OBITUARY: JEAN GUMBRELL 1926 – 2016

Published Saffron Walden Historical Journal No 32 (2016)

Born Jean Belshaw, Jean grew up in the Lancashire town of Wigan, where her parents owned a successful grocery business. She left school at the age of 14 to study stenography for two years at Smart’s College, Southport.  This was a fortunate choice, as it enabled her to find work easily, but also provided the necessary skills to enter journalism later in her life. She worked at a number of jobs in Wigan and Manchester before being attracted to the bright lights of London in 1953.  In London she found work with a pharmaceutical company before working for a year or two at the Admiralty.

She was working for Shellmex in Berkley Square when, in 1960, she met Michael Gumbrell, a young man from the Isle of Wight who was working for at Elliott Brothers, an electrical firm in Boreham Wood.  They first met in a club called the Allied Circle, which had an international membership.  When Michael walked in, Jean said: ‘That’s the man I’m going to marry!” and she did!

Michael Gumbrell was a bright and hard-working young man with a keen interest in science.  He had taken a degree in Physics at University College London, and then studied part-time for an MSc in Maths while employed by the General Electrical Corporation (GEC), before working for Elliott Brothers.  He subsequently studied part-time for a PhD in Physics, and eventually began teaching at the Sir John Cass College, (which became part of the new City of London Polytechnic in 1970), commuting to London for several decades.  

Jean and Michael married at Kensington Registry Office in March 1961 and Jean moved to Hampstead where Michael had a small flat.  Shortly after they married, Jean wrote her first magazine article, about meeting Michael, which  was successfully published in Woman – the first small step towards her later career in journalism.

In 1963 they purchased a run-down house at Gambles Green, in the south Essex village of Terling, where they soon became known as the ‘Gumbrells of Gamble’s Green’.  They spent two years renovating the house, with Michael doing much of the work himself.

They lived at the White House’ in Terling for five years, but in the late 1960s, when they were considering a move to France, they made a chance visit to Saffron Walden, On a ‘whim’ they went to an auction at the Rose and Crown, where they successfully bid for a run-down thatched cottage.  Like their previous home, Little Mortimers at Ashdon was in need of considerable restoration, and again, Michael did much of the work himself.  Together they created a tiny thatched paradise in the remote Essex countryside where they spent the next fifty years.

While living at Terling, Jean worked for a company that specialised in agricultural market research and she continued to do so after the move to Ashdon, travelling to farms around the Essex countryside and interviewing the farmers. But then she was offered a job working for the Stansted Magazine, a new publication specialising in the airport’s activities before it was expanded. Jean did just about everything involved in producing the magazine except printing it! The highlight for her, however, was going to Barbara Cartland’s house and interviewing her over afternoon tea!

While still working on the Stansted Magazine, Jean started writing as a freelance for the Saffron Walden Weekly News, where her talents were soon recognised and she was offered her own weekly column – well, I say column, but it was nearly always a double-page feature each week.  Entitled ‘Down Your Street’ the first article appeared as a four-page ‘special’ in April 1984 with contemporary photographs provided by Dick Harding, the Weekly News resident photographer.  Jean’s detailed and sympathetic interviews with local people, and her carefully researched profiles of local businesses and buildings soon became very popular and won her a place in local affections – a difficult thing to do in a town where even second-generation residents were classed as ‘outsiders’. ‘Down Your Street’ appeared nearly every week for six years, eventually finishing in 1991.    

Down Your Street was a real labour of love, involving many hours of knocking on doors, extensive interviewing and the transcription and editing of interview tapes, as well as painstaking research in the old Town Library in Saffron Walden, all of which had to be completed before Jean could start to write the articles.

