We chat with Florence Chettle
100 in April 2018
Century: It’s a length of time we tend to think of when collating history, to stratify change and development.
It is not however a term we often get to apply to the life of a human being, but to Mrs Florence Chettle it is wholly appropriate, for she has just celebrated her 100th birthday.
The card sitting on the chest of drawers in her Holmewood care home room proves it. It has the face of the Queen on it, and she is smiling like she’s midway through patting a child on the head.
Florence herself sits in an armchair, propped up with a big cushion and hands folded lightly in her lap. She’s dressed like the perfect grandmother: blouse, cardigan and comfy slippers. Her daughter Helen is here too, and informs me neither her mother’s eyes or ears are as good as they once were. Despite this, it is Florence’s confident yet modest gaze that stays with me days after our meeting. It is the gaze of someone who has lived through more change, more recessions and celebrations, than almost anyone in Britain today. It is the gaze of living history.
“So you want to know about me?”
A rhetorical question, but more a statement. I’ve barely had time to sit before Florence has cast off the ballast of preamble and we embark upon a journey; the nostalgic recitation of her long life.
“My mother died when I was three…”
1918 marked the end of the First World War. It was also the year that Florence was born, in Nottingham. After the tragic loss of her mother in the early 20s, Florence’s father moved the family, Florence and her two sisters, to be closer to their extended family. Her grandfather had a bread and confectionery firm in Nottingham, which already employed numerous members of the family.
Florence’s father joined the business, and bought a house opposite her grandfather’s.
“We were the first people to have a toilet and a bath indoors,” Florence informs me.
She recalled how nothing ever happened on a Friday night, because it was the designated ‘bath night’. Indeed, thanks to the family business, Florence and her family enjoyed many of the benefits of early twentieth-century contemporary living. She remembered the first radio broadcasts, a record player with just the one record, ‘My Friend Elizabeth’, on repeat, and the significance of owning one of the first telephones. People came from far and wide to use it, but didn’t like to do the talking themselves:
“They didn’t like to hear the voice, but not see the face. As a youngster of course, I was fascinated.”
It was Florence’s uncle who delivered for the bakery, first pulling along his cart by hand, then investing in a horse, before finally making the transition to owning an automobile, another first for the neighbourhood. Florence recalled many a clinched playground trade; promises of rides in exchange for sweets.
The world may have breathed a collective sigh of relief after the Great War ended, but life for many was still far from easy. The 1926 General Strike saw almost 2 million blue collar workers nationwide protesting to prevent wage reductions and worsening conditions for coal miners. The country was in danger of grinding to a halt. Whilst government intervention ensured industry continued to tick over, it was down to the individual to keep their neighbours afloat.
“There was no welfare, no money anywhere, and no one had earned enough to save anything,” Florence recalls.
Britons were dying of starvation. It was at this point that her grandfather stepped in, ensuring every house in the area had a loaf of bread waiting for them on the doorstep each morning. In a world where, personally, I can count on one hand how many neighbours with whom I am on a first-name basis, it seems an extraordinary act of empathy and community spirit.
Florence’s grandfather may not have left much behind when he died, but what he did impart was a real sense for the importance of people, alongside a straight-forward approach to community activism which Florence herself has embodied throughout her life.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
We mustn’t forget how little respite there was before the political situation in mainland Europe once again reached boiling point. By 1939, Britain was at war with Germany, in response to its invasion of Poland.
Florence’s first job as a Personal Assistant nurtured a skill set which would allow her to be a great asset to the domestic war effort.
“I had to do something during the War, else I’d have been called up,” she explains. She refers of course to conscription. By 1942, with just a few exceptions, all British men and women of a certain age were drafted in and allocated roles.
By sheer coincidence, an aunt of Florence’s had as her lodger a Colonel of the Army Pay Corps, whose headquarters had moved to Nottingham. Now there was a man in need of a secretary. After just a few weeks in the position though, it was deemed Florence’s skills were being wasted, and she was sent ‘downstairs’ to join the hundreds of others whose responsibility it was to administer all the army’s financial matters.
