Obituary: Spies and subterfuge – the life of Jean Norton, who died at 88
PUBLISHED: 16:29 02 June 2019 | UPDATED: 17:54 03 June 2019
Ex-nanny, who didn’t see herself as ‘a permanent Mary Poppins’, became a teacher at two Suffolk schools
Did many pupils have an inkling of the life Jean Norton lived before she began teaching? Films have been inspired by experiences less substantial.
Luckily, we don't have to rely on hazy memories to learn the story. For Jean sat down and preserved for posterity her twists and turns. The daughter of an Archdeacon of Sudbury had quite a time. She called her book A Life Worth Living. Spot-on.
Smuggled out of country
The most amazing episode is her flight from edgy and risky Afghanistan.
Jean had left England to work as a nanny for a family friend: Colonel Ralph Griffith was a soldier and diplomat, posted to Kabul as military attaché.
He and his wife had two daughters under the age of six, and another baby due. The telegram to Jean urged: Come as soon as possible. Her clergyman father wasn't terribly keen, "but I thought it highly exciting, and my mother was enthusiastic. She'd been to India in her youth and thought it a great experience".
Jean travelled out with an official, his diplomatic bag and a gun. "He (the official) got a bit frisky on the way and had to be put in his place…" Later, in beautiful Afghanistan, her bedroom window looked out at snow-covered mountains near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border - essentially an edge of the British empire. The embassy compound was guarded by Afghan police.
As the only unmarried woman in a place with plenty of bachelors, Jean admitted she had - socially - "an absolute whale of a time": music evenings, a drama society, bridge parties, tennis and swimming, family camping expeditions, a trip to the Taj Mahal.
There was also an earthquake that shook Kabul and made the papers back in Britain but which the Afghans viewed as relatively normal.
There was "something in the air", though, and the British contingent was always prepared to grab a packed suitcase each and head for the airport if trouble broke out.
Jean, who always loved thrillers and spy novels, found Russian spies and intelligence staff from other nations trying to wheedle information out of her at drinks parties and suchlike. "Everyone was at it."
She wrote in her autobiography: "While the spies were courting me, they used to let the odd thing slip and so I found myself, without trying at all, becoming a British spy myself - acting unpaid and rather low level, but I could sometimes tell Ralph things he didn't know."
Eventually, all the tension that was brewing - all the local politics, the international jostling and the animosity some people felt towards foreigners - convinced Ralph his family should leave behind what Jean called "my perfect life".
It happened in "hurry and confusion", she remembered. They were going; then things calmed down and they stayed. Eventually, the family left in two cars, bound for the Khyber Pass and on to Peshawar in Pakistan. At the customs post, they realised Jean didn't have an exit visa.
Ralph hatched a plan. He and Jean stayed behind, found a quiet spot and waited until midnight. Then she lay on the back seat and was covered with dusty blankets and rugs.
Ralph told the soldiers he'd sent "that wretched girl" back to Kabul on the bus. And it worked.
"Looking back, it all seems rather exotic. At the time, I was really quite scared and stressed," Jean recalled. "I was in my late 20s, so I wasn't entirely new in the world, but men with guns at border posts will always bring out one's nervous side."
Over the Khyber Pass, and safely into Pakistan, she could breathe again.
Born in China
Jean Norton's background was from the start unusual. She was born in the port city of Tientsin, northern China, in May, 1930. It was a British trading post, supported by an infantry garrison. Which is how her family was there: father Hugh was a military chaplain.
He and wife Jessie already had sons Ian (who would become a district commissioner in Tanganyika - Tanzania, essentially - before going into business), Richard (a partner in a London legal practice) and Kenneth (a hospital consultant).
The family left China when Jean was three. Life took her to York, followed by Catterick, and then in 1938 a switch to Wellington Barracks in London - a few hundred yards from Buckingham Palace. All the uniforms, horses and ceremonies were to a young girl glamorous and exciting.
Jean went to a private and genteel girls' school in Sloane Square (actress Joyce Grenfell had been there). During the war she went to a number of other schools, including a couple in Hertfordshire. At 13, she started boarding at St George's School in Ascot, which had its own small farm. It was, Jean said later, where her amateur drama "career" really began.
Her father left the army as the war ended - becoming rector of Horringer and Ickworth, near Bury St Edmunds (to 1958), and Archdeacon of Sudbury (to 1962). The family moved into the rectory at Horringer.
After St George's, Jean trained as a nursery nurse at a college in Tunbridge Wells. The training was excellent, she thought - covering everything from first aid to polishing floors properly!
After working at an awful home-based school (the children "looked half starved to me") the 22-year-old became matron for younger pupils at the Dragon School in Oxford. She had a rewarding three years there.