Jean worked as a freelance for the Weekly News for 11 years, and was upset when the paper unexpectedly ceased publication many years later, in 2014:

I cannot imagine Saffron Walden without the Weekly News!  After all – it’s my newspaper! When the editor, Gordon Richards, offered me the opportunity to do a regular series called ‘Down Your Street’.  I was appalled at the thought of tackling such a mammoth task.  Previously I had only written the occasional feature, mostly on local businesses. But I needn’t have worried – Gordon (alas no longer with us) was a tower of strength and a wonderful editor, and Di Pohlmann – Reporter in Charge – was a rock! She was someone I could always turn to when the going got rough – as it sometimes did! Now I look back on those eleven years with the Weekly News as one of the happiest and busiest times of my life.

Many of her ‘Down Your Street’ articles, carefully shortened and edited were later self-published as three stan- alone volumes.  This in itself was a major task, and I still remember the book launch arranged at Saffron Walden Library for the first volume, when the printers only delivered the books about twenty minutes before the launch, and the packets of newly printed books had to be carried in and unwrapped in a rush before guests arrived.

Part I of Down Your Street was published in 1989, to be followed by part 2 in 1992 and part 3 in 1996. Then in 1995 the Tourist Information Centre (TIC) published a booklet of local ghost stories, Favourite Haunts In And Around Saffron Walden.  This rapidly sold out as did a sequel, More Favourite Haunts In And Around Saffron Walden also published by the TIC.  Many of the stories Jean included were later used by other writers without acknowledgement.  Her ghost stories also resulted in frequent invitations to speak to local organisations, and she soon became a familiar face at Women’s Institute meetings.

Her other books included Saffron Walden Through David Campbell’s Camera and Saffron Walden (Archive Photos series) in which the photographs were arranged around five key themes, including ‘The Changing Face of Saffron Walden’, ‘Schooldays’, ‘Walden at Work’ and ‘Old Family Businesses’. The ‘Local Personalities’ section featured historic local characters such as ‘Navvy’ Elsom and ‘Gran’ Porter, alongside more recent familiar faces such as Joe Stojic who sold home-grown vegetables from his wonky- wheeled barrow; district nurses, Kathleen Lambert and Margaret Anderson; and the retired thatcher, Walter Jarvis who was notorious for his wide repertoire of ribald folk-songs.

Voices of Saffron Walden and the Surrounding Villages was another pioneeringwork in oral history, using short extracts from her numerous interviews with local people, many of them living in the villages rather than the town. As Jean described:

With their own words they have painted a picture of a way of life which has gone forever. It was a way of life in a tight-knit agricultural community, when both town and village needed and depended upon one another.

In addition to the many books she wrote, Jean was a prolific contributor of articles to many popular magazines and occasionally appeared on radio and TV. She was also an active member of the Society of Women Writers’ and Journalists and a member of the National Union of Journalists.

Jean loved cats and dogs, but especially cats and for many years she worked tirelessly on behalf of the Cat’s Protection League, rescuing strays and raising funds.  Little Mortimers itself was rarely without at least one cat.  She also enjoyed sewing, gardening and was a gracious host who really enjoyed cooking, especially using her Aga – her mouth-watering tarte tatin made to a secret French recipe was legendary!  Jean and Michael both enjoyed travelling and spent lots of adventurous holidays together, in Yugoslavia, Russia and Georgia They also went on several river cruises as well as visiting France on numerous occasions. 

Jean was very attached to her sister Enid, and loved her annual visits to Enid’s home in a converted chapel in Shetland.  Later, Jean and Michael would often recall the difficulty of carrying two pianos up the narrow pathway when they helped Enid move into the building.  Determined not to do things the easy way, Jean and Michael returned to Shetland every year driving the whole distance except for the final leg on the ferry.  Enid in turn was incredibly supportive of Jean and Michael during the recent years of Jean’s illness.

Jean originally worked on a typewriter, but later acquired an early Amstrad computer which she loved, but which eventually became obsolete. In spite of increasing disability she learnt to use a more modern computer – and more recently took great pleasure in learning how to use an i-pad with Enid’s help, so that she could keep in touch with friends and relatives.

Even during her illness, Jean was determined to continue writing if she could, and put a lot of effort into finishing an article on the soldiers commemorated on the Ashdon War memorial for the Ashdon village magazine, carefully writing up David Green’s research.  It was her last article.

Martyn Everett

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