Godmanchester Cambridgeshire Community Association Online

Vera Arnold

Vera died on 15 March 2018, just seventeen days short of her 102nd birthday.  She was the ninth of fourteen children, seven girls and seven boys, and was born on 1 April 1916, during a Zeppelin raid, in a three-bedroom house in New Street.  There was one bedroom for the boys, one for the girls and one for the parents and a baby. Facilities were basic, with an outside lavatory and no running water.  With so many mouths to feed meals were generally modest with bread and sop (stale bread soaked in water and then served with milk and sugar) frequently one of them.  Vera remembers her mother, Charlotte, as a pretty lady who was extremely kind to her children and taught them to swim at the bathing steps on the recreation ground opposite Island Hall island.

At fifteen Vera left school and worked as a parlour maid at Offord Hill House, a job she enjoyed despite the strict discipline.  Later she worked in Huntingdon for both Marshalls Brewery and the Chivers company.  On her 100th birthday Vera, accompanied by friends and relatives, was invited back to Offord Hill House by the current owners, Simon Embley and his family, to relive memories from her younger days.  Vera never married, but happily spent most of her life caring for others, not least her ageing mother and her last surviving brother, Alf, who was a batman at RAF Wyton.

In a long and varied life Vera was an enthusiastic bell ringer, talented flower arranger, regular blood donor, part-time angler and frequent judge of home-made cakes at Stukeley village hall!  Two certificates have given Vera enormous pride - one showing that during her life she’d donated fifty pints of blood, and another that she rang a quarter peel on Wednesday, 27 January 1965 in memory of Sir Winston Churchill who died the previous Sunday. 

In recognition of her long service at St Mary’s, which included twenty-five years as verger, Vera was nominated to receive the Royal Maundy from Her Majesty the Queen in Westminster Abbey on 21 April 2011.  The day was memorable for many reasons.  The occasion fell on the Queen’s 85th birthday - Vera was one of only a few recipients chosen to be introduced to the Queen - and Godmanchester’s representation at the ceremony was further enhanced by the presence of fellow Maundy recipients, Trafford James and Ken Negus.

Vera will be remembered for her never-ending kindness to so many people, and for the generous support of the Arnold family in the upkeep of the church, including their contribution towards the restoration of the organ in 1994. But, it’s Vera’s appearance on Sunday mornings, accompanied by her warm smile and gentle sense of humour, that will be missed most of all.  (Peter Irving)

Vera's 100th Birthday Party

The chandeliers were lit in every room at Offord Hill house when its owner Simon Embley, with his girlfriend Maria, gave a tea party on 5 April to celebrate Vera Arnold’s 100th birthday.  The front door was thrown open to the spring sunshine and the rooms sparkled as Vera’s family, friends and three vicars managed diminutive sandwiches, bite sized éclairs and homemade chocolate cake.  The house was built at the turn of the last century by the Thackrays, a local family, still here today, who designed it in the style of Lutyens.

When Simon Embley took it over nearly ten years ago it was a sad ghost of a place, the land at the back, once graceful gardens, now filled with car wrecks.  When Vera Arnold worked there as House Parlour maid during the 1930s it was a grand house, with a cook, housekeeper and gardeners, owned by the Mayor, John Stables, who gave tennis parties in the gardens at the back of the house.  Today the rooms are bright and pale.  When Vera worked there, the decorations had not been updated since it was built, so the interiors were dark Victorian and Edwardian shades.

Simon first met Vera when Kate Hadley at the Porch Museum asked him to allow the museum people to film Vera at the house.  They let Miss Arnold wander through rooms she had polished, past fireplaces she laid and lit every day at 6.30am, into the cosy little servant’s bedroom she had adored and the large kitchen where she and the cook used to listen to the wireless with a mid morning cup of tea.  While making this film ‘Upstairs, Downstairs with Vera Arnold’, Simon promised Vera that when she reached a hundred years old he would give her a party.

So here we all were - true to his word.  Some tea party guests were given a tour of the house by the beautiful hostess, Maria. Vera’s great, great nephews, Joseph and Jake raced up and down the many stairs front and back of the house and had a grand time – especially, as Simon who has two boys of his own, let them run about as they pleased and reassured their mother Sam Usher that she was not to worry.

Vera was also accompanied by her niece Sandra Sturgeon and an old friend Connie Jacques (née Connie Thompson), who went to the same school in St Ann’s Lane as Vera but is just a girl at 97.

The tea party guests were thrilled when she showed everybody her beautiful card sent from the Queen. Then Vera was exceptionally happy at the wonderful surprise Simon planned for her. It was a cheque for £250, in her name, to Godmanchester’s church, St Mary the Virgin, and received by the delighted vicar, David Busk.

This wonderful lady of our town has come a long way in her life.  From her birth on April 16 at 6.30am in 1916, one of fourteen children, seven boys and seven girls, and an early life without hot and cold running water or inside lavatories, normal for all residents in this town, she has gone through a major war and seen unimaginable changes.  Where once people travelled by horse and trap, now the roads are full of cars.  Aeroplanes soar to foreign places. The Health Service takes care of a populace which could not afford a doctor when she was a girl.   What hasn’t changed is that her good manners win hearts.  As she used to say, “It’s manners which make a person”.

 

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