Doris Dix (1912-1977)

Doris Dix (1912 - 1977)

  • Born Sunderland, Durham, England
  • Died Southport, Lancashire, England
  • Married 1938 Sunderland, Durham, England
  • Three children

Robert Otterson (1911 - 1949)

  • Born Sunderland, Durham, England
  • Died Wrexham, Wales

"When I look at my mother in the earliest pictures I have of her as a woman in her early twenties, I have no memory of that lovely young face. Not until she was a middle-age widow, sitting in our living room with my two sisters and me, do I see the face that occupied my earliest years, steered my childhood and constrained my adolescence."

Photo from family album
Photo from family album

Personal Reflections

By her son, Michael Otterson

DORIS DIX WAS BORN in 1912 - “the same year the Titanic went down,” she once remarked to me.  She was born into an English coal miner’s family in the working class neighborhood of Rothsay Street, in the industrial port of Sunderland. She was the younger sister to Bessie, Flo, Bob and John, and would later be an older sister to Arthur, Stanley and George.

Even when the family moved from No. 12 to No. 7 Rothsay Street some time after the 1911 British census they still had to squeeze into three cramped rooms. As brother Bob wrote many years later: “It was a struggle to get in, never mind be comfortable. We had a desk bed that used to fold up and all the boys slept together head to tail. No, we didn’t have any money. At least, we only managed to scrape through. But there’s one thing: we were happy and loved each other.”

Looking back now over half a century, that is what I remember most about our own home. Much younger than my two older sisters, I was never conscious of any sibling rivalry between them. Undoubtedly it existed, and there were certainly disagreements and tensions as in every family, but the fact that I have to think hard to remember it is significant. I always felt a strong bond of affection between all of us. One day I returned from playing at a friend’s house where there had been a fierce argument in their family - I would have been perhaps seven or eight years old. I related the experience to my mother and said I was glad I lived in our family. She smiled, and I think it meant something to her, a widow raising three children on her own.

To me, my mother’s selflessness is all the more remarkable considering my father’s accidental death at age 37. It was a devastating blow for her, and amid the anger and confusion and bitterness it would have been easy to pass on those negative emotions to her children. As far as I know, she never did.

She had not had an easy life, even before that terrible loss. “Mum,” as we called her in the typical English fashion, grew up believing that her right leg had been damaged when she was dropped as a baby. She had a limp from the time she began to walk, and for a time she wore callipers. Undoubtedly her right leg was thinner and less developed than the left. She was very self-conscious about it, and would sometimes look at both legs together and say she wished the one was the same as the other. She would sometimes say she didn’t like to go out because people would look at her leg. Years later, in her 40s and visiting the doctor for another reason, it was discovered that she had had polio.

No stories have been handed down about her childhood. She worked as a confectioner’s shop assistant in her earlier years, through her courtship with my father and until her marriage in the spring of 1938. He was a professional soldier and had already served overseas in the Far East, based at the Nathan Road British Army Barracks in Hong Kong, on the Kowloon side. He bought my mother an elegant china tea set for a wedding present that has remained in the family, intact. After less than 17 months of marriage, during which time they were often separated by his military duties, World War II broke out.

My father’s letters to his wife in the early years of the war provide valuable insights into the trials of the time, and my mother’s steadfastness and endurance.

Husband Rob - or Bob as she called him - wrote to her from his barracks in southern England during the Blitz: “There is an air raid in progress at present and I have just heard an explosion not far from here. I suppose you are having a terrible night again darling as I can hear the AA [anti-aircraft] barrage around London and see the bomb flashes. .... God bless you and the baby.”

On September 9, 1940, he again wrote of the London bombing: “I am on night duty tonight and have just been watching the flashes of bursting bombs in the direction of London and wondering if you are spending the night in the air raid shelter. I have been wondering too how you fared during the big raids on London yesterday and the day before...I hate to think of all the discomfort you are probably suffering and the loss of sleep... I’d love to see baby’s coloured photograph. Could you please send it by post?"

