Memorial to my Mum

Gwendoline Winifred Rees née Johnson   August 6, 1922 - February 5, 2007  

From the Workers Educational Association Essex Federation Spring 2007 News Sheet

Gwen Rees - A Lifelong Educator

Gwen Rees, who died suddenly on 5th February aged 84, in 1969 was a founder member of the Loughton Branch of the Workers Educational Association. The Branch later amalgamated with the Epping Branch.

She devoted her life to the provision of adult education through this Association. She was, for nearly 40 years, a committee member of the Branch and the current Branch Secretary, a post she held for over 20 years. She played her part in the regional government of the Association, attending many meetings and conferences across the country.

The success of the Loughton and Epping WEA Branch, which runs six classes and day schools in the area, owes much to her dedication and hard work.

She will be greatly missed by her friends and all members of the Branch

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She was born in Sutton, Surrey, one of a large family. Her mother, Win, had married Walter Sawyer who died in the first world war at the Somme, and then married Horace Johnson, who was still in hospital blue, having been invalided in service in the Dardanelles. He had joined the Royal Marines, underage, by the ruse of using his brother's birth certificate. He suffered from what is now known as post traumatic shock disorder. She had two older half siblings, Peg and Bert Sawyer, and three younger siblings  - George, Beryl and Rita. Rita died as a small child in a scalding accident. Horace wandered off in the thirties and commited suicide "while the balance of his mind was disturbed".

The picture on the left is from around that time. Mum and her sister Beryl on a school trip to Southampton to see the new Queen Mary. While she did well at school she was obliged to leave at 14 and take a job as a cashier in a butcher's shop to help support the now single parent family. Win became a cook in the big house at Nonesuch Park.

The opportunity to join the WRAF in 1940 seemed to be something of a rescue from the shop, although she found herself still doing bookkeeping, but this time in the pay section. She served on a number of stations including RAF Martlesham Heath. There she met L/AC Sidney Rees at a local dance and they were married prior to his deployment to the Middle East. After demob, they lived with his mother in Manor Park, but after the birth of her first son, David in 1947, she told my father that she wanted her own house. He had been a clerk in the LCC (a job he had taken when he left East Ham Grammar School) but was now going to join the emergency teacher training scheme, which turned out certified teachers in a two year period. He began teaching at Chingford ( a girl's school) and then moved on to Sandringham Secondary School in Forest Gate. They bought a small terraced house near Central Park in East Ham where I was born in 1949.   

Mum did not return to work but concentrated on bringing up my brother and me. Dad would take a number of part time and summer jobs to help pay the mortgage, and later, once we were at junior school, she did a part time job as a bookkeeper for Soper's, a wholesale grocer in St Bartholomew's Road. I recall it did not last very long. My sister, Rosemary was born in 1957, and thereafter there was no thought of Mum going out to work for pay. 

Her hearing began to deteriorate due to otosclerosis. Initially she could get no-one to pay any attention to this condition, which was dismissed as hysterical by her GP. She had a deep disregard for the medical profession subsequently. She did however relish reading, and time in hospital meant more time to do that. She took "Tom Jones" into the maternity ward, and the nurses warned her to be careful - she might finish it!   With all her children at school and doing quite well academically, she started to take on more and more educational courses through various extension schemes. She passed "O" level English at about the same time I did - and got a much better grade. 

The family was doing better financially too. The house had a bathroom added with the help of a local authority grant. A tv arrived in the late fifties, a fridge soon after. Then my Dad, who had driven a truck in the RAF, decided to give up his bicycle and bought his first car, which he had to drive with L plates until he passed his test.  In 1960 we didn't have a car - we discovered Cornwall by public transport which was still possible in those days. (This picture is at "Carmino" in Falmouth, the home of the famous Doughty sisters, who made pottery figures for Royal Worcester)  By 1964, in West Wales we had the Austin Cambridge - seen below at Pendyne Sands.

