Sheila Bayfield

Sheila Bayfield

21 August 1924
London, United Kingdom
14 February 2024
London, United Kingdom
Words by
Rabbi Professor Tony Bayfield Son

For many, many months, Mum was calling out over and over again, “I don’t know where I am. Somebody help me. I’m frightened.” I asked her once whether she was frightened of dying. “No,” she was emphatic. “I’m afraid of not dying.” The long ending of her long life amplified a disturbing constant. Thank God her final anxiety of many has at long last been allayed.

It was 1982. Linda, Lucy, Daniel. Miriam and I were at Rabbi John and Jane Rayner’s house for Friday night dinner. John invited me to bless my children but after I’d expressed the hope that Lucy and Miriam would become like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, John said he never used that traditional formulation. He wouldn’t want his daughter to be like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel or Leah.

It’s really tough and demanding being a matriarch

It’s really tough and demanding being a matriarch. It requires you to be constantly good to life when life is constantly a challenge to you. In telling my mother’s story I won’t labour that point, but I hope you’ll see what I mean.

Sheila Queenie Mann (she wasn’t exactly ecstatic over her mother’s choice of middle name, Queenie) was born in Navarino Road in Hackney in 1924. She was the unflowered middle daughter of Pearl and Nathan Mann. Her elder sister, Myrtle Naomi is almost one hundred and two and her younger sister Daphne Hannah died seven years ago, aged ninety one. The longevity genes were inherited from her mother and not from her father who, like other members of his family, the Mann family from Przemysl (first stop in Poland on the Ukrainian refugee train line from Lviv), died tragically young from the effects of an unhealthy eastern European diet: much too much schmaltz in his onions and eggs.

Mum had two vivid memories of her father that she used to share with me. The first, as a little girl, being taken to watch him play cricket for the Anglo-Palestine Bank (later Bank Leumi) on Hackney Marshes, a stone’s throw from what is now Hackney Wick Station. She appreciated the irony that Hackney Wick Station has become a place of not-for-cricket pilgrimage for the faithful members of our family. She also often referred to a time twenty years later when she was in her thirties and her father came round from his home in Breamore Road, Seven Kings, to our house at 19 Talbot Gardens, Goodmayes, to read the newspaper and get some peace! She was a Daddy’s girl.

the unfavoured middle child

Sheila’s enduring take on her own childhood was that her mother had wanted her to be a boy, that she was the unfavoured middle child and that she was only really loved by her father. That memory was another constant presence. Sheila was certainly a bright girl, following her elder sister Myrtle to Stepney and Bow Foundation Coborn Girls’ School in Bow Road. But, when she was fifteen, War broke out and her education was disrupted at a crucial point. She always insisted Myrtle was cleverer than her but did acknowledge one miraculous coincidence, incomparably and solely hers.

By the time Myrtle and Sheila had won places at Coborn, the Mann family had moved to Becontree and Nat, our Anglo-Palestine Bank cricketer-grandfather had immediately taken on a founding role in Becontree District Synagogue. Ron Bayfield had been born in British Street, Bow, less than two hundred metres across the main road to Coborn School. And the Bayfield family had also moved to Becontree and become members of the same synagogue. Sheila and Ron played in the shul playground together on Sunday mornings and were, I think, in the same class. I still have a couple of Dad’s prize books, totally unsuitable for boys of pre-Bar Mitzvah age, including a translation of the Apocrypha, signed by Sheila’s father Nathan Mann as Synagogue Secretary and Chair of the Cheder.

vividly recalled the terrors of walking through London blazing after bombing raids

The outbreak of war meant evacuation to Taunton – a desperately disruptive and unhappy time for Sheila and, as soon as she’d matriculated, she returned home to Wood Lane, Becontree. She got a job at Plesseys, was then drafted into the Civil Service and vividly recalled the terrors of walking through London blazing after bombing raids to her work at the Air Ministry – where she was given a repetitive and unfulfilling administrative role.

She came within an inch of death when she was chased, strafed back down the road to her parents’ home by a low-flying German fighter plane.