Photo from family album
Photo from family album
Photo from family album
Photo from family album

She must have obliged quickly, not only with a photograph but with words of reassurance, because three weeks later he wrote: “I think baby’s photograph is lovely ...I am very proud of you my dearest that you are being so very brave in these awful air raids. I know what you are experiencing and I have seen men turn pale and known them to be panic-stricken under less fearful conditions...”

Soon her husband would be gone from England, to France. Later he left for North Africa to be part of the desert warfare that would eventually decide the fate of the valuable oil fields of the Middle East. Then in 1942 came a post card from the War Ministry - the kind of communication that brought dread into the heart of every woman whose husband was fighting in a theatre of war.

In the coldly official language of a government ministry, Doris was told that her husband was missing, known to be wounded. “The fact that he is missing does not necessarily mean he has been killed,” the postcard read. “He could have been taken prisoner etc...”  Thus, Doris was left for four agonizing months not knowing whether her husband and father of two little girls was dead or alive or crippled. We can only imagine the long lonely nights, with her babies asleep, when her imagination must have been a torment. Finally, another postcard arrived. Bob was a prisoner of war in Benghazi in Libya. Now followed three long years of separation, as he was moved from camp to camp, from North Africa to Italy and finally to Germany.” [His detailed story is told on this website, starting here]. 

It may have been during this period that my mother developed an affection for the poetry of Patience Strong. She would cut her poems from newspapers and keep them between pages or in envelopes.

At war’s end, Robert Otterson remained in the army, and was soon posted to Camp Hill, Woolton, near Liverpool. It took some time for married quarters to be sorted out, but it was my first home when I was born in 1948. The camp was called “Crossacres,” and it was on the door of our house that a knock came on 16 July 1949 that changed all of our lives. A policeman stood in the doorway. Sergeant Robert Otterson had been thrown from his motorbike on a Welsh country road, and was critically injured at Wrexham Hospital. Mum was rushed there, but arrived 15 minutes after he died. The man who had survived wounds from German shells during the war couldn't survive the head injuries from this motorbike accident. The surgeon reportedly told his wife: "The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak."

Only nine months old, I have no memory of that period or the years that followed as my mother tried to adjust to the great void that had entered her life. Liverpool was far away from her home and family in Sunderland, on the other side of England, to whom she could have looked for support. And two and a half months after her husband was killed, Doris’s father died in Sunderland. She told me many years later that she had decided not to move back to the northeast because she might have become a burden on her family, so she stayed in Liverpool. 

But she could not stay in Army housing, and some time about 1950 she was given alternative “council housing” - a city-owned, metal-clad prefabricated dwelling a few miles away in the then-rural suburb of Belle Vale, with one small living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom. It was one of some 1,100 small “prefabs” which were built to alleviate the housing shortage caused by the bombing of World War II. The prefabs were built to serve for ten years. As it happened, they were occupied for nearly twice that long.

After my father’s death, Mum found it very difficult economically. She would say later that she sometimes didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. Meals were very simple - potatoes were the staple, with other vegetables. Fried eggs or minced meat (ground beef) were frequent fare. She baked a lot, including pies, and on Sundays we would often have a half-shoulder of lamb. I never remember going to bed hungry.  

Mum supplemented her small Army widow’s pension by cleaning houses. My eldest sister, Ruth, told me that Mum was given a cleaning job at a house in the affluent neighboring suburb of Childwall, but when she appeared at the house with me - a toddler - in tow, the woman of the house wasn’t pleased. Mum assured her that I was a very good boy. While she was cleaning, I would sit on the stairs or in a chair and play quietly. I have to take my sister’s word for it - I have only the vaguest memory of that period.

Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo from family album
Photo from family album

Above, top to bottom: 

  • Doris Dix Otterson in her 20s and 30s.
  • The China tea set that Bob bought for his wife as a wedding gift.
  • Camp Hill and Woolton Woods, Liverpool. The army barracks' married quarters where the Otterson's lived was next to this area, but the family had to move to a prefab estate after he died.
  • Robert and Doris Otterson with their girls, Ruth and Ann.


  • Liverpool prefabs in the Belle Vale estate, identical to the one in which Doris and her three children lived for about 17 years. The colored pictures are from the same type of prefab at an open air museum in Wales, showing the kitchen as well as the outside.
Prefab on the Belle Vale estate.
A Belle Vale prefab. Photographer unknown.
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Inside a prefab, 1950s-1960s
A prefab kitchen, Wales housing museum. Photo by Michael Otterson

Mum was always very reluctant to accept help from others - a common value of the time. When I grew old enough to understand, I once asked her if we were poor, and she gave me an evasive answer. It would not do to admit it. In the socialized government of the time in Britain, her widow’s status would have allowed her free school meal tickets for the children. Initially, she accepted that for the girls, but when I started school she refused the free meals and paid like everyone else.

Photo from family album
Photo from family album
Photo origin unknown
Photo origin unknown

Top left: At a wedding, which afforded a rare visit to relatives. Doris is on the back row, far left, with her hands on my shoulders.
Top right:  Doris with her three children, from left, Michael, Ann, Ruth.
Above:  Wavertree Road, where Doris worked at Sayer's bakery.

Photo from family album
Photo from family album

She was scrupulously honest. One day my sister Ann found a full wage packet that had been dropped on our footpath by one of the men delivering coal to a kind of bunker that was in every prefab’s back garden. It was promptly returned. I don’t remember ever being taught about honesty. It was simply assumed, and never questioned. Mum would often leave her purse around the house, but it would never have entered our minds to take advantage of it. I recall being shocked when once in a friend’s home, the children took pennies from their mother’s purse.

On Sunday mornings when I was young, I would wake to the sound of the church bells ringing across the valley from the Anglican church on the brow of the hill. We attended the nearby Childwall Valley Methodist Church, half way up the steep hill of Childwall Valley Road. Gradually our church attendance dropped off, for reasons that were never clear to me. I was sent to church on my own for a while, until in my teen years I protested at the perceived injustice.

My mother was extremely house-proud. While the prefabs were humble places, there was a strong sense of community. Mum kept her home orderly, with the furniture always polished and everything well dusted. 

A piano stood against the small living room wall, and next to it a finely crafted glass cabinet containing mostly acquisitions from earlier years, including the Chinese tea set. A dining table stood against another wall with windows looking over the avenue. We never ate at that table - meals were always taken in the kitchen.

The smell of furniture polish is part of the memory of that house. My sister Ruth was given the job of dusting. To Ruth’s irritation, Mum would arrive home and check Ruth’s work by running her finger along the piano to see if there was dust. If so, it had to be done again. Ruth, in her teens, countered by watching through the kitchen window for Mum getting off the bus, and would quickly do the dusting in the few minutes it took for her to arrive home.

Ruth, who is ten years my senior and who therefore has more memories than me of the early days, says she felt that our mother was overly concerned about keeping the house perfectly in order, and that she never felt as a young girl that she could leave out toys or completely relax. While I don’t question that feeling in my sister, I had no such worries. I recall often spreading out my plastic US cavalry and Indians in huge set-piece battles and occupying most of the living room floor to do so. Perhaps our mother was more indulgent with me, her youngest. She would, occasionally, recruit me for other tasks, such as holding my two arms out so she could loop a coil of yarn over my hands while she wound the wool into a ball. Knitting was an almost constant occupation while  sitting in the evening.

