The bizarre connection between Hellingly and Alan Bennett’s ‘The Lady in the Van’

12th January

Margaret was born at The Dicker in 1911 to Hailsham Rural District Council Highways Surveyor George Bryant Fairchild and his wife Harriet (Burgess). 

George was employed by the Hailsham Council for 28 years and was a member of the local Labour Party.   Harriet was very involved with the Hellingly and Hailsham communities, organising and winning whist drives and was an active member of the Hailsham Women’s Institute.

Photo of man with mustache
George Fairchild

Margaret was brought up in the Dicker /Hellingly area and was probably educated locally.

A gifted pianist and reported in the local papers as performing in local, community events, 21-year-old Margaret left home to attend the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris to pursue a career in music and performance. 

Her musical education was cut short, however, when she returned home just a couple of years later. Margaret had decided to become a nun and joined as a novice in the Convent of the Helper of the Holy Souls in Gloucester Road, London.

Qualifying to become a teacher and known as Sister Mary Theresa, she was employed at St Gilda’s Catholic School in Yeovil when war broke out.

According to her brother Leopold, her mental health declined when she abandoned her promising musical career to devote herself to becoming a nun.  Her deteriorating mental state forced her to leave the convent and she was committed to Banstead Hospital Asylum but absconded – as she did from several other institutions. 

During the War, Mary was trained by the ATS to drive ambulances and developed a love of vehicles and driving.  This led her to buy a van of her own.

Tragedy struck, however, when Mary hit a motorcyclist, panicked and drove off.  The motorcyclist died.

To avoid detection, she changed her name to Mary Sheppard.  Living in her van and terrified of arrest, she returned to stay in Gloucester Road and parked up near the Convent where she had taken her vows.  By 1974 Mary was camped opposite the Gloucester Road house of aspiring playwright Alan Bennett, who invited her to park in his driveway for a couple of weeks.  The debris around her van and the local children pestering her because of her eccentric behaviour became a distraction to his work and he thought this may be a temporary solution.

Mary stayed in his drive for 15 years.  She was never arrested for the accident, although the police probably knew she was connected with the incident and occasionally visited her in the van.

Mary died in 1989 in her van.  In Alan Bennett’s drive.

Recognise the story?  Mary’s life was made into a play by Alan and in 2016 she was played by Dame Maggie Smith in the award-winning film ‘Lady in the Van’. 

Thank you to local historian and writer Nicola Walker for this fascinating article. Nicola is a regular contributor to The Heathfield News.