Betty Wainwright: Wife and muse of A. Wainwright

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Alfred Wainwright dreamed about Betty, long before he ever met her, and long before he became the Blessed Wainwright, sage of Kendal and writer of the best-selling, best-loved guides to the Lake District fells.

In 1939 he secretly wrote a short story, clearly totally true, about his unhappy life. In it he revealed that he had a dream lady whom he believed came to visit him, sat beside him, soothed and comforted him with her "soft, throbbing breast". Wainwright was working in the Treasurer's Department at Blackburn Borough Council, was a respectable member of the community, and had been married to Ruth for eight years – but it was a marriage he had quickly and bitterly regretted.

He hid the story in a drawer, told no one about it, until 26 years later, in 1965, by which time he was Borough Treasurer of Kendal. He took it out one day, put it in a large envelope and handed it to Betty McNally. In a covering note he wrote, "You are this girl". Just in case it was a mistaken identity, he instructed her to wait two weeks before reacting to it.

Betty McNally – born Betty Hayes in 1922 in Singapore, where her father represented a Manchester cotton firm – was living in Kendal with her two daughters, Jane and Anne. She was working as a nurse and also doing charity work. She had been separated for some time from her husband, Paddy McNally, a Dublin doctor.

She had met Wainwright a few years earlier when he called her to his office in Kendal about an unpaid bill for 10 shillings. Betty, as secretary of a local charity, had been responsible for booking Kendal Town Hall for a ballet company who overran their programme and went off without paying for the extra time. She always remembered, as he ticked her off that day about the 10 shillings, how the sun happened to suddenly come through the window of the Borough Treasurer's office and lit up the red hairs on the back of AW's hand. He, however, was busily reprimanding her: "You should never sign a form on behalf of someone else."

There was quite a gap, after that first encounter, before they met again in 1965 and started seeing each other – in secret. He was now 58, still married to Ruth, and as Kendal Borough Treasurer was seen as a pillar, nay a block of the community. He was tall, bulky, with a strong Lancashire accent, considered by many colleagues as gruff and anti-social. She was 43, petite, warm, lively, cultured, with lots of friends and very well-spoken. She'd been to boarding school at Casterton, in Kirkby Lonsdale, the school where the Brontë sisters had been educated.

Wainwright, by the time their affair began, had written the first six books of his Pictorial Guides to the Lake District, all in his spare time. They were selling very well, despite the fact that he refused to do any signing sessions, public appearances or even give any biographical information on the dust jackets – not even his first name, preferring to be know as A. Wainwright. One of the first things he did after Betty had decided that she might well be his dream girl was to say that she could call him Alfred.

Their romance continued with clandestine meetings in greasy-spoon caffs in Keswick, well away from Kendalian prying eyes. Wainwright didn't have a car, couldn't drive, and all the work on his books so far had been done by bus. Betty was able to use her car to give him lifts while working on his subsequent books, but he wouldn't let her walk with him, much as she wanted to.

Wainwright then hit on what he thought was a brilliant wheeze. Out of the blue a very wealthy American banker called Ade Meyer, who had become one of the earlier fans of AW's guides, had written to say he was coming over to England, would be staying in Grasmere and could he have the honour of a walk with AW? Normally Wainwright would have rejected such an approach, but then he thought Meyer would make a perfect cover. He would invite Betty as well, they'd walk in a threesome, and no one would be suspicious.

Alas, he didn't tell Meyer about his relationship with Betty. After several walks, all together, Meyer, who was a widower, proposed to Betty. AW became alarmed. For a time he feared Betty had encouraged Meyer, which she hadn't.

Betty McNally and Alfred Wainwright finally got married in 1970 and had 21 years of marital bliss until he died in 1991. She proved not just his perfect wife, but a friend, companion and literary assistant. The vast majority of AW's books, some 50 in all, were written after he had met Betty. It was her devotion and help which enabled him to continue, despite his fading eyesight, for as long and as well as he did. She was also a vital factor in his charity work for animal welfare.

I first met the couple in 1978, at a time when Wainwright was still not a public figure. Some of his drawings were being hung at Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal and I decided to buy three. I was making a cheque out to "A Wain..." when Betty stopped me. I had to redo it to Animal Rescue, Cumbria. None of his readers knew then that he was giving away all the royalties to animals, mainly to Kapellan, an animal refuge near Kendal. By 1986, over one million copies of his books had been sold, still without any publicity or advertising.

This generosity rather rebounded on Betty Wainwright when AW died. He had assumed, and told her so, that if she survived him as his widow she would get a decent pension from his time as Borough Treasurer. What he had overlooked was that because their marriage had taken place just after he'd officially retired, she got nothing on his death.

After AW's death, Betty moved to a bungalow at Burneside, just outside Kendal, involving herself in manycultural and charitable activities, particularly the Kapellan refuge. She worked closely with Michael Joseph and then Frances Lincoln, present publisher of the Wainwright books, and also the Wainwright Society. Thanks to the success of recent BBC television programmes based on AW's life and walks, the society's membership has been booming.

When I wrote my biography of Alfred in 1995, Betty was worried about including her love letters with AW. She feared that people in Kendal would think it unseemly for two late middle-aged people to have had such a passionate relationship. But it was a real love affair. His dream had come true.

Hunter Davies

Betty Hayes, nurse and charity worker: born Singapore 10 February 1922; married 1945 Patrick McNally (died 1976; two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1970 Alfred Wainwright (died 1991); died Kendal, Cumbria 20 August 2008.