It wouldn’t be too irreverent to describe Maureen Kneen as Angus’ answer to Dr Doolittle.
For the artist and veterinary manager was known for her affinity with animals and her endless devotion to pets and their owners.
Whether it was helping the grief stricken arrange a funeral for a pet, or planning parties for her favourite show dog, a charming mix of eccentricity with a genuine devotion to her community and its animals set her apart.
Now, following her death age 91, we look back on the incredible life of the Crufts winner, dog breeder, potter and community fundraiser who had knife jugglers at her funeral!
Animals and artistry
Maureen Kneen was born on the September 20, 1930, at the family home in Crew Road, Alsager, in rural Cheshire.
She inherited a love of animals from her father, John Edwin Roberts.
A railway porter, he never recovered after the death of his horse from gunfire in the First World War.
From her mother, Florence Gertrude Roberts (nee Savory), Maureen got artistic flair.
She had worked as a pottery artist for Doulton in Stoke-on-Trent.
Maureen also had one older brother, Leonard, and sadly her father died from cancer when she was just 12.
With Leonard in the RAF, and then working in stocks and shares, Maureen – who loved violin – joined a commercial college pondering a career in finance for herself.
This was short lived, however, as she accidentally left the taps on all night, flooding the place.
Following in her mother’s footsteps her next job was in a pottery – where she met actor Freddie Jones who worked beside her.
Vet practice job
Ultimately, her love of animals tempted her away when a vet’s nearby advertised for a receptionist, book-keeper and office manager.
She secured the role gaining experience in handling dairy herds and horses, and even the occasional cat and dog.
But it wouldn’t just be veterinary work she’d fall in love with.
A new, shy, vet on placement from the Isle of Man caught her eye.
With the same name as her father – John Edwin – she sent the young mister Kneen a birthday card and the pair began courting.
The more reserved of the two, John felt he was making his intentions clear by taking Maureen to a string of romantic movies.
But needing more clarity – inspired by the great Hollywood romances on screen – Maureen went in for an embrace gasping, “I couldn’t not kiss you anymore.”
John was offered a veterinary partnership in Arbroath where he had previously worked.
He left for a life in the north and through letters their love grew.
By August they had organised to meet half way.
John proposed and in September Maureen boarded her first train to Scotland for a life she described as ‘living the dream’.
On November 16, 1957, 10 months after she sent him the birthday card, Maureen and John were married.
They rented a two room flat in Viewfield Road and by August 1958 had purchased Hill House as they were expecting their first baby, Marcus.
By November 1960 they had a second baby, Quintin.
They were also now in ownership of the vet practice previously led by Archie Robertson.
Known for his part in Arbroath reenactment processions where he played Robert the Bruce, Archie retired and Maureen and John took over.
Hands on involvement
While she was delighted to be John’s wife, Maureen was much more than just the spouse of the vet.
“My mum would quite literally be up to her oxters in everything that went with running the practice,” said Marcus.
“I remember her having to untwist a cow’s stomach. Yep… that’s as you can imagine it.”
With the surgery operating table taking over the kitchen the boys would enjoy watching people bring everything from their budgies to their sheep to the house.
They also have memories of their mum going to extraordinary lengths when tragic circumstances meant pets wouldn’t get to go home with their owners.
“She always knew where to find new puppies or kittens for families who lost a pet.
“And sometimes she was asked to arrange funerals.
“There was one particular occasion when she bought a small coffin which mortified the funeral director.
“Then the owner accidentally buried it on consecrated ground which resulted in the police getting involved.
“She was just so empathetic and kind. Nothing was too much trouble for the animals or their owners.”
Puppies and parties
When the boys grew up and went to boarding school Maureen began breeding puppies.
In 1974 she started to show English Setter dogs – even securing a rosette at Crufts.
Multiple litters followed and 92 puppies were born at Hill House.
However, it wasn’t just a case of buying one of Maureen’s dogs.
The puppies’ wellbeing was crucially important to her.
This resulted in a rigorous interview process before she would approve prospective families.
But her kindness meant many puppies were gifted and not sold.
And for Lucy – Maureen’s favourite dog – there were birthday parties.
“We do know this sounds a little bit crazy but my mum held birthday parties for her dogs – right down to sausage rolls, cakes and candles!
“She also penned the most marvellous letters written from the perspective of the dogs whenever she felt my brother and I had issues that needed resolving.
“We’d be arguing and a letter would arrive from Lucy offering third party advice on how to resolve the situation. I mean it was bonkers and beautiful all at once.”
A reawakening through art
In 1995, when Maureen was 65, she started going to art classed led by Arbroath’s Allan Paris.
Painting didn’t come easy as she put her whole heart and soul into her work but working in oils led her to using clay.
“She just came alive with this burst of creativity and the shed at the back of Hill House was converted into a potter’s studio.
“The clay seemed to just speak to her.
“She developed her own style and the end result was what she called her ‘turmoils’.
“These were regularly exhibited around Angus and she became well known for them.”
Faith and community
Maureen was an active member of St Mary’s Episcopal Church where previously she led an army of helpers in making the ‘sale of work’ a huge success.
During Covid she took comfort in reading and re-reading Psalm 91 which speaks of finding rest and refuge during times of trial.
She would also send poetry – her own and that of others – to those needing help.
Maureen remained someone with a zest for life.
“Every meal was the best meal she had ever eaten,” said Marcus, “and every day when asked how she was she said she felt extraordinary.”
She loved spending time with John, her sons and their families.
And she was a proud and devoted grandmother to Rachael, Richard and Patrick.
A celebration of Maureen’s life took place this week where her granddaughter Rachael played Ae Fond Kiss on her grandmother’s violin.
Grandson Richard piped Highland Cathedral and Patrick played Trumpet to Kenny Baker’s Satchmo.
In a fitting tribute to her colourful life balls, clubs and cutlass knives were juggled and the congregation whooped in delight.
“She is irreplaceable,” said Marcus. “Missed beyond words because no words can accurately depict who she was and all that she was.”
You can read the family’s notice here.