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A personal recollection of my aunt

Robert Hornyold-Strickland writes about his aunt, Mabel Strickland, as the 24th anniversary of her death approaches

Mabel Strickland, OBE, died on November 29, 1988, a month short of her 90th birthday. She was an indomitable women and, in her prime, was very much part of the fabric of Malta, especially to anyone who had been in Malta during World War II and in the ensuing 25 years.

Those who knew her personally admired her spirit and determination; she was a colourful character, mixing easily with people from all nationalities, social backgrounds and across all differing political persuasions. She was first and foremost an editor and publisher but she also made time to pursue a political and business career.

While some people found her larger than life, others found her passionate and caring. To me, she was just my dear Aunt Mabel, my grandmother’s sister, who had an infectious and mischievous sense of humour and a deep, booming voice that many have tried to imitate over the years.

She was trusting of most people she came in contact with – except some politicians. That might have been because she was a woman in a man’s world or because her ownership of the Times of Malta and The Sunday Times of Malta made her wary of people befriending her for possibly the wrong reasons.

Having been a politician herself, she was acutely aware of how politicians behaved in a small island culture, balancing their legitimate responsibilities of representing their constituents’ concerns and guiding their country against the lures of personal profit, power and prestige. I well remember my aunt illustrating the pitfalls of politics and the need for a strong, inner moral compass when she explained the “personal sacrifice” she made when she gave up her job in 1950 as editor of the Times of Malta (a job she loved) to serve her country as a politician.

Although born in Malta, aunt Mabel grew up in Australia, where her father had a succession of governorships. She led a relatively carefree life, mixing official events when her father entertained at home with her normal childhood studies and lessons. Her schooling came initially from a governess and she later attended school.

She rode horses, played tennis, read and memorised a great deal of poetry, which she would often recall to illustrate a story. She retained her great affection for Australia and all things Australian throughout her life and her enduring love of animals and birds stems from this period. Those who knew her will remember that she shared her house with a menagerie of parrots and other birds, dogs, cats, deer and even fish!

My aunt often used to leave Flapdoodle (one her three macaws) on a stand just inside the front door to startle me out of my wits when I returned home to Villa Parisio late at night from a boozy dinner party. In the days before CCTV, her parrots were highly effective security guards!

Lady Edeline Sackville West was Mabel’s mother; she was the daughter of the 7th Earl de la Warr from Knole in Kent (one of England’s largest historical palaces). The state and river of Delaware in the US were named after one of her ancestors. Mabel’s cousin, Vita Sackville West, was the renowned author who lived at Sissinghurst and designed its famous garden; Sissinghurst is still one of the most visited gardens in the UK today.

Tragically, Mabel’s mother lost three of her eight children in infancy (including both of her sons). Edeline became increasingly ill in Australia. The family returned to Malta in 1917 by ship. My great-grandfather felt that his wife could better convalesce in a more benign climate at Villa Bologna in Attard – the Strickland family home. Sadly, Lady Edeline never regained full health and died in late 1918, leaving her daughters and husband grief stricken.

Now a widower with five unmarried daughters in Malta to care for, Sir Gerald (as he then was) turned his attentions to their welfare. Later, in 1926, he married for a second time to Margaret Hulton and was made Lord Strickland of Sizergh (named after his English estate) in 1928.

With his diplomatic career now at an end, and having a British father and a Maltese mother, he threw himself into politics both in Malta and in the UK, serving in both parliaments (at one point simultaneously) before serving as Prime Minister of Malta from 1927 to 1932 in compact with the Labour Party.

His second wife, Margaret, built the Hotel Phoenicia and set up St Edward’s College.

Together with Mabel, they also founded the newspaper group – Allied Newspapers Ltd (the publisher of The Times and The Sunday Times). Mabel became editor of The Times in 1935, a post she held for 15 years. Being unmarried and always eager to help her father (to whom she was devoted), she threw herself into the challenge of setting up a newspaper group, eventually building it up into what has now become one of Malta’s foremost national institutions.

Mabel worked tirelessly throughout the war years, ably assisted by her staff. Between them they managed to ensure that The Times appeared every morning to keep the Maltese informed of what was happening during the war.

Mabel was singularly brave even then and rarely retreated to the air raid shelters. However, as luck would have it, on April 7, 1942, she was persuaded to go down into the shelters. That very night, her office was bombed and seriously damaged. Undaunted, she was back at work, as normal, the following day leading her workers by fine example.

After the war, Mabel tested even the excellent relations she maintained with the British Navy when she needed to check some facts before publication. On one occasion, when the phone rang at 6am, one admiral, on picking up the receiver, was known to have remarked to his wife (as he checked his watch “It’s either war or its Mabel!”

Mabel was proud of her staff and most of them were immensely loyal to her. It is a tribute to them, as well as to her, that so many worked for Allied for well over 40 years. In fact, when I came to Malta to live with my aunt in 1977 she introduced me to many of her staff at all levels in the business.

