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Jean Wemyss-Gorman Life at the Vicarage and connections to Hatherleigh

 [Isabella Whitworth] (0:00 – 0:10)
I’m talking to Jean Weems-Gorman and we’re talking by a video link because I’m in Hatherleigh and Jean lives in, I think, Sussex, is that right?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (0:11 – 0:11)
West Sussex.
[Isabella Whitworth] (0:11 – 0:20)
Yes, so it’s a long way away. Can you tell me how you are connected to Hatherleigh? I think your grandfather was a vicar here?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (0:22 – 0:27)
Yes, from I think 1928 to 1947, it was 18 years anyway.
[Isabella Whitworth] (0:28 – 0:37)
And your mother’s name, which is, she was your grandfather, so your mother’s name is Ruth and she had a sister called Mary.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (0:38 – 0:38)
[Isabella Whitworth] (0:38 – 0:44)
And I think there were some twins, twin brothers? Twin brothers, Jack and Jock. And were they older or younger?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (0:45 – 0:46)
The youngest of the family.
[Isabella Whitworth] (0:46 – 0:54)
The younger brothers. And you probably remember your grandparents a little bit. What sort of people were they?
What sort of people do you remember?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (0:55 – 1:46)
Well, my grandfather came across as a rather stern, he was a Victorian gentleman and certainly a strict father, especially as far as the twins were concerned, this sort of stiff upper lip sort of thing, as a result of which they were both tearaways, rather tearaways. And I think his sternness actually disguised a gentler side of his nature. And he and my grandmother were devoted to each other, but she knew not to disagree with him.
But she was his mainstay and a true partner in his ministry and really such a loving, warm person, very serene, which was a good thing.
[Isabella Whitworth] (1:46 – 1:47)
So they were quite a contrast.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (1:48 – 1:56)
They were quite a contrast to each other. Yes, well, that was it. They complemented each other so well and she endeared herself to everybody.
She was lovely.
[Isabella Whitworth] (1:58 – 2:02)
And you visited them as a young girl?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (2:03 – 2:18)
Yes, but only up till the age of seven, because they moved away when they came to live with us, where we were in Weston-super-Mare when I was seven. So all my memories go back to very early childhood.
[Isabella Whitworth] (2:20 – 2:29)
And so you were, well, you would have been, they were here then when you were a young girl. And would you have stayed at the Vicarage? Did you go for holidays?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (2:29 – 2:32)
Yes, we went for holidays, yes.
[Isabella Whitworth] (2:33 – 2:36)
And do you have siblings? Did you?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (2:36 – 2:57)
Yes, I went with my brother and sister who were born out in China and not my younger brother, because he was, no, he would have been, yes, I think he would have come as well. But, you know, we were very small, so my memories are rather hazy. Certainly there.
[Isabella Whitworth] (2:58 – 3:05)
Do you remember anything about the old Vicarage itself? What, you know, what it looked like and what sort of place it was?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (3:06 – 3:38)
It was not like it looks today, but it was a big solid building, rather grey and obviously not run down, but it, they hadn’t enough money to, being in the clergy, they hadn’t enough money to refurbish it or anything like that. But inside, it was just a lovely, warm, homely place. And that’s what I, I remember the orchard to the left of it.
[Isabella Whitworth] (3:38 – 3:49)
And would that be, would that be downhill of the house or? Because the Vicarage is set on a sort of slope, isn’t it? Was the orchard downhill of the Vicarage?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (3:49 – 4:47)
It was round to the left of the Vicarage. And then there was the wide sweeping, still is, this wide sweeping drive, which is a memory for some reason that goes back in the grass round about. So, yeah, there’s probably, one thing I do remember was there was something called the rat’s hole.
And this was a hole we’d made in the, in the hedge between us and the next door neighbour, who were Mr and Mrs Berg. He was a dentist. And I think they must have been very good friends of my parents, my grandparents.
And I can remember distinctly going, scrambling through this hole to go to tea with the lovely Berg’s next door. And I’m sure they did the same thing. But that is a memory I’ve got.
