EXTRAORDINARY LIVES: My father fled a violent home aged 13 – that’s why he saved Britain’s first women’s refuge
- Jim Duffy overcame a childhood blighted by death, deprivation and violence
- Played an important role in the survival of Chiswick Women’s Aid, set up in 1971
- Warned he might go to prison after refusing to sign eviction notice for refuge
- Stood firm, knowing what life was like in a violent home after stepfather’s abuse
Britain is full of unsung heroes and heroines who deserve recognition. Here, in our weekly obituary column, the moving and inspirational stories of ordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives, and who died recently, are told by their loved ones…
MY FATHER JIM
by Sharon Duncalf
Earlier this year, at a family gathering, Dad said to my husband: ‘Andy, if I dropped dead tomorrow, I’ve had a wonderful life.’
And he was right — although it had been the roughest of starts.
His childhood was blighted by death, deprivation and violence, and at the age of 14 he’d started work down the mines.
Yet he overcame it all to create a loving family and to serve others, especially vulnerable women and children. He played an important role in the survival of Chiswick Women’s Aid, a refuge set up in 1971 by the campaigner Erin Pizzey for domestic abuse victims. It was a cause for which he could have gone to prison.
Jim Duffy, pictured here with his wife Olive, helped saved Britain’s first women’s refuge after refusing to sign an eviction notice for the overcrowded property in Chiswick
One of five siblings, Dad was born in 1926 in a coalmining village called Shotts, between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Pit accidents were common; I remember him saying how often they’d hear the siren, warning of an accident. And when he was seven, that siren rang for his father Joe, who was killed in a collapse.
His mother remarried soon after and the family moved south, to Coventry. But their new stepfather was a violent man. By the age of 13, Dad felt he had to leave home. He told me he felt he might have killed his stepfather if he’d stayed.
Taking his younger brother with him, Dad moved back to Scotland to live with their uncle, and found work in the local pit. It was the start of World War II and mining was a protected industry, so he was never called up to fight.
After the war, Dad worked as a waiter at Butlins Holiday Camp at Filey in Yorkshire, and later at another camp at Portelet Bay, Jersey — which is where, in 1949, he met my mother Olive, then 19. It was love at first sight for them both.
Dad moved to London to find work and to be near Olive, and they married in 1952, settling in Hounslow. At Mum’s suggestion, he began to study maths and engineering at night school, so he could find work as a tooling engineer.
She also encouraged him to join her ballroom dancing lessons, which became a lifelong shared passion. They were a fixture in the world of ballroom and knew Len Goodman, the former Strictly judge. Dad’s speciality was the slow foxtrot.
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With his engineering qualifications, Dad worked for EMI and British Airways. His credo was fairness in the workplace; he was already a member of the Labour Party when he met Mum and was becoming increasingly interested in local government.
That passion led him to be elected to the local council, and he was even invited to stand as an MP for Feltham and Heston in the Seventies, but declined, fearing too much time away from the family.
Dad felt that his role was to make life better on a local level. So when he was told to sign an eviction notice for an overcrowded property in Chiswick — Britain’s first home for battered wives, founded by Erin Pizzey — he refused.
He was warned he might be prosecuted and go to prison, but Dad knew what life was like in a violent home and he stood firm, appearing on Thames Television’s Today programme to explain how important these sanctuaries were.
He remained a friend of the Chiswick Women’s Aid movement, now known as Refuge, all his life. When the charity celebrated its 45th anniversary at the House of Lords in 2017, Dad and Mum were invited.
Dad’s career in local government flourished and in 1978, he and Mum were selected as Mayor and Mayoress of Hounslow.
His family, though, was the centre of his life and he was a loving father to my elder brother Kerry and me, and adoring grandfather to his four grandchildren.
Dad and Mum retired to Windlesham in Surrey, where they continued to dance. When Mum developed dementia, Dad was happy to be her carer. He always credited her with ‘saving his life’ by encouraging him to study and better himself.
Dad’s death was unexpected, following a routine heart operation. The day before he died, he and Mum had spent a lovely afternoon reminiscing. He was a gentleman to the last, who thrived on others’ happiness.
James (Jim) Duffy, born May 16, 1926, died June 13, 2018, aged 92.
Stumped by the crossword? Blame my brilliant friend!
MY COLLEAGUE NUALA
by Richard Colfer
If you find yourself scratching your head over the Giant Crossword on page 62 of today’s Mail, I hope you’ll spare a thought for Nuala. For the past 25 years she has been compiling that puzzle every Saturday, a run that will only come to an end in December when the final one, her 1,248th, which she completed before her death at the age of 90 last month, will be published.
It all started 72 years ago. Shortly after the war, Nuala was working as an air hostess when she met Brian Considine, a pilot from Limerick who had been wounded in the Battle of Britain.
Brian introduced her to cryptic crosswords and they subsequently compiled one together. To their joy and surprise, it was published by the Irish News when Nuala was still just 18.
In the more than seven decades since, she is thought to have compiled more crosswords than anyone else in history.
She was born Aisling Fionnuala Maire Kiernan on October 10, 1927, in London, the second of four children of Delia Kiernan, a noted Irish folk singer, and Dr Thomas J. Kiernan, a diplomat and later Ireland’s ambassador to West Germany and the U.S.
Nuala Considine is thought to have compiled more crosswords than anyone else in history. Notably shunning the use of computers — she preferred instead to design grids by hand to go alongside the neat, witty clues that were her hallmark
She married Brian in 1948 and joined the press and puzzles agency Morley Adams Ltd (now part of the Press Association) in Fleet Street in 1955, where she worked for the rest of her life.
