My People – Part 1

img838_1In the last edition we asked readers to share their childhood memories. Brighton actress, Kate Dyson, answered the call with some glorious memories of her famous Auntie Dolly…here’s the first instalment.

They might have been likened to a Penny Farthing. She, a handsome six footer, sallying forth in full sail like a magnificent galleon; he, the diminutive five foot nine figure at her side, dwarfed by her majesty. This though, only in stature, for the love these two shared was of equal measure. No question of that. He was Percy Sedgwick, my Great Great Uncle; she, Dolly Shepherd, his wife and my beloved Auntie. And then, of course, there was Molly, their only daughter, an unmarried schoolteacher. A little bossy, though good hearted, she strode forth with a step that would have been better suited to a Sergeant Major, ready to organise anything or anyone like a military operation. Always in the shadow of her Mother on whom she doted, it took me forty years to recognise the fine qualities Molly had inherited from Auntie. If ever there was such a thing as an enlarged heart, not as a result of disease, but because of the disproportional amount of love that was therein, then it would surely be found within these three people.

Was it fate that these distant relatives should play such an important place in the lives of my immediate family? Or was it just good fortune? Who knows? My uncle’s sister Florence, together with her Swiss husband, ran a prestigious international boys’ finishing school in Lausanne and my Grandmother was one of their four daughters. I never visited the school, but that it inadvertently also served as a high class marriage bureau was obvious. My Grandmother married a Portuguese student, and it was agreed that any daughters born to them would travel from Portugal to complete their education at their Grandparents’ school in Switzerland. Unsurprisingly, given the choice of eligible suitors, it was there that my Mother and her three siblings all met their future husbands. Meanwhile, back in England, Percy and Dolly decided to send Molly to the school to perfect her French. Molly looked upon my Mother as the sister she had never had, so when my Mother moved to England, it was Percy and Dolly who welcomed her into the bosom of their home.

From as far back as I can remember, my parents, my sister Christine and I would
spend our summers at Seaview, Auntie’s aptly named bungalow in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. In a frenzy of excitement, we would catch the ferry from Portsmouth, where my poor father, who had no sea legs, would disappear for the duration of the twenty minute journey, only re-joining us at Ryde, his face by then, the colour of newly mown grass. The train to Ventnor, with seagulls screeching overhead, further fuelled our excitement until we finally arrived at the bungalow where, running down the long path, we would be welcomed into the ample arms of our darling Auntie, the delicious smell of her bread pudding seeping from under the kitchen door. Then Uncle, who would usually be in the greenhouse tending his plants, would come out to greet us, assuring us that the tomato plants were, as happened each year, eagerly awaiting our arrival so that we could treat them to a watering with our wee.

The whole summer was bliss. Auntie, who walked with a stick, could not accompany us on our daily adventures, but returning to her each teatime was the perfect ending to each wonderful day. My sister and I would gambol across the downs, butterfly nets in tow to capture and shorten the lives of our poor unsuspecting prey. What we did with them then will go with me to the grave. We would enjoy long walks to the accompaniment of our father’s rendering of “Mud, mud, glorious mud” and “Albert and the Lion” which he delivered with a perfect northern accent. We would spend hours by the sea, and Molly, with enormous patience, would teach us to swim. One occasion I will never forget was the day I nearly met my maker. Always a show off and with a sense of adventure, I challenged my sister to join me in leaping head on into the waves. She wisely refused, and looked on as one particularly playful wave took me for a ride. The next thing I remember was my mother, fully clothed, dragging me back to the shore, the red dye from her new cardigan trailing down her legs, and her indignation at my father for not having come to my rescue. Fortunately, the shame of the red dye seemed to override my near death, which meant I was in no way reprimanded for my inappropriate adventurous spirit. Then there was the annual carnival. The build up to this was my mother slaving over Auntie’s sewing machine to make our fancy dress costumes.

One of our greatest treats was rummaging amongst the treasures in Auntie’s loft. She would lower the ladder, and we would scramble up there and play and browse and fantasise to our heart’s content. Eventually we would re-emerge laden with goodies, and it was through the boxes of photographs, a constant source of curiosity, that we learnt of her extraordinary past.

Dolly Shepherd in her parachuting costume c.1910
Dolly Shepherd in her parachuting costume c.1910

Auntie’s parents had an Ostrich Feather Emporium. Yes. An ostrich feather emporium. Now how glamorous is that to two young girls? But oh dear, there was a down side. Overwhelming though this knowledge was, it left me wondering at my father’s choice of profession. A solicitor was so boring. Head of a boys’ school would have been my first choice, (I wonder why?) and owning an emporium…Need I say more? And then Auntie herself. She was a really famous Edwardian balloonist and parachutist.
Christine and I would marvel at the photos of her, dressed in her beautiful knickerbockers, as she paraded around the Alexander Palace to the roaring crowds, before entering into the wicker basket below the balloon. Our Auntie, our wonderful Auntie was a star. But best of all, she belonged to us, and her bread pudding was not shared by the crowd. Auntie would laugh and laugh at our adulation. To her, all this was in the past and nothing as compared to her life as a wife and mother. She was very modest, and always had to be prompted by Molly to continue her story. To this day there are three enormous murals at the Ally Pally of Auntie in the grounds with her parachute at her side. With our mouths gaping open, Christine and I would beg for more information. How did she come to do this? She told us.

To be continued…

2 thoughts on “My People – Part 1”

  1. Dear Kate – Hello! What joy and excitement it brings me to read your blog post. As since Aug 14th 2015 of this year, I myself have been blog posting about your Great-Great Aunt, I found about her by accident. It is amazing to read your insight to yours and her family life. I have been trying to do my own research and keep getting the same information regarding her tremendous and exciting entertainment career and also her work during both world wars.
    I now live in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, although originally from East London.
    I have since found that Dolly Shepherd is somewhat forgotten or just not known about in these parts during the passage of time and I have been on my own personal mission to get this ‘Daughter’ of Potters Bar, Hertfordshire and resident of New Southgate, Enfield remembered and honoured in some way. Some days it has felt like I have been banging on locked doors or stepping on official toes. So I have decided to write a few blog posts and now have been contact by the International Women’s Air & Space Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. Who were researching further information on Dolly Shepherd and came across my blog post.
    When I first found about Dolly Shepherd I was really surprised find out how much historical writing has been published on her esp. for her Parachuting and WW1 work.
    Thank you for writing your blog post this has somewhat helped me with what has felt sometimes a little overwhelming at times, whilst researching and finding out as much I can about your Dear Great-Great Aunt. Thank you for sharing your insight of her with the rest of us ‘Dolly Fans’. Kind regards – Debra Cadet-Wallace!

  2. Hi Kate-I, too, am a fan of Dolly Shepherd! I live in the US, in NJ. I have been researching Dolly’s life story for about a year, and am in the process of writing a children’s book about her. If you’d be willing to communicate with me regarding this (if you want to read the manuscript before it’s published, etc), please contact me. I eagerly await you next blog post! [Funny coincidence–when I was young, I vacationed at my Pop Pop’s house at the Atlantic shore in Ventnor, NJ. His tomatoes were fabulous!]

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