Vashti and Hettie in Kanpur 1905

Hettie Louise Cooley was born in Colchester on the 6th April 1899. Because of her father's absence, fighting in the Second Boer War, there was a five and a half year gap between her and the next child, Vashti, by which time the family were together in Kanpur, India. Siblings arrived every year or two for the next decade and Hettie “did a wonderful job of keeping us entertained.” (Dorothy)

Only 15 years old when the Great War started, she worked in the munitions factory in theBritannia Works in Colchester and, in the evenings, helped her mother with the younger children. Together with Vashti she also had to nurse her mother after her miscarriage in 1915. Among Hettie's admirers was "a young man with the last name of Asquith, commonly known as 'Squiffy' whose family were "very well connected and snobbish" (Dorothy), which put Hettie off. She then met and became engaged to Alan Barnes, a Second Lieutenant in the newly formed RAF, who came from Colchester. His parents lived in Athelstan Road, just off Butt Road. Like so many others, Alan was killed in action - only six weeks or so before the war ended - and Hettie was heartbroken.
A quick 2020 update here (information from Alan, who was the same age as Hettie, was in France practicing landings in an RE8, an aircraft considered by pilots at the time as difficult to fly and unsafe. The aircraft 'spun crashed and caught fire' and Alan was killed. This was on 26th September 2018.


She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps and was stationed near Sandwich in Kent, where, in mid to late 1919 she met Lawrance George Billing, who was a Corporal with the Royal Engineers at the Inland Water Transport Depot. According to Dorothy, he pestered Hettie until she agreed to marry him. Hettie had told Lawrance that she “couldn't marry a man with a 'poofy' name like Lawrance... and apparently she didn't much like George either” (Tom), so she always called him John.

They married in 1920 in Derby, his home town. He had been a keen soldier in the war but, again according to Dorothy, “in peace time he [was] a musician with a very bad temper”. To be fair to ‘John’, he was a skilled joiner as well and throughout the 30s he also went to night-school to gain accountancy qualifications and learn Spanish. He worked for Derby Corporation.

Hettie was kept busy with Tony (1921), Christine (1922)(shown together in 1923 below left), Mick (1927) and fox terriers. One of these, called Rennie, went to the Inds.

Tony and Christine June 1923 Tony, Mick and Christine c1930

Their married life doesn’t seem to have been very happy, although “John certainly seems to have been a bit of a character....Grandma and Hettie told me about the way he arranged his trousers on the floor by his bed so as to leap into them in the morning; how he gave Hettie a present of a wireless and then shortly afterwards picked it up and took it off to sell when he was short of money; and how he lifted Hettie up and dumped her in the sink after they’d had a row” (Jean)

Hettie and John 1941

War came again – and John was mobilized in September 1939, having been in the Reserve since 1930, so Hettie and the two youngest children went to live at Pond Hall. Maud and her children were also living there “in the apple room” and Rosy remembers that she and Hettie “used to eat our toast and marmalade by the tree which was the bus stop for the Ipswich bus. I was going to school and she was working at Heinz 57 varieties”.

Tom Leeks remembers Hettie's pony: "We had all been told not to go in the orchard where Sergeant was but we were naughty children. It was me, possibly one of my sisters and at least one of the Ind children and the apples, plums and pears were just too much of a temptation. The best were the pears which were just right, ripe and juicy but that was quite close to where Sergeant was standing.

With hindsight now I think it might have been a bit of male pride... I was going to get the pears. Sergeant objected to being disturbed, though, and reared up on his hind legs. I dodged but as he was whinneying at the same time when he came down his teeth caught the top of my head. It was not an intentional bite, what he probably intended would have been much worse: under his hooves. However it was a significant gash in my scalp and, Sergeant having trotted off, I was rescued by the girls with blood pouring from my wound and streaming down my face. I was of course quite frightened at the time but I think it probably looked worse than it really was though even now, about 62 years after, I can still feel the scar on my head".

