Betty Simpson



Betty was a wonderful lady who led a wonderful life.In Emily’s words, ‘She had lived lots of lives.’ She was certainly a lady of many talents.

Betty was born in Birmingham in 1935 to Arthur and Mable Priddis. Arthur had been an army cook on the Western Front during the First World War and then worked as a jeweller in Birmingham’s famous jewellery quarter. Before her marriage, Grandma had worked alongside her sisters in the wardrobe department of the Birmingham Hippodrome. She was resourceful and elegant. Arthur was larger than life, ‘A bit of a card’ as cousin John had once said. Betty adored her father and was devoted to Grandma throughout her long life. Betty arrived  eight and a half years after her clever and beautiful sister Nellie.

Shortly before Betty’s fourth birthday, the Second World War began. She had a Mickey Mouse gas mask .The family spent night after night  in the |Anderson shelter. At the start of one air raid there was no time to get to the shelter. Grandma pushed her two little daughters under the kitchen table. They survived, some of Betty’s school friends did not. She recalled arriving at school at the start of the day and classmates would be missing, their homes having been bombed the night before.

Nevertheless, the house was full of laughter. Mable and Arthur threw a good party, especially on New Year’s Eve which was Arthur’s birthday. All of the cousins would come round. Betty loved all of her cousins dearly. She was the youngest, and as she reminded us just a week before she died, the last of her generation. Today we are here to give thanks for Betty’s life. We think that Betty would wish us to give thanks for the lives of all of her cousins too .

Arthur’s health declined after the war and he was advised to get some country air. One of his cousins gave him a job managing their boat house on the river Avon by the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. As a teenager Betty spent many hours messing about on the river. She was a consummate rower and punter, but could not swim. She remembered falling into the river more than once, seeing two boats closing together above her head. Thankfully, one of the lads working at the  boat house would dive in and haul her out of the water.

When Betty came to leave High Clopton School for Girls, she wanted to train as a graphic designer. Her father, like so many of his generation, resolved that she was to go to secretarial college instead. How different Betty’s life might have been, if she had got her way and pursued an artistic career. When Betty got her first job as a secretary at a local builder’s merchant, she met her kindred spirit and lifelong friend Geraldine Bartlett.

Betty and Gerladine threw themselves into the rich cultural life of 1950’s Stratford. They saw the great Shakespearean actors of the day – Lawrence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft and a young Richard Burton to name but three. They also acted in amateur productions themselves, as did Betty’s sister Nellie.

It was an intense time. Betty recounted how a friend cycled in the dark one evening to Betty’s home to show her the script of a brilliant brand new play. Grandma was not impressed by the late evening interruption  – it was only Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. No wonder as Uncle Frank once remarked  ‘Betty’s really quite cultured isn’t she.’

Tragically just before Betty’s twenty-first birthday, her much loved father died of a heart attack. Betty was devastated. She recalled that it was the eldest of her many cousins, the indomitable Peggy, who particularly helped her through this dark time.

Arthur’s death also meant that Betty and Grandma lost their home, a lovely tied house. They could  not afford to stay in Stratford. They were  very sad to leave, not least because they left behind Betty’s sister Nellie, her husband Paul, and Betty’s adored young nephew  Christopher. And so, Betty’s long association with Coventry began. Betty commented that Coventry was kind to them, and indeed that is something which Betty felt for the rest of her life. They lived at Lammas Road in Coundon, and initially Betty worked as a secretary to one of the deputy chief engineers at Massey Ferguson, a complete culture shock for Betty. Through her friend Sheila Westscott, she soon got  a secretarial job at Bishop’s House on Davenport Road.

These were of course boom years for the city of Coventry, symbolised by the construction of Basil Spence’s new cathedral. Betty had the wonderful privilege of attending the consecration, and of being at the heart of this exciting chapter in the history of the city and the diocese of Coventry.

Grandma worked in the Cathedral bookshop and Betty was a volunteer guide. With her indomitable memory, I am sure she would have been able to give you a detailed and interesting tour even this year. Her amateur acting continued, including as one of the cathedral players who would perform on the steps of the cathedral on a Thursday lunchtime. Productions included  TS Elliott’s Murder in the Cathedral about the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket.