In that time she compiled crosswords for a range of newspapers including the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Daily Express (for some years setting all their daily cryptics single-handed).
Once, when she was compiling a crossword called ‘The Stinker’ for the Weekend Mail, a group of people who used to try to tackle it together became so frustrated that they wrote to the paper asking for a photograph of the setter to put on their dartboard. The request was politely refused.
She and Brian never had children and after his death in 1996 she carried on compiling, notably shunning the use of computers — she preferred instead to design grids by hand to go alongside the neat, witty clues that were her hallmark.
I will remember her as a kind woman, ready with encouraging words and helpful advice, who loved splitting her time between Britain and her second home in San Diego.
Even in her 80s she remained fit and active, showing amazing speed in providing a cup of tea and a slice of cake for guests, zipping up and down her stairs with ease.
To hear that she had been diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer was an enormous shock, but Nuala accepted it with great dignity.
Her funeral in London on Friday, July 27, was attended by many family members and friends, from crosswords and beyond, who couldn’t resist swapping stories in the pub afterwards.
All I can say is that if her story has inspired you to try her crossword, please do! You won’t find a better one.
Nuala Considine, born October 10, 1927, died July 24, 2018, aged 90.
Aaron’s smile was a tonic for all who met him
MY SON AARON
by John Mollitt
Whenever I think of my son Aaron, it’s his huge smile that comes to mind first. He was such a happy person — yet so disabled that he couldn’t even say hello.
But Aaron had a way with him. Pushing him in his wheelchair through our tiny village of Ingleton in the Yorkshire Dales could take a couple of hours because everyone wanted to stop and see how he was.
And that wonderful smile was such a tonic that I often took him with me when I visited hospitals in my role as a minister of Ingleton Evangelical Church. His presence seemed to be uplifting for others.
The great tragedy was that when Aaron was born in August 1987, he was a healthy baby. His multiple disorders — spastic quadriplegia, epilepsy, severe spinal curvature and visual impairment — were caused when he was just four weeks old, by his violent biological father, a heroin addict.
My wife Pat and I fostered him, intending to keep him for a year. We had two children and had fostered babies before. But Aaron had such profound needs that he became a full-time job for my wife.
Aaron Mollitt had profound disabilities, but his pleasures were simple. He loved being pushed in his wheelchair, to breathe fresh air and feel the breeze on his face
And somehow he became family, and our fostering role just kept going until, in 2004, when Aaron was 16, we adopted him.
Of course, doctors warned us that Aaron’s health was not compatible with a long life. He had repeated chest infections and often needed hospital treatment. But Aaron was a fighter and kept defying the odds.
He attended a special school in Carnforth until he was 18 and was very happy there. After he left, I took early retirement and we spent another happy decade together — he became a familiar figure at churches I visited, football and cricket matches, brass band concerts — in fact, everywhere we went.
Great kindness was shown to us because of Aaron. One afternoon, we were having coffee and scones in a cafe but when we went to settle the bill, we were told the staff had had a whip-round and there was nothing to pay.
When Aaron finally succumbed to a chest infection, the family was devastated.
For someone with such profound disabilities, his pleasures were simple. He loved being pushed in his wheelchair, to breathe fresh air and feel the breeze on his face.
And that’s how we remember him now, with an annual family walk up Ingleborough peak. We miss Aaron every day but we are so thankful for the years we spent with him.
Aaron Luke Mollitt, born August 30, 1987, died May 18, 2016, aged 28.
Our ‘Magic Mary’ made crazy ideas come true
MY DAUGHTER-IN-LAW MARY MCDOWELL
by Oenone McDowell
Everyone knew my daughter-in-law as ‘Magic Mary’ because she could conjure up miracles out of thin air. She just had that knack of making the craziest ideas a reality.
And the best example of that was when she and her friend Claire organised a huge fundraising event called the Pink Tie Ball for charity. They persuaded Sittingbourne Golf Club to host it free, then arranged wonderful auction prizes, including a VIP box at the Manchester United football ground. They raised more than £9,000 for the Medway Maritime Hospital.
Sadly, the only magic trick Mary couldn’t pull off was beating breast cancer, although for ten years she gave it everything she had.
Mary was born in Gillingham, Kent, the only girl in a family of seven and perhaps that’s why she grew up sports-mad, especially football (Gillingham FC) and playing netball and badminton.
Everyone knew my daughter-in-law Mary McDowell, pictured here with husband Rob, as ‘Magic Mary’ because she could conjure up miracles out of thin air
She met my son Rob and there was a special bond between us from the start. I even made her wedding dress — a fashionable, bouffant affair (pictured).
They went on to have two children, Samantha, born in 1988, and Ben, two years later. To celebrate, Rob bought her a gold necklace from a local jeweller. To their shock and delight, it turned out to be one that had been stolen from her in a burglary a year or two before.
With her own children at school, Mary trained as a teaching assistant. She had left with few exam passes herself, but was in her element helping others.
As a family, they loved camping and caravanning, taking their children to festivals and open-air concerts all over the country. At home, they hosted wonderful barbecues for the family. It seemed a charmed life to all of us.
So when Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, it was devastating news. But she was typically upbeat, although realistic: ‘I know this thing is going to get me,’ she said to me once, ‘but not yet.’
Mary McDowell, born March 18, 1960, died January 27, 2018, aged 57.
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