And then the telegram came from the military attaché in Kabul…
Not a permanent Mary Poppins
After that flit over the Khyber Pass, Jean and the family sailed to England from Karachi. Then came a call from an American couple she'd met in Afghanistan: Would she go to Washington DC to help with their children?
Jean did it for a year, and pondered the rest of her life, admitting "I didn't really see myself as a permanent Mary Poppins". Becoming a teacher: that was better.
First time in a state school
Jean was 30 when she began training at Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside, in the Lake District - able to complete the three-year course in a condensed two.
When she did her first teaching practice, on the other side of Windermere, it was the first time she had ever been in a state school - and the children's dialect to her sounded more like Norwegian than English!
Another teaching practice was at St Edmundsbury Church of England school in Grove Road, Bury St Edmunds. The head teacher offered her a job, once she'd finished her training, and Jean started there in 1962.
Her father had by then moved from Horringer to be a residentiary canon at the cathedral (from 1958 to 1964), involved in its running. Jean also began a lifelong association with the cathedral, a "wonderful place of worship".
A soft touch really
Jean loved that happy junior school, where pupils still "talked Suffolk", but began to feel a bit restless after a while. She got a job at Westley Middle School, in Oliver Road, Bury St Edmunds, then run by "exceptional headmaster" John Colleer.
There, she did a lot of drama with her nine- and 10-year-olds. The highlight was always a week of work staged at the town's Theatre Royal.
Even in her old age, out and about in Bury, Jean would find adults coming up to her - with their own children, too - and saying "Do you remember when I was in your play?"
Of that Theatre Royal highlight, Jean wrote in her autobiography: "You wouldn't do that sort of thing now, taking some children out of ordinary lessons for a week for an unforgettable experience. It wouldn't fit in with the league tables."
She was at Westley for 13 years, finishing as senior mistress. "I can't say I loved every minute, but it was jolly nearly so.
"I had a reputation as something of a disciplinarian, which I admit to, at least when starting off with a new class. I had to show who was in charge, but they all knew I was a soft touch really.
"One time, when they gave me their valuables to lock in my desk while they had PE, the ones who had those clever watches with alarms set them to go off, so that all during my next lesson there were beeps and trills coming from inside my desk.
"When they came back, I told them I'd lost my desk key…"
A lay canon
Retirement wasn't actually retirement for quite a while. Jean helped plug emergency gaps for the education authority, and also helped children who needed extra support - often with the building of confidence and self-esteem.
Jean also became more involved with the cathedral. Her parents had died by this time and she became a lay canon - an honorary title given to folk who have served the Church faithfully. Jean helped where needed, such as showing people around the building and working in the cathedral shop.
She sang (alto) with Bury St Edmunds Bach Choir, which sometimes gave concerts in the cathedral. By the way, the cathedral's Sanctus bell is dedicated to the memory and service of her father.
Loved a good thriller
Jean died peacefully, three weeks before what would have been her 89th birthday. She left eight nieces and nephews, and many great-nieces and nephews.
After earlier in life living at Abbey House in Bury St Edmunds, and then in Northgate Street, Jean had realised four or five years ago that time was marching on and she ought to move. Home became a nearby flat at the assisted living complex of Cross Penny Court.
Nephew Philip Norton says she was quite an active resident at Cross Penny Court, where friends included one of long standing. Jean ran a poetry group and book group. "She was an avaricious reader. She would read and read and read. She liked Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) and CJ Sansom. She liked a good crime novel - a thriller."
She'd been active in supporting The Children's Society charity, and had enjoyed travelling until about seven or eight years ago.
Philip thinks his aunt had been pretty content with her life, and drew quite a lot of enjoyment from it. While it was sad she had died, there had been signs of dementia and she would have found it difficult having to uproot to a different home offering care for dementia sufferers.
A service for Jean is being held at St Edmundsbury Cathedral on Monday, June 3, at 11am, followed by a cremation service being attended by family members. Relatives ask for family flowers only, but donations for The Children's Society can be sent to L Fulcher Funeral Directors, 80 Whiting Street, Bury St Edmunds, IP33 1NX.
I've been very lucky
Jean ended her book (put together by Gordon Thorburn and published in the summer of 2017) by saying she felt she'd really belonged in that Bach choir, and at the cathedral, and then at her retirement flat. She was independent - could go out when she wanted, thanks to her motorised scooter - and could balance privacy with being looked after. And she had a marvellous view of her beloved cathedral from her window.
"I think I've been very lucky. I've had many adventures, and I enjoyed my career from start to finish, and not everyone can say that…
"Like most people's lives, it could have been very different, but it wasn't, and I'm very grateful for that."
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