But in the midst of the terror, that Ron Bayfield from cheder, who’d previously come calling, proposed to Sheila. She played hard to get, having, she said, other fish to fry (she always liked fried fish and was renowned for her Pesach fish cakes) but finally relented. Sheila Queenie Mann and Ronald David Bayfield married on 3 March 1944, both aged nineteen. It was, says her niece Dr Sally Hirsh, ‘the greatest love story’. It was also a wartime ceremony at Beehive Lane United Synagogue, not the glamorous Jewish wedding of her dreams and I stare repeatedly at the picture of them together which hangs near the top of my family tree of photos: can they really only have been nineteen?

a sad pattern of disappointment, loneliness and waiting

Mum’s description of their brief honeymoon in Bridlington is so characteristic of a sad pattern of disappointment, loneliness and waiting that it’s hard to bear: a no-star wartime hotel, a booking confusion, a room in the eaves by the cold-water tank and Dad returning to his unit nightly after their first and only night together, leaving her completely alone.

What was perhaps the most scarring episode of her life soon followed. Dad, a tank wireless operator, was shipped to France as part of the Normandy Landings and, for many weeks, Mum knew only that he was abroad fighting and endlessly feared ‘the telegram’. She’d returned from the wedding to her in-laws’ home and felt totally and completely alone. Dad did survive, though badly burned, when every heavily out-gunned tank in his squadron was destroyed by German Panzers and Mum was eventually able to visit him in the hospital where he was rehabilitating  ‘conveniently’, Perth Royal Infirmary, Scotland. There was always the glimmer of a smile when she was reminded of the attention paid to her by Polish (or was it Canadian?) officers on the train north.

People appreciated the heroism of the troops who fought, and Dad was certainly an unsung and unrecognised hero, but not of those who were left behind, waiting, waiting for news, like Mum.

After the War ended, Sheila carried on living with Ernie and Millie Bayfield because Ron wasn’t de-mobbed until 1947. But he was allowed home on leave and I was born in July 1946. Soon after being de-mobbed, Dad got together with his brother-in-law Joe Hirsh, Myrtle’s husband, who’d been a Japanese prisoner of war in Changi, and they refurbished a derelict house in Newington Green owned by a distant relative, with Myrtle and Joe on the top floor and Sheila and Ron below. It was there that Jeremy (pound for pound a considerable improvement on me) weighed-in in 1950.

Dad worked day, night and weekends teaching and doing a degree, building a career and an income. Mum spent a lot of time, she sometimes recalled, with just me and Jeremy for company. But Dad’s upwardly-mobile hard work enabled them to move to Ilford, just round the corner to Sheila’s parents and Sheila continued her customary supporting role.

South-West Essex Reform Synagogue

It was in 1956 that the South-West Essex Reform Synagogue was founded and our parents became founding members, finding a Jewish home that appealed in every respect; spiritually, ethically and socially. Dad of course was soon recruited into establishing and running the cheder; Mum equally of course became one of the workhorses of the Ladies Guild, providing the social and domestic background for the men. But she also found a large circle of wonderful, enduring friends. Amongst them: the Blakes, Brunsteins, Carrs, Daltons, Fronts, Goldsmiths, Harrises, Kings, Lawsons, Leafs, Lyons, Morrises, Rosenbergs, Sames and Sheffrins. Lucille Leaf has remained a friend loyal and caring beyond belief, visiting Sheila in Anita Dorfman House in Stanmore/Bushey Heath all the way from Ilford, travelling by public transport, including the once an hour (if you’re lucky) bus to and from Stanmore Station.

Dad rose rapidly through the ranks to become a much admired, pioneering Comprehensive School Head Teacher. Mum worked part-time in a bank as a comptometer operator, which she loathed. And, of course, accompanied Dad on school trips. On one occasion, a visit to Paris, I was also taken along and vividly remember the evening where I ate too much yoghurt, all the olives which nobody else wanted of course, a small-ish bottle of red wine and disgraced the family by being very sick, very publicly. It’s only after I became a parent myself that I realised what embarrassment children can cause their parents. But those were days when teachers, even senior teachers, were insultingly badly paid and there were few holidays for us as a family. I do, however, vividly remember a holiday on Skye with the Hirshes. And, once again, being a cocky brat.

Zenith Summer Holidays in Littlehampton

But, for many years, during the summer holidays, Dad and Mum assisted Lew and Rose Carr (whose fag ash regularly dropped into the cholent) running Zenith Summer Holidays in Littlehampton in order to give Jeremy and me a proper annual holiday. It was there I met Linda, continuing the pattern of making up one’s mind on future partners very early. Lucy happily continued the pattern.

Sheila achieved all of the goals that her mother Pearl aspired to for her daughters, though I think my grandmother would have preferred a run-of-the-mill Orthodox affiliation rather than mothering the matriarch (it should have been Sarah rather than Sheila) of a four-generation Reform dynasty.

