The inspirational Dorothy Walker

It was an honour and a pleasure to have known Dorothy Walker who died at Brentwood Lodge, Leyburn, aged 108, on April 2. Her enjoyment of life, the twinkle in her eye and her Christian faith were inspirational. When she retired as a teacher from Bellerby School in 1971 (14 years before it closed) the vicar, the Rev T F Unsworth, said she had a Peter Pan like quality – and she retained that throughout her life.

She grew up in Selby and when she was 21 was appointed to teach the 20 or more children at the primary school in Bellerby. It was a cold, grey evening when she got off the train in Leyburn and, as she wasn’t able to find a taxi, she had to walk the two miles to the village. By then it was snowing and as she searched for accommodation she believed she would not stay long in Bellerby.


But she did and married a local man, Fred Walker, who died about a year after their golden wedding anniversary in 1995. “I have enjoyed all my years in Bellerby and I am very grateful for all the help I have been given,” she said. (Above – with school children at Bellerby)

She was 99-years-old when she retired as the organist at St John’s, Bellerby, and a year later young pianists were still going to her home for piano lessons. As the Rev Unsworth said, she awakened the love of music in several generations of children in and around Bellerby.

Dorothy told me that she loved children too much to want to be a head teacher. Instead she took on all the music teaching at the school as well as doing needlework with the seniors.

It was the sudden departure of a head teacher in 1928 that led to her long involvement with the Wensleydale Tournament of Song for she was asked to prepare the pupils for this annual event in Leyburn.


Just days before her 100th birthday she said: “I love the tournament.” (Above: being filmed at the Tournament in 2006) She was delighted when she was made one its patrons in 2000. In Bellerby she had organised choirs for the ladies, the WI, the children, the church and the Glee Club to sing at the tournaments. By the time she was 100 she had trained the highest number of pianists who had taken part in its junior music classes.


She had celebrated her 96th birthday in hospital after fracturing her hip. But that did not stop her attending the tournament to see her student, Laura Reeks (pictured with Dorothy in February 2006), win a cup for playing the piano.


In March 2008 her good friends, Mary and John Storr, held a birthday party in their home for Dorothy and Beattie Tupling  (above)as both were celebrating their 102nd birthdays. Mrs Tupling’s son, Trevor, and her two grandsons were taught by Dorothy. “We have been friends for 80 years,” Mrs Tupling said. And Dorothy commented:“We only have happy memories – we have never had a wrong word between us. We have both found a lot of happiness in this village.” Mrs Tupling died in January 2009. (Below: Dorothy with her son Dick on the right and John Storr)


Dorothy was delighted when one of her favourite writers, Gervase Phinn, visited her in Bellerby in May 2009 and they swapped yarns about teaching local children.

In 2010, after her 104th birthday she commented: “I don’t understand how I have lived this long. My doctor said I was not strong enough to train as a nurse and so I became a teacher instead.”

©P Land

Her chief mourners were her son, Richard (Dick), his wife, Ann, her grandchildren Tony and Rachel and her great grandchildren Logan and Blake. But as the Rev Graham Dear noted at the service of thanksgiving for her at St John’s, Bellerby  on Thursday, April 10, there were many others who had counted her as a special friend, and who had helped to care for her in the latter part of her life. He thanked the staff at Brentwood Lodge Care Home in Leyburn for the way they had made it possible for her to continue to be the person all knew and loved until she died.

Rev Dear’s address at the service:

Dorothy was born 108 years ago as Dorothy Mary Wilkinson in Caton Bay, near Scarborough and by the 1st World War she and her family had moved to Selby where they attended church at Brayton.

There she enjoyed being part of a very happy, church going family where music played a very strong part. Her mother was the first to teach her to play the piano. Her father, Wilfred, had a very fine voice and so, especially on a Sunday, they would gather around the piano to sing.

Her mother, Elizabeth, was always affectionately known as Mums. Mums was one of those people who was quietly there right to the end of Dorothy’s life as an example to her. After school and college at the age of 21 her first teaching post was here in Bellerby at the Church of England school.

When she came here in 1928 the village had three shops, two pubs and a post office. They were very hard days. People and families living in very cramped accommodation and it was difficult at first to find a place to live and to have room for her preparation, as well as later to find a home for her piano. It was a godsend when in the post office she learned that Miss Davison at The Lilacs was looking for a paying guest. This provided the ideal situation not just for herself but later for Fred and for Richard.

