Lilias Graham

Social activist

Born March 6, 1917, in London.

Died: 15 August, 2008, in Aldringham, Suffolk, aged 91.

WHEN you are trying to find some way of summing up the life of a remarkable human being you are sometimes helped by the grace and surprise of memory. Thinking back over 40 years to the days Lilias Graham lived in the Gorbals, I played a movie in my head to see if I could capture the flavour of that time.

The prevailing sound was the laughter of children, the bustle of a busy kitchen, the constant ringing of the doorbell, tears at midnight as the fall-out of a row arrived at her door; but suddenly one precise and perfect memory popped into my head. Lilias was a countrywoman at heart. She loved gardening, she loved beauty, she loved flowers. And there she was in Abbotsford Place, where the front gardens that had once graced those wonderful Georgian flats were now trampled into hard earth, and the back courts were all mud and middens, in which the children played enthusiastically.

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Lilias decided to plant a garden in the back court at No 10: wallflowers, sturdy enough to grow in the muddy shade. Remarkably, they flowered bravely by the midden – one season at least – until an army of caterpillars invaded them and tore them to pieces.

The doorbell on her famous red door rang one afternoon, and, when Lilias answered, a wee boy stood there: "Mrs", he said, "there are boys in the back stealin' your caterpillars." She reckoned the vain experiment was worth that story.

Lilias Graham came from a renowned Scottish family that went back to Graham of Claverhouse, but she was born in London in 1917, when her father was serving in the Royal Navy.

Her early years were unsettled, but her family moved to an Elizabethan farmhouse in Suffolk in 1923, where she was educated at home, as was then the custom for daughters of the gentry.

At the age of four she visited her grandmother, the Duchess of Montrose, at Buchanan Castle, near Drymen, where she announced that it was in Scotland she wanted to live; it took her another 30 years to get there.

Lilias's mother died in 1936 and she took over running the house, as well as training the church choir. During these years she worked as a volunteer in the Docklands in east London, work among the poor already being a tradition in her family.

During the war, she was for a time a cook sergeant in the ATS and ended up running services canteens. In 1944, she joined the United Nations Refugee and Relief Agency, working in Egypt, Palestine and, finally, Greece, where civil war was raging, and she had to organise the delivery of help to beleaguered villages. After Greece, she moved to Klagenfurt, in the British Zone in Austria, still working for UNRRA in refugee camps.

She got back to Britain in 1948, suffering from a brain tumour, which was successfully operated on. After completing a training course at William Temple College, near Chester – a course aimed at making Christianity relevant to the social needs of the country – in 1952 she wrote to John How, the Bishop of Glasgow, offering herself for work among the poor in Glasgow. She moved into a flat in Abbotsford Place in the Gorbals, where she remained until the slum clearances of the early 1970s drew that phase of her life to a close.

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Those years were packed with love and sorrow, joy and weeping, laughter and imagination. Children's clubs met in her flat, as did the Auld Hens, a weekly women's group.

Trainee social workers from the London School of Economics came up to learn about working with deprived people without patronising them. The secret, of course, lay in that powerful but mysterious word: presence. She was simply there, living among the people she loved and to whom she became a sort of mother and friend. Yet she remained herself: a cultivated women who happened to have had a very different biography to the people she lived with.

When the Gorbals days ended, she moved into Braendam, a house she had inherited in Perthshire and had set up as a holiday and respite centre, and which she later signed over to the Braendam Family Trust, which continues the work that was so close to her heart.

After a few years in retirement in Dunblane, she finally came full circle, back to Suffolk and the quiet years of decline. Even the confusion of those years never dimmed her charm or the interest she took in visitors of whose identity she might not have been entirely sure. She was buried in Dunblane and a memorial service is planned for Glasgow in the autumn.