1937- Resident since 1964
This article is based on Mary Jane’s autobiographical writings and several conversations in which she described her own up-bringing, schooling, her marriage to Roger in 1959 and subsequent postings with the Royal Navy, before life in Rowlands Castle.
In person, Mary Jane comes over as an interesting and interested lady who is positive and enthusiastic about what she does. She is proud of her family and of her of her own interests and achievements. One introductory comment she made was “I can’t have nothing to do!”. She also mentioned “I don’t remember stress”. Mary Jane’s early life involved many changes of schools and locations, and she coped well with these and made the most of the opportunities each offered. Her life reads as being ‘an adventure’. Later in our conversation it emerges that one of her proudest moments was attending the award of an MBE to her daughter, Miranda, by the Queen.
Since arriving with her husband Roger in December 1964, Mary Jane has benefitted the local community in many ways. She has published two booklets: ‘Rowlands Castle Past & Present’ of 1988, and later in 2014, ‘Round and About Rowlands Castle’ which introduced the Village and its history to many of us.
The booklets were both written and illustrated by her, and the proceeds used for the benefit of local charities, including Pulmonary Hypertension and, latterly, the Heritage Centre.
She has continually supported charities by producing tea-towels, mats and mugs illustrated by herself. As an active, local member of the Women’s Institute her handiwork contributed to the design and embroidery of a millennial picture of the history of the Village. The embroidery now hangs in the Parish Hall. She also designs flower painting cards for W.I. members who are celebrating their eightieth birthdays.
You may also have benefitted from Mary Jane’s teaching. Mary Jane and Roger spotted Beech House in an estate agents window in Southsea and bought it initially for a nursery school and to bring up their family. Following from this, in 1976 Mary Jane was asked to set up a pre-preparation class as a department of Oakwood Preparatory School near Chichester and ran it for four years.
Later, after Roger’s retirement from the Royal Navy, Beech House was to become the base from which he set up his South Coast Charter Fishing for fishing trips and days out in The Solent. This evolved into the South Coast Motor Cruiser School accredited by the Royal Yachting Association, and ultimately navigation training for naval personal, some from the Middle East.
It was not only trainee naval personnel who benefitted from Mary Jane’s hospitality: in 1982 she opened the Coffee Pot Café on The Green, particularly popular on Sundays when local residents and also cyclists called for “a pot of tea for one, please” before spotting and clearing her selection of cakes. She also taught many teenagers “to cook, add up, and mix with customers”. ‘The Coffee Pot’ closed in 2001, being succeeded on the corner by ‘Tea on The Green’ – more recently renamed the ‘Bumble Bee Café’.
Parents and Early Memories
Mary Jane was born in October 1937 in Shropshire to Mary Skellon and Ewen Williams-Mitchell who had married in Barnes some four years earlier. Ewen was a geologist whose initial jobs were in the United Kingdom but eventually took him, Mary and Mary Jane to Iraq in the Middle East. Ewen lost his father at age six and was educated at a “poor school” in London. His subsequent progress was largely self-taught. Starting work as a geologist, he did well, eventually rising to become the General Manager for the Iraq Petroleum company in the large port of Basrah in Iraq, south of Baghdad but not far from the Persian Gulf.
Both parents were from large extended families with whom Mary Jane kept in touch. Her several cousins lead interesting lives. Joseph, her maternal grandfather, a well-educated gentleman – including Heidelberg University – spent a lot of time in Switzerland, always teaching in preparatory schools.
Early years and Schooling
Of her early years, Mary Jane says:
“My first memories are war orientated, aeroplanes overhead, as we lived in the Midlands, with lots of time in the garden and playing with our little wire-haired terrier. We lived in a bow fronted semi-detached house in Edwinstone, Nottinghamshire where my father worked as a geologist in the oilfields of Ekring.”
“After the war, life continued in a rented cottage at Edingly. We had to fill up a bath in the kitchen, and a loo just up the garden. I had a lovely swing hanging from an apple tree and spent lots of time on my bicycle. Life continued in this rented cottage after the war. We had very pleasant friends around and the severity of the war did not worry me.
In 1943, aged six, I went to a little private school at Mrs Milner’s – eight children with two teachers. It was very happy and countryfied.”
Ewen, her father, worked as a geologist first in Ekring and later in Wiltshire where the family took a rented cottage at East Marin.
“I started at the Leehurst Convent in Salisbury and was soon able to walk to the bus stop and get the bus myself – after all I was quite grown up by then, at least nine! I made my first communion there on 6th December 1946, white dress and all.”
They subsequently moved to the Old mill at West Harnham which was owned and run as a tea shop by a lady friend named Ross and her daughter Elisabeth, the same age, who also became a great friend.
”We used to fish for tiddlers in the river, and swim and paddle. The tea shop was always busy and I think that was where I got my love of baking.”
