My nurse mother’s true mettle shone as the Iron Lady of Cleethorpes 

EXTRAORDINARY LIVES: My nurse mother’s true mettle shone as the Iron Lady of Cleethorpes

Britain is full of unsung heroes and heroines who deserve recognition. Here, in our weekly obituary column, the moving and inspiring stories of ordinary people who lived extraordinary lives, and who died recently, are told by their loved ones.

My Mum Sheila By Peter-Skane-Davis 

We always said that my mum and the Queen had a lot in common. Both were born in 1926, crammed so much into their long lives, and both dedicated themselves to civic duty.

Mum — an only child who grew up in Surrey — was just 17 when, desperate to get involved in the war effort and always adventurous, she managed to inveigle her way into the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. She dropped her application papers in a muddy puddle so the authorities couldn’t read her date of birth.

Barely out of school, she was sent first to Scotland, then to Calcutta, India, as part of what was known as Force 136, the cover name for a branch of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) which encouraged and supplied resistance movements in enemy-held territory.

Sheila Jones was desperate to get involved in the war effort and was always adventurous

She started off nursing, but her talents were soon spotted, and she became one of those responsible for receiving Morse code messages from British Agents dropped over Japanese lines.

At one point, Mum and another girl, Molly, were in contact with about eight agents each, could recognise each one by their individual style of tapping out Morse, and were the only two people who knew where all the agents were in enemy territory.

It was a dangerous job, but Mum loved it. And she adored India — the people, the country, the expat life. She joined the Calcutta Swimming Club, where she met my father, William Skane-Davis, a Major in the Royal Indian Army Service Corps and a keen swimmer, too. After the war, they married, moved back to England and Mum put her SOE work firmly behind her, rarely speaking of it.

Dad became a manager with Marks & Spencer, and she was a marvellous wife and brilliant mother to me, Linda, and Clive.

There were many house moves over the years, but everywhere we went, Mum made a wonderful home for us.


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For the latter years of Dad’s career, they settled in Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire, and, finally, she could put down roots and get involved.

She opened a flower shop, the Fleet Floral Service, started the Cleethorpes Ladies’ Conservative Luncheon Club, and realised a long-standing ambition to get involved in politics by standing as a Conservative councillor.

Mum was driven by a sense of duty and a genuine desire to improve the lives of others. Known for refusing to give ground to her political opponents, the Grimsby Evening Telegraph dubbed her ‘The Iron Lady of Cleethorpes’. In 1980, after many years of public service, she was elected Mayor and Dad, who’d retired by then, was her consort.

She had a fabulously successful year and loved every minute of it. She was just about to embark on a new path as an alderman when Dad’s health deteriorated.

O nce again, she put his needs before her own and they moved to Javea in Spain, where the warm weather better suited his health. They had nine happy years there before Dad died in December 1988.

She grieved for Dad — they had been married for 42 years — but Mum got on with her life in Spain, her focus on friends, family, travelling, and always helping other people.

In 1995, Mum, who was 69, married Ralph Jones, a retired banker, and the adventures started again. They travelled widely and spent six months sailing round the coast of America in a motor cruiser. Sadly, they didn’t have long. Poor Ralph died suddenly after just four years of marriage, and Mum was on her own once more.

She rallied again — I never saw her down — holidaying with her girlfriends and welcoming all of us — including six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren — to her home. In her late 70s, she went to Africa on safari and took the Blue Train, from Pretoria to Cape Town, through the Cape Winelands.

In recent years, she found comfort in the friendship of John Russell, with whom she shared coffees, meals and holidays — active up until the end, squeezing everything she could from life. I couldn’t have asked for a better, more loyal, caring, generous or public-spirited Mum. When she died, a little piece of the British Empire died with her. 

 Sheila Jones, born November 2, 1926, died June 25, 2018, aged 91.

  Praise from Prince Charles, but the chop from Simon Cowell’s mother

My husband Keith by Beatrice Biggadyke

Keith didn’t have the easiest childhood. He was just a toddler when his mother died on the day World War II started, and with his father on active service and later held in a prisoner of war camp, he was raised by his grandmother and maternal aunt in Kirton, Lincolnshire.

They expected him to work for his keep, even as a youngster, and he put in long hours in their market garden, despite suffering badly from asthma that blighted him most of his life. It stood him in good stead, though, because it inspired a love of gardening which ultimately became his career.

It’s a job that took him all over Britain and led to the occasional brush with celebrity and royalty. One of his claims to fame was that for six months he worked on the garden of Simon Cowell’s parents, Eric and Julie, at their home in Elstree, Hertfordshire.

Keith Beatrice Biggadyke’s job as a gardener took him all over Britain and led to the occasional brush with celebrities and royalty

On more than one occasion he took young Simon and his younger brother, Nicholas, to school. Simon was a nice boy by all accounts, and Keith might have got to know him better had not Eric, after one too many festive drinks, given him time off at Christmas — without his wife’s permission.

Julie was so displeased when Keith didn’t turn up that week that she fired him.

Simon’s rise to fame and fortune tickled him greatly.

Keith also liked to joke that he could boast royal approval after his work on the municipal gardens in Broseley, Shropshire, received compliments from Prince Charles when he visited. He was delighted about that.

Keith was in his 40s and newly divorced when I met him at a dance class in North London in 1978. I was instantly smitten with his twinkling eyes and beautiful smile. As I got to know him, I discovered his good looks were matched by a wonderful, caring personality: Keith would help anyone, and if he couldn’t, he’d find someone else who could.

