Eulogy for Mary Freeland

My grandmother, Lady Freeland, died aged 92, in 2012. This is the eulogy I gave at her funeral in the church of St Peter ad Vincula, Coggeshall, Essex two years ago this week. It was published at the time in a slightly amended form by the parish magazine of St. Peter’s. The editor removed all references to adultery and drug taking, probably for dubious reasons of rectitude.

Mary Freeland, was a woman of fortitude with a wonderful spirit and sense of humour. She was born on 30th July 1919 in Meltham, near Huddersfield in Yorkshire when Lloyd George was Prime Minister.

Her mother was Hilda Hirst and her father Clement Armitage. Her Hirst grandfather lived in a house next to the family mill in Meltham. He had 8 children and 24 grandchildren. Most of that generation of 24 cousins were close all their lives. Her Armitage grandfather played cricket for Yorkshire against the touring Australians in 1877; he played for many years for the Yorkshire Gents (the team I now play for, and I am wearing their tie today).

Her father was in the army and the family, including her brothers Charles, Robert and Johnny, moved to Aldershot. They were out riding one day (Mary was twelve) when her mother was thrown from her horse in front of her and died from her injuries. Mary was sent to ride back to the house for help. She told me last year (on her 92nd birthday) that after galloping along the road to get help she later felt guilty for enjoying the sensation, as galloping on roads was forbidden by her parents. A week later Miss Chuggy, her governess, was dispatched to Yorkshire to be the governess for the Hirsts, and Mary was sent away to boarding school in Suffolk. She had those additional disruptions to deal with on top of her mother’s death.

She hated school. She was a natural rebel against authority. It was one of her most (to me) attractive features. But the beauty of a rebellious personality is not recognised at school. After she left Mary, was sent to finishing school near Florence and then onto Munich in the mid-1930s. In Munich she would have tea at the Osteria Bavaria, a small local restaurant also frequented then by Unity Mitford and Adolf Hitler.

She travelled to join her father who was Quarter Master General for India. He banned her from travelling to Simla in the Himalayas because he had a theory that adultery was rampant at an altitude of 6000 feet. She met Ian Freeland in India (at sea level) and they got engaged. Ian sent her back to England in 1939 aged just twenty to organise the wedding there (he would follow later) and to introduce herself to his parents Sir Henry and Lady Freeland. She told me once how terrified she was at the prospect of this. They were married on 2nd January 1940 at Kilverstone Chapel near Thetford, the home of her best friend at the time, Kay Fisher.

For the first year of their marriage Ian and Mary lived in a hotel. The sole reason being Mary had not yet learnt to cook, and she was not prepared to admit it. On the nights Ian was away she kept a loaded revolver under her pillow. Whether it was to kill Nazis, or herself in the event of a German invasion of the hotel room, I’m not sure.

Her son Charles was born in 1941, Sue (my mother) in 1943. They lived in Lechlade with Mary’s father while Ian was away training soldiers for the Normandy landings. Her youngest brother Johnny was killed in action. A policeman late one evening brought the black-edged telegram to Lechlade. Her father was in bed asleep. Mary answered the door. She saw the telegram. She did not know which of her three brothers had died (all were serving overseas). The telegram was for her father. She pleaded with the policeman not to wake him so that he could have a last good night’s sleep before the terrible news was imparted. The policeman insisted on him being woken and the telegram was opened.

Henry was born in 1948, and Mary lived the life of an army officer’s wife. The family went to Germany in the late 1940s and Cyprus in the 1950s. During the Suez crisis they were back in England living in Merrow near Guildford while Ian was at the Staff College in Camberley and Mary became a Special Police Constable. They returned home one day to discover that their house had been burgled and her police uniform had been neatly laid out on the floor, and stamped upon.

Mary all her adult life was a great worrier. Less for herself than for her loved ones (and I include her dogs in that). Henry, aged eleven, was perceived by her to be suffering from excessive anxiety. Mary summarily took him out of his school and presented him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist prescribed medication, but oddly it was mainly to her; Henry thereafter made a speedy recovery.

In the 1960s Ian, by now a General, was posted to Kenya to oversee the transition to Independence. He was to travel some months before her. Some of the Happy Valley set were still in residence and Ian stayed temporarily in the house of Diana, Lady Delamere. He had some smart pyjamas made, because that is what the old colonial Kenyan settlers wore for dinner instead of formal evening wear. Diana Delamere, a beauty, had scandalised the colony with her affair with the Earl of Erroll in the early part of the war, before he was murdered. Knowing of Diana’s reputation as a man eater, and contemplating the new pyjamas, Mary swiftly followed to join Ian in Kenya hoping Ian was still well below 6000 feet.

