Liz Kennedy 1929-2023 – A tribute

By Gareth Thomas

If ever there was a woman with the River Deben in her blood and Waldringfield in her system it was Liz Kennedy who passed away on December 22nd2023, having attained the grand age of 94 and having retained true independence until just over a year before.

On January 25th 2024 her family, her friends, her recent carers and the residents of Waldringfield turned out in huge numbers at All Saints’ Church, overflowing into a packed Church Hall to celebrate her life. She was a true lover of the River Deben and well-known to many members of the River Deben Association.  

Liz Kennedy at the helm of her clinker-built dinghy, Check  (photo by Roger Stollery)

It would be an absolute understatement to say that, for so many reasons, this gentlelady was, and will remain, a village legend. There are few people who can boast of living in a land-locked deck house or of riding a bike until nearly ninety, or of sailing a dinghy until a similar age or being a skilled musician and artist or …… the list could go on but there might be a heavenly tap on the shoulder as the assertive side of her kind nature might come to the fore to stop it, simply because she, herself, was always reluctant to admit her abilities and talents. To quote one of her nephews – ‘she wouldn’t want a fuss’.

Liz was born in 1929 in Mill Hill, North London, the third of four Ogden siblings. She was christened Elizabeth Ann. During WW2 her local school was evacuated to the Cotswolds and she became a boarder whilst the family home moved first to Ross-on-Wye and then, in 1945, back near London, to Radlett in Hertfordshire. Two years later, at the age of eighteen, Liz was studying the oboe at the Royal Academy of Music under the pupillage of Helen Gaskell, described at the time as the ‘best living oboist’.

Liz was introduced to Suffolk, and particularly Waldringfield, during her formative years even before starting school. From 1890 to 1905 her paternal grandfather, ‘WT’ Ogden, either blessed with great foresight or with a ’nothing daunted’ approach to life, had started a family tradition of coming to Waldringfield for family holidays; these were spent at White Hall which he rented from the Waller family.

White Hall at the turn of the last century  (from WHG Archive)

At the time, Waldringfield was an industrial mess, just recovering from the effects of extensive coprolite extraction but then hosting a cement works with twelve active kilns. Kenneth Mason, a descendant of the owner of the Works recalled that ‘when the wind was from the north clouds of dirty brown smoke would envelop the beach, thus making it untenable’, not the obvious place for a country retreat. Nevertheless, Liz’s father, Bill was brought here as a young child and so, in her turn, was Liz.

There was a Cement Works just up-river but Liz Kennedy’s Grandfather, ‘WT’, was undaunted by the smoke. Here he sits in a duck punt whilst Alfred Stollery prepares to teach the ladies of the family how to sail  (from the WHG archive)

By the time of Liz’s visits, the holidays were spent at ‘Dunoon’ on Cliff Road (now Skylark Cottage) and the air was considerably clearer, so either the great foresight or the ‘nothing daunted’ approach had paid off. It is likely that ‘nothing daunted’ was in the genes because it certainly showed up in Liz.

Although music was one of her great loves, Liz decided against becoming professional. Instead, she worked for a qualification at the Westminster Children’s Hospital which put her in good stead to go off (complete with oboe) to New Zealand as a nanny, to a family with four very young children, and later to work back in the UK as a matron, first at Oundle School, then at Oakham. A colleague at Oakham recalls having a ‘lot of laughs’ with Liz, usually over a ‘glass of cheap sherry’ at the end of a working day, as if the working day of a boarding-school matron ever got to the end.

Eventually Liz’s parents settled in Woodbridge and Liz herself set up a convalescent home in Felixstowe where, again, she was able to put her nursing skills and her ‘nothing daunted’ resilience to good use. The experience is likely to have been even more 24/7 (as they say these days) than being a school matron so she ‘went back to school’ as matron at Gresham’s.    

The family holiday home remained in Waldringfield although the base changed from Dunoon to a new build – Merryfield – on Mill Road. By now the Cement Works was long gone and the pastime of sailing was beginning to appeal to the masses. Sailing and swimming, of course, had become second nature to Liz and her siblings and, by now, to the next generation of the Ogden family. Liz was a favourite aunt to 10 nephews and nieces and would, in due course become a special person to 16 great-nephews and great-nieces and 11 great-great nephews and nieces. Quite a collection, most of them with Waldringfield and the Deben in their blood.

