Sir George pays tribute to Susan Hibbert
28 Feb 2009

This is the text of the address Sir George gave at the Funeral of Susan Hibbert at St Mary's The Virgin, Abbotts Ann.

The service was taken by Rev Nicola Judd, with readings by James Bloomer and James Heald.

Susan was buried in the churchyard, next to ehr late husband Basil, who dies in 2001.

"This afternoon we meet in the church where Susan worshipped, whose tower she could see from the garden she loved at Ash Cottage. We gather to mourn her death, to remember her life and to reflect on our good fortune that Susan shed her light on all of us, leaving us with so many happy memories to counterbalance our grief at her loss.

Our thoughts and prayers are with those closest to her. Susan was part of a large family. Here today are her brothers, Rufus and Anthony, and her sister, Elizabeth, together with many nieces, nephews, cousins and several of her and Basil’s numerous godchildren. The youngest of these, Eloise, was christened only last year. Her father, James Bloomer, spent his holidays with Susan and Basil at Ash Cottage during the time he was at Winchester and later at University; and Susan was thrilled when he and his wife Bella asked her to be godmother to Eloise.

Looking at the congregation, I am conscious that there are many here who knew Susan longer and better than I did. I am grateful to many of you for colouring in the bits of my canvass of Susan that were blank.

Susan was born on May 21st 1924 in London. Her father was Lionel Heald, who was to become MP for Chertsey from 1950 to 1970, and Attorney General in Churchill’s post war Government.

Susan was devoted to her father, who took her to cricket matches and the races, instilling in her a life-long interest in matters both political and equine. The Racing Post, lying next to the Daily Telegraph at Ash Cottage, was testimony to his influence.

Her parents divorced when Susan was four and in 1929, her father re-married, and Susan was brought up by her father and step-mother, who died in 2004, aged 99. Susan went to a number of schools, complaining that as soon as she had made friends at one, she was moved on somewhere else. She ended up at Godolphin School in Salisbury and recalled lying on the grass revising for her School Certificate, and watching the Battle of Britain being fought in the sky above.

During the war, she was sent for a job interview at the Foreign Office. She was interrogated in French by a Major who eventually inquired about her age. The answer was 17. "Oh, my dear," he said. "You are too young! Please go away and don't tell anyone about this." She had been interviewed by the spooks as a possible Resistance worker and was relieved to have been spared that challenge, formidable

though she would have been in the underground.

Of few girls born in 1924 could it be said they had a Good War. But Susan did. She was posted all over England, then went to France in Spring 1945. She worked at first for a brigadier who called her in one day to take some dictation. Susan was disappointed to hear the title of his paper "Plan for the Retreat to England" until he explained that every contingency had to be thought of.

Her next assignment was more promising. Staff Sergeant Susan Heald began typing the Act of Military Surrender on 6 May at Rheims and finished some 20 hours later in the early hours of 7 May. She witnessed the surrender of the German Forces - the only surviving Briton to have done so.

Having graciously accepted this submission, Susan then typed out the signal to the rest of the world to say that the war was at an end "The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 02.41, local time, May 7th, 1945." She then drank Veuve Clicquot out of a mess tin, and having been on duty for 20 hours non-stop, slept like a log afterwards recalling that she didn’t get up for two days.

Many of us remember how excited she was when she was invited back to Rheims 60 years later to a reception hosted by French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarins, and her modesty at the honour he bestowed on her.

After the war, Susan moved to Frankfurt to become a Censor. She worked in Public Relations Information Services Control which gave licences to newspapers and information services. She shared a desk with Captain Robert Maxwell whom she described as “horrible”. He was responsible for giving licences for publishing and, she told me, he worked on the principle that "you may publish your book, but only with my firm in England". Thus began Pergamon Press.

The Times and Telegraph both reproduced a contemporary picture of Susan, showing an extremely attractive young lady and it was in post-war Berlin that Basil fell for her. He was working for the Head of the Economic Division, having served in the RAF during the war.

Her parents wanted her to get married in England, but all their friends were in Berlin, so they married there in November 1947.

Before this could happen, Basil had to ask Susan’s father for her hand in marriage. He travelled to Chilworth Manor, having packed his best suit, and bought a bottle of brandy to facilitate the negotiations. Unfortunately, the bottle broke in the suitcase, so he accosted his prospective father-in-law empty-handed, smartly-turned out but with a noticeable bouquet of his own. What sort of a son-in-law, Sir Lionel must have asked himself, had Susan had found in post-war Berlin.

Thus began one of the happiest marriages I have ever come across, celebrated with a golden wedding party at Middle Wallop in 1997. I will always remember them as a couple, finding it difficult to think of one without the other. They matched each other perfectly, the occasionally conspiratorial, irreverent and mischievous Basil counterbalanced by Susan’s more straightforward approach to life.

After they got married, they lived in and around London, running for a period the Cobham Young Conservatives. This was one of the most successful branches of the country’s major youth movement of the time. Unlike other branches of the YC’s, this one was run by a married couple. This gave it an aura of respectability, denied to other branches with a more predictable boy-meets-girl agenda, so parents were happy to allow their offspring to affiliate.