A story, which perhaps few of you will know, is that a teenage Betty had clashed with her father over the building of the cathedral. He considered it a shocking waste of money in times of post war rationing. Young Betty did not !

In 1964 Betty became the personal secretary to the Bishop of Coventry. She would serve three bishops with efficiency, diligence and devotion. Since Betty died we have found numerous letters from all three of them, expressing their immense  gratitude to Betty for her work. Among the many tasks she did, too numerous to mention but important to Betty, were her responsibility for  the chapel at Bishop’s House, the organisation of  services of Ordination and being the gatekeeper to the Bishop. In this latter role we understand that she gave wise counsel to numerous anxious members of the clergy. Betty was devoted to each of her idiosyncratic bishops beginning with the charismatic Cuthbert Bardsley, the evangelist and artist. Many of you may not know that he was an ardent Sky Blues Supporter and in fact president of the club. Not long after their wedding Betty arranged for my father and I to attend a game at Highfield Road with the Bishop. We were chauffeur-driven to the stadium in the Bishop’s car and sat in the Director’s box as the Bishop’s guests. Coventry beat Arsenal that afternoon. It was a wonderful experience for an eleven year old Sky Blue fan. Betty had definitely won me over (!)

The next Bishop was the gentle, former methodist John Gibbs. Our particular memories of his ministry,as conveyed to us by Betty, were his commitment to ecumenicalism and his connections with the Lutheran Church. During his ministry Betty was at the heart of a momentous step in the history of the diocese and local healthcare, the founding of Myton Hamlet Hospice.

It was then back to the old Etonians with Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward, who shared the commitment of his predecessors to peace and reconciliation. We remember again through Betty, his association with the anti-apartheid movement and his friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu. All of us here  know Betty as simply  ‘Betty.’ It seems that the Archbishop did too. Betty recalled that on his first visit to stay at Bishop House, she opened the front door - ‘Ah Betty!’ he exclaimed, and threw his arms around her !

We should not forget that Bishop’s House was also a family home occupied by the towering intellects in turn of Ellen Bardsley, Marion Gibbs and Dr Jean Taylor. We observed affection and respect between them and Betty, who led us to believe that she got on well with all three of these Bishop’s wives, no doubt a delicate relationship to navigate on both sides.

When Betty started work at Bishop’s House she was  just twenty-four years old. In her spare time she continued to act but now at the Talisman Theatre in Kenilworth. Betty was a leading light and played the female lead in Pinter’s The Lovers, and her tour de force was the title role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. How I would love to have seen that performance. Betty was also the secretary to the theatre committee, of course. You will be able to  see her meticulous and beautiful handwritten minutes later today. Betty travelled to and from Kenilworth on her moped .

As people’s holiday aspirations grew in the swinging sixties, so did Betty’s - but not for her the package holiday. She had the time of her life visiting the ancient historical sites in Italy and Greece with her best pal Geraldine. Famously, she drove to Oberammergau to see the passion plays in 1960 with her friend Pam. During that holiday, she drove across the Alps.

Meanwhile, the Simpsons were holidaying closer to home in wet Wales. In 1970 after one such holiday, the dashing new vicar of St Nicholas Radford, was in need of advice. Lovely Aunty Joy, a parishioner of St Lawrence Foleshill, who had looked after the vicarage and the vicar’s three children  since the tragic death of his first wife, needed to return to her own family. For some reason, best known to Peter, he drove to Bishop’s House  for advice. Betty Priddis opened the door. 

Peter did not find a housekeeper, but his soul mate. Betty was swept off her feet. They had their first date on Armistice Day, became engaged in March and were married by Bishop Bardsley on August Bank Holiday Monday. A whirlwind romance.

Betty inherited three rumbustious primary school aged children. She often recounted our first meeting. Peter had suggested that she park in front of the vicarage garage – she duly did, looked in rear view mirror and saw the  three of us standing in a line.

I said  ‘I’m Elisabeth , she’s Rosie and that’s Julie.’ Peter was nowhere in sight. Later that day we roared with laughter as we followed behind them and Betty held our Dad’s hand. Over tea, whilst stuffing her face with chocolate cake Rosie bluntly asked  ‘Are you going to marry my daddy?

Betty politely replied ‘I haven’t been asked.’

And so the fun and laughter began. Betty’s holidays changed forever. She suddenly had to pack for two week’s self-catering for a family of five. One of our first holidays was in a small welsh cottage advertised in the church times in exchange for Dad undertaking Sunday services. On windswept beaches Betty read historical novels, whilst Dad battled with kite strings and tuned in to Test Match Special, which he had on full blast so that the whole beach could hear. We swam happily in the sea, on one occasion mischievously waving back at them from a far out sand bank in the knowledge that neither could swim !

Betty worked full time from when she left education until her sixtieth  birthday. A record of which she was very proud. On marrying Dad, she did not, like many clergy wives of that time,give up her own career to work in the parish.

She did, of course, support Dad’s ministry whole heartedly. Her Christian faith was an active one and she took on many roles in all of Dad’s parishes and had her own lay ministry. We also like to think that she brought qualities of efficiency, theatricality, and it has to be said, a touch of glamour to parish life.

We know that in marrying Dad, Betty sacrificed a real passion of hers, performing at the Talisman,  an amateur theatre company with a high reputation. I distinctly remember as a young child, the director Tony Burrows telephoning Betty one Saturday morning to implore her to take on a particular role. She was about to take me to  my ballet class.She declined, explaining that she no longer had the time. I distinctly remember how deflated she seemed after the call although of course, I did not understand why.

One of Betty's new tasks was to take Peter’s poor curates under her wing. I vividly remember, Betty calming down a horrified curate who had overslept and failed to turn up for Sunday evensong. He phoned Betty who faithfully promised to calm the waters with Peter before said curate arrived for matins the next day. Rest assured that said curate is not amongst us today.


Betty had been a member of the Soroptimists, a club at which women can make friends with like-minded women, have fun and work on projects to help improve the lives of women locally, nationally and internationally. What a  wonderful role model she was and indeed is for young women.

Many of you will have noticed that at Faith Cottage beside the picture of Peter, Betty has placed the graduation photos of her grand-daughters Lucy, Olivia and Bethany. She was determined to live long enough to see what paths they would take in life. Emily has yet to graduate, but her last conversation with B, as the girls all call her, was one of encouragement,just before Emily set off to study abroad.

At St Nicholas Radford, one of Betty’s first innovations was to start  the Women’s Prayer group. Prayer was always fundamental to Betty’s Christian faith. Betty devised and directed a moving Silver Jubilee concert of words and music, and was also a driving force in the planning of our Silver Jubilee street party. She directed and starred in the Church’s Old Time Music Hall. Dad was of course the master of ceremonies, and in true Leonard Sach’s style, introduced Betty as, ‘Buxom Battle-axe Betty.’ I can’t recall any raised voices in the car on the journey home later that evening!

Shortly after we had left, the new vicar the Revered Graham Hands answered a knock at the door. A very small ‘Herbert’of a boy, was standing there .

Where is she ?’ he demanded.

  ‘Who?’ asked the vicar .

Mrs Vicarage’ came the reply.

 ‘She’s moved’ said the vicar.

 ‘Oh’ said the little boy. ‘She was me mate you know.’

Just after Liz headed off to college, we moved to the parish of St Martin’s Finham. On arrival the head of the Mother’s Union confronted Betty and demanded to know -

 ‘Are you or are you not Mother’s Union?’

Betty definitely was not Mother’s Union, but she reassured her that she would be available for whoever in the parish needed her. The vicarage door, and at St Martin’s it was the back door, was always open. Parishioners would quite literally let themselves in and sit at the kitchen table. Betty, who would often be cooking or ironing, would  still provide them with advice and offers of practical support. I can remember coming back from choir practice late each Friday night and a young vulnerable parishioner would be sitting at the kitchen table. The young woman had missed a lot of school as a consequence of her health problems. Betty taught her to read.