So, I ‘hear’ the reader thinking, how did Elizabeth Ogden become Liz Kennedy?

In the 1930s Douglas Neil Kennedy and his wife Helen, friends of the Ogdens, would visit Waldringfield to sail their 45 foot barge-yacht, Chequers. Liz herself took up the story one day by telling us that Chequers was ‘kept on a mooring here until 1939. When the war came [Douglas had to leave] her on the mud. He had a dinghy called Check Mate. I think Check Mate survived the war, but Chequers had a slow death on the mud, which was rather sad.’ 

In 1939 Kennedy had it in mind to emigrate to the USA but the war changed any plans he might have had.

He was the Director of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, a post from which he retired in 1961. As a retirement present, he was given a 30-foot wooden sloop called Janora. Liz told us that ‘Soon after he got this yacht, he realised that he hadn’t got a dinghy to go with it and when he visited the American Folk Music Society, they gave him a present of a cheque to buy a dinghy. Ernie Nunn built it at Waldringfield and it was called Check because that was the American way of spelling ‘cheque’.    

Upon retirement Douglas and Helen moved to Waldringfield to live in the Deck-House, literally a deck house, or possibly two, brought from the deck of a houseboat and re-erected in the corner of a field off Cliff Road. Sadly, Helen suffered ill-health and became bed-ridden for a period of seven years during which time Douglas cared for her, no doubt with a little help from his friends, including Liz.

Part of a deckhouse arriving in a field off Cliff Road (photo provided by the late Liz Kennedy)

Sometime following the death of Helen Kennedy, Douglas Neil Kennedy OBE and Liz Ogden decided to marry. He was 83 and she was 48, both were keen on music and the arts – and sailing Janora  – and, of course, the River Deben. The marriage took place on New Year’s Eve, 1976. The reception was held in the garden of Merryfield.

Janora  (photo provided by the late Liz Kennedy)

Douglas and Liz continued their happy married life together at the Deck House until 1988 when Liz was widowed, very sadly, but not entirely unexpectedly as Douglas had reached the age of 94.  

Liz was, by then, nearly sixty and, without knowing it, slightly less than two-thirds through her life. She was to put the remaining third to very good use, continuing to involve herself deeply with the Waldringfield community and its Church and, of course, interacting with her expanding, extended family. By the time she stopped playing the organ at All Saints, Waldringfield just a few years ago, she had been the church organist for forty years.

A familiar face at the organ of All Saints Church, Waldringfield  (photo by Stan Baston)

Somewhere along the line, too, she had taken up the double bass so that, in her time, she played with the Ipswich Symphony Orchestra both as an oboist and a double bass player. So here we have someone with such an enviable knowledge of music that she is able to play very competently either wind, string or keyboard. She had many musical connections some of which she used to ensure biennial concerts in the village hall.

Part of the iconic Dragonfly fleet of the 50s when Liz owned number 2 (from WHG archive)

Following the death of Douglas, Liz arranged for Check, a clinker-built rowing dinghy, to be converted to a sailing dinghy with a mast and a single sail; she sailed that small boat until she (Liz) was 88. She sailed Check in the Round the Island race for single sail dinghies which she, herself, had inaugurated, providing the Liz Kennedy trophy for the winner. In the 1950s she had sailed competitively with Dragonfly No 2 which she owned.

Towards the end of the second millennium Waldringfield was waking up to the fact that its Village Hall, an old army hut, was in danger of falling down. Liz had been secretary of the Village Hall Committee for a couple of decades, and nobody was more aware than she of the need for a replacement building. She had taken the lead in organising repairs, doing many of the smaller ones herself. It seems that vegetation was forcing itself through the back wall of the hut, leading Liz to observe with her dry, but casual, sense of humour that it was a good substitute for Christmas decorations.

