In the graveyard of St James the Less’ church at Stubbings on Maidenhead Thicket rests one of the more colourful characters of post-second world war Britain. Nora, Lady Docker, whose headstone (see picture) also records her as Callingham, the name of her first husband with whom she lived in this area, was one of the pioneers of the modern cult of celebrity. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the girl born over a butcher’s shop cut an extravagant swathe through polite society, with her yacht, gold-plated cars and taste for pink champagne.
Born to a working class family in Derby in 1905, the family of Nora Turner later moved to Birmingham where the father invested in a car showroom. When Nora was 16, her father, who’d suffered a nervous breakdown, took his own life on the Irish ferry between Holyhead and Dublin. The family then owned a couple of pubs but this venture proved unsuccessful. This brief flirtation with poverty made Nora determined never to experience it again. Aged just 18, she moved to London to make her fortune. She was, as she recalled, “an artificial blonde among thousands of artificial blondes searching for stardom”. She loved to dance and decided to pursue this as a career, taking work at London’s most fashionable society haunt, the Café de Paris. She proved one of the most popular hostesses employed by the establishment to dance with unaccompanied gentlemen. Nora was able to charge them £1 per dance, far more than any of the other dancers. Despite her family’s assertion that she wasn’t as pretty as her sisters, she was never short of male admirers and had a particular talent for attracting the attentions of extremely wealthy men – one admirer even bought her a hotel. She claimed her success was down to one simple rule: “Through my life I set both my sights and my price high.”
At the Café de Paris, Nora met and fell in love with Clement Callingham, the head of Henekeys wine and spirit merchants. Although he was awaiting a divorce from his estranged wife, Nora and Callingham set up home together in Maidenhead, eventually marrying at Chelsea Register Office when Nora was 32. They had one son, Lance, upon whom his mother doted. There had also been a daughter, Felicity, who died aged 9 months in 1944, and whose headstone, touchingly decorated with carvings of a rabbit, birds and flowers, stands behind that of Nora’s at Stubbings church. During the Second World War, Norah joined the Mechanised Transport Corps. Even in uniform, her stubborn streak shone through and she didn’t take readily to orders, once defiantly crossing a hazardous area of bomb-ravaged Bath to deliver essential supplies to those trapped on the other side. As the war drew to a close, her husband Clement fell ill and died in July 1945.
A year after her first husband’s death, Nora married a friend of Clement’s, Sir William Collins, chairman of Fortnum and Mason and the Cerebos Salt Company. That their relationship was less than blissful is, perhaps, unsurprising, given that, by Nora’s own admission “He was 69; I married him for his money.” But she also found companionship and missed him terribly after his death only two years later. Nora then set about acquiring her third husband, Sir Bernard Docker, with whom her life would attract immense publicity. She became the new wife of one of the country’s wealthiest men. Sir Bernard was the chairman of British Small Arms (BSA), and the luxury car manufacturer, the Daimler Motor Company, as well as a director of the Midland Bank, and of the travel agency Thomas Cook and Sons. Throughout the 1950s, the pair of them would entertain the nation with a succession of fancy cars, mink coats, champagne receptions and the magnificent Shemara, a huge luxury yacht with its crew of 35.
Britain was still living in an age of austerity and the public were fascinated with the publicity-seeking Lady Docker. By her own admission, she was not universally loved for it. But, if polite society cringed at her style, the general public loved it, their constant fascination with her flamboyant tastes matched only by her willingness to share with the world. The Dockers were often objects of ridicule because of the ostentatious flaunting of their wealth. The late Frankie Howerd, the comedian, would often refer to people as “looking a bit like Lady Docker”. She retorted by saying that she had brought “A bit of glamour to the business of making motorcycles”.
Nora Docker could be accused of many things, but never of snobbery. She was proud of her working-class roots and was determined to share some of the delights of wealth with those less fortunate to “bring some happiness back to a world left hollow by the horror of two world wars”. When a group of Yorkshire miners invited Nora to visit their coal mine, she returned their hospitality by inviting 45 of them on a champagne cruise around the Isle of Wight aboard Shemara, the Dockers’ yacht. It was another era and these miners did not feel patronised. “The dear boys, I just loved them!” Nora exclaimed. “It proved conclusively to me that the social barrier only exists in the mind.”* When £15,000-worth of her jewels were stolen, gangster Billy Hill, the notorious ‘Bandit King’, vowed to get them back for her saying “I admire Lady Docker. She’s not afraid to mix with people like me.”
Nora’s outspoken manner would often cause problems. The Dockers had a series of altercations in Monaco in particular. In 1955, Life magazine reported that she had assaulted one of the Monte Carlo casino’s employees. She said: “It was a good sock I gave that man and he deserved it.” The following year, the Dockers were invited to the wedding of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly and then, in 1958, to the christening celebrations for the royal couple’s first child, Prince Albert. The event coincided with the 19th birthday of their own son Lance and the Dockers asked whether they might bring him too. Receiving a brusque refusal, Nora decided that she could not attend the christening either. She was then seen tearing up a small paper Monegasque flag in frustration and matters were made worse when a series of misquotes were published. Prince Rainier issued a statement condemning the Dockers, banning them from the Principality and returning their christening gifts without even so much as a note.
But the Dockers could not get away with this forever. After defending his extravagant life-style at a press conference at the Savoy Hotel, Sir Bernard lost his chairmanship of the Daimler Motor Company at the end of 1956. By 1958 they were reduced to selling Lady Docker’s jewellery and, finally, in 1968, their luxury yacht. The couple took refuge in the tax haven of Jersey before Lady Docker insulted the island’s people by calling them “the most frightfully boring, dreadful people that have ever been born”.
Sir Bernard died in 1978, after which Nora moved to Majorca. She returned to Britain frequently and retained her joie-de-vivre, downing glasses of pink champagne to the last. “I have always had the persistence to march on. I will continue to do that, until the day I die” she declared. In December 1983, the 77 year-old Lady Nora Docker was found dead in her room at the Great Western Royal Hotel by Paddington Station. She was brought to Stubbings to rest in the Callingham family plot of her first husband. Nora, Lady Docker, had lived her life to the full.
Post Script – Lady Docker rides on in Little Marlow!
* Nostalgic film footage of the Dockers, including of this cruise and of the AGM at which Sir Bernard was removed from the chairmanship of the Daimler Motor Company, can be found in the British Pathe News archives at http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=32322
The author is much indebted for information included in this article to Derbyshire’s Own by Nicola Rippon, The History Press Ltd, ISBN-10: 0750942592.
by Jeff Griffiths