In putting together this address I have had some help. I have had help from Nancy’s sister Judith and from her nephews Stephen and Richard and from many others who have shared their memories of Nancy. But, as has been the way throughout my life, I have had Nancy’s help as well, as words of re-assurance she spoke to an anxious student of hers about to sit a piano exam, many years ago, were shared with me during one of many bittersweet conversations about Nancy that have taken place in recent weeks. What Nancy said, in paraphrase to her student was:
‘Play the notes you know …… and leave the ones you don’t’.
Thank you, Nancy, for that – it has re-assured me. You lived a long life, in your own unique style and there will be so much that I cannot know, so many lives that you have touched and on which you have left your mark. I cannot hope to do justice to all of that, but I can speak to the part you have played in our lives, and I hope too in the lives of some of those with us today, be it in person or via Zoom.
Nancy spent her childhood in the village of Bransgore in Dorset – born on the 7th October 1926 to William Harry (Bill) and Alice Mary (Mollie) Bennett, younger sister to Judith born the previous year and in due course elder sister to Geoffrey born in 1930. One of Nancy’s earliest memories seems to have been sharing the footwell of the pram with Judith as Geoffrey rode in state above.
Bill was the headmaster of Bransgore village school, a post he held for 40 years. Life for the young family held few domestic comforts. Judith describes the water being drawn from the well and heated via a gas carbide plant in an outhouse, stoked by Bill if anyone needed a bath. When the schoolhouse was connected to the main and Mr Bennett asked the school governors if his young family might install an indoor bathroom -his request it seems was met with astonishment – whatever did Mr Bennett want a bathroom for?
Nancy’s father was not only the village headmaster, but he also directed an “un-auditioned” choir whose performances it seems could rival any auditioned groups. In gratitude his choir presented him with a silver capped conductor’s baton, engraved with his initials, passed on to Nancy and then to Richard, who followed in his aunt’s musical footsteps. Nancy’s love of choral music must have been born at that time and she must too have been imbued with the Bennett family adage that was of such benefit, not only to Nancy, but to all of those she encountered in her long life:
“If you’re going to do something, do it well.”
Nancy of course grew up during the war years and her wartime experiences must have had a profound effect on her. Her father, for example, was responsible for receiving telephone calls warning of air raids after which he would contact the operator of the air raid siren. The family would stay huddled in the living room, often in total blackout conditions, until the phone rang with the “all clear.”
At 10 years old, Nancy passed the entrance exam to attend Talbot Heath High School in Bournemouth – presided over by the redoubtable Miss Stocks, whose name joined the lexicon of both the Bennett family and my own to censure any unwanted behaviour:
‘Miss Stocks’ we were told ‘wouldn’t like it’
It was at Talbot Heath, Nancy met my mother, Ruth – a friendship very much approved of by my maternal grandparents who felt Nancy to be a very good influence but less welcome it seems to Mr & Mrs Bennett who found the young Ruth perhaps a little more wayward than they might have hoped for in a friend for Nancy. Early indications perhaps that Nancy would make up her own mind about how things were going to be.
Through her school years, the war was never far away and when the local church organist, was called, up, Judith and then Nancy took on playing the organ at the church services, adapting their piano skills with a few brief lessons on the organ before being pitched headlong into church services. Nancy’s train journey to school, involved a change at Bournemouth and Richard remembers her describing the scene she encountered shortly after Dunkirk:
“When I stepped onto the platform, I saw a sea of men – the dead and the dying – and blood everywhere. A sight no 15 year old girl should have to see.”
I’ve no doubt her childhood experiences framed Nancy’s life – her utter and impressive determination not to dwell on difficulties but ‘get on with it’ – without complaint. In her last week, when I spoke to her on the phone in hospital, she was still buckling down and getting on with it – just as she had always done.
After school Nancy gained a place at the Royal Academy of music studying under
Freddie Jackson, Professor of Piano and founding choir master of the London Philharmonic Choir and Douglas Hawkridge, the RA’s renowned and longstanding Professor of Organ. She talked with huge affection for the rest of her life about her studies and about Freddie, practicing in a drafty Methodist Hall close to her lodgings and occasionally meeting up with Judith, then a student nurse at Guys, for a 2&6 supper at the Lyons Corner House.