She now had a large hearing aid, the receiver of which she carried in her cleavage, clipped to the inside of her bra. On one occasion she was trying out a new type of battery, and peered into her blouse to check the volume setting. She looked up and said, in a surprised tone "Hmm. Two and a half."


In 1967 my brother entered the London College of Printing and I went to Nottingham University. Soon afterwards my paternal grandmother died, and since my father was an only child, he inherited the house in Manor Park. They sold that and the one in East Ham and moved out to Loughton in Epping Forest. They had both wanted to live in the area since Dad had had a temporary job as Warden of Debden House. Mum discovered a talent for gardening and over the years under her direction, an unpromising, lumpy slope of thick yellow London clay was transformed. My Dad did some of the labouring and cut the lawn, but nearly all the planting and maintenance were hers. They had some fruit trees (apples and pears) and toyed with a few veg, but flowers were her passion. And structure - shape - clipped bushes and shrubs. I bought her some tiny clippings one year which are now a complete miniature box hedge.

With her half brother, Bert Sawyer, on a visit from Canada in the late sixties, with some of her apple trees in the background.

In 1979 my Dad decided that as he had completed forty years public service, keeping up  his pension contributions since he left school at 17, he could retire early. But he then became even more active on the  bench as a  JP, and for the Citizen's Advice Bureau. Mum was now deeply involved in the Worker's Educational Association. The idea of the WEA has changed over the years, and Loughton is hardly working class, but it now served a valuable role locally in keeping retired people (and others) alert and socially engaged. Not that the system recognised the value of that then, or now. But Mum kept at it, becoming Branch Secretary and essentially taking on what was nearly a full time job. They enjoyed foreign holidays too, and she loved visiting places like Florence or Crete. She bought herself an Olympus SLR and produced terrific colour pictures. And they regularly took short breaks in France, although she never learned French. Nor did she learn to drive, she left that to Dad. 

Mum's relationship with her brother George was very special. I lived at my parents' house in 1972. While they were away on a trip together I spoke to George on the telephone about his planned trip from Canada (where he had lived since 1945) to London. When they came back, Mum was detained talking to a neighbour, so Dad got to hear about this before Mum did. When she came into the house, she said something about it being good to be home again. And Dad asked her what would make her completely happy. She replied, without a second's thought, "To see my brother George." So that's when I told her about me going to meet him at Heathrow the following day.  In 1979 she went, on her own, to visit George in Langley BC. This was one of the few times that she went off anywhere on her own while Dad was alive, except hospital. She visited Washington State, Victoria, had a meal at a First Nation's longhouse that my cousin Chris took her too, made a trip to the (worked out) goldmine George owned with his friend Oscar Rees (no relation), and brought home a large, frozen pink salmon that she had caught on a rod and line. Since the plane had nowhere to store it, she held it on her lap for the entire flight.

This family gathering was a Christmas at Loughton with all her children and grandchildren in the early 1980s I think. I am less than popular for reproducing it here, since both my sister and I were divorced soon afterwards.

In 1984, my father died in Spain on a touring holiday with Mum. They had gone in part to check out the family "myths and legends" . At that time they thought that his ancestors were sephardi, displaced by Isabella's inquisition to Holland and subsequently Britain. He went to the bathroom after breakfast, and did not return. He was found, but could not be revived. Mum spent a week alone in Seville, while the formalities of returning his body were sorted out. She said at that time she saw his profile everywhere in Seville. Many sephardi had converted as least nominally, to be allowed to stay. She had become something of an authority on the family history. As she said, she was one of the few people to talk to all the old uncles. I tried to persuade her to put some of it in writing but I do not think she ever did. It will remain an oral tradition, and thus mutable. My sister has since done some genealogical research that shows the name Rees comes from a village in Germany.