Her Father Ewen’s, Work in Iraq
Her father then got a job as a field geologist in Ain Zalah in north Iraq, with the Iraq petroleum Company. This was a step up, and her parents decided that their family would follow him out there when he was settled. In the meantime, Mary Jane and her mother spent the winter in a rented a bungalow in west Worthing, changing schools to the Worthing Convent.
Mary Jane writes of the trip out to Iraq where her family became ‘ex-patriates’, a way of life common to many British people working across the British Commonwealth:
“What an exciting trip that was! We had various injections which made us quite bad for 24 hours, and packed clothes that we might need. We took the train to London and then stayed at the Kensington Palace Hotel, so smart that we were amazed. We boarded a Pan American Clipper for Malta. It was so exciting to fly into Malta (where one day I would return) and the one thing I remember was you did not need coupons for sweets there. We refuelled and then flew on to Haifa (Israel). We had no idea what would greet us when we were there except that it would be very hot. It certainly was when we arrived in Haifa and transferred to a small Dragon Rapide biplane. We flew up to the pipeline stopping at each oil camp until we arrived in Kirkuk where my father was waiting for us with his hillman car, no air-conditioning… boy was it hot! We did not have very much stuff with us, but the IPC provided everything needed from sheets, towels, plates, cutlery for a completely furnished three-bedroom bungalow, a lovely home. Being an oil camp there was a wire mesh fence around the bungalows, but it had holes and the camels would come up the garden and eat my mother’s favourite flowers.
I was home educated in the camps at Ain-Zalah by the Parents National Educational Union (PNEU) who sent books for the curriculum.
Growing up near Kirkuk
Time passed happily in the camp but in 1948 my parents decided that I needed to go to school, so I was sent to the American Community School in Beirut – set up for the education of children of the American/Arabian Oil Company staff.
Beirut in 1948 was a wonderful thriving city and I soon settled in…and really loved living in Lebanon. It was like no other place I had been to, and so unspoilt… I liked to find the roads along the seafront. But still nothing compares with the corniche in Beirut which used to stretch all the way around the city waterfront.
Talking of Beirut, I cannot smell the herb Basil without being reminded of school trips up the mountain lanes of Lebanon.
However, when I ﬂew back home to the oil camp Ain Zalah, with an American accent my parents decided to send me to a convent in Surrey that they had chosen for my further education.
A company called Universal Aunts met me at the airport and took me to the train for Eﬃngham Junction. It was snowing and the old nun who drove me up to the convent, had driven during the war and still drove as if she was dodging bombs, a scary introduction to the school.
Leaving school in 1955 I returned to Iraq this time to Basrah where my father was then the managing director of the Basrah Petroleum Company.
I was then part of the amusingly called ‘ﬁshing ﬂeet’ of unattached girls who were invited onboard naval ships when they came up the Shatt Al Arab river showing the British ﬂag.
A company car took me into the souk where the French Convent School was situated and I started teaching the entry class there, the children being from many diﬀerent nationalities. We didn’t have much equipment cowrie shells and little blackboards with chalk and a few books, but they all learnt to read.”
Meeting and marrying Roger: postings with the Navy
“I had sandﬂy fever when H.M.S. Loch Alvie visited Basrah but my mother having gone to their cocktail party onboard invited a group to play tennis at our local court. Roger Lomer was among the guests and if you believe in love at ﬁrst sight it was that for both of us.
We met again several times and carried on a correspondence until I left Iraq in a hurry after the murder of the young King Feisal. We were under a curfew and once were out too late and were stopped by a lorry ﬁlled with riﬂe waving soldiers. Luckily, we had a home near Hastings so were able to go there where I attended the local art school before applying to train as an infant teacher at the Maria Assumpta Training College in Kensington Square from 1958-1960, where I received a Distinction in the Practice of Education.
Roger was posted to West Hartlepool to oversee a frigates reﬁt but came to see me every weekend. We were married in 1959 and he was posted to Malta onboard H.M.S. Trafalgar I was able to join him at the end of my training and we rented a ﬂat in Sliema and bought a little sports car.
I worked for the Malta Potteries in the mornings painting designs and teaching English Grammar at a local girls school in the afternoons.
Roger was then posted in June 1961 to Gibraltar to oversee the reﬁt of a frigate. We bought a grey Sunbeam Rapier car with a red roof and set oﬀ on our next adventure, camping through France and Spain. Our ﬁrst ﬂat was in a Cable and Wireless building overlooking the army barracks where soldiers drilled all day. As water was short in Gib, we had a salt water tap as well as the cold tap. I managed to make our ﬁrst cup of tea with the salt water which was very amusing. We later found a delightful ﬂat in the centre of town before moving again.
