Editor’s Note: This tribute to Esther “Tess” Iredale was shared by her daughter Jane Iredale and Jane’s husband Bob Montgomery with their colleagues at Iredale Mineral Cosmetics in Great Barrington.
She moved into her first house by horse and cart; she died under the shadow of drones. Esther (Tess) Iredale was 102. Born in 1913 as the First World War claimed a generation of English men, including her father. She moved alone at the age of 14 from her tiny rural village in Kent, England, to become a maid at a boys’ school in London. But she got tired of domineering cooks who wouldn’t let her sing while she worked and eventually moved to a factory in the north of London. That was where she met her husband of 60 years.
To help with the World War II effort she worked at the Enfield Small Arms Factory assembling guns. Twelve-hour days on concrete floors heaving metal around took their toll. “Sometimes I’d fall asleep where I was standing. But it was worth it for our boys.” (It didn’t help that she was also pregnant.) Her husband dug a bomb shelter in the garden but once the baby was born and the bombs came she refused to go down there. “Too damp and cold, I’d rather go under the table.” The bomb shelter was later used as a root cellar – she and her husband were prolific gardeners.
Always talented with her hands, she made all the clothes for her husband, son and daughter and sometimes a dress for herself. She learned glass engraving, lace making, embroidery and quilting to professional standards. She made lampshades and hung wallpaper. And she worked full-time.
When she was 50, she took on a pub called The Old Bull’s Head and became famous for the cozy atmosphere she created and her sausage sandwiches. The fame also extended to her parties that sometimes spilled out as conga lines into the street. When she eventually retired, she challenged herself to memorize Shakespeare’s sonnets. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” were her favorites. She wrote a book. She rescued a dog. She made beer and wine with her husband.
Her transportation of choice was her beloved bicycle fitted with a shopping basket for groceries. She stopped riding it at the age of 88 when her husband died and she moved to Great Barrington to be with her daughter. “The happiest days of my life,” she said of her time in Great Barrington. She loved to gamble and set about with her usual determination to crack “that American lottery.” Occasional weekends at Foxwoods were relished without a moment at the slot machines being wasted.
But keeping her busy was always a challenge. She eventually turned her living room into an assembly center for one of the Iredale products. To the music of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, she worked there seven days a week, “What else am I going to do? Knit by the television? I want to be useful.” And she was. She loved her Iredale company family, watching their comings and goings from her window, usually with a cup of tea in her hand, her cat Charley by her side.
She was smart, funny, independent and loving until the end. Every day began with a smile and a promise.