I have many fond memories of Rowena and my thoughts are with all the friends and family at this time, as they have been with Rowena over the last few years. I had heard snippets of Rowena's life on several occasions over the years, but never the detail.....what a life.....I am her first cousin twice removed (I think), my gran, Rowena's cousin were very close and hence I saw Rowena lots when I was younger, less so in recent years, but I was never short of news and updates on how things were progressing especially the events of the last few years....I remember both ladies now and imagine the two of them nattering over a cup of tea, happy and at peace.........
This is a relatively brief and highly selective biographical note on the very long life of Rowena Mary Speight. The people and places named hereunder will, for the most part, be known only to “the locals”, but the writer hopes that the story may be found to have much that will be of interest to all.
Rowena was born to Ellen and Ernest Insley on December 30th, 1915. Her place of birth was at what is now known as Tuckers Holt Farm, although she knew it as Bentleys Farm. Her mother Ellen, before marriage, was nanny for a family in Rutland, and Ellen’s young charge was named Rowena. That was how Ellen and Ernest’s daughter came to be so named.
While Rowena was still a very young girl, the family moved to Newton Burgoland, initially renting in Glencoe Cottages before moving, in 1920, to School Lane and to what was to be Rowena’s home for over ninety years.
Her schooling, first at Newton Burgoland and then at Ibstock, finished at age 14, but one aspect of it that stayed with her through life was the learning by heart of various pieces of poetry. Even in late age she was able to recite Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud poem from memory with very few errors or hesitations.
In time, she went into domestic service, firstly in Leicester and then with a doctor’s family at Cropston. When friends of this family visited from America, the family – and Rowena – learned of the then King Edward VIII’s involvement with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson well ahead of when the UK press began to write about it during the build-up to the abdication crisis.
During the Second World War, from the house at Cropston it was occasionally possible to see the flashes of anti-aircraft fire at Derby as the Luftwaffe attempted to bomb the Rolls-Royce aero engine factory where the Merlin engines for Spitfires and Lancasters were built.
The doctor’s family also employed a cook, and Rowena had to leave the family’s employment when increasing wartime regulation of the labour force came to rule that domestic staff must be limited to one per household. Rowena returned to the family home in Newton and took up employment with British Timken in Coalville. This company, which made roller bearings and ball bearings, had relocated one-third of its production capacity from the Birmingham area, in line with a wartime desire to lessen the impact of Luftwaffe bombing raids by not having too much of the nation’s vital industrial capacity concentrated in a small number of major centres.
Also during these years, Rowena met and married Frank Speight, Yorkshire-born but brought up in Ireland. They met while he was garrisoned at the now-demolished Gopsall Hall, between Shackerstone and Twycross, the place where George Frederick Handel is reputed to have composed some parts of his oratorio The Messiah. Their first child, Wendy Marie, was born in April 1945, a few weeks before VE Day, followed by a son, Kevin Francis in 1946 and lastly by another son, Kim Patrick, in October 1954.
Frank Speight died in March 1957 after a three-year battle with cancer, and Rowena, aged only 41, set out on a widowhood that was to last for more than half a century. Those were hard years, with three youngsters to feed and clothe, and with income scarce. Her Widowed Mothers Allowance was supplemented by whatever casual work she could take on, such as domestic cleaning, including for Norah Chawner, a past headmistress of Newton Burgoland Primary School, and also sometimes the hard physical labour of potato-picking for Sid Sumner, about which tales abound, featuring not only the larger-than-life character of Sid but also frequently Maud Hodgkinson, especially the occasion when Rowena and Maud were somewhat unsteadily riding their bicycles back from Swepstone after a far-from-small “tot” of brandy.
In 1963, Rowena started work in the kitchens at the former Bosworth Park Infirmary. Usually working mornings only, she would travel to Market Bosworth on the 7:15 a.m. factory bus operated by W. H. Bailiss for workers in the boot-and-shoe factories in the Hinckley and Barwell areas, and would return home at 1:30 p.m. on the Midland Red service that operated between Nuneaton and Ashby. This employment lasted for eight years until the Midland Red service was terminated. Upon her enforced departure, Rowena received letters of thanks for her service, both from the Chairman of the hospital’s committee and personally from the Matron; these letters remain in the family’s possession.