Roger bought himself a Lambretta scooter leaving the car for me to travel to work teaching in the local Loretto Convent. There I was put in charge of helping the other infant teachers with new ideas and teaching methods. It was all great fun and as most of the pupils spoke Spanish quite a challenge.
As I have always loved painting, I did a lot of local views and went into Spain with the Governor’s wife on painting expeditions. Soon I had enough paintings to have an exhibition and this was possible when we moved to a naval ﬂat in the Old Naval Hospital complex which had a “cave” beneath It. I still have friends who tell me one of my paintings is still hanging in their house.
We made many friends; visited Spain a lot when the border was open’, rode horses along the beach, but stopped as I was pregnant producing our son Chris in July 1963 in the Royal Naval Hospital. It was luxurious in those days with a ten day stay in the hospital.
Before starting teaching again in September – when the nuns watched over the baby while I taught – we had taken a trip to Morocco and got as far as Marrakesh, staying in wonderful hotels, and feeding Chris behind carpets in the souk.
Later we drove to Portugal to visit Portuguese naval friends, taking Chris with us.
All too soon the posting came to an end and we returned to the U.K. Having an idea that I would like to start my own nursery school, I bought 24 small Spanish Children’s chairs and sent the m back to the UK onboard the frigate. Our car was lashed to the deck which didn’t do it any good, and it was never the same.
We started house-hunting but sadly my mother died shortly after our return, leaving my father to sell his house and move in with us at Rowlands Castle in December 1964.”
Life in Rowlands Castle
“When we found Beech House in the estate agents window in Southsea, we were looking for a suitable home to run a nursery school and bring up a family. Tumbledown and a wreck, the House ﬁlled the criteria even though it was dilapidated and needed doing up. My father having had polio in 1926 and told he would never walk again proved everyone wrong, taught himself to walk and learnt many skills, so could turn his hand to many jobs even if he was sitting down doing it. He with the help of local handyman Mr Harding and others, ﬁtted out the house ready for the nursery school. My father lived with us until ﬂying oﬀ to South Africa, returning and marrying his best friend’s widow from Basrah in 1968.”
Beech wood at time of purchase
Husband Roger’s Business
“Meanwhile Roger did two more tours with the navy: nine months in the far and Middle East ﬁnally leaving the navy when I was expecting our second child. He set up his South Coast Charter Fishing business and subsequent training courses.
We used his naval money to have a 27’ single screw motor cruiser built at Hamble and with moorings at Sweare Deep by the Bridge to Hayling Island, set up South Coast Charter Fishing taking ﬁshermen out beyond the Isle of Wight on day trips. This grew to South Coast Motor Cruiser School accredited by the Royal Yachting Association, when Roger discovered how many expensive Motor Cruiser owners had no idea how to handle their craft.”
“Having visited many Arab countries Roger was very taken by the Middle Eastern Area and having contact with various boat yards at Hamble discovered that there was a requirement to train the crews who would be handing the boats when sold to their governments. His previous motor cruiser schools held him in good stead to take on groups of foreign marine students. Buying two more boats he was then able to oﬀer courses to foreign naval and coastal personnel. The ﬁrst students arrived from Brunei in 1974 and were followed by groups from Bahrain, Quatar, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia’s oil company ARAMCO. He then called the company Lomer Seamanship & Navigation Centre.
This changed the use of Beech House and we soon had students living with us for three to six-month courses and had to move the Centre to Annesley House, Queens Crescent, Southsea, and employed ﬁve ex naval oﬃcers to lecture and teach boat handling on our three motor boats moored at Hamble
.Vincent – Harbour Motor Launch
Life was very busy as I bought all the provision for the students and oversaw their wellbeing. Not easy when each weekend they invited ‘friends’ from London to join them, and all the food was used by the visitors.”
Annesley House, Southsea
Roger’s business was based on an idea he had while patrolling the Malacca Strait on board a Royal Navy frigate: to set up a Motor Cruiser School. Roger felt strongly about safety afloat which became a main driving force behind the courses. An estimated 90 percent of small boat accidents could be prevented by proper equipment and how to use it, and what to do in emergencies. Although there were about 150 sailing schools in existence, there was no provision for beginners and new owners. The school started with a one-day course, subsequently extended to three days, for teaching boat handling and seamanship and navigation. The school was soon fully booked up.
Following recognition by the Royal Yachting Association, courses were up to RYA certificate standard, with both residential and non-residential classes eventually lasting for a weekend, five- or seven-days duration. When more widely known, applications increased quickly with weekend introductory courses on such subjects as buoyancy, ‘rule of the road’ mooring and anchoring, safety at sea and navigation. Subsequently two other boats were purchased, as also was further accommodation in Portsmouth.
Beech House which had been restored by Mary-Jane and her father, provided ample and spacious accommodation for the residential courses, with a lecture room and separate sitting room for students. It had already been established as a nursery school for 40 pre-school children. Run by Mary-Jane.
