Monday, 16 September 2013

A guest post from our Writer-in-residence, Kate Monro, featuring Chelsea Pensioner Marjorie Cole

Meet Marjorie, a member of a rare club, one of just six female Chelsea Pensioners currently residing at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. As time goes by, the Royal Hospital will see more and more female Chelsea Pensioners, but for now they are an elite club.

Whilst women were critical to the war efforts of the last century - someone had to run the country whilst the men were away after all - it was a rare woman who actually signed up to join the armed forces. Not because they didn't want to but simply because it wasn't in keeping with the times.


Women's primary role was in the home, raising children and caring for families. This makes mavericks of all the female Chelsea Pensioners currently at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

When I asked Marjorie how she would describe herself as a teenager, she replied 'meek but rebellious'. This combination appears to have equipped her well for an unusual life and here's the thing - Marjorie is that first person to tell you that she 'just' ran the kitchen in Malaya, but the last to mention the hurdles she leapt over to get there. This, to me, is the story of a seemingly insurmountable mountain and the climber strong enough to scale it. Marjorie was disadvantaged by her gender (she would never say that by the way) but also by the expectations of some of those closest to her. Watch and learn people. Here is a solid lesson in how to exceed expectations, follow your heart and have a rather elegant third act.

Marjorie Coles
'I was born in 1944, the youngest of three girls. We didn't have the things we have today but I don't regret it because we had a good upbringing. My mother and father didn't believe in things like Hire Purchase. What you couldn't afford, you did without. You saved for things. I still go by that.

During the war, we were evacuated to the Yorkshire Dales. Father was in the Home Guard - Dad's Army - and when it was over we came back to Hessle. There was a vast amount of damaged bombed buildings and that was our playground actually. It was a Victorian childhood. If we were hurt my mother would go out and buy us a sticky bun when all you really wanted was a cuddle, but we were loved all the same.

I was thinking about my mum, dad and sister when we were at Westminster Abbey recently on procession. I kept myself focused on the front but I was thinking, 'I wish my mum and dad could see me'. And then I thought 'Well, they will. They'll be watching'.

When my two sisters were courting, they had to be in by 11pm. Dad was strict. They wasn't allowed the key to the front door until they got married. I rebelled as I got older. I'd wanted to go into farming but my father was having none of that so I left school and worked in a bakery. I stuck it for two years and then I thought 'I just want to do something' so I signed up for the army. I was 17 years old and my father said 'you won't last 6 weeks'. I thought 'I'll show him'.

We did all sorts of basic training to begin with. There were twenty of us in a long wooden hut, all women. In those days we wore khaki, not like the smart uniforms they wear now, and thick stockings and suspenders. We called them bullet-proof stockings because they were like the ones Nora Batty wore. I enjoyed every minute of it. Once I'd finished, I got posted to White Lodge in Richmond Park.

I started out issuing uniforms and bedding to new recruits. After a year I got a bit restless. I wanted to be a physical training instructor so I started the training. I did most of the course and then they decided after my half way assessment that I'd have to do something else. They didn't think I could make it because of my accent. I thought what a load of rubbish. In those days it was like, if your face fitted.

Instead, I became a chef. I worked my way up from basic training and ended up as an A1 instructor. I loved the life of an army chef, I really did. We used to go to dances and get invites everywhere. If you played sport it was great because you got time off to do it. I used to swim for the Army and when we had notice come on orders for all medals will be worn at the Remembrance service in 1961, I went to the RSM and said 'please mam, does that mean swimming medals?' I was as green as a gooseberry back then.

I went to Singapore towards the end of the emergency with Malaya and ran the junior ranks. I just did the managerial work, wrote the menus and organised military dinners and buffets. I went on to run the Officers Mess kitchen in Ireland. We did a big dinner for the Prime Minister in 1972. There was very tight security. And then in 1975 I ended up in Aldershot teaching catering. Men and women came in as raw recruits. Some had never even boiled an egg. It was a satisfying job!

I never really gave much thought to the changes in women's history. We did the same job as the men in a lot of cases. Like here, at the Royal Hospital. There were a few men against women being in the army but we mostly do the same. The jobs for women were limited to begin with: things like cooks, clerks and drivers, stores, ammunitions and medical orderlies. It was later that they brought in jobs specifically for women and now women do everything the men do, like go out to Afghanistan.'

Eventually, after battling with a back injury, Marjorie had to leave the army. Back on civvy street and as the youngest member of her family, she found herself filling a more traditional role. 'I'm like a lot of people', she said. 'The youngest daughter doesn't marry and looks after the parents'. But she has no regrets. 'Dad had died in hospital when Mum was ill and before that, they were both living in a home. When the doctor told me she had a year and a half to live and she didn't want to go back to the home, I said 'I'll look after her'. She used to say 'I have more friends now than I ever had in my life' because she was used to waiting on our father hand and foot and she never had time to even read a book, so I don't regret it'. But it wasn't easy and invariably, eventually Marjorie found herself alone.

Things are different now. There are more single people today than ever before. We are less limited by convention. If we don't want to live alone, we share flats, live in friendship groups, or with extended families. Not quite so straightforward for an older generation and as a sociable person, Marjorie struggled with the concept of life by herself.

'I lived in sheltered accommodation up North. I belonged to the chapel and I did a lot within that. I went to social groups and had friends but when I came back at night, I never saw a soul.'

An answer to her conundrum came unexpectedly.

'We used to have monthly meetings at my WRAC ATS Association and one week, we got this notification from our headquarters that they were planning to take in women at the RHC and the more I thought about it, the more I thought 'that sounds right'. So I got on the telephone. I never thought I would be accepted but they said I'd be the third one* in. I said, I'm not interested in that, as long as I'm there. I have been here exactly 4 years on the 22nd July. No. It's a bit like going to Westminster Abbey. It's something I'd never dreamt of.'
*third woman

I asked Marjorie, did she feel a little trepidatious about packing up her old life and moving to the city of London to begin a new chapter of her life? 'There was no sense of regret. Oh no. Seeing the little handbook, it said what you could do and it said you're free to come and go as you like. There was a limited strictness for safety, but nothing like when we were in the Army. No.

I feel proud when I put my scarlet coat on. I feel proud to have served and when I am on parade, I am marching for those we've lost and those that are still serving. Six of us were chosen to go to Westminster Abbey for the [Anniversary of the] Coronation recently. It was like living a fairy tale. When we sat there, everyone important was sat by the West door and we saw them all come in, but I was remembering sixty years ago when I was at home. Myself, my two sisters and mother and father listening to [the Coronation] on the wireless because, unless they were very wealthy, no one could afford a television. It was pouring with rain and as we listened to the service on the wireless I crocheted a red, white and blue beret. Later we listened to the firework displays and then we had to wait until we could go to the cinema to watch it on film. I was sat there remembering that and thinking those young children will be doing the same in sixty years' time. It was incredible.

The job I did before I joined the Army in the bakery, it was monotonous, you know? 8-5 every day, 5 days a week, just stood there icing buns. The majority of the people I went to school with were married by eighteen or nineteen years old with children and I didn't want to do that. I wanted to see something of the world. When I look back I think I made the right decision, but especially coming here, after looking after my family, I think I'm getting the reward now.

It's like life really began when I was sixty-five. The atmosphere, the camaraderie is fantastic. No, I love every minute of it. I do have a little laugh to myself about my Dad saying I'd only last six weeks in the army. I often think that. I think, if only you could see me! Bless him.

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