The British Empire Library

An Unexpected Journey: Life in the Colonies at Empire's End: A Woman's Role

by Margaret Reardon

Review by Dr Joanna Lewis (Assistant Professor in Imperial and African History, London School of Economics and Political Science)
This is one of the best set of memoirs I have read on what it was like to live the end of empire as a woman, wife and mother. Margaret Reardon has given historians a wonderful gift: a detailed and scholarly account of her experiences married to Patrick Reardon, OBE, as he moved around the British Empire as part of Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service (tragically dying before taking up the post of Governor of the Virgin Islands in 1981). Despite many moves within and across continents, bringing up two children - Timothy and Catherine - and supporting her husband in his work - Margaret also kept a record of her life and times. Whilst her original diaries, memoirs, official documents, photos and other ephemera have been generously donated to the Bodleian Library, her book offers the reader a brilliant, sharp-eyed and sensitive narrative of the role and experiences of an expatriate woman as the sun slowly set.

Margaret Reardon was born in Mayfair in 1920 to parents in service before her father became Chapel Clerk, then Assistant Librarian at Trinity College, Cambridge. Educated at St Augustine's Primary School and the Central School Cambridge, Margaret jointed the Civil Defence Corps when the Second World War broke out. She then worked for the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service before becoming part of the secret team attached to the Royal Signals Corps Y Branch, part of Bletchley Park. She married Patrick in 1945, then Captain in the Essex Regiment. Not long after, he was posted overseas as part of the British Army's occupation of a former Italian colony in North-east Africa. A few months later Margaret left England to be with him. One can only imagine how her parents felt saying goodbye to their daughter (who then only weighed seven and a half stone!). She took her Hope Chest, the large wooden trunk her father had made for her to collect items for her own home, and her mother generously donated the family silver. She also took a record-player.

The fact that there are five parts to this memoir tells you immediately that their life together was an adventure that ran and ran. Part One covers seven years spent in Eritrea. Next, we are taken to Tanganyika, between 1953 to 1961, and then to the final African posting: Bechuanaland until 1972. Margaret and family then spent six years in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, and finally, between 1979-1981, they were posted to the Turks and Caicos Islands. When they left one home, they just took the house name with them for the next.

This is an exceptional memoir for the amount of detailed observation about daily life, local people and events, as well as matters of colonial governance across the globe during decolonization. We are led gently by the hand through a world of scorpion-slippers, rabid dogs, bouts of semiblindness from malaria and its treatments, to running clinics for African women and managing VIP guest visits and tours. It was life of adventure, health challenges, butterfly-collecting but also early on of debt. Astonishingly, the young couple had to provide their own vehicle and refrigerator. Margaret made their clothes; cutting each other's hair was also the norm.

The manuscript is animated with wonderful photos and the quality of the prose is outstanding. Thank you, Margaret, WBE extraordinaire.

British Empire Book
Margaret Reardon
Catherine Armstrong



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