Parish of Leatherhead - David and Virginia Gillett

David Stapylton Gillett was killed in action aged 22 on 13 January 1943 whilst on operations as the pilot of a Lancaster bomber of No.61 Squadron, Royal Air Force Bomber Command. He came from a well respected Leatherhead family and was part of the life of the Parish Church of St Mary & St Nicholas.

He is buried in the Reichswald War Cemetery and commemorated by a plaque in the Chancel of Leatherhead Parish Church and is named on the town's war memorial. The photo of Virginia by David's plaque was taken by the editor on 25 July 2004.

Margaret Virginia Gillett (Virginia, Ginny, Margot or Auntie Wings) died on 23 December 2008 aged 88. Her Funeral and Thanksgiving Service took place at Leatherhead Parish Church on 15 January 2009. The service, which was conducted by the Vicar, Canon David Eaton, with the choir present - organist Ross Williams, verger Sheila Ford, was as follows:

Love divine, all loves excelling

Tribute by David Gillett, son

The death of my Mother, always affectionately known as Mum, and who would not wish to be addressed by me in any other way, brings to a close a chapter in the history of both sides of my family, both the Dare family, and the Gillett family into which Mum married.

The families' association with Leatherhead which has sadly now drawn to a close, began when Mum's grandparents, James and Lottie St. Clare Hill, came to Leatherhead in 1892 from Hornsey, her Grandfather to be both the Principal and Chaplain of the Royal School for the Blind. My Father's parents, Alan and Ella Gillett, moved to Leatherhead somewhat later, probably in about 1911 when they married, although I think my Grandmother lived in this area for some time before she married.

Mum was born in Leatherhead on 25th April 1920, and named Margaret Virginia Dare. She was particularly delighted in the name Virginia Dare, being the name given to the first girl born of the New England settlers who sailed with the Pilgrim Fathers. She was the second born to, and the last surviving of, four children of James and Gertrude Margaret Dare. The first was Tony who died in 2003; the third was Geoff who died quite recently in June 2008 and the fourth Aubrey, who died in 1930 in infancy.

Her parents moved to Leatherhead after the end of the First World War. Her father was at that time in the Army but left the Army shortly afterwards. They settled in Fetcham. Her father took the job of Director of Topographical Survey in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Sierra Leone was then called "the white man's grave". Children were not allowed into that country because of disease that was prevalent in it. When my Grandmother went out to visit my Grandfather, it was not a matter of simply catching a flight from Heathrow of a few hours duration but a sea trip lasting several days.

The family became used to periods of considerable absence of both their Mother and Father. Mum used to speak about it sometimes and I do believe that, although family and friends were very supportive, it was a difficult time for them. Grandfather Dare became ill, was repatriated to England and died in 1935 at the age of 49 years when Mum was just 15 years old.

A short while afterwards my Grandmother, with the young family, moved to Woodland in Reigate Road. That remained the family home during the remainder of Granny Dare's life and for Mum until she moved into Stenning Court, just over the road from this Church, in 2005. Woodland was home to Mum from about the age of 16. She was married from that house, gave birth to me there and, as matters tragically turned out, it was also her home when she became widowed upon my father's death.

Both families lived in Leatherhead, and were known to each other. My father was born in Leatherhead. My Mother and Father were each baptised in this Church and in large measure, both grew up within this community. I am not sure whether both were confirmed in this Church; my father possibly but I think that my Mother was confirmed within the Diocese of Winchester having attended school in the Bournemouth area. Both worshipped in this Church and my Father was a server of the sacraments at Holy Communion. I was baptised here. This lovely church has been a considerable influence on the spiritual lives of both sides of my family.

Mum and Dad married on 24 January 1942. They did not let the turmoil of war erode their love for each other. Being wartime, no icing on the wedding cake: cardboard imitation icing was the best that food rationing would allow. No honeymoon on an island in the sun: the first night of the honeymoon was spent at a hotel in Guildford.

After that it was up to RAF Shawbury in Shropshire with accommodation being made available to them in the Mess, so that my father could continue the hectic training schedule which he was undertaking, having recently transferred over from the Army, in order to be awarded his RAF Wings. These he earned and was thereafter commissioned into RAF Bomber Command. Things then moved frighteningly fast; I was born in December 1942 and my Father was killed in January 1943. You will understand therefore that January has always been a very significant month for Mum and so it has remained to this day.

