Angels in Ascot

Jo Hines, Deanery Synod Representative, has written a blog about a wartime story that links St James’s with a group of girls from a children’s home.

Background Shape
Church Window Mask

One Sunday in August 2014 Lucy and I went down to Ascot for the dedication of a small wooden cross. It had been made from the roof timbers of the bombed St James’s Church more than half a century before – and stumbled upon a most unexpected cohort of angels.

At the beginning of World War II, as over a million children were being evacuated from London, a small group of girls from a home for ‘waifs and strays’ in Ealing fetched up in part of a large house called Englemere Wood. By present day standards, conditions were harsh. Twenty-five girls slept on mattresses on the floor of the ballroom. There was one bathroom and only one toilet. A piece of plywood was placed over the bath and six washbowls placed on it, so girls could wash before breakfast in the mornings. Food was scant – three quarters of a slice of bread and butter for supper, jam on Sundays only, and many girls remembered being often hungry. Being sent to bed without any supper was a real punishment. They worked hard, doing domestic chores morning and evening. No hugs or physical displays of affection, to avoid favouritism. When their schooling ended at fourteen they would be trained for domestic service, before being sent out into the world.

And yet the elderly women who gathered in All Saints Church in Ascot that August Sunday remembered their years at Englemere Wood and later at Grenville House as a time of great and overflowing happiness. Queenie Dearsley, 12 years old and a ‘hopeless’ tearaway, said that for her it had been a transition ‘from hell to heaven’. Why? The answer is both simple and immensely complicated: the woman in charge, Matron Bailey, loved each one of them; she wanted the best for them and she was tireless in her efforts to give them security and self respect. Her care for them never stopped, and long after the home had closed in 1956 she kept in touch with all she had contact details for, remembering not just their birthdays, but their husbands’ and their children’s as well. She had become ‘Nanna’ to hundreds.

The owner of Englemere Wood was another remarkable woman, Dorothy Peyton, who was recently widowed and had two sons in the army. As soon as her initial anxieties at the prospect of feral girls invading her home were allayed, she made them welcome. Like Matron, she was a woman of strong faith; she roped in her friends to create the ‘village’ needed to raise each child. Two of her friends happened to be Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, evacuees like them. Soon there was a weekly knitting circle and while needles clicked to make warm socks and mittens for the troops, the two old ladies entertained the girls with tales of ‘Grandmamma’ and the family. When Mrs Peyton’s dashing soldier sons were home on leave they organised games and dancing for the delighted girls.

Gas masks and black-outs were a bore, and John Peyton – ‘Mr John’ as the girls called him in those hierarchical days – was part of the British Expeditionary Force taken prisoner in 1940. But real tragedy came when his younger brother, Lieutenant Thomas Peyton, was killed in the famous raid on Saint Nazaire. His body was never recovered. The girls and staff were deeply affected, and his mother remained secluded with her grief for some months.

A friend of hers gave her a simple cross to commemorate her son, made from the timber of the bombed church, St James’s Piccadilly, where Dorothy Peyton had been married in happier times. In Englemere Wood the cross stood beside a photograph of ‘Mr Tommy’ on the table where the girls had their daily worship. When they moved to nearby Grenville House, the cross went with them and when Grenville House closed down one of the girls, now married to a wood turner, took it for safe keeping. From there it was returned to St James’s, and then on to Ascot and that dedication ceremony in 2014.

Eight years later, the full story has at last been told. Queenie, now 95, has worked tirelessly to make sure Matron Bailey’s inspiring story is told, and Karen Farrington has done them all proud. A couple of weeks ago I made another trip to Ascot: Queenie is in a wheelchair and many of the ‘girls’ have died, but their children and grandchildren, as well as Karen’s eloquence and Mrs Peyton’s grandson made the launch of The Angels of Englemere Wood a special occasion. It’s a great read and a moving testament to real Christian love in action. As Queenie said to me in 2014, ‘She just cared for us. What more do children want? Someone to care for them and believe in them. And want them to rise up.’

The Angels of Englemere Wood by Karen Farrington is published by Michael Joseph.

The Angels of Englemere Wood by Karen Farrington

The St James’s Cross from All Saints Church in Ascot which was made from one of the beams of the bombed St James’s

Queenie Dearsley

Three girls from Englemere Wood with Dorothy Peyton’s donkeys