Islanders gather to remember Lady Mary Wilson
Islanders gathered for a service of thanksgiving for the life of Lady Mary Wilson on Thursday (July 12th).
Chaplain to the Isles Canon Perran Gay led the memorial service, which took place at St Mary's Parish Church.
Lady Wilson died on June 6th at the age of 102. Her ashes were buried with her husband, former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, in Old Town Churchyard.
Read Canon Perran Gay's address at the service in full below:
Here’s an evocative description of Hugh Town as day turns into night:
‘Now, when the starry dusk comes down
With what a sure tranquillity
The lights glow from the little town!
And lights flash back across the sea
From watchers round the coast, who keep
Night-long their vigil without rest,
That all of us may safely sleep
Among the Islands of the Blest.’
The words, of course, are those of Mary Wilson, in her poem entitled ‘The Isles of Scilly’, and today as we meet to recollect her life among us and to treasure our precious memories of her, there is a real sense that she is one with us among the Islands of the Blest, a person who in her life time found such blessing here, and who in turn blessed it with her presence and influence. Today we feel that Mary has come home - to the islands that she so loved and the people that she called her friends, and to her dear Harold with whom she shared so many of her precious visits to her island home. Other people in other places will rightly be paying tribute to Baroness Wilson of Rievaulx and her distinguished contribution to our national life - today here on Scilly we remember our friend Mary and her special legacy to these Islands of the Blest.
I was never privileged to meet Mary, as apart from her final brief visit here last year we didn’t quite overlap, but over the past few weeks I feel that I have come to know her very well, both through the words of her Scilly poetry and even more through the memories that so many people have shared with me and with one another - in the street and in chance conversations, as well as in more formal tributes, and including some of my predecessors, both Methodist and Anglican, who knew Mary well. I hope that some of their reflections will stir other memories among you all as we give thanks for her life together.
Mary speaks very often in her poetry about the beauty of these islands, and the sense of solitude and peace she found here. She communicates this sense through a careful description of the natural world, both in the overall impression of the scene she is describing, but also in the tiny detail of a flower, a beach, a bird. We heard it clearly in the poem that Jennifer read about this very church, where ‘the scent of hymnbooks, daffodils and holiness blends in a tranquillising harmony’.
For the poet, this capacity to observe such details and to fuse them into an imaginative vision is a sign not only of their creative skill, but also of their deep understanding of what they are describing, their love of what they behold and want to share with us. Her daughter-in-law Christine speaks of how ‘Mary’s eyes would shine as she spoke about people and places’, and you can sense from the poems both a deep understanding of these islands and a love of all that makes them special, and not least the mysterious sea that surrounds them in protection and in danger.
Many people have spoken of how Mary loved to walk around the islands, and of some of her favourite places – along King Edward to Penninis, or to Carreg Dhu for a picnic. Her son Giles remembers one time when the family were sitting on pine needles in a pine forest on Tresco at lunchtime, sipping tea from a thermos flask. It was raining and drops of water kept falling into their plastic mugs. During a lull in conversation, Mary looked up and said, "I think it’s brightening", which didn’t go down that well with everyone else.
Mary shared her poetry with the people of Scilly, not least within the music and poetry concerts in this church. Julia MacKenzie well remembers the large audiences that were attracted to these events, and the very special experience of hearing Mary’s poems delivered by their creator. Julian Ould, who was Chaplain at that time, recalls the amazing anecdotal insights that brought her words to a new level of understanding. At one of the music and poetry evenings Mary read a poem called ‘The London Eye’, which is not in her books. After the concert Julian asked if he could have a copy of this, and he received a handwritten copy on House of Lords paper. He comments: "To me this is something special that I will treasure - to her just something she wrote, in her quiet unassuming way." Mary was a good friend of John Betjeman and on one occasion presented Julian with a medieval nail from the roof of Westminster Abbey which John had given to her.
That deed of kindness is one of countless examples of Mary’s generosity and devotion to these islands - to its institutions and public life, and to its people. Her interest in and love of Scilly was not confined to the beauty of its seascapes and the sense of peace that she found here - it extended to its people too. Amanda Martin writes that "islanders came to accept her as a member of the community. Lifelong bonds were forged, the most significant of which was with Betty Sherris, her constant friend and helper."
David Easton, a former Methodist minister, tells the story of how Mary and Harold were on the quay on St Mary’s when one of the more amorous boatmen, now deceased, came along and threw his arms around Mary and kissed her. The security men were, understandably perhaps, somewhat alarmed. Harold’s response was to say, "Oh that’s just ‘so and so’ - he does that to all the women." It’s a funny story, but it does show how much the Wilsons were genuinely embraced by the local community here, as the people of Scilly recognised in turn that deep affection for these islands and their people in them.
David had the opportunity to talk with Mary about her earlier life in Downing Street, and her recollections revealed that she had mixed feelings about the various experiences there, although she was obviously immensely proud of Harold’s position as Prime Minister and the great work that he carried out while in office. David comments that it was obvious that "in many ways her heart was in Scilly, and it was to the islands that she returned several times a year while she was still able".
