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• Betty Mansell: Fond memories from a long-standing Friend

• Betty Mansell: Fond memories from a long-standing Friend

June Hudson (left) with her old friend Betty Mansell

June Hudson, the renowned television costume designer, was a close friend of the late Betty Mansell – who, with her husband Tony, owned and ran the Peg Woffington café in High Street, Teddington.

For many years, Betty was a strong supporter of the Teddington Society – as indeed Tony still is. Even after their retirement, the couple opened the café specially for our occasional (and always well-attended) coffee mornings, and they made their quirky rear garden available for our annual Teddington in Flower event, too.

Betty died in December at the splendid age of 94, and at her funeral June Hudson paid a warm tribute to her friend, with the following words:

What a dear friend Betty was to all of us – always so kind and welcoming, and Peg Woffington’s Tea Rooms was a little world of warmth and comfort.

It belonged to another era really; very theatrical with playbills, photos of old film stars, Anna Neagle smiling at us as we entered, and friends from the many amateur productions Betty and Tony put on over the years.

What happy memories, too – those wonderful annual parties, the tables and chairs cleared away, and on came the show. Tony with top hat and cane singing and dancing; Douglas Colpas, gravel-voiced, inimitable as the butler who once worked for the nobility, intoning to his nouveau-riche employer “It wouldn’t do for the Duke, Sir, it wouldn’t do for the Duke”, and “All for a glass of Champagne, a poor girl’s ruin!”

Betty came on, looking wonderful in a glorious hat as a tragic lady who has shot and killed her faithless lover, while a voice-over told the sad tale of doomed romance. She couldn’t be persuaded to speak in her roles, but she loved to take part.

Betty actually was very quiet, preferring to listen rather than speak. Her appearance was her voice, really. Her clothes were very ‘Betty’ – rather theatrical and colourful, with striking jewellery, very feminine make-up and hair immaculate. It was endearing that she made so much effort with her appearance for every occasion.

In a real sense, Peg’s was her stage and we were her audience – how we loved her sense of celebration! The big Christmas tree, wondrously decorated every year; the big launch of the Christmas lunches, each customer presented with a complimentary mince pie. How we laughed at the stories Betty and Tony told us of some of their eccentric customers: one very wealthy diner asking if she could have a price reduction on her Christmas lunch if she didn’t have a mince pie!

How kind Betty was, going to extraordinary lengths to help her friends. She helped us move our four cats and Polly the macaw to North Devon from Chiswick – no mean feat, as North Molton was a tiny hamlet up a steep narrow rutted unmade track which demolished the exhaust pipe. In fact, she did it more than once – how much it meant to us at that time, and her kindness is never forgotten.
I know that many of us have remembrances, too, of that generosity which was so great a part of her; the generosity of time, of spirit, of thoughtfulness and care.

Betty had a huge talent, too, for choosing cards and gifts, wrapping them wondrously with ribbons and decorations, creating a confection which seemed a shame to tear apart. Her choice of cards was legendary; where on earth did she find that wonderful birthday card, too lovely to throw away?

Betty was great, too, at creating delicious puddings, cakes and jellies, blancmange, sweet goodies of all kinds – we certainly enjoyed them piled onto meringues. Apple and plum crumble, seasonal fare and beloved nursery food; things on toast, my favourite.

Peg’s was a restaurant of course, but what an extraordinary place it was! Dispensing not just food, but a comforting warmth, friendship and a kind of reassurance. Nothing bad could happen in Peg’s. Sure of Betty’s welcoming smile and hospitality, we formed a little club, meeting for tea on Saturday afternoons. Betty called us ‘The Gang’, the numbers increasing, tables pushed together.

Betty seldom talked about herself, preferring to listen. In a sense, she was always the present moment. She had great empathy, laughing with us, sympathising with us, being very comforting without saying very much. The gift of friendship… how wonderful is that?

Betty Mansell 1924-2018

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