Author and historian Julie Summers has filled in the blanks in the lost Midhurst years of one of the second world war’s most remarkable and most reluctant heroines, Mary Cornish.
After hitting the headlines in an astonishing saga of wartime survival at sea, Mary disappeared from the public eye without trace, dying a spinster in Midhurst in 1964.
Now, Julie, after appealing for more information through the Observer, has been able to piece together something of her final years in West Sussex.
Cornish survived the sinking of the City of Benares in 1940 and for nine days, adrift at sea in a lifeboat, she kept up the spirits of six boys, feeding them sparingly on biscuits and eking out the little drinking water they had – until finally they were rescued.
“It’s the most incredible story,” says Julie. “It makes you want to cry.
“This one lifeboat disappeared and they floated around the sea for nine days until eventually they were found.
“They were all suffering from hypothermia and sea foot, which is a condition like trench foot. They were surviving on tiny, tiny quantities of water, and Mary was keeping the boys going by telling them stories and singing songs.”
When she came back, she was lauded as a heroine and honoured with an MBE – but, Julie suspects, the public glare was too much for Mary to bear, especially when she learnt only two of the 15 girls she was originally looking after on the boat had survived.
Initially, Oxford-based Julie felt Mary’s reaction to her trauma explained her disappearance. Instead, however, she has discovered tales of a colourful happy character, leading a fulfilled life until her death in the 1960s.
After her newspaper appeal, Julie was contacted by two of Mary’s nieces, one living in London, the other in the Midhurst area. Julie now feels she has a better sense of this remarkable woman.
“What I know is that after coming back from the Benares, she had a nervous breakdown. She had worked for the Land Army for a while.”
But it turns out she was actually quite a character, not remotely a shrinking violet, Julie says: “She was a tremendous drama queen. She would fill any journey down to Midhurst with all sorts of stories, which must have been how she was in the lifeboat.”
She became a piano teacher in Midhurst and apparently loved to regale her students with tales of what had happened.
“She loved her music. She had been educated at the Academy in Vienna, and she was passionate about her music. She had lots of friends on the London music scene.
“She was also a very keen gardener. Her London niece remembers going down to see her in Midhurst and seeing her flowers beautifully kept.
“Her niece Elizabeth remembers her aunt as being a tremendous story-teller and a great character.
“In the lifeboat, she had been wearing a little silk suit. She had to take off her petticoat to run up the mast as a sign of distress. She was wearing sandals. She was hardly dressed for survival in the Atlantic, but she never complained.
“She was so fantastic. It is so lovely to bring her back to life now. It is really lovely to think she had a happy life afterwards.”
The ship was carrying 90 child evacuees on their way to Canada. Mary was on board as an escort.
On September 17, 1940, just a few days after setting sail, the City of Benares was sighted by U-48. The first two torpedoes missed. The third one didn’t, and the boat sank within half an hour.
In the confusion, Lifeboat 12 was left alone at sea, carrying around 30 Indian crewmen, a Polish merchant, several sailors, Mary Cornish, Father Rory O’Sullivan and six evacuee boys. They endured more than a week adrift before HMS Anthony sighted and rescued them.
Julie has now published Mary’s story as a chapter of its own in her new book When The Children Came Home.
* More information on www.juliesummers.co.uk/whenthechildren.php