by Harry Pope
Aunty Joan has passed away at the age of 105. Quite something really, to have lived through two world wars, three kings, one queen, and more prime ministers than anyone should have to endure.
She was born on Christmas Eve 1916, most inconvenient all round really because you had to buy her two equally well chosen presents every year, otherwise it just wasn’t fair. Of course, it was impossible to organise a birthday party, friends always had their own family festive gatherings. She and her one brother and two sisters lived with their parents in a small terraced house in Lind Road, Sutton, South London, the usual front parlour, back kitchen/dining room, and an outside toilet in a small yard. Three bedrooms, the sisters learned to share their clothing in limited cupboard space, they were all small and thin. The area was serviced by trams, trolley buses, and ordinary buses, Joan with her brother went by tram to Croydon Airport, about five miles away, where the joyride on a single engine relic from the Great War cost 5/- for those over the age of 14. It was the year after this birthday, but as she was only small she persuaded them to let her fly for the child’s rate of 2/6 – one eighth of a pound in today’s currency, which represented a fortune. It was a wonder she survived the experience, because those planes had no certificate to fly, they were held together with wire and string, and many crashed.
She met and married Mac in the mid-1930s, they bought their own home which she lived in until 1995. He was a maintenance man come jack of all trades, who could put his hand to most things, working in one of the government ministry departments in London. During WW2 Mac worked in Churchill’s war rooms, Joan often had no idea how or when her husband would come home, as bomb damage made the 10 mile journey hazardous on public transport. He often had to sleep underground, they considered themselves fortunate that their lovely home suffered only superfluous bomb damage he was able to quickly repair.
They built a glass roofed conservatory on the back so would sit during the colder winter days in deckchairs as they would just chit chat about their daily lives. Friday after he finished work would find them in their car on the road to Gatwick Airport where they would have a meal, watch the planes come and go, and then return before midnight. They were both members of a local social club, making lifelong friends. Joan worked from the early 1930s at the local laundry, for many years as an ordinary worker, then gradually being promoted so she became a supervisor. In 1953 to celebrate the Coronation all the staff were awarded a bonus of £1 in their weekly pay packet. Joan was not one to flit from job to job, her next employment was in the coffin lining factory of the local funeral directors. They would select the chosen material and colour, then machine to a complete finish, including the matching pillow.
Joan was a smoker, like most of her generation, but gave it up when she realised she wasn’t really enjoying it. She was a ballroom dancer, and continued for many years because she realised she was enjoying it. She was also a member of something called the League of Health and Beauty. This was almost exclusively a female social activity, where they would meet weekly in a church or community hall, someone would play the piano, as they all exercised to music. She was a member for over 25 years, and when I told her that the health had worked, but the beauty hadn’t, she replied ‘arseholes.’
Mac died in 1974, she was never blessed with children, but was very close to her niece Pam, my wife. As a family we went ballroom dancing weekly, always having a meal with Joan and then taking her home after. We would always include her in days out, so it seemed natural to invite her to come and live with us. We lived close by in adjacent Cheam, we owned a limousine business, so we called it Cheam Limousines. It was decided that to introduce her to friends etc was too formal as Mrs. McKenna, to informal for Joan, so we hit on always announcing her as Aunty Joan, something which always stuck. The three of us would frequently go to a London theatre matinee, then enjoy a meal in a quality hotel or restaurant. She loved the Savoy, was treated as Queen for the day, and we arranged for a dozen of her morning coffee friends to have afternoon tea at the Savoy, with limousines to transport. That was an afternoon to remember, regrettably no-one thought to bring a camera.
In 2003 we bought a seaside b&b, with Aunty Joan having the best room for herself in our private quarters. On one occasion a drunken guest returned at 2am, somehow managed to find his way to her bedroom through the locked kitchen, and sat on her bed chatting. He had no recall, but was extremely embarrassed to have compromised such an older lady. When she was 91 she flew unaccompanied to Australia where she met her sister Barbara for the first time since 1946, and her other sister Peg who had also emigrated, to Canada. All three sisters were widows, with a lot to talk about over six weeks. It was January, hot, and in the middle of Australia not that far from Alice Springs.
Joan was game until the end, last birthday a party was organised with the Mayor of Eastbourne and his wife coming along, even on Christmas Eve afternoon. She was the last of her generation, who would not complain about privations, never had a credit card, and would always save for luxuries. If they didn’t have the money, they went without. She was never short of a pithy remark, what she said was genuinely interesting. They don’t make them like that anymore.