I will remember her.

Yesterday, the world lost the most extraordinary person, and I am kind of terrified that she will be forgotten.  You see, I'm a historian at heart.  The huge majority of people are simply forgotten, and history has not been kind to the stories of women in particular.  Until a few generations ago, most girls weren't educated at the same level, so they couldn't write down their lives.  Millions of life stories, male and female, have been lost to time.

If you are a genealogy nut like me you can probably name your distant relatives, but what happens to their stories? Most stories are family stories, told by children and grandchildren and if we are lucky, our great-grandchildren. Then, the photos we pass around just become quaint articles passed down, shadows of a time we don't understand anymore. But what about a woman from a generation of mothers and wives who has no children?  Who tells her stories when she is gone?

Jean Tocher was not the kind of person who warranted an obituary in the Times or on Radio 4.  Her death won't be a headline in a newspaper, and it won't end up a Twitter alert or on the sidebar of Facebook like a celebrity.  If you had seen her, you might have looked past, thinking she was just a tiny old lady.

But she was far and away the most extraordinary woman I have ever had the privilege of knowing.  We weren't related, and we definitely had very little in common apart from a shared Christian faith, but I, like many other people, was just drawn to her.  I met her about 6 years ago, and she just kind of radiated niceness.  She was interested in other people, unselfish and smiley, at an age where many old people very rightly get bitter, grumpy and demanding.

That alone would have been enough to make me an admirer, then on a visit once, she told me her story.

She was raised in Poole and sometimes in Scotland.  She told me at my daughter's christening that she had been christened at the same church (St. Mary's Longfleet) 92 years before!  She studied languages in school, then went to live in France to study French and history at the Sorbonne.  After leaving the Sorbonne in 1938, she went to Germany to study German near Frankfurt.  Thanks to one of Hitler's programmes (when has anyone ever used that phrase?!), students were able to get very cheap rail tickets.  It was with one of these rail tickets that she had to abruptly leave the country as the borders closed in 1939.

She returned to England and joined the WRNS (Women's Royal Naval Service) and was almost immediately recruited to work with the Royal Naval Intelligence.  It was so secretive that they gave her an envelope with a train ticket to London and said not to open it until she was on the train.  That envelope gave her instructions to go to the Military Police in London who repeated the process a number of times (with quite a lot of travel), until she ended up at Bletchley Park.  She had been specially selected due to her language abilities to work in a special "hut" there.  According to her, her training included where to make a cup of tea and how to plot a ship coordinates.  From then, until the end of the European conflict, she and others (eventually with the help of Enigma's translated messages) plotted the coordinates of almost every ship, merchant and marine, around the whole of Europe and Africa.  She happened to be in Poole on leave near to D-Day, and she and her family stood on their roof looking at the harbour, the whole of which was filled with ships awaiting their instructions to go to France.  She told me: "I was sure I had plotted almost every one of those ships!"

Although other people at Bletchley were only allowed to do one small part of the process (receiving wireless transmissions, translating, typing or forwarding), Jean was a part of the big picture and responsible for many lives, both military and civilian, and still felt the urgency and importance of that 60 years later.

One would think that story alone would qualify her for "World's Most Interesting Woman" but her adventure doesn't stop there.  She had read about the horrifying conditions in the concentration camps, and although she received multiple offers for jobs with British Intelligence, she decided to put her language skills to good use again and moved to Germany.  From 1945-1950, she interviewed survivors, helped people find their families, obtained visas for them and helped them move to the US.  She was then offered a position in Geneva in a senior role to administer similar programmes, but she "wasn't a headquarters kind of gal".

A friend of hers was living in Malaya at the time on a rubber plantation (if you don't know the significance of that, it was essentially a war zone). It was one of those morally questionable conflicts, but Jean lived there for a year with her godson and friend and helped local people displaced by the conflict, naturally learning to speak Malay in the process.

She returned to Poole and began a job at Bournemouth University, where she worked as a careers counselor for many years.

From a generation where women are remembered for being wives and mothers, she was a sister, aunt and godmother, and she was as independent a woman as you would ever hope to meet.  She lived alone until just last year at age 95.  Josh and I used to drive her to visit a childhood friend in Swanage, and we fancied that she might have been in love with him (although I have no proof of that except her sadness when he passed).  Such is our need for women to always be part of a love story, I guess.

However there were many loves in her life.  She had a steady faith in God and a duty to country and community which, frankly, don't really exist anymore.  She was fond of her family and liked to show me photos of her great-nieces and nephews.

She was the guest of honour a few years back at St. Luke's Church Street Party for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, which, for my American readers, is the closest thing to 4th of July that I have encountered.  She told the story of being a bridesmaid in a family wedding when the newsboys started shouting about the birth of a daughter to the Duke of York.  Just to put that in perspective, the Queen is pretty dang old, but Jean could remember her being born!

She had recently been unwell, and she really fought going into nursing care, even with heart problems and pelvic fractures.  On Christmas Day, she fought the elements with the rest of the family to go to the beach hut, and she really loved it.  We even got her to drink half a glass of wine with us while we opened presents!

Ella really loved to visit her with Josh or me or his mum, and I know the feeling was mutual. At the beginning of the week, Ella wondered aloud whether Jean would die, and I told her I didn't think it would be long. So Josh took her for a visit and helped Ella climb up to give her a hug and kiss.  We had no idea that it would be our family's goodbye to her.  One of the last things she said to a friend was how much she enjoyed the company of our rowdy four-year-old, so I am glad I could give her that.

However, it doesn't really feel like enough, given what she has given not just me, but countless people throughout her life.  Most of the people she helped save and worked with at Bletchley have died.  The people she helped emigrate will probably have forgotten her name if they aren't gone as well.  Often at military funerals, we hear the Ode to Remembrance and we hear the words "Lest we forget".  I want those words for her.  She was given the title of Petty Officer near the end of her service under Commander Geoffrey Tandy and Lieutenant-Commander Norman Bacon.  She served the country I am so proud to live in and love.  She is part of the "them".

I will remember them.  I will remember her.


  1. hi she was a lovely person who i knew many years ago, would you happen to know where she was buried?


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