American couple Betty and Bob Jones loved the Gillingham and Shaftesbury area so much from their regular visits to England that when they retired in 1981 they moved here.
The couple from the Midwest moved to East Stour in 1981 and after Bob’s death Betty continued to live there until 1999 when she sold up and moved back to the States.
In between the couple had become closely involved in local life, including the Shaftesbury Jazz Club and in Betty’s case the Women’s Guild in Gillingham.
Here their son, Richard Jones, tells the story of his parents’ love affair with this corner of England.
If anyone remembers Betty and Bob and would like to contact Richard then please email us at [email protected] and we will forward your email.
The Joneses at Needles Cottage
East Stour, Dorset, England
by Rich Jones, Wilmette Illinois 2020
This is a kind of love story, not your typical tale of boys meets girl. It is the story of my mother and father, Betty and Bob Jones, who purchased Needles Cottage in East Stour in 1976. There they spent the happiest times of their lives, these two very ordinary Americans whose lives were shaped by both the Great Depression and WW II. As their second child, I was a witness, both near and far, and sometimes a bit player in this great adventure. I tell the tale mostly as a third person observer to put the focus on my parents and the adventure they shared.
Bob (b. 1916 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania) and Betty (née Teach) Jones (b. 1921 in St. Louis Missouri) met in December 1941 at a Christmas party for soldiers from Jefferson Barracks outside St. Louis. It was hosted at home by Betty’s German immigrant father, shortly after Pearl Harbor brought the United States in WW II. They were married the following September.
Before joining the service in 1940, Bob had worked as a commercial traveller in the southeastern part of the country selling pharmaceuticals. Raised in a leafy suburb of St. Louis, Betty graduated from high school in 1939 at the top of her class and had starred in the school’s annual musical. She entered university but left after less than two years when her father’s business wholesaling gymnastic equipment failed in 1942, no doubt because of the US entry into the war.
It was probably a shared love of music that led to the mutual attraction back in 1941. Betty’s grandfather in Germany had been heavily involved in the theatre in Mannheim, Germany, and her father brought with him a fondness for the music of his homeland. Bob’s mother and father loved Broadway, Tin Pan alley, and speakeasy nightclubs, and probably brought Bob along when he reached early teen years. Shared love of music was the basis for many of Bob’s friendships, but sometimes it became a source of tension when he grew too insistent on what he considered to be “good music” and intolerant of what was not his taste. Betty rarely questioned Bob’s taste, and enjoyed the adventure of musical discovery over the next 40 years as Bob built a collection of more than 1500 jazz recordings.
In 1949 he and Betty returned with their two young children to St. Louis where Betty’s father needed her help in running his new business—a small advertising agency. She worked for that firm and its successors until she retired and left for England in 1981. Like so many women of brains and talent in that generation, she was neither encouraged, and often prevented, from seeking official positions of responsibility commensurate with her capabilities. As a child and into adulthood, I heard my mother’s bosses praise her organizing sensibility and business aptitude to the heavens—’the backbone of the company; what would we do without her’. But that praise was not reflected in her paychecks, and she felt it was not her ‘place’ to ask for a salary that reflected her economic worth. Men are the head of the household so they should get paid more, was her attitude.
In 1950, they took a mortgage of $10,000 under the GI Bill to purchase a 3-bedroom, one-bath bungalow of about 1000 square feet, one of the millions of inexpensive single-family homes built to accommodate the new families of returning GIs. It was located in a mostly middle class suburb of St. Louis just five miles from where Betty was raised.
Both Betty and Bob worked diligently, but money was tight throughout the 1950s despite the booming American economy. In 1960, Bob entered the record industry where he represented a wholesale distributor. With the advent of LPs and stereos, it was a booming business. As a bonus, it gave him access to pre-release demonstration copies of new albums that allowed him to build his jazz collection. This non-cash benefit compensated for his disdain for the “schlock I have to peddle,” which is how he labelled everything from bubblegum pop to Country and Western, and those weird groups mop-haired boys from across the pond during that turbulent decade.
