Picture the scene: It is 1926 on a road in Hampstead, London. A busy mother in a hurry quickly walks towards her daughter’s school, to collect the five year old at the end of the school-day. Turning a corner, she catches sight of her daughter from afar. Something is wrong – mother quickens her already fast pace. Her normally mild-mannered daughter is bent forward, red-faced, shouting angrily at a group of children, who surround another little girl. They in turn are shouting. Rapidly the mother reaches the scene. “Now what is the matter?” she demands. “Why on earth are you showing yourself up in this way? What is going on?” Her daughter angrily replies. “She’s not dirty. They are saying she is dirty. She is not dirty. They are being horrible to her. They are saying she is a dirty Jew”. Mother assesses the situation swiftly. “Oh well. Come along now. Come along. We must get home”. Hurridly they depart.
Picture the scene: It is mid-May 1948 somewhere in Whitehall, London. Two Civil Servants from The Colonial Office are standing by a window discussing the latest news from the Middle East. In the same room a junior clerk is busy preparing the room for an imminent meeting – laying out pencils and paper for note-taking for the attendees, shortly to arrive. She overhears the two men’s conversation, and one rubs his hands in glee. “The Arabs will drive the Jews into the sea!”, he announces to his colleague, his eyes shining with delight. The junior clerk surprises herself, and her more senior colleagues, as she blirts out in response; “Oh no they won’t, because God will never allow it”. The two men turn and stare at her in amazement, one with an open mouth. Having surprised herself with this un-prepared affirmation, and now rather embarrassed, the clerk rapidly finishes her work around the meeting table and beats a hasty retreat! It would be fascinating to know what the two Colonial Office civil servants made of that, and what they said next. History does not record, however.
God alone knows
The two vignettes are connected. The little girl was now the civil service clerk. She was my mother who, as a Christian, had a life-long love of the Jewish people, their history, travails and their difficulties. Where she gained this love, if I can say so with due reverence, God alone knows. Somewhere along the line during her life, she had obviously encountered biblical expository teaching of a vein that would today be called Classical Zionism – broadly that understanding that God’s covenantal purposes continue until they reach prophetic fulfillment.
This vein of teaching was for many years a staple of evangelical Anglican thought – and my mother was raised as a church- attending Anglican. It is my assumption that mother encountered and adhered to this clear understanding. In later years, in Pinner, our family lived diagonally opposite a German Jewish couple, Erwin and Greta Simmons. The Sammons’s lived opposite the Simmons’s! Mother became a great friend and confidant of Greta. As a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, mother yearned that Greta (and indeed Erwin) would come to faith in their Messiah. She tentatively asked Greta if she would care to accompany her to church. But Greta was insistent that she would never do so. Her reason was simple and un-answerable. “I saw what the Christian church did to the Jews in Germany”. Nothing would shift her from that view. Greta and Erwin between them lost 13 relatives to the Nazi gas chambers – forgiving and forgetting was never on the agenda for them. Rightly or wrongly, they saw the ‘church’ as heavily implicated in the Shoah – what Westerners are inclined to call the Holocaust – the Nazi’s final solution to their “Jewish problem”.
A life loving God
Violet Ruth Sammons (née Frost), was born in Hampstead, London in 1921, the fifth of six daughters, and later one brother. Her parents were Edward Samuel Frost from Devon and Mary Ann Willis from Essex. She was named Violet because, as a very young baby, her eyes were of a notable violet hue.
Violet was raised in a broadly Christian home, christened, went to Sunday School and was later confirmed in the Church of England. As a teenager she became an active Church member, teaching in Sunday School and singing in the Church choir. Choir and music remained a great love throughout her life. Violet lived and schooled in London and enjoyed outings to Hampstead Heath, and occasionally down the Thames by boat to Gravesend. She recalled the poverty in London and children going to school barefoot. Her family were poor and Violet remembered, one Christmas, receiving just a pretty belt, but it was cracked and she was told that Santa had had an accident with his sleigh!
