Obituary: Peggy Walker, wardrobe mistress and ATS sergeant

Peggy Walker, wardrobe mistress and human dynamo. Picture: Contributed
Peggy Walker, wardrobe mistress and human dynamo. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 1 January, 1924, in Mintlaw, Aberdeenshire. Died: 3 May, 2016, in Aberdeen, aged 92.

Peggy Walker was a human dynamo whose vast talent as a needlewoman was matched by her endless energy and zest for life.

A teenage tailoress who served as an army driver during the Second World War, she went on to become a teacher of dressmaking and costume design and wardrobe mistress to generations of students and amateur performers, amassing a historically important clothing collection along the way.

So knowledgeable was she that the Victoria and Albert Museum directed queries to her and when she retired she donated more than 7000 pieces to Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum.

Her enthusiasm for sewing and fashion knew no bounds. She once arrived on a visit to family in Australia armed with a length of embroidered silk which she promptly turned into a wedding dress for a niece – before the young recipient had even become engaged. And, at her thanksgiving service, relatives lost count of the number of women who told how she had created their wedding gown. Others credited her as the inspiration behind their decision to become a teacher or to make a living from dressmaking.

Named Maggie Ogston Lawrence, but always known as Peggy, she was born on New Year’s Day and so every subsequent birthday was a holiday and a celebration. The daughter of farm grieve Albert Lawrence and his wife Christina, she was raised in the Aberdeenshire countryside until illness meant her father could no longer work on the land and moved the family into central Aberdeen where he became a tram driver.

On leaving school at 15 she was apprenticed to an Aberdeen tailor’s firm where she acquired her skills as a tailoress and developed a lifelong love of fabric, fashion and costume. During the Second World War, when fabric rationing curtailed fashion, her sisters Betty and Bunty still sported beautifully-made clothes, thanks to their talented elder sister.

However at the age of 18 she was called up to aid the war effort and was drafted in to the women’s branch of the British army, the Auxiliary Territorial Service. There she learned vehicle maintenance and became a driver and instructor. She reached the rank of sergeant and spent spells on postings in Yorkshire and Essex. When she later married, her husband was happy to bow to her superior driving skills – he was only allowed to take the car out of the garage – and she remained behind the wheel until well into her 80s.

After being demobbed she returned to Aberdeen where she was an active member of the kirk and church choir. The choirmaster, David Walker, had also recently been demobbed after gruelling war service in Burma and the Far East, and the two fell in love. They married in August 1948 and shared many interests, including walking and climbing, but particularly music and drama. They made the perfect duo – in their spare time he was a singer, actor and musician, she was a wardrobe mistress and for many years they both played key roles in Aberdeen’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society.

In her daily working life Peggy taught dressmaking and costume design at Aberdeen’s Northern College of Education and was also wardrobe mistress in the drama department, producing a never-ending array of fabulous costumes for innumerable student shows in Aberdeen.

In addition she ran the couple’s home, a large Edwardian flat which they had bought not long after their wedding, as a guest house. In term time she took in student lodgers, many of whom became lifelong friends, and in the summer it became a B&B. As a result she paid off the mortgage in record time.

That feat was a demonstration of her legendary organisational skills – whether it was planning amateur productions, producing bumper meals from her tiny kitchen or, as a talented flower arranger, organising flower festivals at her church.

But they were perhaps best illustrated in her passion for fabric, fashion and clothing. When she first became a wardrobe mistress she made numerous trips to the north of England to source items and as her reputation as a costume expert grew she became the recipient of many pieces donated into her care. Everything was meticulously and appropriately kept, repaired and restored if required and she was consulted by museums and galleries.

Her huge collection eventually numbered many thousands and she knew it was of significant historic importance. She shared her knowledge by giving talks, staging shows with models displaying her pieces and in the late 1980s she donated her entire collection to Aberdeen Art Gallery as the Peggy Walker Gift. Some items went on display and there were a number of exhibitions including Always the Bridesmaid, Peggy’s Choice and A Century of Fashion with Peggy Walker, the latter curated by her.

“Her donation, in many ways, formed the core of the costume and textile collection at Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums,” explained manager Christine Rew. “And the comprehensive nature of the collection has allowed us to show in the past, and looking towards the future as well, different eras, different times and how the female silhouette has changed.

“The other element that made it so significant is that Peggy collected not just costume but all the accessories that went with it. We have hats, shoes, gloves, handbags, purses, spectacle and jewellery and that’s allowed us to display complete outfits.”

She also relayed some of the personal stories behind a number of outfits – where and why they were bought – details that add an important extra dimension to people’s understanding and enjoyment of exhibits. Currently the art gallery is being redeveloped and it is planned to incorporate items from her collection in the revamped space.

Having retired at the age of 65, she continued to sew, collect items and research the history of fashion and when she and David later moved to smaller flat it was along with her various sewing machines, books and items from the Regency period to the modern day. Latterly she still had something of a collection that included lace, costume jewellery and antique buttons.

In addition to her needlework skills, she was an enthusiastic and impressive hostess and also loved to travel. She and her husband had toured extensively, visiting locations including Canada and Australia where, on one notable occasion, their dinner in Sydney’s Chinatown was interrupted when a gangland shootout sent diners diving under their tables.

They also enjoyed cruises to various parts of the world until David, to whom she was devoted, was 93. Following his death in 2007 Peggy’s physical health declined but her spirit remained bright and she continued to enjoy holidays in Scotland, especially after acquiring a mobility scooter that she named David, in honour of what would have been his 100th birthday.

She is survived by her sisters Betty and Bunty, her uncle Lawrence and extended family including two great, great nephews.