He told me that he had two ‘birthdays’ every year because, as a young boy he’d marked his birthday on September 21. But when he finally laid eyes on his birth certificate, he discovered that his official birth date was the following day, so he decided to celebrate twice. ‘Why not?’ was his attitude.

We married in 1987 and, along with our beloved Westies, Mac and Frazer, I happily followed him wherever his gardening work took him.

Eventually, we moved back to his home county, where Keith’s final working years were spent in the grounds of Fulbeck Hall, that had been the home of the Fane family since the 17th century.

In 2002, Keith was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but was determined to carry on living life the best he could and survived another 14 years. He passed away at home with me at his bedside after signing a form saying he did not want any further treatment. I miss him terribly, as do many people. But we like to think of him up there, tending the garden — the place he was always happiest.

Thomas (Keith) Biggadyke, born September 22, 1936, died July 6, 2016, aged 79.

 A Liverpool love story that began in Penny Lane    

My husband Mike by Jean Pepper

Mike and I met in 1958 at a dance in Barney’s, which is what everyone called St Barnabas’ Church in Penny Lane, Liverpool.

Penny Lane hadn’t been made famous by The Beatles then — in fact, we were contemporaries of the group. John Lennon went to Quarry Bank School, and my friends and I used to see him play in his first band, The Quarrymen. Little did we know!

Mike swept me off my feet. It helped that he had a car, which was unusual for a young man at the time. He was apprenticed to a watchmaker, so he earned a decent wage.

Mrs Jean Pepper, wife of Mike Pepper, a watchmaker from Liverpool, whose clients included the Beatles

His dad had been a watchmaker before him, so maybe it was in the blood. He never lost his fascination with watches.

We married in 1960 and when Mike returned from National Service at RAF Waddington, Lincs, he started work with his father at Liverpool jeweller Boodle and Dunthorne.

Later, he set up his own watch repair business, and had a shop in Pensby on the Wirral. He loved his job, especially then, when repairing a watch was an art. He’d be in his element lining up all the pieces, cleaning them and getting the watch going again. He would say it was like solving a mystery.

It’s odd because he wasn’t that practical when it came to DIY — I don’t think he could put a nail in the wall straight — but he was a whizz with watches.

He thought it was a sad day when everything became battery-run and fixing a watch just meant replacing a whole unit.

People used to ask him about clocks, too, but he’d always patiently explain that clocks are very different. He was a watch man!

We had three children, a boy and two girls, and five grandchildren and a great-grandson. At one point I think he hoped our son would go into the watch business, too, but he also felt very strongly that each generation should do what they wanted to do.

Mike was so proud of our family and all they achieved. He was a mad Liverpool fan, so when one of our grandsons, Conor Pepper, became a professional footballer, he was beside himself. Conor played for Inverness and Greenock Morton. His grandad would be cheering loudest of anyone on the pitch.

Age 74, Mike was diagnosed with mouth cancer. He was determined to beat it and underwent a 16-hour operation. But the cancer came back.

He was a popular man, and very special. Hundreds of people came to his funeral to give him the send off he deserved.

And his own watch? It was an Omega, and it has gone to our son, who will treasure it and all it represents. 

 Robert Mike Pepper, born April 2, 1938, died May 14, 2017, aged 79.

 Disabled and just 4ft tall… but Ruth had a gigantic personality

 My sister Ruth by Frances Wadsworth

When Ruth was born on August 30, 1951, doctors told our parents their second child was a ‘Mongol’ who would be severely disabled, have little or no quality of life and they should ‘put her in a home’.

Our parents rejected this brutal advice, thank goodness.

Ruth was just over 4ft, but had the biggest personality and a wicked sense of fun. She was a shrewd judge of people. She never suffered fools or those who patronised her, and could cut anyone down to size if she felt they needed it.

When Ruth, pictured with her sister Frances,  was born on August 30, 1951, doctors told her parents their second child was a ‘Mongol’

She was also very perceptive and knew immediately if any of us — her three ‘sissers’, Jane, Bridget and me, or her adored nieces and nephews — were sad.

We now know, of course, that Ruth had Down’s syndrome, but back then little was known about it. Our parents coped as best they could.

Ruth attended special schools and training centres, but lived at home.

When our father retired from the Civil Service, he took on government advisory roles abroad, in Borneo, then Hong Kong, Nigeria and lastly the Seychelles. Ruth and our mum went, too.

Ruth took it in her stride. Very little fazed her — not even the snake wrapped around a lavatory in Borneo. And she coped brilliantly when the family returned to settle in Bath.

After our father’s death in 1984, she lived with Mum in Norton-sub-Hamdon, Somerset, where her life was a whirl of discos, riding for the disabled, cinema trips and excursions with Fiveways Day Centre and carers in Yeovil.

When our mum, Jean, died, aged 95, in 2013, we worried how Ruth would cope. But we needn’t have worried.

As part of the NHS Shared Lives Scheme, she moved in with a wonderful carer, Marilyn Saunders, and two other Down’s adults, John and Sarah, plus two parrots, a chicken, four Alpacas and two little dogs.

Ill health struck Ruth at the end of 2017, and she died peacefully at home with us all at her bedside.

Ruth brought happiness to all who knew her. She taught us how to love life, appreciate what really mattered, and to find laughter in everything. We miss her so much.

Ruth Victoria Wadsworth, born, August 30, 1951, died November 4, 2017, aged 66.

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