Thelma Mary Shepherd

Thelma Mary Shepherd 1931 Wing, Buckinghamshire, UK

I cared deeply for Thelma, and here is the obituary I wrote for her:

Goodbye Thelma Shepherd 2005

Thelma Mary Shepherd

Thelma Mary Shepherd

We were still living in New Zealand when I wrote to Barbara Tearle of Oxford in 1992 asking her if my grandfather Arthur Tearle had any brothers and sisters. She wrote back to say he had one brother and many sisters, and she would put an advertisement in the local paper to see if there were any members of that family still in the district. It was Thelma who wrote to me. She explained that she was the daughter of Harry Tearle of Wing, son of Mahlon who was the brother of my grand-father Arthur and they were both the sons of the blacksmith of Wing, Levi Tearle.

From that letter came a lasting and deep friendship that I have enjoyed with my cousin, Thelma. We wrote letters, swapped cards and I even rang her a couple of times. She never forgot a birthday and she had a knack of getting a card to me on time, even though she may have sent it from England only three days before. She rang me once to say she had been allowed to buy her little house on the High Street in Wing that she had rented from the council for many years. Did I think she should buy it? I said “Definitely, it’s always better to own it than to rent it.” That Christmas she asked us to raise a toast to her as a newly propertied woman.

In March 1994, our dear son Jason was tragically killed and it was Thelma who organized her aunt Clarice Pugsley and cousin Sheila Leng to go with her all the way to New Zealand in November that year to help us in our grief. It was Thelma who gave us the 6 walnuts from the tree in Jennie Pugh’s back yard, which was itself a son of the tree that grew in Levi’s garden in Wing, which in turn was grown from a walnut gathered from the tree which grew for his mother in Stanbridge. Elaine, Thelma, Clarice, Sheila, my mother Tia and my father Frank each planted one of the walnuts under the kitchen window of our house in Whawharua. Two of those walnuts grew into trees and both of them are planted in different places on our farm, a tribute to Levi Tearle and the wonderful family he had brought up. Two years later, my father and I transplanted one of the saplings to a special corner of the block set aside for the tree and the Rev Fred Day, retired, of Te Kuiti conducted a small ceremony entirely in Latin to dedicate the tree to Jason’s memory. It was Thelma, too, who held Elaine’s hand in the car on the long journey to collect Jason’s ashes in the urn from the funeral director’s studio and Thelma, Clarice and Sheila were there in Hamilton with Genevieve, our daughter and a small collection of family and friends when my younger brother sang “Let the Circle be Unbroken” as Elaine and I finally laid our beautiful son to rest. A special bond had been formed, a bond that would grow stronger with time.

There was the wonderful reunion when they met my father for the first time. He and Mum came to Otorohanga for the formalities and saved us all the long trip to Hahei, and there were tears on the one hand and joy on the other, because my father was first cousin to Thelma’s father, Harry, and first cousin to Clarice herself. Arthur was much loved and much missed by his sisters.

Elaine and I were working in Te Kuiti at the time and each day we would go to work and we would organize something for “The Girls” to do while we were away. One day a Te Kuiti businessman took them on a trip to the black sand beach at Mokau where they met up with a bus carrying marching girls on tour. The busload of marchers was so taken with Thelma, Clarice and Sheila having come so far, that they put on their marching display, in their lovely costumes, just for them. They sat in the sun on a giant log watching the marchers while Tony Pivac poured tea from a flask into plastic mugs on a blanket on the beach. It was a magical day. On another morning, we took them to the Waitomo Club where they met one of the local bowling enthusiasts and captain of his team, the best bowler in the Waitomo. When we came home Thelma, Clarice and Sheila were sitting on the pool deck in the late afternoon summer sun, swirling their legs in the cooling water, drinking New Zealand sauvignon blanc, laughing and shadow bowling and celebrating Sheila’s remarkable win. She had crushed them, every single Waitomo bowler who had dared challenge her; every one who had thought she was merely lucky with the way she bowled. No-one had told them Sheila was the Bedfordshire champion. They thought she was just an English girl! Thelma and Clarice had sat in the shade under the veranda of the Waitomo Bowls Club and watched their cousin play her beautiful shots with borrowed bowls; and they had laughed and cheered for Sheila and talked with these delightful Waitomo Club players who bought them cups of tea and cool glasses of lemonade all day long. It was one of the sunniest and happiest days of the many adventurous days that Thelma spent in New Zealand.

