Irene Cranwell died peacefully at her home at Faerie Cottage in Crawley End on Thursday 7th January 2010. She would have been 100 years old in February.
She was born Emily Irene White in 1910 but from an early age she was known as Irene or Irenie. The daughter of a stockman, she was brought up in Sticklings Green, Clavering with her parents Charles and Emily together with older siblings Hedley, Harry and Ada. Both of Irene’s brothers served in WW1 and survived, although coincidentally, both were wounded in the left shoulder, Harry seriously. Irene recalled on Radio Cambridgeshire a day Hedley departed after being home on leave. “I remember my mother, standing on the landing and turning to my father and saying “Shall we ever see him again?” I can see him disappearing over the hill now in my mind.” In 1919 when she was just 9 years old, she was so seriously ill that Harry was brought home from hospital in Bristol as it was thought she might not live. In fact she outlived all her siblings “by a long, long way”. “Can you explain that?” she asked..
She came to Chrishall as a young schoolmistress and in 1935 married her husband Bernard of Chrishall’s Cranwell family. Her son John still lives in Chrishall and her daughter Susan (d. 4th June 2012) had been able to keep daily watch over her although, apart from her failing eyesight, she remained fit and independent throughout her long life. Until quite late in life, she could be seen driving her three-wheeler car along the local lanes. Her cottage was distinguished by folk art of fauna and flora on its exterior walls and, for many years, an old shepherd’s or gypsy caravan stood in the front garden.
Her knowledge of local history was immense and several correspondents of this web site in Australia and New Zealand have benefited from her first hand knowledge of local families. She was the village correspondent for the Cambridge Evening News for many years and a regular guest with columnist Christopher South on his BBC Radio Cambridgeshire programme. She was also something of an expert on those local crafts and activities all but forgotten by modern generations. Just over a month ago she recalled on air being ticked off by a local farmer when, as a young woman, she was caught “helping herself” to some long straw for making corn dollies – only to inform him that his brother had previously told her to help herself.
She enjoyed the companionship of her pets – her dog “Charlie Bumpkin” was a faithful friend for many years and “Mrs Parker”, her cat, was well looked after notwithstanding that she was as independent as her mistress. In recent years friends and neighbours would call in and read to Irene and of course she enjoyed listening to her radio.
In 2000 she planted the millennium tree in the village (left) and at the village Christmas Fair last month she was presented with a bench as an early birthday gift and cheered by the villagers present. Her response of gratitude, in writing, was typical Irene: ‘On behalf of dear old Chrishall – thank you for the really lovely bench, combining beauty and practicality. To paraphrase a well known benediction: ‘God bless her and all who sit on her.’
Christopher South described her as “one of my best friends. I have known her 50 years – an absolutely extraordinary person. She was not a cuddly old lady but a real toughie”. Words like “intelligent”, “caring”, “quick-witted” and even, when she deemed it necessary, “formidable” would all describe Irene. A lovely lady who, during a long lifetime, gave much to her family, friends and community without ever becoming a burden to any of them.
The following obituary was written by Caroline Fookes:
Mrs Irene Cranwell, historian, raconteur, countrywoman, humorist, and resident of Chrishall for 75 years, died on January 7, just five weeks short of her 100th birthday.
Born Emily Irene White in Clavering, she first came to Chrishall when she was 18 to teach at the village school. Some of her pupils remained her best friends. Here she met her husband, Bernard Cranwell, a wheelwright and master craftsman.
Mrs Cranwell took the village and church to her heart. She became an authority on the church’s history and sang in the choir – beautifully, I am told. “The church was ours”, she would say.
She continued her teaching career in Barkway and Royston until she became a full-time mum, bringing up her children Susan and Jonathan. She felt that children should be at home until they were five to be able to make their first explorations in the care of a parent. “I might be old-fashioned and square but……..”
She was active with the WI, a member of the Civil Defence Corps, parish councillor and served as parish clerk. One of her greatest legacies to the village was the setting up of the Chrishall museum with son-in-law Fred Davies.
Mrs Cranwell regretted not having had the educational opportunities of the young of today. But she became an avid reader, particularly of history, the classics and poetry. Through her reading she passed on her interest in the world to her pupils.
Reading led to writing. She put together a history of Chrishall, including photographs, village stories and parish records. In 1991 she published Chrishall Folk, sketches of village characters, and she wrote many articles for the village newsletter.
It was as village correspondent for local newspapers that she met Christopher South of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. He invited her on to his Sunday programme. It was to be a one-off session but became 21 years of regular broadcasting. She was considered to be the oldest regular broadcaster in the country. On January 3 she was on the air, reminiscing about her own school-days as she loved to do. At 99 long and short term memory were perfect
It has been my privilege to belong to the most elite of book-clubs. Due to her failing eyesight Mrs Cranwell became unable to read. On Tuesdays we would cover a huge range of literature, interspersed with village stories, spicy comments, debate and laughter. And a touch of the super-natural. Thank-you.
May “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” (Hamlet Act V Sc 11)
You can hear one of Irene’s stories here: