A new exhibition is to be staged at a North East museum to mark what would have been the 100th birthday of the inspirational founder of Butterwick Hospice. PETER BARRON reports

WHEN Mary Butterwick was born, the drunk midwife, who delivered her, took one look and declared: "This one's no good."

Blue and seemingly lifeless, with an umbilical cord wrapped round the baby's neck, a life that was destined to be remarkable, might have ended at its beginning.

Thankfully, Mary's dad, James, heard his wife's cries, and recovered the new-born from under the bed.

Not only did Mary survive, but she went on to become one of the most inspirational North East women in living memory.

And, now, to coincide with what would have been her 100th birthday on June 2, her life is to be celebrated with a new exhibition at Preston Park Museum, near Stockton.

“It’s such a lovely way to remember her,” says Mary’s granddaughter, Karen Holder. “It means her story lives on.”

Indeed, lives such as Mary Butterwick’s are worthy of celebration – not just by this generation, but by generations to come. She really was that special.

Mary was the fiercely determined Stockton housewife who felt moved to sell her family home so she could create a hospice capable of giving others the kind of dignified death that had been denied to her beloved husband, John.

The John Butterwick Day Care Centre opened in 1984 – 40 years ago this year – and it grew into one of the region’s best-known charities, Butterwick Hospice.

And what a life-story the new exhibition has to tell…

Born in Manchester as the fourth of five children, Mary went on to join the Land Army before driving an ambulance during the war.

It was during wartime that she met her future husband, John Butterwick, on a train.

They married by special licence at Stockton Parish Church and raised four children: Keith, Carol, Susan, and Julia.

Sadly, John was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1979, and died shortly afterwards, aged just 58.

Mary’s response to the tragedy was incredible. Feeling let down by the level of care John and the family had received when he was dying, she decided to devote her life to helping others who were coping with a terminal illness.

Shortly after John’s death, she sold her only asset, the family home, and bought a three-storey Victorian House in Hartburn Lane, Stockton.

Named the John Butterwick Day Care Centre, it opened in 1984, and the first steps had been taken towards what was to become the Butterwick Hospice.

As demand for its services increased, the hospice moved premises three times before finally settling on a purpose-built site adjacent to North Tees General Hospital, on the outskirts of Stockton, in 1997.

The charity had opened another centre in Bishop Auckland in 1995, and a children’s wing was added to the Stockton hospice in 1998, with the support of a fundraising campaign launched by The Northern Echo in response to the death of Princess Diana.

“A lot of people don’t know the story behind the Butterwick Hospice, and some of them think my Nan was a rich philanthropist, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says Karen, whose mum is Mary’s daughter, Julia.

“The more that time goes by, it all seems more and more incredible. To do what she did, at her age, and in the midst of her grief, was unbelievable. She wasn’t from a medical background and, as a woman, she had to overcome so many barriers.”

Mary not only sold her home to fund the hospice, she rolled up her sleeves and got stuck into any job that was needed: washing laundry, cleaning floors and toilets, comforting patients and families, and training as a chaplain.

Karen remembers working as a nanny in Philadelphia as a teenager, and being moved by the trans-Atlantic telephone conversations she had with her Nan.

“She’d always just be just coming home from being out fundraising – knocking on doors, or collecting cheques from a workingmen’s club,” Karen recalls.

“Fundraising was so different back then. There were no JustGiving pages online – it was just a case of getting out there, and she never stopped.”

Mary's efforts on behalf of the terminally ill were recognised when she was granted the Freedom of the Borough of Stockton in 1999, and the OBE in 2002.

But there was more sadness to come. Her daughter, Carol, died of cancer in 2012 – and was cared for at the Butterwick Hospice.

“It was incredibly sad, but it was so poignant that the hospice was there for Mary’s own daughter," says Karen. "She was able to receive the kind of care that her dad didn't get."

When Mary passed away, aged 91, in 2015, she'd achieved what she set out to do when her husband died – and that’s why a centenary exhibition of her life is so fitting.

It will feature a collection of photographs, from childhood to old age, along with newspaper cuttings from her large pile of scrapbooks.

Mary was also a talented artist and the display will include some of her paintings and art materials.

There will also be a favourite red scarf that belonged to Carol, and which Mary wore when she met the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, at a thanksgiving service.

The Archbishop wrote a book called Faith Stories, comprising 20 real-life stories of faith, and, when he was interviewed on The One Show, he said Mary’s story was his favourite.

Karen, who works as an education mental health practitioner in schools, serves as a Butterwick Ambassador, alongside her husband Chris, brother Stephen, and his wife, Kate.

And she's particularly pleased that her Nan's exhibition will be seen by young visitors during school trips.

"That's really important because it will help Mary's story carry on through future generations, and show them what can be achieved through dedication," she says.

The announcement about the exhibition coincides with Karen's 13-year-old daughter, Emilia, becoming the Butterwick's first junior ambassador.

"She's talked about wanting to do this for a while, and the idea of junior ambassadors is something we support as a family," says Karen.

Emilia, who has a nine-year-old brother, Edward, was only five when Mary died, but her great-grandmother remains an important influence.

"I'll always think of her as being really determined, and never giving up," says Emilia, before adding: "I want to be like her one day."

The midwife, who drunkenly declared that the baby girl born in Manchester on June 2, 1924, was "no good", could not have been more wrong.

Mary Butterwick's goodness lives on.

The Northern Echo: