Obituary: Teacher who was mayor during town's Christmas tree riot

In love memory: Freda Abell, former headmistress and Dereham town mayor, has died aged 93

In love memory: Freda Abell, former headmistress and Dereham town mayor, has died aged 93 - Credit: SUPPLIED/ARCHANT

A beloved teacher who felt both passion and enthusiasm for the town she called home has died aged 93. 

As well as inspiring hundreds of young minds through her successful career teaching infant school pupils, Freda Abell also gave back to her community as its town mayor. 

And one of the most notorious moments during her time in that role was Dereham's great Christmas tree riot of New Year’s Day 1989. 

It was an event that made national news at the time, with seven police officers sustaining injuries as they broke up a mob of 200 revellers. 

It happened after kick-out time at a local disco and saw two people climb the tree. On their descent, one person was arrested while another managed to run away from police.

A respected teacher: Freda Abell during her time as a headmistress in Dereham

A respected teacher: Freda Abell during her time as a headmistress in Dereham - Credit: SUPPLIED BY FAMILY

It is Mrs Abell’s dedication to numerous good causes which she will be remembered for. 

Born Freda Hilda Burt on December 10, 1928, in Canterbury, she spent her youth in the Kent-based town before training to be a teacher at Goldsmiths College, London. 

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Her father worked as a butcher while her mother was a housewife, and she became the first person in her family to attend university. 

She spent her entire working life within the profession she fell in love with, knowing from an early age that she wanted to teach. 

Freda Abell studies the Christmas tree decorated for the Friends of Dereham Hospital, with unusual o

How unusual: Freda Abell studying the Christmas tree decorated for the Friends of Dereham Hospital, with ornaments such as rubber gloves - Credit: Archant © 2005

Her son, Chris Abell, said: “She really loved her job and her pupils and colleagues really loved her. 

“She was a very capable administrator and organiser but her passion always remained in the teaching.” 

Mrs Abell first met her future husband Ronald, known as Ron, when they were children growing up together in the same town. They married in 1953 in Kent, and had two children together; Chris, born in 1955, and Karen in 1957.

Beauitful smiles: Freda Abell and husband Ron on their wedding day

Beautiful smiles: Freda Abell and husband Ron on their wedding day - Credit: SUPPLIED BY FAMILY

Mr Abell, who had previously worked as a policeman, joined the Royal Air Force and was posted to Malaysia, southeast Asia, in 1963. The family followed and during her time there, Mrs Abell taught at a British Army children’s school. 

Mr Abell was eventually posted to Swanton Morley, near Dereham, and in 1966 the family relocated to Norfolk where they remained. Mrs Abell worked at several schools in the county, including schools in King’s Lynn, Sporle near Swaffham, and Toftwood, before becoming headmistress at nearby Grove House School on Littlefields, Dereham. 

She retired at the age of 60 but continued working as a supply teacher for a number of years. 

Making headlines: Freda Abell featured in the Dereham Times when she was made mayor in 1988

Making headlines: Freda Abell featured in the Dereham Times when she was made mayor in 1988 - Credit: SUPPLIED

As well as a career spent in teaching, Mrs Abell showed dedication to the town of Dereham by becoming its mayor in 1988 after serving as a town councillor. 

Highlights of her time in this role include working with the Norfolk Association of Twin Communities alongside her husband, cementing the relationship between Dereham and the German town of Rüthen.  

Splashing around: Freda Abell enjoying herself at the opening of the paddling pool at Grove House School

Splashing around: Freda Abell enjoying herself at the opening of the paddling pool at Grove House School - Credit: ARCHANT

Chris described her time as mayor as “quietly achieving”. 

“She would not describe herself as a political person but she wanted to do her bit for the town,” he added. 

Friends of Dereham Hospital have raised thousands of pounds to buy specialist equipment to help preg

A worthy cause: Friends of Dereham Hospital after raising thousands of pounds to buy specialist equipment to help pregnant women. Pictured (R) Freda Abell receives some flowers from children and (L) Jill Tinsey and Eve Brady (Midwives) - Credit: IAN BURT

She supported Dereham Hospital by running The Friends of Dereham Hospital with Mr Abell, a charity she continued to support until just four years ago. She also raised thousands of pounds as a street collector for the Royal British Legion and the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Blind, now Vision Norfolk. 

Her son added: “She would stand outside in all weathers, even the cold, and only stopped doing this around three years ago. 

“She had a really, really sweet personality. She was always wanting to do her best for people and to see the best in people.  

“She did not think much about herself but if something she thought needed to be done, she just got on with it to the best of her ability.  

“She made the best of things and had a strong sense of what was right – especially when it came to people being disadvantaged or treated badly. 

“She loved Dereham and Norfolk and did her best for the town and the county which she felt were wonderful places.” 

Dereham hospital campaigner Ron Abell, who has died at the age of 77, with his wife, Freda.For:

Happy times: Freda and her late husband, Ron Abell, were both Dereham hospital campaigners - Credit: SUPPLIED BY FAMILY

Outside of her work and commitments to good causes, she adored poetry and often recited John Keats’ work from memory. 

Mr Abell died in 2009 aged 77. 

Two years ago, Mrs Abell moved to Holmwood House care home, Swaffham, following a diagnosis of dementia. 

Chris added: “She passed away very peacefully with the sun shining through the windows and the daffodils coming into bloom.” 

Mrs Abell died on February 10, 2022, and leaves behind her children, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. 

Following a private cremation, a thanksgiving service will be held at St Nicholas Church, Church Street, Dereham, on Monday, March 7, at 2.30pm. All welcome.