Sheelah Horsfield 1923-2013

Memorial service

The service was held at the Church of St Bartholomew, Cranmore, Somerset on Saturday 8 March 2014, and it turned out to be a lovely afternoon with fine weather.

Mum requested that this service should be a celebration of her life and there was a definite floral aspect to people's dress.

The order of service

This was decorated with Mum's pictures and here is the PDF version.

Hugo’s eulogy

Some years back, I think when we were still living at Southill, Ma and I were watching Great Train Journeys of the World on TV. They were doing one on the trip up to Quetta in Pakistan. The terrain was pretty jagged and the railway line was the sort where if you weren’t in a tunnel, you were on a bridge. They had this amazing shot, taken from a helicopter, chasing the steam train as it threaded itself through the landscape. At the end of it, Ma said she used to go up and down that line. Once, the local Railway Superintendent, who was a friend of her father Rex, had put four wicker chairs on the front of the engine and four of them had then travelled up to Quetta like that. It must have been the most breath-taking journey.

Ma was born on Boxing Day 1923 in Nottingham. Her father, Rex Eagan, was a railway engineer, who worked for North Western Railways in British India. He was born in Coonoor in the Nilgri Hills of southern India, the son of an Emporium owner. Both sides of his family were descended from soldiers who had gone out to India and decided to stay. He went to Nottingham University just before the First World War and it was in Nottingham that he met Gwladys Jones. They married in February 1917.

Gwladys Jones or Margôt as she preferred to be known was the daughter of a branch manager for the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society. She was born in Sheffield, but her parents both came from Liverpool, of Welsh, Irish and Manx stock.

Shortly after Ma was born, the family moved out to India and her brother Dennis was born in Quetta in August 1926. By the early 30s they were living in Lahore at 6a Sunder Das road, opposite Mayo Gardens. Ma mentioned sitting on Kim’s gun “Zamzama” and also sitting on top of Dennis and drizzling grass into his face. There are some photos that we discovered recently showing Ma and her brother wearing sola topees while being carried round in a dandy, which is a pram like vehicle with a bearer, instead of a wheel, at each corner. The family seemed to like dressing up because there is a photo of Rex dressed as a Pearly King, leading Ma round on a Donkey, at the Lahore Children’s Gymkhana in 1932. There are any number of pictures of Ma and Dennis with big, unruly hair.

Like a lot of Children of the Empire, Ma was sent back to England for schooling. That doesn’t sound so bad these days, when you can pop on an airplane and fly home in 12 hours. In those days it was a sea trip of 3 to 4 weeks each way. Ma came back and was farmed out to friends or relatives for the Christmas and Easter holidays. She did at least get to see her mother, who would sail back to England for the summer holidays and look after her and Dennis. She did not see her father for years. When he finally come over on leave and they met up, she was so unsure of what to do, that she stuck out her hand and said “How do you do” in best finishing school style. She always wished she had just given him a hug.

Her school was Wadhurst College in Sussex. Her favourite subject was Geography. She was always interested in maps, which probably helped with all the moving around she did. At School, Ma did remember listening to Edward the Eighth’s abdication speech, on the radio, in the Headmistresses study.

By the time she left school the war was going on, quite literally above her head. Wadhurst was right underneath the Battle of Britain. Perhaps it was this that made her want to join the ATA, the Air Transport Auxiliary, and fly aircraft. Sadly her eyesight was not good enough and she was turned down, so she went to work on Wellington Bombers at Gatwick aerodrome, checking electrical repairs.

Margôt had spent the war years in England to be with the children and shortly after the war ended, she and Ma sailed back together to India. By this time Rex was working in Karachi. Some time in 1946, Ma met Pa.

This was how Pa put it in his memoirs:-

“About this time I received great help from Henry Oliver, my police friend in Quetta, for which he should be ever blessed. He wrote to tell me that a decorative young lady called Sheelah Eagan, recently out from England, had been causing quite a stir in the neighbourhood of Quetta Staff College. Her parents were in Karachi, where her father headed the North Western Railway organization for the State of Sindh and she would be joining them. As advised I was quick to make contact and was soon a close friend of all the family”.

