‘I want to keep my own individuality. I don’t want to be forced to do something I
don’t want to do’ January 2002
Photographs dated , l to r: 1912; 1926; 1930, 1971, 2002
Grace Edith Mills was born in the year the Titanic sank (as she often reminded us).
This was possibly why ‘her ship never came in’ which was the reason she gave later
for our modest standard of living.
She was the first child of Charles and Edith Mills - born 24 June 1912. Her middle-class
family was living in Rochester Road, Southsea and, less than two years later, Grace’s
brother was born.
Four months later the world was engulfed by war. Charles immediately enlisted and
was posted initially to Longford Road, Bognor where Grace and her family remained
when Charles was sent overseas to France.
Growing up - schooldays
In 1918, peace finally settled and so, soon afterwards, did the Mills family - at
‘Verona’, Ophir Road, North End, Portsmouth. Grace was educated at Portsmouth High
Schools for Girls. She forged close friendships with two other girls at school,
one of whom was Marjorie Brown. Grace kept several photographs of the trio and when
Marjorie died, more than seventy years later, Marjorie left Grace a legacy in her
Grace showed a good turn of speed as a sprinter. When I was about ten years old,
she entered the hundred yards dash for parents and although she was well into her
forties, Grace won! Her reward was a box of chocolates - which cost less than her
stockings which needed to be replaced.
During her youth, Grace, like so many middle-class children, learnt to play the piano.
Unlike so many, she persevered and played intermittently for the rest of her life.
She was quite capable of regularly accompanying her local congregation as they sang
‘Songs of Praise’ and even in her later years she would enjoy playing selected pieces
for her own pleasure.
Grace is far left Grace is far right, standing
Grace with her mother
A move to London
Shortly after Grace finished High School in 1928, she decided to study Pitman’s shorthand.
Although her father taught this subject, her decision seems to have coincided with
her grandmother’s need for companionship as her husband had died four years earlier.
As a result, Grace moved from Portsmouth to Stoke Newington, enrolled in a secretarial
school and started work in London aged seventeen.
As can be seen from the example (right), Grace’s shorthand expertise evolved according
to whether she could remember the symbols or not! Nevertheless, she made great use
of her skill particularly when making notes during Bible talks.
Soon afterwards, taking dictation was a problem because when she was twenty-one,
Grace, like her mother, became profoundly deaf. This impairment was to blight and
restrict her life. I vividly recall the weighty apparatus she had to wear in the
1950s to enable her to hear: the ear-piece that invariably whistled at inappropriate
moments; the microphone, clipped to the front of her dress and the large batteries
which were low- slung around her hips like a cowboy’s holster. Then there was the
cable connecting the three pieces of equipment. In those days the miracle of modern
hearing (when observers would be hard pressed to notice a minuscule hearing aid artfully
hidden behind an accommodating hairstyle) had not occurred.
Grace’s deafness was ridiculed by her husband and (I am ashamed to say) her young
children - ‘Yes, bum, no, bum, three bags full, bum’, and so on. Only once do I
remember her frustration when she was asked to read a passage in a Bible class. The
request literally fell on deaf ears. When she noticed the little smiles around the
room and realized what had happened, she fled the room in tears.
There was a happy ending when, in the early seventies, she had a small operation
to remove the stirrup bone from her ear and, for the first time, she heard the timbre
of her family’s voices. She was to say that if she had known how her husband spoke,
she would never have married him.
A few years later I came across a cutting she had taken from the Reader’s Digest
describing the function of the stirrup bone.
I owe a debt to her deafness because, as we will see, if her hearing had remained
unimpaired, I would not have been born. Grace was always terrified that deafness
would be passed on especially to her daughter. In later years, she became slightly
deaf again and when walking or sitting with her we were encouraged position ourselves
‘on her good side’.
Grace in London
Earlier, we had left Grace in London in the 1930s. She became a stenographer at
St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
While in London, she enjoyed life in the metropolis. She attended the Proms at the
Albert Hall, celebrated the New Year at Trafalgar Square and knew her way around
town. Much later she took her children to Lyons Corner House (a place that clearly
held happy memories for her) for a special treat - high tea.
Grace (kneeling centre) and her school friend, Marjorie Brown (to her left)
with the Holiday Fellowship
Possibly influenced by her grandmother, Grace had strong connections with the Anglican
Church. Just before her death, she spoke of the summer breaks she had enjoyed with
the Church Holiday Fellowship. She went to Austria with the Fellowship in 1937 and
also enjoyed a ‘well organized trip’ to Conway Castle in Wales and ‘a trek up Snowdon’.
