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In Memory of Molly Lefebure

‘Molly o’ the Morgue’: My Grandmother

By Oliver Gerrish

Extracted from http://archmusicman.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/molly-o-morgue-my-grandmother-lefebure.html on 4 March 2012 and reproduced by kind permission of Oliver Gerrish.

Molly Lefebure was born on 6th October 1919 in Green Lanes, Clissold Park to Charles Hector Lefebure and his wife Elizabeth. Her Father was a senior civil servant and was partly responsible for the foundation of the NHS with Beveridge.

Molly Lefebure photographed by her husband John Gerrish.
The Lefebure family home and Molly’s birthplace.
Charles and Elizabeth Lefebure.
Molly as a very little girl in Devon when the circus came to town.
Molly Lefebure (right) with her sister, Elizabeth, in Devon.
Molly and Elizabeth Lefebure.

Molly and Elizabeth both attended The North London Collegiate School from the age of five. My Grandmother was always so proud of her good education there and of being an ‘Old North Londoner’. While there Molly had her first piece of writing published aged nine.

After school Molly spent some time in Paris learning French, climbing mountains in the Alps with her Father and sister, and then half a year at St Godric’s Secretarial College in Hampstead.

Molly and Elizabeth Lefebure.
Elizabeth and Molly Lefebure in the grounds of their old school, The North London Collegiate.
John Gerrish.

After her year out Molly started at King’s College in London and also became a newspaper reporter in East London and worked fourteen hour days, seven days a week. While at King’s she met her future husband John Gerrish.

A year in to their education War interceded and Molly, along with everyone else, was called-up and John enrolled at Sandhurst. It was at this time, in a cemetery in Walthamstow, that Molly first encountered the famous Dr Keith Simpson, who was impressed with her secretarial work, and then she became his private secretary. Dr Simpson was the Home Office pathologist and head of the Department of Forensic Medicine at Guy’s Hospital. Despite what she had first thought of as yet more ‘horror of secretarial work’ in 1940 Molly became the first woman in the World to work in a mortuary and her wisdom, wit and strong stomach lead to a wonderful five years of work with Dr Simpson and ‘Miss Molly’ (as she became known at Scotland Yard) became a regular sight at Scotland Yard, mortuaries and murder sights throughout England. Her beauty and youth contrasted with the often grotesque cases her and Keith Simpson worked on, one of the most famous of which was that of Mrs Dobkin, whom Dr Simpson identified some eighteen months after being murdered by her husband from an incomplete skeleton with ‘a few withered tissues adhering’. Molly would attend up to eight postmortems in a day. She would often say things to me like; ‘you can eat anywhere once you’ve eaten a ham sandwich in a mortuary’!!

Molly Lefebure (‘Miss Molly’) in the courtyard at Guy’s
Molly Lefebure in the East End.
Molly Lefebure.

When ‘Miss Molly’ left Dr Simpson’s side in 1945 he was pretty devastated. John Gerrish was back from India, where he had been in the army, and her and John wished to start a family. They were married in Marylebone in 1945 and, after a reception at Grosvenor House, they went for their honeymoon in Cumbria. They must have had a huge amount to talk about; John had had an interesting time, with much merriment and fun in India and had not seen much if any fighting there, while Molly, back in England, had seen as many dead bodies as soldier on the front line in Europe.

John Gerrish with his platoon on the North West Frontier.

The Lake District was probably the perfect tonic after so much gore and grime in Blitz scarred London and Molly and John enjoyed their time there staying near Little Town on the slopes of Catbells. Molly’s Father had often taken her and her sister Elizabeth for walking holidays in Cumbria, and sometimes the Alps, and she knew Newlands Valley well and the little white farmhouse at the top of it, which in 1957 she bought for the princely sum of £500. This was to prove the catalyst for her next great passion in writing; Cumbrian history and the Lake Poets. When not in Cumrbia Molly and John and their two children lived in Kingston-on-Thames where Molly worked as a group therapist and counsellor for youth clubs and founded The Cambridge Club there. On one occasion she had arranged a football match with another youth club and the Mayoress of Kingston was in attendance. Molly had told her club that they must be on best behaviour and be friendly. Towards the end of the match one of her team started swearing quite vigorously at one of the opposing team. Molly, sitting next to the Mayoress, was furious and marched up to the lad and said ‘Bill, you know this is supposed to be a friendly?!’ and he replied ‘I know Mrs G, I would have punched him had it not been’! Molly studied drug addiction and wrote two books about this under the name ‘Mary Blandy’, a murderous Eighteenth century ancestor of hers.

Mary Blandy at Oxford Gaol.
A teenage Molly (right) in the Alps with her father and sister, Elizabeth.

From 1957 Molly wrote many of her books on the Lakes and the Lake Poets, of which Samuel Taylor Coleridge was her main subject. She is now viewed to have been one of the foremost experts on Coleridge in the World. Molly assisted her close friend Richard Wordsworth in starting and running the internationally famous Wordsworth Annual Summer Conference at Grasmere, where she lectured and organised walks and excursions in connection with the Lake Poets, Romantic studies and even wild birds! In 1988 she won The Hunter Davies Prize in The Lakeland Book of the Year Awards for her book on Coleridge ‘The Bondage of Love’.

Molly Lefebure by Goldscope Mine, Newlands Valley.
Molly Lefebure while out hunting with the Blencathra.

Molly subsequently became a great friend of famous walker Alfred Wainwright, who went on to illustrate two books for her; Scratch & Co – The Great Cat Expedition (1968) and The Hunting of Wilberforce Pike (Victor Gollancz 1970). The former was republished for Mr Wainwright’s centenary and the launch party was held on top of Scafell Pike.

Molly wrote numerous radio and television plays and scripts and short stories for magazines and journals. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2010.

Up until her death on 27th February this year she was working and had recently completed her last book on Coleridge which will be published next year, and another book on the Lake District, also to be published next year, both by Lutterworth.

Her wartime memoirs during her time with Dr Keith Simpson will be re-published on 14th March under the name ‘Murder on the Home Front’ and have been made in to a major new ITV two-part series of the same name to be broadcast in April. Two of her wartime novels will also be republished this year.

She really was the most marvellous lady and such a wonderful Grandmother. She only lost Grandpa in November but, as he instructed her to do in such an event, she ‘kept calm and carried on’ editing her diaries, which she had kept since the age of eleven, and working with her secretary and agent.

She will be missed by all who knew her, but her legacy, wit and wisdom can’t but live on.

Molly Lefebure
My Grandmother and me in Cumbria in September 2012.

Murder on the Home Front: A True Story of Morgues, Murderers and Mystery in the Blitz by Molly Lefebure is available now.

Click here to find out more.

All Lefebure family images in this blog © Oliver Gerrish