By the end of the war, Florence had attained the rank of Sergeant Major, the highest available to civilian personnel. It struck me that war meant more than soldiers.
In fact, it is estimated that the Second World War directly involved over 100 million people worldwide. More than half of them never came home, lest we forget.
Frank Chettle had spent most of his war years on the front line, predicting the weather as an RAF meteorologist.
“I’d known him all my life, but we’d never really spoken,” says Florence. “There was another boy at church I thought I would surely marry (I was very much in love with him, I thought) but he announced he was marrying someone else.”
Still, when you’re invited to a wedding it’s only proper to attend. Florence sat alone through the service, feeling quite uncomfortable no doubt.
Enter the meteorologist.
“Frank came and sat next to me, and I was so glad. Afterwards we walked home, it was quite a way.”
Later, Frank would tell Florence that it was during this walk that he fell in love with her, ‘…because you never stopped talking.’ Before the year was out, they were married, but on one condition:
“No children! You see, there were no men.
I had no end of aunties, but all the men were killed during the war, so I’d had nothing to do with babies or children,” Florence explained.
Frank’s response? ‘Never mind that,’ he said, ‘It’s you I want.’
For the record, Florence is a mother of three, a grandmother of eight, and a great-grandmother of nine (and counting).
“Gifts from God,” she says.
They moved to Norwich where Frank had a job opportunity, and where their first daughter Helen, who now sits opposite me providing her mother with the occasional prompt, was born. But they never truly fell in love with the place.
“My next door neighbour taught me everything, but never came in the house, and never invited me in.”
So after a few years, when Frank got a phone call from his old school in Nottingham, offering him a teaching position in mathematics, the Chettle family jumped at the chance. They lived happily there, expanding their family by another two, and it was only after a decade or so that Frank’s work uprooted them once more. Their destination? A certain town on the northern edge of Derbyshire with a peculiar crooked church spire, where he became headteacher of Tapton House School.
“We had some lovely years in Chesterfield,” says Florence. In Holymoorside she turned her hand to architecture, and designed their new home from the ground up. The neighbours were duly impressed, and the same day as the removal van rolled up, Florence was offered the position of treasurer of the WI, which she held for twenty years.
In 1965 the Chettles moved to Inkberrow, near Redditch.
“It was a little village when we arrived. We helped transform it into a small town, almost,” recalls Florence with modest pride. This included raising the money to build the village hall which stands there today. “We just wanted to make a difference.”
After long careers, the Chettles retired, and that was what brought them back to the Chesterfield area in 1979, to Walton, where they lived out their golden years together. Sadly, Frank died in 2010 after suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease.
In an act of what I now see as characteristic of Florence’s positivity and resilience, it was her experiences in later years as Frank’s carer that brings us to our current setting: Barnfield Care Home in Holmewood. She recently took a fall, and instead of activating her Careline alarm, decided to pick herself back up.
“Every time Frank fell down I managed to get him up … and I thought: I got Frank up plenty of times, I’ll get myself up!”
An admirable effort, but one which led to a further slip and a broken leg. And now here she sits, well on the mend with Helen for company, surrounded by an amalgamation of Get Well Soon and Happy Birthday cards, with just the occasional visit from strangers with voice recorders and notebooks full of questions.
“I’ve had quite a good life,” Florence concludes, “I’ve had good neighbours.”
Florence has experienced a span of life which few of us can hope to match. Since her birth in 1918 the population of planet earth has almost quadrupled. There have been twenty-five Olympic Games, mankind has mapped the craters of the Moon and analysed the surface of Mars. But Florence was never one to spend much time in front of the television.
I’d prepared for Florence a selection of key events from the 20th Century to see what they meant for someone who’d lived through them. We also played a fun word-association game.
The extended article is included below.
Do you remember VE Day?