Ma’s story was that when asked for a date, she was so booked up, she couldn’t fit him in for at least two weeks. Later, when her mother said of Pa “Now there is the type of man I would like you to marry”. She replied “Him! But he’s a snob.”

Pa didn’t actually propose to Ma out in India, because, as Ma put it, he wanted to be sure he wasn’t being swayed by the “Magic of the East”. Oh the old romantic! He knew how to woo a girl!

Pa returned to England and letters bounced backwards and forwards between Ripon and Alwar in India, where Rex had got a job running the railways for the local Maharajah.

Pa finally proposed to Ma on the Telephone, from the Signals HQ Mess in Catterick. (I do wonder whether he got down on his knees to ask).

I went to India in the early 80s and at some stage mentioned to Ma that I had had tea at the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay, looking out over the “Gateway OF India”. Ma topped that by saying she and her mother had also had tea at the Hotel, looking out over the “Gateway of India”. They however had watched the 1st Battalion the Somerset Light Infantry march out through it, as the last unit of the British Army to leave India – that was 28th of February 1948.

Ma and Pa got married on 12th June 1948 at St George’s Hanover Square. Ma was 24.

Their first posting was relatively simple, Clare College, Cambridge. Pa was doing a shortened 2 year degree course. There was one small problem and that was Ma was expected to cook – and Ma had never cooked before. She had never had to. In India there were cooks, at school there were cooks, why would you need to know how to cook? So she picked up a book in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other and taught herself how to cook. That book was “Good Housekeeping” and Crispin still has it, with various recipes carefully underlined in it.

The next posting was Sandhurst where Pa was Company Commander in charge of Inkerman Company. Ma and Pa bought a house just outside the Academy gates in Old Green Lane and a couple of years later, in 1952, Crispin arrived. During this period they would give lunches to Pa’s senior cadets, in groups of three or four. The only stipulation was that afterwards they should help dry up, while Ma did the washing up. One of those cadets was King Hussein of Jordan. There can’t be many housewives who have had a King help with the drying up.

In 1954 Antonia arrived and I followed in ’55. In ’56 we were on the move to Germany. Postings came thick and fast. In the next 15 years we lived in twelve different houses, in places like Osnabrück, Hilden, Dusseldorf Reisholz, Bunde, Kuala Lumpur; Rye, Catterick Camp, Wilton, Chobham, Mons in Belgium and Rheindahlen in Germany.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s 1957 and we went to the German Grand Prix to watch Fangio clinch his fifth world championship at the Nürburgring. Crispin tells me it was a bit dull. The track was 17 and a half miles long, so the cars would disappear for ten minutes at a time. Me, I was fascinated. I was a babe in arms and I was fascinated by Ma’s pearl necklace, which I proceeded to dismantle and scatter all over the ground.

Later that year, in November, Claudia arrived (she was born in Hostet, where Tom Baker was doing his National Service).

A few years later we were in Catterick and Mrs Blossom turned up. She followed us around for the next thirty years. Mrs. Blossom was a tailor’s dummy and Ma used to make her own dresses and was very proud of her tailoring. We regularly had to make trips to get some new Jaeger pattern or some dress material that had caught Ma’s eye. In a time of twin-sets and pearls and tweedy pencil skirts, she managed to look smart and different. Seeing as it was the sixties, Ma also started experimenting in psychedelia, those dresses were like … AMAZING!

Catterick was also the start of family camping and skiing holidays. I’m not sure how much camping was a holiday for her, she still had to do the cooking and washing up, stop Crispin and me fighting, find out where to get the water from, find lost children, find out where the shops were, buy food in whatever language was required, stop Crispin and me fighting again. I bet she enjoyed her glass of wine when we were all tucked up in our sleeping bags. We travelled all over western Europe and I do seem to remember there were two occasions when she had to drive us down to Perpignan, in the south of France and Latina in Italy on her own. There we picked up Pa from the airport or station, as he couldn’t always get away when he wanted to.

Skiing holidays did initially offer a respite from cooking and washing, which was good since she wasn’t a great fan of skiing. However, we soon discovered self-catering chalets and it was probably a good excuse for her to bunk off skiing. It is not really fair to say she disliked it, she just needed a group that was more suited to her style of skiing. A few drinks here and there, a nice lunch and a gentle potter round the slopes. Not a group which included a (British) Ski Champion husband and tearaway kids. Some of her later skiing holidays, without the pesky kids, and with a group of wives, in the same position as her seem to have been more successful.

