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U3A Writing: Mrs Tolly

Derek McQueen tells the moving story of a love which never died.

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Two weeks after being sent to the Flanders ‘fire trenches’, between Arras and Armentiere, Lance Corporal George Tolley, died of his wounds on June 11th 1915. He was nineteen. His commanding officer, Lieutenant Ronald Layton, aged twenty, recorded that Tolley and two others signallers were the first of the men in his platoon to be killed. Lieutenant Layton, ex public school and accepted for Oxford, would also be shot and killed in the trenches the following Christmas.

Lieutenant Layton, wrote in his diary,

‘On Wednesday, June 9th, a German shell exploded among a group of my signallers, killing two outright and severely wounding a third. Lance Corporal George Tulley, died of severe injuries to his chest early this morning, June 11th. He was buried, sewn inside his army blanket, this afternoon. Given the appalling mud and slime everywhere, our burial party of four managed to bring dignity to the service and I was intensely moved. The grave was marked by a simple wooden cross made by one of the men.’

It fell to Lt Layton to write a letter to Mrs Brenda Tolley, explaining the circumstance of her young husband’s death and his simple but dignified funeral. Layton had three such letters to write that dreadful week. Thousands of other men lay dead, buried in the appalling Flanders mud, never ever to be found.

George Tolley married Brenda Longstone, by special licence, before embarkation to France. When Brenda received Lt. Layton’s letter, she had been married less than three months.


I first met Mrs Tolley in 1953. She was the oldest waitress working for my mother, Nellie May, who had started catering for wedding receptions. The concept was a simple one. The happy couple would first book a suitable venue, usually a church hall, or upstairs pub room. Mum and her waitress friends would then arrive three hours before the service, prepare the food and liven up the usually dismal accommodation.

My railwayman dad, Walter, and me were, very reluctantly, part of the supply logistics team most Saturdays. This required that we load our ex War Department Morris 10 van - it had a wooden shooting-break body – with everything that was, or might be, needed at the chosen premises. The boxes of crockery and cutlery were very heavy, particularly if several flights of stairs were involved. For the rest, table cloths, vases, flowers, place names, top table drapes, multi-tier wedding cake, cake stand, cruets, napkins, trifle dishes, lettuces, cucumbers, tomatoes, salmon, hard boiled eggs, sliced best ham, mustard, bread rolls, butter, trifle, cream, milk, tea, wine, wine glasses, sugar and salad cream. This, plus all those items necessary to the preparation processes, bowls, tea towels, colanders, tin openers and so on were all heaved, shoved and teased into the back of the Morris.

There was scarcely room in the front for dad and me and Mum and the ladies found there way to the reception by bus or tram.
Their advantage was that the bus knew where it was going, whereas we often only had a vague idea.

To be honest, I dreaded ‘wedding Saturdays’. Working against the clock, unstable loads in the van, getting lost and being late, dreading having forgotten some key item like the trays of cakes and pastries I left off the list. I loathed it.

Nellie May on the other hand loved it - wallowed in it. Mrs Tolley, mum’s friend and right-hand waitress did too, despite her sixty years. They were all used to it. Catering was their bread and butter so to speak. Mum’s wedding jobs were just the icing on the cake, to put it another way. Their entire careers were spent as banquet waitresses on major - and some minor occasions. Mum had waited on the Queen and Winston Churchill at the Sheffield Cutler’s Feasts and was rightly proud of the fact.

Uniform black dresses, worn with white aprons, gloves and traditional black and white caps were worn by ‘the girls’ at Mum’s ‘dos’. Mrs Tolley, never Brenda by the way, seemed an old lady to me back then. My memory of her is in her black waitress dress fifty years ago.

After a particularly difficult and tiring ‘wedding’ day, Mum asked me to run Mrs Tolley home in the van. The couple in question had booked for fifty people, advising that the venue was an ‘upstairs room’ in ‘The Goat ‘, on Elm Street, North Sheffield.

Before dad and I had begun to unload the groaning Morris that morning, we were called upstairs by Mrs Tolley to look at the room. She seemed anxious, not her usual demeanour at all. The tables were all circular and pseudo art deco, cast iron. At a stretch, the girls could conjure up thirty places, by sitting guests in fours at individual tables. The guests would be arriving in two hours, including twenty for whom there would be no seats. Convivial, it was not. Suitability a sick joke.

“If we had trestle tops we could use the iron tables to rest them on,” Nellie suggested, with the calm and know-how of a peripatetic wedding reception caterer of many years standing.

“That way we could maybe have a top table, if no-one moves while we serve the meal. Count the stools Walt. Ask the landlord if they can rustle up fifty? Oh, and ask him if there’s anywhere near here we could get eight 6ft trestle tops.”

Dad hurried downstairs to the taproom and left me to do an audit on the cast iron table stools. There were 38. Twelve from downstairs and we were home and dry.

“He reckons we might get some from the Scout Hut at St Agnes Church. It’s five minutes in the Morris. Oh, and he’s got more stools down there in the bar.”

Dad was breathless and we hadn’t started unloading yet. I looked at my watch. One hour forty minutes to bride arrival.

With five minutes to go, Mum’s beautiful drapes were on the top table scout trestles, the two tier cake with a marzipan ‘happy couple’ on top was on Mums silver cake stand, the ham was on the plates and the girls were ‘on station’, gloves gleaming. Professionalism had prevailed.

I took Mrs Tolley home that day.

“Do you want to pop in for a minute Derek, before you go back for the stuff?” she said.

As we talked, I was looking at a photograph of a handsome young soldier in a guilt frame over the mantelpiece. I guessed he would be about eighteen or nineteen.

“Is that your grandson, Mrs Tolley?” I asked.

“ No, it’s my husband, George.” she said. “He was killed in Flanders in 1915. I never married again. I still love him you see.”


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