“Keeping walking! That’s it! Keep walking, BarBara!” my mother remembered her father calling as she edged her way, arms outstretched, down the two walls of the hall dragging the unyielding deadweight of the leather and steel calipers on her legs. Walk she did. Indeed, she ran, marched, swum, cycled, surfed, sailed and scuba dived all over the world for a very full 89 years.
BarBara Wearne, a 36-year resident of Instow, died peacefully, quickly but very unexpectedly in her own armchair in her own house on December 3rd 2015. Her last words as she sat down to “take a bit of a rest” and read the paper were: “I feel like I’ve climbed a very steep hill.” She had. It was a perfect epitaph – and true to form — her very own.
BarBara overcame the worst effects of polio as a child in the 1930s. Without her determination and the skill of some unorthodox surgery she might have been in a wheelchair or in calipers for life. The experience totally moulded her character and philosophy. She remained committed to the underdog, the disabled, the poor and the marginalized. And she worked tirelessly for what she saw as the obvious antidotes to their condition: greater equality, more justice, real human rights and meaningful sustainability.
She was active on and angry with the state of the world to the very end. She braved the driving rain to join the climate change protest march in Bideford four days before her death and died with an appeal for donations of clothing and equipment for refugees reaching the Greek islands on her front gate.
Born in 1926, BarBara left school in 1942 to work for the Library Association, evacuated from London to her home town Launceston in Cornwall. When the first blitz was over, they returned, with BarBara now an employee and, at 18 she enlisted, becoming an air raid warden. She vividly recalled typing leaflets for the Labour Party’s 1945 election landslide in south London and went onto qualify as a primary school teacher with a speciality in, somewhat incredibly, Physical Education.
She became a primary school teacher in Mevagissey, Cornwall, where in 1952, she met my father, the local priest and a former Far East Prisoner of War (FEPOW). By the early 1960s, they had four children, Phillip, Jane, Sue and Liz and had settled in Hills View, Braunton. Her life was totally transformed however when Edwin “Ted” Wearne was diagnosed with a brain tumor, dying a protracted death, punctuated by long hospital stays and painful treatment, in June 1966.
Winning the struggle to keep her family together over the next 15 years, whilst teaching full time, paying a mortgage, and caring for four children, the youngest of whom was barely two at the time of my father’s death, was probably an even greater feat than overcoming polio. This was an age when married women working, let alone mothers and widows “abandoning” their children to do so, was considered dangerously subversive.
She never forgot the solidarity, support and sense of those who rallied round to support her right to work – and make that possible. She always said that we would not have survived as a family and perhaps as individuals without Braunton’s Iris Sandercock, “Cock-Cock” to us children. Cook, childminder, cleaner, second mother, agony aunt, there was nothing Iris Sandercock was not to our family for so many years.
With all her children in higher education or careers, BarBara took early retirement in 1981 and began a third life, one of travel, fundraising, campaigning and political and health service activism. South and Central America, East and Central Africa, everywhere in Asia from Japan to Turkey were the locations of her 25 years of winter backpacking adventures. But she always returned for spring and summer, relishing the surfing, sailing and swimming she loved in North Devon.
The highlights of her travels? Oh, so many.
Lecturing John Paul II in Belize on his treatment of the radical Catholic priests in the Sandinista government in 1983; being detained with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma) in 1995; raising £4787 for leprosy treatment by cycling more than 500 miles around Malawi at the age of 70; visiting the AIDS belt of Central Africa to show villagers a film I had made with them in 2000. Finally, in 2005 and 2006, we enjoyed two trips to Japan and South East Asia in an effort to piece together my father’s wartime story, so little of which he had revealed to her while alive.
In recent years, many in Instow will remember her best for village hall fund-raisers for the victims of the Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015) earthquakes. Her growing and eventually profound deafness spawned another vigorous campaign – for digital hearing aids on the NHS and much greater awareness of the social exclusion of those with hearing impairment.
BarBara’s four grandchildren, Thomas, Elliot, Lottie and Asa were always being encouraged to follow her example and in their music, sports, travel, theatre production and above all voluntary work. At the time of her death, the eldest Thomas, and his wife Mohua, were following in her footsteps in Asia. BarBara relished reliving her adventures through their travel blog in her last weeks.
“Aren’t we lucky? We’re going into our 89th year,” an old schoolfriend wrote to her in a birthday card in 2014. “Aren’t we lucky! Aren’t I lucky!” she would repeat to me throughout her last year. Yes, you were, mum. But you not only knew it, you understood it, never forgot it and determined to do as much as you could for those who were not so lucky.
You knew and understood that the exhausted refugee swimming ashore in Greece, the polio victim unable to walk in Sierra Leone, the young Indian mother murdered for forming a weaving co-operative in Guatemala, could have been you — or any one of us. I know, those who knew you well will know, that you will not rest in peace unless many more of us match your commitment to those you always understood could so easily have been you in a wheelchair longing to walk, run, cycle and swim the world.
BarBara Wearne donated her body to medical science in the hope that a new generation of surgeons might achieve for others what those of the 1930s had done for her. So no funeral. A memorial service will take place at St. Peter’s Church Fremington, North Devon at 11.30 am on Saturday June 25th. In death, as in life, all welcome.
Edior’s Note: Phillip Wearne and I meet when the London Sunday Times Magazine sent us as a writer-photographer team to Haiti to do a couple of stories: Mother Teressa’s “death house” and the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. We have been friends ever since. Phillip is a Journalist: tenuous, curious, loves fieldwork, the chase and has the distrust/disrespect of authority needed to do the job well.
On one of my many trips to London I had the fortunate pleasure to meet his mom. She would have been a great Journalist. She was an inspiration to all who came in contact.
These are, to say the least, interesting and difficult times but reading about BarBara Wearne gives hope and joy. This obit ran originally in the local Parish News.