Molly Goriely 1923 - 2014
Molly Goriely died on 11 December 2014. The below tribute was written by her daughter, Tamara.
My mother was born on 7 February 1923, the third daughter of Ernest Miles Taylor. Ernest was a self-made, successful chartered accountant, and what he really wanted was a son to carry on his name and his business. But Ernest was always one to make the best of things. This was 1923 and the first women were joining the professions. Ernest called his third daughter Ernestine and decided to treat her as an honorary son. My grandmother, Florence, added the name Mary and called her daughter Molly – for which my mother was grateful. She hated the name Ernestine and was always Molly to her friends.
Ernest had every reason to be pleased with his decision. My mother was extremely clever, and eagle eyed at proof reading his textbooks on accountancy – especially when paid 6d (2.5p) per mistake found. She was also brave and independent. Ernest and Florence did eventually have a son – Brian – but by then Ernest had decided that Molly would carry on the business.
In 1939, Molly’s oldest sister Betty was teaching 11-14 year boys in Dagenham. When on 1 September the school was evacuated, they needed more help, so Molly, then aged 16, became an emergency teacher – accompanying the boys to Bath, depositing them around bemused Somerset families and holding scratch lessons in church halls. She recalls listening to war being declared in a small Somerset village, and like many of her generation, reacting with horror to the noise of the air-raid sirens.
In 1940 Molly took her “highers”, and obtained some of the top marks in the country. This entitled her to a full state scholarship to read English at Girton College, Cambridge. There was only one problem. To take up the scholarship, Molly needed her father to sign the forms. And Ernest refused. What use was an English degree to someone destined to be an accountant? No matter that Molly loved literature and hated accountancy.
With Betty’s help, Molly ran away from home, eventually getting a job at the Air Ministry in Edinburgh. And from there, she joined the WRAF, becoming a RADAR operator. She took to RADAR straight away (she said it was almost instinctive). By 1944 she was acting flight controller in Hope Cove, Devon, where the D Day landing preparations were in full flow. It was the big secret. The Germans had to believe that the preparations were in Dover, bound for Calais, not in Devon bound for Normandy. It was Molly’s job to ensure that no German aerial reconnaissance planes over Hope Cove were allowed to return. Molly worked long hours, hardly sleeping, directing fighter pilots to any German planes on the screen.
Although Molly never served abroad, she saw her own share of violence. She recalled collecting the bodies of drowned sailors from the beach at Hope Cove. And during her training at Hack Green, Cheshire, she was in a bus that collided with a train at a level crossing. Over twenty people died. Molly, in the back, ran back to tell the Camp Commander and summon help. “Not the new bus” was his first reaction.
Nowadays, anyone in a crash of that magnitude would receive trauma counselling. My mother did not believe in such namby pamby ideas. But 70 years later it came back to haunt her, as she told care home staff that she had been in a coach crash. It also alerted her family to her whereabouts, as the papers (wrongly) printed that she had been killed.
After the war ended, Molly has a second chance. The Air Force awarded her another scholarship to Girton. And, as she was now over 21, this one did not require her father’s consent. And so began six great years studying English in Cambridge: two years for her degree, and four years as a fellow, teaching and studying the work of her favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Of these years, her close friend Sylvia Lightburne wrote:
I have often said that I learnt more from Molly than from anyone else in Cambridge. She was the leader of our “quartet”: Wendy Sadie, Daphne Ford and myself. We were all very different but alike in our admiration for Molly’s intellect, experience of the world (Radar tracking of enemy planes during the war) her love of life and her sense of fun. I particularly remember the long vacation reading parties she organised for us and other friends in the Lake District and Northumberland. On one occasion when we were to change trains during the night at a remote station she wrote to the Station master asking him to make sure that the waiting room fire was well stoked! And it was!
In 1952, Molly became a lecturer at Kings College, London – and away from the shelter of Girton, she met the male world. In Kings, women lecturers were not allowed into the senior common room (which was reserved for men). They ate their meals with the lab assistants. She was always grateful to another lecturer there, Norman St John Stevas, who ate with them in protest.
