Life begins at 100

More and more people are living to be 100. A new book reveals some of the great British characters to hit the century mark and here author John Withington recalls three of Lancashire's notable centenarians.

Friday, 10th November 2017, 5:47 pm
Updated Monday, 11th December 2017, 10:23 pm
Bertha Wood pictured back in 1944 and celebrating her 100th birthday

Three Lancashire people who have received a telegram from the Queen, but three people with entirely different stories: the holiday camp owner turned author; the last surviving merchant sailor from the First World War; and the nation’s oldest killer.So what do these three centenarians tell us about who has the best chance of reaching 100? First, though two of the three are men, in fact, women are much more likely to get to 100. In the UK today, female centenarians outnumber males by about five to one, though the gap has been closing in recent years.One of the reasons may be pointed up by work from the Men’s Health Forum and the Work Foundation at Lancaster University. In 2014 it reported that unemployed men are 20 per cent more likely to die early than those in work, but when they are working, men are in more danger from accidents. In the UK in 2013–14, 20 times as many men as women were killed in the workplace, while men also tend to get exposed more to hazardous substances that can damage their long-term health.It is impressive for anyone to survive the traumas of the First World War and go on to reach 100, but Nicholas Swarbrick illustrates another trend I noticed while writing the book. A pioneering study of British centenarians in the 1970s noted how many showed ‘a remarkably settled’ lifestyle, living in the same area for most of their lives. And the oldest human being who ever lived, the 122-year-old Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, spent her whole life in the city of Arles. Apart from the time he spent in the merchant navy, Mr Swarbrick appears to have spent his whole life in Grimsargh – growing up, working on his father’s farm and then retiring and ending his days there. Bertha Wood illustrates another thing that struck me, how many centenarians managed not only to carry on being active, but also to develop new interests and open new avenues. She had her first book published, Britain’s oldest person ever, fellow centenarian Charlotte Hughes, flew on Concorde for the first time, while an American woman finally got the high school diploma she had missed out on when she was young at the age of 100.Of course, many centenarians have poor health, mental and physical. Many have problems with sight or hearing or both. Almost all have seen spouses or partners and most of their friends die, and some have survived children and even grandchildren, but it is heartening to see how many do continue to get satisfaction from life, like the novelist Naomi Mitchison, who said: “When you wake up, it’s rather good to find you’re still alive. You feel like that when you wake up in the middle of the night. I’d like to live another hundred years.”

Bertha Wood, founder of a Blackpool holiday camp, is believed to be the oldest author to have a debut book published. Fresh Air and Fun came out on her 100th birthday in 2005. It was about Ivy House – one of Britain’s first holiday camps - which she founded with her husband in 1935. She started writing the book when she was 90. Bertha’s father was the manager of a mill and she was raised in Bolton. She worked in printing, publishing and advertising, marrying her boss, Fred Wood, but his firm went bust during the Great Depression. They moved to Blackpool to try their hand in the bed and breakfast business, and that led to the holiday camp, which opened a year before the first Butlin’s.Ivy House never rivalled Butlin’s camps in size. It offered good value holidays for about 125 people, enjoying its heyday in the 1940s and 50s. Fred was said to be a ‘cheerful prankster’ and he and Bertha had three children. Renowned as an astute businesswoman, Bertha died in 2007 aged 101, but she had planned and paid for her own funeral back in 1983. In the folder she left detailing the arrangements, there was a complaint form with instructions on claiming money back if anything went wrong. Bertha’s cousin incidentally was the inventor of the jet engine, Sir Frank Whittle, who died aged 89.

Nicholas Swarbrick from Grimsargh, near Preston, was the last surviving merchant sailor from the First World War. He had gone to sea at 17, and trained as a radio officer. When ships were torpedoed by German U-boats, he would hear their distress messages or their “death throes” as Mr Swarbrick called them adding, “it was pretty horrifying”. And it was made worse because merchant ships close to the stricken vessel were under orders not to go and help, “because you yourself then became a target for the sub lurking close by. You had to get the hell out of it.” In Mr Swabrick’s words, to do anything else would be, “to commit suicide”.He said: “I always expected us to be next”, but, in fact, he survived and came home to work on his father’s farm at Grimsargh, staying there until he retired. Mr Swarbrick was teetotal and he never married. Nicholas spent his final years in a nursing home, overlooking the fields that he had once farmed.

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Nicholas Swarbrick as a sailor and with his telegram from the Queen

At 100, Bernard Heginbotham from Preesall became probably the oldest person ever to be charged with murder. At Preston Crown Court in 2004, the former butcher admitted killing his wife Ida, aged 87, by slitting her throat at her care home. The court was told the couple had been married for 67 years, and had six children, but Ida was in poor health, and Mr Heginbotham had become distressed because she had been shunted between four different homes in three months, and after just five days in the latest one, she was due to be moved again. On hearing the news, he went to the home and killed her. Then he had gone home and tried to kill himself. The judge accepted that he was a devoted husband and his plea of guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, giving him a 12-month community rehabilitation order. He said that while Mr Heginbotham had done “a terrible thing”, his feelings of guilt and remorse had been “truly overwhelming”. He added: “It was carried out in an effort to end her suffering while you were under intolerable pressure. It was in truth, an act of love.” Mr Heginbotham died just over 18 months later in a Fylde nursing home, aged 102.

* John Withington’s book – Secrets of the Centenarians: What is it like to live for a century and which of us will survive to find out? – is published by Reaktion Books priced £20.

Bernard Heginbotham pictured leaving Preston Crown Court, right, where he was convicted of killing the wife he loved, pictured left
Nicholas Swarbrick as a sailor and with his telegram from the Queen
Bernard Heginbotham pictured leaving Preston Crown Court, right, where he was convicted of killing the wife he loved, pictured left