Tributes paid to Branscombe author

A FORMER Royal Navy officer, author and philanthropist, whose life was dedicated to researching the material culture of tribal countries, has died, aged 89.

A FORMER Royal Navy officer, author and philanthropist, whose life was dedicated to researching the material culture of tribal countries, has died, aged 89.

Sheila Unwin, nee Mills, spent the last 30 years of her fascinating life in Branscombe, and was honoured by her Royal British Legion counterparts at a memorial service in the village last Friday.

Mrs Unwin was born in Aberdeen in 1920 but was brought up in Hunstanton, Norfolk.

Her father, Captain Findlay Mills, received a Military Cross for his outstanding bravery during the First World War and it was with great satisfaction that Mrs Urwin joined the WRNS after leaving St James' Secretarial College in London.

She spent most of the Second World War in Egypt as a Second Officer working with Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who was instrumental in the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943- a turning point in the war.

"It was a high achievement for someone who was just a school leaver," said her daughter Vicky Cattell.

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"She enjoyed her time there. Coming from humble roots it was amazing how her life changed in such a short space of time."

For the remainder of the war she was posted to Northern Germany and met Tom Unwin, who was also in the Royal Navy, and they married in 1946.

They spent a short time in London before moving to Tanganyika, now Tanzania, where they were part of a pioneering group commissioned by the British Government to cultivate groundnuts for vegetable oil.

But the scheme failed after two years and Mr Unwin joined the colonial service as district commissioner.

It was during this period that Mrs Unwin became fascinated in archaeology and material culture.

She helped an Arab trader to escape the Zanzibar Rebellion of 1964 and it was through this experience that she discovered the real passion of her life- Arab chests, which she wrote a book about in later life.

"It was a life-long quest and it drove her in a certain direction," said Mrs Cattell, who helped her mother publish her book 'The Arab Chest' in 2006.

"Her biggest regret was never going to university, and writing the book- personally as well as an academic exercise- was really good for her and it was a huge achievement."

After Mrs Unwin and her husband split up in 1966, she moved to Kenya and took part in many archaeological digs on the Kenyan island of Lamu, where she kept a holiday home for 20 years.

When she moved to Branscombe, Mrs Unwin continued to compile material for her book and spent time travelling in Africa and Asia.

She collected tribal hand craft pieces, many of which she gave to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, and she also had a great passion for tribal jewellery.

Mrs Cattell added: "She had a real sense of history and was a great hoarder. She kept every single letter and diary, even the letters she had written to her mother during the war."

Before her death, Mrs Unwin was sorting out all of her mementos and correspondence as she was planning to write her memoirs.

She had moved to Sidmouth only nine days before suffering a stroke and died on October 22 after seven weeks in hospital. She leaves her daughter and two grand-children.

In a fitting tribute, Mrs Unwin's ashes will be spread between Branscombe Church Yard and Lamu Island.

* A memorial gathering for Mrs Unwin takes place on Thursday, November 26 in Branscombe Village Hall at 3pm. Donations if desired, to Sheila's favourite charities, payable to Ethiopiaid, The Brook Hospital for Animals or Age Concern may be sent by cheque c/o Palmers Funeral Service, 45 High Street, Budleigh Salterton, EX9 6LE.

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