Few people are still alive to recall those times and 93-year old Mabel Hewitt stands tall among them as a spirited eloquent eyewitness to one of the worst-ever attacks on civilians and their homes. She endeared herself to millions when she appeared on BBC TV in a commemorative programme and talked movingly of her night in a bomb shelter during the terrible Coventry Blitz in November 1940. A reviewer for The Times newspaper called her ‘formidably likeable’. Mabel’s family asked me to work with her on producing her life story. It was inspiring, enriching, a revelation.
In a rare lifetime that spans the struggle of 1930s Britain, the onset of a cruel war and childhood memories of her city reduced to rubble in the Blitz, Mabel has a treasure-trove of wisdom she is ready to share. Her earliest memories are of a crowded house in Coventry’s city suburbs with her six siblings, parents, grandmother and an uncle. Her brutally strict father ruled the household; her mother was completely cowed. Mabel remembers the fear, and the pervasive cold.
She knew even then that life could and should be better than this. Nothing would stop her seeking that out. She began to develop a determined streak that saw her survive poverty, deprivation and worse. Mabel lived through terrible times. She believes that some of today’s children, in their own way, are also living through terrible times. She wants them to know that life can be better. She is a strong, determined woman who wants to inspire others through her personal example. That is why she is telling this story.
In the 1930s, there was no welfare state, no child benefit or help for the poor. The threat of the workhouse was ever present. Mabel remembers children coming to her school with no shoes. It was a life of make-do-and-mend. She was 10 when Britain found itself at war with Germany. Mabel was among the bewildered children sent to strangers’ homes in the countryside to save them from the anticipated bombing onslaught.
In the chaos of the government’s rushed evacuation programme, she was separated from her siblings and billeted with a family whose home life was actually harder than her own. There was no running water, just a standpipe in the yard serving several families. Her foster parents had a newborn baby who cried day and night. There was no heating, no electricity and a ‘thunderbox’ toilet in an outhouse. Mabel shivered miserably through the nights on an old camp bed on the landing. But worse was to come. The man of the house invited her into his bed ‘to get warm’ and terrified her with his advances.
She packed her cardboard suitcase and left. Mabel had found the inner strength which would see her through many tribulations as wartime bombings escalated and her city became a crucial target.
The notorious attack of 14 November 1940, when Coventry was set ablaze in Britain’s longest night of German bombing raids, is etched into her memory. Mabel was hiding in the family’s Anderson shelter from where she witnessed the sights and sounds of a bombardment which horrified the world. The city’s medieval cathedral, fire-bombed into rubble and ashes, was at the heart of an extraordinary campaign of reconciliation and forgiveness just a few days later.
Mabel was beginning to learn about the healing power of forgiveness alongside the need to survive evil and overcome it. She was to learn assertiveness in the workplace when she left school at 14 and was assigned a lowly job in a local munitions factory. Determination won her a different career path. She wants today’s youth to know they can be assertive too.
The turning point in her young life of hardship and sorrows was when she found the man who would be her husband and her rock. Love and hope, Mabel believes, are crucial. She found herself in a warm, loving family with John Hewitt and his kind parents. Together they created their own close and happy family. She lost John too soon; he died at 56. It was family and friends, and Mabel’s determined cheerfulness and optimism, which saw her through.
Later she suffered a devastating illness of her own, and spent six years in treatment for bladder cancer. At 88, she received the all-clear.
Today, at 93, Mabel is an inspiration to those around her. Loved by three generations of her own family, she has a unique place in her local community with loyal friends and neighbours. Content with modest pleasures – a pretty garden, a comfortable home adapted to her mobility needs, reading and listening to music – she looks back on a life well lived and struggles overcome.
Mabel takes a keen interest in today’s young people and their struggles. She wants them to know they can also find inner strength and achieve a better life. Mabel’s Enterprise, a Community Interest Company (CIC) set up by her grandson Matthew in her name, aims to inspire young people. It is her way of reaching out to them.
Extracted from Mabel's War by Mabel Hewitt, as told by Barbara Jones