100 years ago today (28 August 2020), the youngest of Bernard and Muriel Leach’s children were born. Twins Jessamine and Betty made their appearance only 4 days after the Leach family relocated to England after a long boat trip from Japan.
Below is an account of their lives written by Jessamine’s son, David Kendall, along with contributions from his wife Geraldine and other family members. All photos are from the family.
We invite you to put the kettle on, make yourself a cuppa and sit back and discover the mostly untold story of Jessamine and Betty Leach…
Betty (left) & Jessamine (right) Leach
Women’s voices have often been silent in the past and in most families, traditionally it was the men who were active economically outside the home whilst the women stayed at home to be mothers and homemakers. This was also true of the Leach family, in that it was Bernard, who, as artist, potter and author, was the breadwinner whilst Muriel brought up the five Leach children, one of whom was disabled – caring for her until the mid 1950s. This short account is based on family memories and recollections, including those of Jessamine and Betty.
Muriel and Bernard’s youngest two non-identical twin daughters had very different experiences of life, though they both shared a ‘contagious joie de vivre’ and many of the same interests and fascinations. Their lives were very different from their brothers, David and Michael, in that they did not follow their father into the pottery nor did they make names for themselves. In many ways, they were ‘hidden’ or invisible, to some extent, and, along with their elder sister, Eleanor, often excluded from published accounts of the Leach family; such then were the accepted conventions.
Eleanor, Jessamine & Betty Leach, 1960s
As Rachel Viney has written in her Leach Pottery blog, ‘A Voyage from East to West: Leach and Hamada’s Journey to England, June 1920’, the ship bringing the Leach family and Shoji Hamada to England, the Kamo Maru, arrived in London on the 24th August 1920, one hundred years ago. This was just days before the arrival of Bernard and Muriel’s two youngest daughters – Ruth Jessamine, my mother, known as Jessamine, and Elizabeth Massey, my aunt, known as Betty.
The Leach twins were born on the 28th August 1920, in Cardiff, at the home of Muriel’s father, (and my great grandfather), Dr. William Evans Hoyle, the first Director of the National Museum of Wales. My mother was the older, by an hour. Shortly after the birth of the twins, the Leach family, now numbering seven in size, travelled with Hamada to what was to become their new home in St Ives. There they met with Mrs Frances Horne, who had written to Bernard to ask him to return to England to establish a pottery. Whilst Bernard and Hamada started work on setting up the pottery, Mrs Horne and her daughter Margery quickly became family friends. Frances Horne was asked to be Mum’s godmother and as she grew up, Margery Horne taught her the piano. Later on, in turn, Margery became my godmother and gave me piano lessons too, as well as many of my cousins.
When the Leach family moved to The Count House, their new family home at Carbis Bay, my mother and her elder sister Eleanor, would go out together exploring the local area, including the overgrown mine-workings up the ‘Hilly Hee’ as it became known and the rock-pools on the cliffs between Carbis Bay and St Ives. Betty, though, who had been born with cerebral palsy, was unable to join them. Unsurprisingly, Betty was frequently bored as a child as her disability prevented her from going out to play easily. Later on, she recalled that her mother (Muriel) had bought her a typewriter to help keep her occupied, on which Betty wrote many letters. During this period, Betty said she had cried a lot, was bad tempered and had given Muriel, as she put it, ‘a hard time’.
Betty’s recollections emerged in the early 1990s, when she was interviewed by Pamela Gordon for the Channel Four Book, ‘Out of Sight: The Experience of Disability 1900 – 1950’ (Steve Humphries & Pamela Gordon, Northcote House Publishers 1992 – see Pp. 25 & 40). In her interviews, Betty recalled that Bernard and Muriel had tried to get medical treatment for her, with Muriel taking her to hospital in London on several occasions. She had difficulties with walking and later on had to use a wheelchair.