[Isabella Whitworth] (4:47 – 4:48)
I wonder if it’s still there.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (4:49 – 4:52)
I wonder. It was called Oslo, the house.
[Isabella Whitworth] (4:53 – 5:05)
Still is. It still is, yes. And you would have been in Hatherleigh on Sunday. So what can you tell me about a Sunday in Hatherleigh with your grandfather as the Vicar?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (5:06 – 6:07)
Yes, strict Sabbath observance, which required us obviously to go to church. I can’t remember really how many times. And then there was a rigid authority.
We were not to play games. The only games we could play were Sunday games. I’m not quite sure what that meant.
I can’t forget now. And we weren’t even allowed to do knitting. But of course, at the time, I didn’t think anything of it.
I just felt a bit sort of, I did what my grandparents told me. And that actually was handed over to my own parents. And that was the sort of background that I had.
Of course, it sort of spilled over to the next generation, although became a bit more flexible as the years went on. I did start knitting when I was old enough to make up my own mind.
[Isabella Whitworth] (6:09 – 6:29)
And your grandmother, it sounds as if she played a key part in the ministry as well, I mean, with her side of work. From what you’re saying, she must have been rather a lovely person and popular, and I’m sure she would have been a good organiser of groups and things. Yes.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (6:30 – 6:57)
I think one could say that her main thing was she just supported my grandfather in every single way. It was like a shared ministry. But she did have ladies’ women’s meetings in the house and in the vicarage.
And it was like an open house. And yeah, I think that was probably the main thing that she was there to support him.
[Isabella Whitworth] (6:58 – 7:01)
They were here together for, I think, 18 years, you told me.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (7:02 – 7:03)
Yes, I think it was that.
[Isabella Whitworth] (7:05 – 7:19)
And you said that the vicarage itself, that your grandparents were in the clergy, they didn’t have lots of money. What was the community of Hatherleigh like? Do you remember?
Was it a sort of very agricultural and not very prosperous?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (7:22 – 8:06)
I think I was too young to take that on board. But I do remember my mother, in some letters we’ll talk about later, but I do remember her mentioning a lady who’d died, leaving a child. And my mother said something about, I do hope the aunt, whatever, will be able to care for the child.
And I hope she’ll be able to make ends meet. So clearly, there were people who were not poor. But then on the other hand, you’d get the richer side of the community, as things are today.
[Isabella Whitworth] (8:09 – 8:33)
So one of the main reasons we’re talking, one of the reasons we’ve actually found out about you, Jean, is because of your amazing mother, Ruth, who was obviously one of the daughters of Reverend and Mrs Rossiter. And in the 1920s, she was already working in the parish with her sister, Mary, running a Sunday school for 16-year-old boys. Is that right?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (8:33 – 8:33)
[Isabella Whitworth] (8:33 – 8:40)
Yes. And then came a big change. What was the change?
What did your mother decide to do?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (8:41 – 9:23)
Well, she went to, she went out to China with my father. Well, actually, they weren’t, they were just engaged at the moment. But they went out to China.
And as an engaged couple, they married out there and had their first two children there. In fact, I wouldn’t say she took any big part in the, in the work of the parish. But I think she and her sister together, they did run that.
But part of the time, my mother was actually training to go to go out to be a missionary training college. But most of the time was spent in Hatherleigh.
[Isabella Whitworth] (9:25 – 9:27)
Did she go away to a training college?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (9:27 – 9:30)
Yes, she went to Bristol. To Bristol. Yeah.
[Isabella Whitworth] (9:31 – 9:36)
And so that you said they went out. So they went out as an engaged couple.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (9:36 – 9:37)
[Isabella Whitworth] (9:37 – 9:39)
And how long were they in China?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (9:39 – 9:57)
They were, they went out in 1931. And they came back seven years later. And all that time, my mother was only in her 20s.
And which is incredible when I read what she actually, the experiences she went through.