Rowena’s next move was into the Leicestershire Home Help Service, with encouragement from her long-time friend Marjorie Smith, herself a long-time Home Help. In the course of this work, Rowena visited clients in Newton, Swepstone, Snarestone and Heather, and occasionally as far afield as Congerstone, where Rowena’s client was a lady in her nineties who in her much younger years had been a domestic in the household of Earl Howe at Gopsall Hall. The old lady regaled Rowena with tales of when “Bertie” (later King Edward VII) used to visit Gopsall, as both prince and King, sometimes in the company of Queen Alexandra, and sometimes with other ladies. As the old lady put it to Rowena, “I don’t need to tell you what was going on there!”
Rowena’s mode of transport for her Home Help work was a bicycle. On one occasion when she was riding to Heather, the local postman came up astern of her in his van, and, finding her pedalling along more or less in the middle of the road, regaled her with a merry greeting of “Shift over!” Rowena remained with the Home Help Service until her “official” retirement from all work, but she continued as a private, unofficial “home help” for several years, notably for the late Edna Camp and also for Brenda Sumner and Nick Makin, as recently noted by Brenda on the “Leicestershire Villages” website.
In March of 1973, Rowena became a grandmother, when Rebecca Louise was born to Wendy and David, with a second granddaughter, Victoria Jane, following on almost two years later. She became a frequent weekend visitor to Wendy and David’s home in Barrow upon Soar. Rowena often recounted a “bedtime story” incident involving young Rebecca. Those of us who are of a certain age will perhaps recall the Rupert Bear annuals, where each story was presented in two forms, firstly as a single rhyming couplet under each of the story’s illustrations and secondly in a longer narrative at the foot of each page. On this occasion, Rowena, a little pressed for time and with other tasks in mind, attempted to skimp the job by reading only the rhyming couplets. It didn’t work. When she’d done, a little voice that nevertheless brooked no refusal said “Now-Read-ALL-Of-It...”.
On another occasion, the two young girls came into Rowena’s bedroom early one morning. Rowena was lying with her back facing the bedroom door when she heard the two sets of small footsteps coming into the room, and so decided not to let on that she was awake. Rebecca, the older and therefore often the spokesperson, spoke thus: “Isn’t she big? She fills the bed!” Rowena, in her pretended sleep, could only imagine the younger Victoria sagely but silently nodding in agreement.
Wendy, David and the two girls emigrated to Canada early in 1980, and Rowena made several visits across the ocean while she was still able to do so. In 1987 she stayed with the family for three months, returning on the morning of the Great October Hurricane. She was most put out that she missed her post-in-flight-meal cup of tea; the cabin crew served those wanting coffee first, and by the time that was done, the plane was already experiencing turbulence, so the teas were cancelled. Kim met her at a very windy and wet Birmingham Airport that morning, offering a Gore-Tex cagoule with the laconic comment “I think you might need this...”.
Rowena remained quite active and independent until past the turn of the century, but in Spring of 2001 she suffered a fall while mowing her lawn (at the age of 85!) and sustained a fracture of the left femur. She recovered enough to be able to visit Canada again later the same year, and also the following year for Rebecca’s wedding, and she continued to enjoy a reasonable degree of mobility for several years.
Between 2004 and 2011, with both granddaughters married, she became a great-grandmother four times over, and was able to see each of Sydney, Evan, Julian and Konrad at least twice when their families were visiting from Canada.
The second decade of the new century marked the beginning of unmistakable signs of decline, with Rowena not only increasingly bed-bound but also afflicted by advancing blindness, deafness and mental confusion. Even so, she still had her lucid moments. Sometime in 2013, the following conversation took place:-
Rowena: “How old am I now?”
Kim: “Well, how old do you think you are?”
Rowena: “Ninety-three?” (Rowena’s estimates of her age varied from time to time, the top bid, in answer to one of her agency carers, was somewhere around a hundred and twenty-eight.)
Kim: “No, you’re ninety-seven!”
That seemed to satisfy Rowena. Then, after a few more minutes:-
Rowena: “What do I have to do to get a card from the Queen?”
Sadly, there will now of course be no card from Her Majesty, but it is a mercy and a blessing that Rowena's final illness was relatively brief, and that, after a long, full and sometimes tough life, Rowena is now deservedly at rest. Sleep well, Mum.