Mum recalled that it was her childhood job, along with Eleanor, to dust the old Chinese and Korean pots on the shelves and two large blue Chinese dishes which hung on the walls of The Count House. There was also a huge worn Chinese carpet on the floor with four blue dragons – one in each corner – and a red handwoven Ethel Mairet blanket over the back of the sofa. These images, in particular, had stuck in her memory. When she was 11 years old, Mrs Horne had given Mum her entire collection of shells from all around the world. This was a gift that inspired Mum for the rest of her life. Her other interests embraced the natural world – the sea, the beach, the moors – everything hand-made, collecting, drama and dance and her garden.
The Pottery was about two miles away from The Count House and though Mum didn’t visit it all that often, she used to speak of being fascinated whilst watching her father throw pots – and in particular, the circular movement of his head as the pot revolved on the wheel. Her other memories included Bernard feeding the kiln with wood and looking through the spy holes to check whether the cones were bending over. Finally, opening the kiln and, whilst turning the still hot pots, in his hands, murmuring, “Hmm, not bad”.
Mum said that she first met Patrick Heron when they both attended the same small local private school, along with the likes of Peter Lanyon. Later on, both she and Eleanor attended Badminton School in Bristol, as boarders. Betty had been sent to a special boarding school in Bath for children with disabilities. Boredom there was a problem for Betty as there were little or no academic subjects on the curriculum – and Betty was bright and longed to learn. She later said she did a lot of sewing there and not much else.
During the time, whilst Mum was away at school, there was family upheaval with Bernard away at Dartington and his new relationship with Laurie Cookes, an assistant at the pottery and later, his year long trip to Japan in 1934. It was also during Mum’s time at Badminton, that she learned about her parent’s separation. Eventually, like Betty, Mum’s education at Badminton was curtailed due to family money problems. At that point, Mum had said her thoughts began to turn towards dance, which she had wanted to do since she was 5 years old. She went on to train in drama and dance from 1938 until 1941. She attended Dartington Hall, and at the time had hopes of a stage career. But the war intervened.
Jessamine on Stage, c.1940s
After three years at the special school she attended in Bath, Betty returned home to The Count House. Fortunately, Muriel had found a special governess for her, who, as well as being a medical masseur, was also able to teach school subjects. From that point, Betty said she had been able to make good progress with her education – up until age 15 – when money ran out and the governess had to leave. Boredom, once more, became a problem, and she only had reading to keep her occupied (Out of Sight, P.25 & Pp.46-47).
With Betty at home and her siblings away at school, she looked forward to them returning home. Mum later recalled, that as a youngster, Betty had got very excited when ‘the boys’, their brothers, were due home for the school holidays from Dauntsey’s, their boarding school in Wiltshire. Mum also said that Betty had never complained or showed any envy that her twin sister was able-bodied. My cousin Joy Leach has suggested that Betty was probably well used to being teased by her siblings throughout her childhood. Certainly, this was the case for Mum too, who often told of the time when her brother David and his friends got up to tricks – one of which was to let cockroaches run up her arm at a dance! Like most sisters with older brothers, both sisters became used to being teased – and both had learnt to laugh it off.
Betty, Muriel, David & Jessamine Leach, 1940s
Following dance training, Mum spent three years in the WAAFs, where she was a tele-printer operator, based at Plymouth – Aircraftwoman Leach 469554! Because of her dance and drama background, she was also involved with concert parties, entertaining the troops, which she said could sometimes be hilarious. It was when she was at home on leave, that she first met my father, Richard Kendall, known to all as Dick.
Dad had come to the Leach Pottery with Patrick Heron to do war service. Both Dad and Patrick had been students and friends together at the Slade in London – and they were both registered conscientious objectors (COs). It was Patrick’s suggestion that they both go to the Leach Pottery, and Bernard, having lost staff to the war effort, had obtained permission to take on COs with an artistic background (Beyond East and West – see Chapter 16).
Dad ended up spending some three years at the Leach Pottery, during which time, romance had kindled between him and Mum. When the war was over, Mum went back to dancing, doing pantomime and variety work, and studying Jooss Ballet, a form of theatrical expressionist dance, under Sigurd Leeder. Dad took a teaching job at Camberwell School of Art and Crafts (as it was known then) eventually becoming Head of Ceramics and Metalwork there, with the support of a reference from his father-in-law, Bernard. When Dad proposed to my mother, it was not an easy decision for Mum as in those times it meant giving up any further thoughts of dancing or a stage career and having to settle down to family life and motherhood.
Jessamine, Dick & Bernard, wedding reception at The Count House, December 1948
She took some time to consider her future, and finally, when she accepted Dad’s offer, they were married at St. Uny Church, Lelant in 1948, with a wedding reception at The Count House. A move to London followed, because of Dad’s teaching position. I was born in 1951 and my brother Chris in 1952, and we were both christened at St. Uny’s, when I was 2 years old – it is one of my earliest memories. Our home in London, until I was 8 years old, was a flat on the third floor of a Queen Anne house in Hampstead High Street. It was small and somewhat cramped with a bath hidden under the kitchen table and us boys, as we grew older, became rather a handful in such little space. The years at Hampstead were very happy ones though – being often referred to by the family in later years as ‘happy Hampstead’.
Left: Jessamine with son David, 1951. Right: Betty with nephew David, 1951
From there the Kendall family moved in 1959 to a brand new and larger home, in north Kent, where Mum and Dad enjoyed creating a wonderful garden, something they had not had before. Dad, despite having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in his mid-30s, was able to carry on running the ceramics department at Camberwell for 20 years. He was still at the helm, when I attended as a Foundation and later, Diploma student. Every year my family visited Carbis Bay for the month of August. It was something the family looked forward to all year long. For Mum, it was an opportunity to revisit her old home, haunts and friends, and spend time with her sister Eleanor and her father Bernard, and it enabled my brother and I to reconnect with our Leach cousins and see our grandfather.
Sadly, Mum was widowed in 1974 when Dad died from complications from MS, at an age of just 57 years. Throughout their married life, Mum had been a housewife, supporting Dad with his endeavours. Dad had been in and out of hospital in the early 1970s, when his condition began to deteriorate. Mum became his carer, when he was back at home, with the help of District Nurses, wheelchair and hoist, until it was no longer possible to manage. Dad spent his final two years in hospital, during which time Mum had rekindled her interest in jewellery and had begun attending an evening class in contemporary jewellery making.
This, she said, had been inspired, as a child, by watching Bernard unpick the glass beads of an old lace bobbin, to re-make it into a necklace for her sister Eleanor. Later on, when visiting Patrick Heron and his family, Mum had been fascinated by seeing Susanna Heron’s jewellery, as well as by visits to the V&A and the British Museum. She loved ancient beads and collected coral, amber, cornelian and lapis lazuli amongst other things. She began working from home, putting the beads she had collected together with her own silver beads to create necklaces and earrings. She had her first exhibition at the newly opened Casson Gallery in London, which opened on the same day that Dad died in May 1974.
Beaded necklaces created by Jessamine
This was followed by showing her work in the annual ‘Loot’ exhibitions at Goldsmiths’ Hall and taking part in selling exhibitions in galleries around the country. While Mum had been developing her creative practice, she formed a new relationship with Dicon Nance. Together, they moved to an old Devon longhouse on Dartmoor, where Dicon provided invaluable practical solutions to many technical problems encountered by Mum in her jewellery making as well as helping her to create a beautiful garden from a farmer’s hillside field. Mum went on to become a member of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen and exhibited her work there as well as at other galleries. She loved the opportunity it brought for her to meet people and make new friends.
In the 1980s, Mum became a grandmother – Granny – as she was known to her grandchildren. She loved reading stories, playing cards and threading beads when they visited, and they loved her sense of fun, theatricality and spontaneity – as they grew up. It was a happy time.
Betty, on the other hand, had stayed at The Count House with Muriel until her mother had become ill and subsequently died in 1955. Arrangements had been made for her to move to Ponds, later the Princess Marina Centre at Seer Green, Beaconsfield, a home for disabled adults. Life at Ponds was not always happy for Betty especially in the early years and she struggled. Problems of an emotional kind were often difficult if not impossible to resolve, due to her disability, and again, the accepted conventions of the time.
