Mary “Stephanie” Higham (née Pigott)
1920 – 2023
Stephanie was born on 29th October 1920 in London and spent her early years travelling with her parents and siblings between postings until her father left the army in 1929. The family then moved to Vienna due to her mother’s poor health. Stephanie spent the years between 1929 and 1938 between Austria and Rome. As a result, she became fluent in German and also learned to speak Italian and French. She particularly loved her time in Austria.
In 1935 her father left the family and bought a farm in the New Forest whilst Stephanie and her brother and sister stayed with their mother in Europe.
In 1939 as war was looming, Stephanie came back to London and went to secretarial college. This only lasted a term as due to her disrupted schooling she could not spell! At this time her mother relocated to Lewes.
In August 1939 Stephanie went to visit the relation of some friends in Hungary and was there when the War broke out. She then had to wait for a route home as the French closed the frontier near Geneva for a week and Stephanie had to apply to the British consulate for a loan as she ran out of money. She was on the last train eventually allowed across France to the Channel ports and endured an uncomfortable journey in a sealed train as the French were worried about German spies. When Stephanie arrived home and was expected to go to Lewes to look after her mother which she dutifully did.
Stephanie was rescued by the start of conscription for women. There were appeals for German-speaking girls to join the Wrens and Stephanie had soon joined up. The training was at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich where they slept in the cellar because of the air raids. She was then stationed for six months on the Norfolk coast and then Kent. She listened in to the German Navy and translated their communications. In 1942 she was sent to the Naval HQ at Dover which she found much more interesting as they could see what the British ships were doing. At this time the German guns could fire across the Channel and hit Dover and on one occasion a piece of shrapnel penetrated their air raid shelter just above the heads of the Wrens sitting there.
After six months she was moved to Portsmouth HQ and spent two years there. She could hitchhike in uniform to her father’s farm in the New Forest when she had time off. During this time as part of Y station she was one of a team sending information through to Bletchley Park. In 1944 their staff was doubled so they knew that the invasion was about to happen. The night before D-day she went on duty with Portsmouth harbour full of ships and when she came out from the underground bunker the next morning the harbour was empty. She spent D Day listening for any German communications and heard some of the German battery commanders although the Germans largely kept wireless silence the whole time.
In August 1944 she went to an officer training course and was posted as Third Officer to Greenock, as Admiralty Berthing Officer for three months and then Western Approaches C-in-C HQ, Liverpool as Assistant Duty Staff Officer. She always said the only place in Liverpool she could get a decent meal was the Adelphi hotel.
As the Allies advanced into Germany many military documents were captured which the German-speaking Wrens had to translate at a specially set up unit in London so Stephanie moved again. In 1945 she was one of a very small number of Wrens offered the opportunity to go to Germany as an interpreter. There were very few British women in Germany at this time so she spent six happy and spoilt months there being entertained by the British Army officers before she was demobbed.
After being demobbed she applied for and was offered a job by Thomas Cook as their rep in Lucerne, Switzerland for the summer season. After this she worked in the summers in Switzerland, Austria and Italy, and the winters were spent in the New Forest and skiing in Austria. In 1959 whilst working for Frames Tours, she met Walter Higham who she married in December 1959. They opened The English Tearoom in San Remo, Italy as Stephanie already had a flat and friends there. Their son Stephen was born there in October 1960. They found suitable premises for the tearoom but thought they wouldn’t get the necessary permits in time to open for the summer season until a local friend told them who they had to send a case of whisky to!
They ran the tearoom successfully for five years catering to British holidaymakers who needed a proper cuppa! They relocated to England in 1965, living in Verwood and then Petersfield. In both places Stephanie was involved in the Royal British Legion, as chair of the women’s section and then started a total of ten weekly lunch clubs and two carers’ support groups as well as being the WRVS District organiser for East Hants. She was also heavily involved in the Fundraising Committee for the local Sue Ryder Home, Bordean House near Petersfield.
In 2000, at the age of 80, Stephanie moved to Deddington to be nearer to Stephen, Janet, Louisa and Penny. Stephanie found making new friends quite easy, despite being a shy person, thanks to the friendliness of the members of the Bridge Club and Banbury U3A. She started Italian and Spanish language groups, joined the French groups and continued to travel which she loved to do. She remained active in the Association of WRENS, was involved in the WI and volunteered with the WRVS Books on Wheels service, for the National Trust at Upton House and joined two Fine Arts Societies.
She celebrated her 100th birthday at home in October 2020 despite having fallen and broken her leg, 6 months before. She also managed to celebrate her 101st birthday with a pub lunch before unfortunately breaking her leg again which resulted in a final move to a nursing home where she remained, still participating in her language groups via zoom until shortly before she died. She will be very much missed by her family and the friends she made – one of the last of a remarkable generation.
The Higham Family
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