Nancy may have left her own family, but her capacity to make new friends anywhere she went stood her in good stead. In Dulwich Park for example, lugging her heavy suitcase towards her lodgings, she came across Betty Swan with baby Brian in a pushchair and his sister at her feet. A conversation struck up and before long, Brian was routed from the comfort of his pushchair, to be replaced by the heavy suitcase, which was duly pushed to Nancy’s digs. Nancy and Betty became firm friends, Betty offering Nancy a weekly bath and supper on Sundays whilst she attended the Academy. Nancy’s friendship with the Swan family endured until the present day with Brian, the baby routed from the pushchair, and his wife Linda, still visiting Nancy following her broken ankle. In time, the ‘digs’ proved unsatisfactory, and my mother suggested that Nancy might find a home instead with her sister Joy, husband Arthur and their young family. Nancy settled easily into these families’ lives, her warm heart and sense of enduring practicality making her less a house guest and more a member of the family.
And these were just two of many families that Nancy took to her heart over the years – taking great delight in the children, enjoying their quirks and I think their ability to say things how they are rather than how they should be. Collecting their special moments and funny sayings and storing them as precious memories, to be re-told and enjoyed again. Collecting four godchildren along the way to say nothing of 6 nieces and nephews and many many students who stayed in touch and became firm friends. And then supporting those children as they grew into adults – becoming indispensable to us really as we relied on her to be present for the key moments in our lives. And sending gifts – carefully and thoughtfully chosen and always accompanied by the most beautiful card.
Stephen and I have already noted, quite independently of each other, that the lack of the annual Calendar from Auntie Nancy, is going to be a problem.
That is not to say that Nancy did not have her own unique style of sternness that could provoke fear in those who didn’t know her – and perhaps even when we fell short – in those of us who did. After the Royal Academy she began her teaching career spending many years as Music Mistress at Wroxall Abbey in Warwickshire. She was, I’m sure, strict, she never suffered fools gladly and had minimal tolerance for poor behaviour. I understand her initials led some of the girls to note that NB stood not only for Nancy Bennett but Nota Bene -an appropriate moniker – Note Well – and gosh, we did. Stephen and Richard have both shared with me their memories of high expectations of table manners, her reference to errant elbows on tables with the query ‘Is that parked there’ and I was always relieved when Nancy came to stay with us when my girls were small, that when the pressure was on, their table manners too could rise to the challenge of a visit from Auntie Nancy.
But more importantly Nancy was also greatly admired and respected by her pupils – some of whom she has remained friends with for more than sixty years. At Wroxall Abbey she ran the most wonderful choirs, organised daily services, three on a Sunday and Carol Services that were loved by all – playing the organ in her stockinged feet and enriching the life of the school with her own very special blend of music – carefully selected and often slightly out of the ordinary. The road less travelled – albeit in small ways – was always Nancy’s way.
In 1964 Nancy headed off to Canada, encouraged by friends and I’m sure her brother Geoffrey and family now settled there, to seek out a new adventure. Her years at Compton School for Girls in Quebec were happy ones. Their yearbook archives make several references to Miss Bennett. In one entry, if you read between the lines, it’s obvious that her junior choir is outstripping the senior choir. No surprise there.
During her time in Canada Nancy travelled widely, sometimes with her friend Anne, sometimes with Judith and often alone, boarding a Greyhound bus to explore the continent, – finding someone to talk to and making friends along the way.
On her return to the UK in 1968 Nancy took up a position at Benenden School in Kent – as teacher of music and in due course House Mistress of Hemsted House, from where her sitting room, housed in the main 19th Century building, enjoyed spectacular views of the parkland and beyond. Her young nephews and nieces, visiting from Canada were most impressed with the beautiful surroundings in which they found their Auntie Nancy.
Nancy’s success at Benenden and the countless long and lasting friendships formed with her students, their families and her colleagues during those years are testament not only to an impressive career, progressed through her own talent and hard work but also to Nancy’s character – always purposeful and determined but with a strong sense of the unusual and a wry sense of humour – a capacity to enjoy the unconventional moments of life that gave Nancy a uniqueness that drew us all to her.