Mum had been through in just the first 23 years of her life the experiences of a lifetime. Whilst these were unique to her and to our family, widowhood within service families was all too frequent an occurrence then, as before, and indeed now as we are so frequently and horrifyingly reminded. The friendship and support of family and friends far and wide was of immeasurable help and greatly assisted Mum over what must have been for her and many others who were similarly circumstanced an extremely difficult period. I cannot overemphasise how much that help, in all the different forms in which it was given, was valued by Mum and, in turn by me.

With that help Mum was able to look forward. After my immediate years of infancy, Mum went to secretarial college, trained to get a qualification, became a matron at Eastbourne College Prep School, joined the local choral society and developed other interests. She acquired great skill at certain specialist lines of cooking – cakes, biscuits, fudge and toffee. No wonder I have such a sweet tooth!

She took up golf and attended lessons at Leatherhead Golf Club along the Chessington Road. There is a lovely story of Mum making her way back home one day after a golf lesson carrying a bag of clubs. She did not have a car then so she made her way out of the club, across the road to catch the bus. She had not been standing at the bus stop for long when a large black car pulled up driven by a dark suited person who turned out to be none other than a former respected member of the firm of undertakers, Hawkins and Son, who are providing their professional services for us today. The sight of Mum, who was petite, sitting in the front seat of a funeral car with a set of golf clubs protruding above the dashboard and clearly visible through the windscreen has never ceased to amuse either Mum or the family generally.

Woodland became like the centre of a bicycle wheel. The centre of family operations during my young years. Family came and went; I came and went to school; family and friends reported in! Had we then the modern IT that we have now, Woodland might well have been regarded as a call centre but with one difference, there never were nor would there have ever been any cold calls. Home was always welcoming; I never knew it otherwise, nor was it ever otherwise, but it must have been a supreme effort for Mum sometimes to have maintained it so.

Yes there were difficult times – there are in anyone's life, but they were overcome and I look back on many happy times, and when Hanna and I married and had our family Mum became a very proud Grandmother, and much more recently, an even prouder Great-grandmother.

It was Mum's decision to remain a widow when my Father died and I have always respected that decision. She was an extremely devoted Mother to me for which I am ever grateful. I would say that she was perhaps too attentive to my interests, perhaps at the expense of her own, but then that is parenthood isn't it.

Mum enjoyed gardening, needlework; she had a keen mind – the Daily Telegraph Cryptic Crossword seldom defeated her and had the Sudoku Puzzle been on the scene before her sight began to trouble her, I think the diabolical puzzle would have been easy meat for her. She was also, a keen diarist and very neat and organised in her ways.

And so the years went by – there were holidays that we took as a family; a trip by Mum in 1975 to British Columbia to visit family cousins was of particular note, but always Mum's heart turned to home and Leatherhead. And as she became older and the question arose as to where she should be accommodated when Woodland became too much for her we knew instinctively that it was in her best interest to respect her roots in this place, and so it proved to be. Mum has been shown wonderful support and friendship both by this Parish and this Community over the years for which we are immensely grateful.

We moved Mum to her flat in Stenning Court on 29th October 2005, a significant date for Mum in its own right but also for another reason. It was the weekend of the re-consecration of Dresden Cathedral which, like Dresden itself, suffered so heavily by RAF and allied bombing in order to bring the war in Germany to an end. My Father did not live long enough to witness that part of the campaign but, had he done so, he would have been thrilled by that act of reconciliation that re-consecration represented. My Father had read one of the lessons at the service at which the foundation stone of Guildford Cathedral was laid in 1936 and for whom therefore construction rather than destruction was so much more appealing.

I came to realise during the course of preparing this tribute how strong Mum's connection with Guildford had been. I have already made two references to it namely the laying of the foundation stone and the honeymoon. Another is that my parents were married by the then Bishop of Guildford.

Dear Mum died peacefully early in the morning of 23rd December and it is perhaps fitting that when she did, she died within the sight of Guildford Cathedral.

God Bless you Mum. Where tranquillity has evaded you in this life, may you find it now.

Reading by Edward Gillett, grandson:
Mr. Valiant For Truth, the brave old soldier of Jesus Christ, has received his summons to 'go home': from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress:

Calling his friends together he says, "My sword I give to him who shall succeed me in my pilgrimage and my courage and skill and to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me, that I have fought His battles, Who will now be my rewarder."
When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the riverside, into which, as he went, he said, "Death, where is thy sting?" And as he went down deeper, he said, "Grave, where is thy victory?"