It is a mystery where Bob’s love of England developed. He had never visited there, and other than his Welsh grandfather, a coal miner who migrated to the coal fields of Pennsylvania, he had no personal connection to the British Isles. That did not stop him from developing an idealized vision of middle class English society. He took great pride in speaking properly, showing off his extensive vocabulary in clever word-play rhymes written for birthdays and other occasions. He was a dapper dresser with very specific ideas of fashion, and was particularly fond of Windsor knots, browns and greens which he thought appropriate for a country gentleman. Once or twice he may have mentioned the hope of one day visiting what he liked to call ‘this sceptred isle’, but it seemed more aspiration that intent. As it so happened, in the summer of 1967 I spent a week in England on my way to the Middle East for a year of university study. It may have been my weekly letters home, including the excitement I felt as an eager 19-year old exploring London that sparked Bob and Betty to plan their own trip. By then, the cost of transatlantic travel had brought such a trip within reach.
What a thrill it must have been when they landed at Heathrow on May 12, 1968. Unlike many long-held dreams that that seldom live up to expectations, what they found far exceeded even their most exaggerated hopes After a week in London admiring the great historical sites, shopping on Regent’s Street, and marvelling at the treasures in the British Museum, they drove their rental car to the west country, ending up four nights later in Pendoggett, Cornwall. Every day they filled out their travel diary, describing the details of the quaint towns they passed through, the character of the pubs where they lunched, the charming inns they found and the copious meals they enjoyed. Betty’s entry on May 23 reflects their exuberance:
After we lost our way, a local resident directed us on an even narrower road back to the road leading across Dartmoor. The views we saw of barren land covered with flowering gorse next to green pastureland patterned with hedgerows or rock walls, of rounded hills and wooded valleys, have to be seen to be believed. Sheep and ponies roamed free.
Not even the fog and rain that May disappointed them. With his salesman’s natural affability, Bob could strike up a conversation with almost anyone. He especially liked to linger in the inn’s bar after dinner, enjoying chats with folks from across the British Isles and beyond, eagerly asking for advice about routes to their next destination. Betty had a way of putting anyone at ease, listening with genuine interest, moving the conversation with inquisitive but not prying questions.
The diary records several such encounters, but one stands out both for its content, and its significance it was to have for their growing passion for England. Bob wrote on May 24th,
We had coffee and liqueur in the lounge with a most delightful couple—Isabel and Derek Wheatley, who proved to be warm, friendly, and very interested in our route from Pendoggett. They routed us so that we would see the finest scenery while driving east. Conversation ended at 11:00 pm….The day had been a bust visibility-wise, but we felt more than amply compensated with such a fine dinner and meeting such a fine English couple.
The affinity they all felt deepened through the frequent correspondence on later trips to England. The Wheatleys lived in Sherborne where they ran a saddlery and leather goods shop called Mabers on Cheap Street. Betty and Bob saw them again in 1972 and in 1974 when Betty wrote, “Arrived at Ship’s Inn [in Mere, Wiltshire] just before 5:00 pm to find a lovely bouquet of flowers from the Wheatley’s garden in our room which they had personally delivered the previous evening.” Conversation begun over a long dinner that that night continued the next day. Bob wrote,
An unforgettable day at Stourhead Park. The first time Isabel and Derek had ever seen this Garden of Eden, what must be one of the most beautiful spots in all the British Isles. (We) stretched the afternoon over tea for the ladies and ales for the gentleman.
The conversation vindicated the belief that Betty and I had found the finest friends we have ever known. Our compatibility and common views are remarkedly agreeable. We have such similar lines of thought and beliefs. As the fine afternoon introduced an equally beautiful early evening our as-yet unspoken misty-eyed goodbyes were a preface to Isabel’s teary ‘Well, here comes the sad part’.
By the time of their third trip to England, they began thinking about leaving America to take up residence in England. Back in the States, the pressures of raising a family and dealing with the daily humdrum of earning a living left them with little time or energy to socialize, other than occasional dinners with old friends or a business colleague. During their two- and three- week visits to England they developed a sense of spiritual kinship with everyone they encountered. They found a sense of belonging that they had not felt during their six decades living in the US. They plotted how to make England their home.
On their fourth visit to England in May 1976, they found a cottage in Dorset. They were driving south of Gillingham and spotted a simple ‘for sale’ in front of a small cottage, nestled in thick bushes behind a low stone wall. Needles Cottage. Intrigued, they found the agent, toured the property, and decided that this would be their future home. Needles was located in an area they had grown fond of. Its lovely but overgrown garden Betty could exercise her green thumb planning, planting and tending a floral and vegetable garden. Across the road a landscape of hedgerow-girded fields provided comforting eye candy. When Betty sold Needles more than two decades later, we learned that Needles had been built in the first decade of the 19th century as sleeping quarters for the field hands on a local estate.