[Isabella Whitworth] (9:58 – 10:02)
And you know about her experiences, because she sent regular letters home.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (10:02 – 10:03)
[Isabella Whitworth] (10:03 – 10:13)
And isn’t it amazing that they still exist? Well, yes. Yes.
And so, you know, can you tell me about the letters and how, how they came into your possession?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (10:14 – 11:37)
Well, obviously, my grandparents must have kept them. All those letters must have arrived in Hatherleigh Vicarage. They must have kept them.
And then they were, my mother must have taken them again when her parents died. And then my sister had them after my mother died. And I knew they were there.
But I suppose about four years ago, I said to my sister, I really must try and transcribe those letters. And so I brought them home and I started and it took about 14 months with the help of COVID. And yeah, I started.
Well, actually, there were several, a lot of letters from my father as well, not nearly as many as my mother. And so I did the two lots together and then drafted them in together into chronological order and so not duplicating. So, but as far as my mother was concerned, all those letters were kept by her parents and been in the family ever since.
[Isabella Whitworth] (11:38 – 12:09)
And what sort of things did these letters record? You obviously have now transcribed all the letters and you published them in a book. And it’s fascinating to read because, I mean, I’ve read it.
She wrote very, very vividly, didn’t she? She was a very fine observer. Whereas your father was more matter of fact somehow.
But she noticed things and it’s very colourful, her writing. And she mentioned Hatherleigh quite a lot in her letters, didn’t she?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (12:09 – 13:39)
Yes, absolutely. She never questioned her calling, but she was very homesick for Hatherleigh. To begin with, when I looked at the letters, I thought, oh dear, I better not put this in.
You can’t put in that. She’s supposed to be a missionary. She’s not supposed to be homesick.
And the more I read it, the more homesick I realised she had been. But she was always, she was a very resilient and bubbly person, always looking on the bright side of things. And she just kept going.
But letters from home were an absolute lifeline for her. And I wish, I read recently that she wrote to her parents to say that she was terribly sorry, but she was going to have to get rid of their letters because there were just too many of them. And because she was having to evacuate and go all over the place, she didn’t want them to get into the hands of the Chinese and imagine them pasted up on their walls as wallpaper, their letters.
So regretfully, she had to throw those away, which meant that we’ve only got one side, her writing to her parents and not their responses. And they would have been so revealing that I should think they must have suffered agonies reading those letters.
[Isabella Whitworth] (13:40 – 13:42)
Well, it was a very, very turbulent time in China, wasn’t it?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (13:42 – 13:45)
Yes. Very, very. Yes.
[Isabella Whitworth] (13:45 – 13:54)
And then when they were dealing with all sorts of problems like warring lords and also their own health.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (13:54 – 16:32)
Yes, that’s right. Health and warlords. There were three or four lots of wars going on, the warlords, the small local divisions, the civil war between the communists and the Chinese National Party, and then the Sino-Japanese War, the second.
So really, there was wartime all around them the whole time. Yes, but as I say, my mother was really very, very nostalgic for Hatherleigh. And letters and parcels were an absolute lifeline.
And my mother was absolutely thrilled when a parcel arrived with all its wonderful surprises and treats and everything so full of home, that’s what she said, delicious things like delicious Christmas puddings arriving weeks late with a dead but what must have been a lovely piece of holly from the garden. And the pressed snowdrops and wild daffodils and primroses, the sprig of hazel catkins, the wee pot of homemade strawberry jam and apples from their own orchard, the real Devonshire wheat which made her imagine fields of grain and the beautiful cardigan, which her mother just had to hug because her mother had done it for her. And all the gifts that must have been bought in Hatherleigh and handled by the hands of her mother in the vicarage. And she says, I’m happy, very happy here, but sometimes longing for you all and dear Hatherleigh with its freedom and lovely rambles with the dog, and the wind and the wellingtons makes me feel a little homesick. And then I think of my calling. So that’s what she was writing about home.
And then she’d be caught up in idyllic memories of the countryside. And imagine how lovely Hatherleigh was looking in the spring and in the summer and autumn. And the hedges and cowslips growing and the wonderful roses and foxgloves and wild roses and dog-daisies, honeysuckle and all the things in the June glory.