After my father's death, gardening, the WEA and her increasingly adventurous educational researches became her life. Her children had moved away - my brother and sister, oddly enough, both ended up in Nottinghamshire, while I decamped to Canada. Mum was always off on some new adventure - archaeology in Egypt one year - she got to see Petra too - and she was planning a trip to Southern Italy this spring. She could be very stubborn and annoying, and was not above using her deafness to not hear what she didn't want to. She also allowed herself to display at times quite a fierce temper - and often got her way as a result. But she was always one of the most tolerant and liberal (in the best sense of that word) people, and taught me a lot. The main thing was the meaning of the phrase "unconditional love" which is far too rarely found in other relationships. She was also a staunch Labour supporter all her life. She told one of her neighbours canvassing on the doorstep in Loughton, "I could no sooner vote Conservative than I could spit in church!"

Nottingham University, The Vice-Chancellor's Garden, May 2006 

Her 80th birthday was a glorious occassion with all her children and grandchildren present. There are now great grandchildren too and I was most pleased to go with her to Bristol in 2004 to meet my granddaughter.

Her death was unexpected, sudden and unfortunately public. She collapsed on the street, was taken to Whipps Cross Hospital but pronounced dead on arrival. A post mortem showed hypertensive ischæmic heart failure.  She never did have much patience with doctors and was probably unaware that her heart was failing.  As with her husband, she went quickly, and, I hope, painlessly. A  good way to go, on the whole, and we all have to go sometime. She had a long and good life, and there are now two surviving children, eight grandchildren, one step grandchild, and three great-grandchildren - so far. 

Her family, friends and fellow students joined us at Parndon Wood Crematorium, Harlow on February 22 to say farewell.

My sister adds the following

Mum held beliefs that were not always comfortable to those around her. She was not above bursting into an impromptu chorus of "The Red Flag" to the consternation of  her surprised audience. Her view was quite simply that ‘nothing is too good for the workers’ – a belief that found its home in the WEA, although she herself admitted that the W was in this instance relative. What she held to be true to the last was that Education in general, and in particular what she called the Liberal Arts  was the hope for a better life for all those with the opportunity to benefit from it – a Butskellite to the last.  We had vigourous discussions about the value of student feedback forms, aims and objectives and other key performance indicators. She hated the administrative baggage of Further Education but carried it out anyway. Her finest hour was undoubtedly berating the Vice Chancellor of Essex University for the poor quality of the bus service from Colchester to Wivenhoe. Since he was about the present her with her Certificate of Higher Education she might have chosen her words with more moderation - but then she didn't actually know it was him until they met on the platform some time later in the evening. Not bad for a 79 year old. I sometimes wonder if she would have been quite so feisty with the future King George VI when he presented her with an essay writing prize in 1932.

I determined that she actually had enough academic credits accumulated from the various courses she had taken to be awarded a degree. In fact the University of Essex said that she could, if she wished, register for a PhD as she was, in their words, "a remarkable woman." She did not wish to do so as she felt she "only read for pleasure". 

Mum was the fierce defender and advocate of her family, sometimes when we were not very appreciative of it. She was a compulsive teacher and we benefited from this by being taken to see no end of ancient monuments and galleries. Only a few days ago, talking about her with her eldest Grandson we discussed the posthumous reading of Don Quixote that he now feels obliged to undertake. And her youngest Grandson has quantities of poetry to get through as well. My last happy memory of her is dancing with her Great Grandson Billy to the tune of Jingle Bells. 82 years apart in age but both laughing and smiling. She was intensely proud of the achievements of her descendants, each of whom was treasured.

In the latter years of her marriage, which was undoubtedly a love match, she used to sometimes say that Dad might have done better if she had been ‘a frilly lady with cool hands’. I doubt it.  An abiding memory is of him urging her to hurry up and then saying ‘but you haven’t put your face on’. His school trips to Italy would produce silk blouses and elegant Milanese petticoats when such things were not available in the Co-op. Both Mum and Dad would say as they left  a family occasion 

'Be nice to each other' - and I am sure that would be her parting wish to us all now.

Paris  - picture from her eldest Grandson, Ben Nichols