Mary Ottaway

A former familiar figure in Welwyn Garden City

By Jennifer McCann

Mary Ottaway died on 27 March, 2015 aged 87.  Mary was a familiar sturdy but slight figure in Welwyn Garden City, striding out in her brogues and socks and traditional belted raincoat which probably covered a sensible tweed skirt.

This eulogy was written and read at her funeral by Janet Lewis on 12 May 2015 at St Bonaventure Church, Welwyn Garden City and is reproduced here by permission.

When I first met Mary Ottaway at Mater Dei School in 1974, I realised that I was encountering one of a splendid but vanishing breed of teacher, single, dedicated, academic and fiercely independent in a way that puts modern feminists to shame.

I wish I knew more about her early life, for she was not of a tradition or character to give much away about her personal history, but I’ll tell you what I do know. She was brought up in Sheffield, the only child of parents one of whom at least must have been a Catholic as she was educated at the Notre DameSchool.  Later she read History at BirminghamUniversity, and trained as a teacher at Cavendish Square.  All I knew of her father is that he took her to watch Yorkshire County Cricket matches, so giving her an interest in the game which lasted all her life, although I don’t think she was ever reconciled to one day matches which she would have regarded as a modern vulgarity.

She taught at Howrah House School in Victoria Park and at two La Retraite schools in Burnham on Sea and Clifton, Bristol.  She also taught in Nigeria from 1957 to 1962 and would have liked to return but was prevented by visa difficulties. After five years at Mater Dei School she went out to Sierra Leone to teach at a mission school.  Although these foreign assignments were physically tough and demanding, I think she was happy in Africa.

Sorting through her possessions after her death, I was struck by the evidence of her many interests.  There was folder after folder containing meticulous accounts of her holidays in Europe and the Middle East, beautifully neat diary entries illustrated by expertly taken photographs; there can’t be many art galleries and historic buildings in Europe which she didn’t know.  At a late stage in her life she took the kind of holidays most people enjoy when they are students.  The only preparation she made was to book a place on Eurostar, and then she would get off at some foreign city, find a room and places to eat and get on with exploring the place.  Until a short time ago she visited every major art exhibition in London, and had a formidable collection of books about painting.

Another great love was music; she regularly attended the Proms, the Wigmore Hall and St   John’s Smith Square and any smaller scale concert she could find when visiting London and Radio 3 was nearly always on in her room.

Until a few years ago, she was taking really long walks, such as walking to Whitwell and back, with amazing speed and stamina, so it was all the sadder when her legs would no longer take here where she wanted to go, and she lost touch with the places she loved in the villages and countryside of Hertfordshire.

As most of you know, she refused to give in to age and frailty, somehow managing the escalators and long corridors of the London Underground in order to get to Westminster Cathedral for Mass and Confession.  Among her possessions were copious notes taken for a Diploma in Theology, reams of erudition about early Church history, obscure heresies and controversies, but although of a traditional and academic turn of mind she did not react against modern movements in the Church.  She was a keen student of the Scriptures, and did a lot of quiet and thoughtful visiting of the elderly in the parish.  Daily Mass was of great importance to her, and she would go to impressive lengths to achieve it.

She did not find old age easy to cope with, and would have hated to become more dependent. She was a brave, tough minded woman; her intelligence was obvious; less obvious perhaps were a quirky sense of humour and a deep, passionate love for the beautiful things of Creation, the work of the God with whom we trust she is at peace.


This page was added on 10/08/2015.

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  • This lady was the reason I didn’t love history.

    This was at La Retraite in the 60s

    By Anne Marie Wright (13/12/2021)