Tributes paid to former hotelier 'Jillie the mad gran'

A middle-aged couple cuddling on the beach

Jill Smart, proprietor of The Garden House Hotel, in Rackheath, with her husband John - Credit: SUPPLIED BY FAMILY

The family of a much-loved mother and gran have paid tribute to the former hotelier who has died aged 82.

Known locally as the proprietor of The Garden House Hotel, in Rackheath, she was affectionately named “Jillie the mad gran” by her loved ones.

Born on May 16, 1938, in Great Yarmouth, she attended Queen Anne's School in Henley.

Her son, James Smart, said: “Their current motto is 'kind hearts, fierce minds, and strong spirits' which sums up many of her traits, considering she was inherently shy.”

She spent her childhood in the town before the family relocated to Norwich.

A young girl is a polka dot dress holding an apple and reading a newspaper

Jill Smart, aged 15 - Credit: SUPPLIED BY FAMILY


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Her father, Lesley Herbert Cawston, worked as the bank manager of Barclays in Bank Plain and the family lived on in Branksome Close. Later, they moved to Dereham and lived above the bank, where they befriended the Smart family.

Mr Cawston died just after the Second World War which meant the family had to leave the bank’s house quickly, leaving them homeless.

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Her mother, Bridget Cawston, brought up her three daughters alone while working several jobs. The family eventually found a home at Barton Cottage in West Runton, living with their grandmother, Mrs Cawston’s mother, on the north Norfolk coast.

Growing up, the three sisters - Jill, Jenny, and Jane - were very close. Jill was especially very proud of her aunt, the author of the children’s books The Islanders, Gay Knowles. The sisters were depicted in the illustrations for the books.

After school, she trained in London at Le Cordon Blue, shortly after renowned chef and baker Mary Berry, and honed her skills in restaurants around France – something which had been “quite daring” for the era, her son explained.

She had a society wedding to John Wilmot Smart, son of Captain Bernard Arthur Smart DSO of Jentique Metamec. The couple met at a young age and the families were friends. It is a long-running family joke that they slept together as children when she was around the age of five.

Black and white photo of a society wedding with the bridge and groom entering a car and smiling

Jill Smart on her wedding day to John - Credit: SUPPLIED BY FAMILY

After marrying, they lived in The Old Rectory in Brandon Parva, near East Dereham, until Mr Smart left Jentique Metamec and bought Garden House, transforming it into a hotel.  

They opened the Garden House Hotel in 1978 and Mr Smart ran the front of house while Jill ran the kitchen.

Over the years the Garden House Hotel received several accolades culminating in an entry to the guide Hardens top 100, joining Adlards and Tatlers.

Together they had three children, Tim, Michael, and James.  

At one time, Jill had to have a kidney removed. Following this, she became pregnant and was advised to terminate. But, convinced she was having a girl to be called Victoria, she refused. Instead, she was prescribed Guinness for iron. She eventually gave birth to another son, James, and Guinness became a life-long favourite tipple.

She was a great horse rider and rode in the Norfolk Show one year for Tom Phillips Stud Farm. The horse bolted and she careered out of the ring.

Her family described her as “fiery” in the kitchen, where she was still providing Christmas lunch for the extended family until the last couple of years.

James added: “She loved children and her early life experience gave her a desire to provide a place of refuge in a storm for other family members. She cared for one long-standing hotel resident long after most people would have given over responsibility to social services.

“She was also a keen gardener with an amazing garden and known for growing amazing crops of geraniums and tomatoes.

“Her grandchildren called her ‘Jillie the mad gran’.

“She also had a very close relationship with her sisters Jenny and Jane and, after the loss of Jane, Jill and Jenny were like two peas in a pod - inseparable.”

She leaves behind her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren - Tim, stepson Bali, Michael, Rose and her child, Oliver, Bryony and Tom, and James and Archie.  

- To view all the obituaries and tributes join the Facebook group Norfolk's Loved & Lost.

Jill Smart died on February 22, 2021. A private family funeral service was held at GreenAcres Colney on March 19. Donations were received for The Alzheimer's Society.

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