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A century of life in the district remembered
VERY year, my Aunt Jane has dug up the potatoes from her vegetable patch. Every day, she goes for a walk, often clocking up a mile.
Nothing remarkable about that, you might think. Except that she clocked up another milestone on Sunday when she celebrated her 100th birthday.
Yet Jane Raby – her maiden name was Sutton – will be the first to tell you that she’s no ‘wonder woman.’ And as a token gesture to the fact that she’s joining the ‘century not-out’ brigade, she’s decided that in future she’ll get her spuds from Morrisons.
Not a bad gardening record though, for someone who was born just a few weeks after the Titanic disaster back in 1912.
She can still remember how the sinking of the ship, and the loss of more than 1,500 lives, was a major talking point when she was a young girl, growing up in the family home in Micklethwaite, looking out over the Aire Valley above Crossflatts, near Bingley.
It also puts her long life in perspective when you realise that she retired officially nearly 40 years ago after a long and rewarding nursing career, which saw her rise to the rank of senior sister after starting out at Bradford Royal Infirmary.
She’s also lived in the same bungalow on Southlands Grove, just off Thornton Road, near Thornton School, for nearly 60 years – and it’s still as neat and tidy as ever.
She’s a joy to talk to, though don’t make the mistake of patronising her. Gentle as she is, Aunt Jane has all her faculties about her. Conversations are always interesting, two-way, and lead somewhere. She’s good fun, too, and appreciates the irony when I tell her that she’s definitely my favourite hundred-year-old aunt.
Her fund of knowledge, experience and wisdom are what you’d expect from a woman who was born before the First World War and who has experienced the ups and downs of life.
Had she been born a few years earlier, it would have been in the illustrious setting of Bolling Hall, the ancient pile on the east of Bradford city centre.
The historic hall, now run as a museum by Bradford Council, was lived in by the greater Sutton family, back in the early 20th century, five centuries after the Earl of Newcastle slept there before taking the city from the Cromwellian troops who were billeted in Bradford.
“Don’t get me wrong,” says down-to-earth Aunt Jane. “The family only rented the place. The Suttons don’t have aristocratic blood in their veins to my knowledge. But my parents did sleep in the same bedroom as the Earl of Newcastle and that’s an interesting talking point in itself, isn’t it?”
Sadly, the Sutton story is one of “riches to rags,” in that Aunt Jane’s father and my grandfather, the splendidly-named Joseph Egbert Sutton, ran a reasonably successful coal haulage and delivery business in Nelson Street, Bradford, until he went ‘bust’ during the 1930s recession.
Aunt Jane recalls: “He paid off all his debts and we then left the stone-built house he had built in Micklethwaite to go and rent a terraced house in Bingley. He was left poor as a church mouse, living off ten shillings a week pension, and he died in the 1950s, leaving the princely sum of £240, which was money he’d saved up over the years, aiming to buy a TV so he could watch the cricket.
“Anyway, we got on with life, like you do. I left Bingley Grammar School and worked in sewing and alterations at Marshall and Snellgroves. That left me able to make my own clothes, which has stood me in good stead ever since.”
Eventually, she trained as a nurse at the old Bradford Infirmary, going on to be a midwife and then a sister in general surgery at Nottingham during the war. She returned to the new Bradford Royal Infirmary, before working as the nurse at Daniel Illingworth’s wool mill in Thornton Road, where she was also in charge of accommodating displaced persons from Eastern and Northern Europe, even Russia.
By that time, she had married commercial artist Norman Raby and was bringing up three children – Barry, now 67; Jonathan, now 57; and Suzanne, who sadly died in her 30s.
Today, Aunt Jane is still active, being a member of Thornton Antiquarians, the University of the Third Age, and the Sunbridge Road Mission, where she attends for talks and singing. She has no carer, enjoys good health, and still does her own weekly shopping.
Like most Bradford folk, she remembers “a better Bradford,” and insists it’s not just the nostalgia of an elderly person looking back through rose-tinted glasses.
She’s genuinely saddened by the city’s industrial and retail decline and, like most Bradford folk, she’s angry about the “great Westfield hole in the ground;” the state of play at Bradford City and now Bradford Bulls; the impending demise of the classic Odeon building, and the fact that £17 million was spent on “putting a sheet of water in front of the town hall.”
But she adds: “We can still be proud. We have the legacy of the Brontes here in Thornton and in Haworth, and of JB Priestley and Frederick Delius. And not everything was rosy when I was growing up in Bradford and Bingley. The poverty and the pea-soup fogs are still an abiding memory too. Let’s not forget those changes for the good.”
Society has changed too over the last hundred years. From the class-ridden Edwardian era, through two World Wars, and the hardships during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Not to mention the move from horse and cart to motor vehicles, the advent of television, the Cold War, the space race, and the major advances in health care.
So any secrets behind her longevity? “Well, I live life to the full and have always worked on keeping my mind active. I read, go out with my friends, and I love anything that is competitive, like TV’s Mastermind, Eggheads and the snooker.”