William Robinson Clarke

‘English actress who became a peeress’

1919 - 2010

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Twenty-nine-year-old Phyllis Cort was one of 119 passengers on the Empire Windrush who gave their country of previous permanent residence as England.

Essex-born Phyllis boarded the ship at Bermuda, the penultimate stop before Tilbury. With her were Minnie Cort, her 55-year-old mother, and her younger sister, Diana, who, like Phyllis, was an actress.

Phyllis had crossed the Atlantic in December 1947, arriving in New York on the Queen Mary on Christmas Eve. Her mother and sister sailed from Southampton on May 18, 1948 arriving in New York six days later by which time the Windrush was already three days into its iconic journey. Before even having time to properly unpack their bags, they would set off again, heading for Bermuda where they were reunited with Phyllis and boarded the Windrush for the final leg of its journey to Tilbury.

It was not Phyllis’ first time in the USA. She had previously sailed from Southampton to New York in June 1939. Passenger records list her as ‘Phyllis Cort known as M Leigh’, a reference to her stage name of Morna Leigh. (However, in an interview for an article that appeared in The Gleaner on January 28, 1973, she was referred to as ‘Morna Rayne’, using her married name.)

Phyllis did not come from a particularly wealthy family. Her father, William, was a greengrocer and in 1921 she and her two sisters were living above their shop in Hamlet Court Road, Westcliff- on-Sea, Essex. Diana, who was born in 1928 was the fourth daughter of William and Minnie.

Life was to change dramatically for Phyllis when she returned to England in 1948. She met US-born Edward Rayne, a leading shoe designer and manufacturer sought after by high society. When she married him in 1952, Edward had become chair of H&M Rayne, which held a Royal Warrant to Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the royal family.

Their honeymoon was, coincidentally, a cruise to Bermuda. When the couple returned to England, they lived in Park Village, near Regent’s Park. This was the London home of the Queen’s dressmaker, Norman Hartnell, from whom they were renting. The couple would go on to have two sons, Edward junior and Nicholas.

Edward, a hugely successful businessman, was knighted in 1988–making his wife Lady Phyllis. He was also a top-class bridge player representing England and becoming European bridge champion in 1949. He died in a fire at his home in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, in 1992. Phyllis was overcome by smoke but survived. By 1998 she was living in Montagu Square in London’s West End. She died on August 8, 2010, aged 91.

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