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Author: Dorothy Mules

Biographical Sketch by son


Dorothy MulesDorothy Mules’s life spanned practically the whole of the twentieth century (b. 1905—d. 2005). When she was born the Wright Brothers had not got the first flying-machine off the ground and the computer was not even a pipe dream. Women didn’t have the vote and if you couldn’t afford to pay a doctor—which most working people couldn’t—you didn’t call for one. (There were, however, high-minded doctors who were known to charge very little or nothing at all like Dr Andersen.)

“I remember, I remember
The house where I was born…”

As a child Dorothy inhabited a rickety two-storey house without running water: the low, dark kitchen gave onto a cobbled yard with a single tap which served five families. The house had two gas mantles, otherwise you used candles, and the only heating was, of course, a coal fire. The outside privy with ‘bucket toilet’ was halfway down a dark, narrow alleyway. On the wall of the front room, the only living room, was a giant stuffed turtle and apparently when my mother was little there was an alligator as well which frightened the children. A policeman’s truncheon hung near the front door, the idea being that any burglar entering would think that it was a policeman’s house! I remember all this myself since I was born in the front bedroom of this very same house during World War II.

This was poverty but not squalor. In the front room was a large, beautifully polished solid mahogany table on which my grandmother would work making dresses for a living when the children were at school—my grandfather, a seaman, died at a young age from sunstroke. There was also an ingle-nook in the front-room where one could sit for hours watching the horses and traps passing. One spin-off was that with a dressmaker for a mother, the two daughters were always well got-out since members of the gentry would often order expensive cloth and leave the cut-offs to Gran Tabb for her own use. So when Phyllis and Dorothy at a later age appeared at one of the balls in the Public Rooms during the twenties they cut a very decent figure.

My mother managed to get a scholarship to Harleigh Grammar School and then qualified as a Primary teacher. Her experiences are described in the booklet “A Village Schoolteacher Remembers”. For the daughter of an ordinary seaman’s widow, this position, modest though it may seem today, was a considerable move up the social scale and would have tended to make her somewhat unapproachable to the local sons of farmers—she was an ‘ediccated woman’. Also, something we tend to forget, women in the teaching profession were obliged by law to give up their jobs when they got married.

All this explains my mother’s very late marriage, at thirty-five to a dashing young History teacher at her old school whom she met country dancing.

And hardly was she married than she was suddenly transported to darkest Africa in the wake of my father when he volunteered to be a lay missionary. The tale is that my grandmother, seeing her daughter walking off to catch the train to Liverpool broke into sobs, repeating, “Never see she again, and that dear boy!” Moreover, this first trip was not just to Africa but the African bush …. We have the spectacle of a good-looking, well-dressed and in a quiet way somewhat fashionable woman who danced the Boston two-step and the Charleston suddenly transported to a world of mosquitoes, hurricane lamps, hyenas, snakes and centipedes! The only conclusion one can draw was that this must indeed have been a marriage of love!

Soon afterwards my father got transferred to the somewhat more civilized port of Bathurst, West Africa—there was at least electricity but still plenty of bats and cockroaches. Here eventually my mother managed to go back to teaching again in the Literacy Classes run for poor working-class Africans (teaching was entirely free, pupils paid only for paper and pens &c.). Also, my mother was very active in the Methodist Women’s Auxiliary and reading through her notes and diaries she seems to have functioned as an unpaid equivalent of a District Nurse visiting sick people and applying bandages and ointments. There were extremely few white people in the colony at the time and the missionaries seem to have been about the only whites who mixed with the natives at all. By and large life in Bathurst was colourful and exciting and my mother especially valued the company of her very gentlemanly grown-up literacy pupils, manual workers at the docks or in the warehouses, most of whom incidentally were Moslems.

The period of her return to England in the fifties and sixties was more problematic. She had some health problems, her son was absent in France, her husband, not used to discipline problems, wasn’t too happy in British schools. Also, in the very changed cultural ethos of the time, my father’s and mother’s generation of missionaries suddenly found they were no longer regarded as heroes and heroines.

Skipping now over twenty-five or so generally agreeable years in Shaftesbury where her husband retired, we come to the to the last decade of Dorothy Mules’ long life. It is often said that people don’t develop any more after ninety but, amazingly, now that she had the leisure, in her nineties she embarked on a vast programme of reading and writing. She read “War and Peace” unabridged for the first time at ninety-five, the whole oeuvre of George Eliot, Galsworthy, Catherine Cookson, Dickens, “Gone with the Wind”, mixed in with Wordsworth and Keats &c. &c. She listened to serious programmes on the radio and often surprised me by asking about new-fangled inventions I’d not even heard about that someone had mentioned on one of these programmes. Also, she took to revising and reworking her earlier articles and talks to Women’s Groups, with the result that she brought out a series of booklets based on this material along with many new pieces. A couple of days before her death at ninety-nine she was jotting down some notes for a new piece of writing on the topic of ‘Patience’. Her special genre was the ‘picture in words’, in verse or prose, brief and pithy, examples of which you will come across later in this book. In these reflections on life in the modern era we find a natural feeling for words, an observant eye for nature and a wry and unsentimental but ultimately optimistic vision.

As another long-liver, Leonardo da Vinci, put it, “Just as a full day leads on to a good night’s sleep, so does a well-used life lead on to a tranquil death”.

Publications by Dorothy Mules    All enquiries to her son Robert Mules



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