Obituary: Lexie Lesenger BEM - Farmhand’s daughter who went on to serve the armed forces and aristocracy

Lexie Lesenger BEM, Naafi club manageress
Lexie Lesenger BEM, Naafi club manageress
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Born: 31 December, 1919, in Hutton, Berwickshire. Died: 24 December, 2011, in Berwick-upon-Tweed, aged 91

FROM Sir William Burrell to Lord Mountbatten and the Queen, the working life of Lexie Lesenger was studded with a glittering array of aristocracy.

She catered for all of them during a career that took her from the great country houses of the Scottish Borders to Versailles and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, on to Holland and back to the Borders and Balmoral.

But her greatest contribution was to the ordinary members of the armed forces whom she served in the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes (Naafi) during the Second World War and for a further 30-odd years in peacetime.

The daughter of an Aberdeen farmhand, John Lesenger, she was born at Broadmeadows House, Hutton, in Berwickshire, where her father was promoted to farm manager. The eldest of a family of 13, four of whom died in infancy, she attended the local school until passing the bursary exam for Berwickshire High School in Duns, where she boarded in a hostel.

She first went into service for a retired couple who had made their money from sugar plantations in Java, and lived at Lynehurst, West Linton. During her five and a half years there, she acquired the skills required to look after guests, learning the etiquette of laying a table and serving wine at the many bridge parties and birthday and Christmas celebrations held at the house.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War she returned to Broadmeadows and waited to be called up. She had not been home for long when Sir William and Lady Burrell, who lived nearby, needed someone to help out at their home, Hutton Castle. She was their only member of staff but it was an experience that helped hone her catering skills as she mastered skinning rabbits and hares, plucking chickens and preparing pheasant and salmon as well as making Lady Burrell’s favourite barley water.

After they took on a cook, her work included helping Sir William manage his now world-renowned collection of art and artefacts, preparing the items to be valued and sold. The shipping magnate’s 8,000 pieces, which include works by Degas and Cezanne, make up one of the greatest collections ever amassed by one individual.

But by 1942, with two of her brothers now soldiers, one sister in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and another about to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wrens), she joined the Naafi – seduced by an advert that promised she would see the world if she signed up.

Days later, having known nothing about the Naafi, she was in it, stationed at Low Lynn, near Haggerston Castle, Berwick. She worked in canteens there and at Belford and Longridge Towers, cycling home each weekend. In 1944 she volunteered for a D-Day exercise in Uckfield, Sussex, and discovered it was a camp for troops going out to Dunkirk.

At the end of the war, having decided her career lay in the Naafi, she went to RAF Cranwell to find out how it worked in civilian life, learning the business of bookkeeping, stores and ordering.

She also served at other English bases, including RAF Sutton Coldfield, where she learned to play snooker, developing a lifelong love of the game.

The early 1960s saw her work abroad, firstly at Fontainebleau, where she was in charge of the officers’ cafeteria, where duties included accompanying troops into underground caves during night exercises.

Promotion to club supervisor took her to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (Shape), near Versailles, where she stayed for nearly six years. It catered for troops from at least 14 countries and hosted the huge annual Shapex event attended by up to 300 officers, including the distinguished visitor Lord Mountbatten.

In 1967, having received the British Empire Medal in the New Year’s Honours, she was presented with the award at the British Embassy in Paris. Shape was in the throes of moving out of France around this time, and she was asked to go to Brunssum in Holland to set up a new Naafi club for Allied Forces Central Europe. From there she took the opportunity to travel widely, enjoying trips to Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and New York, via Reykjavik.

After 16 years abroad she decided to come home, and took a post at Glencorse Barracks, where she was presented to the Duke of Edinburgh. Although she officially retired two years later, in 1979, the following year she was asked to go to work for the Queen at Balmoral. There she was invited to the Ghillies’ Ball, attended by the Queen, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.

In 1981 she was asked to look after the Royal Guard at the Victoria Barracks, Ballater, where she spent four hard-working months and enjoyed a chat with Diana, Princess of Wales.

Over the next four years she was recalled several times, working at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Balmoral and at a training centre on Benbecula. She also took part in the 1984 television documentary, Sir William in Search of Xanadu, about the Burrell Collection, and recalled how fascinating it was to see the pieces she had once worked amongst become part of the collection.

Finally retired to East Ord, Berwick-upon-Tweed, she was actively involved in village life, regularly winning prizes for her beautiful embroidery and serving as Women’s Institute secretary.

Incredibly organised and houseproud – she would clean her house before the chimney sweep arrived – she was also courageous and resourceful, keeping a Gurka blade under her bed for protection.

And while hospitality had been her stock in trade at work, it was also ingrained in her character. She made friends easily and wherever she went, and embraced visitors with delight. Warm and generous, she loved to laugh and look after people, serving up copious refreshments, along with her trademark genial welcome, on a silver salver.

She is survived by her sisters Kitty and Frances and extended family. ALISON SHAW