Sheila in front of the OUR DOGS tent, judging her beloved Bulldogs at a summer show
Sheila’s funeral service is provisionally planned for Thursday 3rd November at St Mary's Church King's Walden, Nr Whitwell, Herts at 1pm, with a reception afterwards at the Bell Hotel in the High Street, Codicote, Herts.
Please check before travelling by telephoning Sally or Harry Hawkins on (01462 675111)
There’s a lot to be said for trying to see eye to eye...
Sheila was born on the 4th March 1921 in Buxton, Derbyshire, the cherished only child of Alfred and Ann Gascoin.
Her father was injured during the First World War. Both parents were born in the 1880s so they were relatively old parents when Sheila was born. When talking about her parents she used the word ‘cherished’ deliberately. They both died when Sheila was relatively young.
Early photographs portray a smiling dainty elfin-like child who was never far away from animals. This smiling personality continued all her life.
On leaving school she worked for The Lime Company in a secretarial capacity which eventually became ICI and it was here that she met her husband John (Himself). They married in 1941.
Sheila was not sure if the wedding would take place as John was in the army, stationed in the Shetland Islands, and missed the train he should have caught for the wedding. However he turned up in the nick of time and the marriage went ahead as planned at Fairfield Chapel, Chapel en le Frith, Derbyshire.
Both John and Sheila worked hard for the war effort, she worked as a nurse in addition to her office duties. She also had an active social life.
After the war Sheila started to travel – a passion that was to remain with them for all of their lives. Just after the war they embarked on a cycling holiday round France and fell in love with a Bulldog called Chian.
John was transferred to ICI Welwyn and so it was that they settled in the Home Counties.
After a while they found their paradise in the shape of Frogmore Cottage, Kings Walden near Hitchin. When they moved there it was in poor shape. They set about renovating it until it became a comfortable country cottage surrounded by delightful countryside. Anyone who visited it could not fail to be beguiled by its charm, atmosphere and welcome.
It was here too that their reputation as dog owners grew. They bred champion Bulldogs and became nationally and internationally known – most notably for one particular character called Champion Chiansline Cavalier. As a young dog he was a "determined, trundling Imp who preferred to go through obstacles rather then round them - hence his nickname of Tank the Champ".
Their involvement with Bulldogs led them to many experiences and different countries in several continents on judging engagements. They both judged at Crufts which gave them pride and pleasure.
Although their first love was bulldogs, Sheila in particular went on to own and love an Italian Greyhound, a very special Tibetan Spaniel called Patchouli and several Giant Schnauzers, the last of which is called Gabby (readers of Feminine View will remember as the Black Beloved) who has been re-homed with Sheila’s friends Harry and Sally and more of which anon.
Frogmore Cottage continued to grow and develop as a much visited and loved house. Sheila’s excellent cooking was of the country variety and mostly would include something grown from the garden or shot by the local gamekeeper. Sheila was a wonderful and welcoming hostess and could knock up a few scones whilst a visitor would be admiring the view from the kitchen and chatting. Her cheesy leeks were to die for! Alternative Sheila would invite one to read or relax in the lounge while she saw to the supper and she could be heard whistling away at the classics. She always made entertaining appear so effortless when in fact it was yet something else to be packed in a very busy day.
This peaceful oasis was set in the middle of a patchwork of arable and dairy fields. Occasionally there would be cattle to the rear of the cottage where the land gently sloped up and away and which made wonderful silhouettes as the sun set behind them. The sunsets were of the childhood variety – red with wonderful dappled clouds and the sun did seem to shine in that enchanted place. For some considerable time there was a tame pheasant called Phineas. Most visitors from both home and abroad will remember with great fondness the images of a quintessential English lady, always with a dog or two at her side set in countryside which suited her so well. There were always lovely flower arrangements to delight the eye – no matter what the time of year. Many of us dream the dream – she lived it and shared it with others.
I knew by the smoke that so gracefully curled
Above the green elms that a cottage was near,
And I said, ‘If there’s peace to be found in the world,
A heart that was humble might hope for it here’.
Thomas Moore 1770-1852
Not surprisingly Sheila made and kept many friends from different walks of life. One of her closest friends of probably longest standing fondly recalls the time that she met Sheila in the 1950s which typifies her. Sheila was found wandering in the countryside dangling a dogless lead. It transpired that she had lost a Bulldog. As her friend said – how could you lose a Bulldog?
