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Grace Denman has died aged 103 - keeping the secrets of her wartime work

 

Grace Denman in 2012Grace Denman in 2012Grace Denman's funeral will be at 2.00pm on Wednesday, 24 February at St Mary's Church, Marlborough.

Mrs Grace Denman of Riverside, Marlborough died on Wednesday (February 10.)  She was aged 103.

She and her husband Teddy moved to Marlborough in 1985 and she became an active part of the community - especially as a member of the congregation of St Mary's Church.

She was born in the Essex village of Tiptree in 1912: Grace Mary Rosina Southgate. In those days Tiptree had no piped water, no electricity, not gas supply and no main drainage.  It was famous for its strawberry jam and school holidays had to fit with the harvest so children could go with their mothers to the strawberry fields.

1926: Grace aged 14 with her brother Bob aged 71926: Grace aged 14 with her brother Bob aged 7At six she started at the village school and then went to the High School in Chelmsford - a ten miles each way trip on the 'light railway'. Her fees were paid by 'an education grant'.  

Her father died in 1923 - quite probably the delayed result of the 'trench nephritis' (or Bright's disease) he had suffered during the First World War.

We know a great deal about Grace Denman's early life from the pages of a small book published in 2012 - to mark her hundredth birthday. 

Clare Napier interviewed her and the result is a wonderful glimpse of the life of a rural family overcoming the odds stacked against them.  Her recall of the details of those times is amazing.

She was good at French - and hated gym.  When she left school an aunt suggested she might like to become a telephone operator.  It must have slightly surprised her when she was accepted by the Post Office in London - she had never even spoken on the telephone.

There was a delay before she could start the job in London, and she worked as a poof-reader at a printing company in the village.

The 'Post Office' was, of course, the GPO (General Post Office) which handled all the country telecommunications.  At privatisation the telecommunications side of the GPO went to BT - who continued paying her pension.

With her impeccable French she worked on the switchboards of the Continental Telephone Service for eight shillings a week.  And she learnt German.

When the Germans overran France communications were cut and her job ended.   In 1940 she went to work on the switchboard at the headquarters of the Belgian authorities who had sought refuge in Britain.  Then she moved on to work at the offices of the Free French.

Later, as she told Clare Napier, "...I worked with the War Office.   I still can't talk about the work, but it was very interesting. In 1945 the war ended and I returned to the Post Office."

It is safe to say that her war work was important as when the post-war conferences began, she was recalled and worked for two years in Paris - ending with the United Nations conference of 1948.  It is unlikely she was 'merely' an interpreter.

Grace Southgate retired in 1972 - and married her boss, Teddy Denman, who was a widower and fourteen years older than her.  They had seventeen very happy years together before he died in 1990.

They had been persuaded to move to Marlborough by Teddy's younger son Eric, who was an orthopaedic consultant in Swindon.  

In Marlborough Grace Denman ran the Mothers Union, prayer groups and, for a time, the Luncheon Club.  And she put on coffee mornings to raise funds for the Marlborough Brandt Group, St Mary's Church and, when it was just starting, for the Prospect Hospice.

She was a long-serving proof-reader for Tower and Town.  As she put it, she had been doing that work 'for donkey's years' - and was still doing it in 2012.

In January 2013 she took part in Marlborough's traditional Wassail Ceremony - offering the first piece of toast to the robins at one of the trees planted by the Marlborough Community Orchard team.

Grace Denman's interviews with Clare Napier in 2011 and 2012 end thus: "I don't think 'poor me', everyone has gone, nobody remembers me....I feel I am so fortunate to live here in Marlborough where people are so friendly."

This article is based largely on Clare Napier's interviews and her 24-page booklet: "Born 1912".

 

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  • IMG 8472
  • Town-Hall-2011-05-03 08-
  • IMG 9097
  • Silbury-Sunset---10-06-08-----07
  • Marlborough-2013-04-18 St Peters