Preparing Needles as their permanent home was not without challenges. As absentee owners still living abroad, at one time they had to have squatters removed, and arranged for renters to occupy Needles until they were ready to pull up roots from the States. The cottage required considerable upgrading—improved electricity, updated plumbing, roof repairs, new windows, and replacing the linoleum flooring. The two small bedrooms on the upper floor had to be combined into a master suite with built-in cupboards. The unexpected discovery of the original beams hidden by acoustical tiles and a fireplace behind DYI panels restored elements of early 19th century character. Bob had the vision of what Needles could become, but it was Betty’s years of office management that ensured these upgrades were done properly. Betty could not have managed these projects from afar without the guidance of the Wheatleys, several other friends they had collected in their travels and of course a solicitor they could trust. The purchase price was £15,000 with an additional £5,000 of upgrades.
Betty and Bob began the happiest period of their lives when Bob reached age 65 in May, 1981. They sold their house in suburban St. Louis, and shipped most of their household goods to Dorset, including their pride and joy, Bob’s collection of more than 1500 jazz LPs. With Bob’s hail-fellow-well met conviviality and Betty’s down-to-earth genuineness, they seemed to have little trouble making friends and becoming part of a community. Betty sought advice from neighbours about what plants did well in the local climate; Bob picked up local lore from visits to local public houses. He became friends with Ralph Warr, the octogenarian neighbour just beyond the back fence in what might have been another field-hand dormitory. On one of my early visits to Needles Bob took me up to meet him. Over a nip or two of Scotch whiskey, Ralph talked about his rural life dating from the early part of the century, ‘before motors took over’. He said he had rarely, if ever, travelled far beyond Dorset’s borders, and his accent proved it. His speech was almost incomprehensible to me, but Bob had picked up enough of the dialect to interpret. Betty and Bob celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in September, 1982, just a year after moving in to Needles. My wife, Marie, and I joined more than 30 friends to celebrate the occasion the King’s Arms on the road to Shaftesbury.
The Shaftesbury Jazz Club drew most of the jazz aficionados living within a thirty mile radius. It became the center of Betty and Bob’s social life. Anyone who loved jazz immediately became Bob’s friend. At the monthly meetings in a local hotel, Betty and Bob took their turn putting together music programs. Bob loved sharing the treasures in his collection, and the two would build a program based on a theme. One program might feature songs about spring, another would focus on a single composer/lyricist, or reflect the history of the Duke Ellington or Count Basie bands. Occasionally they entertained their closest friends at Needles, squeezing as many as twenty into the dining room-cum-music room, replete with a small bar and of course, a dart board. Bob became the disc jockey he had always aspired to be. Betty loved helping put together the programs and playing hostess for this genial group.
Bob was a life-long smoker who called his favourite vice ‘cancer sticks’. As a kid, I remember one of his jokes went. ‘The good news,’ the dentist told his patient, ‘is that your teeth are fine. The bad news is your gums need to come out.’ In essence, that is what the oncologist in Poole told Bob early in 1983. Fortunately, he was covered by the National Health Service. By then they had received official permission to live in the UK, thanks to the intersession of an MP whom one of their jazz friends had contacted. The malignancy was successfully removed, and for weeks Betty drove him an hour each way for his radiation treatments at Poole Hospital.
On the brighter side that year, part of their family moved closer when I was transferred to London. The following spring, our first child was born. We named him Arthur, a name appropriate for his birthplace and a fitting complement to the Jones family name. Betty quickly became a doting grandmother, now with an additional family member for whom she could knit Christmas and birthday presents. She rarely missed a chance to give us a few days of child care so Marie and I could continue to explore Britain and the Continent. We enjoyed escaping to the tranquillity of East Stour with Arthur. Throughout those early years, other visitors to Needles from ‘the old country’ included Betty’s older brother and his wife, her widowed sister, Dorothy, and my sister and her husband. They wanted to see for themselves what Betty and Bob wrote about so enthusiastically—the quiet beauty of the Dorset and Wiltshire countryside, the warm conviviality of their friends, their cozy comfort in Needles Cottage
After we moved back to Chicago in 1987, Betty kept us up to date on the goings on in Shaftesbury, Gillingham and East Stour. She became increasingly involved in local organizations, especially the Women’s Institute of Gillingham. Having spent more than 30 years managing small offices, she was asked to become treasurer. The jazz club continued to animate their social life together. One letter late that summer described an elaborate fete at their beloved Stourhead Park. The guests dressed in period costumes, some arrived in period antique autos. Champagne must have flowed, the guests over-eating and -imbibing in celebration. After crossing the oft-photographed stone bridge, Bob slipped on the damp grass heading up the rise towards the exit path. A few days later he was diagnosed with cracked ribs. Though Bob’s cancer had been in remission for almost five years, the injury allowed cancer to spread in the following months. Marie and I were able to visit in late March 1988 with Arthur and his younger sister, Alena. By then Bob spent all of his days in the comfy chair before that fireplace at Needles in a morphine-induced zone, but managed a smile for us. Three weeks later, Betty phoned to let us know that Bob had expired peacefully overnight, listening to his beloved Stan Kenton jazz band.
