A refined and gracious lady
Visitors to the Denham Parish Hall may, or perhaps may not, have noticed that as they leave by the back door into the car park on the left is a door opening into a small room that has a dedication name. It honours and memorialises someone of significance in the village's recent history. It is the May Coles Room.
Today there are few who remember May Coles. It's time to bring her back to our attention. Who was May Coles ?
The gardener's daughter
Ethel May Morris was born in Compton Bassett in Wiltshire on 28th April 1892 to Albert Joseph Morris and his wife Ada. She was the second of six children. Albert, her father was a domestic gardener who by the time May was 18 had risen to become a Head Gardener. The 1911 census report does not identify the house at which Albert tended the garden but it would be nice to believe that it was his efforts that established the gardens at Compton Bassett House that provided pleasure to the entertainer Robbie Williams a century later.
Census day in 1911 was the 2nd of April, but May was not to keep the name by which she was then registered for more than a few days. On 6th April 1911 a 49 year old India Rubber manufacturer named Oscar Edwin Coles sought a licence to marry the 18 year old May, then considered a minor, and on 19th April, with Albert's consent, the couple were married in Hampstead and May became Mrs. Coles.
It was soon after they were wed that Oscar and May Coles came to Denham taking ownership of the early 19th century villa on Blacksmith's Lane Denham Mount. It was later claimed that this was a property that Oscar and his wife "had been looking for for a long time", though given that May was only 18 at the time a little journalistic licence appears to have been applied in this description. Nonetheless it seems clear that Mr. and Mrs. Coles were very fond of Denham Mount. The same journalist of the Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette told of how Oscar's affection for Denham Mount, "the parkland, the wooded hollows and the lawns gently sloping to the flower set pool grew until every stick and stone on the estate was familiar".
The Coles family quickly grew. A daughter, Joan, was born on 8 July 1912 and a second daughter, Betty followed on 30 April 1923. The business, William Warne and Co., of which Oscar was a director, was clearly flourishing. The company, based at 29 Gresham Street in the City of London, was promoted as "manufacturers of India Rubber in all its Various Appliances”. Its products included a wide variety of items, some of which included the Hand Emollient and the Sultan’s Bath Brush, brake blocks for carriages, omnibuses, and bicycles; the ultimate inking rollers for lithotype and every description of printing; sheets, valves, buffers, washers, hose tubing, waterproof garments, gas bags, water beds, tyres for bicycles, air holders for pneumatic rolls, tobacco pouches, etc. The business flourishes still as part of the Rubber Product Manufacturers, Icon Warne Limited.
Oscar's business success was reflected in the accommodation the Coles family enjoyed. Denham Mount was a large house with 40 acres of land and in 1923 the Coles were employing two children’s nurses, a cook, a housemaid and two general maids.
Oscar Edwin Coles and Ethel May Coles were married for 26 years. Oscar had a reputation as a private man. He was "unostentatious, of a retiring but generous nature" . Unlike May he rarely took any active part in public affairs. He did however have a sympathy with good causes and was considered "none the less sincere for being little heard of". He was in every way an outdoor man, golf being a game to which he devoted a great deal of his time and enthusiasm, and shooting, which frequently called him to the Scottish hills he loved. He was one of the oldest members of Denham Golf Club where he was a popular member. In the late 1920s he sponsored the Mr. O. E. Coles’ prize at the Club. Oscar was said to be "liked by all who came in contact with him". His companions on the golf course for many years were Mr. Sissons and Mr. Muskett, the trio being affectionately known as the Three Musketeers. It becomes easy to imagine them as the three characters from Last of The Summer Wine.
Making her mark
It was not long after her move to Denham that May Coles began contributing her time, leadership qualities and money to almost all aspects of our Denham community. She began to justify the description which she gave to her activities at the outbreak of the second world war in 1939 “Various Public Works (unpaid)".
By 1920 May's generosity was being mentioned in the press. The Uxbridge & West Drayton Gazette then reported on an event held at Denham Mount for local children describing how “the scholars of the new Village School and their teachers, marched to the venue and found that complete arrangements had been made for their entertainment: games, sports and similar attractions. The children were subsequently entertained to tea by the generosity of Mrs. Cole.”
From then on, the activities of Mrs. Coles were frequently mentioned in newspaper articles. In 1920 again she was “making arrangements for a successful jumble sale for the benefit of the Parish Hall Denham.” On 6 May 1922 she was an honoured guest at Opening Ceremony of the Way and Tillard Recreation Grounds, alongside other members of "the local gentry" of Denham. On 18 August 1922 at a public meeting in the Village Hall, parishioners agreed to support the foundation of the Uxbridge and District Hospital with a contribution of £250 towards the building fund and appointed Mrs. Coles and Mrs. Gilbey (of the gin distiller family living at The Lea) to represent Denham on the Uxbridge Hospital Management Committee.