And the wanderings by the river. And that’s where my father and she became engaged. So they especially, they had special memories for her.
[Isabella Whitworth] (16:32 – 16:39)
And then she, I think she was quite nostalgic for some events, wasn’t she? There was a, I think she wrote home about New Year.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (16:40 – 17:58)
Yes, she did. She, this was her first New Year when she particularly wrote about it. And she was hoping they all had a very happy New Year.
And she remembered that when they were having breakfast on New Year’s Day, that she’d be picturing them in the church and seeing in the New Year with the bells peeling out. And then I loved her description of one Sunday afternoon. She said that, and I’ll read this to you because this is what she says.
As I write, it’s 2.30 on Sunday afternoon. So about 6.30 p.m. at home. And I’m visualising the scene at Hatherleigh Vicarage as the day is about to get going. Mary, that’s her sister, will soon be up lighting the stove and making tea for dad before he goes off to early communion. Doris, now I think Doris must have been the help they had in the house. I have no idea who she is anymore about her.
But Doris will arrive and open the shutters, light the fires and lay the table for breakfast. And Dan, you will all come just as we were having high tea.
[Isabella Whitworth] (17:58 – 18:24)
That’s brilliant, isn’t it? That’s lovely. It’s so, it’s so, it makes it such a real picture.
She must have been, I mean, as her wedding day approached in 1935, I think. 33, that was, yes. That must have been a very, well, it was quite a difficult time for her emotionally, I imagine, because, you know, she was far away from home and her family.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (18:25 – 19:21)
Absolutely, yes. I remember she sent home, asking her mother to send some butterix patterns so that she could make her own wedding dress. But they must be for 1933, you know, only the most up-to-date modern, which she would then make, a modern wedding dress she’d then make.
But, yeah, she said she was beginning to think a lot about her wedding preparations and how she was wishing her father could marry them, and that they were all going to be there because, and how she felt so much the need of her dear mother to do all the things that most girls’ mothers do at such a time. Yeah, it’s quite emotional reading that.
[Isabella Whitworth] (19:21 – 19:26)
Yes, but I think there was a special celebration, wasn’t there, here in Hatherleigh for them?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (19:27 – 19:43)
Yes, apparently they had some sort of celebration at which a peal of bells were rung and ices were sold, which must have been quite something in those days. Yes.
[Isabella Whitworth] (19:43 – 19:54)
And so Ruth’s letters also show that through her mother, that’s your grandmother, she was involving the parishioners of Hatherleigh a little bit in her own missionary work.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (19:55 – 20:50)
Well, yes, she knew that my grandmother had a knitting group in her house, and I remember hearing about these knitting groups, asked if her mother could get her knitting group to make some lovely coloured scarves and bottle caps for the Chinese children. And these were sent to her, out to China, all knitted by this group of friends, and the children were absolutely delighted. And another thing about these groups that met in the vicarage, my grandfather would, my grandmother, rather, sorry, would serve tea, and then she’d squeeze out the tea leaves to use next time.
Well, that in a way speaks of how poor they were. Thrift, I think, was a word that would go with that, yes.
[Isabella Whitworth] (20:51 – 20:57)
And I think there’s a, I mean, I found it a very touching story about this young blind boy, a young beggar.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (20:58 – 22:57)
Yes, he was a young lad. I think there were lots of blind beggar boys, children, but he was only eight when he was turned out of home and landed up on the mission station and lived not in, they couldn’t take him in, because there were so many children in this position that they would have been absolutely inundated. But he was allowed to live in a shed.
I think it was probably the cow shed, I’m not quite sure, but there. And he really became very much loved by the missionaries and the Chinese people there. And they just wanted to find somewhere much more suitable, somewhere he could be properly looked after and trained for the future, particularly as my parents were going to be leaving, coming on furlough a bit later on.
