Family pays tribute to “phenomenal” hairdressing daughter from Gillingham

PARENTS of a local hairdresser have been paying tribute to their “phenomenal” daughter today and thanking the hundreds of people who came to her funeral.

PARENTS of a Gillingham hairdresser yesterday paid tribute to their “phenomenal” daughter and thanked hundreds of people who went to her funeral.

Emma Louise Birch died at her home in the village on April 20, exactly five months after she was diagnosed with skin cancer melanoma.

The 39-year-old was a well-known businesswoman in the area, running Emma’s Hair Studio with her husband of 17 years, Steve Birch, 45.

Her father Peter Clarke, 71, of The Street in Geldeston, said working as a hairdresser had always been her dream.

“She always had that determination to work for herself and to be a hairdresser,” he said.

Her mother Rachel Clarke, 67, added: “She was a real business girl.”

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Mrs Birch started her career at what was then Marion’s Hairdressers in Beccles, working on Saturdays washing hair and sweeping floors.

She went on to do a hairdressing apprenticeship in Norwich at the age of 16 and passed all her exams with flying colours.

Her first taste of running her own business came when she rented the town hall in Loddon and ran her own hairdressing studio – which turned out to be the place where she met her future husband.

Mr Clarke said: “Steve walked past her shop in Loddon one day and Emma asked her friend, who she was working with at the time, who he was. The friend knew Steve and that’s where it all started.”

The couple married in 1994 and sold the business in Loddon. They moved to Gillingham and set up a salon in the old post office, also making it a family home for their two children, Bonnie, 14, and Josh, 12.

Mrs Birch’s business flourished and she was able to acquire the former Marion’s Hairdressers – then called E2.

Mr Clarke added: “She still had customers who came to her from when she worked in Loddon and Rebbecca Goddard, who worked with Emma for the last 12 years and was trained by her, will continue to work in the studio.”

More than 500 people attended the funeral at St Michael’s Church in Beccles on May 11 and �4,082.85 was raised in donations for Marie Curie and McMillan Cancer Care in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Mr Clarke said: “We just cannot thank the nursing staff and palliative care staff enough. They were absolutely brilliant and the NHS was brilliant too. And the support from family and friends has been unbelievable.

“I knew there would be a lot of people at the funeral but it did exceed my expectations. That made us feel very proud as parents to see that she got all that support.

Mrs Clarke added: “...And that she was held in such high esteem.”

Local groups Kingfishers Swimming Club and Bungay under 12s football club have been very supportive of Mrs Birch’s battle and have continued to help the family since her death.

Two years ago Mrs Birch ran the Bungay half-marathon for the Kingfishers and raised almost �800.

Her son Josh is part of the Bungay under 12s and they all attended the funeral dressed in their tracksuit tops.

“It’s amazing what was raised,” Mrs Clarke said.

“We hope the money raised will help the progress in curing the disease.”

Of her battle, Mr Clarke said: “We knew what the outcome was going to be, but Emma was, in her own way of life, determined to beat it. Everything she set out to do she has always achieved, but this is the only thing she hasn’t done. She was even positive about beating it until the last week of her life.

“She was a phenomenal person and she always had a smile. Before she died she told us not to be sad.”

Mrs Clarke added: “She was so positive but it beat her. It was very difficult at times for us but we just had to be brave for her.

“Her business was her heart and soul but the children always came first. She never let her customers down and she was always there for them too. She was also a lovely and caring wife who touched everyone’s hearts who knew her.

“We are coming through this as a family.”

The family have received more than 270 cards since Mrs Birch’s death and in the weeks before her death Mrs Clarke said her daughter received more than 100 bunches of flowers in support of her battle.

At the funeral Josh did a reading of a piece he wrote himself explaining that he “wanted to say a few words about mum.”

Her older brother, Andrew Clarke, 43, from Aldeby, also did a reading and said: “The way you coped with it was truly unbelievable. All the way to the bitter end you fought it with a steely grit and relentless determination, refusing to give in to it, only losing the battle when it had completely engulfed you.”