It was during the Seventies and Eighties that Sheila’s talent for writing really developed out of her instinctual love of prose and poetry. She began to write for the weekly National Dog Newspaper called Our Dogs and so too began a relationship with many readers who regularly (and some avidly) turned to her column first every week. This relationship gave her the greatest pleasure and fulfilment of her life and she loved it and the many friends she made through it. It caused her great sadness when she became too ill to write her column or keep up with her friends she made in this way. Although others would have gladly taken on the role of contacting her friends for her, Sheila always refused, saying that she would shortly feel recovered enough to do it for herself. It was a tricky balance as she was such a positive thinking person and was convinced this would happen in the fullness of time.
Sheila had a writing style all of her own and developed her column into almost a diary of what had happened to her and her dogs over the pervious week, followed by help and advice for readers over various queries which arose in the world of dogs. Almost by default she took on the role of being a clearing house for re-homing of dogs of all breeds, building up a large database of people who would re-home unwanted animals. She also enjoyed reporting various dog shows.
Any visitor to Sheila’s house on a Friday afternoon were prepared to spend time on their own in the lounge whilst Sheila fielded phone calls which resulted from the Friday publication of Our Dogs. No one minded in the least: Sheila gave her time unstintingly to all and there was always something interesting to read or look at whilst she was thus engaged. She lived to help others. On re-reading some of her articles one is struck how accurately she described her beloved countryside and its various activities. It didn’t really matter if one had never actually met her or knew her part of the world because she described it as it was.
She was the author of the book Puppies and Dogs as well as short pieces for many other publications, She had been approached several times to write more substantial material but sadly she never had the time to devote the many concentrated hours in total which this would have necessitated. Ironically her best time for writing was during her husband’s 12 years’ battle against cancer and so she devoted herself primarily to him. He had several good remissions during this time so she had to pack writing more into these periods, which came between bouts of illness and trips to London and Luton for treatment. Sheila regularly wrote long into the night in order to complete assignments.
Sheila had a great love of travel and found it was possible to combine three of her interests at the same time. She would travel to many destinations (Australia was a great favourite), see the country, judge one or several shows, take many photographs and then write about her experiences in her column drawing on anything and everything. She had a keen observation of all things. She was not one to shy away from unpleasantness on these trips and would befriend and try to publicise anything unfair, inhumane or cruel. Even during her last few years she chronicled her illness and her admissions to hospital which provides chilling reading as to older life, its frailties and the attitudes of the ignorant.
John died when Sheila was in her early sixties. Being unable to drive she quickly learned to do so in order to carry on living in the country. She became a car owner in her own right and much enjoyed driving round the country until the last few years, on many activities including visiting friends and judging at dog shows.
She was a tireless worker for animal welfare, particularly dogs, and was heavily involved in trying to better the lot of animals. She was fearless in tackling the unpleasant issues of dog fighting and other more overt forms of cruelty, which led to receiving threats – some very frightening. Even this she turned to a positive stance because as she said she had been effective in upsetting those who needed to be upset. She won plaudits and awards for her work in this field. A glance at her paperwork also reveals so many fan letters and life membership to various dog clubs in recognition as to her work in their area.
Sheila had many other interests too. She was knowledgeable about all aspects of horticulture and enjoyed working in her garden. She loved all flowers and roses were high on her list of favourites. She enjoyed her clothes and kept abreast of fashion. She took great pleasure in music and the performing arts. She travelled abroad to see and hear some of her favourite performers. She found pleasure in both – both writing and reading it.
Even as she approached her eighties she led a varied, interesting and full life. Sadly, nothing lasts forever and ill health began to catch up with her. Her consultant (and his support nursing staff with whom she formed a strong bond) became concerned about her living so far out in the country. It was something that had never worried her but she had to heed his advice and so moved into the village of Codicote which she felt still had the feel of the countryside about it whilst at the same time enjoyed several amenities. It was no coincidence that she opted for Coach House which was situated near to hostelries and eating houses so that she could continue providing hospitality to her many friends. She appreciated the House Manager of her gated community, and her Leonard Cheshire Carers over the last few months and they in turn defended her independence in the face of some of the more patronising "professionals".
Sheila badly missed her dogs in recent years. Although Frogmore was fairly isolated she never felt lonely because of her canine companions. She decided that it would not be fair to have a dog in a much smaller property without a garden, and despite the tremendous loneliness this produced she decided that she must still be of service to others. During her eighties when writing became difficult she became a volunteer for Age Concern and was still an active Friend of St. Albans Abbey as well as other local activities when her health would allow. She had a catholic interest in all things religious both conventional and no-conventional and would have many a debate with her friends she met recently through the church life. She cherished her friends. To be a friend she was a friend.
Last May Sheila was getting ready to have lunch with her friends and neighbours at the local pub when she had a fall in her bedroom and broke her hip. She underwent a total hip replacement which medically was a success but the procedure left her so frail she had to opt for full time nursing care in Baldock. She was able to recall her past life but the memory which remained most vivid was her country life at Frogmore Cottage. For most of her life walking the dogs in the countryside was a very important and pleasurable daily routine which was then sadly missed.
