Mary McKay Port (née Drummond) (1930 -2021)

posted 14 Jul 2021, 19:52 by dartmouth park   [ updated 14 Jul 2021, 19:52 ]
Mary was a key player in the area as well as in the Dartmouth Park Conservation Area. We reproduce here her grandson's touching obituary 

Over the last fortnight, numerous friends have written to share their memories of Mary, or Granny, as she was to me. I would like to share some of these sentiments with you as they give a real sense of the wonderful woman Granny was.

In their words, she had “fantastic energy” and a “sharp intellect”. She was “shrewd, kindly, forthright and amusing”, “interested in everything and everybody”, “such a special person to have known and worked with” and she had a "wicked sense of humour".  These comments show just a small part of what made Granny so special.

Granny was born in Carlisle in 1930 to a Scottish father and a mother, who appeared quintessentially English, but was in fact half German, something kept well hidden from Granny until after the war. Granny’s father trained as an engineer in Berlin in the 1890s and was highly entrepreneurial, inventing and manufacturing a motor car. Granny was the youngest of three sisters, who, growing up in rural Cumbria, had a love of all things rural, instilled in her by her parents.  Her mother, a trained horticulturalist, inspired Granny with a life-long love of nature, plants and gardening.

Granny in her early years enjoyed a privileged life, brought up by a much-loved nanny.  She enjoyed great freedom as a child.  Not content with a traditional pony, she also enjoyed training orphan lambs to jump a specially constructed assault course.  During the war, she took her lamb round Carlisle collecting for the RAF, giving new meaning to Mary having a little lamb!  However, by this time, things had changed drastically.  During the war, the family welcomed evacuees from Liverpool, which had a lasting effect on Granny. They turned up with only the clothes they stood up in and their poverty shocked her, undoubtedly contributing to her desire to help the less fortunate.

Until the age of 8, Granny was home-educated by a governess, before going to school in Carlisle, where not only did she do well academically but was gifted in art and sewing. Granny’s forthright nature did not always win over all her teachers, particularly when it came to organised games, which she loathed! Nevertheless, she developed a keen love of learning and a strong intellect which enabled her to win a place to read History at the University of Reading, where her mother had read horticulture.

Granny first travelled abroad in 1947, travelling by train to Switzerland, for her first (and last) ski trip, completing the journey on mules and skiing in their walking boots and kilts. This must have been quite a sight for the locals!

On leaving school, she went to Atholl Crescent, a finishing school in Edinburgh, as had her Aunts and sisters. It was essentially a fun-packed year, but it did also give her a good training in domestic skills, including crucially cooking.

Granny spent the summer of 1948 staying in Alsace with a prominent local family; she remembered witnessing, from a well-positioned balcony, Churchill receiving the freedom of the city of Strasbourg.

Having graduated from Reading, Granny became a research assistant to the historian, Sir Lewis Namier, who insisted on analysing a sample of her handwriting before offering her the position. She had extremely elegant handwriting, so passed this with flying colours. Not perhaps a recruitment technique which would pass much muster today!

While working for Namier, she first met a new researcher, Michael Port (or Grandpapa, to me); she told her daughters with great glee, that, at first sight, she thought he looked "alright and that she was going to have him"! As with everything in her life, Granny was greatly determined in this, although it is not clear whether Grandpapa put up much resistance!  A wonderful lifelong partnership developed from this first meeting. 

Following this, Granny obtained a research appointment in the Foreign Office, taking over the East Africa desk.  This position played to her talents and allowed her to flourish. Granny’s years in the Foreign Office encouraged an outward-looking philosophy beyond the confines of the UK.  Her marriage to Grandpapa in 1962 required a letter from the Foreign Secretary himself to allow her to carry on at the Foreign Office.  Very different times for professional women then!