I remember, among many others, Anthony Montanaro and Charles Grech Orr, who were excellent editors of the two papers, and Freddie Bezzina, who kept the presses and machines running, and also Frank Attard, who was an award-winning photographer. It was clear to me that she respected her staff at a personal level, treating them more as an extended family than employees.

Her household staff at Villa Parisio in Lija (where she moved to after the war) were treated equally like another extended family and these included Connie Baldacchino (her devoted maid and companion). Connie had worked for Mabel since she was 14.

Mabel also had an endless succession of secretaries (many of them being her nieces or their children’s friends) whom she frequently introduced to handsome young naval officers passing through Malta. These introductions resulted in a number of happy marriages for which Mabel often took credit as principal matchmaker!

Recently, May Agius who had worked for Mabel as a secretary, told me of her own enduring memories, describing Mabel as being like “an active volcano!”

My aunt’s god-daughter, Heidi Bonello (now de Bono), kept the office at Villa Parisio well organised. She remembers that there was simply so much to do that she felt she needed to be an octopus to deal with all the correspondence and social diary management.

Clearly, there was never a dull moment for those working with and around Mabel.

Mabel herself never married although, to my knowledge, she had a strong affection for three different men at different stages of her life.

She was particularly proud of her Strickland heritage and, in 1975, decided to clarify her succession by choosing me as her heir. This was the first time that she had written a will since 1940 after her father died.

In January 1977, when I arrived to live in Malta, Mabel wanted to go even further and adopt me as her son, naturally with my parents’ and my full consent.

Despite this adoption petition being given the approval of the court expert, it was sadly and surprisingly blocked by a politically-motivated change in the laws and Constitution of Malta that was enacted in March 1977 and backdated retrospectively to January 1, 1977.

Mabel’s disappointment at this action found voice through her famous sense of humour when she declared that “if I can’t adopt Robert, I will marry him instead!” Unfortunately, while this comment was clearly made by Mabel in jest, it was taken seriously by the Maltese authorities and, subsequently, led to the Government banning me, in 1978, from visiting Malta. This ban lasted for the next nine years.

As a result, Mabel’s wishes to pass her entire estate to me were seriously frustrated and I was separated from my dear aunt in the most pernicious way at a very vulnerable time of her life.

Not long after this, in 1979, on Black Monday, the political intimidation of aunt Mabel culminated with the burning of The Times head offices at Strickland House in Valletta, resulting in her becoming extremely ill. However, it was typical of her that her first words on hearing the news of the outrage was “Poor workers” – her concern, as ever, being solely for their welfare and not hers.

Driving to meetings with aunt Mabel was always a sedate affair. Her chauffeur, Tommy Zammit, would set off from Villa Parisio in the Humber and was asked to drive no faster than 30 mph, which made for a very comfortable but decidedly un-speedy journey. I was lucky to have an old Rover at my disposal from aunt Mabel, so when going out on my own account I was thankfully able to drive a little faster!

Mabel also owned the Xara Palace, which she had converted into a hotel in 1946. Xara had served as a retreat for many service personnel at weekends and authors who wintered in Malta to avoid the northern European climate. Mabel and I used to eat there regularly and, in 1976, Mabel asked me to be a director of the company.

Sadly, Xara had become rather run down by the 1970s and became even more so when I was banned from Malta. As a result, we had to lease the hotel out to third parties. Regrettably, I had to sell Xara after Mabel’s death in order to pay death duties but, happily, after an extensive refurbishment, it is once again a splendid hotel with an excellent reputation.

Finally, one of Mabel’s proudest and longest traditions was sending a basket of Maltese oranges, mandarins and avocadoes to the Queen each Christmas at Sandringham. As a personal friend of my aunt, the Queen wrote back in 1979:

“Dear Mabel, thank you very much indeed for a lovely Maltese Christmas present of oranges and mandarins – in spite of the weather and the small crop available. Your gift is always much appreciated by my greedy family but Philip and I always think back on those happy days when he was serving in Malta and I was able to travel about all over the island and see what was going on in every area while we lived there. Life changes so much these days and who knows what 1979 may bring to us all, however, we have our memories. Elizabeth R.”

To the end Mabel maintained her championship of a free and unrestricted press and her legacies to her Strickland heir and to her larger family of workers. Mabel once wrote:

“It has been my own belief for the past 50 years or more that the people of Malta and Gozo can face up to the facts and yearn to know the truth. The pursuit of knowledge and of truth has been and shall remain the aim of the newspapers which my beloved father, Lord Strickland, and I founded and developed over the years and against all odds, both local and foreign inspired.”

My personal reflections are happily shared to keep her memory alive and to honour one of Malta’s bravest women.

Mass will be said at the Cathedral in Mdina in memory of Mabel Strickland on Thursday at 9am to mark the 24th anniversary of her death.

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