Sadly when Violet was 4, her younger sister Ruby died aged 2, probably of Diphtheria. Mary Anne Frost said that as Ruby was taken, she suddenly sat upright in bed and extended her arms, as if she was about to hug someone. And then she flopped back in bed, as she breathed her last. The family found that truth very comforting, yet Violet’s dad, Edward, still blamed himself for not calling a doctor. He was unemployed at the time, and had already paid doctor’s bills for the older children. Partly in consequence of this Violet was glad enough when the NHS was born in 1948, and she firmly supported the concept of a ‘welfare state’. Quite what she might have made of today’s broadening concept of ‘welfare’ and modern medical interventions is another matter, given that she held lifelong and profound Christian convictions.
Violet was a bright girl and won a scholarship to a Grammar school, where she was given the nickname ‘Frosty’. She started to learn the violin and played in the school orchestra, once at the Royal Albert Hall. Disappointingy she later broke her wrist and so gave up her vague ambition to pursue a career as a violinist, but she continued in an amateur orchestra. She enjoyed Lacrosse and throughout her life was physically healthy.
Violet enjoyed reading, especially Dickens and Shakespeare, and she played Ophelia in a school production of Hamlet. Her favourite subject was history, and Violet entertained hopes to become a teacher like her older sister Joan, but war came and money was needed. Her sister Mary taught Violet to type and she easily got a typing job with the Civil Service, later working briefly in Downing Street (but not # 10!). She was noted for speed and accuracy. As a typist she was a valued asset and sometimes sought out to ‘edit’ and correct text. She typed briefly for military intelligence (MI6, we think) and a sad tasks was to type wartime lists of ship losses on the Atlantic convoys.
Violet experienced directly the London Blitz and had tales of the horrors and deprivations of that time, and of losing friends. She volunteered for air raid duties and, when her parents moved to Essex, lived with her sister Joyce and her young family in London, and later at High Wycombe. She had very happy memories of that time sharing a house with young nieces and nephews.
Drama on Striding Edge
Violet enjoyed some wartime holidays in the Lake District with her sister Joan and friends, and developed a lifelong love of the area, climbing most of the mountains including Great Gable and also Helvelyn. Bearing in mind this was wartime and she was a poorly paid clerk, Violet was not equipped with what today would be considered minimum ‘kit’ to go hiking. She had only a warm coat and stout shoes – but people were made of sterner stuff in those days! Climbing over Helvelyn with a friend, Lilian, they decided to scale Striding Edge. This was in the springtime and snow was still very much in evidence.
I have never ‘done’ Striding Edge and this photo is the closest I’ve been to it! But Violet’s story is that they progressed higher and higher and the edge pathway became narrower and narrower, and more and more slippery. Finally the pair of friends realized they were in genuine mortal danger. Lilian was all for turning back to retrace steps and was becoming hysterical, but Violet made the rational decision that either direction was now equally perilous, so they should persist in going forwards. Then the clouds began to descend and visibility all but disappeared.
At this point a Christian does what a Christian does! Violet prayed, quickly, earnestly, and silently (her friend was not a Christian). The wind whipped up and they were in peril of being blown off Striding Edge. Then down onto hands and knees at the point of steepest and sheerest terrain. Suddenly in the snow before them there were deep footprints, and the two young ladies put their hands and knees in these to get sufficient grip and keep edging forwards. These deep prints got them over the worst part of the pathway and took them in the right direction. When the terrain eased enough, the footprints stopped, just as mysteriously as they had started. Violet’s firm view was that those footprints were a direct response to prayer; indeed a miraculous answer. But her adventure had not yet ended!
The two friends decided that they needed to get off Striding Edge as soon as possible, not wanting a repeat performance. When they found a slope direct down the mountain, to a tarn below and apparently a much flatter pathway, they felt they could get down and so began a steep descent at that point. Remember again, this is wartime and they had carry bags (might have been gas mask cases!) with a few essentials including ID papers and ration cards. As they moved down the steep slope they found that it was in fact far too steep and began to slide and slip on a scree type surface. They simply slipped onto their bottoms and began a largely uncontrolled slide! Carry bags dropped and bounced down the scree ahead of them, bouncing and gathering speed. Would they bounce right down into the tarn and be lost?
Cue – another urgent, sliding, prayer! The carry cases bounced as far as they could go but stopped right on the water’s edge! Again mum took that as a direct answer to prayer. Losing those carry bags in wartime would have been more than inconvenient! Praise God!
Doing the right thing
After the war Violet moved on promotion from clerk to clerical officer, and to the Colonial office. She enjoyed a fascinating time here in a period when the British Empire was winding-up. In one protracted incident, Violet found her direct ‘boss’ refused to allow one of the small British island colonies compensation for certain war damage. He simply ignored the request and the accurate assessment of the compensation. The relevant ‘file’ was proverbially hidden at the bottom of the ‘in tray’. When her boss went on holiday, Violet recovered the relevant files which had been readied so that compensation could be released, and got her senior manager to authorise. Compensation was duly paid. Apparently her direct boss was thoroughly annoyed when he found out what had transpired, but could not undo the decision!
At the Colonial Office Violet met Ted. He was a former RAF Navigator (Wellington bombers) and had seen some action over Italy in 1944-45. Violet preferred the thought of a man who had ‘done his bit’ in action, and this was part of the attraction (she would have been less comfortable, one suspects, with a stores clerk!). They hit it off and, as mutual Labour voters, had something of a common social outlook, and Ted was reasonably well educated. Yet Ted was not a Christian. Violet knew it was a ‘danger’ for a Christian to be ‘unequally yoked’ but thought Ted would soon become a Christian when married to a good Christian wife. No doubt many girls (and some men) have made that same fateful decision, only to be seriously disappointed. It is also worth saying that, bluntly, marriageable men were in short supply after WW2, for obvious reasons.
Ted had certain emotional and mental problems and proved to be abusive. It was only in the last few years of marriage that he seemed to mellow a little, but sadly he never made any step of faith. Despite the wife-beating, he was never unfaithful and always put a meal on the table, so Violet tried to count her blessings. Despite much provocation, Violet (now known as Ruth, as Ted disliked the truncation to “Vi” which had followed her from childhood) determined to stick with the marriage, at least until the children were grown up and away from home.
Ted also used his own middle name. His Christian name was actually Albert, named after his famous uncle. Ruth was thrilled to meet Albert Sammons, Ted’s uncle. Albert was a genuinely famous violinist and was later referred to as “the British Yehudi Menuhin”. He was of that international stature as a musician. By this time, however, Albert Sammons was suffering from Parkisons, and was no longer playing at all.
A joy in Violet’s life was bringing up three “baby boomer” children. Margaret (1954), Pamela (1956) and Peter (1958). She sought to bring them up, as best she could, to know the Lord and ensured that, despite atheist Ted’s objections, they attended Church (Sunday School) regularly. As a busy wife and mother Violet herself missed regular church attendance for some years. When the family moved to a larger house in Pinner they were close enough to walk to the local Methodist church. Violet found the informality of the Methodists a favourable contrast to the formality of Anglicanism, so this proved to be a happy move. Given her later Christian experience, and the de-Christianisation of today’s ‘Methodist church’, it is doubtful she would today make the same decision. But this was 55 years ago. The world, and the ‘church’, was then a very different proposition!
Violet left Ted twice, but both times was persuaded to return. Ted’s behaviour mollified somewhat in response, but it was really in the last 2 years that he seemed to make a bit more of an effort. Violet’s decision not to pursue a divorce was a hard one, given the earlier abuse and the fact that divorce law was not more favourable to women, and it was largely the fact of her Christian faith that persuaded her of the ‘rightness’ of staying, if she possibly could. In the end it proved she could (just) remain, but Ted remained for most of his life a potential fireball, and never lost the use of his colourful RAF language, which was directed widely, continually, and especially at “Tories” and any other group to which he took a religious-like dislike!
Ted remained a civil servant, and on his retirement, they moved to Salisbury, to a flat with a splendid view towards the cathedral spire. They spent a little over 20 years there, making good friends and exploring the local area. In some senses it was the happiest time of the marriage and Violet found a degree of ‘freedom’ and autonomy she had not enjoyed before.
Violet was a firm believer and had a definite Hebraic heart. She was well taught (largely, I suspect, via her earlier Anglican years) and took scripture seriously. She had a surprising retention of Scripture given her few opportunities to really dig-in to it. On one occasion, Ted uncharacteristically allowed some young Mormons to ‘witness’ to him and Ruth (late 1970s, during the Pinner years). Ted lost interest after their first visit, but they persisted in returning for four or five further visits. As the rest of the household was equally uninterested, I determined to support mum in her faith discussions with this oddball American cult as a largely quiet observer.