“I was very brave today,” she said with a shy smile, “I watched someone take a bungy jump.”

“I was very brave today, I watched the “geezers” in Rotorua and dipped my feet in a hot pool.”

“I was very brave today, I walked under the Natural Bridge. I know its solid stone, but anything could have happened.”

That was after the day we took them on a trip along the Marokopa Road. We stopped briefly at the little Waitomo Caves School where Elaine used to be principal. We took a ride in a cave boat inside the Waitomo Caves and Thelma sat there utterly in awe, revelling in every minute of looking up at the thousands of beautiful glowing pin-pricks of light and being most impressed at how handsome and polite the young chap was who rowed the boat and helped her in and out.

We drove to the Marokopa Falls and Thelma watched the thundering water and felt the spray – that was brave, too, she said. Then we walked from the road to the Natural Bridge and along a narrow path beside a clear, cold stream. That was brave, too. We walked along the black sands of Marokopa Beach, dug fossils from the mudstone and listened to the thunderous roar of the Marokopa surf. That was brave, too. She was loving being an outdoors girl. We stopped at the Waitomo Hotel on the way home and had a cup of tea, just so we could go inside and sample its Olde Worlde elegance. It’s a late Victorian kauri building in a Regency style perched on top of a limestone cliff with a panoramic view over a pretty valley full of native bush. Thelma stood in the open glass doors and drank in the view while she told me how much she loved being in New Zealand. She would emigrate here and we could all live in the sunshine and she wouldn’t have to freeze in the bitter English winters.

That night we sat outside and had a glass of wine on the wooden steps of the house deck and Thelma looked up to see the Milky Way. “Where’s the Southern Cross?” I showed her where it was and how it pointed more or less to due south. “I have never seen so many stars.” During the time she was there, she would sit on the deck overlooking the farm and admire the skill and sheer hard work of Hurricane Jimmy, as they called him, the farmer who looks after our block. They admired his tractor work and he would come over to see them sitting on the deck and swap stories with them about his time on holidays in England and what they were doing on their holiday in New Zealand. Thelma talked about Hurricane Jimmy for years. For the whole time they stayed with us a tui visited the flax flowers and sang his beautiful melodies. A tui is a thrush-sized native bird, glistening black with a white tuft of feathers at the throat and a remarkable song of great clarity and purity of tone, distinguished from his imitators by a self-deprecating little cough at the end. They were totally charmed by this beautiful bird and considered themselves blessed.

They left a couple of days before Christmas. “Why not stay? We go to Pauanui for Christmas. You could join our beach barbies and go surfing every day. Who wants to go back to winter?”

“We’ve got to go home, our families would miss us.”

When we saw them off at the airport it was in the knowledge, the certain knowledge, that we would see them again. Our English family was not a myth; it was real, and the people we had met – Thelma, Clarice and Sheila – were some of the loveliest people we had ever met.

Elaine and I moved to England in 1999 and between then and now, Elaine’s friendship with Thelma has deepened into an enduring love. Elaine and Thelma dropped into a routine of contacting each other before the school holidays and Thelma would plan a trip they could take together. One year, she was feeling very lonely and asked us to take her to see Clarice. We drove down to Ilfracombe and Thelma stayed with Clarice while Elaine and I stayed in one of Clarice’s cottages about 3 doors away in the same street. Thelma and Clarice were like schoolgirls again; they gossiped and laughed and dug out family photos until deep into the night. We took Thelma to Lynmouth and she and I rode the cable railway up to Linton.

“I was very brave,” said Thelma, “I went up the railway and I didn’t close my eyes. Anything could have happened, you know.”

