Published: 27 April, 2012
by WILLIAM McLENNAN
Mary Millard’s “fate was sealed” at the Richmond Arms in Caledonian Road in 1944 when, as a 17-year-old on holiday from Ireland, she first set eyes on the man who was to become her husband.
Archie was cutting a dapper figure on the piano, looking like a gangster in his hat and sharp suit, according to Mary’s daughter Marion Hobden. Mary, who died at the beginning of this month, aged 84, never looked back.
The couple would go on to run the Offord Arms, in Offord Road, Barnsbury, where Archie’s skills as a pianist, singer and compere, along with Mary’s abilities as a natural hostess, ensured that for more than 30 years their regulars were entertained and well looked after.
Mary, known to most by her childhood nickname of Kitty or Kit, was born in Limerick, west Ireland, in July 1927.
Her mother died when she was eight, leaving Mary and her eldest sister the tough task of raising their six younger siblings.
But her life changed for ever on that fateful trip to London. “Archie was playing the piano with a hat on and my mum thought he was a spiv, from a gangster film,” Marion says.
“She’d never met anybody or seen anybody in real life that looked like that. They were introduced, and that was it. Game over for Kitty.”
The couple were married four years later at Eden Grove Church in Holloway, but not before Archie, keen to observe tradition, made the journey to Limerick to ask Mary’s father’s for permission to marry her.
The newlyweds made their home at Shelley Court, in Hanley Road, Tollington, and set about saving for their future. Mary washed bottles for Whitbread's Brewery and worked as a cleaner at Euston Station and a chamber maid at the Mayfair Hotel in central London.
Finally, in 1966, after 18 years of hard work and saving, the couple were able to realise their dream and buy the Offord Arms outright.
They set about making the pub a bustling meeting place, renowned for its music and lively atmosphere and a welcoming home-from-home for the Irish community.
From weddings to wakes, the pub would host whatever events customers wanted and was constantly involved in charity fundraising.
It was host to weekly music nights on a Friday, Saturday and all day Sunday. With a resident pianist and guitarist, singers would be called up to entertain.
Mary would often join in the performance and was known for her rendition of On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep.
Her link with Ireland was maintained through family holidays in Limerick.
The couple had four children, Jon, who died four years ago, Catherine, who died as a baby, Barbara Cole, now 56, and Marion.
Marion has fond memories of playing with neighbours and family in the streets of Limerick. “There would be a group of kids, up to 14 cousins, all playing out and you had a choice of which house you went to for dinner. You didn’t go hungry,” she recalls. “You just went and knocked on the door and asked what they were cooking and then picked what you wanted.”
The couple ran the Offord Arms for 31 years – until Archie’s death in 1994. Mary was too old to have the licence on her own, so she moved to a bungalow in Highbury Barn to enjoy retirement with her 10 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.
Marion says she will always remember her mum “with a martini and slimline tonic in her hand with loads of ice, and her singing along to the music. She loved a party and a sing-song.
“She was a lady full of life and full of fun.”