A story from this time shows another side to Ma. A young Indian Officer had just arrived in Catterick, with his pregnant wife. When the wife went into hospital, Ma asked him for his house keys. He was a little bemused as to why his Colonel’s wife should want the keys, but he handed them over anyway. Ma gathered some friends together and they went in and cleaned the house from top to bottom and stocked up the fridge, so that when his wife returned with the baby she wouldn’t have to think about any of these things. Mrs Mookerjee told Claudia this story herself 30 years later. She said Ma’s act of kindness meant so much to her as a young wife in a foreign country that it remained with her always.

While we were living in Wilton and Chobham, I was going to prep school in East Sussex. When I was being driven to or from school by Ma, we somehow always managed to stop off at Gatwick and watch aircraft for about an hour from the top of the terminal. She did remark than while she had been there during the war the main London to Brighton Road had gone between the hangers and the runways and that you always had to be careful not to be run over by cars flashing by at 35 mph.

I haven’t actually mentioned anything about music yet, so it’s probably a good time to start. When they were posted to Malaya, Ma and Pa were advised to get themselves a gramophone player as there was very little in the way of entertainment out there. This they did, their policy being to buy records that they were unlikely to hear on the radio, so their collection was quite eccentric.

In the early ‘60s Ma used to buy us an LP for Easter every year, which in practice meant buying the latest Beatles album. Sometime in Belgium Tom Jones’ Delilah album was sneaked into the collection. Since it was in stereo, we knew she must have bought it. It meant we had to get a stereo system to play it. In Rheindahlen the record buying went into overdrive. BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service), our local radio station, played a lot of heavy metal bands, like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. These bands’ albums were what were sold in the NAAFI, they were dirt cheap and we played them loud. What I hadn’t realised, until I was told this recently by Donald Scarfe is that when we were back at school Ma used to play them equally loudly. I do have this wonderful image of Ma headbanging away to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, but I suspect it was more likely to be Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother”.

In 1972 Pa retired from the Army. Ma was 48.

So started a new chapter at Southill. I’m not sure how to describe it, part ménage, part menagerie. I was trying to work out how many people had passed through the revolving door of residence there. I got to a figure of about 30 from four generations. As for animals, there were horses, dogs, a horse sized dog, cats, sheep, chickens, bantams, ducks, grandchildren and an angora rabbit.

For Ma Southill was a new experience. She had a garden she could make long term plans for. Goodbye annuals, hello perennials and whisper it quietly even shrubs and trees. To this end she also signed up for horticulture courses. First at Norton Radstock College and then at Cannington College. She also joined an art group and started painting regularly, something she would continue to do for the rest of her life.

The house parties deserve a mention. I’m not sure when they started, but I suspect it was Crispin bring friends back from Uni, in Bath. They got quite large in the end, 100+ people would come down for the weekend. I do remember one night seeing about 20 people in sleeping bags on the floor of one bedroom and nobody actually in the bed. Which I thought a little strange. I think it is fair to say that Ma loved having the people round and loved chatting to everybody. It was not just us children having parties either, Ma and Pa had their own annual event with the Royal Signals Colonels Commandant Dinner or as I used to call it “The Night of the Generals”. Having about 10 Generals for breakfast, the next morning, could be a bit sparky.

In 1995 Ma and Pa decided to downsize, leaving Southill for Preybrook Farm in Wookey. Ma was 72.

With a new house, there was a new garden which Ma enjoyed creating. While she did not have the mass of people she had around her at Southill she did have her grandchildren and son-in-law, to entertain her. I think for Ma the best part was having a chair by the stream to have her glass of wine of an evening. Young David and I used to visit once a week and Ma and Young David would try out the latest bottle of wine to debate its relative merits. If the bottle got finished before the meal they knew it was good, otherwise it got earmarked for cooking.

It is time to return to music. She loved her classical music. There were so many opportunities to go and see live music, what with the Bath Festival, Wells Cathedral, Sherborne Abbey and Opera at the Octagon in Yeovil all being on her doorstop. Highlights have to include hearing Sir Simon Rattle and the CBSO in Wells Cathedral playing Messiaen and Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble in Bath Abbey. The Messiaen absolutely filled the cathedral with sound, it was a bit like sitting under a jumbo jet at take off. Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble wafted plainsong and saxophone around the abbey as they wandered the nave and aisles.

When Sherborne Abbey was out of commission because of structural problems their choral society performed at Wells Cathedral. Their only problem was how to look after their soloists before the concert, so Barbara Morton a friend in the Choral Society, asked Ma if she could look after one. Ma happily agreed and we had the soprano Dame Emma Kirkby to tea. She had a light meal and, I don’t know how we got on to the subject but, we ended up talking about the loos on budget airlines. So now you know the secret of how an international recording artist relaxes before a major concert. She sang beautifully.

Ma looked after Pa in his final years with his dementia, he died in 2008. After that she moved to Ireland to live with Claudia and John.

This last bit is from my Ireland Correspondent:

Mum loved living in Ireland. For the first time in 60 years she did not have to look after anyone or run a household. She was so happy not to have to cook anymore, although if Claudia went away, John would whisper “Häagen-Dazs” and Mum would have supper ready when he came home from work, with the ice cream.

She had a garden to develop and, Tina, her gardener and art teacher came once a week. Ma had three gardening magazines and the Telegraph's Saturday gardening section, so she was completely up to date and would overwhelm Tina with new ideas.

Art classes were once a week during term time, in Tinahely and in the summer some of the group would come up to the house and bring some lunch with them. She developed a passion for collage and she would often be making birthday cards for people. Claudia bought her a 3 foot by 4 foot canvas and she painted the view from the house. This was a subject she returned to many times, in every season.

Three separate people said to Claudia that Mum touched so many people in the short time she was in Ireland. It was her enthusiasm for life. Sometimes she would be so overflowing with joy at the sight of yet another beautiful sunset she would have to hug Claudia, John or Ludo, the dog, whoever was nearest.

Ma died on 17 December, Pa’s Birthday. I hope they are happy together again.


And a few stories that missed the cut.

Rex always called his children Patsy and Mickey. I’m guessing he chose their second names.

Her first school at Kirby Stephen in North Yorkshire, was not a success. It must have been a pretty miserable experience, with her family so far away.

Ma used to make very good curries, which were pretty hot by English Standards. I do remember one guest, struggling with the heat of one. Ma said in her usual way “Oh you don’t have to finish it”, but he said, in a strangled voice, “No… no… it’s … delicious”, as he struggled on. We all breathed a sigh of relief when he finally finished, … only for him to ask for some more!

In Wookey, Ma decided they needed an Art Group and said so to a friend. Obediently Lesley then formed the art group, which is still going strong today.

Ma’s cousin Joan Goodrum remembers the first time she met Ma:-

“One day at Sulaimanke there was great excitement as Uncle Rex, Aunty Gladys (Margôt), Sheelah and Dennis arrived for lunch, having driven from Lahore in Uncle Rex’s 1920s Ford car, to celebrate Patrick’s first birthday [1933]. Sheelah had the most glorious dark curls and I had one of those straight-across fringes. I just looked at her rapt. The gong had just gone for going in to Tiffin and I dived into my mother’s room and got her nail clippers, which were curved, and chopped all my fringe off. I then got terrified when I went into the dining room, because everyone gasped. So I hid under the table”

In the late 80s early 90s Ma and Pa started visiting India again, firstly on the invite of the India Signals for their 75th anniversary of their foundation (they were actually founded before the Royal Signals), then the Pakistan Signals and then on their own. On their itinerary were visits to 6a Sunderdas Road in Lahore and “Rocklands”, her grandparents house in Coonoor. I still have a stone from Rocklands’ drive on my desk.

During the war Ma had a date with an RAF type who “flew kites”. Twenty years later he was still flying kites, but this time in the film Mary Poppins. The man was David Tomlinson who played Mr Banks, the head of the family. Incidentally, when we first saw the film it was in an open air cinema in Perpignan Canet-Plage, overlooking the Mediterranean. It was dubbed into French, so for many years I had no idea that Dick Van Dyke had such an interesting Cockney accent.