It was absolutely remarkable.”
Words walked off the page
It was just before she suffered her stroke that Mary began illustrating David Woodward’s book Larn Yarself Silly Suffolk: A Comprehensive Guide to the Suffolk Dialect. It came out in 1997 and sold more than 12,000 copies.
Using Mary was the publisher’s suggestion, but it’s a small world.
“I first knew the Odams from being at the (Sir John) Leman (grammar) school in Beccles together,” says David. “And there was a tie-up with my late wife, who lived opposite the Odam family in Grove Road. She was about nine or 10 years old when Mary’s brother George started to go to primary school and Shirley used to hold his hand and take him.
“I knew Mary. She was a year or two older than me at school. She had a beautiful voice and my wife used to hear her singing (at home).”
David thinks Mary had her stroke before the book came out and daughter Rosemary did the last one or two illustrations. You could not tell the difference, he reckons.
David had left it to Mary to decide what she would illustrate, though they sometimes had a little chat.
“I got to know her again. I used to write to Mary every month since then – at the beginning of the month – and told her about things that had happened. And for a long while she replied very fully. She came back after the stroke and was doing drawings for herself.”
They had a similar outlook on life. “There might be some things we differed on. I know there’s always a battle between Norfolk and Suffolk” – they lived on different sides of the Waveney – “but I always felt we were true East Anglians. We were of the generation where we knew what the other was talking about.”
And Mary’s character? “She was gentle but very forceful. She had very strong opinions about things, but she was always open to the other person’s point of view. I think one of the reasons she drew so accurately for what I wrote was because she would read it, and read it well.
“There was some sort of affinity. She made the words walk off the page.”
Rosemary went on to illustrate his 1998 book Tatterlegs for Tea: More Suffolk Dialect in Tales and Verse, but Mary had a hand in the cover. She suggested an apt picture for the front – a photograph from the family collection.
“Her dad – head of the county modern, or area school as we called it – used to hire a boat and take the whole family on Oulton Broad. Mary is there. We were looking for a picture to use and Mary said this would be ideal, as they were having a tea-party on the boat.”
Will the trees stop?
George Odam says: “If I walked down into Dereham with her, there would always be someone who’d stop her, and then she would say ‘I taught them to read’, or whatever it was.
“I remember going down to the pub in Swanton Morley – to walk into the lounge and find a lovely black and white photograph of her there on the wall of the pub, sitting at the piano; playing for the school assembly I think it was. It showed the community had great respect for her.”
And what of Bernie Marsham’s Christmas trees? Will the annual gift stop, now that Mary (grandmother to six and great-grandmother of two) has gone? Not likely. “I will carry it on until I can’t do it any more,” he promises.
Mary’s funeral is at All Saints Church, Swanton Morley, on Tuesday, April 2, at 2pm. Family flowers only. Donations can be made to Break Charity or East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices via HH Aldiss Funeral Services, 53 Baxter Row, Dereham, NR19 1AY.