International Women’s Day

Mabel Miles

Mabel Miles, eighth child and fourth daughter of Elizabeth Anne and George James Miles of ‘Normandy Farm’, Colyer’s lane, Erith, Kent, was born on December 17, 1912. George was a gentleman farmer, having inherited the management of his property from his father, James George. The property was leased from the Church of England for a tythe, one tenth of its income and had, in feudal times, been part of the ‘Hundreds’ land that could provide a hundred men in time of war. Parts of the building dated back to the 1400s. George was well educated, having been sent to Rugby, and his family enjoyed a good social standing.

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In 1899 he married Elizabeth Anne Scudder, born 1882, daughter of an Irish Guard who was disgraced after striking an officer. He fled to Ireland but returned when Queen Victoria pardoned all deserters. Elizabeth and her family used to pick the cherries and other soft fruit the farm supplied. Life was comfortable in the big old farmhouse, big enough for the grandparents as well as George’s eleven children. There was a Mrs Kent to housekeep and bake bread and a gypsy girl called Rose to help. Outside there were labourers and a groom called Ashdown to look after the big war horses that were used around the farm.

At almost five Mabel started at Northend School and learned to sing all the anthems of Britain’s allies. She was a very bright child but very mischievous, getting the cane for her misbehaviour. Sports like high-jumping, netball and hockey took her interest, practising and competing. There was homework to be done, also jobs like feeding the chickens and dogs, collecting the cows with her brother from the marshes near the Thames and picking blackcurrants at harvest time.

When Mabel was about eleven, around 1919, her father lost his investments in a Stock Exchange crash which meant that he had to rely on the farm for income. The property was reduced as there was no money to pay labour with George finally becoming only the paid supervisor. This failure caused him to drink and by the time Mabel left school at fifteen the farm was lost. The Church decided to demolish the buildings and everything in them to make way for houses and the family was transferred to a council house in Slade Green, living on Lloyd George’s 10 shilling pension. The four younger girls were still at school and Mabel, at 16, decided to go and live at her Aunt Kate’s with her cousin Rosalie at Streatham. Kate ran a ‘nanny’ school, trained the two girls and later they transferred to St Thomas’s Hospital for more training.

Mally, as she was now called, lived-in while she was a nanny and housekeeper but went home at weekends to see her friends, go shopping and to the theatre at Woolwich. She went to football matches to watch her brother Bob play and met Cyril Hockley. Mally knew of the Hockleys but her father called them a ‘river family’ and she was not allowed to speak to them. However, romance blossomed and they would spend the weekends cycling, playing tennis or swimming. In 1933, despite the social differences, they were engaged and married in 1934, living with Cyril’s widowed father who was a merchant seaman and was often away.

The couple moved to Surrey, living in a bungalow at Smallfields and then a semi-detached house at 1 Station Approach, Horley. Here, on July 13 1939, a daughter, Hermoine Elizabeth, was born after a difficult labour. A son, Marcus William, was born, also at home, four years later on June 30, 1943 while the war raged on around them. Their house, family and a Sealyham dog called Paddy remained intact with Cyril being in the ARP (Air Raid Warden) as he was in a classified industry . However, when the war was over, the couple thought that educational and job opportunities would not be sufficient in Britain and in 1947 Cyril went to Johannesburg to work for six months. Not liking South Africa and Canada being considered too cold, the pair decided to migrate to Sydney, Australia.

Against all family objections and sponsored by Mally’s elder sister Kate who had followed her daughter to Australia, the Hockley’s became ten pound migrants and arrived in July 1951 on the S S Ormonde. After living with relatives for a month a block of land was purchased at Yagoona and the family moved into a garage that had already been built there. During the years it took to build the house both partners worked while the children went to school. Mally began as a housekeeper but moved on into a private lending library. This was followed by another library in Bankstown until she started work in an office. She taught herself bookkeeping, learnt to use machines and finally mastered the introduction of computer into the workplace. Her most senior job was as a personal assistant to a company secretary.
During this time her father and mother had died and so did Cyril in 1971. She kept on working but eventually sold the house and moved to Tascott on the Central Coast to retire and play bowls. However, tiring of country life, Mally moved back to Sydney and in 1979, purchased a house in Epping with her son and on several occasions returned to England to see her remaining sisters and one brother. She continued a busy life for the next twenty years, spoiling her four grandchildren, playing bowls and travelling until aged 87, when she died having battled cancer for eighteen months on 14 February, St Valentine’s Day, 2000.

Story contributed by Hermoine Browning.

A story from the Tapestry collection at the Jessie Street National Women's Library.