When Bob first took us to Stourhead Park in 1982, he stood us on the hill overlooking the stone bridge gazing at the Pantheon on the far side of the lake. He sighed, “This is as close to heaven as I will ever get.” On our first visit two years after Bob’s passing, Betty took us again to Stourhead Park and recalled Bob’s sentiment, then led us to a small grove where she had spread his ashes.
Betty did not spend her widowhood as a recluse. She became increasingly active in the Shaftesbury-Gillingham community. She remained loyal to her friends in the Shaftesbury Jazz Club, and served as president of the Women’s Institute for a number of years. Since it was not common for women of her generation in England to drive, she took great satisfaction in taking her friends on errands. She continued to receive visitors from the States, proudly sharing the beauty of the tranquil green countryside while driving them to some her favourite spots: Stourhead Park, Gold Hill, Wardour Castle, Stonehenge the Salisbury Plain and Corfe Castle. More than one visitor remarked on how deftly Betty navigated the narrow and endlessly curving roads—and at such great speed. We visited every third summer, our kids opting to visit their grandmother and real castles rather than the artificial ones at Disneyworld. Betty visited us in Chicago almost every Christmas for a few weeks when our children were in the peak of childhood, although she always left muttering that she could not understand how we endured such wretchedly cold winters.
By the mid 1990s, Betty began writing more about what she was not doing, than what she was doing. Isabel Wheatley, and other friends were dying, entering to managed care facilities, or moving away to be nearer their own grandchildren. She became aware that her memory was flagging. We asked her to begin thinking about what her options would be when she felt she was no longer comfortable living alone at Needles. Sister Dorothy solved the problem by asking her to share a flat with her, in Washington DC as she was planning to move there to be closer to her children. As young women, they had had a wonderful time living together the during the war. Recreating that time together proved to be the magnet that drew Betty back across the pond. They spent a delightful 15 months together, until Dorothy died in early 2000. Betty chose to move to the warmth of southern California where my sister found a nearby managed care facility overlooking the Pacific. Before leaving England, Betty had sold Needles in 1998 for £98,000. Bought in 1976 for the joy of living in England, Needles generated generous proceeds from the sale that allowed her to live her remaining ten years in comfort.
Though surrounded by photos of her beloved garden at Needles, the stone bridge at Stourhead Park and other mementos, towards the end Betty could no longer remember anything about the most fulfilling two decades of her life. But she never lost her love of music. At the mere mention of a Gershwin or Cole Porter ballad, the melody and lyrics would emerge. In music, her mind found a voice. I spread Betty’s ashes around a bush of her favourite flower, the rose, in a formal English garden at a park outside Chicago. Nearby a brick in the pathway lined with rose bushes reads simply,
What about the record collection? After Bob died, Betty received inquiries about purchasing all or parts of it. She entertained none of the requests. It was not for sale. It was a fundamental part of not just her married life, but of her life. She remained active in the Shaftesbury Jazz Club and continued to get pleasure from sharing it with her many friends there. But in her last year in England, she hoped to find a good home for it. Word of its existence had spread far. A music professor at Newcastle University phoned her about acquiring the entire collection for the university music library and asked if he could perhaps negotiate a price? Betty let him know that the collection was not for sale. “But could you come pick them up? It would make me feel so good to know they had a happy home where they could be cared for and appreciated.” He came the following weekend towing a trailer. That gift was Betty’s way of returning to the people of England the kindness and generosity that had given her and Bob so many wonderful years.