Obituary: Jane Margaret Errington MBE

One of the architects of Riding for the Disabled who also set up St Jude's Laundry. Picture: Contributed
One of the architects of Riding for the Disabled who also set up St Jude's Laundry. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 17 December, 1923, in Milton Bridge, Midlothian. Died: 10 July, 2015, in Fife, aged 91.

Jane Errington was one of those indefatigable women whose myriad achievements made it almost impossible to define her in a single entity.

She had variously been a cook, shepherd, occupational therapist, dietician to Inuit and other inhabitants of remote Labrador, horsewoman, champion of the disabled, dedicated charity supporter and one of the architects of both Riding for the Disabled and St Jude’s Laundry in Edinburgh, both causes endorsed by royalty.

However, the common factor at the core of all she did was a profound concern for others and her enthusiasm and determination changed the lives of many, thanks to her propensity for concentrating on what could be done rather than what could not.

The youngest of Major Lancelot Errington and his wife Elizabeth’s four children, she was born at the family home at Beeslack, Milton Bridge, Midllothian. Educated at Miss Campbell’s school in Elie, Fife and then Oxenfoord Castle School, Midlothian, she did a course at the Edinburgh Cookery School in the capital’s Atholl Crescent but her first job resulted in a warning never to cook again – from a doctor who discovered her with badly infected fingers.

She failed to comply with his instruction in future but went on to train as an occupational therapist at Edinburgh’s Astley Ainslie institution. After the outbreak of the Second World War she joined her family at Quinish on Mull where her father, a former Royal Scot, had become a farmer. There she became a shepherdess, caring for their herd of sheep.

In peacetime she resumed her career in occupational therapy, working at the Rosslyn Lee Mental Hospital near Edinburgh before heading off to Canada to work in a similar institution in Vancouver. She returned to Scotland before sailing for Newfoundland in 1953 to join the Grenfell Mission.

Established by British medical missionary Wilfred Grenfell, the organisation provided health services to the area where virtually no medical help existed. She began work at the main St Anthony hospital and then moved to a smaller, more remote facility at North West River, Labrador where she was housekeeper/dietician.

Conditions were much harsher there: the supply of heating and hot water was erratic; there was one store but icy conditions prevented deliveries for the six months of the year from December to May; the only road was just three miles long and journeys had to be undertaken either by sea or by husky-drawn sledge.

The weather was so bitter she suffered frostbite on some of her fingers and toes, leaving a lasting legacy of problems.

But by 1954 she was on the move again – to Columbia University, New York, to study a new course of occupational therapy – before returning to Scotland where she worked with what was then known as the Scottish Council for Spastics (SCS), now Capability Scotland, at various facilities in Edinburgh.

The catalyst for Riding for the Disabled came a few years later when Sheila More Nisbett invited a little girl, disabled by polio, to ride on the family pony at Drum outside Edinburgh. It was such a success that an experienced rider and instructor, Jane Crawford, was asked to help expand the idea. Jane Errington was then approached as the occupational therapist with the SCS.

Over the next few years ponies from Drum were brought to the SCS out-patient department at Rhumore on Edinburgh’s Corstorphine Road and riding in the garden became a regular fixture, later expanding to include children at the city’s Westerlea School. Then in 1965 the Drum Riding for the Disabled group was formed and Princess Anne went on to become president of the Scottish Riding for the Disabled Association. Meanwhile Miss Errington had also been working on her next project – investigating the possibility of establishing a workshop for those unable to find work in the open jobs market. It was eventually decided that laundry work would provide the most appropriate form of employment and a washing machine was installed in the garage at Rhumore.

However, there were many hurdles to be overcome while gaining approval for the project, a struggle that was reflected in its name, St Jude’s, patron saint of lost causes. But once the project had garnered support plans were submitted to the Ministry of Labour and subsequently approved.

A training programme was fully established in 1962, much to the delight of Miss Errington, who was heartened that the transition had been made from therapy to industry, and five years later the laundry became a fully commercial enterprise in purpose-built premises in Restalrig.

St Jude’s Laundry continues to thrive today and has enjoyed 25 years as a Royal Warrant holder.

Miss Errington, who became head occupational therapist at SCS and set up its employment department, continued to support those with disabilities in her own free time.

She particularly loved helping out at Fingland Bothy, a rudimentary property three miles up a farm track in the Border hills.

With no phone or electricity and just cold running water, she would assist parties from Riding for the Disabled, cooking for them on the range and riding out to check on the sheep. She also used to invite disabled friends to her home in Elie, ensuring the accommodation was all set up to cater for their needs, and in 1982 her work was recognised when, as a member of the executive committee of the Scottish Council for Spastics, she was made an MBE.

A keen horsewoman herself, she and her sister Meme went on a long-distance ride in Iceland in the early 1980s. She also took up carriage driving but a couple of riding accidents left her in severe pain. She broke her hip coming off a horse and returned to the saddle too soon, resulting in another fall.

This time her injuries left her with one leg several inches shorter than the other. She also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and was in a wheelchair for the last ten years.

A dog lover, keen weaver and storyteller – an attribute that made her an affectionate and entertaining aunt, great aunt and great-grand aunt – latterly she took up watercolour painting and wrote and illustrated her own stories.

Determined, gregarious and generous, she corresponded with friends around the world and gave to numerous charities, living her life with a strong Christian ethic, loving her neighbour and at the same time working to improve the world immeasurably for many others.

She is survived by her brother John, sister Meme and extended family.