The teacher who taught Elm Park to dance: Tributes paid to 'Miss Sheila'
- Credit: Lorraine Fitzgerald
A dancer who moved to Elm Park in 1935, aged 12, with her parents and elder brother passed away recently, at the age of 97.
Sheila Fry nee Strelitz, was best known as ‘Miss Sheila’ to all those that knew her.
Her daughter, Lorraine Fitzgerald, who lives in Gidea Park said that she will be remembered as an “amazing person” following her death on July 2.
“She did so much and made such a difference to so many. Everywhere we went we would bump into someone who would say you taught me or my children how to dance,” she added.
The death of Sheila's father in the Second World War led her to create the Northwood School of Dancing based in what was the Assembly Hall, here she taught the children of Elm Park and Hornchurch how to dance for 65 years.
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Aged 84, Sheila took what her nephew, Cliff Reynolds, describes as an “early retirement”.
He describes his aunt as being "totally committed" to the community, and adds: "She was a lady who took no prisoners, and would always be keen to state how she felt at the time - she was able to make a difference”.
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Between the 1950s to 1980s Cliff recalls that the community Co-op Hall - which is located above Co-op Funeralcare on Elm Park Avenue – would be “packed out” with “proud parents” and talent spotters who would come to enjoy the annual show put on by Shelia's dancers.
The 75-year-old said: “Many of the girls went on to have international careers in entertainment.”
Sheila's pupils appeared in theatre, commercials and major film productions such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang and so Sheila was known as Elm Park’s link to show business.
In an extract from the 1990 Romford Times paper: “The Elm Park Story” by Chris Hipperson, Simon Donoghue and Ingrid Brandon, Sheila recalled starting her dance school, she said: “When I started I had just one pupil, but by the end of the first year I had 100!
“In 1941 I put on a charity pantomime at May and Bakers with my dance troupe the Spitfire Babes.
“In 1971 a group of my girls performed on television in the talent show Opportunity Knocks with presenter Hughie Green.”
In the early fifties she would also help out at St Albans Primary School in Hornchurch and during her 65-year career she spent more than 30 years working as a Housekeeper to the Priests in the Parish of St Albans and also worked as a doctor's receptionist.
Cliff said that Sheila’s busy life meant she didn’t take up driving until she was in her sixties, he joked that some parking was “spectacular”.
After retiring Sheila was heavily involved in the community, setting up coffee mornings and ladies' groups and demonstrating for pensioners’ rights.
She would also fundraise for charities and represented community groups in Havering at Havering Compact, where the voluntary sector engages with the local authority.
Cliff, who is chairman of the Havering Over 50s Forum said that Sheila was a member of its executive committee.
Never one to rest, Sheila took computer training courses and would take groups of friends to civic events such as Trooping the Colour, and Order of the Garter Ceremony.
Continuing to travel after retiring was important to Sheila. She would travel regularly to visit friends and families of priests she had known in Northern Italy.
Cliff commented: “I will remember her as my aunt of 75 years and I have had 74 Christmases with her. I have often been at meetings where people will say your aunt taught me and my family how to dance.
He added: “One time at a meeting an older lady said that Sheila taught her and ‘all the shy retiring girls’ how to dance along with teaching them confidence.”
Speaking to the community who knew her, Cliff shared their comments: “Sheila touched so many lives over so many years, always interested in people, always involved, always there to make a difference, never shy.”
Sheila has two grandchildren and two great grandchildren and will be fondly remembered as the teacher who was an influence to many.