The photographs taken on these trips show that her school friend, Marjorie Brown,
About this time, her brother remembers that Grace had ‘an understanding’ with a clergyman
who promised to marry her. However, he went to South Africa and returned, a married
These photographs were taken during the 1930s when Grace spent her holidays with
- usually at the seaside.
The Land Army
Then, World War Two cast its shadow and like many Londoners, Grace slept on underground
platforms during the blitz. As she later put it, ‘you see, the war came along and
it meant that you had to do your bit. The forces wouldn’t take me as I jolly well
couldn’t hear so the only other alternative was the Land Army’.
According to her card in the National Archives, Grace joined on 25 January 1941.
She gave her occupation as, ‘clerk’.
That was how she found herself in winter-time ‘wearing wellingtons, grading potatoes
in the snow, with a tarpaulin over us in the middle of a field in Hertfordshire -
our hands were awfully cold’. She had landed at Home Farm, Preston, near Hitchin.
The Woman’s Land Army was formed because tens of thousands of country-men either
enlisted or transferred to industry leaving a desperate need to keep the farms running
and maintain the supply of food. It has been estimated that there were ninety thousand
Land Girls. Grace was No. 37,296.
When the world was turned on its head, the Land Girls learnt the equality which was
thrust upon them. Farmers tested them by assigning them routine, menial and back-breaking
jobs such as muck-spreading, sowing potatoes, cutting thistles before the harvest
and topping and tailing turnips. Working in the chill of winter and the summer’s
heat, they battled against mud or dust all year round.
The main challenge was keeping their femininity when dealing with with corns on their
hands, muscular arms and weather-beaten faces.
They were issued with a uniform (often the wrong size) which was alien to wear at
first: breeches, shirt and tie, long woollen socks and heavy brogue shoes. In some
ways the clothes were a blessing in those days of austerity and dwindling wardrobes.
Many found the biggest hurdles were the stench of the farmyard and how to take a
natural break when working in the fields during winter-time: searching for a sheltered
spot far away from masculine eyes and then peeling off several layers of clothes.
Even getting along with one’s work mates could be challenging as Land Girls were
plucked from all walks of life - Grace remembered that there was a talented artist
in her group.
Yet after dwelling on the obstacles, many women have fond memories of their life
on the farm: the fresh air, reasonable food (even in wartime), the camaraderie and
the local attractions which included....men! Enter Sam Wray, farm labourer, stage
Grace in the Land Army - she is standing far left
Grace marries Sam Wray
Sam and Grace married in Portsmouth at St Mark’s Church, North End on 17 March 1945
- she had resigned from the Land Army just thirteen days later. She wistfully said,
just before her death, that ‘this ought to have been the outstanding day of my life’.
It seems to have been a low-key wedding. There is only one wedding photograph, in
which Sam seems stiff and ill at ease. He was probably conscious of the difference
between his social standing and that of his bride’s family. Indeed, in an evident
attempt at parity he fancifully described himself as a ‘farmer’ on the marriage certificate.
His best man was his brother-in-law, Ron Whitby.
Grace’s brother did not attend - possibly because of his RAF commitments. Grace commented
later, ‘Mum and Dad were very much against my marrying Sam, of course’.
Bearing in mind that she was thirty-three and distinctly on the shelf perhaps there
was an element of desperation in her decision. Sam was almost forty years old and
unalterably fixed in his ways.
Married life in the countryside
The couple made their home in a farm workers cottage, Reeve’s Cottage (left), in
Sam’s home village of Preston. The cottage was probably the oldest home in the village
with exposed wooden framework, low ceilings and rather cramped.
At Preston, without the home amenities to which she was accustomed and far away from
city life, Grace struggled to come to terms with her life. She loathed Preston and
refused to return in later years. Several members of Sam’s family, who recognised
the unsuitability of their marriage and their home, told him, ‘It’s not the right
place for her...you’ve got no business taking her there’.
Back to Portsmouth
The means of escape came when Grace was expecting her first child. Her son, Philip
John, was born (far away from Hertfordshire) in Southsea, Hampshire on 12 January
1946. Mother and son (pictured right) remained in civilisation for eighteen months
before returning to Preston. They stayed with Grace’s parents.
