Dorothy was born on 1st October 1920 in Stoke Newington, Hackney London. Her father was from Hoxton, now trendy and upmarket but at the time very run down. Remembering her humble beginnings, Dorothy in her later meanderings, would proudly tell her Carers that she came from the slums of London! Her mother was from the North East and had been in service as a cook In fine houses in Harrogate. The cooking talents of Dorothy senior were legendary and the family home in Stoke Newington was always full of friends and neighbours sampling her tripe and onions and stuffed hearts. All through the 20’s and 30’s, despite the Great Depression, her father managed to stay in work with a shoe company and although they may have lacked other material goods the family were always well shod!
Dorothy was a bright and intelligent child attending Daniel Defoe School. She gained a place at a grammar school but the family circumstances were such that she couldn’t take it up. Like many girls of that era she had to leave school aged 14. She forever regretted her lack of education. It made her feel inferior and disadvantaged and she spent a life time trying to change it. She was determined she would eventually get out of Stoke Newington. She promised herself that somehow she would leave it behind and the world would be her oyster. We might call her ambitious, adventurist and aspirational but within the family, her father complained frequently that ‘this girl has ideas above her station!’
Ironically, her opportunities for breaking out of her environment came with World War II. During the blitz of 1940, she was working at Faraday House on night duty as a telephonist when all the buildings around St Pauls were hit. The devastation was. captured in an iconic photo of London in flames and smoke while St Pauls stood proud. Her fiancé at the time came searching for her in the morning convinced he would find her in the rubble. But she survived and soon after joined the Wrens, the Women’s Royal Naval Service, being amongst the first women to join the navy. She was stationed initially at Scapa Flo in the Orkney Islands. She often told the tale how the regular sailors were dismissive of the fact that the women could survive the rough crossing from Thurso through the Pentland Firth but in fact it was the men who were all sea sick.
By 1944, she had been selected to be among a contingent of Wrens for a mission that initially remained secret but turned out to be a long voyage to Australia to cover the war in the Pacific. Her diary of the 1st January 1945 is as follows:-
“I saw the New Year in on board the Union Castle ship the ‘Athlone Castle’, in mid Atlantic, on my way to Australia – the promised land. Here’s hoping. Now accustomed to life on board. Today it has been quite hot but we wrens are still wearing slacks. Practised ‘Action Stations’, guns fired. Sewed strips on for the troops (!). Getting plenty of sleep these days. The clock goes back another 30 minutes tonight.”
She goes on to describe starlit nights on deck, handsome sailors in whites, flying fish, fabulous food and breath taking scenery through the Panama Canal. In fact she says the entire trip is more like that of a pleasure cruise.
But in amongst her excited entries is the thread of daily confirmation classes, being confirmed on board and her first communion. She makes frequent reference to the words ‘Please God may I continue to be a good Christian’.
Dorothy sailed into Sydney harbour on 27th January 1945 not with the the usual sunshine pouring down but through a veil of mist. Australia changed her life. She encountered people and places that she could have previously only dreamed of. Friends for life were made. She was having such a time of it that she opted to stay on till 1946 until the war In Japan was over. Her horizons were unquestionably broadened.
On returning to London and perhaps to avoid the inevitable anti climax she met and married Jennifer’s father Derek after a whirlwind romance. Derek was a handsome and charming army officer who seemed to know where he was going. He came from a family of strong women with a suffragette history. He had a place at Cambridge to read economics and plans for a career in timber in Canada.
A year later Jennifer was born. The student married quarters in Cambridge were freezing during that notorious winter of 1947 and although there were crates of gin available there was no milk or discernible food and Jennifer’s makeshift bed was on a window ledge. Mother and baby of just a few months old were rescued by Dorothy senior and bundled back to Stoke Newington for some home cooked food and family warmth. Not a cross word was ever said between husband and wife but that was the uneventful end of the marriage. (Perhaps there are shades of Ecclesiastes here. We pursue the good life only to be met by disappointment and disillusionment. Vanity all is vanity!)