From her amusement at overhearing a castigated child muttering ‘Bloody Bennett’, to her tendency to leave in the less savoury elements of the books she chose for Early Bed reading to the Junior Girls, from taking Richard to the Edinburgh Fringe to delighting in the irreverent humour of Flanders & Swan, Joyce Grenfell and Victor Borge – to name a few – AND being able to quote them, at length to the very end of her days. Thanks to Nancy there are families, probably all over the world, word perfect in some of these gems. In fact, what I will remember most about Nancy is her wit, her sense of the absurd and her ability to make me laugh even from a hospital bed when a cardboard sick bowl became ‘her office’ with her correspondence, notebook, pen and glasses – all neatly stowed and in good order.
During her Benenden years and afterwards during her retirement Nancy hosted her nephews and nieces, each of them sent in turn to the UK to experience something of the mother country. Each visit was catered to each individual’s interests with non-touristy stuff specifically encouraged – driven around in Nancy’s yellow ford escort estate but allowed to explore for themselves. When she retired and made Oaklands Road her permanent home where she cared for her mother, she was given by the girls of Hemsted House, a slightly unusual gift and therefore quite appropriate for Nancy. It was of course Ceasar her first Siamese cat who was to become her much loved companion, followed, after his death, by the equally individual Figaro.
Either with her parents or alone, Oaklands Road was Nancy’s home for over fifty years – but despite being advised that:
‘If you live here the greatest test of memory is the weekly bin collection’.
her retirement was certainly not an unfulfilling one. She continued to travel, visiting the Canadian side of the family every few years – her last visit as recent as 2019 for her brother Jefferey’s memorial celebration – and visiting friends all over the UK – holidaying with Stephen, Judith and family, playing the organ here at St Laurence Church and then rushing off to play at the Methodist church as well. Organising her ‘With Great Pleasure’ selections of poetry and prose for the Wesley Guild, always well attended and thoroughly enjoyed, accompanying friends on the piano at music recitals, supporting her community, her friends and her neighbors with kindness and practical support, spending Christmas with her great friends from Benenden days, and of course supporting all of us too, playing the organ at our weddings, remembering our birthdays and just being there when the chips were down.
Nancy was someone very special. Her practical take on life, to me is embodied in The Serenity Prayer – given to me by Nancy at my confirmation and carried in my wallet ever since.
It asks God for the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Well, that was just Nancy.
Right to the end during one of my last conversations with her in hospital, she was as pragmatic as ever and once we had discussed the pressures on the NHS, their administrative procedures and their funding – she was ready to move on:
‘Well – Let’s not worry about that now.’
And Nancy was brave, extremely brave, with an unshakeable determination: When Nancy fell and broke her ankle in September, through the weeks that followed, the doctors’ admiration for her, her remarkable recovery and her quiet determination to get back to fitness and get on with all the things that needed her attention, made her the subject of much pride for Cheri and I, as we ‘clucked’ over her like proud Mother Hens.
And finally, perhaps most distinctly, was Nancy’s attention to the small things which, when added together, make life more interesting, often more entertaining, and perhaps just better. From the neatness of her home to her beautiful and distinctive handwriting which to this day will adorn the inside cover of many books on many shelves; from the rigour with which she kept in touch with old friends, remembered birthdays and selected gifts with thought and care; to the nuggets of memory, that she stored in the form of stories, oft told but none the less entertaining for that; from the sharpness of her mind to the precision of her thinking, that allowed her to make sense of the world despite her 94 years, Nancy treasured the detail of life and when she shared it with you, you realised that perhaps you should too.
It has been a consolation to me that up until the last week of her life, Nancy continued to do things her way, with a sense of order and in the way she wanted them done. We might not have organised her kitchen quite as she wished it, but she was in touching distance of getting it all straight again and she was looking forward to that.
It is heart-breaking to have lost Nancy in the manner in which we have. A pupil and old friend wrote to me saying she had thought Nancy was indestructible. I think we all did. And yet, on reflection I feel that Nancy would have said
‘So be it’
and would have spread her hands in the way Nancy did to emphasise the point. Her faith was strong and her sense of the order of things clear. She lived her own life, right into her 95th year, a pretty full life, stoic through lockdown, taking the Telegraph daily, walking up to the village to do some shopping, busy on the phone and with her correspondence and now leaving a very big hole in so many people’s lives. She lived a long life, full of friendship, kindness, and laughter. I think she would have been content with that.