Meanwhile, The Lomer Seamanship & Navigation Centre ended trading when most countries found that their personnel who had completed our courses were able to train their own boat handlers.
After twenty-two years in the Navy rising to Lieutenant Commander, Roger also turned his hand to writing novels. At age 67, just after a double heart-valve operation. He published ‘Vendetta’.
Teaching and Art
“Life for a naval wife in those days was quite diﬀerent to today and one was left on your own to cope with all the house and business jobs. None of the “girls’ nights out” of today but we managed to entertain ourselves. The nursery School grew and grew, and I stayed open through the summer holidays with several Mums helping me.
Being a member of the Women’s Institute and serving on the Hampshire Art Sub Committee widened my experience. I was asked by the local W.I group to design a card wishing the Queen Happy 90th Birthday and received a thank you card with a picture of the Queen who had commanded a lady in waiting to write and thank me.
The local W.I. Members embroidered a millennial picture of my design of the village which hangs in the Parish Hall. I was fascinated by the history of the village and painting views, taking children to Scouts, Brownies, swimming and Dancing classes. We were always kept busy.
In 1976 I was asked by The Headmaster of Oakwood Prep School near Chichester to set up a pre- prep class.
I ran the department for four years and it grew into a self- contained Pre- Prep with several classes until Roger needed me to help him with the overseas students.”
“In 1988 I produced my ﬁrst booklet on the history of the village. With the second book I was able to raise money for Pulmonary Hypertension. I also produced tea towels of the village and I have now designed a tea towel of the meeting places in Rowlands Castle, now on sale”.
Running through our life in the U.K. we spent many camping holidays in France and in the 70s purchased a mobile home near Frejus in France. After a year working up at Stansted helping Mr Harding in the woods, Chris our son, at age 18, decided to take his racing cycle to France to race. He stayed with friends, did well racing but decided it was too risky as even in those days you were asked to take supplements etc. He then worked in MacDonald’s in Toulouse and became the manager. Then he tried Decathlon. Chris worked his way through several companies and now advises companies on their pay schemes in Europe. He has three children and has just had a amazing house built where his French wife is the mayors adjutant.”
“Our daughter Miranda went to school in Midhurst, travelled everywhere while following a career in dietetics in the N.H.S. Now a specialist in Crohn’s disease and Irritable Bowel disease, she was awarded an M.B.E in the Queens 90th Birthday celebrations. She is married to solicitor John Wilson and they have a son called Edward and live in a wonderful house in beautiful Surrey countryside.”
The Coffee Pot Cafe
“At the same time the Coﬀee Pot Cafe was open every day. It was very popular on Sundays when all the cyclists came in for “A pot of tea for one please”. Seeing our selection of cakes they ate everything in sight. I taught many teenagers to cook, add up and mix with customers. Many went on to great careers and family, some life still living in the village.
When I closed the shop in August 2001 it was followed by ‘Tea on the Green’ at the corner. In 2018, Katy Hall – Robin Halls daughter – who had worked for me in the Coffee Pot, has taken over the building as The ‘Bumble Bee Café’. She is so glad to be back where she grew up, and everyone is so pleased to see her. Katy had attended my nursery school, and, as a teenager, he first job was at the ‘Coffee pot.”
“Roger had heart surgery in 1989 but continued to advise several boat yards on training, and he retired in the mid-nineties.
The Coﬀee Pot continued until August 2001 when we decided to go and live in a beachside property on Hayling Island. I took up glass engraving which was a wonderful experience, but I think it could had contributed to my pulmonary hypertension as the glass dust which, however you tried, was still in the air, particularly when I used the drill on the glass.
I had been breathless for some time and discovered that I had a condition called Pulmonary Hypertension where the arteries in the lungs are unable to function causing fatigue and lack of energy. Luckily Hammersmith Hospital has a special unit for this condition and with their care I am able to lead a quiet life as long as I don’t try to do too many activities.
I was able to continue painting on Hayling and raised money for the Pulmonary Hypertension charity by designing tea towels, mats and mugs for sale at Hayling Hardware.
I continued to be a member of the Rowlands Castle W.I. And have enjoyed being on the committee helping at jumble sales and many other activities.
When Roger died in 2011, I was keen to return to the village.
Edwina Butler who lived at No 70 The Green had worked for me in the Coﬀee Pot along with Freda Staﬀord, Helen Atkinson and Sandra King, went into a home and purely by chance I saw Edwina’s brother outside her house and asked him if I could rent the property. I moved in on December 1st, 2012, and bought the property two years later. Such a gem of a cottage with an interesting history.
I have a cupboard full of children’s stories with illustrations that I would like to work on, but my energy levels are not what they used to be. With so many paintings I also intend to have an exhibition one day.”
Editor: Placed on Website: March 2019