Then, in 1954, my mother was appointed Professor of English Literature in the new University of the Saar, in Saarbrucken, set up to rebuild Europe after the war. So, for the first time in her life, Molly moved to Germany. Saarbrucken was an exciting place, full of those committed to European integration: Uwe Kitzinger, Ralph Dahrendorf, and a Belgian Professor of Political Science, Georges Goriely. Georges was a Jew who had spent the war in hiding in Brussels, and he passionately believed in rebuilding relationships with Germany.
In Summer 1955 Molly and Georges were married. Molly really wanted children. She had a miscarriage in 1956. I was born in 1957. She had a second miscarriage in 1959, and a third one in 1960. She had suffered from morning sickness and been prescribed a drug. It was many years later that she learnt the generic name of that drug – thalidomide. When she did, she was incandescently angry. She said little, but never really trusted a doctor again.
It is difficult to reconstruct those years in Saarbrucken. Yes, there was the intellectual excitement, the babble of English, French and German, spoken almost interchangeably in my first three years. There was the pioneering spirit of being a working mother. My nanny, Frau Eich, would bring me to the university, so Molly could breast-feed between lectures. But it was also a time when working mothers had little support and fathers played no role in cooking, housework or childcare. The pressures of a full-time job, a traditional marriage and three miscarriages were too great. By the end of 1960, my mother’s marriage had collapsed and she returned to England.
In the 1960s, divorce was rare, and still bore a palpable social stigma. It was always explained as a personal failing – and in line with this tradition, my mother blamed my father while my father blamed my mother. Perhaps it is only in hindsight that we can see the social pressures involved.
When Molly returned, she was no longer interested in titles and universities. All she wanted was to bring me up, teach, and live somewhere beautiful. So she took a job in a girl’s boarding school in Penzance, St Clare’s. And so began a lifetime of school teaching: at West Cornwall School, Penzance; St Helen’s, Abingdon; Atlantic College, in South Wales; and Royal Russell, Croydon. It also confirmed her love of West Cornwall, of cliffs, and of all wild places. Our holidays were spent walking over Dartmoor – and when I was 13 she bought a cottage in mid-Wales (because she loved the empty moors). The job in Croydon was a necessity, but she recharged her batteries with holidays in the Faroe Islands.
In 1978 I got married, and Molly realised that her job bringing me up was over. She could now indulge her passion for travel and adventure. She announced to my surprise that she had a new job in Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew had decided to fund young Singaporeans to go to Oxford and Cambridge. So Molly went to Hwa Chong Junior College, to prepare students for Oxbridge entrance. Her imaginative teaching and Singaporean hard work were a winning combination. Soon Hwa Chong had the highest rate of Oxbridge entrance of any school in the world, to the chagrin of Eton and Winchester.
My mother adored the Far East. When she came to retire, she had no intention of going home. Instead, she became a VSO volunteer. Her first posting was to Thailand, to provided resources to primary school English teachers. And then to her joy, she had the opportunity to go to China, to teach English in a medical college in Lanzhou, in the west, where the sand blows in from the Gobi desert.
1989 was the year of the Tiananmen Square protests. Student unrest spread throughout China, as students made long railway journeys, talking excitedly of democracy and freedom and change. In Lanzhou, the students took the ring-road, to block the path of the Army. Molly went with them, clutching a pile of tea towels “because they make useful bandages”. The threat was real: hundreds if not thousands died in Tiananmen. But luckily, in Lanzhou, tea towels were not needed. The local Lanzhou authorities and the students eventually reached a compromise which prevented bloodshed.
When we visited the next year, students kept coming up to us to laugh at the tea towels and tell us how much they had valued Molly’s support. Surprisingly, the College authorities also called us in to listen to Molly being given formal praise. Despite her solidarity with the students, the College valued her commitment to China. Molly had stayed, when broadcasts throughout the world showed foreigners fleeing China (notably busloads of British Embassy staff, racing for the airport).
