Died March 2015
Phyllis grew up in St Leonards on Sea where her parents ran a greengrocers shop. She told a wealth of tales from her childhood and school days – of wandering St Leonards and Hastings by herself or with friends while her parents were busy in the shop, of summers staying with aunts Cora, Ruby and the wonderfully named Diamond Jubilee in Exmouth where she got up to all sorts of scrapes playing with her cousins Brian, Michael and Jeanne (who was going to be here but unfortunately has the flu). What came out of these stories more than anything was a huge warmth of feeling for her friends and family and great love for her father Philip – a figure I can’t help finding myself fond of despite the fact that he died before I was born. A great activity of her childhood was swimming and Hastings had several excellent pools.
As a swimmer myself and having become involved in Beach Life Saving in recent times I was delighted to find her certificate from 1938 for ‘Life Saving and Resuscitation of the Apparently Drowned’.
By her late childhood she had already developed the gritty determination, energy and independence of thought and deed that she displayed throughout the rest of her life as well as rapacity for reading and books.
When the whole south coast was threatened by invasion by Hitler in early 1940 and her school was evacuated to Ware, she stayed in St Leonards rather than going with them since she only had a few months remaining of her final year. There she idled away a gloriously sunny summer sitting on the cliff reading her way through all of Shakespeare and watching the war come closer, culminating in the Battle of Britain when it came so close that she was once strafed by a German plane as she walked alone in the street from her parents shop to their home. Fortunately for me it failed to hit her.
Not content to follow the unaspiring but ladylike careers suggested by her school she gained a place at Kings College London which cannot have been the easy option. Only it turned out to be Kings College Bristol having also been evacuated and it was here that, rather unexpectedly, she was persuaded to specialise in mediaeval history. She graduated after only two years (more war disruption) proud of the fact that as a historian, in her final exam she had got away with quoting only two dates, one of which she later found to be wrong! As a student she volunteered for fire watching and witnessed the first bombing of Bristol.
After university she worked at the ministry of aircraft production in Harrogate. Here she was required to check by manual arithmetic, the outputs from the Hollerith machines used for calculating the accounts, an exercise that seemed entirely futile until one occasion when she actually found an error.
Having checked her own calculation thoroughly, you will not be surprised that she raised the matter and refused to back down until it was found that one of the machines did indeed have a fault. Later she worked at the London Postgraduate Medical School and then as press officer with Kent County Council in the late 1940s. However, Phyllis obviously craved wider horizons and landed a post as Secretary to the University of the Gold Coast in West Africa and moved there around 1951. Here she was provided with a newly built apartment which was one of a pair. Her first encounter with the occupant of the other apartment was when he broke the lock that she had just fitted to their shared garage. He turned out to be an up and coming academic called Peter Nye and relations must have thawed because in December 1953 she married him and they set off in a rattily old Peugeot to drive to Timbuktu for a honeymoon.
She stopped work after her marriage and dedicated herself to family. Her three children Isobel, Philip and Vivien were all born in The Gold Coast (now Ghana) over the next few years. Given that I was only 3½ when we left, I have a surprising number of memories of Ghana. I remember surfing (belly boarding) on both my parents’ backs (not simultaneously) and I remember my mother decorating our new house on Legon Hill in her usual way this was not just a coat of magnolia emulsion but a grand project which she masterminded and saw to completion. The ceiling had been constructed with a grid of beams and these and the panels between she painted in rich contrasting colours with elaborate coats of arms at the interstices. I also remember clothes she made for Isobel and myself full of delightful idiosyncratic detail.
We left Ghana in 1960 when Vivien was only three weeks old and after a year in Vienna we moved to Oxford where Peter had landed his dream job as Reader of Soil Science. Growing up in Oxford, my memories of Mummy are always of family support but also of enthusiasm and dedication to one interest after another – almost always she was thinking of others, going above and beyond where most would stop. She continued to make elaborate clothes for her children as well as herself, fed the family on an incredible variety of recherché dishes, ran dinner parties for Peter’s colleagues, decorated the family home – a 350 year old, decrepit monster of a property – in great style, planned adventurous family holidays on a minimal budget, edited the newsletter of the Legon Association for staff of the University of Ghana and still found time for campaigning: she organised a campaign to save 800 year old hedgerows, started a movement to improve state education across Oxfordshire and stood for the county council – she was much too principled and direct for politics and as an independent, her candidacy was doomed, but I’m sure it pushed some others in directions they would not have otherwise taken.
