WE all know Whitehaven has changed considerably since the 1950s and 60s but someone to whom that change seems enormous is Yvonne Schon, the daughter of one of the area’s key industrialists.

Now aged 71, Yvonne Saville lives in Mill Hill, London, working as a painter and sculptor and declares, “I know nothing about chemicals!”.

Yvonne’s father was Lord Frank Schon, who had arrived in Whitehaven in the 1940s to establish the beginnings of the Marchon chemical company, which grew into a multi-million pound international business employing 2,300 people at its height.

Yvonne was born in Whitehaven and lived with her family, including older sister Susie, at 5 Corkickle before moving to Seacroft, at St Bees. She was a pupil at Bransty School of which she has fond memories and “would have loved to have gone to Whitehaven Grammar” but instead was sent off to boarding school in Bristol when she was 10.

“It was a bit too academic for me; among its alumni were Indira Gandhi, Phyllida Law and Iris Murdoch. There was I with my thick Cumbrian accent feeling that I didn’t really fit in,” she says.

Yvonne has been on a recent pilgrimage back to the haunts of her childhood, staying at a St Bees hotel, and visiting Whitehaven and surrounding area where she found “everything is so different”.

She thought the harbour at Whitehaven, once dominated by industry and the Marchon silos, was beautiful and enjoyed wandering around the town’s streets and parks, and also along the beach at St Bees with her dog, Lizzie, remembering bygone times. As an artist she was highly impressed by the shoal of whiting fish sculpture at Whitehaven’s North Pier which she described as “wonderful”.

Her father died in London in 1995, aged 82, and Yvonne is still amazed how he and her mother, Trudy, fleeing Hitler’s holocaust – and both having been interned for a year on the Isle of Man – would arrive in Whitehaven to build such a successful industry.

Lord Schon had been born in Vienna in 1912, the son of a lawyer. He studied chemistry at university and adversity had fired his determination to succeed. Said Yvonne: “He was a very charismatic person, and totally driven. He wanted to manufacture and create jobs – he followed that dream.

“My father’s heart was always in Whitehaven and he loved the Cumbrian people. He and Jack Adams got on very well. My parents’ families were taken in the Holocaust.”

In his moving maiden speech to the House of Lords in 1979, Lord Schon told his fellow peers how at age 19 he had got a job with a Central European chemical company based in Prague, the first to develop synthetic detergents. He and Trudy fled Prague when Hitler’s troops marched in on March 15, 1937.

“The debt that I owe to the kindness and humanity of the British people cannot be discharged,” he said. Industrial and academic life in Britain was very much enriched by the arrival of Jews who fled from Austria and Hungary in the 1930s.

For more than half a century the chimneys of Marchon dominated the local skyline and though hardly a picturesque scene, the steam and smoke pouring from them signified jobs and security for a workforce of thousands and a major economic benefit for the town.

The Schon’s two daughters Susie and Yvonne were born in Whitehaven and Yvonne remembers her youth in the town with affection. The family moved from Corkickle to St Bees when she was aged 10 and she left Whitehaven altogether when she was 21.

She went to work for Tyne Tees television at Newcastle, then joined a repertory theatre in London before learning how to teach children with dyslexia.

“I know people can romanticise their childhood but from what I recall, Whitehaven in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties seemed a vibrant, exciting and sometimes magical place!” she says.

“In Lowther Street there was Batty’s, which was so inviting. You could meet for a coffee or lunch. The aromatic sweet shop with all its large jars full of goodies – liquorice sticks, gobstoppers and fizz – was a special haunt of ours.

“Then there was the Beehive general clothes store and Mr Holliday’s fruit and vegetable shop in the Market Place and two thriving cinemas, the Empire and the Gaiety, where you could see all the most up-to-date films like Gone With the Wind !

“There was Rosehill Theatre run by Sir Nicholas Sekers where Joyce Grenfell, Yehudi Menhuin, The Amadeus Quartet, John Pritchard and many others performed. Princess Margaret was a visitor too so there was no shortage of glamour in this ‘Glyndebourne of the North’.

“There were visits to the factory from Harold Wilson, Prince Philip, the Princess Royal, Douglas Jay (Board of Trade) and Whitehaven seemed to be a thriving place.

“The harbour too, now so beautiful, was always a fascinating and busy place. Often in dock there would be one or two Marchon ships, sailing off to Africa or Italy.

“From our house in Corkickle looking towards the Kells skyline was father’s factory with its belching chimneys. When you passed the works, which occupied one square mile, people would be busy weaving in and out of the gates. Whitehaven was a busy, lively, coastal town.

“I remember the saltiness of the air, the wind that seemed so cleansing and the freedom of being on the coast and also the warmth of the Cumbrian people and their naturalness – that hasn’t changed.

“On my recent trip back to Whitehaven I understood why I was so sad to leave all that behind, but I was grateful too that it had been part of my early life and I feel blessed for those early memories.”

Largely self-taught, Yvonne started painting in 1992, working mainly in acrylics. She is inspired by the randomness of the natural world and much of her work has been exhibited and sold.

Her father Frank, who with only a few hundred pounds capital, started up as a manufacturing chemist in London, initially producing firelighters made from surplus sawdust and naphthalene. At the end of 1940, he was bombed out in London and moved north to makeshift premises at Whitehaven, a development area. Then he assembled a small factory making synthetic detergent raw materials, building it up into one of the largest units in the world, Schon later became a member of the National Research Development. In 1943, he founded Solway Chemicals, of which he was to be chairman for the next quarter-century.

At the time of Lord Schon’s death, then Copeland MP Jack Cunningham, said: “He was a tremendous entrepreneur; a hugely successful industrialist, lifelong supporter of democratic socialism and a great friend who thousands of people in West Cumbria will mourn and miss.”