So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

Prayers of Penitence

Be still for the presence of the Lord

Reading by Simon Gillett, grandson: John 14, 1-6

Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.
In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.
And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.
Thomas said unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?
Jesus said unto him, I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

Address: Canon David Eaton

David has given an affectionate and moving tribute to Virginia whom we remember today with thanksgiving. If it was hands up for those who have been coming to this church the longest my guess is that Virginia would be the winner. Her association here is not only long standing but deep rooted. She has been the most faithful of church worshippers and supporters.

As we have heard, what brought the family to Leatherhead was Virginia's grandfather's appointment to the then Royal School for the Blind, her parents moving here about 1911. James St Clare Hill was both Principal and Chaplain, the Principal usually being an ordained Anglican priest at that time. Quite rightly the face of the Blind School has changed considerably, not least with a change of name [to SeeAbility].

What comes across to me is the depth of influence that institutions had in individual lives. Virginia's childhood would have been consciously influenced by her connection with the Royal Blind School, especially when she came to live just around the corner from it. It was an influence of care and faith which she carried with her all her life. It shaped who she was. She was someone who had a natural concern for other people, and that concern sprang from her faith which she had received from her father and grandfather.

We live in a very different world now where institutional life, whether that be caring institution or church, does not have the same reach. In some ways that is a good thing because it delivers us from paternalism; but there is loss too, because institutions at best were guiding stars and then cornerstones in communities that held them together. They shaped people's lives and Virginia's was one of them.

Many of us have been touched to know the story of events which lead to the death of Virginia's husband and to the birth of their son David. In one sense it must have been an all too familiar story at the time; but in another it speaks so clearly of courage and patriotism, which were displayed by both David, who died, and by Virginia who lived on. It is, of course, fitting that we have the memorial plaque in the Chancel, marking David's passing.

Locals will know that we have been having a struggle to locate the frontal chest which houses the altar frontals. It was moved to allow the Thomas Parker organ to be placed in the North Transept. Having moved it we didn't quite know where to put it. To complicate matters we have to agree changes of this kind with the Diocesan authorities. For a while the only viable location , on a temporary basis, was in the Chancel, masking David Gillett's memorial and some others. I needed Virginia's support; and it was typical of her that although 'temporary' dragged on, and I knew that it worried her, she was perfectly understanding of my dilemma and willing to accommodate this arrangement until a permanent resting place could be found.. Which it now has. Perhaps this also reveals in Virginia her ability to bring people together and pour oil on troubled water.

She was a keen traveller in Gloria, the church minibus. Gloria (now superseded by Skylark) has undertaken many church outings. They tell me the passengers can get stroppy if all doesn't go to plan - can you believe it?! But always Virginia could be relied upon to settle the dust and restore order when she was on board. Whether by gentle persuasion or outright threats, I'm not sure - surely the former, but anyway it worked, or she did.

She was in some ways a surprising person. You might think that someone with a foot in Edwardian England might be hugely conservative when it came to worship. But this was not the case. She was lively. When we first started have praise services, with band and no organ, there was Virginia in the front row, moving and waving and having the time of her life.

And with all this she was an immensely likeable person and good fun to be with. She was always young at heart. She looked on the bright side and was upbeat. Because of this she had good friends and was held in affection by many.

It is, of course, more than fitting that we are in church today for this service. Virginia was clearly a woman of faith in God, as well as faith in other people. So it is with complete trust and assurance that we commit her to God's safe-keeping today. Her faith was unassuming - which is the best kind to have. It was simply a part of her from the beginning - until the end. She couldn't imagine it any other way and wouldn't have wanted it differently. Jesus was for her the Way, the Truth and the Life.

She will be greatly missed from her pew, where she regularly sat and worshipped. And she will be greatly missed as a good friend and companion to many: in Stenning Court, the WI Market, the Autumn Market, the Mothers' Union, the 2nd Sunday Lunch and the Day Centre.

We honour her memory. May light perpetual shine upon her.

Prayers of Thanksgiving

The Lord's my Shepherd, I'll not want (Crimond)

Commendation and Farewell

Anthem: God be in my head

Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations was played on the organ as the coffin was borne out of the church.

Donations were received on behalf of the RAF Benevolent Fund and the Royal British Legion. Many organisations were represented including the Bomber Command Association and Royal British Legion.

If you have more photos of Virginia or further remembrance to add, please contact Frank Haslam, the editor of these pages.

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page started 15 Jan 2009: updated 3 Mar 2009