She and Clarice had a very tearful parting but they would see each other one more time. Clarice came up all the way from Ilfracombe to St Albans and Elaine took her and Thelma and Jennie Pugh to the Moat in Luton and it’s true that they never saw each other again. Thelma was so pleased that she had seen her beloved aunt.

On other holidays, Thelma would sit happily in the passenger’s seat and guide Elaine through the narrow country lanes of Beds and Bucks and point out all the places she used to bike to and all the places she used to know and she would talk about all the people who used to live there. One holiday recently she took Elaine to Southwold and Great Yarmouth and they sat on a wooden bench overlooking the beach, wrapped in blankets while she watched the RAF trying to salvage a Harrier jet that had crashed off the beach. Not far away, a young chap in T-shirt and shorts was watching the scene through a telescope mounted on a tripod and he noticed her watching him intently.

“Do you want to see the rescue?” he asked.

“Oh,” she said, “Do you think I might?” For the week they were there, the news was full of this Harrier being salvaged, but Thelma had organized a ring-side seat. Each morning she and Elaine went to the beach, examined the scene through the telescope and talked knowledgeably to the owner about things military. After all, her brother was an RAF Squadron Leader with an MBE.

“I was very brave,” she said, “I paddled in the North Sea. I could have been frozen, you know.” As she sat in the bus shelter with Elaine drying her feet, she collected quite a gathering of people who were happy to talk to this delightful old lady telling her story to her Kiwi companion. In a nearby café, she met people she knew from Wing. Later, she wanted fish and chips. Not any old fish and chips, mind, the ones in Great Yarmouth were not good enough. The only ones suitable were the fish and chips in Kessingland. There are rules about fish and chips; they have to be excellent quality and it’s not proper to pay too much. If the sign says the fish and chips are too expensive, you move on until a sign says the price is right. Thelma knew these things and Elaine loved her for it.

One holiday, Thelma navigated Elaine through the Buckinghamshire country lanes exploring thatched cottages and little Norman churches, some still showing damage from visits by Cromwell’s army. They trawled the churchyards for famous people from this time and examined the oak doors for bullet holes from Cromwell’s muskets. Thelma always had an exciting story to tell for every place they visited. Every holiday trip was thoroughly planned and each trip had a theme. Sometimes, they would sit under a tree while Thelma got her breath back and they would watch the passers-by and giggle as they made up stories about what their lives might be like. Thelma never took Elaine anywhere on the main roads, she always took “The scenic route.”

The very last trip Elaine and Thelma took was to Mentmore. Thelma was too weak to get out of the car, so Elaine jumped out and photographed the scene so Thelma could see the picture in the little screen on the back of the camera. She told Elaine all about the places they were seeing and how things had changed over time. She imagined herself living there…

A couple of days later, Thelma rang us to say she wanted to drive her red Ford Ka to Mentmore, did we think it was a good idea? Elaine said, “If you feel you can make it, then, yes of course you should go.” Thelma later rang to say that she had taken exactly the same route she had taken with Elaine and had sat in her car and looked out over that beautiful valley all the way to the narrow, steep spire of Leighton Buzzard church. As far as we know it was the last time she drove her beloved little Ka.

Thelma had a heart and a mind for the simple things; she had an encyclopaedic knowledge of English plants and of local history and yet she could play the high life as well. She was on the committee that vetted the people who would live in the Wing Almshouses. She took this job very seriously; my grandmother Sarah Jane Adams was brought up in the Wing Almshouses. On our last visit to see her in Stoke Mandeville Hospital, she told us how angry she was that the government was messing her pension about. Every time she went to hospital the pension stopped immediately, but it took weeks to get it started again when she got back home and that was a long and tiring business when it was so difficult for her to leave the house.

“I am going to write to the Minister of Pensions and tell him how to do this properly,” she said. “If you hear that he has resigned to spend more time with his family, you may assume that I had a hand in his downfall.”

Thelma was a woman of dignity and wonderful presence. She was intelligent and steeped in the knowledge of her family and mindful of her obligations to her friends, her mother and her village. She was a woman of rare character and great charm. She was a woman of the old school; gracious, generous and beautiful to the core. We shall not see her like again.

Ewart Tearle
St Albans
January 2005