Vera Harrison

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VERA Harrison, an inspirational lady who carved out a career as a matron in harsh conditions in Britain’s post-war public schools, has died, aged 96.

The only daughter of the late George Scholes Hepworth and Emily Jane Buckley, sister to her late brothers, Frank and Jack, she was born in Wakefield in 1916, the middle child of three.

Vera Harrison was educated at Wakefield Girls High School and Grammar School. She was Wakefield Swimming Champion four years running in the 1920s and trained in hairdressing at Morley Arcade in Leeds in the 1930s before joining her father’s building business in the office as bookkeeper and secretary.

Hepworth Bros were well respected master builders in Wakefield, responsible for the maintenance and repair of some of Wakefield’s fine churches at Silkstone, Pennistone and Sandal and stately homes such as Walton Hall, Cheviot House (since demolished) and the grand houses on Heath Common. They also erected the war memorials at Walton, Ragby and Newmillerdam.

She married Percy Harrison and set up home in Wakefield before he joined the Forces in the Second World War. At her father’s behest in 1944, she shut up her house and moved back into the family home opposite Sandal Castle, in order to nurse her mother who was ill with cancer, while bringing up her two small children on her own. The following year her father too was diagnosed with terminal cancer and she stayed on to nurse them both until their deaths six months apart in 1946.

After the war in 1947, unhappy in her marriage, she escaped to Robin Hood’s Bay in a bid to build a new independent future for herself and her children, only to encounter the worst winter Britain had seen in years. Cut off and isolated, here she truly found herself and her calling in life, as she began working as a much loved and organised Matron at Fylinghall School, affectionately known to the pupils as “Aggie”.

Moving back to Wakefield in 1954, she took a job as matron to an orphanage at Sandal Hall for two years before she agreed to work full time for her brother Jack, who had taken over their father’s building business. She again worked in the office in accounts, taking a lot of responsibility for managing the business for Jack who was profoundly deaf.

The next 20 years led to a series of matron posts at some of the top public schools in the country, befriending wayward children and acting as a surrogate mother to generations of pupils away from their home. These included Queen Margaret’s, York; St. Andrew’s, Malton and Silcoates School, Wakefield.

She retired in 1979 and went to live in Whitby to help her daughter, Margaret, in the running of her antiques business, The Mount Antiques in Khyber Pass, until her premature death from cancer in 1994.

She then moved back to Wakefield to be near her son, Michael, and with her prodigious recollection of family history, began writing her memoirs. She survived her own serious operation for cancer in 2006.

Her son, Michael, cared for her devotedly right up until her death, enabling her to enjoy her independence. She lived at home until she was admitted into Pinderfields Hospital, a week before she died. She is survived by her son, Michael, and two grandsons David and Michael Bottomley.

The funeral is to be held at Wakefield Crematorium on Monday at noon.