Once she had joined him they went to live in Karen Blixen’s old house. “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills” as the author memorably has it in the first line of Out of Africa.

Posted back to a job in the MOD Ian and Mary lived in London and took the family at weekends to Foxley in Norfolk, an old rectory they had bought. They lived for a time in Roman Hill House in Colchester. Mary was never a woman to bottle things up. Her forthrightness was a strong part of her character. My mother remembered shopping with her in Colchester in the 1960s and on leaving the shop Mary saying to her “Darling that shop assistant has very bad B.O. I think we should tell her.” My mother, horrified, quickly left the shop and hid, Mary returned to deliver the, no doubt unwelcome news. “Well”, she reasoned later “none of her friends were going to tell her, so it was a kindness for me to”.

In July 1969 Ian was posted to Belfast. There had been no trouble in Northern Ireland since partition in 1922, so it was regarded as an easy posting for a soon to retire General. Two weeks after they arrived, the IRA troubles erupted. The local politicians were unable to deal with this and Ian found himself holding the line between the factions in a very tense situation. After a particularly stressful 18 months the secret service found Ian’s name at the top of an IRA hit list and so, on his retirement, he and Mary had to be smuggled out to exile in Australia, flying out on the morning of my brother Tom’s birth on 4th February 1971. Only my mother knew where they were. Not even Charles and Henry were told. Later on, following their return to Foxley, police lived full time in the house. I remember as a six year old being driven around North Norfolk in what I perceived to be my own private police car. Characteristically, however, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, over 25 years later, Mary was sympathetic to Gerry Adams and took a pro-Catholic stance. She was always politically non-conformist. I cherish the fact that she was once asked to leave a WI meeting for disrupting it by asking impertinent questions of a pro-Tory speaker.

Then shortly into a well-earned retirement Ian died, aged just 66. Mary moved to Coggeshall in Essex. My family lived near Colchester and so we saw her often. Her daughter Sue developed cancer and died aged 50 in 1994. It is not surprising given that so many of Mary’s loved ones died young, that she should have been so anxious about those close to her.

Mary’s parents were from a generation that did not educate their daughters properly. She had an excellent brain. She did the Times crossword every day and often solved it. She was a spirited and skilful bridge player. This Easter she and I played bridge with my father and son Alexander: four generations at one table.

She was a great dog lover. I remember her beloved spaniels and dachshunds being given scrambled eggs for breakfast. One long haired spaniel had her ears daily fastened above her head with a washing peg for this messy meal. A dachshund called Toby was given, by her, portions of a valium tablet to calm his nerves. (Whose anxiety was worse I cannot say).

She was very musical, an accomplished pianist and an organist in church. She had a lovely singing voice, although when in the congregation she would sing a beat ahead of the organ in a futile attempt to speed the hymn up. (I did the same on her behalf for the first hymn today). I have been to a Handel recital with her when she took and followed the score throughout. On the other hand when we attended a Bryan Adams concert together, she stuffed wax into her ears before it had even started.

Her worrying about others never ceased. No doubt all of her grandchildren here have their own stories about being contacted by her. My experience, after I moved to Yorkshire in the 1990s, was that I would get telephone calls following a flash flood in Sheffield or a flurry of snow in Middlesbrough (both 70-80 miles away from where I live) “Darling are you all right?” No need to ask who was calling.

She taught me so much:
How to be argumentative whilst always remaining courteous.
How to show intelligence but avoid earnestness.
How to be direct in conversation but not boorish.
How to be radical but never a fanatic.

She radiated and spread so much love, and it was returned in abundance. Some people who die in their 90s have only a few mourners at their funeral. There are over 300 people in this church today.

It is written in Ecclesiastes that there is “a time to be born and a time to die”. Unlike her mother, her brother, her husband and her daughter, she, at 92, and as her powers were beginning to fade, found the right time to die.

Edward Bindloss, July 2012

St Peter ad Vincula, Coggeshall


5 thoughts on “Eulogy for Mary Freeland

  1. Sean Conlon says:

    Hi Edward
    I have a letter that was written by your grandmother Mary.to my Mum in 1971. My Dad served with Ian in Northern Ireland as his Close Protection officer. If you are interested in seeing the letter, i will gladly send you a copy via e-mail attachment.
    Regards, Sean

  2. Sean Conlon says:

    Hi Edward
    Not sure if you received my last comment regarding your grandmother Mary. I have a letter written by Mary dated 1st February 1971 to my Mum.
    My Dad served with Ian in Northern Ireland, as his Close Protection officer. I am happy to forward you the letter via e-mail attachment.

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