During her time in nursing care in our imagination we both once more stepped lightly into the bluebell woods near her home. In our mind’s eye we were "home" once more.
And what of Gabby?
Gabby is now over 10 years old and although much more docile of late is still a girl who loves to run and jump and generally enjoys life. When adopted by her present owners, Harry was heard to say "That dog is not sleeping upstairs". "That dog" of course now sleeps upstairs in one of her many beds, next to her owners. She enjoys a better night than anyone in the house. She is also devoted to Harry who provides her with regular twice daily walks and allows her enough time to indulge in her first university degree – that of sniffology. Her research degree is in the intimate study of chasing away every squirrel, rat and cat in sight (and some dogs if she gets the chance).
When she first came to The Three Gables there was also great sport to be had in chasing the resident population of white doves. Last thing at night Harry and Gabby go out together round the garden to commune with nature, then she has to eat her treat quickly in order to rush up to bed before Harry has stepped on the first stair. There is great jostling for first place.
There have been recent welcome newcomers to her world in the shape of cattle installed in the field opposite and these cause much interest and some shouting from her Royal Hairness and she has to be kept under strict control as she spots them in the distance.
Although her current owners knew next to nothing about Giant Schnauzers before adopting her they quickly realised the instinctual behaviour of herding, vermin control and guarding were important characteristics along with the propensity to be built like a Sherman tank. Everything about her is big including her personality. Having said that, once on discovering an intruder in the garden in the garden and consequently rushing out to "attack" very quickly turned into "would you like to rub my tummy" routine. The would-burglar didn’t exactly shake in his shoes.
Gabby has recently undergone a very successful tibial plateau levelling operation for arthritis in one of her legs. She is a very large present in the life of her owners and most of the household revolves around her, her needs and her toybox, the contents of which are regularly strewn all over the house and garden much to the annoyance of her owners who always trip up on them.
There will be many souls of dogs as well as human who will welcome Sheila on the path to eternity…. But how we shall miss her.
Taking Rupert Brooke’s poem `The Soldier’ seems very apposite in Sheila’s case – she was a soldier on behalf of dogs and animals everywhere…
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by sons of home,
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts of peace, under an English Heaven.
I was sorry to hear of the death of Sheila Alcock last week. Although small in stature she was indeed a giant when it came to fulfilling what she saw as her obligation to help others less fortunate than herself and dogs in general.
This she did via her ‘Feminine View’ column in OUR DOGS every week for over 20 years until illness prevented her from coping with the pressures.
Anyone who had ever visited her cottage at King’s Walden, near Hitchin would testify to her amazing popularity and ability to record and convey information in those pre-internet days. Her ‘computer’ was a brain which could recall dates and telephone numbers and a simple card index system of topics covered in her weekly column.
The phone rang constantly and often the only way she could enjoy a meal was to take it off the hook for she would not entertain an answering machine. When fax machines became the vogue it was I who travelled down to Hertfordshire to get her connected to this ‘new fangled thing’!
Her ability to relate to her readers was made even more tangible by her talk of her dogs ‘the Old Gentleman’, the ‘Flower of the Orient’, the ‘Bete Noir’, the ‘Black Madonna’ - a Bulldog, Tibetan Spaniel and two Giant Schnauzers - all of which were a big part of her life and the welcome at Frogmore Cottage over the years.
Her late husband John was a gregarious Kennel Club member and despite fighting cancer over 12 years remained positive and supportive of her role as she did of him in his bid to enjoy what little time he knew he had. They loved their beautiful cottage garden and spent many happy hours giving people a reason to stop and admire the ‘chocolate box’ view from the narrow lane. Both also judged their chosen breed Bulldogs at Crufts
As with so many who wield the pen and not the sword she made enemies and because of her honest and forthright manner she was turned down for Kennel Club membership in the early 1980s, allegedly for something truthful she had written about a show which was run by a member of the General Committee at that time. It was an embarrassment for her and her proposer and seconder one of whom was a much respected chairman of various sub committees who went on to become a Kennel Club Vice President.
I last visited her in her new sheltered accommodation home at Codicote in 1999 to which she was unable to take her last Giant Schnauzer ‘Gabby’ but which was rehomed with friends nearby. She remained positive and despite being unable to drive anymore was determined to enjoy this next part of life’s journey. There is little doubt that her column was ‘of its time’ and that OUR DOGS recognition of her talents enabled others to benefit from a special lady whose selflessness was a rare and helpful commodity seldom found.