Shortly after Lucy was born, Peter took early retirement following his heart attack. They moved to Wolston and to Faith Cottage, next door to  their wonderful neighbours Val and Michael Goldstraw. Family life continued but now as grandparents, complete with school runs, babysitting duties, wellie walks and numerous family celebrations. These included riotous family Christmas’s and the annual family pantomime. Betty was of course always cast as the villain and out-shone us all. None of us will ever forget her performance as the Wicked Witch of the West in ‘The Wizard of Cov.’

Betty had such artistic flair, which she brought to whatever she was doing. In 1995 Iain and I were married in York at what we liked to call our DIY wedding. Dad of course was the minister, Graham was the chauffeur and Betty our florist. It was an early wedding and, just two hours before the service, I presented her with a bucket of flowers which I had picked in a friend’s garden. Betty was momentarily aghast but then calmly, she set to and created a stunning bouquet. Our wedding came up in a conversation with a friend just two weeks ago. She could not remember the venue for our wedding. In fact, she said that the only thing that she could really remember was my unique and beautiful bouquet.

Later that year Betty retired. This was marked by a wonderful diocesan thanksgiving service in the cathedral. Betty was awarded an MBE for her services to the Church of England. 

Most of you will not have encountered a nervous Betty. I certainly did, when Betty came out of her hotel room on her way to Buckingham Palace still wearing her slippers.The producer Camron Mackintosh was receiving a knighthood at the same ceremony. How thrilled Betty was to be told by him that she was wearing the best hat in the palace that day!

In retirement, Betty learned to ride- a lifelong dream. She was always grateful to the late John Brake for being brave enough to put her on a horse at such an advanced age. Similarly to Jane Yates for all that she taught Betty, and for giving her the confidence such that Betty continued to ride until the grand age of seventy five. Betty’s weekly hacks with her dear friends brought her so much joy, as did her art class  in the village hall.

She and Dad found such contentment in Wolston. They were both so happy when Faith Cottage was full of people whether that be family or friends. Of course Betty’s thanksgiving service would be in St Margaret’s Church, this beautiful old building steeped in the traditions of the Church of England, an institution which was so close to Betty’s heart. Betty always did move with the times and she was all in favour of the new floor !

Coincidentally, eleven years ago to this day, many of us were gathered here to give thanks for Dad’s life. For Betty, life was never the same without her beloved Peter. The sum of all of us, did not make one Peter. Betty continued as a faithful member of the St Margaret’s congregation attending both the Sunday and Thursday morning services. With Brenda Stone, she established the Wolston and Brandon Poetry group, and she was a driving force behind the screening of the Last Night of the Proms at the village hall replete with fish and chips from the Wolston chippy. She again devised a memorable concert of words and music to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Great War. We like to think that her Dad, and our Dad would have really appreciated that evening.

Betty has set us some very high standards and the  three of us have inherited so much from her. Liz is quite definitely hostess with the mostess, Rosie has a deep devotion to her cat and I, a love of the written and spoken word. It is no exaggeration to say that these are part of the firm foundations of our respective homes.

Two significant events in Betty’s later life certainly brought her much joy. She was really happy to be able to attend the weddings of her eldest two granddaughters. She certainly made a great effort to dress up on both occasions. As always she was one stylish lady! She was very fond of both Tom and Ryan who have joined our family. She was also very excited to become a great grandmother for the first time when Lucy gave birth to little Freddie. How lovely that at her last time of seeing Freddie, she got to hear him say ‘B.’  

These are just some of our personal reflections on Betty’s life. Each of you will have your own and we hope that you will share those with each other later this afternoon at Brandon Hall.

It is clear that Betty was a dear friend, support and inspiration to countless people. As she became increasingly frail in recent years, her frustration was that she felt that she could no longer support people in need as she had once done. She was especially saddened that she could not provide practical support to the family when they needed her. We as a family are so thankful for all of Betty’s lovely friends in Wolston  who provided Betty with love, support and prayers when her health was failing. But – as Olivia said – ‘She was fun, wise and devoted.

At the conclusion of her written instructions for this service, Betty had written in her still beautiful handwriting ‘Thanks to my wonderful family and so many friends in Wolston, Brandon and elsewhere. I am greatly blessed.’

She certainly had a wonderful life.