I’ll come back to that in just a moment, but this is the point to acknowledge the many health challenges that clouded my mother’s view of life. She’d suffered from ill-health for as long as she could remember: scoliosis of the spine from childhood, high blood pressure from when she was pregnant with me,  something for which she never ceased to hold me responsible! She was regularly in pain from diverticular disease and had an enormous hiatus hernia. In hospital critically ill back in January 2023, her consultant, a stereophonic Irishman called Daniel McCrea, said she’d pushed back the boundaries of longevity and how she managed to breathe with the hernia pressing on her lungs passed beyond his belief. He also said that the hiatus hernia was probably congenital. Mum, characteristically, told him he was wrong. She was a walking, talking medical textbook, always having had whatever anyone else happened to have had, only worse.I remember her acute disappointment when I had to have a kidney stone, stuck between my kidney and bladder, painfully dispersed in a manner anatomically only applicable to men.

a walking, talking medical textbook

When Dad retired from teaching more than thirty years ago, Sheila and Ron shared the then universally-held assumption that they probably had, if they were lucky, another ten years to go and prepared both financially and psychologically for this reality. Living for a further four decades caught them, not to mention Jeremy and me, completely unawares and increasingly unable to cope psychologically. They set about withdrawing into a smaller and smaller world of mutual dependence, sitting together in front of the television and waiting for people to come to them. When the stairs became a problem at their house in Vista Drive, Redbridge, they threatened retirement to a bungalow in Chalkwell (the more genteel area of Southend). Jeremy and I felt that regular visiting and caring from our homes in Chertsey and north west London might be a bit challenging. And so, fourteen years ago, they moved to Birnbeck Court, Temple Fortune and, in 2019, under severe protest, to Jewish Care’s Anita Dorfman House.

I’ve agonised about whether to say this but my brother is my brother and I am his keeper – even if he’s a Manchester United supporter married to a Chelsea girl. Dad and equally Mum were very clear about their hopes and wishes for the future of their two sons. Especially Jewishly. And they clung to it in a way more characteristic of the previous generation than their own. When you, Jeremy, fell in love with and married Janet, they allowed their disappointment to override their love and respect and made life for the two of you very miserable. It wasn’t helped by a re-writing of the past in later life, far too late for Laura and Paul and deeply disturbing to listen to. It will always be to your credit Jeremy, and to Janet’s, that you rose above it and behaved in the years of their growing helplessness and dependence as the epitome of a loving, caring son and daughter-in-law. On that occasion when Mum was less than good to life, you, my brother, were exceptional. And I’m grateful beyond measure to you, Daniel and to Lisa, for refusing to allow family continuity and ties to be broken.

Sheila’s beloved Ron, our mother’s beloved husband, for whom she did absolutely everything in his final declining years, died in March 2020 after seventy six years of loyal, faithful and happy marriage. Covid stopped us physically supporting her, and her isolation prevented her mourning. Once again, at the most difficult point in her life, Sheila was completely alone.

Her dying was long, psychologically deeply distressing and far from a credit to a society that can do so much to extend life but won’t face down the fundamentalist pressure groups and legal pitfalls of allowing life to end when it’s the clearly expressed wish of someone who lived into her hundredth year and was outspoken in saying that she’d had enough.

It’s very important, however, to acknowledge those who cared for her so wonderfully – from Dr Leora Harverd and Sheba at the Temple Fortune Health Centre to Patience and Lorna at Anita Dorfman House. And, of course, Lucy: supplier of all clothing, Tummy Tea and infinite time and compassion; Daniel: holding her legal power of attorney and ensuring he didn’t have to put her into administration; and Miriam: her Rabbi, “the best ever,” said Mum, “my granddaughter.”

immense satisfaction from having established a dynasty

Until this last year, Sheila was able to get immense satisfaction from having established a dynasty; five grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren. How many people live to see their great-granddaughter reach the age of twenty three, graduate and continue the dynasty founded by her and Dad, with rabbis and now a student cantor in the second, third and fourth generations?

Freya, Joshua, Elise, Amelia, Rafa, Ben, Harry, Zach, Oli the family mensch and Chessy, you were the lights of her life, her pride and joy and what or rather who sustained her through all her troubles and losses.

Sheila Queenie Bayfield née Mann, born 21 August 1924, died on 14 February 2024, aged ninety nine. May your precious soul, Mum, be bound up with Dad’s in the bundle of life.