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‘Truly remarkable’ Rainham woman to be laid to rest - six months after death

PUBLISHED: 07:00 17 September 2020

Cat enthusiast Phyllis pictured in the garden alongside family pets Blackie and Pushkin. Blackie died less than three weeks after Phyllis passed away. Picture: Alexandra Wilde

Cat enthusiast Phyllis pictured in the garden alongside family pets Blackie and Pushkin. Blackie died less than three weeks after Phyllis passed away. Picture: Alexandra Wilde

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A family is finally able to say last goodbyes to a “truly remarkable” 100-year-old from Rainham - six months after her death.

Phyllis (centre), pictured alongside the “The Railway Cats,”, who were performing at a festival of poetry, books and music in Romford. Picture: Alexandra WildePhyllis (centre), pictured alongside the “The Railway Cats,”, who were performing at a festival of poetry, books and music in Romford. Picture: Alexandra Wilde

Phyliis Whitwell’s daughter Alexandra Wilde had wanted to arrange “the service that Mum wished to have” but as the country was in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic at the time of her death in March, it was not possible.

But tomorrow (Friday, September 18), Phyllis is now set to be laid to rest in the family grave.

Alexandra explained that coronavirus restrictions prevented the family from being able to follow her mum’s wishes sooner.

“She died very peacefully and gently, here at home with us in Rainham,” she said.

Phyllis pictured with her mother Alice in Liverpool, where Phyllis will be buried after being born in the city in 1919. Picture: Alexandra WildePhyllis pictured with her mother Alice in Liverpool, where Phyllis will be buried after being born in the city in 1919. Picture: Alexandra Wilde

“Because we wanted to have the service that Mum wished to have, with all the restrictions at the beginning of lockdown, we have only recently been able to arrange her funeral.”

With those restrictions reducing, Phyllis is set to be buried alongside her parents and elder brother in the city in which she was born.

Speaking ahead of the service, Alexandra, 74, made it clear that it is to be a “celebration” of an extraordinary life.

Born on her parents’ third wedding anniversary on October 28, 1919, “wonderful present” Phyllis was perched between brothers Austin and John.

Phyllis and brother John at the Ritz Hotel after enjoying tea in the Palm Court. Picture: Alexandra WildePhyllis and brother John at the Ritz Hotel after enjoying tea in the Palm Court. Picture: Alexandra Wilde

After being very ill with rheumatic fever as a child, Alexandra remarked that she did not follow doctor recommendations to live “a quiet life”.

She married Alexandra’s father in 1941, aged 22, with the only child herself born five years later.

Adverse conditions at home meant that when the opportunity to go abroad and work arose in 1948, the couple — alongside a two-year-old Alexandra — set sail for Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, on the Empress of Scotland.

Thriving in this new environment, Phyllis qualified as an accountant and learned to speak fluent Swahili, something Alexandra believes was particularly important to her.

Mother and daughter pictured celebrating Phyllis' 100th birthday at the Ritz in October 2019. The 100-year-old passed away peacefully at her Rainham home on March 23 2020. Picture: Alexandra WildeMother and daughter pictured celebrating Phyllis' 100th birthday at the Ritz in October 2019. The 100-year-old passed away peacefully at her Rainham home on March 23 2020. Picture: Alexandra Wilde

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Asked to describe her mum at this time, she says “young and vivacious”.

This presentation was, however, masking an increasingly unhappy marriage, one which Phyllis left when the family moved to Durban in 1964.

The divorce helped Phyllis “really come into her own” in the South African city, and she went on to achieve “the pinnacle of her career” by becoming the first lady to be employed by the Durban City Treasury.

An old photo of Phyllis holding a baby Alexandra. Picture: Alexandra WildeAn old photo of Phyllis holding a baby Alexandra. Picture: Alexandra Wilde

Breaking into this “male dominated sphere” was typical of the indomitable spirit Phyllis showed throughout her life.

Although Alexandra returned to England in 1970, six years after the move to Durban, Phyllis remained in the city until her mother Alice died in 1985.

Returning home to England at the age of 66, most people would be minded to retire, yet Phyllis continued to work for a London accountancy firm until she was 71.

Although she may have been formally retired at this point, Phyllis showed no signs of slowing down, as both granddaughter Wendy and great-grandson Al injected that extra bit of vitality into her life.

Now living in Rainham, she also frequently joined in with the musical and poetic performances of Alexandra’s group “The Railway Cats”, who entertained across a number of local venues.

Alexandra says her mum never lost the travelling bug, going to visit her younger brother John in Australia as recently as 2001, at the tender age of 82.

Also a keen explorer closer to home, Alexandra shared one particularly fun anecdote: “On one occasion, she was a guest at a medieval-themed wedding in Mandescheid Castle in Germany, wearing a medieval gown, and had to climb up the very steep, pebbly paths leading to the castle, for the celebrations.”

Eventually, as happens to everyone, Phyllis was forced to slow down as “the years began taking their toll”.

Coming to live with Alexandra, she still enjoyed a full life, complete with one of her other great loves — cats.

Family pets Blackie and Pushkin brought real joy to Phyllis, with the feeling very much mutual.

Although life was quieter, Phyllis’ still enjoyed the odd big occasion.

“She always loved taking tea at the Ritz,” Alexandra said. “Everyone in the Palm Court made a fuss of her — and on her 100th birthday in 2019, she sat, surrounded by her family, with the Queen’s birthday card on the table, savouring every moment.”


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