The old Village Hall with many familiar faces including Liz who is fourth from the left (from WHG archive)

She became the driving force behind fund-raising and applying successfully for a millennium grant. ‘Nothing daunted’, the result was a spanking brand-new build, the envy of many another village. Her role in this, and her leadership in many other community-based activities, was acknowledged by an invitation to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party and the naming of one of the two halls as the ‘Kennedy Room’ in her honour. The high-quality floor in the larger hall, now known as the Deben Hall, was her pride and joy and anyone who tried to walk across it with inappropriate footwear risked being the recipient of a polite but firm admonishment.

So, too, would anybody seen leaving litter or debris on the beach at Waldringfield. She worked tirelessly to ensure that the beach was free of such rubbish, providing not only her own physical effort and managing litter collections, but also firmly lobbying the local council to provide an enclosure of bins and an official schedule for emptying them. Now we tend to take these things for granted but they did not come without a fight.

Liz remained active in village life until well past her ninetieth birthday which was celebrated by an open house and garden at the Deck-House. She would be present at most functions at the Village Hall including the supervision of her own Art Class, manning the door for the Winter Talks and contributing to the Waldringfield History Group of which she was a founder member. She insisted she was only good for making the tea but her knowledge of the village and the people living in it was invaluable. She was singularly unfortunate on one of the Group’s visits to the Suffolk Record Office to be knocked over by a car manoeuvring on the pavement; she sustained a shoulder injury which, through constant pain, put paid to her cycling and made sailing Check a challenge to which even the ‘nothing daunted’ Liz had eventually to give in. She kept on walking, however, and often, when walking on the river wall with my dogs in the early evening I would see this very slightly stooped figure, well wrapped in oilies or an anorak, thick scarf and double woollen gloves, approaching in the distance, intent on doing the circuit along the river wall, past Manor House Cottage and back to the village by Sandy Lane.

The new Village Hall with the Kennedy Room to the left, the entrance hall and offices to the right and the Deben Hall in the centre (from WHG archive)

Liz, at 93, had completed a walk along Sandy Lane just the day before she slipped on a step in Deck House in June 2022, causing her to break a hip and an arm. The hip surgery was successful but like the injured shoulder, the arm continued to cause her grief; from late in 2022 she required Nursing Home Care. It would be appropriate to quote her nephew, Richard Atkins when, speaking in the church, he paid tribute to the staff at Foxgrove Care Home in Felixstowe.

‘They spent lots of time with Liz, talking with her, calming her anxieties, doing her nails and her hair and making her feel pampered, and taking an interest in her life. I am delighted to say that several of these wonderful people are here today and I would like to suggest we give them a round of applause for the wonderful care they gave to Liz in her final years.’

It is good to know that this lovely lady was comfortable and deservedly pampered as she came to the end of her 94 years of legendary life. Her fellow villagers describe her as a mainstay and pillar of the village, a stalwart of the community. They attribute to her spirit and initiative much of what goes on in the village and on the water today. That is a legacy for which we are all immensely grateful.

My thanks to Richard Atkins, John and Caroline Ogden and Colin Reid for material included in this tribute, to Richard for checking the facts and to Waldringfield History Group for the use of some of our archive photographs.

Dr Gareth Thomas MD., LL.M., FRCOG

Gareth Thomas retired as a local Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist in 2010 and left the medicolegal world of Expertise in 2015. He and his wife Alison moved to Waldringfield from Rushmere Road, Ipswich in 2006, having previously lived in Nacton for nine years from 1979 – so they are getting to know the South Suffolk peninsula reasonably well! In 2007 Gareth became a founder member of the Waldringfield History Group and for ten years from 2010 he was Chairman of the Group. The end of his tenure of office coincided neatly with the publication of Waldringfield – a Suffolk Village beside the River Deben.  The book was a combined effort on the part of all members of the small Group, but Gareth was one of the three members who took responsibility for the editing and management.

Never known for sitting about, Gareth may be seen around Waldringfield walking his dogs, on the water on ‘Blazer’ or crabbing with some of his younger grandchildren. He is also too well known (in his opinion) for his involvement in the village pantomimes.

For the last twenty-three years he and Alison have had a family home in the valley of the Vezere in south-west France where Gareth has been able to maintain a managed meadow and plant well over one hundred trees.