In memory of Mary Cooke

Portrait of Mary Cooke WRENMary was the oldest of three children born to Lionel John Ralph Cooke and his first wife Winifred, writes her niece Julia Spencer.

Lionel, from the Forest of Dean, moved to Penarth as a child. Winifred’s family were from Abergavenny. Lionel had served in the Royal Engineers in the First World War and worked for the local cement works as an analytical chemist. He and Winifred married in Penarth in October 1918.

Mary was born in Penarth on 22 June 1922, followed by her sister Jean in 1926 and brother Norman in 1929. Winifred died in January 1930, when Mary was 7 and Norman just a baby.

Lionel employed a young woman, Georgina Jones, to help look after the three children. He and Georgina married fairly soon afterwards and had two sons of their own, Derek (1932) and Nigel (1937). The family blended well and were very close. The lower photo shows Mary and Jean c.1937-38.

Photo of Jean and Mary Cooke as schoolgirlsSometime before the Second World War the family moved to Dinas Powys, temporarily living at Rosemount on Cardiff Road while having their new house done up. There was a railway line at the bottom of the garden and one day a bomb dropped, destroying their shed and shattering all the house windows. A lorry came from the cement works and the family had to move overnight to their new house, St Hilary, on the Westra in Dinas Powys, although it did not yet have electricity.

Before the war Mary worked for a fur coat company and would occasionally model the coats for potential customers. During the war, she joined the Royal Navy. She became a Writer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service – the WRENs – and was based at the Royal Marine barracks at Deal, Kent. She was known to her colleagues as “Cookie” and enjoyed going to the cinema, playing cards and attending dances when not on duty.

Mary contracted tuberculosis, perhaps due to living in barracks in very close proximity to others. In the war years tuberculosis remained a potent disease in Britain, and there was no cure. She returned home when she became too ill to stay in barracks. She died at the family home on 16 July 1945, aged 23. At her funeral at St Andrew’s Church in Dinas Powys, her coffin was covered by the union flag and carried by Royal Marines. She is buried in the graveyard opposite St Andrew’s Church and has a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone.

A friend and colleague, Lance Corporal Robert Goodman, wrote to Mary’s parents after she died: “I should like you to know that I, in common with all whose good fortune it was to come in contact with her, regarded her as one of the sweetest, kindest, and most charming girls I have ever met. I shall never forget her.”

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