International Women's Day: Joan Hemming (nee Berry)
Born in 1917, Joan Hemming (nee Berry) came from a long line of determined women.
A Berrys Coaches Story
Joan’s mother Elizabeth had been widowed on the first day of the First World War, when her husband died of a heart attack, leaving her with no close family and a small baby (Sybil) at a time when social care was non-existent and women were not expected to work after marriage. Elizabeth got a job making bombs for the First World War at Woolwich Arsenal, which was physically hard work and carried considerable risk from the explosives. Elizabeth had to leave her baby in the care of a distant relation, which required her to undertake a 15 mile round walk each weekend in order to visit Sybil. Near the end of the war, she met Joan’s father, Clifford Berry, and he persuaded her to move down to Somerset and live in rented cottage which had no electricity and where water had to be brought in by bucket from a well half a mile away; she dealt with it as just another of life’s challenges.
The Beginning Of Berry’s Coaches
Clifford had strong entrepreneurial flair and he founded Berrys in 1920, initially focussing on haulage but gradually diversifying into coaches. It was a family business where everyone was expected to pull their weight, so Joan learned to drive on lorries, at a time when very few women drove at all. She began driving coaches at 15 and was one of the very first women in the UK to get a Public Service Vehicle (PSV) Licence.
This diversification into coaches was to save the business when, after the Second World War, the Government nationalised haulage and simply requisitioned and drove away all the lorries in the country. Berry’s was forced to completely redesign the business in order to survive and the children (Peter, Brian and Joan), were expected to pull their weight. The two boys were able to focus on the maintenance, coach driving and building commercial contacts. However, there was social pressure on women to give up the freedoms that they had earned during the war and revert to being housewives. Joan wasn’t enthusiastic about a life of solely housework. She was always adamant that all women should be able to earn their own living (as well as being able to de-clutch and jump start a car) She chose to work as the firm’s accountant and Company Secretary. Like her father Clifford and Peter, she had a strong commercial sense and, whilst generally content to give a wry smile and a shrug over issues on which she was not fully convinced, when pushed too far she would have no hesitation on holding her own against the most forceful opposition and beating them down.
Joan met the man who was to become her husband during a very cold winter in the 1950s, when she was driving a darts team in which he played from Taunton up into the Blackdowns. He always recounted how, when he first saw her, she was sitting in the coach waiting for them, smoking a cigarette, wearing a fur coat and doing The Times crossword – easily the most glamorous woman in Somerset he felt!
The Development Of Berry’s Coaches
After the death of their father, Joan and Peter worked tirelessly to build the business. Like all family businesses it required absolute commitment and round the clock worry and availability. They shared a total dedication to the business and its demands, the sole difference being that, as a man, Peter was supported by a family who looked after him and managed his home life, whereas Joan, like many women of her generation did all the work at home as well as managing the business.
Joan moved to part time work in her 70s, and was finally able to travel abroad as she had always wanted. She visited Egypt a number of times, following up her extensive reading of the archaeological excavations, including Tutankhamun’s, she travelled throughout South America, getting there once on a Fyffes banana boat. She made a number of visits to China travelling widely, with perhaps her most memorable moment being when, in her late 70s, she was thrown by a bolting camel whilst trekking in a remote part of the Gobi Desert – she just got back on because, as she observed, there were no other options.
Joan was ahead of her time, her drive and determination made Berrys Coaches one of the South West’s most loved local businesses which continues to go from strength to strength, thanks to her legacy and commitment.
Thank you to Joan’s daughter, Vicky, for her contributions to this article.