If you want to stop a group of children screaming blue murder, Dial M for Mavis.
To the hundreds of children she’s cared for she’s known simply as Auntie M. But do not be fooled by that folksie nickname.
For beneath the warm personality Mavis Mackay is shot through with an iron will and an unshakeable belief in discipline – especially when it comes to the generations of Portsmouth-area children for whom she has been responsible.
‘I was quite often referred to as The Dragon. Still am. I don’t mind at all. It meant I was doing my job.’
For 35 years Mavis looked after all the children appearing in the pantomimes at the Kings Theatre, Southsea.
From the moment they stepped through the stage door to the second they departed the Edwardian Albert Road playhouse, Auntie M was in charge.
And she ruled them with a rod of iron, which to her was second nature. For if it had not been for doing exactly as she was told Mavis, now 82, would not have made it past her 10th birthday.
She was born, along with her sister, in Malta to where her father, who worked in Portsmouth Dockyard on the tugs, had been posted.
She was seven at the outbreak of the Second World War and when the Germans started bombing the Mediterranean island the family lost their home.
She says: ‘When the nasty stuff began we were bombed out and had to be evacuated quickly so we were put on a plane for Alexandria, which was shot at while we were in the air.’
The evacuees, all heading home to Britain, were transferred to the steamship Duchess of Atholl to begin the long voyage back to England.
‘It was quite an adventure,’ recalls Mavis. ‘Both exciting and frightening, but I learnt through it all to do exactly what I was told at all times.’
The ship went the long way round – through the Suez Canal and around the African continent.
She was heading up the south Atlantic when she was torpedoed by U-boat U-178 commanded by Hans Ibbeken.
‘My stepmother ruled the roost and we wouldn’t dare question a word she said. She ordered us not to be frightened or there’d be trouble. I suppose it was all part of that British stiff upper lip thing.
‘The ship started to go down and as we got into the lifeboats I remember saying to her that I was scared because I couldn’t swim. I was told not to be afraid but to do as I was told.
‘I remember seeing in a newspaper afterwards a report of the sinking and it specifically mentioned how well-behaved we children were. We were too frightened to be anything else.’
As if that were not terrifying enough for a nine-year-old, worse was to come.
‘In the middle of the night the submarine came to the surface. Apparently Hitler had issued new orders that any survivors of torpedoed ships were to be killed, so our parents sat on us. Long after, I realised they thought we were going to be machine-gunned and they were trying to protect us.
‘But the German captain was obviously a compassionate man. He asked for the name of our ship and where we were going and the submarine disappeared.’
Mavis remembers that a Sunderland flying boat then spotted the lifeboats and she, her sister and stepmother and the other survivors were picked up by a Royal Navy ship.
‘It taught me an invaluable lesson – do what you’re told and you’ll be OK.’
She says it took about three months to get back to England and Portsmouth where she has spent the rest of her life, now living in Paulsgrove.
‘I was taken to the Kings as a girl. Later a boyfriend and I used to come here every week. I fell in love with the place and still love it even after all these years of working here. It’s very special.
‘In those days my boyfriend and I couldn’t afford seats, but they used to let you stand at the back of the stalls and pay less. You can imagine what health and safety would say about that today.’
Mavis was 40 when, through the Iris Barnes School of Dancing which her daughter had attended, she was invited to become a chaperone – looking after all the children who would appear not only in the annual panto but also in any other show for which they were required.
‘It was Iris who said the children should call me Auntie Mavis. That became shortened to Auntie M and for the past 35 years that’s all I’ve been known as.
‘My late husband rang the theatre one day and asked for Mrs Mackay. They searched high and low for her, not realising it was me,’ she laughs.
Her standards were high and she tolerated no nonsense backstage when she had children in her care.
‘I was a bossy boots. I had to be. When you’re looking after children – up to 36 at a time – there’s no choice.
‘The stage crew started calling me The Dragon after they heard me telling off a couple of the principal actors in the wings who had been misbehaving.
‘I went up to them and said: ‘‘Look, what you do in the privacy of your dressing room is your business, but what you do in front of the children is mine – so pack it in. Now!’’
‘There are still people in this theatre who salute and call me Ma’am.’
She’s worked with a phalanx of stars at the Kings including Clive Dunn, Hylda Baker, Bernie Winters, Lionel Blair and Ted Rogers. But her favourite was Lorraine Chase.
‘She was lovely and treated me like an ordinary human being. When I retired she dragged me on stage and told the audience the only reason the kids in the show were so well-behaved was because of Auntie M.
‘I always told the children they must never cry on stage, but that night I let my discipline slip and I admit I shed a tear. I think I was allowed one slip, wasn’t I?’
Ship was doomed
When she was hit by three torpedoes, the 20,000-ton liner Duchess of Atholl was doomed.
But the remarkable thing is that of the 825 people on board, only four were killed. The other 821 were rescued after the ship sank.
On October 10, 1942, the Duchess was hit on the port side in the centre of the engine room by one of two stern torpedoes fired by Hans Ibbeken’s U-boat. She was 200 miles north-east of Ascension Island in the south Atlantic.
The U-boat had spotted her 35 minutes earlier and immediately attacked after diving.
The ship lost speed, lurched 180 degrees to port and then the lights went out. She became immobile as the engine room flooded. She was then hit twice more.
On board was a crew of 265, 26 gunners and 534 passengers comprising 235 army personnel, 196 from the Royal Navy, 97 from the RAF, five nurses and 291 civilians, most of them women and children like Mavis Mackay, her sister and step-mother.
A wireless operator managed to send an SOS before abandoning ship.