I was surprised at the apparent ease with which she confounded their Mormon witnessing and irrational beliefs. On reflection, I now see this very much as the immediate empowering of the Holy Spirit to meet what was a direct spiritual challenge. Each week she would ‘defeat’ them in spiritual wisdom and they would return the following week with ‘answers’ to key questions she had earlier raised – almost certainly having been guided by someone ‘more senior’. This episode persuaded me more than anything else of the value of good Biblical insight, and indeed of biblical love.
Doing the right thing – again
When the local Methodist Chapel closed Violet moved to nearby Harnham Free Church (HFC), as the only church she could walk to locally. She immediately felt at home at HFC with its Godly and lively family atmosphere, and a church that took Scripture seriously. She told me that it was unquestionably the “best church” she had ever been to. It was HFC that gently challenged her about her lack of baptism through its normative preaching. At the age of 73 she was at last baptized (together with another lady of similar age). She did not tell Ted as she thought he might try to prevent this. Coincidentally I was baptized at the age of 33 in somewhat similar circumstances.
Where many might have balked at the idea. Violet was always willing to put herself out to do the right thing. God undoubtedly blessed her in this and she literally grew “in grace and favour”; as someone who blessed Israel, so she too was blessed. These latter years brought her very close to her loving Lord. Outside of Church Violet supported various charities, was briefly secretary of the Salisbury Cathedral Close Preservation Society and frequently wrote to her MP on ethical matters. Again it was about being involved – and doing the right thing.
Ted unexpectedly predeceased Violet, quite suddenly with a massive heart attack. So far as is known he never made any step of saving faith, but there are such things as death bed conversions, so who knows?
After Ted’s death the family quickly realized that Violet, now in her early eighties, was struggling to cope and had significant memory problems. She agreed to a lasting Power of Attorney witnessed by her Pastor & soon moved to live with Peter and his wife Joyce who bought a bungalow to share in Essex. At this time mother reverted to her Christian name of Violet. She had several happy years with Peter & Joyce enjoying the large garden, attending the local Baptist Church and having some outings. The Bungalow was about an hour’s drive from her parents’ grave in Little Eason, Essex, so a few trips were managed to revisit old haunts. Violet was also blessed with some short holidays to Devon, the Lake District, and Derbyshire. Her last swim was on a holiday in the Lake District where daughters Pamela and Margaret helped her into the hotel jaccussi. Later she swam a width in the pool, aged 84!
Her final years were spent in care at Hinderton Mount Retirement Home, at Neston, near daughter Margaret. At Hinderton Mount she found a friendly, caring home from home, and the staff treated residents very well. Violet continued to become more frail, and was finally admitted to hospital where she passed away due to advanced dementia. This was undoubtedly not the end she had hoped for; she once said to me that she wanted to die whilst “still in harness” and able to pull her weight. She had watched her mother decline slowly and felt that at 94 her mother was surely too old to have any real quality of life. Ironically, Violet too lived to the age of 94!
Summary – a life well lived
Proverbs 5:21. Might be a good place to finish. It reminds us, Jesus knows all our paths and if we let him, he will help us to tread them safely.
Violet Sammons lived a useful and dedicated Christian life. Yes, she made mistakes, but always looked to the Lord to redeem. She blessed many people along the way and encouraged her children into the Christian faith. She made a habit of praying with them as children, despite Ted’s sometimes vocal opposition. Perhaps the key thing to recall is that she did the right thing whenever she could, irrespective of personal cost or inconvenience. Her faith was always vibrant, yet it matured as she did, and assurance grew upon assurance. And that’s no bad epitaph!
Violet Ruth Sammons – 1921 to 2016
Peter Sammons is commissioning editor at Christian Publications International. He is author of the books “Rebel Church” (2013), “The Prince of Peace” (2015) and “Three Days and Three Nights – That Changed the World” (co-authored with David Serle) in 2019: https://christian-publications-int.com/default-32.html?ID=176 .