Today’s inspiring biography subject is my Gran, Winifred (“Win”) Guest, who is turning 100 years old! I reflect on her working class roots, experience as Lady Mayoress, love of football, and role as matriarch to 4 generations of our family.
Wow, a century- pretty impressive isn’t it!? This piece is a mini biography of my Gran, covering some highlights of her life. What has struck me most when writing this piece is how things have changed for the 3 generations of women in our family: at age 14 my grandmother left school while my Mum and I were about to start studying for our GCSEs at state grammar schools. When my Gran was 18, the Second World War started and she began her war work in a munitions factory. My Mum and I were both fortunate enough to go to university; she studied to become a teacher, an immediate leap into the middle classes, while I was taking a place at Oxford University amongst some of the most privileged young people in the country.
At age 27 my Gran had the first of 3 children, while my Mum was Head of Department at the school where she was teaching, and I had just completed my PhD, having been researching in Tokyo and New York. We also both independently owned our own homes by this age, something that was another leap in fortunes over the generations. It’s amazing to think how the possibilities, options, and opportunities for, especially women, have developed over 100 years. Although we still have a long way to go, I wonder what a similar generational exercise might look like in future!
I’ll now dive into Win’s life (yes, it is very strange for me to call my Gran “Win”!) and cover some of her childhood, experiences in the Second World War, her life as a mother, time as Lady Mayoress, and her love of football. I’ll close by reflecting on Win as my Grandmother and a little update on her at 100 years old.
Win was born in 1921 in Derby in the Midlands of England. She lived and grew up in a rented two-bedroom terraced house near the train station. Despite the house size, she lived with her parents, her Grandmother, older sister, Hilda, younger sister, Elsie, and younger brother, Wilfred.
Her father, Joseph, had served in the army in the First World War as a stretcher bearer and unfortunately, lost an eye and damaged a lung in a gas attack on the Western Front. His ongoing health issues and the economic depression of the 1930s meant that he was out of work for much of Win’s childhood, so finances were tight at home. Her Grandmother even had an office cleaning job until age 88, when she had an accident falling down the stairs and had to retire.
Win’s Mother, Fanny, was a stay at home parent, essential in a time before labour-saving technology when tasks like washing clothes for the family was a full day’s work! There was no central heating or double glazing in the house in the 1920s, and no showers, just a tin bath in the sitting room with water heated up on the fire and an outside toilet. The family also had an allotment plot 3 miles from the house to grow vegetables and I remember my Gran telling me stories of shelling peas with her siblings on the steps to the house.
Win left school at age 14 and started working to help support the family…
Win enjoyed school and liked studying, particularly English Literature. She was a bright student, achieved good grades and was offered a place at a Grammar School for high achieving pupils, but unfortunately the family’s financial situation meant that she could not take up her place. Instead, Win left school at age 14 and started working to help support the family. She later described this as one of her biggest regrets and was very proud that her 3 children all went to grammar school, working very hard to enable this (more on this later).
Her first job was selling cigarettes and tobacco in a small kiosk in the market square in Derby (despite never being a smoker herself!), followed by other retail shop work. Outside of work Win liked to dance, go to church, and sing in a choir, and through these activities she met my Grandad, George. They took ballroom dance lessons and attended socials at Kelsey Smith’s dance school in Derby in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Her favourite dance was the slow Foxtrot, a very popular dance in England at the time, in the era before the jive and swing styles came over from the US during the Second World War.
The Second World War
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Win was 18 years old. Her retail work ended and she took up war work in a munitions factory. I asked her about her experiences at this time when I was a teenager studying this period of history, and she said she found the work using heavy machinery to manipulate metal for bomb casings to be difficult, at times frightening, and always noisy and hot. There were no safety precautions at the time and she described her friend being injured by a metal fragment and she herself lost the hearing in her left ear. It sounds terrifying to me and I can’t imagine being thrown into such work at a young age.