And so they wanted to make proper plans. So they wrote to my grandmother and she wrote to see if she could, if anyone, if they could help in Hatherleigh, because the mission they were with was a faith mission and they never appealed for funds. So there couldn’t be a general sort of appeal for funds.
But my mother could write to her mother and she wrote to the parishioners and friends. This is one of the letters that’s there, telling them about this child and asking whether they would be prepared to make any donations, which they did very generously. And I know my mother was delighted that they should be so generous and helpful.
It was a wonderful encouragement to them.
[Isabella Whitworth] (22:58 – 23:04)
It must have made a kind of link for them with home, mustn’t it, to feel that they were being supported at home?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (23:05 – 23:07)
Yes, absolutely. Yes, it was wonderful.
[Isabella Whitworth] (23:08 – 23:20)
I know that the bells were remembered with particular affection by your mother. I mean, she seems to mention them a lot of times. Can we talk about the bells?
There are several references, aren’t there?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (23:20 – 23:54)
Yes, there are, yes. The last time was in 1938, just before the family set off. It was a very dangerous journey they had to do from their mission station in Sichuan and to the coast, and she conjures up pictures of their homecoming.
And she says, oh, my dear ones, it would be wonderful to see you and how thrilling it would be if there were a peal of bells to welcome us. And I can only think that her mother must have said that there might be.
[Isabella Whitworth] (23:56 – 24:07)
And, yes. And I mean, I’m just imagining what, I mean, your grandparents must have known they were coming home and how they must have worried about this journey home.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (24:08 – 24:30)
Yes, and my mother would say things like, but please, she’d tell them how awful things were happening. And then in the next paragraph, oh, please don’t worry about us. We’re perfectly all right.
We’re in the hands of God. But that was the basic thing of it. They did have that basic trust.
And so, of course, to their grandparents.
[Isabella Whitworth] (24:32 – 25:01)
Getting back to that peal of bells, we’ll get back to it a bit later. But in the middle of that, I’d like to talk about these ladies called the Churchwoods, the sisters who lived, well, I think it’s in a, I know the house myself. I think it’s just opposite the Vicarage.
It was called Elm House or something. There’s something to do with Elm. So can we talk about those sisters?
I think your mother wrote about them once, didn’t she? Or did they write to her?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (25:02 – 25:42)
I discovered a letter that one of the Miss Churchwoods had written to my mother. She’d heard that she was hoping to become a missionary and was interested. And she offered to pay all the fees for the missionary training course.
The one in Bristol? The one in Bristol, yes. But she had the letter from one of these sisters.
But at the same time, the other one had exactly the same idea. And this came from a legacy they’d had from their brother who died. So that was wonderful.
[Isabella Whitworth] (25:43 – 26:16)
Well, it’s interesting because they funded her missionary work or her missionary studies, but they also funded, we know from other research, the recasting of the bells in 1929. And they paid for a new clock. And that was also in memory of their late brother.
And I think you found a letter from Erroween, her name was, Churchwood, with your mother’s belongings. And I think she said something like, we’re going to try and restore melody to the old Hatherleigh bells.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (26:18 – 26:22)
I think they were quite excruciatingly, a bit dire.
[Isabella Whitworth] (26:23 – 26:35)
I think they were. I mean, they’d had numerous recastings and none of them had actually matched the last one. So I think that was the problem.
So they were quite key figures, these two old ladies, weren’t they?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (26:35 – 26:53)
Absolutely. And the letter that I was talking about, which spoke to my mother offering to pay her fees, I only found that about a week ago when I was looking into this interview a bit more.
[Isabella Whitworth] (26:54 – 27:15)
Well, it has been an amazing little journey, hasn’t it? Through all of these letters. So can we return to the present day and recent past?
Because we’re now talking about you still doing some research and still things keep emerging. When you were transcribing your mother’s letters, did it kind of rekindle memories and emotions for you?
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (27:16 – 29:29)
Well, it did, because they were always instilled within me from an early age. My mother used to love talking about it, Hatherleigh. So I’ve always thought of Hatherleigh as being a very magical place. And yes, this transcribing her letters has rekindled memories of those very early childhood visits to my grandparents. But now in a special, fresh light because of knowing what a very special place it was to my mother. And as I think I said before, the memories I have were very hazy, because I was only seven when my grandparents left.
