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The first in an occasional series of articles about Barford people, past and present.


JOYCE WILLSON (a Tribute from Betty Corbridge)

Joyce was born (and Christened Joyce Mary Willson) on 9th August 1915 in a house on Clapton Common in London. In those days cows were to be seen on the Common and the First World War was three years away from ending.

She was the only child of both her parents’ second marriages and she had a stepbrother (Jack) and two step sisters. Although she did not herself marry, she had numerous nieces and nephews all of whom adored her because she was the best of “Aunts” to them all. She was closest to her step brother’s children as she lived nearest to them in North London so they were the lucky recipients on birthdays and at Christmas of presents – games, dolls, dolls’ houses, toy theatres, fancy dresses – everything hand made by “Auntie Joyce”. She made a beautiful doll’s house, including furniture for every room, for one of her nieces, complete in every detail – or so she thought – until her niece informed her that she was a bit disappointed because the lavatory didn’t flush!

Her nephew John is today the artist who was commissioned to paint the Royal Family on the occasion of the Queens Mother’s Centenary. Joyce was very proud of John’s achievements and she had many personal examples of his work as John Wonnacott the distinguished artist.

Betty Corbridge (left) and Joyce Willson

Joyce went to school at St. Bernard’s Convent, Southend in Essex. At that time her Mother and Father were living in a hotel as her Mother was not at all strong with heart trouble but I think she enjoyed this period of her life. Hotel life could be great fun in the twenties and early thirties with plenty of social activities and she certainly enjoyed her school days. She did extremely well academically and at school her potential as an artist and also as a talented actress was realised. I think the nuns were slightly amazed at the suits of armour (and many other costumes) she produced for the classical plays in which she appeared during her school days.

Joyce started her working career in the gown trade at what was then a well known store – Debenham and Freebody. For this period of her working life she worked as a mannéquin and as she was tall, slim and elegant she was well suited to display beautiful and very valuable furs. Eventually she left the retail gown trade and worked in a wholesale dress firm but at one time she designed and made costumes for the professional theatre. The names of the actresses she dressed are probably not known today although a leading actor in one play – Max Adrian – was very kind to her when, dashing around back stage, she nearly knocked herself out on a piece of scenery.

Finally, for the last ten to twelve years of her working life she left the fashion world and joined the academic world as an administrative assistant in an organisation concerned with higher education where I was also employed. She made a great success of the final part of her career working mainly on statistics.

Throughout the war Joyce lived in North London (Muswell Hill) and nursed her Mother and Father who both became ill and for this reason she was not able to join the forces nor was she free to indulge in her love of the theatre or to take part in acting herself. However, in 1946, both her parents having died, she was free to offer her services to a local drama group of which I was a member and so we met for the first time and formed a friendship which was to last, unbroken, until her death two years ago.

As Queen Mary in "Crown Matrimonial"

Our mutual passion for the theatre was the foundation for this rare friendship together with (as a great friend once said) an admiration for each other’s talents. After her parents died Joyce lived in a hotel in Muswell Hill and then came to live with me and my Mother and sister.

In "Crown Matrimonial"

From then on Joyce’s talents and charming personality were revealed to us all. When she joined us in 1946 we were in rehearsal for a Noel Coward play ‘This Happy Breed’ – a play covering a period from 1919 to 1939 requiring a change of costume for 12 actors in 9 different scenes. Joyce modestly suggested she might be able to help with the costumes and then proceeded to produce over 50 costumes entirely by herself working in one small bedroom in a hotel from any material she could find (rationing was still in force). Thanks to her the play was a great success.

In the same year she played her first part for the company and thereafter displayed her wonderful talent as an actress in over sixty roles until the company’s final production of Noel Coward’s ‘Hay Fever’ in 1984.

As well as acting she designed and made the most beautiful costumes for such productions as “Mary Stewart”, “Pride and Prejudice”, “Tom Jones”, “Vivat Vivat Regina” – the list is endless and I think many people here in Barford will have seen in our plays some of the amazing props she made. She was a lovely actress able to play a wide variety of parts and amongst some of her outstanding performances were Queen Mary in “Crown Matrimonial”, Mrs St. Maughan in Enid Bagnold’s “The Chalk Garden” a hilarious performance as Emma Hornett in “Sailor Beware” and her final performance in London as Judith Bliss in Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever”. She had a great gift of comedy as many will know who saw her perform in the Music Hall and I hope Nut and Bolt will not be forgotten.

In "The Constant Wife", 1954

Such a talented lady you might think should be entitled to a little feeling of pride in some of her achievements but she had none. She was the quietest most self-effacing and modest person you could meet. She was never convinced that anything she did was particularly good – certainly not brilliant – she just loved being part of the world of theatre whether playing a part or designing a set or a costume or making a piece of furniture or perhaps best of all – making people laugh. She never entertained the idea of using any of her talents in a professional way but, of course, when we lived in London our greatest pleasure was to see all the best professional productions and to visit the RSC at Stratford and the theatre at Chichester.

Joyce was a unique person, rarely having a bad word for anybody – not a Church-goer but one whose faith was unshakeable.

She was intelligent, she was fun - she couldn’t spell and she wasn’t any good at tennis. I checked all her spelling and I was very good at tennis. She could paint beautifully and produce exquisite wood carvings. I am useless doing anything with my hands and our taste in literature was entirely different.

We were opposite in so many ways but so completely as one in so many others that we slotted together like two pieces in a jig saw. The years we spent together couldn’t have been more rewarding, more fun or more wonderful. When Joyce joined our drama company in London our Chairman said to me ‘Joyce is a lady’; and so she was – a lovely lady remembered by so many with deep affection.

Betty Corbridge
September 2004

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