Aunty Madge – Miss Davison – remained was one of Dorothy’s lifetime inspirations. Her faithful attendance at Mass, her ability to always find something good to say about somebody strengthened Dorothy’s own faith and her character.

Coming to grips though with life in a somewhat insular community with its own particular dialect caused initial difficulties but the young Miss Wilkinson quickly began winning the children round. The headmaster was keen to include music and Dorothy was very soon taking children on the bus to Leyburn to take part in the Wensleydale Tournament of Song.

As the years went by she organised choirs both for children and ladies, the WI, St John’s and then the Glee Club. Often she saw these pick up awards as far away as Harrogate.The school children from Bellerby became very much the stars at the Tournament of Song and soon any rival didn’t have to give any other explanation for their failure than to just shrug their shoulders and say “Oh well you had Mrs Walker of Bellerby”.

For by then Miss Wilkinson’s heart had been won by Fred Walker of Wensley – they met at a dance in Leyburn. They had their golden wedding anniversary just a year before Fred died in 1995. From then on quietly whatever came she was ready to go home to be with Mums and with Fred – that gave her the serenity that we all marked and rejoiced in.

She was a keen walker all her life. She had walked with the children six miles to Richmond to visit the cinema. Fortunately for their sakes, if not for hers, they were able to catch the bus back. She also organised outings on the bus for picnics, walks and a paddle at Aysgarth Falls.

Distances on foot seemed no problem. Fred was a keen cricketer and she had gone to watch him play in a match at Masham. The game was still going on but she said “I think I’ll just slip away. You’ll catch me up on the road”. Well – he never caught her up. She walked all the way back to Bellerby from Masham.

Shortly before she left the village she was still walking around the village much to everyone’s concern. She remained independent to the last though appreciative to have somebody’s arm to lean on for the final lap home.

She was an early fan of flight and she went to France with one of her girlfriends quite early on. Sadly she never learnt how to drive. She had a rather interesting initial foray with Fred which nearly ended up in a ditch. However much Fred tried to persuade her to get behind the wheel again it wasn’t on.

It’s incredible to think that she retired from the school as long ago as 1971 after 44 years. She then taught music for another eight years music at the Convent of the Assumption at Richmond. She was still of course teaching her pupils at home way beyond her 100th birthday.

Dorothy loved to keep in touch with her old pupils and colleagues. As the years went by quietly but proudly Dorothy was rewarded by being made patron of Wensleydale Tournament of Song , by receiving cards from the Queen which she never dreamt she would receive, by opening the Leyburn Medical Centre, by the Swaledale Festival organising a violinist to play for her at her home; and by swapping yarns with Gervase Phinn.

She shared that marvellous childlike wonder that she had right about the world and all that went on in it to the end of her days.

St John’s was very much her spiritual home. She was very proud of having played the organ for over 70 years especially as she had initially been asked to stand in “just for a few weeks until they got a proper organist”.

Here at St John’s and later in Brentwood she was able to receive Holy Communion – following the pattern set in Selby which would last her all her life. No week was complete for her without sharing in Holy Communion. For the Vicar and me it has been my joy to see the look of gratitude on her face – a look of joy – when on each occasion this simple act so faithfully shared brought together over 100 years of experience.

In her later years the Methodist chapel at Bellerby proved a blessing to her as well. The Mothers’ Union also played a great part in her life, both in Bellerby and beyond.

I think everyone here will have a memory of Dorothy – that marvellous twinkle in her eye, the gentle pat on the back of the hand – she loved us dearly and we dearly loved her. She appreciated us graciously and perhaps made us more gracious people.

The prayer that she loved best alongside the Lord’s Prayer comes towards the end of the Holy Communion service and I think it summarises very well her experience of her Heavenly Father and her wish to share his love through Christ Jesus with others:

“Father of all, we give you thanks and praise that when we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home. Dying and living he declared your love, gave us grace and opened the gate of glory. May we who share Christ’s body live in risen life. We who drink his cup bring life to others. We whom the Spirit lights give light to the world. Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us, so we and all your children shall be free and the whole earth live to praise your name through Christ our Lord, Amen.”

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