My mum’s centenary

Today my mother Margaret Ashbrook (née Balfour) is 100 years old.  

Mumaschild cropped

On the day of her birth the United States took possession of the Danish West Indies, which became the US Virgin Islands, after paying $25 million to Denmark.  In that year of the first Russian Revolution, Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in St Petersburg and the October Revolution. King George V announced that male descendants of the British royal family would in future bear the surname Windsor.  Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals was founded—and the First World War was raging.

Finland Station

Statue of Lenin at the Finland Station, St Petersburg.

John F Kennedy, Eric Hobsbawm, Andrew Wyeth, John Cornforth, Jessica Mitford, Indira Ghandi, Googie Withers and Vera Lynn (who is still alive) were born in 1917.  So Mum was in good company.

Mum’s father was Alexander Balfour, whose father was Sir Robert Balfour (Liberal MP for Partick, Glasgow, 1906-22).  Mum was very fond of her grandfather whom she said was extremely kind to her and her mother.  (She mentioned that he had rather poor taste and gave her a bearskin rug which she didn’t like too much.)  Alexander’s mother was Josephine Beasley.

Portrait of Robert Balfour by Herkomer

Robert Balfour, attributed to Hubert Herkomer

Alexander died in 1921.  Mum’s mother, Ruth Macfarland, was from Lincoln, Nebraska.  Ruth’s parents were John Davidson McFarland from Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and Nannie Cobb.

Mum had an older sister, Nancy Balfour (1911-1997).  They were brought up in London and Mum was a deb and was presented at court in 1935.

1935, Jun, Presentation at court Mum and mum

Mum with her mother at court, 1935

Mum has always liked being out in the country, and in the 1930s she would visit her cousins, the Hutchisons, who owned an estate called Bolfracks in Perthshire.  Here she walked the hills and joined shooting parties.  William (Bill) Hutchison was a Scottish portrait and landscape painter.

1936, 12 Aug, Kingussie

12 August 1936, Kingussie, Mum on the left in the front row

1936, 12 Aug, Mum on the 'Mole-hill'

Mum on the ‘Molehill’ near Kingussie, 1936







Mum’s mother bought a beautiful house called Higham, in Northiam, East Sussex.  During the Second World War Mum became  a land-girl (1942-6) at Great Dixter, next door.  She milked cows, tended pigs and chickens, brought in the hay and drove the pony cart to collect the oats from the fields for threshing.  She looked after a pony called Patience, who did not live up to her name.

Margaret Ashbrook as a land-girl, 1943

Mum with the Dixter Jerseys, one of whom was called Colette, 1943

Great Dixter was owned by the Lloyd family (the late Christopher Lloyd was a well-known gardening-writer).  For the earlier part of the war Mum also manned the early-warning post at Dixter.  She wore the traditional land-girl’s sweater and breeches with overalls over her breeches, which she considered ‘unbecoming’.  She worked very long hours.

web Mum as land girl

Mum as a land-girl

In 2008 she received the government medal for her services to the Women’s Land Army.

web Mum with medal

Mum with her medal in 2008

Her photo albums show the busy social life at Higham before the war, with a succession of visitors, including her good friends Anne Larken (later Dunsterville) and Ros Roche (later Hodgson).  Anne and Ros became godmothers to my sister Sue and me respectively.


1939, summer, Rosamund Roche, Camber Sands

Rosamund Roche at Camber Sands, summer 1939.

1937, July, Anne Larken and Andy

Anne Larken and Andy on Camber Sands, 1937









Dogs were a big part of Higham life, and Mum’s dachshunds Andy and Amos feature in many photos.

1945 Dixter Andy and Amos

Mum with Andy and Amos at Dixter

1939 Mum with Andy or Amos

This photo is labelled in the book ‘mutual admiration’ 1939










In 1942 Mum met Jay Ashbrook; he was in the US Army and his friend Janey Bennett, from his home town of Madison, Wisconsin, was Mum’s cousin; she asked Mum to look out for Jay, and Mum with great difficulty got leave from Mrs Lloyd and travelled to London to meet him.

In 1948 they were married in London and lived there for a few years.

Dad and Mum

Dad and Mum on 2 September 1948

In 1952, they bought Wrango, a Queen Anne house in the centre of Denham, an unspoilt village in the Buckinghamshire green belt.


Wrango in May

Sue and I were brought up here with a succession of dogs, starting with Elmer (Boston bull terrier), and continuing through Horace (dachshund), Wilbur (Boston bull terrier), Abner (dachshund) and finally rescue dogs Winkle and then Mitzi who died only a couple of years ago.  It is sad that Mum is now dogless for the first time in her life.

Ours was a lovely childhood, Wrango’s large garden was a great place for children.  We had good summer-holidays too.

1959 Venice

Venice, 1959

Mum’s interests included gardening, art and needlepoint.  For many years, she worked as a volunteer at the National Trust’s textile-conservation workroom at Hughenden Manor, restoring fabrics for display in National Trust properties, which Dad called the ‘stitch-and-chatter session’.


Mum with Mitzi in the Wrango spinney, February 2013

Sue has lived in America since she went to the University of Wisconsin in 1968, but with her husband Fritz and boys Ben and Peter, she visited Wrango regularly—and Sue still does.

1981 Aug, Mum and Ben at Wrango

Mum with Ben at Wrango in August 1981

After Dad died in 2002, Mum stayed at Wrango.  It is far too big for her, but it has been her home for 65 years, and it is lovely that she is able to remain here thanks to wonderful carers, helpers and friends.

Today we shall celebrate her grand anniversary, with Sue, Ben and Peter crossing the Atlantic for the event, and Denham friends gathering at Wrango to wish her every happiness.

Happy birthday to my magnificent Mum!


Peter, Ben, Fritz, Sue, Mum and me on the seat on Denham village green which we set up in memory of Dad, 17 March 2007









About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
This entry was posted in Art, Bucks, Memories, National Trust, USA and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to My mum’s centenary

  1. Chugs and Bud Duffy says:

    What a wonderful article you must be so proud

  2. Catherine Smith Hotvedt says:

    Dear Kate and Sue….This is an amazing record of your Mother’s wonderful, long and ongoing life. When I woke up in the Washington, DC suburbs today, her birthday celebration was well underway! How fortunate she is to celebrate with you…her Family and Friends, today!!!


  3. ossjay says:

    Happy birthday to your Mum and what a great article and collection of photos.

  4. evedarcy says:

    Wonderful article Kate, for a truly wonderful Lady ! What an incredible life journey.
    Happy 100th Birthday, Margaret.
    Great pictures

  5. Julia Hunter Jones says:

    Hi Kate – I saw the announcement about your mother in the newspaper and would so like to be in touch with you – I have just read your story of her life on line – so interesting and I remember so well when I lived at lovely Wrango and we rode donkeys and laughed!!You have also had such an intersting life – my mobile is 07795 183791 – I would very much like to come to her thanksgiving service – I remember her and your father as if it was yesterday!! Love Julia Hunter Jones(St. C-F)

  6. Hello. I was very interested to find this article today, when I was searching for Sir Robert Balfour. I have a good family tree of the descendants of Robert Hutchison (b. 1806), a corn merchant in Kirkcaldy, Fife. But until today I knew nothing about the descendants of Robert’s siblings, who include Isabella (Margaret’s Great-grandmother).
    You mention William Oliphant Hutchison, who was my Great-grandfather. So as I understand your article, your mum was a ‘3rd cousin’ to my Granddad, Peter (who died in 2002). My Hutchison ancestry, as I know it is here; and I’m interested to share, and add to, what I know about the family/descendants of those listed there.

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