When their second child, a daughter, was born (on the Queen’s birthday - 15 April
1949), Sam bowed to the inevitable and the family cut their rural ties and moved
to Portsmouth permanently to share the home of Grace’s father, a retired school master,
who was now a widower. Grace’s brother recalls an almighty row when the family arrived
Grace’s conversion to a Jehovah’s witness
About a year later, something happened which Grace later described as the ‘highlight
of her life’. She was visited by two Jehovah’s witnesses.
Grace had been a staunch member of the Anglican church - indeed I can distinctly
remember going regularly to Sunday School and on summer outings organised by the
local church. She later said that what made her stop in her tracks was that she
was asked, ‘What does the Lord’s Prayer mean?’ Despite years of church attendance,
she found that she was unable to answer.
Further discussions with the two witnesses ensued. Grace kept the magazines that
they left with her and on the front covers was written first, ‘Mrs Wray’, then ‘Grace’,
then ‘Sister Wray’ as her interest grew and she was baptised into a new religion
Left: Margaret Beagle who visited Grace with Molly (left) and Margaret’s husband,
Glen Howe (a Canadian lawyer)
Her conversion created tensions in her family life and among her circle of friends.
True to form, Grace didn’t hold back from telling her relations and friends about
her new views. One of her cousins (a church organist) recounts that Grace sent him
a copy of the New World Translation of the Greek Scriptures. She probably sent similar
gifts to several of her relatives, which went down like a ‘lead balloon’ with those
who were set in their religious ways.
I find this deeply sad as Grace clearly loved her family (as evidenced by the many
photographs she treasured) and had strong bonds with them, but these were strained
by her new and usually misunderstood religious beliefs.
Also, her husband (who had his own agenda in the evenings) was antagonized by her
religion, which was considered by many to be an undesirable sect with extreme and
controversial views. I recall during one row that Sam, out of the blue and to Grace’s
amazement, described the witnesses as communists (a commonly-held misconception of
the time due their their non-involvement in World War II).
To fill the void in her life which was left by her disappearing family, Grace made
several new friends among the witnesses where she was a popular figure.
Sometime in the mid-nineteen fifties, Grace sat down with me to explain a further
dramatic change in her outlook. It is a belief of Jehovah’s witnesses that, while
an unlimited number of people will enjoy future life on a paradise earth, they will
be governed from heaven by a strictly limited group of humans who die and are resurrected.
Their number, they believe, is set at 144,000 in the book of Revelation and is selected
by God. A requirement is that they should remain as faithful Christians until their
As there are seven million practicing Jehovah’s witnesses, it might be thought that
to be ‘called by God’ for future heavenly life from such a vast number would be unusual
and perhaps indicates exceptional qualities.
Grace told me that she believed that ‘her hope for the future had been changed’ and
that, following her death, she was eagerly looking forward to life in heaven as
one of the 144,000 rulers, rather than life on a paradise earth. A consequence of
this dramatic change was that her new hope dominated her thoughts and life.
Making ends meet
There followed a time of struggling to make ends meet. Grace’s father died in 1954.
She fought to stay in a semi-detached home (left) that they could not possibly afford
on the paltry wages of a gas company ganger (who was only happy when he had his beer,
cigarette and spending money).
In 1958, the family moved to the terraced 4 Beresford Road, North End (right) which
Grace bought outright for £1525 - from her share of her father’s estate. Sam (making
no contribution to the purchase) ungraciously described it as ‘a rabbit’s hutch’.
How Grace must have cringed on the few occasions that her relatives visited her new
To make ends meet, Grace had a succession of menial part-time jobs - at Marks and
Spencer, in a pet shop and at a laundrette to which she would cycle. Her children
were growing up and there were the usual pressures between mother and offspring which
were heightened by her husband’s disinterest in family matters. Grace virtually
raised her children on her own and inevitably there were problems, particularly with
her daughter, as Grace found it hard to deal with a world of changing values. Despite
this, Grace said later that she ‘enjoyed bringing the children up’.
Her two children left Portsmouth and married. Sam retired in 1971. Despite these
changes, life for Grace didn’t vary very much. She was absorbed with her faith:
attending meetings three times a week, studying the Bible and enjoying her house-to-house
ministry. After Sam died in 1994, she lived on her own bolstered by her friends.
She spent time with her son and his family also her brother, who was now living nearby
In 1996, Grace was diagnosed as having cancer of the colon. Part of the offending
organ was removed. When visited on the next day at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Cosham
she was amazingly sitting in a chair with a cheerful smile on her face. She made
a full recovery, putting on weight and enjoying a good quality of life for five years.
