Paula Sowerby obituary

Other lives: Local government officer in Middlesbrough who as a child was interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Burma

My mother, Paula Sowerby, who has died aged 92, survived a troubled early life in Burma (now Myanmar) to become a dedicated local government officer in the north-east of England.

Paula was born into the small Jewish community in Burma, the second of five children of David Aaron, catering manager for Burma Railways, and his wife, Sarah (nee Daniels). They were an English-speaking family and although her parents spoke some Burmese, my mother, always a rebel, refused to learn. At her Anglican boarding school in Maymyo (now Pyin Oo Lwin), the nuns would hit her hands with a ruler until her knuckles bled.

When Japan threatened to invade Burma, Paula’s family set out with others to walk through miles of jungle to India. Many perished on the trek. Paula’s brother, Arnold, contracted dysentery and the family returned home.

After the Japanese invasion in 1942, the family was interned in a prisoner of war camp. Paula maintained their Japanese captors treated them well, and she enjoyed working in the camp dental clinic. However, the diet was poor and the experience contributed to her developing anorexia in her teens and 20s, and osteoporosis later in life.

After the war Paula dreamed of leaving Burma, a country to which she never felt she belonged. When she met a young Sri Lankan merchant navy engineer, George Ferdinand, she followed him to Colombo, where they married in 1952.

In the same year, they came to the UK and eventually settled in Middlesbrough and had me. But the marriage was unhappy. When they divorced in the early 1960s, Paula was left with nothing and had to find work to support us both.

After various secretarial jobs, Paula became PA to successive leaders of Middlesbrough borough council. She used her position to support local people and gained a reputation among council officials as a determined advocate for residents’ rights. Many people benefited from her actions.

In 1967 Paula married Stan Sowerby, a driving instructor whom she met when he taught her to drive. His support enabled her to overcome her traumatic past and rebuild her life. They were devoted to each other.

After retiring from the council in the late 1980s, she continued to run Stan’s driving school business until his retirement in 2000. She also did charity work for Greenpeace. Paula loved walking, especially in Upper Wharfedale in the Yorkshire Dales.

Paula is survived by Stan and me, her granddaughters, Rebecca and Hannah, and sisters, Sylvia and Ruby.

Adrienne Dolphin

The GuardianTramp

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