On several occasions, Mrs. Coles is also recorded in the Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette as a frequent speaker at meetings of the Women’s Institute (WI), the organisation founded in 1915 to revitalise rural communities and encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. As the WI expanded its work "to advance the education of women and girls through local, national and international issues of political, social and cultural importance" May Coles was found to be adding her contribution on the subject of ‘Superstitions and their Origins'.
On May 6th 1935 as the nation celebrated the 25th anniversary – the Silver Jubilee – of King George V’s accession to the throne, there was May Coles leading the Denham ladies in their successful organisation of the village sports to the great pleasure of the Parish Council. May's leading place in the community was also recognised in 1935 by the invitation she received to accompany local dignitaries at the 11th Annual Dinner of the Denham Bowling Club. A brief report of the event in the Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette of Friday 22 November 1935 under the headline, “Ladies Who Were Welcomed at the 11th Annual Dinner of the Denham Bowling Club" encapsulates so much of the early 20th century social history of our village:
“Never before in the history of the club had they been accorded such undivided attention and homage. As each speaker successively rose and announced with obvious sincerity that he was pleased to see the ladies present, they must have felt an inward glow, a quickening of the pulse and a sense of satisfaction in being a member of the weaker sex! The club, which has the support of a large number of the many prominent people in the district, boasts a growing membership.
It was hinted that a ladies' club was also to be formed and that the novices’ competition, which has been in abeyance for the past two years would once more be arranged. Clearly, the services to the club by the ladies were innumerable and their help in providing both the home and visiting team such a warm welcome at tea-time was much appreciated.
The president, Col. F. P. Braithwaite, was the chairman, and among them present were Lady Victoria Braithwaite, Major J. K. B. Dawson, chairman of the Denham Parish Council and Mrs. Dawson, Lady Cheetham, Mrs. E. A. Morton, Mr. Gerald Way, Mrs. Oscar Coles, the Rev. and Mrs. B. A. Clegg, several parish councillors, and representatives from some neighbouring clubs.”
The success of the 1935 Jubilee Celebrations clearly set the standard for another event. By October 1936, after a public meeting at the Denham Village Hall, Mrs. Coles, among others, including a representative of ex-servicemen, were appointed to cooperate with the Parish Council in arranging the celebration of the coronation of King George VI to take place on May 12, 1937.
A sad end to a remarkable union
In 1911 Ethel May Coles had married a successful businessman 31 years her senior. It has been said of this gardener's daughter from Wiltshire that "during her association with Mr. Coles, she became a refined and gracious lady, and all who remember May Coles will attest to that". It was obviously a remarkable union. Oscar Edwin Coles and Ethel May Coles were married for 26 years - but sadly on 29 August 1937 it came to an end with Oscar's death at the age of 75. May was just 44.
The Uxbridge & W. Drayton Gazette reported the death of Mr. Coles as a loss to Denham. He had died after a brief illness in his beloved Scotland at the Nethy Bridge Hotel in Nethy Bridge, Invernessshire. His estate was valued at over £187,000, more than£13 million in todays values.
May left Denham Mount after her husband's death. The 1939 register taken at the outset of WW2, listed Ethel M. Coles as a widow of Dukes Mead Manor Lane, Gerrards Cross. She still had her housemaid, a cook and children's nurse - though her daughter Betty was then 16. Her elder daughter Joan was married to Hugh Browne a director of a supply and import company distributing far eastern produce.
May did not however abandon Denham.
Air Raid Precautions
In the 1939 Register May was listed as an A.R.P. warden with Bucks County. Air Raid Precautions (ARP) was a UK organisation first created as a government committee in 1924 recalling the incidents of aerial bombing during the first world war. Initially its mission was to monitor the development of the potential for aerial warfare with a dedication to the protection of civilians from the danger of air raids to be expected in any future war. In 1935 the committee was expanded into a government department and in 1937 volunteers were recruited as wardens to oversee the protection of the civilian population in anticipation of a new war with Germany. In 1938 the warden system was supplemented by the Women's Voluntary Service. Many of the practices and ideals set forth by the ARP have lived on beyond WW2 through Civil Defence during the Cold war and still exist today in civilian organizations in the United Kingdom. The ARP was formally disbanded in 1946 ,but right up to date the concept of a Royal Voluntary Service has been maintained to assist the Covid-19 vaccination roll-out.
During the Second World War, the ARP was responsible for the issuing of gas masks, pre-fabricated air-raid shelters, the upkeep of local public shelters, and the maintenance of the blackout. The ARP also helped rescue people after air raids and other attacks, and some women became ARP Ambulance Attendants.
May Coles was obviously quick to volunteer and perhaps her experiences as a member of the A.R.P. in Bucks County led naturally to her becoming the “Mother of the 16th Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps” in Denham. She marched solemnly with the Brigade to St. Mary’s whenever the soldiers were back in Denham for a reunion. Our contributor Ann who remembers May Coles recollects that when May Coles walked with the ex-soldiers, she looked very imposing among so many men.
