Support Staff Profiles: Collingwood’s New Matron

One of RHS’ newest additions, Sally Mackley (SM) is interviewed by Georgia Folkard-Smith (GFS) after trying to get her adorable and very excitable new puppy, Marley, to settle down a bit.

GFS: I’ve heard that you’ve travelled quite a bit in your life and I was wondering if you have a favourite place that you’ve lived or worked in?

SM: I have, I’ve traveled extensively after joining the Foreign Office when I was a kid and I suppose…of all the places I’ve lived for any length of time: Australia, where we spent five very happy years and where we brought up our our children really. My husband was the Deputy High Commissioner at the British High Commission and, yes, that was a fabulous place to live. I think it is probably one of those places that, if we didn’t live in England, then we’d have probably moved to. But England is always home; after all that travelling even more so.

GFS: I would absolutely love to go out to Australia, it seems like an amazing place.

SM: Just wonderful people as well. Although I’d say that Australia are about fifty years behind us in everything but communications! We did have some funny incidents when we were out there as well; I remember one time my husband came home and said to me:

‘We’re having guests from all our posts around Australia coming over, can you lay on a dinner this evening?’

We had two small children at the time as well, and I just wondered how on earth I would cook for so many people at such late notice! So I dived down to an exceptional Chinese restaurant in Canberra, bought this big hostess trolley and laid it all out before everyone arrived for the dinner. I didn’t actually say that I had cooked it, but I suddenly got this reputation for being a wonderful Chinese cook! So every time this particular group of people came, I would have to produce this amazing Chinese food!

GFS: Can you imagine if they’d closed down!

SM: Now that would’ve been very awkward!

GFS: So, before all of your travels, how did you actually start working for the Foreign Office?

SM: I, well, I went to school and didn’t do terribly well – playing hockey and netball was far more interesting to me than sitting in a classroom – so I ended up going to a secretarial college and learnt to be a secretary; not what I wanted to do, but my parents told me that that was what I was going to do. So, I decided that if I was going to be a secretary, I was going to do something interesting with it, so that’s when I joined the Foreign Office; that way I had the ability to travel, and in those days you spent two-thirds of your time abroad and the rest of it back in London.

GFS: So where was your first post abroad?

SM: I was sent to Stockholm first, which is where I met my husband; he was twenty years older than I and we were at a conference – the conference which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

GFS: No way! I’m actually going to see it soon!

SM: It’s not that impressive to look at, if I’m honest, but thinking back over all the history that it’s associated with and the history of itself, it can be quite a moving experience.

GFS: I can imagine – the fall must’ve been such an incredible thing to witness, Speaking of your foreign posts, I heard that you were stationed in Ghana for a while?

SM: Yes, well, by the time we got there, after Sweden, Australia, London, he was quite a senior diplomat. He was the British High Commissioner to Ghana and Ambassador to Togo. British High Commissions are in Commonwealth countries and embassies are in all the other countries where we have international ties and relations to. So yes, we did five years in Ghana, a fabulous place; we always refer to it as the best kept secret in Africa, it was just amazing. The people are just so incredibly friendly.

GFS: And were you visited by many important people?

SM: Because it was such a “good news” story, the Queen came out and a number of other significant visits took place because we were trying to promote the good stuff that Ghana was doing at that time; about twenty years ago now, they’d had a general election coming up and the President at the time had taken the country by force and spilt blood, so it was really important for us to raise Ghana’s profile and try to ensure that this election was true and fair. So yes, we had a royal state visit – one that took us two years to prepare. Princess Anne came, who is I think probably the most hardworking royal of all, she is just incredible; she was visiting, not just to do stuff for us, but also under the ‘Save the Children’ banner, so she was up all over the country – bit of a nightmare really, these royal visits are always quite tricky, logistically speaking. Being in charge of the residence, I had lists with about ninety points on each day just so the staff, who were wonderful, knew what they were supposed to be doing even down to every five or ten minutes – Marley! Stop eating the carpet!

[Brief pause while we try to distract the puppy with a toy the same size as her]

but yes that was a brilliant visit, really enjoyed that, but it was such hard work.

GFS: And how did the election turn out?

SM: Well it was a fair election as far as we could tell, but often what would happen previously is that, when elections were coming up governing parties would go to very poor villages and lay water pipes. This meant that they’d secured the votes from that village and then after the elections, they’d come and take the water pipes back!