In late 1942 Hettie was still working in the offices of Heinz Food Co in Ipswich when “she swears she distinctly heard John call her name – Hettie – and turned expecting to see him there; it was about the time he was drowned. She wasn’t given to fanciful or exaggerated statements” (Jean). His story is elsewhere on the site but suffice to say that he was on a ship that was torpedoed and sank without survivors. “But, sadly (sort of) they had been getting on so badly that it was a sort of relief to Hettie when he vanished” (Rosemary).

Mick and Hettie c1943

Tony was in the army and Christine was serving with the VAD, then in 1943 Mick joined the RAF as an Aircraft Apprentice – against his mother’s wishes. Her objection was perhaps to him leaving school so young rather than to him joining up. By this time, too, fox terriers had given way to Pekingese dogs. A sad lapse of taste, Nana!

Hettie bought a guest house in Felixstowe, called "Wilberforce", and ran it with her old friend Lena Bennett, who had been Lady Reading's personal maid. Rosemary Ind lived there, too, while her parents were in Holland and Germany. “They led me a real dance! They made me wear my school hat on Saturdays with Lena Bennet's beige mac - which was totally against schoolgirl chic”. Rosy continues, “Hettie was always being courted. She told me Mr X gave her a box of chocolates and asked her to marry him: ‘I said 'no', but ate the chocolates.’ She had another suitor, Mark Newth, who lived there too, with his old mother. He had a Morris 7 and they forced me (a lot of bullies!) to sit in the back to drive up the almost vertical cliff road. Hettie said Wilberforce freed the slaves and perhaps he would free her.”

By 1949 Christine and her baby daughter Rosie were living with Hettie in Felixstowe and in 1950 Mick’s wife, Jean, went to stay there straight after her honeymoon, as Mick had been posted to Cyprus. Hettie was in the process of selling up and moving to Pond Hall to look after her mother, Grandpa having died that year. He had paid Hettie's rates at Felixstowe on the understanding that, when he died, she would look after Grandma. Christine and Jean helped Hettie with the move to Pond Hall.

Jean returned to Pond Hall when RAF wives were sent back from Egypt in late 1951 and Hettie helped her after John’s birth in February 1952. Hettie used to give John his daily bath in front of the fire – “I can see her now, holding John very capably in an enamel bowl with a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth and ash every so often dropping into the water. It always seemed to miss John.”

Grandma's 1965 diary mentions some of Hettie's Pekes' names - Taurus, Tink, Tessa, Rufus and, of course, Beamish. Beamish was a prizewinner and his full kennel club name was Billing's Sunbeam of St Felix, which seems very apt. It was heartening to see that Hettie was not entombed in Pond Hall simply looking after her mother - she was also looking after her Pekes and taking in boarding dogs, too. Bury St Edmunds dog show She seems to have had a pleasantly full life with plenty of contact with her dog show friends and also with her sisters and brothers. The other siblings who were living locally visited frequently and both Hal and Vashti did an enormous amount to help practically. Vashti must have given a good report of the Beatles, as Hettie went to see them in Ipswich two days after Vashti and Laura went in August 1965.

When Grandma died in 1969, Hettie either thought she had to leave or decided she did not want to claim statutory tenancy (which the Council feared, as it would block the sale of the place). She moved to a flat for army widows in St Leonard's on Sea, where she could be close to Christine and Rosie. The move must have been a wrench, especially as she could only keep a few Pekes, but it must also have been a relief to move to somewhere that was easier for a 70 year old to live in. A few years later she moved to sheltered accommodation in Woodbridge, where she died in 1973.

“What a lovely sister Hettie [was] to me when I was very young. Always sunny and singing songs that she learnt at school” (Dorothy)

“Hettie, you know, was not only beautiful, she was also witty and enterprising” (Rosemary)

“She was a delightful person well-read and knowledgeable.....she was all that anyone could want of a mother-in-law; helpful and interesting but never interfering” (Jean)