A Voice from an English Village
Betty Graham-Yooll - a Biography
Betty grew up with her
brother, Richard ("Dick"), in the grounds
of a private boarding school, St Probus, owned
by her parents, Gilbert and Grace (née Nixon) Nott.
Betty and her older brother, only one year apart in
age, became inseparable
companions through their childhood, while Betty's relationship with her
mother became more ambivalent as she grew older
(see the poem "A Daughter's thoughts on
her dead Mother).
In 1932 she accompanied her formidable aunt to Palestine to live with her in Jerusalem for more than a year.
Knighted as a Dame of the Order of St John of Jerusalem (see 'Links') in 1919, Margaret Nixon had been appointed by the League of Nations at the close of World War I to establish social services in Syria. She immediately found herself combating the bureaucracies of two colonial governments in an unsuccessful effort to obtain the needed funding, and in 1921 she was appointed Inspector of women's and children's welfare in Palestine and moved to Jerusalem.
As a high-ranking officer of the British Mandate, she was able to introduce Betty to the centre of the political world of the Middle East. A time of great events and international intrigues, Betty's experience inspired further visits and a lifelong love for the people. (See "Palestine")
When Betty returned to England, her brother Dick had been commissioned as a flying officer in the Royal Marines, based in Portsmouth and serving with the Fleet Air Arm. Attending a naval ball, he introduced her to a fellow officer, Surgeon Commander Malcolm Graham-Yooll.
By the time Malcolm left England a few months later for a Far East tour of duty on the battleship HMS Rodney, Betty was in love. They kept up their relationship through correspondence until they married in 1938.
Malcolm was assigned to a shore-based position in a naval hospital, and when war broke out Betty enjoyed the companionship of married life and the conviviality of a naval officers' community, despite the periodic strafings and bombings by Luftwaffe visitors to England's south coast. The only cloud was her brother's departure when his aircraft carrier, HMS Glorious, left England for an undisclosed destination, which was to cover the evacuation of troops from Norway.
In the summer of 1940, two German battlecruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, homed in on the smoke from the Glorious' stack, and scored direct hits on the carrier's hangar before any aircraft could be launched for a retaliatory strike. It resulted in a sinking in which more than 1,500 men lost their lives. For Betty the news of her brother's death was a devastating blow. Few of the bodies were ever recovered. (The absence of a grave for her brother left her with a profound disinterest in markers for the dead and, following her wishes, there is none for her.)
After Malcolm went to sea again, Betty played her own part in the war effort by learning a new skill as a riveter. She worked at an aircraft factory building Spitfires until Malcolm returned home after his ship, the minelaying cruiser HMS Adventure, was blown up in the Irish Sea. Receiving an OBE on the way, Malcolm was assigned to a hospital on another naval base and they moved to Chatham.
In 1945 Malcolm left the navy to take over a medical practice in Pembroke, South Wales. Soon after he bought his practice it was nationalised under the NHS, imposing a heavier burden of accounting and administration.
In addition to her community involvement, she also found time to attend London meetings of CAABU (the Council for Arab-British Understanding) and make occasional Middle East visits under their auspices.
Broadchalke and last years
After her husband's death in 1967, Betty returned to Salisbury, the city of her birth, finally settling in Broadchalke where she made her home.
Not content to retire quietly, she returned to Israel and Palestine in 1991, staying in Jerusalem and touring the West Bank. No conventional tourist, and not caring for official guides, she confronted Israeli soldiers and broke into a refugee camp after curfew. Her visit awoke in her an even deeper concern for the Palestinian people, inspiring more poems and other writings.
A lover of poetry and a talented poet, she belonged to Salisbury Circle Poets, Salisbury Writers Circle, and Wessex Poets, published prolifically in their journals and produced her own book of verses, "Landscapes".
Fascinated by the story of the 18th century writer William Beckford, she paid several visits to Fonthill Abbey and began work on a biography, a portion of which is now posted on this site (see Beckford)
Visiting Tuscany on her 90th birthday she, predictably, wrote a poem for the occasion.
Despite a broken hip and crippling illness, she fought fiercely for her independence, staying in her own home and continuing to play an enthusiastic game of bridge well into her final year. Her funeral was held at Salisbury Crematorium a week after her death and her ashes were later interred at All Saints Church, Broadchalke.
Betty continued to write into her nineties, and "A Last Birthday," included on the Poems page of this site, was written at age 91. The poem below was written on the occasion of her 90th birthday when she visited Liz and Robert in Montisi, Italy:
Yesterday no more to be.