Betty at Bernard’s 90th birthday celebrations, January 1977
Despite that, she stayed at Pond’s for several decades, during the course of which, attitudes towards disabled people slowly began to change, and there were more opportunities for classes and outings. This began to manifest itself in the 1980s with the arrival of new staff with more progressive attitudes. Along with other residents of the home, Betty had been able to start making visits to the pub and the disco, which able-bodied people take for granted, and to enjoy more of the pleasures of life. She enjoyed a drink and sometimes even a cigarette, using a long cigarette holder. Later on, accompanied by a carer, Betty went on to make trips abroad, including to the USA and Rome. We all thought she was incredibly brave, but she had a wonderful time and returned with lots of photos and happy memories. She was the oldest resident at Ponds, when she finally came to leave.
Betty at Ponds
The Leach siblings were very close to each other. Betty would be taken out for family outings and carried where necessary up and down cliffs, along narrow paths and across the beach and dunes. The family all looked out for her and, whilst she was at Ponds, she took her annual holiday with one or other of them, staying for a week or two. The family also visited Betty at Ponds as often as they were able, frequently making detours on trips to London to see her. Joy remembers her spending part of her holiday at Yelland, the home of her parents, Michael and Myra Leach. Whilst there, Betty would discuss the turmoil of her various romantic attachments with her brother and sister-in-law. In the family, these had become known as ‘Betty’s problems’. Later on, nieces and nephews continued to visit and sometimes stayed over at the care home with Betty. In her turn, she followed the fortunes of her siblings, their children and grandchildren with much affection, sharing their joys and concerns. She kept in touch by letters, and phone calls, sometimes lengthy, and sent personally signed cards every Christmas.
Joint 70th (1990) and 80th (2000) birthday celebrations were held for Mum and Betty, which were attended by most of the Leach family. In the 1990s, Betty had decided to move from Ponds to a care home at Paignton to be much closer to her brother David and sister Jessamine, so when the 80th birthday gathering was held at The White Hart Inn on the Dartington Estate, a favourite of Mum’s, Betty was much more easily able to attend. It was a very happy family occasion, complete with cake and photos.
Jessamine & Betty’s 80th Birthday Celebrations, August 2000
Sadly, for Mum, Betty and Dicon died within weeks of each other – Dicon in May 2001 and Betty in July 2001. On her own again, she restarted her life once more, busying herself with her jewellery making, gardening and receiving visitors. She loved the beauty and serenity of Dartmoor life and the changing seasons. She enjoyed visits from her family and her many friends. She was very fond of her brother David, and as he lived nearby, she was able to see him regularly.
When David died in February 2005, Mum became the last of Bernard’s children. She was delighted when the Trust was formed to re-open the Leach Pottery, and thrilled to be invited as guest of honour in 2010 at the celebration to mark the 90th anniversary of the Leach Pottery, which was also her 90th birthday. A separate 90th birthday gathering attended by family and friends was also held at The Two Bridges Hotel on Dartmoor, to which Mum gave a lively speech.
Left: Jessamine as a girl. Right: The last photo of Jessamine & son David Kendall together
Mum and Betty were very proud of their father’s accomplishments and thought the world of him. Mum loved holding forth about him to visitors. The influence of their upbringing remained very strong throughout their lives. Both loved to talk, had a great sense of humour, loved the natural world, gardens and the crafts. Mum, who had longed to have a career on the stage before she was married, focussed her creativity on jewellery making after Dad died – while Betty proudly wore the presents of jewellery made for her by Mum. Betty, says Joy, had an eye for the chic and loved to dress up regardless of her disability.
Despite all the ups and downs, Mum lived a long and happy life. She was able to stay at her beloved home on Dartmoor until she was 93 before moving to a care home. She died in June 2014, and is buried in the cemetery at Bovey Tracey, as are her twin sister Betty and their brother David.
With grateful thanks to Joy Leach and Damian Nance for their suggestions and contributions.
David and Geraldine Kendall