The birth of Helen obliged her to resign from the Foreign Office. Ever diligent, she worked right up until a fortnight before the birth.  Granny then characteristically embraced various causes and became the Honorary Secretary of the St. Pancras (later Camden) Civic Society, arguing presciently for the refurbishment of substantial Victorian housing, rather than its replacement by purpose-built utilitarian blocks. During this time, she raised funds for Marie Curie, and also 

worked for the Children's Country Holidays Charity, which gave children in deprived areas of London the chance to visit the countryside.

With the birth of her second daughter Elisabeth, she became increasingly involved in the South Highgate Parents’ Club, eventually becoming secretary. Whilst both girls were both still little, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have radical surgery. But, Granny was ever-determined and, once in recovery, she agreed to Grandpapa’s taking up a sabbatical position at Columbia University in New York. They travelled to New York by ship, on the old Queen Elizabeth the Second, with two small girls at their side. 

Granny was fascinated by her time in New York and loved the exciting shops and the cultural differences; she also made life-long friends there, despite only staying a year. 

Back in London, Lis unfortunately became gravely ill and spent a considerable amount of time in Great Ormond Street. Lis fondly remembers how Granny used to turn up as a wonderful sort of Pied Piper figure bringing all sorts of arts, crafts and games, which she would use to engage not just Lis, but many of the other children on the ward, enlightening their restricted lives.

Mary Port

Fortunately Lis recovered and Granny was able to resume working again. She returned to editing historical papers and she and Grandpapa shared many happy moments discussing her latest discovery in the Wellington or Palmerston papers. There was rarely an evening without some interesting family discussion around the dinner table. Indeed, Granny was an excellent cook; she loved good food and was always keen to try out new flavours and recipes. I particularly remember the smell of freshly-baked bread permeating the house.

Her love of the country and in particular the Lake District, which was so special to her, prompted her and Grandpapa to purchase and convert a barn opposite the family farm where she had grown up. Many happy weeks were spent at the Barn in the holidays, with Granny and Grandpapa offering wonderful hospitality to their friends, relatives and daughters’ friends.  Granny loved entertaining, and always made things seem so effortless. 

Later, when the girls had gone to university, she was impassioned to start campaigning for Dartmouth Park to be designated as a conservation area.  Never one to do things in half measures, she became the chairman of the newly-formed Dartmouth Park Conservation Area Advisory Committee. She considered it a great triumph when she prevented the poorly-thought through plan to clad the higher blocks of flats in the Brookfield Estate.

She then fought successfully to secure a seat for the Conservation Area on the Hampstead Heath Consultation Committee. Serving on this committee, she was utterly determined that a top-class playground should be installed for all the local children's benefit.  She continued on the Heath Committee for many years, loving the organised walks across the Heath where they learnt of all the recent changes.  Even in her eighties, when she grew more frail, she would hitch a lift home on the Superintendent’s buggy. Of course, she was also a long-standing member of the congregation of this church.

With Grandpapa’s retirement, they were able to take up the opportunity to travel more extensively, enjoying many happy trips, visiting Russia in the early days of its opening up to Western Tourism, visiting Czechoslovakia soon after the Velvet Revolution and visiting Palmyra and crusader castles in Syria.  She was also extremely keen to share her love for the lakes with her grandchildren, walking the fells with us until well into her eighties.  As she grew less able to get around she relished hearing about her grandchildren’s trips.

At home, she continued to cook delicious meals, and also enjoyed a daily small glass of wine (particularly Riesling), slowly-sipped, with her supper.

Granny retained her sharp mind until her final days, embracing her iPad and enjoying Facetime calls with the family (although we were often upside down because of apparent technical issues). Although very frail in body, she still persisted in reading The Times from cover to cover daily, tackling the Polygon and tenaciously debating current affairs with anyone happy to take her on.

She was a wonderful loving wife, amazing mother and inspirational grandmother, giving not just to her family but to her community.  She had an incredible sense of duty, and we shall remember her for her keen intelligence, her remarkable sense of humour, forthright manner and huge generosity.

Thomas Brockington (Grandson)