10 November 2013 by Simon Breedon
“Remembering is often what keeps us from repeating mistakes and other peoples memories can inform and instruct us, without forcing us to undergo the often painful experiences ourselves”. This quote is from a letter sent to me after a visitor came to Sudley House during the commemorations of the Battle of the Atlantic. Heather Harrison was visiting in the hope that she could discover more about her mothers “small part in all of this”, and hoped that we could help her find some details about the time her mother spent working and living here in Sudley House.
During the Second World War Sudley House was requisitioned by the Womens Royal Naval Service (Wrens) for use as a billet and accommodation for the officers and visiting guests. The diagram shown above was drawn up by the Admiralty in 1943 and shows the original layout of the first floor. Heather’s mother, Edith Gibbs, was one of the Wrens stationed here.
Her father had been in the Merchant Navy, and because of this Edith decided to apply to become a Wren. As a young women in her late teens she also thought the uniform was very glamorous! She did her basic training at HMS Eaglet, where she learned how to parade and drill, then shortly after she was stationed at Sudley House.
Being a rating, not an officer, meant that Edith worked in a domestic capacity, and whilst there was much drudgery and physical effort, she took a great pride in her work. The fireplaces were part of her responsibility, and after the cold winter months she would make sure they were a focal point, decorating them with fresh flowers from the garden and dried grasses from the field behind the house. Apart from the basic domestic duties involved with keeping Sudley running, it wasn’t too long before Edith was given the keys to the wine cellar, and she became the wine-steward during various dinners and receptions. This must have been a bit of a surprise for Edith because her family were almost tea-total – except for a “glass of port at Christmas”!
Heather remembered that her mother would often go “dreamy-eyed” when talking about the Canadian Marines who were billeted nearby. She told her about other goings on in Sudley, for instance a small band from the Marines would often play at the foot of the stairs during dinners or receptions, and this would help to relieve tensions that had been built up during the day. Many of the officers were stationed in the Western Approaches, and worked on sensitive information within the cipher department or helped to plot out sightings of enemy boats.
After de-mobilisation Edith left the Wrens and got married. The domestic skills she had learnt during the war years stood her in good stead as she built a family of her own. Heather told me that her mother could make wonderful things with paper napkins – swans, crowns and even a bishops hat! Her skills also meant she knew exactly which wine should go with which dinner course, a fact that would often amuse the family as wine was never served!
Once a year, for many years after the war, Edith would take her family to visit Sudley House. She would pass on her remembrance of the losses, suffering and uncertainties during wartime, but these would often be coupled with the unexpected rewards she gained from being stationed here. Sudley House was a place Edith Gibbs remembered fondly.
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