So here was Dorothy, now a single parent, as was her sister Betty with her daughter Sandra, back in the family home where they lived a happy life filled with love and security in a house buzzing with friends and neighbours.
A new and exciting phase of life in the 1950s was about to begin. Dorothy got a prestigious job as a personal assistant to a Harley Street ear nose and throat consultant. He was a doctor to the stars, including Lawrence Olivier and Vivienne Leigh. He was an avid art collector and Dorothy accompanied him to auctions at Sotheby’s and Christies eventually being entrusted to choose and bid on his behalf. It was here that she developed her own taste in art and antiques and started collecting for her own home. She loved beautiful things around her which each had a history of their own. By all accounts it was a glamorous life and a social whirl. It was on a night out with a group at a dinner dance that she met the mystery guest who was to become the love of her life. She married Charles Zalan, Hungarian by birth, now naturalised Australian in 1961.
It was through Charles work that Dorothy ended up making her home in Germany, living there for nearly 20 years and making many friends both German and British. By chance the British army was stationed in the same part of Germany and with some army wives Dorothy became involved as a volunteer with The Guild of St Helena. It was through her work looking after ill and elderly displaced people that she was awarded the MBE in 1978.
Dorothy was fortunate to have travelled the world with Charles and they considered many places for their eventual retirement. France was a hot favourite because Charles brother and family lived there. But England was where her heart was and she persuaded Charles that that was where his was too.
After extensive house hunting, they settled in this lovely Cotswold village of Box in Gloucestershire in 1979. They threw themselves into making Box their home with much enthusiasm and anticipation but sadly Charles health deteriorated and the cancer they hoped was cured recurred. Charles died in 1983. His funeral service was here in Box church and his ashes are in Minchinhampton graveyard where Dorothy wishes to be reunited with him.
Dorothy lived on her own in Box for another 33 years but she was never lonely. She threw herself into village life and made Scar Hill Farm the home of her dreams. She made friends of all ages. She joined the WI, gardening club, theatre club and attended church regularly until she could no longer make the 9am service. She was on the church flower arranging rota for many years and this was one of the many talents at which she excelled. She regularly won the award for best marmalade at the produce shows. She enjoyed coffee morning every Friday. She played Bridge and was a member of Minchinhampton golf club. She was also a member of the Amberley British Legion and walked regularly with The Amberley Amblers. As a member of the the Old Coteswolde Field Club, she went on numerous residential and day field trips. She regularly attended NADFAS (National Decorative and Fine Arts Society) lectures in Cirencester. In fact, it was often very difficult for the family to find a window free for them to visit!
However, she had a very close relationship with her only child Jennifer and she was proud of her grandchildren Tom and Molly. Family Christmases alternated between Scar Hill Farm and Latham Farm In Yorkshire. Interesting holidays were numerous with friends or family.
So … Dorothy had such a full and active life that it was crushing when the first signs of Alzheimers appeared at the age of 94. When she became frightened and anxious about what was happening to her, Jennifer came to live with her in Box. But one morning she awoke early and said decisively “I need to come to Yorkshire with you and I want us to leave today. And I don’t want to say any goodbyes.” She realised it would be just too painful.
Ironically, the Alzheimer’s largely protected her from the huge wrench of leaving Box. The short term memory of her beautiful house and all her lifetime collection of possessions faded imperceptibly and she never enquired what had happened to them. Instead she went further and further back into her childhood and early years trying to make sense of who had been who in her life. For the last two years, a constant anxiety and struggle to understand what was happening to her seemed to torture her and preoccupy her waking hours. But the light did come back into her eyes whenever she saw her great grandchildren Wil, Raffi and Sam. They were the ones who could bring her into the present and gave her back her smile.
The tributes from people that knew her remark on how she was welcoming and hospitable. A stalwart lady with sparkly intelligent conversation, always interesting, always generous and nearly always willing, someone who enriched the lives of those that knew her.
The family know how important Box and its people were to Dorothy. They know this is where her heart is and where she would want her life to be celebrated.