Susan worked in the House of Commons, initially for her father and then for other MP’s. Nowadays, each Member of Parliament has three secretaries. In those days, each secretary had three Members of Parliament. They were paid £3 per week by each, so they needed a portfolio of MP’s to earn a living wage. This was before the Working Time Directive, Equal Pay, Health & Safety Legislation and certainly before the ban on smoking in the workplace. Susan and her colleagues worked in a room known as the Dragons Den in conditions outlawed for battery hens today. Susan had one drawer in a filing cabinet for each MP; no telephone on her desk, and she had to ask an attendant for a line if she wanted to call someone. Susan told me that one month, one of her employers told her he couldn’t pay her, because a bill for school fees had arrived.

Susan would have been a marvellous secretary. Competent and reliable, knowledgeable and discreet, with some cheerful words of encouragement whenever spirits were low.

There was a camaraderie in those days which has since disappeared, as MP’s and their staff have become atomised, working in their own super-hygienic smoke-free cells answering a wave of emails. Susan made some life-long friends in Parliament, some of them here today.

In addition to working for her father, Susan worked amongst others for Sir John Hobson, Michael Noble, and Lord Dalkeith later the Duke of Buccleuch. She also worked for my late colleague Hector Monro, who would speak warmly of Susan.

Various dates have been given for the arrival of the Hibberts in this village. I have taken the one given by the local solicitor as most likely to be accurate - 1976. Initially Ash Cottage was a week-end retreat, then it became a permanent home after Basil retired from Human Resources at the John Lewis Partnership. Over the next thirty years, the Hibberts became virtually synonymous with Abbotts Ann. They put down deep roots in the village, developed a huge network of friends and were generous entertainers.

Susan was the perfect fisherman’s wife – Basil’s favourite pastime. One of the attractions of Ash Cottage was its proximity to the excellent fishing of the John Lewis stretch of the River Test where Basil cast a mean fly. And part of their summers were often spent in Scotland staying near a river. Wherever the fishermen went, Susan always found them at lunchtime with the perfect picnic.

The Abbots Ann Barbecue at Ash Cottage has entered into village folklore. It was a fundraiser for the Conservative Party, though not all those who bought tickets may have been aware of this. It was always one of the best parties in the village, and raised a useful sum to help get first Rear Admiral Morgan Giles, then David Mitchell and then his successor elected.

I had my only difficult conversation with Susan at one of these. The sun had shone for this event in every year it had been held for my predecessor. In each of the two years since I had taken over, it had poured with rain, dissolving the very plates on which the barbecue was served . “Perhaps” Susan intimated to me “it was time to think of a new candidate.” And then I saw that twinkle in those blue eyes.

Their commitment to fund-raising went wider than the Conservative Party. Basil and Susan, and then Susan on her own, were custodians of the Whisky Stall at the Village Fete. They would sit behind a Jeroboam of Whisky, with books of raffle tickets that were never knowingly undersold, making the stall an important profit centre for an event that funded local charities.

After Basil’s death in 2001, Susan awarded the Hibbert Cup each year to someone who had served the village. Susan took great pleasure in helping to decide who should be awarded this cup in Basil’s memory. She was also instrumental in there being a commemorative seat for him outside the village shop.

Without Basil, Susan told me that 6 in the evening was the worst time for her. That was when she and Basil used to have a glass of sherry and catch up on the day’s events.

The village wrapped its arms round Susan in her later years. But she would say that, while there were lots of people to do something with, there was no longer anyone do nothing with.

Susan did not have much in common with President Putin, but both were keen Abba fans. Susan knew most of the lyrics and melodies. Last year, Susan had a great night out with the girls at Andover’s new cinema, seeing Mama Mia and singing along. She said she couldn’t remember when she last enjoyed herself so much and was keen to know when the event could be repeated.

But it was not to be. Susan had her fall at home and then went to Salisbury Hospital. To begin with, there was a flurry of telephone calls. Then they stopped. It was as if the fire that kept Susan going had gone out. She lost the will to go on and faded away.

What struck me, talking to those who knew Susan well, was the tidal wave of affection for her in the village. From the children whom she let feed the ducks in her garden, or paddle in the stream; from other children whom she spoke to about the war in local schools, wearing her medals on a jacket; from those who campaigned for the new shop, who got encouragement and advice from Susan; from those who shared her politics and enjoyed canvassing with her, using techniques picked up at her father’s knee; from those running the voluntary organisations in the village; from those who went to her for advice and companionship; but also from those who didn’t know her that well, but, for example, visited her garden on the Open Gardens Day

For me and for many others, there was always a welcome at Ash Cottage, a neat and tidy home, but warm and comfortable. She always took pride in her appearance with that immaculately coiffured hair, sculpted by the hairdresser in London she visited regularly.

When life was full of problems, there was an enviable calmness and serenity about Susan which was infectious. I never once saw her cross, and she had a gentility that almost dates from another era.

She was simply a lovely person, who enriched the lives of those she met. What a wonderful and happy world this would be, if it were full of Susans."


Copyright Sir George Young Bt. 2015