GFS: That is horrendous. But talking of politics, what role does a High Commission or embassy actually play within a country?

SM: There’s several elements to an embassy; you’ve got the trade, where we help to facilitate British companies and Chambers of Commerce; the passport, consular section; and then you’ve got the chancery section, which deals with all the political stuff; plus the administration, which is responsible for our properties. It was quite difficult at times, especially when the interests of the Ghanians clashed with the interest of the British, which led to some quite difficult negotiations with us stuck in the middle. But I had the pleasure of meeting some fascinating people, such as the Robin Cook (the Foreign Secretary at the time) and his wife, and Clare Short – she always used to come across on the TV as quite a hard woman, but she is just the most delightful woman! But yes, I’ve been very fortunate. It was quite sad when it was all over really.

GFS: What did you do after you came back from Ghana?

SM: Well I went back to university to get my teaching degree in software applications, teaching what most of you young people teach yourselves nowadays like how to deal with Microsoft Word and Excel, so I only taught for a couple of years. Then I worked for a charity, managing some government contracts to support and help young people who hadn’t had a lot of opportunities in life to get jobs and qualifications and – what is she doing! She’s so naughty!

[Another brief interruption by Marley who had been sitting in my lap and taken an interest in my hair]

GFS: I must just ask, what influenced you decision to choose Marley? Because quite a few staff seem to have taken a liking to this particular breed (a spaniel crossed with a poodle).

SM: The reason I went for her is because my son has a working cocker spaniel, Rogue, who is brilliantly trained and just absolutely gorgeous dog – MARLEY! I’m sorry, I’m going to go and put her away because she is being incredibly naughty.

[Marley is taken to her cage looking completely indignant]

GFS: You’ll have to get Rogue round to teach her some manners!

SM: I was going to bring Rogue with me, but she belongs to my son primarily, and I do love the spaniels, but they’re so hairy! I didn’t want to have an allergenic dog, and, although it would’ve been lovely to rehouse an older dog, I didn’t want to adopt one because in this kind of environment I think you must really train them yourself.

GFS: Do the Collingwood boys get to see her a lot?

SM: They absolutely love her! It’s absolute mayhem when we go out there. But it’s good for her socialisation, and I want her to be a people dog, so building social skills into her character now is just brilliant.

GFS: This is a perfect place for dogs to become really friendly, especially from such a young age. Talking of RHS, how did you learn about the Matron post here?

SM: Well, Jan (Anson’s matron) and I shared a flat at the start of our careers and, after I introduced them, she got married to my cousin, so we’ve always been great friends, and she sent her boys here (most students will have probably heard of Mr Wood, former Cornwallis housemaster and business teacher), so I’ve been visiting the school for a while. And we were both in the same position; our kids had left home and we still potentially have thirty more years to live, so what on earth are we supposed to do with all that time? Jan had been absolutely loving her job here and so when a vacancy turned up she sent it to me and suggested that I go for it. I mean, for me it’s a perfect combination of my careers! Put the house managing side of being a diplomat and pastoral side of teaching and that’s what encouraged me to go for it, and I was lucky enough to get it; I’m well chuffed!

GFS: Yes, our new matron in Nelson used to be Collingwood’s matron, so I’m guessing that the boys are still adapting to the change?

SM: Yes, Coleen has left some very big boots for me to fill; both her and Jan have been so supportive and we’ve become very good friends. It means that because the boys don’t know me very well yet, I can always suggest that they go and see Coleen if they need to, but I can’t wait to watch them all grow up in the house. I mean, you are like a surrogate parent to these boys and it’s just such a privilege to look after them, really, and they just ring me so much joy! Of course there are some days where you’re tearing your hair out, but I just love working with them.

GFS: Has anything surprised you about working here so far?

SM: I mean, frankly no. I had a son and three step-sons so I know that boys will be, well, boys. Although there are some lovely things which I guess I wasn’t expecting, like the older boys being so kind and comforting to the younger ones, hugging them and it’s just lovely to see the brotherly connection between some of them. They are all lovely boys, there’s something good about all of them. And you do feel a sense of pride when it comes to them as well, I often go down to watch their interpose matches and I can feel myself getting a bit competitive for them.

GFS: Well that’s good – house pride is always very important! And those are all the questions that I have for you, but I will definitely be coming to visit more now that Marley is here!

I highly recommend everyone to go and visit Sally and her puppy in Collingwood, whether it be for a funny anecdote or the bouncy ball of fluff!

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