Gloria Minghella is uncomfortable about her status as an Island Treasure. She feels she’s been lauded enough. Doyenne of the family ice cream business, respected former mayor and magistrate of many years’ standing – not to mention the mother of five talented children – she has just been awarded an MBE for her tireless work for charity. “My motto has always been ‘just get on with it’,” she sighs.
But being remarkable doesn’t come from nowhere. What is it that creates such a capacity for empathy with strangers? It was Gloria, after all, who brought the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to the Isle of Wight. Being touchy-feely doesn’t normally sit with the dogged quality required for public office.
When you arrive at Minghella’s, the ice cream firm which she and her husband Edward have made a household name on the Island, you can’t help thinking of other women who have spent a lifetime at the top of their game, and names like Thatcher spring to mind. You feel a little nervous.
Such fears melt away (appropriately) when she greets you. Gloria Minghella is warm and welcoming, chatty and open. There is something about her family, too which strikes you. Gioia Minghella, her daughter who is Managing Director of the firm has got Gloria’s practicality, warmth and intellectual zing; Lillie Jeffrey, her granddaughter, the firm’s intern who understudies all aspects of sales, marketing and design is quietly bubbly; and Ben Minghella-Giddens, her 14-year-old grandson who pops in after school and is prevailed on to make us a cup of tea, carries out the task with cheer exceptional for a teenager.
Gloria’s own childhood was dominated by the tragedy that was her parents’ marriage. Her mother Louisa was seen by her paternal grandmother as a safe catch for her somewhat wayward son. And he, Alberto, would do everything to please his mother – even marry a girl he didn’t love. Louisa needed no persuasion. By 1939 when the war broke out, the marriage was on the rocks. Alberto never returned to the family home. And Louisa’s life was spent waiting for him to come back. “She loved him till her dying day,” says Gloria. “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, to fall in love like that.”
Gloria had two sisters, Betty and Leonora, and a boy cousin, John, lived with them when his mother died. Living in Scotland, later moving to Scarborough, all three girls helped in the cafés which their mother ran. Although Gloria cannot – and she tried very hard – recall a happy childhood, the enterprise and sheer zest for life is remarkable. She and cousin John used to go and practise singing in Scarborough’s Italian gardens – all the girls were musically gifted – and, Gloria recalls with delight, people would come by and give us money! “We were doing what we loved to do. But I don’t think mother would have approved of it at all!”
For all the hard work, and the certain amount of freedom, Gloria regrets her lack of education. “Children were evacuated during the war, and schools often opened for only half a day. It wasn’t until we went back to Scotland that I had any real education.” The return to Scotland was for moral support from the family and financial support: Alberto didn’t contribute financially. But predominantly it was to try and lure Alberto back.
Gloria attended convent school in Glasgow and from there went to an academy she describes as ‘wonderful’. “I would have loved to have been either a lawyer or a writer,” says Gloria. “It gives me great pleasure to think I’ve got a daughter who is a lawyer and two sons who are writers.”
(Her second daughter Edana is an expert in mental health and now a consultant to the Department of Health – though is finding her love of jazz singing hard to repress; Loretta is the lawyer, and Dominic is behind television’s Doc Martin and Robin Hood. Anthony needs no introduction.)
Even though Gloria was physically close to her mother, Louisa felt she could not confide in her about the breakdown of her marriage. “She’d try and cover it all up, and pretend everything was fine, to protect the family,” Gloria says.
For the girls, the café in Scotland gave them an outlet for their music. Performing to customers, largely servicemen, to the accompaniment of an accordion, they began to do good business. “That’s how we really began to see daylight,” she recalls. By this time Gloria was 17, with a steady boyfriend. “I would have liked to have progressed that relationship. But it wasn’t meant to be.”
For Louisa had become convinced that it was Scotland that was putting Alberto off returning to the family. When her sister Leonora became engaged to a man from Portsmouth, Betty suggested they look on the south coast for somewhere their mother would like to live. “That’s how we came to the Isle of Wight,” says Gloria.
