In memoriam Joan Mussett

A recent photograph

A service of thanksgiving was held in St Mary’s church on October 25 for the life of Joan Mussett. a long-time resident of Rye who died on October 3, aged 97. Her son, Andrew Mussett, gave the address.

Joan Mussett was born in Hardingstone in Northampton and her early years were spent with her parents, John and Nellie Wilkinson at Dallington House – quite an establishment, with about 14 staff including gardeners, a chauffeur, cook, governess and others. Joan had a pony on which she hunted and a black and white spaniel called Billy.
John Wilkinson, father to Joan, Eleanor and John had a successful leather manufacturing business, which involved many trips to the USA.

Joan was sent as a boarder to Harrogate Ladies’ College, where she stayed until she was 18. This was followed by a finishing school in Switzerland, where she became more or less fluent in French (albeit with some curious local accent, much to her mother’s consternation).

In 1932 there was a family tragedy following the Wall Street crash which took most of the family fortune, the business ceased trading and her father died. Various family members stepped in to help with the finances.

In WAAF uniform

In 1942, she joined the WAAF as a Section Officer, spending much of her time in intelligence and radar as a “plotter”. She was based at Lympne for some of the time and was billeted in Appledore. She was moved from there when it was found that her “plotting” involved her brother John who had become a Sptitfire pilot, also stationed at Lympne. (It was only recently that she even mentioned that she had also worked at RAF Medmenham and Orford Ness.)

Norman and Joan met when Joan was on leave. In February 1946 they married, in Holy Trinity, Sloane Square and she was released from the Air Force in May that year. They settled in a bomb-damaged house between Oxted and Hurst Green, in Surrey and began the arduous and lengthy task of doing it up, along with the two-acre garden, and from 1949, looking after her son, Andrew, and three years later her daughter, Gillie.

One consequence of her upbringing was that she had never really learned to cook. She used to tell the story that soon after they were married, Father became somewhat disenchanted with the meals she had been struggling to produce and sent her to the Constance Spry/Rosemary Hume Cookery School. This was the foundation of a one of her many enthusiasms, and she became a seriously good cook, giving meticulously planned dinner parties and providing delicious family meals. It was always a joy to come home at the weekend and sample Mum’s cooking. She was able to continue this up until only a few years ago, when her frail back prevented her from reaching the right dishes and taking things out of the oven safely. The back damage was put down to a riding accident she had when she was about 12.

In the mid 1960s they moved across the border to Kent, to a hamlet called Pootings, near Crockham Hill. This had an even larger garden which mother was able to make quite spectacular. She was very knowledgeable about a wide range of plants; where to plant them and how to nurture them. She loved her subsequent smaller gardens, both at Lamb Cottage and Jarretts Close. And grudgingly at first, the vast expanse at Peasmarsh Place where she spent her last two years.

However, it was not all Hume and Spry. Mother was able to turn her considerable management talents to what is now called the voluntary sector. Joan served on many committees in the Oxted area. She was elected Hon. secretary of the Kent branch of the United Europe Association and was chairman of the Reigate Conservative divisional women’s committee. I remember a dear friend of hers telling me when I was a student, how amusing she found it that Mother would go off to the Tory party conferences wearing her bright red coat!

She also became a guide at Chartwell, using her language skills to take round parties of French visitors, as she also did in Rye at Lamb House.

Joan had always had a love of foreign travel. Her mother took her and her siblings on a driving holiday to the Black Forest in 1938 (in spite of the political situation), and she enjoyed many French and Spanish holidays with Norman. After his death she spread her wings further, including trips to Egypt, Greece, America (to see her brother John), China and Italy.

When she and Father moved to Rye, in about 1977, they found themselves swiftly absorbed into the local fabric. Church flowers, Rye Art Gallery, fund raising for the hospice, and reading for the blind; activities she was able to continue until she was about 90 when she stopped driving. Mother was also sidesman in St Mary’s church for many years.

She had a great love of art, which she communicated to Gillie for her career. She also loved music, which similarly was handed on to me. I remember her playing Chopin waltzes on the piano when I was quite young, and wishing I could play them. I think she regretted letting that lapse. Maybe she continued to play a bit when no one else was listening. I like to think so.

However, she was quite a private person, believing strongly in personal will power. Which, incidentally helped her overcome skin cancer in the 60s and other later illnesses. It was that will power that kept her going right up to the end.

Having to leave her beloved house and move into Peasmarsh Place care home was very hard for her to accept, but she had become so frail and was in a considerable amount of pain following a hip replacement, and back problems; it was the only solution. The transition was eased by all the help and support she had from many dear friends and the staff at Peasmarsh Place. She was a demanding resident and found it very difficult to accept anything that fell below her exacting standards – Something that Gillie and I both experienced when we were growing up.

We all miss her very much. But we all knew (as she frequently mentioned) that she hoped to slip away in the night – and that’s exactly what happened. The pain, frustration and disappointments are in the past and she is now at peace, with Norman, her devoted husband and the rest of her family, and so many of the friends who predeceased her.

Photos: courtesy of Andrew Mussett


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