But I remember the sort of things I do remember are granny making bread and walking down with me into the town to the baker to buy a little paper cone of yeast. I don’t know if you remember those, probably not. And then I remember seeing my first snake walking to the church on that path that goes to the church.
And I remember taking the pig’s will up to the collection point bin at the top of the lane. I can still smell that. And the milk churns were next door to it on a raised wooden platform waiting for collection.
I can remember the cattle market and Passaford, which has always been one of my favourite places in my memory. I’ve always got a vivid memory of Passaford. And I remember walking down there with my uncle just after the war, it must have been, and him hiding a bottle of pop in the hedge for a picnic.
And we’re walking along and he said, oh, just have a look in here. And there was a bottle of pop in the hedge. So that was a memory.
[Isabella Whitworth] (29:29 – 29:47)
And I know that you have a particular affection for the bells, because I suppose you would have had them as a child. But I think your mother’s recollections will have sort of renewed this, won’t they? Because they’re obviously special to her too.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (29:47 – 31:01)
Yes, absolutely. And I think reading about them did remind me so much. And it’s, it’s, I remember so much that evocative sound that they had had. And recently, when I was, just after I’d done the book, I think, I was searching around in the Hatherleigh websites, and I found one of your, the bell ringers website, and on it was a recording of the bells. And it really was quite uncanny because it just suddenly, it made my spine tingle really, because it just brought back that sound, such a distinctive sound.
I think probably it was something to do with where the bells are situated and how it carries over the air. But, and it was amazing how it just reminded me so much of my, transported me back to those days. So evocative.
[Isabella Whitworth] (31:02 – 32:57)
Yes. Well, it’s also coincidental that your renewed contact, I suppose, with Hatherleigh after all these years coincides with the fact that we are restoring the bells. And they are now, they have now been lowered for restoration.
And the last time they were lowered was during your grandfather’s time. So that was, and his name is actually cast into the tenor bell. And so it’s almost like something’s come around in a full circle, like almost a hundred years later, that coincide with your publishing the book and our talking today.
And I understand that some recent research you did gave you an answer to the question of that appeal, whether they had appeal, whether your parents had appeal when they came back from this extraordinary journey home from China.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (32:58 – 36:34)
Yes, that’s right. As I said, this was one of the last things they said, how wonderful if there would be appeal to welcome them. But I never knew whether there was because my mother stopped writing when she got back to England, when she left China.
Until about, I think it was two years ago, well after I’d finished, and went after the book had been published, I was browsing through some Hatherleigh websites and I stumbled across one advertising the British newspaper archives, I think it was called. And there I thought, well, I’ll just do a trial run, as you can do without having to pay. And immediately in front of my eyes appeared a cutting and it said, Western Morning News, Saturday the 7th of January 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter of the China Inland Mission, after seven years of service in China, returned to Hatherleigh yesterday. Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter, son-in-law and daughter of the Reverend J.C. Rossiter Vicar, were met with merry peals of the church bells for a well-deserved rest after a most stirring and adventurous time. They witnessed many distressing scenes in that unhappy country, having been in the heart of China. So that was absolutely wonderful end to the story.
[Isabella Whitworth] (36:35 – 40:49)
Yes, and it’s just astonishing that it was recorded in a newspaper which you came across. I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s a wonderful way of finishing this little account.
And thank you very, very much for giving your time. Well, I mean, it sort of follows on for a project on which you’ve already spent hours and hours and hours of your own time. But it’s nice that we can talk about it, you know, in a way that more people can maybe hear about your amazing parents and grandparents.
[Jean Wemyss-Gorman] (40:50 – 45:12)
Well, it’s been a pleasure for me and I feel very honoured that I should be asked. Thank you very much.
[Isabella Whitworth] (45:12 – 45:13)
Thank you very much indeed.