My mother’s final two years teaching were in an ethnic minorities’ college in Kunming, Yunnan Province. It is a balmy, fertile place, near the Vietnam border. Again, my mother’s enthusiasm and imagination produced outstanding results. Soon the minorities’ college was beating the Han Chinese college for its results in English. If this worried the authorities they decided not to show it. Molly was awarded the title of Professor – receiving that honour once again after 40 years. She was also presented with a medal by Deng Xiaoping, the architect of Tiananmen. My mother worried a lot about whether to go – but by then she believed that China would find its own way, and she went to shake Deng’s hand.
In 1993, at the age of 70, my mother decided to return home (declining a job offer to teach English in the Beijing Police Academy – there were limits to her acceptance of what had happened). She came back to Penzance, where she had kept her home in Polwithen Road.
During her 15 years away, my mother had thought of Britain as home – and had developed an increasingly idealised view of village shops, where you asked for a pound of tea, and men took off their hats in greeting. So some aspects of Britain in the 1990s came as a shock. What were these new-fangled remote controls, and microwaves, and computers? China still ran on bicycles and Mao suits, where you collected drinking water in a thermos flask from the neighbourhood boiler.
But Molly soon threw herself into the Penzance Community: volunteering at the lifeboat shop, joining the Morab Library Committee and Women’s Institute, and acting as warden at the early morning services at St Mary’s. Keith Owen, Vicar of St Mary’s recalls her sharp contributions to the PCC (especially on the need to retain the Book of Common Prayer) but that “our conversations were always lively and full of fun”. And her grandson will always remember the day she bought him a ferret.
These were another fifteen good years, before her developing vascular dementia led her to withdraw. Molly could be hugely generous (her papers shown loans to those in trouble which she never expected to be repaid). But she found it more difficult to receive, and often resented being dependent on others. Her carer, Linda Dawson, had to put up with some difficult days, but fondly remembers her dry sense of humour. In September 2012 I moved her away from Penzance to be near me. She received the warmth and support of the staff at Atfield House in Isleworth.
As a teacher, Molly was always looking for a fun way to make a serious point. After her spelling cards, with a picture of a rabbit with two Bs for ears and one T for tail I will never write rabitt again. And I have before me her rhymes and chants to teach English to Thai children. Music, movements and lots of jokes. But the accompanying notes show the serious point. “This rhyme is designed to practice the sound ‘school’ rather than ‘shule’ and children should be corrected” teachers are told. She had exacting standards.
In many ways, it was not an easy life. Her beloved brother, Brian, died in a climbing accident at 19. Betty was electrocuted by a vacuum cleaner in the early 70s. But she faced it with courage. Rest in peace.
Molly's son-in-law, Tom Williams, adds:
Molly achieved a lot in her life, but for many years her world revolved around her daughter. For four years, she moved to Wales to be alone in an isolated cottage with the girl who meant so much to her. There she home educated Tamara, giving her a love of books and learning and developing in her the same sharp, analytic mind that had been her own -- and, it must be said, some of the same prickliness. Molly loved Wales but, when she felt Tamara needed regular schooling for Sixth Form, she gave it up to move to Croydon - a heroic sacrifice indeed. Only when Tammy got married, did she feel that she could do what she wanted with her life, which turned out to be to put as much space as possible between her and the Croydon boarding school where she had been teaching.
In her later years, she lavished some of the love and affection that she had given Tammy onto her grandson. As he (and she) grew older, she found it increasingly difficult to understand the modern world and the attitudes of modern young people but, though she struggled to forgive him his baseball caps and his casual approach to the proper placement of table furniture, she still cared about him and watched his career progress with pride and affection.
Molly achieved an enormous amount in her life, but with all the honours, titles and awards she was given, it is the character of her daughter and grandson that was her greatest achievement. It is sad that her character and, almost certainly, the damage that her illness was doing to her brain both made it very difficult for her to say how important these two people were to her but they were important and, in her own way, she gave them so much love. It is, in the end, those who are left behind who are the measure of our lives and, by this standard, Molly Goriely did very well indeed.