She was committed to her husband and family and over many years that Peter was semi invalid with chronic arthritis in his back she cheerfully looked after him while always maintaining independent interests as well. As we children grew more self-sufficient and left home Phyllis took on more and more, largely voluntary and community activities. In the 1980s she started volunteering as a tour guide for the Ashmolean museum in Oxford. Once again she became obsessive and meticulously researched arcane details of the exhibits and built themed tours with original structure. She became a specialist in far eastern arts and joined the Oxford Asian Textile group where she soon became editor of their newsletter. She also expanded her lifelong interest in history of costume and lectured widely on the subject.
In 1993 aged 71 she decided to cycle alone from Oxford to Santiago di Compostella at the northwest tip of Spain. Her impulse for this was more as a student of the history and culture of the ancient pilgrim route, than one of pilgrimage herself, but she sought sponsorship in aid of the Ashmolean museum for which she raised thousands. Peter’s understandable anxiety at this exploit manifested itself in a rather irrational insistence that she wore trousers for the trip – she complied but this was the last time she ever wore them. However, I don’t think any of her children had any doubt of her ability to succeed and we thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to support her by riding various sections with her.
Her life was soon to become difficult. Peter had his first stroke in 1998 and over the next decade was to grow ever more dependent, then in 2000 Vivien died tragically of cancer. Ever practical, Phyllis moved with Peter to Bournemouth in 2003 where she was closer to support and although Peter was now quite dependent she threw herself into local cultural activities. She became a friend of the Christchurch Libraries, attended Quaker Meetings at Boscombe and joined the University of the Third Age – the U3A. There she first lectured on costume and then embarked on her celebrated series of lectures on ‘Remarkable Women’ researching and speaking on women who achieved great things and in most cases suffered the fate of obscurity purely because they were the wrong sex. At the U3A she also joined groups listening to music, reading books and in poetry which was another long-time passion of hers. In later years she frequently sent requests to ‘Poetry Please’ on Radio4 and these were often played.
Phyllis always believed passionately in living by her principles – she boycotted so many supermarkets and products whose policies she disapproved of, that it’s a wonder she managed to buy food at all. She became hugely committed to the environment and particularly to issues of transport, so when their car was stolen in the late 1990s she took this as an opportunity and did not to replace it but relied on her trusty bicycle instead – this despite living in a tiny village at the top of a steep hill! She was a long-time supporter and donor to Sustrans and the Campaign for Better Transport and in the last decade or so also forswore air travel, now taking her holidays by rail – around the Baltic, to Morocco, to Istanbul and Cappadocia and only 6 months ago, to Puglia, the ‘heel’ of Italy. She fitted solar panels to her new home in Bournemouth and became a well-known local figure cycling around Southbourne in her fluorescent ‘One Less Car’ vest.
It is a cliché that older people are out of step with the direction of modern society, In Phyllis’s case this was nothing to do with her age, she had always been a little out of step – she had always campaigned for change, not against it, she believed in community, charity and the common good and practised what she preached. She always contributed generously to better the lives of others – her family, her friends, through volunteering, unpaid teaching and through abundant contributions to charity. The fact that she had not worked for a living since 1953 and is therefore regarded by the prevalent political and economic orthodoxy as merely ‘unproductive’ does more to challenge that thinking than to devalue her achievements.
I will leave you with a story: A few years ago Phyllis’ house was broken into and burgled with ensuing police visits, insurance claims and diverse annoyances. Some months later, while Lucy and I were incommunicado on a walking trip, our own house (a few hundred metres away) was likewise burgled – only on this occasion our daughter Freya, then 15, was at home in her room. It is hard to say who was more surprised when they bumped into each other, Freya or the burglar, but after mutual eyeballing it was the burglar who ran off while Freya called the police and handled the whole incident with admirable aplomb. The next day a woman forensics officer came round to dust for prints and search for clues. She recognised Freya’s surname and asked if she had a relative nearby in Stourwood Road because she had done the scene of crime examination at that burglary too? Freya said ‘yes, she’s my grandmother’. ‘Aah’ said the forensic officer, ‘I remember her. She read me a poem!’
Philip Nye, 12th March 2015