Elaine Harris writes:
MARGARET BRIERLY, a deaconess in the Church of England, was a strong and inspiring woman, whose understated faith made her who she was and shone through everything she did. It is all too easy to exaggerate when composing a tribute, but I can honestly say that I never heard her speak unkindly of anyone. Hubris and pomposity amused her, but her laughter was never cynical or unkind.
Born in March 1932, Margaret spent her formative years during the Second World war, a period she never forgot. Ever afterwards, she referred to speed bumps as tank traps, and in her seventies she gave inspiring talks to primary-school children about her experiences.
After leaving school, Margaret gained shorthand and typing qualifications before training as a parish worker. In this post, she served in some of the most poverty-stricken areas in post-war London.
I first met Margaret when I was around ten years old, living in a delicious Cumbrian village, Tebay, our temporary home, owing to my father’s work. The Brierly family had already been there since 1963. Margaret had used her multiple musical talents to form a prestigious choir for boys who considered Sunday school “soppy”. Margaret was a gifted pianist, organist, and musical director, singing alto and later teaching herself to play the guitar. She continued both singing in choirs and playing the organ until she was 80.
Music was a bond that we shared. How it came to be known that I was a singer I cannot recall, but I believe I was asked to sing a hymn or verse thereof and a discussion then took place about transcribing the words into Braille.
Only recently did I discover that, after this event, Margaret taught herself Braille. She learned to write it in the most difficult way possible, using a hand-frame and stylus, or “dotter”. To do this, you literally have to write everything backwards and do it all by touch. (Imagine writing in print on the reverse side of the page, with all your letters written right to left and back to front, and being unable to read what you have written until you turn the page over.)
She used this skill to help at least one parishioner in Norfolk, transcribing hymns and other information. She also put hymns into large print for parishioners in Lancashire many years later. It appears that our meeting triggered a lifelong interest in coping with little or no sight.
I found Margaret to be charming, funny, sparkling, inspiring, and filled with warmth and love. A gifted communicator, she never talked down to or at children, but always with them; I felt accepted on merit, never judged, limited, or defined by blindness.
When Margaret introduced herself to my mother, it was as “the Vicar’s wife”. Trained to assist her husband, Henry, in his parish duties, she worked with youth groups and ran the Mothers’ Union; as a full-time mother of four, she was more than qualified for the post.
After leaving Tebay, Henry served several parishes simultaneously, first in Norfolk and then Oxfordshire. Margaret began taking services for him after being licensed deaconess by Bishop Maurice Wood in Norwich Cathedral, on 19 November 1973. (Coincidentally, her funeral was held on the same date 48 years later.) She continued to take services long after her retirement.
Working alongside Henry did not prevent Margaret taking on work outside the family, first at St Barnabas’ Counselling Centre, then at Keswick Hall teacher-training college, which later amalgamated with the University of East Anglia. She continued simultaneously to nurture her family and garden, just as she had always done.
In correspondence, she never missed a birthday, and spoke of dogs: my guide dogs and Henry’s dog, Lucy, whom she cherished in his memory.
Margaret Ann Brierly died on 20 October, aged 89.