Gwendolyn Edith Madeley, as she was then called, was born in 1915 , to a mother who worked all kinds of jobs including as a post lady, and to a father who was a policeman. They lived in Wellington in Shropshire.
She was born at an unfortunate time. Her father welcomed his beautiful baby into the world, but then was called to fight soon after, serving in the military mounted police on the brutal Italian front during The Great War. We know from his postcards that he so adored Gwen, and her younger sister, Dot.
Grandma was aged 9 when in 1924, her father died from what we think was pneumonia.
These were very different times. Their expanding family – Gwen now had two younger brothers Granville and John – could not carry on with just one income.
Some difficult decisions had to made. Gwen and Dot were sent to a home. This was an awful place. Fail to recite the bible word for word, and there was no pudding for you.
Gwen’s mum worked as hard as she could to get a viable income, so that she could bring the girls home. This did happen,eventually, yet some experiences never leave a person.
Was it this cold, distant environment that drew grandma towards warmer things? In her house in Markwell Close she surrounded herself with teddies. I remember the jumpers she knitted – she even knitted amazing costumes for my action men. It should surprise no one here that, when she left school as a teenager, Gwen went to work in a teddy bear factory.
Despite the fact that her start in life had been far more difficult than I could possibly imagine or do justice to recalling here, grandma just got on with things and, interestingly, was drawn towards helping other people. She trained as a mental health nurse - not exactly the most fashionable thing to do at the time.
War was to come again. We know a few things of this time. Grandma, understandably, only felt able to tell us a some of the details.
She lost a loved one, we think, during the battle of Britain.
Yet during this awful time, she met Len, my grandad. He was an electrician who was doing some work at the hospital grandma worked at, and who had a twinkle in his eye, plus an apparent weakness for red heads – did I tell you that Gwen was absolutely gorgeous?
Before the war’s end they had moved to London and had two children – Ros and my mum Maureen.
They thought the war was over, in 1944, but when soldiers on leave relaxed happily upon the river banks of the Thames after D day, a doodle bug near destroyed her entire street and left her house uninhabitable.
It was a mother’s instinct for her to dive on top of the basket that my mum was sleeping in as she heard the noise of that awful machine, whose engine cut out as it was designed, leaving the petrified residents below darting for cover.
Grandad walked for hours trying to find them after to coming home to a house reduced to rubble, not knowing if they were alive.
But they were, and they got on with things again, dusted themselves off, carried on, and began making their life anew. They were good at that.
The family moved to New Cross. Roger was born before the decade was out and the Manwaring family was complete.
There was more struggle – no indoor plumbing for a bath; gran having to work shifts at the hospital to make ends meet; two children who were visually impaired with nothing like the support or understanding available today.
She moved to Sydenham and retired in the 1970s.
She saw her eldest daughter Ros find work in a insurance company and make a good career despite her difficulties with her vision. Maureen married Roy and gave Gwen some rather handsome grandchildren.
One of her proudest moments, I am sure, is seeing her son, Roger, graduate from Loughborough university, the first in our family to get a degree.
At this point, you are probably just relieved that I am, at last relaying something other than another tragic episode.
And here is the paradox. As I was writing this eulogy and thinking about my grandma. I quickly came to realise that her life, as was everybody else’s who was born into that world, was very much shaped by war, conflict, hardship and struggle.
Yet at the same time, it is a testament to her, and to that generation, that joy and love was somehow found, that good memories were made in the midst of such uncertainty. Sorrow is often followed by happiness; hard times by better ones.
For this reason, we must celebrate my grandma, for she would not want sadness to be followed by more of the same. She saw perhaps too much of that during her near 100 years
Yet if you believe that virtues of a parent are passed onto their children, then you have to admire her through those children, and, dare I say it, their grandchildren.. My mum’s laughter and humour had to have come from somewhere.
The will to carry on regardless through adversity is perhaps something Roger, Ros and Maureen learnt to do from their parents.
The importance of honesty, hard work, perseverance, patience and of looking out for one another, were all qualities I see ingrained into my mum, aunt and uncle, and all would have been instilled at an early age by a mum who saw other people’s pain and understood what they were going through.
Even at the end when her quality of life was rather dire, she expressed how grateful she was to all the people who helped her, especially to Roger and Maureen, and she wanted to thank Lorna, who helped look after her garden when it became too difficult for her to do it herself. We are also indebted to Margaret who helped us when grandma was confined to her bed.
We know that perhaps Gwen wasn't always the best patient, but people wanted to help because they saw she was worth it. I know from my mum’s efforts, getting across London in all weathers, that she saw helping her own mum as some form of pay back for the support Gwen provided to all of her children throughout their lives. Even if her words weren’t the sweetest, her deeds often were. For example, she stayed a long time with us when my dad died. When I was told the news, it was her lap I buried my 9 year old face into. We cried together on that day. She didn’t have to say anything – just her presence helped.
Pain and suffering never left her, even later in life. She looked after Len when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Not long after she became a widow, she was a victim of a hit and run that left her with a severely broken arm wrist.
Yet she carried on, and could still be seen running for busses well into her late 80s, leaving poor Roger well behind.
Love and laughter often shone through the difficult times, and she was really funny without even knowing it. She would often pronounce things strangely. Apparently, there is a product called orange gina and a company called Mark and Spencer, which, coincidently, employs her grandchild Richard.
She liked quirky people and often giggled at what they said or did. I won't continue to give examples because some of her victims might be in the audience.
Grandma was just the best grandma in the world. Who has a grandma who sat through every single James Bond movie ever made, just because I wanted her to see all the stunts?
I am not sure what she thought of all the steamy romances that Bond found himself in, but imagine a scene where a grandchild suddenly gets up to get a glass of water out of embarrassment while his gran just stares at the TV.
There are some very funny stories involving grandma. When Len somehow managed to get stuck in our loft grandma just laughed her head off when she learnt the news.
When she stayed on a put up bed in my room, it wasn’t put up right and folded back up with her in it. To this day I will never understand why she didn’t just take my bed.
Born into a quite insular world where her own family were mocked by the local churchgoers for being poor, Gwen was rather openly minded.
She was able to swipe pictures on my iPad without any instruction; she made Thai curry in her 90s; she was amongst the first of her friends to go on package holidays to Spain; she judged people by the content of their character, as Martin Luthur King demanded, and not by the colour of their skin. She learnt to swim… But she was well into her 60s when she did.
I know how proud she was of her children. Her love for all her immediate family ran incredibly deep. It was what she lived for. When I saw her, the day before she died, cared for wonderfully by the good people at Lewisham hospital, she saw me and called out my son Nathaniel’s name. She told me that she loved me.
But when I went round to the other side of her bed, she looked at me strangely and said, “I hate you.” Roger and I realised that she thought I was the doctor come to give her more medicine. I quickly sprinted back to the “family” side of the bed, where once again she told me that she loved me.
Even in her last days, her body withered and her breathing laboured, she let love prevail, and she gave us a jolly good laugh as well. She is at peace now, and I think even she would have seen the humour in knowing that she received a letter from the queen even though she didn't quite make it to 100.
What an incredible life, an event-filled 100 years. She deserved that letter, for her like will never be seen again, that is for sure.