By Lorraine Gibson.
Barbara Rawlin is 108, making her one of the oldest people in the country.
She was born in 1914, the year the First World War broke out, and when suffragette demonstrations were widespread with one protester, Mary Richardson, vandalising a Velasquez with a meat cleaver in London’s National Gallery. It was the year when Ernest Shackleton set sail for Antarctica on the Endurance, The Times newspaper cost a penny, a car cost £700 and a pint was thruppence.
Barbara’s longevity in itself is reason for celebration, however, what’s more remarkable is that she lives independently in her Wimborne home, with minimal extra care, walks regularly and gets her own lunch.
When her daughter, Joy, told her I wanted to chat to her, she said: “Oh, I don’t think I have anything interesting to talk about.”
So we began with how she was born in 1914 in Vancouver, Canada, to an aristocratic Irish family, then came to England as a toddler, where she was cared for by nannies and her earliest memories far from signify a long life ahead.
“As a child, I was very ill with tuberculosis and had a terrible accident. I fell into a bath of hot water. We were all in the nursery and the nanny had filled it with very hot water.
“We were told to sit quietly and have our supper but we didn’t. It was naughty of me, I was very disobedient. My brother gave me a tickle, then a push and into the bath I went.”
Thankfully, Barbara survived that incident, but caught measles, whooping cough and TB.
“I was away from school for two years. I was sent to the north for better air. I was absolutely isolated. Nobody wanted to see me, they thought it was catching. I was only ten and I wasn’t given any books to read or anything. I had a nurse who looked after me, then I lived with an uncle and his wife who were not frightened.”
Again, Barbara, who has a strong faith, lived to tell the tale and returned to her family in Tunbridge Wells. “It was there that I found the Lord – my father asked if I’d like to go to a bible class and I said ‘yes’.
“I remember I saw, over the door, the words ‘go forward’, so I did. I was 16.”
The articulate centenarian says she later went to Switzerland for her wellbeing but had leave in a hurry. “It was 1939, two weeks before the war started. I was lucky to get out but was the only person on the train, apart from a man walking up and down with a gun.
“I felt like a spy. I think I caught one of the last ferries back.”
Arriving in London with a pound, Barbara now in her 20s, had a choice – go to Cornwall where her family now lived, or stay and get a job. She chose the latter.
“I worked in St Mary’s Hospital and was making beds when the first air raid sounded.”
From her bedroom in St Mary’s, she witnessed aerial Spitfire dogfights overhead and casualties being brought in below. “It was very frightening,” she said.
Made head of the hospital kitchens, she frequently saw the Queen Mother. “She came often. We’d pass her going up and down the passages. She used to bring the princesses.
“She brought the Queen of Greece once and asked if they could have some cake. We’d made Victoria sponge in large quantities, so we gave them some. The Queen of Greece wanted to know how it was made and came down to the kitchen.
“They [the royal family] would come for musical evenings at the hospital. And at the end of the war, we had a celebratory dinner for them. Bananas were just coming back in so we decided to give them those. They started to turn brown, so we hid them by making banana custard.”
The woman with ‘nothing interesting to talk about’ also mentions watching from the medical students’ viewing gallery above the operating theatre as Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin and whose lab was in St Mary’s, was presented to the Queen Mother.
Later she ran a B&B and married widower Athol Rawlin, making her mum to two step-children, one just a baby. “A lovely man. It was difficult at times, and through that, I got Joy.”
Athol was a sergeant major in the Marines and they lived in Malta and Singapore before returning to England.
When asked for her tip for a long and happy life, she said: “Read your bible and come to know the Lord.”
Barbara is one of only 175 people in the UK aged 108 or over.