Devoted sisters with many a tale to tell...
Updated: Jun 10, 2020
A missionary and a midwife
The death in an Alton care home recently of Mary Thomas, at the age of 103 (non Covid-19 related), brings to a close the story of two devoted Hampshire sisters.
Mary's sister Muriel, who was also a resident of Borovere care home in Alton for several years, until 2015 when she died at the age of 96, had been a missionary in West Africa.
Mary, who had been a midwife locally, was a resident of Borovere for 14 years in all, outliving her sister. The last several years of Mary's life were spent confined to bed, but she was visited by friends from Alton Methodist Church, her family, and the town's Anna Chaplains.
Ten thousand babies
In his eulogy, their nephew, Graham Thomas, said: 'We tried to estimate how many babies Mary may have delivered in her career as a midwife – and even with a conservative estimate of one and a half babies a day – bearing in mind the baby-boomer years of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s – we believe that Mary could have delivered as many as 10,000 babies over her working career as a midwife.
'In 1957 her sister Muriel returned to the UK from her Methodist Missionary work in Nigeria and lived again at Saintbury Hill Farm to help look after their mother, while Mary continued to carry out her midwifery duties at the Alton General Hospital.
'In 1972, Mary’s sister Muriel was sent to Sierra Leone as a Methodist Missionary, on the West Coast of Africa and was involved in Pastoral Work and Lay Training, working there through to her retirement, at 62, in 1980.'
It was during this time that Mary was invited to join her sister in Sierra Leone and I recall Muriel telling me that during this visit they both bravely trekked off 'up country' – keenly looking out for venomous snakes – with a young guide, to a village to meet the Chieftain.
There, Mary was introduced to the Chieftain as Muriel’s elder sister and the Chieftain told Mary that he would like to ‘take Muriel as his wife’ – and to ‘clinch the deal’ he would offer Mary 20 cows for her! They were both somewhat taken aback and Muriel – who was quite a forthright lady – told him, in no uncertain terms, that she had no interest in marrying him – especially as he already had four wives. To this he said he would divorce them all!
Seeing the Chieftain was quite determined to marry Muriel, Mary – who was quite demure and solid – squared up to the Chieftain and told him that her brother Arthur was a farmer in England and he had a herd of over 200 cows – so the Chief’s offer of a mere 20 cows for Muriel 'would not be entertained' – so that was the end that!
I fondly remember visiting both Mary and Muriel over many years. Muriel had slides of her time in Sierra Leone, which were a fascinating social history of parts of the region few tourists would ever reach. She and I shared memories of the country, as I lived there, too, for a time as a child and she was pleased to have someone with whom she could reminisce.
Conditions were primitive for Muriel and the villagers she was helping at the time. She displayed considerable courage, I think, in developing ways to ensure safer delivery of the mothers' babies – as well as conducting church services – long distances from the capital , Freetown (or, indeed, any reasonable-sized town).
Graham Thomas described in his tribute to Muriel after her death, how she did once sleep in a Chief's bed! 'She told me the story that she was travelling to a village by foot – some 20 miles away – and was escorted by a young man half the way along the bush track. Another young man was supposed to meet them at the halfway point, to escort Muriel the remainder of the way to the village, but he did not turn up. Muriel decided she would strike out on her own, and eventually arrived at the village just before dusk.
'The chief of the village welcomed her, and after making sure she was fed and watered, he insisted that Muriel should sleep on his bed – which was the only sprung bedstead bed with a mattress in the village – a great privilege.
'When she saw the state of the mattress – which must have been 20 years old – she nearly refused, but realised this would upset the Chief, so she agreed. However due to her tiredness after the hike, she soon went to sleep and slept soundly.'
You can see how evocative were the experiences of the indomitable Thomas sisters. Their Christian faith, their devotion to duty (and to one another) will long live on in the memories of all of us who had the privilege to know them.