Win and George were married in 1943 and their engagement photo shows my Grandad in military uniform and my Gran in her lovely wedding suit (which she made herself, saving up coupons for the fabric). George was not called up to fight straight away, but worked on the home front in a paint factory, quite a dangerously flammable place to be during an air raid. He later served in the army of occupation in Germany after the war. He enjoyed his work in the army and was promoted to corporal. While in Germany he was stationed to live with local families who showed him great kindness and he would later enjoy holidays to Germany with Win.
Some of my favourite family stories of WWII are those of Win’s slightly wilder younger sister, Elsie. One famous incident was when she borrowed Win’s favourite white dress to go roller skating and ruined it with a stain- classic younger sister antics! More significantly though, during the war, Elsie was sent to work on a farm as a “land girl”. There she met a German pilot, Abahard (“Abe”), who had been captured as a prisoner of war and was also sent to work on the farm. In what sounds like a film plot, they fell in love and were married after the war and had 3 children. Abe had been a stone mason before the war, and took up a job continuing this career in Derby- some of his works can still be seen around Derby town centre.
Win’s life as a Mother
Win had her first child, Lesley, in 1948, followed by 2 sons, Martin in 1949 and David in 1952.
George returned from Germany and started working on the railways as a welder making train carriages, sometimes working night shifts. Win didn’t work outside the home when the children were small – there was so much time-consuming domestic work to complete and she even made all the children’s clothing. When their eldest was 11 years old she took up a job at an M&S food hall. This was a part time job on Saturdays, motivated by the desire for extra family income and also to do something for herself.
She later went to free evening classes to learn office skills like shorthand and typing, as well as household skills like sewing, dress making and microwave cooking lessons (when they were new devices!), and even gained an O-Level in English (what would now be a GCSE). She began working for the NHS, at first giving out cod liver oil and orange juice to new mothers, and then in an office medical equipment like crutches and wheelchairs, using her organisational and administrative skills.
For leisure the family would go on holidays using their railway pass. This granted the family 5 free tickets per year and quarter fare for other trips. They would make the most of this by going as far away as possible to the Isle of Wight, which also involved the added excitement of taking a ferry! My Mum described their train journeys as part of the fun of the holiday, the goal always being to get an entire compartment to themselves. They would also take day trips down to London to see the sites and have adventures.
Win loved reading, sometimes 4 or 5 librarby books a week, and amongst her favourites are classic Jane Austin novels. She also enjoyed knitting, usually clothes for the family (including some navy blue cardigans that I wore as part of my uniform in primary school). She also very much enjoyed and excelled at gardening, and her and George kept a wonderful garden with flowers and top-class vegetables.
George was active in the Labour Party, serving as a local councillor in Derby. This was a passion shared by the whole family and they would all pitch in by helping out with canvassing, polling, and administration. They addressed and delivered letters to party members and sent information materials to potential voters. Clip boards in hand, they canvassed the ward, asking the intention to vote and recording the outcome. The family would also run the committee room on election day at their house. They would poll again and Win would take the numbers, spot if anyone was missing, and make a trip to their house in the late afternoon to make sure they remembered to vote. For larger by-elections, they would sometimes host other politicians and for general elections, MPs, in the house.
Win and George lived in a council house and the Mayoral car, a superbly grand Rolls Royce, would come to the house to pick them up…
George served as Mayor of Derby for a term in 1972-1973 and Win took up her responsibilities as Lady Mayoress. These duties required Win to attend events on her own, deliver speeches, and complete ceremonial activities, including opening new buildings and institutions. She enjoyed the role, meeting people, supporting George, and representing the humanist perspective they both shared of valuing and taking care of all in the community. At this time, Win and George lived in a council house and the Mayoral car, a superbly grand Rolls Royce, would come to the house to pick them up, generating much excitement for the local children on the estate. They would also be driven in this car to attend the Queen’s garden party for local leaders at Buckingham Palace- quite a different context!
One of my favourite stories of my Gran’s time as Mayoress was the discovery of her signature drink. On their first visit to the Mayor’s Parlour at the Town Hall, the secretary asked what she liked to drink so he could have this in stock for when she was entertaining. Win didn’t drink at all before this time, so was unsure what to request. The secretary offered to find something she would like and opted for a potent mix of brandy and port wine. Needless to say, Win did enjoy this tipple!
