Mrs Margaret Mary Maitland Fowler, O.B.E.

Mrs M M M Fowler

Mrs M M M Fowler

Mrs Fowler, legendary owner of Leamington’s pre-war Blue Café, was born in Derbyshire and grew up in Polesworth, where her father was Vicar of the Parish Church, and Rural Dean.  In 1906, at the age of 25, she married George Herbert Fowler, an Oxford-educated mining engineer who was managing director of Arley Colliery in nearby Nuneaton. They lived at Hall End, Tamworth.  Mrs Fowler was already well-known locally for her Red Cross work, and Mr Fowler for his work in the parish where he served as churchwarden for several years.  He was also in the Volunteer Reserve (the 8th Sherwoods, formerly the 4th Notts Volunteers), where he was known for his kindness and consideration towards his men. Gazetted Major in 1912, he enlisted at the outbreak of war in 1914. Lt-Col. Fowler was killed by sniper fire on 15th October 1915, out searching for a wounded comrade, thought to be lying close to enemy lines.  A public subscription raised funds for a commemorative stained glass window at St Leonard’s Church and the Tamworth Herald reported that Mrs Fowler had received a letter of “high appreciation of the late Col. Fowler’s gallant services” from the King.

Mrs Fowler, centre, 2nd row, Weddington Hall VAD Hospital

Mrs Fowler, centre, 2nd row, Weddington Hall VAD Hospital

When her husband enlisted, Mrs Fowler visited schools with Red Cross nurses, teaching first aid.  She became Commandant of the Weddington Hall [VAD] Hospital, Nuneaton, where she made a name for herself for her dedication and endless kindness to the disabled and wounded servicemen sent there for treatment and recuperation, – witnessed by her autograph album dated June 1916, with its photographs, notes, drawings and messages of thanks in both French and English.

Weddington Tribute to Mrs Fowler

Weddington Tribute to Mrs Fowler

She organized concert parties, motor car outings, musical evenings, and light recreational sports for those who could manage it, working tirelessly to give the men the emotional as well as the physical support they needed, to help them return to a more normal way of life.

At the end of the war, with no family of her own, Mrs Fowler, now appointed O.B.E, moved away to Leamington, first to Binswood Avenue, and later, to 21 Newbold Terrace.  She continued her charity work, organizing with others, The Alexandra Musical Society in aid of disabled ex-servicemen, and fund-raising for nurses and other societies.

Mrs Fowler's 'Fleet' outside 21 Newbold Terrace

Mrs Fowler’s ‘Fleet’ outside 21 Newbold Terrace

Mrs Fowler was a great fan of caravans and caravanning, attending rallies nationwide.  Throughout the twenties, in support of the Red Cross she attended festivals and pageants across the Midlands, with a First Aid tent and dressing station.  She came to realise around 1925/6 that a caravan equipped with firm beds, cupboards and lockers was a much better option.

Mr Morgan receiving First Aid

“Morgan” receiving First Aid

As she wrote in an article for “The Caravan” in 1937, after a decade of using her caravan in this way, she could convert it into a First Aid Station in approximately half an hour, safely stowing medical equipment, medicines and lotions, sterile water, bandages and splints, and vast supplies of milk, sugar and tea, “as many minor casualties make a marvellous recovery after a hot drink.”  The First Aid caravan was such a success that she was regularly invited by the Red Cross to install it at busy crossroads in peak holiday periods, to attend to cyclists, hikers, and children who had trapped fingers in car doors.  On at least one occasion, she attended to someone having an angina attack. She was later made an Honorary Life Member of the Red Cross for her unstinting work.  In WW2, Mrs Fowler’s caravans were in operation throughout the blitz, with one placed at the disposal of the War Emergency Committee for use as a mobile office in blitzed areas.

Meeting the Duke of Kent

Meeting the Duke of Kent

Visits from HM the Queen, Princess Mary and the Duke of Kent were a tribute to her and the valuable work she was doing.  Her four dogs were almost as famous as their owner.  Often wrapped in Union flags, and always with Red Cross collecting boxes attached to their collars, they accompanied Mrs Fowler everywhere, collecting £600 for Red Cross funds during the war years. The famous four blue caravans even made appearances at the Leamington Competitive Music Festivals, where as a Vice-President, Mrs Fowler not only handed out trophies to the winners, but provided marvellous teas for the adjudicators from her caravans parked in the yard behind the Town Hall.

Demolition of 20 Newbold Terrace

Demolition of 20 Newbold Terrace

What was not widely known at the time was that Mrs Fowler bought and demolished the slightly dilapidated house next door at Newbold Terrace, to provide off-street parking for her fleet of cars and ‘vans.

Mrs Fowler’s hobby was the stage: she invited to The Blue Café the top music hall performers, the leading actors, musicians and ballroom dancers of the day, regardless of expense. She loved to attend pageants and festivals, such as those at Malvern, Kenilworth and Warwick, sometimes appearing along with  “Morgan” and her dogs, in fancy dress.

Mrs Fowler, Morgan & Land Rover

Mrs Fowler, Morgan & Land Rover

Mrs Fowler at Malvern Festival

Mrs Fowler at Malvern Festival

She met George Bernard Shaw and Alastair Sim. Arthur Askey gave her his autograph.  M.P and later, Prime Minister, Anthony Eden visited. Mrs Fowler’s album is a time capsule of pre-war entertainment, with its photographs and messages from actors, singers and dancers and musicians, invariably complimenting her on her management and the conditions and audiences they enjoyed at The Blue Café. They often returned, year on year.

The indomitable Mrs Fowler was an astute businesswoman, into niche marketing with her trade mark “blue” long before this type of branding became almost de rigueur for business promotion. She devoted her life to the service of others, taking her dogs and their collecting boxes and her caravans to festivals, rallies, flower shows and sporting events across the Midlands in support of the Red Cross, disabled ex-Servicemen, Nurses, Leamington Girl Guides and other deserving causes.  She opened her home at 21 Newbold Terrace to actors, musicians, composers and local dignitaries, organised fund-raising concerts at the Café and held sales of work and exhibitions of products made by ex-Servicemen. Her charming smile and manner, her generosity and kindness meant that no-one could bear to turn her down. Mrs Fowler never remarried.  She remained in Leamington until her death in 1957 at the age of 76.

Compiled by Margaret Rushton with information from Peter Chater, Leamington Spa Courier and Tamworth Herald online archives.

All images courtesy of Peter Chater and family.

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