Then, in September 2001, she fell heavily on the way to a religious meeting and broke
her elbow. This spelled the end as cancer took a grip through her body and although
miraculously experiencing no pain, she died on 20 January 2002. Her children and
brother had assembled at her home and several members of her congregation called
to say, ‘Farewell’. She was cremated at Fareham Crematorium. For Grace, death opened
the portal to immortal life in heaven where she would be one of the ‘kingdom of priests’!
Grace - the person
Her brother described her as honest and sincere. He said that, like her father,
she was outspoken which sometimes worked to her detriment Many times after hearing
about one of her conversations, I would say to her, ‘But you can’t say that to people,
Mum’ and she responded, ‘Well, I will!’. In that respect and also if she found herself
‘in a corner’ she could be stubborn and intractable. Once she had made a decision,
it was ‘set in stone’ for better or for worse - which was certainly true of her decision
to marry Sam.
Once she had committed herself to such an incongruous marriage, she was resolved
to fulfill her responsibilities as a wife. However, her true feelings toward Sam
can be gauged by her first will of 1967. She was the sole owner of 4 Beresford Road
and she stipulated that if she predeceased Sam, he could continue to live in the
house, paying rates and insurance etc. But that if he did not keep to the terms
of the will or remarried then the house was to be sold and the proceeds equally divided
between Sam and her two children.
The first impression of people when they met Grace was that she was well spoken.
Possibly because of her deafness, her voice was powerful and many times I had to
ask her to speak more quietly. She liberally sprinkled her comments with middle-class
vocabulary – ‘I jolly well will!’; ‘It hurt like billy-oh!’.
She was outstandingly enthusiastic, cheerful and outgoing in her manner. When answering
the phone, she announced her number with a lift in her voice. She answered the door
when she was expecting someone singing out, ‘I’m coming!’. Even bringing my breakfast
in bed was a joyous event. On the day before her death, she heard my sister and
I talking about getting somewhere and she burst into song, ‘Get me to the church
Grace lived to serve others uncomplainingly and worked hard to please people. Whenever
I stayed with her I left feeling guilty because I felt she had given far more than
I had reciprocated. Sometimes, her unreserved nature might drain her and she would
become tired and a little short-tempered.
She would hide her true feeling about people and events so as not to hurt others
feelings. Many was the time we discovered how she really felt about something when
overhearing her talking to someone else and her comments did not tally with what
we had been told.
Mealtimes personified Grace’s background. She was not ‘a Mrs Beeton’. Her rock
cakes and jam tarts which she persisted in cooking were memorable for non-culinary
reasons and she never mastered the art of cooking a fried breakfast.
Yet she was fastidious in her presentation. Toast was always slotted into a rack,
marmalade was spooned into a special pot, serviettes were provided and even breakfast
in bed was served with teapot, milk jug and a basin of sugar. I believe this attention
to detail reflected her upbringing.
Physically Grace was not especially feminine or delicate. She was left handed and
slightly inclined to clumsiness. She had broad shoulders and, when younger, she
would tie back her shoulders with stockings to try to prevent them becoming rounded.
Even just before her death, it was an effort to lift and support her.
In the interest of balance, I have to write that Grace’s daughter does not have a
particularly pleasant memory of her childhood at home. During her teenage years
she feels that her mother did not deal well with the vicissitudes of puberty and
issues such as what clothes she could wear. She recalls that, ‘Mum was never there
for me’, and that she was ‘left to her own devices’ or ‘given chores to do while
Mum was out preaching’.
Their relationship was marred by Grace’s religion which her daughter rejected when
a teenager. I also sense that Grace was inclined to favour boys more than girls.
Having mentioned this, as a testament to her sense of right and wrong, Grace left
her estate equally between her two children - which was much to her daughter’s surprise.
Grace had a ‘blind-spot’ when it came to remembering names of people and places.
If she wanted to recall an area she visited, she would note it in a diary and when
meeting people after a period of time she would go through their names before-hand
- and then still get them muddled. The sort of typical mistake she would make would
be to call Winston Churchill, William.
She had a good sense of humour. If something tickled her, she was uncontrollable,
silently rocking with laughter until tears came into her eyes.
I have described her religious faith and commitment. She was an exceptionally keen
student to the point of obsession - constantly making and keeping notes. When one
Bible was worn out, she would painstakingly copy all her notes into a new copy. Her
last Bible was swollen with many sheets of notes which she compiled from lectures
and articles (see below). After her death several people asked for her Bible as
My overwhelming memory of Grace is of a caring, selfless and vibrant mother who was
not without her faults but these were dwarfed by her empathy and kindness.