Another exciting part of this role was the opportunity for travel. During the 1970s, the local football club, Derby County, were at their peak, having won the English Football League Championship and reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1972. In their capacity as Mayor and Mayoress, they met their successful manager, Brian Clough, and travelled to Europe to watch some of the games to support the team, a real highlight for Win and George as keen football fans.
Win’s love of football
Win is a staunch Derby County supporter and is incredibly knowledgeable about football. She attended games with George in the 1970s at their original home, The Baseball Ground, and then moved with the team to their new, modern stadium, Pride Park, where they held season tickets. After George passed away, Win continued her season ticket, taking the bus to the stadium on a Saturday with a packed lunch of sandwiches and a flask of tea. I attended 2 games with her and can say that she would, politely but firmly, make it known if she didn’t agree with the referee on a decision!
She continued holding her season ticket until age 86, stopping only when the culture changed and spectators began to stand up when the ball got near the goal, making it impossible for her to see the game. She continued to follow the team and watch keenly on the TV.
Win as a grandmother
In this penultimate section, I want to share some personal reflections of how I know Win best: as my Gran. I grew up in Manchester so taking a trip to Derby for a visit was a special occasion and something I always looked forward to. We would spend Christmas with Gran and Grandad at their house when I was young, and it was a time of great joy and warmth. She was incredibly generous with her time and affection, selfless in her wish to ensure the family was happy and cared for- I believe she found a great deal of satisfaction in seeing her family happy, healthy, and doing well.
After my Grandad passed away, Chritmas migrated to my Aunt and Uncle’s house in Yorkshire. We would go on county walks with the dog, my Gran, fit as a flea, often striding ahead at the front of the group, even up the steepest of hills! After all this, she would still jump up at the end of dinner to do the washing up, no matter how much we protested.
We also went on family holidays to Newquay in Cornwall each year. We would play boules on the beach, paddle in the sea, and once we even spotted a jellyfish! In later years, our special treat was to go out to a cafe for breakfast together on the first day while my parents did the food shopping for the week. We loved this little private outing, eating buttery croissants, serving tea from a fancy teapot, and catching-up.
I most strongly associate my Gran with her cheery voice greeting me with a “hello, my duck!” (a regional Derby-ism), her amazing chocolate cake that she would make for my birthday, her cosy house filled with family photos, and I often think of her when I’m really enjoying a cup of tea (something which she usually had in her hand!).
Life at 100
Until age 99, Win lived in her own house, but has recently moved into a care home. She has been diagnosed with dementia for 8 years and the family have done an incredible job in caring for her and making sure she is safe and as happy as possible. While physically very healthy, it is sad that her quality of life isn’t as good as it could be due to this disease. It has been difficult for her to transition from her role as care-giver to care-receiver, as it is for many in this position, and difficult for those around her to lose parts of the person that we loved and cherished.
We are encouraged that the care home is providing a safe and fresh environment for her with different stimulation and they update us with her activities- she enjoyed her recent visit to the on-site hair salon and they are having a big party to celebrate her birthday. We can’t have a family gathering at this time due to COVID, but we’ll be raising a glass of port and brandy to her today!
While I opened this piece discussing how things have changed over 3 generations of our family, I’ll close by reflecting on some similarities: Win had a love of dance and found joy in partnering my Grandad in a slow Foxtrot. My Mum is very talented at many kinds of sport and taught PE for much of her career, while I have a passion for dance, even taking up vintage partner dance styles. Equally, politics and a passion for fairness for all in society has been something that my Gran and Grandad both passed down the generations. There are even small details like our shapely ankles and very similar index fingers that have certainly been inherited!
I’m very grateful to have a Gran who is so caring and inspiring, having lived through challenging times of the Second World War, raising a family, and finding her own voice as Mayoress and a Rams fan! It is heartbreaking to me to think of her unfulfilled educational potential, but I know she is proud of my Mum, my Uncles, and me for making the most of our opportunities. Let’s keep that progress going for the next century! Have a happy birthday, Gran, love you x
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