A thanksgiving service held at St Mary’s on Wednesday paid warm tribute to Lilian Ross, one of Marlborough’s formidable former mayors, who has died a month short of her 98th birthday.
More than 100 people packed into the parish church to hear how Mrs Ross, then a widow, was co-opted on to the then borough council and became mayor for the first time only 18 months later, in 1977.
She was at the time president of Marlborough’s Chamber of Trade having originally sought a seat on the council in 1968 and losing by 73 votes.
“It is the Queen’s year, so I feel we should have a lady,” said outgoing mayor Ted Beauchamp at the time. “She has shown great interest in this council and involvement in the town.”
And Mrs Ross, who died last month in Wootton Bassett Care Home after playing a role in Marlborough over 40 years, went on to become mayor for a second time in 1983-84.
“My mother was a very civic minded woman,” her son Andrew Ross, himself a former Marlborough mayor and a current town councillor, told Marlborough News Online.
“She was a formidable woman, very Margaret Thatcheresque. Margaret Thatcher probably took lessons from her.
“She lived with us here in Marlborough for the last seven years of her life until she became too ill to look after herself. When she died she was just one month away from her 98th birthday.”
And paying tribute to Mrs Ross at the service, Councillor Nick Fogg, also twice mayor of Marlborough, recalled Shakespeare’s words, “All the world’s a stage/And all the man and women merely players” before adding: “Lilian certainly played many parts – not least in the Marlborough Amateur Dramatic Society, in which she was a leading light for many years.”
Lilian May Willis was born on May 23, 1915, in Thornton Heath, Surrey. She married Don Ross, who had worked as a manager at London’s Dorchester Hotel. In 1938. When he became Steward at Marlborough College, the newly-wedded couple moved here to Marlborough.
“As a big city person, Lilian confessed to being anxious about this,” said Councillor Fogg. “She felt she was in an unknown land, but recalled, ‘Soon I knew this was home. I have put my roots down deep and have never wanted to leave Marlborough.’
“Life was not easy in those early days. With the outbreak of war, Don joined the RAF. After his demob at the end of the war, he became too infirm to work – their son Andrew’s early memory of him as a young lad is of a man who sat permanently in an armchair.
“Thus Lilian had to combine bringing up two young boys, Alistair and Andrew, with caring for a sick husband and attempting to eke out a limited income.
“This she did admirably, taking on a series of secretarial jobs before going to work as PA to Bob Pelham. Bob had founded Pelham’s Puppet’s in Silverless Street and Lillian was an ideal person to fit into the philosophy of ‘make-do and mend’ that permeated the firm.
“In the era of post-war shortages, all the early puppets were made from recycled materials. The local scrap-yards received many visits from Bob, a tall, blonde rather loose limbed figure, who, at times seemed to look like one of his own creations.
“Of course, the most famous of all the Pelham Puppets was Muffin the Mule, but many other delights – now highly valued collectables – emerged from the works.
“Lilian’s rooted common-sense made her indispensable at Pelham’s. Amidst all that creativity her cool-headed ability to pick up everything was vital to the growth to international fame of this remarkable company.”
But Lilian’s family and working commitments did not prevent her becoming involved in the wider community, said Councillor Fogg, pointing out: “The number of organisation that benefited from her verve and enthusiasm is too numerous to mention.
“She became President of the Chamber of Trade. In 1975, she was co-opted onto Marlborough Town Council and, within 18 months, had become Mayor.
“These were tenuous times for the body civic. The Local Government Act of 1972, had abolished many of the centuries-old powers of the old boroughs. Even their ancient traditions, including the office of Mayor itself, were under threat.
“It was vital to assert the continuing importance of these traditions in asserting a place’s identity. Lilian did this admirably, always maintaining the dignity of the office without incorporating the dead hand of pomposity.”
He added: “While Lilian was a formidable figure, she never bore grudges. The council was a happy place. The office had its mishaps, however. Lilian was the first lady Mayor to lead the Beating of the Bounds of the ancient borough.
“At a certain point, the boundary lies for quite a way down the middle of the River Og. Wishing to do it properly, she accepted the gallant offer of Councillor Tony Gray to give her a piggy back down this vital stretch. It all went well until he slipped in the mud and deposited her in 15 inches of water.”
And Councillor Fogg concluded: “We can be proud to have known her. God rest her soul.”