From time to time. Mary played a more prominent role in island life, as a patron of the Isles of Scilly Environmental Trust, the Ladies Lifeboat Guild and the Isles of Scilly Museum. Amanda describes how delighted Mary was by the creation of a museum display dedicated to her husband, and how she would regularly bring additional items - a tie, a photograph, a pipe. Betty Sherris remembers the Wilsons’ kindness in surrendering a corner of their garden so as to make it easier for vehicles to access the new development beyond them.
They were people who wanted to support and give to the local community that had adopted them as their own. Some of you will remember how they used to see the New Year in together at the Scillonian Club, when following ‘Auld Lang Syne’ the Anniversary Waltz would be played, and the Wilsons would take to the floor as January 1st was their wedding anniversary. Others will remember Mary coming to watch the Scillonian Entertainers in 1980s and '90s and her distinctive giggly laugh at all the ridiculous antics and suggestive songs.
We have already heard reflections from both Methodist and Anglican ministers, and that gives some of the flavour of Mary’s ecumenical spirit. The daughter of a Congregational minister, and by conviction a Methodist, she showed great support for all the expressions of Christian life on the islands. David Easton remembers her determination to get to Scilly in time for Easter so that she could attend the sunrise service on Buzza Hill and the later service in the Chapel, while she also loved the candlelit Epilogue at Old Town and the reflective verse ‘God be in my head’ with which it ended, a verse which we will sing in her memory later in our service. My immediate predecessor Paul Miller shares a special memory in that church of the baptism of Mary’s grandson James Daniel Wilson, named after his grandfather James Harold Wilson, and how Mary was thrilled that the Wilson name would survive into the next generation.
David Easton recalls Mary’s reflections of how the ecumenical scene had changed during her lifetime, and how much she welcomed the new spirit of commitment between the churches. Her father, like many non-conformist ministers before the War had had a fairly deep-seated suspicion of Roman Catholicism. When she and Harold were, many years later, having a private audience with the Pope, she told David that she spent the whole time thinking ‘What on earth would my father think if he could see me now!’ Any words of wisdom that the Holy Father might have uttered were lost in the anxiety.
Perhaps above all it was the essential simplicity of their life and dealings on Scilly that so endeared the Wilsons to the islanders’ hearts - the unpretentious bungalow - ‘my bungalow’ as Mary would always call it, where she entertained so many people to tea; her obvious enjoyment of the everyday life of the islands, her willingness to join in. People have commented that there were no ‘airs and graces’ about Mary and how she would be as happy sitting in a coffee morning in the Atlantic Hotel or pottering around the Co-op as she was taking her place at a more formal event in London.
Julian Ould recalls a lovely moment at one of those London events - a book launch at Lincoln’s Inn of ‘The Goldfish Bowl’. It was a book about Prime Minister’s spouses to which Mary had contributed, and Julian had gone to London to support her. He comments, ‘It was a grand occasion with many important and famous people, and I remarked to Mary that I felt like a country bumpkin. She responded, “So do I”’. It was just the kind of self-deprecating thing that she would say, and perhaps helps us to understand why she was held in such high esteem here, and all the more so for her constant care for Harold during his long decline.
One final memory and one final poem - both from 1975, and both in relation to the hundredth anniversary commemoration of the loss of the Schiller which went down in 1875 with the loss of 311 lives. The shipwreck was commemorated in the presence of senior figures from Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom. Wreaths in the colours of the three countries were thrown on the sea at the site of the wreck, and the island children performed a ‘Son et Lumière’ in Old Town Churchyard. Mary found it a very powerful occasion, and captured it in a moving poem. Here are its final verses:
The dusk comes down on Old Town Church,
And, where a hundred years ago
The island children strewed their flowers,
Once more the children’s torches glow
To guide us through the falling night;
And in the yellow lantern-light
They act in mime the liner’s loss;
We see her strike, we see her sink,
We hear the cries, the muffled gun;
The Schiller obelisk glows pink;
And over all, incessantly
We hear the sighing of the sea.
Yes, over all we hear the sea;
We hear its murmuring evermore
In storm, in calm, relentlessly
Ebbing and flowing on the shore.
Encircled in its arms are we -
Our enemy, our friend, the sea.
‘Our enemy, our friend, the sea.’ Our service has been full of images that reflect on the ever-present reality of the sea. For Tennyson, for St John of the book of Revelation, and for the writer of that stirring hymn ‘Will your anchor hold?’, the sea is a powerful image of something even greater: the ever-present reality of death, a bar to be crossed, a dangerous passage that awaits us all. But the Christian hope which Mary shared and which we celebrate today is that death is a crossing that leads to the harbour of life, a new and heavenly city where there will be no more sea of separation, no more sorrow, no more pain, but only joy in the presence of God and of those whom we love. Death, like the sea, is both our enemy and our friend, an enemy that has been conquered through the power of Christ, and a friend who waits to welcome us home, encircled in the love of Christ. To that power and that love we commend our sister Mary today, that she may rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.
Image on cover of Order of Service by Gilbert Pender.