“I had a wonderful night, the last night of 1945. Frank was still in the RAF, but his nephew, who was ten years younger than me, was at Nottingham University, living with Frank’s mother, and he and I got on very well. We enjoyed the same things. We had dancing lessons together and this sort of thing. In 1945, everybody went mad – all the bands were out, and Jim and I went. We danced all over the market square in Nottingham, and we followed the bands to the arboretum, and we danced the whole of the night. And the next morning, about half past seven, Jim went home and Frank’s mother was furious that I’d spent the night dancing with another man!
“Frank’s train got in at midnight on the morning of the wedding. Frank’s mother had put it in the paper that we’d be married on Tuesday, so we couldn’t possibly put it off. From the Midland Station in Nottingham we had to walk, oh a couple of miles, to get to his house, and his mother, from the previous day, had put his dinner in the side oven (she didn’t know when he’d arrive) and she put it in front of him, all this dried-up gravy, and he said: ‘Actually, I ate on the train.’
“I said: ‘I have to go, I’ve got a busy day tomorrow,’ and Frank walked me home. I thought, I bet when he went back, he ate it – he always did what his mother told him.
“He’d come in wellington boots and uniform, so he had to get married in his father’s shoes, which were much too big. We hadn’t decided on the honeymoon, but there were two trains from the Midland Station at one o’clock, one to Scarborough and one to London. Frank’s mother said we had to get married at two o’clock – ‘Everybody did’. I said: ‘Well we’re getting married at eleven o’clock, because we want to get somewhere for the honeymoon.’
“So we got married at eleven o’clock, and we got to the station. We didn’t tell anyone whether we were going north or south, but we went to Scarborough. It was in deep snow – all our wedding photographs are in deep snow. Even the beach was frozen, and the sea wasn’t moving, there were no tides, it was sort of frozen on the edge of the sea.
“Frank and I hadn’t seen each other for six months, and in the morning the chambermaid said to me: ‘Were you warm enough last night?’ Of course, we’d been wrapped around each other.”
Do you remember the Olympic Games in London in 1948?
“No, we didn’t have anything to do with the Olympics.”
How about Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1952?
“There were very few television sets, and we didn’t have one. The only person we knew who’d got one was Frank’s step-brother who lived in Leicester. So we all invited ourselves to Leicester so we could see it, and his second wife wasn’t very pleasant, she said: ‘You’ll all see many more coronations than me, so I’m not stopping to make cups of tea for everyone – I’m going to watch all of it!’. Of course, we haven’t seen another coronation since.
“It was a pouring wet day, and Helen and Jane I kept taking for little walks in the rain, because of course they weren’t interested, and I didn’t want them to annoy the other folk. But we didn’t have a television for a long time, and I don’t have one now. I’ve never been a television addict – I think it’s a load of rubbish. I prefer the radio – I have the radio on a lot, and I learn a lot.”
Okay, here’s a big one: the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969…
“The what? Oh, I wasn’t particularly interested – I thought it was a waste of money, and I thought there was no point in it at all.”
This one’s closer to home: The Miner’s Strike, 1984
“That didn’t really affect us very much. I remember the power cuts.”
We’ve talked a lot about the past, but what do you think about the future?
“I don’t know, I think everything’s crazy. All this modern technology is getting out of hand, I think. I feel that everything will soon be wiped out, all the computers will give up. We can’t go on inventing all these new things and expecting them all to work, there’s too much of it.”
And your thoughts on Britain leaving the EU?
“Well I felt in the first place we never should have joined. I was very cross when we did – we’d got the Commonwealth, we’d got America, and I didn’t think we wanted Europe. We, several times, have saved Europe from Germany, and they’re very bitter that we were stronger than they were. We were never treated well [in the EU]. I think if we’d’ve stayed in, Germany would have taken over, and we’d have to do what Germany told us to do.”