Women's Co-operative Guild
By 1939 May had become active in the Co-operative movement. It was an interesting development for a woman who had spent 28 years of her adult life amidst considerable personal wealth derived from large scale business for the principles of the Co-operative movement are strongly supportive of community based collective ownership of capital. May's involvement is perhaps illustrative of the strong sense of community of someone with relatively humble but aspirational beginnings who enjoyed the benefits of wealth. In this and in her commitment to advance women's causes, again we can detect evidence of the social changes taking place.
The co operative movement began in the early 19th century and by 1830 there were several hundred co-operatives - community groups operating systems of collective ownership for mutual benefit. In 1883 a separate group for women was established by Alice Acland, who edited the "Women's Corner" of the Co-operative News, and Mary Lawrenson, a teacher who suggested the creation of an organization to promote instructional and recreational classes for mothers and girls. In 1884 this group adopted the name the Women's Co-operative Guild. The Guild soon expanded to organising political campaigns on women's issues including health and suffrage and as the Guild became more politically active, it expanded its work further beyond the British isles. By April 1914 the Guild was sufficiently involved in international affairs so as to have representatives at an International Women's Congress at The Hague where a resolution was passed in total opposition to war.
In September 1920 the London Co-operative Society was formed in September 1920 by the amalgamation of several smaller societies and the new organisation extended its reach into Middlesex and in particular to Uxbridge. The Guild obviously accompanied this expansion.
After World War I the Guild became increasingly involved in peace activism, concentrating especially on the social and political conditions that encouraged or gave rise to war, as well as opposition to the arms trade. In 1933 they introduced the White Poppy as a pacifist alternative to the British Legion's annual red poppy appeal. At that time membership of the Guild was at its peak, with 1,500 branches and 72,000 members.
This then was the organisation in which May Coles was active in 1939. When the Woman’s Co-op Guild in Uxbridge celebrated its 11th birthday tea, it was May Coles who brought greetings from the Guild District Committee. May had also introduced her 16 year old daughter to the movement. The same press report has Miss Betty Coles representing the London Co-operative Society Political Committee at the Uxbridge event.
At some point during the Second World War years May Coles joined the Parish Council. The Council's records show that at its annual meeting in 1943, the Council elected Mrs. Coles to its Finance Committee, its General Purposes Committee, the Elizabeth Ann Way Trust, the School Managers’ Committee and the Bucks County Local Higher Education Committee.
By October 1943, May Coles had taken the Parish Council chair. It was in that capacity that she then thanked the members for their support and assistance they had given her during the year. She congratulated members of The Denham Cottage Gardens, Smallholdings, and Allotment Association on the success of their show held in August, but she hoped that more members would participate in the exhibition next year.
May's move from Denham to Gerrards Cross still did not seem to dampen May Coles dedication to activities in Denham. Still very much part of the Denham community in November 1949, May Coles acted as the contest judge for the “fancy dresses at the carnival dance” at the Higher Denham Association Hall where dancing was to the music by the splendidly named Accordionaires and she served as President of the Denham Sports Club for 20 years from 1956 to 1976.
In recognition of her many years of contributions to the Denham community, the meeting room in the Denham Village Memorial Hall was named, during her lifetime as the May Coles Room. The Parish Council was holding meetings there as early as 1957.
A personal memory
Ann Collins remembers May Coles as definitely involved in all aspects of Denham village life. "There was nothing she wasn't involved in", says Ann. She contributed very generously to Denham Memorial Hall. She owned land in Old Mill Road where the Girl Guide Hut was used by the Girl Guides and Brownies. She was a school governor of Cheapside School, parish councillor and a member of the church council.
Ann's mother told her that in her Gerrards Cross house, all May's dining room chairs had tapestry on the seats which she had worked. She had woven her own hair into some of the pictures. When Ann got married in 1962, May gave Ann and Bernard a beautifully embroidered tablecloth. Ann uses it to this day.
Ethel May Coles died on 3 September 1976 up to her death still resident at Dukes Mead Manor Lane, Gerrards Cross, but she obviously remained a Denham villager at heart. She was 84 years old.
Denham Mount - by kind permission of Gerard Gilbertson from his book
Denham: A pictorial Essay on Places and Buildings, Roadways, Railways, and Waterways Copyright Gerard Gilbertson 2015.
Graces Guide to British Industrial History - Im1882POLon-Warne.jpg (760×562) (gracesguide.co.uk)
George V Jubilee - Wikimedia Commons Images
May Coles Bowling - Denham Bowls Club - Denham Bowls Club - Club History
Embroidered tablecloth - Ann Collins
British Newspaper Archives - Uxbridge & West Drayton Gazette.
Cathy Soughton, Bucks Research, Professional family and house history research in Buckinghamshire and beyond.
Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Co-operative_Women Guild
Andy Beale, Editor, 100 Years of Village Cricket: Denham Cricket Club 1892-1992, Centenary Year Souvenir Brochure, loan from Ann Collins