- May 18, 2018
- By Stephen Cole
Greta Mollie Davis was born in Wiltshire, England on 14 September 1911. By the age of 15 she was an orphan and went to live with her grandmother and aunt in Cumberland.
She was a clever and talented person with a determination to make good use of those talents as well as to overcome the obstacles thrown in her path at an early age.
Greta had a particular talent for writing. In 1927, she won a Scholarship of £100 from the Victor Hugo Memorial Scholarships and Apprenticeships for an essay on The motives which inspired Victor Hugo to write Les Miserables.
In 1930 she was offered a place at Manchester University with accommodation at Ashbourne Hall to study for a degree in English and English Literature.
In the mid-1930s, Greta was diagnosed with Tuberculosis and spent the next few years recovering. It was while she was in Papworth Sanatorium and Colony (in Cambridgeshire) that she met her first husband, Kenneth Charles Finch, Norman Finch’s older brother.
Greta and Kenneth married in 1940 but sadly Kenneth Finch died in 1955 at the age of 35 – the result of many years battling against TB.
During their married life they lived in a caravan with very little means of support, but they had a busy life pursuing their literary and dramatic interests, both of them being writers, actors and theatre directors.
When Kenneth died, Greta became a housekeeper to the Collier family – Patience Collier was a well-established actor in the West End theatres and her husband Harry Collier a pharmacologist – together with their 3 children. Greta ran the household making herself indispensable and was much-loved.
When Karen started her Conservation studio in Acton in 1959, Greta and Karen began to work together, with Greta helping with the administration and letter-writing. Later she wrote and lectured about textile conservation at such places as NADFAS, the Women’s Institute and the Embroiderer’s Guild. She was as committed as Karen to the idea of creating a national centre for textile conservation and helped to formulate the memorandum that preceded the campaign for the establishment of the Textile Conservation Centre.
Meanwhile Greta had met and married Leonard Putnam, a highly skilled BBC sound engineer. He worked every year on the broadcast of the Queen’s Speech at Christmas time as well as working on many of the radio programmes familiar to radio listeners at the time (Billy Cotton Band show; Workers’ Playtime etc).
When Len retired, both he and Greta gave all their energies to ensuring the establishment and success of the TCC, based in Hampton Court Palace since 1975. She became the Centre’s editor and guide on publications: in particular she and Karen collaborated on writing Caring for Textiles (1977) and The Care and Preservation of Textiles (1985). She also helped with the fundraising needed to support both the training course at the TCC as well as the apprenticeship schemes.
After Len died in 1981, Greta returned to her first love – creative writing. She mainly wrote short stories some of which were published in various magazines.
Greta died in 1987. She was a loving and committed sister-in-law to Karen and Norman and an affectionate and loyal aunt to Katrina Finch. On her death many people wrote about how much they valued her guidance, counselling and kindly advice, given with all the sharpness of her intelligence and clear-eyed commitment to speaking the truth.
Greta Putnam is mentioned in the following posts
Conducted December 9th, 2010
Karen speaks about her career after moving to England
Conducted February 11th, 2011
Karen discusses a selection of photos from her early life
Conducted July 17th, 1985
Karen discusses life at the V&A, and writing the memorandum
Conducted July 18th, 1985
Karen speaks about establishing the Textile Conservation Centre at Hampton Court Palace
First published 2011 in Costume vol. 45
June 24th, 1999