The desire of the daughters to make their mother happy was overriding. “She was a wonderful woman” is a phrase which punctuates the interview. Gloria was upset about leaving her boyfriend but, as ever, “got on with it.” The girls never complained about their father in Louisa’s presence, “because mother adored him.” Nor did they question that he would come home. It was just a question of when.
If you ask Gloria about her happiest memory as a child there is silence. “I can tell you about the worst day of my life,” she says, after a long, searching pause. She was 12. Her father was now living in Ireland. Louisa put them on a plane to visit him, instructing them to tell him they wanted him to come home. “So Leonora and I said ‘we want you to come home’. And he said: ‘Has your mother never told you that we’ve never got on?’ “And that was the first time that we had known. We’d always thought of him as the knight in shining armour. It was like the end of the world.”
Their story is a powerful mix of unresolved fairy tale and hard realism. Being a family without a father carried a harsh stigma at the time, and each time they uprooted they needed to ride the ostracism and fit into the community. “In those days the broken families and dysfunctional families didn’t exist. We were regarded as second class citizens”. Yet wherever they went they overcame that obstacle of ostracism by dint of sheer hard work.
“Looking back now,” says Gloria, “our customers always used to think of us as their family. Mother was mother to everybody, we were sisters to everybody. We were treated with a great deal of respect. And that was wonderful – a miracle in those days.” It was the warmth of her mother’s heart that won people over. “She’d always send us to see customers in hospital, to help translate, say, if they were foreign. So we had a kind of reputation for being a family that was always there – that’s where I get my ideas for trying to help people.”
The seeds of Gloria’s idea for an Island advice bureau were clearly sown. They sprouted further as a result of meeting Edward Minghella. Gloria met Edward about three months after they arrived on the Isle of Wight, at a dance on Christmas Eve. “He was an unusual man, just out of the army. He had had no formal education, but his command of the language was amazing. He was reading Dickens when I met him. “He had a vision about a lot of things. He wants to know, and I think that’s what attracted me to him. So there was no turning back really.”
They courted for three years, Edward coming over on the early ferry so they could walk and talk together, before returning to do a day’s work at the ice cream company for which he worked. “I told Edward if we married he’d get my mother too! She wouldn’t have coped alone.” They married at St Mary’s, Ryde, in 1950. The other girls married within the year, too. “It wasn’t a large wedding, we didn’t have any money. But we knew a lot of people who were very kind to us.”
While developing ice cream flavours was Edward’s hobby, they couldn’t rely on what was then a far more seasonal trade. The real business was a café restaurant, bar and guest house in Ryde. Gioia recalls people queuing up the stairs to get a table for a three course meal at lunch time.
From the early days of their marriage the café was a hub for the community. “People would talk to Edward and me about their problems – matrimonial or financial or family or a neighbour dispute, and of course we’d never turn anyone away. We took them ourselves to lawyers. It was a café very much known as a place where people could get help.”
Ironically though, when Gloria’s first and fourth pregnancies failed she herself felt unable to tell anyone what had happened. “I was heartbroken, and very poorly. But I was afraid to tell anyone what was wrong. It wasn’t done.” She attributes her ability to pull through – though, even today she still thinks of the children she lost – to her absolutely amazing mother. “She was the one who made us into the characters we were. Guiding us along, and being honest, fair, considerate and industrious, using our talents in the best way you can.” And despite things being very hard, she and Edward successfully passed this driving force on to her own five children.
Daughter Gioia says: “We had a privileged upbringing. OK, at eleven I worked seven days a week waiting at tables, but we had fun, we laughed, and we knew we were loved unquestionably.”
Acknowledging the tributes to herself as a mother, Gloria says: “I’d like to think we’ve brought them up to deal with disappointment. Seeing my mother so disappointed in her marriage which was everything to her, she didn’t just curl up in a corner. She carried on.”