We all had house jobs. For my part, it was mostly the weekend shopping. Mum also worked on Saturdays, and each Saturday morning I would be given enough money to buy the essential items for the week - groceries, bundles of wood to help light the coal fire and perhaps a gallon of paraffin for the oil heaters. It was about a half-mile walk to the local shops, and it was my primary duty on Saturdays. Something of my mother must have rubbed off on me, because while I can’t recall ever being instructed to do so, I loved to get the house perfectly orderly on a Saturday, including lighting and maintaining the coal fire, and occasionally preparing a meal for when Mum and my sisters got home from work. As I look back over my own life, that work ethic may have been one of my mother’s best gifts to me.

The family became a little more financially secure when Mum landed a good, regular job at Sayers, a confectionery chain with more than 80 shops in Liverpool, where she could use the skills she had developed as a girl in Sunderland. Although she worked as a shop assistant, her work ethic and attitude led to her standing in as manager when the regular manager was away. She kept a note book with detailed instructions on how to run the place and take orders.

One late November night, probably in the late 50s or very early 60s, a dense fog descended on Liverpool, so thick that it crippled the city. I can still feel the damp air as I think of it. Visibility was down to just a few feet, and after walking home from school I sat in the prefab alone, wondering where my family was. Mum, with her limp, did not find it easy to walk long distances. Traffic was barely moving, and the conductors on the buses had disembarked to walk in front of the drivers at less than a normal walking pace. Hours late, Mum arrived home having walked some four miles from the inner city Sayers store where she worked. Fortunately, my sister Ann who worked in the city itself, had caught up and walked home with her.

Probably in an attempt to improve our circumstances, Mum eventually left Sayers to work in Colliers clothing store in London Road, in Liverpool’s city center. She hated the job, with its unfamiliarity including the handling of cheques, and she quickly left it. But she got a job serving in the draper’s shop in nearby Hedgefield Road. It was closer to our home and  part of the community.

During the 1960s, Mum’s health began to deteriorate. She had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1954 when she was 42, but as is common with that disease the deterioration was slow, and most noticeable in her shaking hands. While still living in the prefab, she had her first nervous breakdown in the mid-60s. It was a terrible time for her, as she became convinced she could hear voices critically talking about her. That seemed to play to her deepest fears of how she and her family were perceived. She needed to have no such worries. She had raised us well, and on her own. But diseases of the mind are not logical. Soon after we moved from the prefab estate to different council housing at Cantril Farm, on the southeastern side of Liverpool, she had a second breakdown.

By the late 1960s she had fully recovered. Ruth married in 1960 and I married in 1968, and Mum continued to live with Ann in Cantril Farm’s estate. My wife and I returned from two years in Australia and a year in Japan in 1971, recognizing that our mothers’ health would eventually deteriorate and we could not then be living overseas. In 1975, my wife and I bought a lovely, big old house in Southport, some 18 miles north of Liverpool, big enough for Mum and Ann to have the ground-level floor to themselves. When I asked her if she would like to move in with us, she looked up at me and gave me an unhesitating, “Oh, yes.”

My biggest regret is that we did not do that much earlier. I like to think that her last years were happy ones, with her grandchildren close at hand. But it was not long enough. After a year or so she began to have blackouts, and in 1977 she was hospitalized with advanced Parkinson’s disease. Two days before she died, I visited her in hospital to tell her of the birth of our fifth child and her seventh grandchild, Emma. She did not recognize me, and showed no sign that she understood what I had told her.

The saddest word in all the language is the word Goodbye.
Pause before you speak the word that maybe you'll regret.
Though perhaps you weren't to blame - forgive it and forget.
Wait before you cause a storm that wrecks your peace of mind.
Life is brief and love is precious - and it’s hard to find.
No, never risk destroying it by something done or said.
Think before you spoil your chance of happiness ahead.

Patience Strong

My mother had her strengths and her faults, like all of us. But she was a gem and I loved her. And those quiet moments when I am carefully balancing my finances, or when I just have to tidy my desk, or if I catch from someone the distinctive Geordie accent of Northeast England on the TV or radio - these are the times when I most often think of her.