Love: “Well everybody should love everybody. I don’t think sexual love is as it seems today – anybody thinks they can sleep with anybody, and it’s not right. I had sixty-six happy years of marriage, and have three cards from the Queen, one for our diamond and one for our sixty-fifth, and we never had a row. We had a wonderful marriage, we had a deep friendship and did everything together, and these people who’re moving from one lover to another will never really have a happy, settled marriage, I don’t think, and I don’t think sex will ever be the same for them again – it’ll be ruined.”
War: “We don’t want any more wars, there are too many wars all over the world. I don’t understand the Syrian War or any of these wars, but I don’t know how they can be stopped. At least they’ve stopped North and South Korea haven’t they, and I think somebody ought to go round talking to them, making them come to some sort of agreement, and not fight. Fighting gets you nowhere, it just kills a lot of innocent people.”
Favourite: “Well everybody has their favourite food, their favourite person, their favourite this, that and the other, but I don’t think you should have favourites within your family, we should be one, big family, with no favourites.”
Technology: “Load of rubbish.”
Equality: “I do agree with equality up to a certain point, but a lot of people think they’re equal when they’re not. I think a lot of the MPs think that they’re all equal but they’re not, they’re all different in their own way.”
Global: “I don’t know what to say about that.”
Holiday: “Well I’ve never been able to have a holiday abroad. In 1950 I had an abscess which had to be cut out, and penicillin hadn’t long been discovered, and they gave me a big penicillin injection in my right leg, which knocked me out completely – I couldn’t stand up. And this leg has never gone straight since, it’s always been askew. The doctor said he was sorry, I’d only got three weeks to live. I had poly-neuritis, and it had gotten into my nervous system, and was killing off all my nerves. He said: ‘But I can remember reading from a magazine from America that vitamin B12 will keep you alive. You’ll never have any energy, you’ll have to have a very quiet life, no long walks or exotic holidays or work full time, but you will be alive.’
“In those days vitamin B12 had to be from doners, so the doctor told me I could only have it for a fortnight. ‘It’ll be a miracle if it works, and if it doesn’t you’ll have three weeks to live.’ Anyway within a week I was standing up and walking. Within a fortnight I was perfectly alright, and I didn’t have any more B12 until 1975, when I had penicillin again, which did the same thing, knocked me out completely.
“The doctor said: ‘You’re very ill, you must go to the hospital,’ and Frank said: ‘I’ve seen her like this before, and vitamin B12 brought her round.’ ‘Oh what a load of rubbish,’ said the doctor. ‘I’ll give her a week, and if not she’s going to the hospital.’
“Within a week, I walked back into his surgery and he said: ‘That’s amazing!’ and he gave me eighty B12 injections in eighty days, and I felt better than I’d felt in years.
“I’m still on B12 injections every week. I haven’t got any arthritis or rheumatism, I never have a cold – I think it’s B12 that’s kept me so well.”
So there you have it, the secret to long life, or the secret at least to one long life.
It’s always a pleasure for me to hear people’s stories. We can gauge the passing of time in many ways, but so often focus on politics and economics and nations. But what are nations if not collections of people? What is law without people to make and break it?
The value of people’s stories lies not in that they are quaint, not that they are nostalgic, but in that they are real. When we think of history we think of a skeleton. But a skeleton alone is nothing more than the remnant of a framework; only a person can say what it truly meant to be alive.
Few people get to live either so long or so well as Florence Chettle. The true secret I feel is not so much her relationship with vitamin B12 but her ability to adapt to the ebb and flow of life, and when necessary pick herself up when she is knocked down. Hers has not been an easy life after all, but Florence has not avoided her challenges, she has met them.
It is upon reflecting on the lives of others that we learn how better to live our own.
On Florence’s bed sits a wooden box. “It’s her memory box,” Helen tells me, “Filled with all the family’s best memories.” It’s decorated with bright stickers and a select few words: ‘Florence’, ‘Mother’, ‘Grandmother’ and ‘Great-Grandmother’. They orbit a central motif, a number in fact: 100.