Centenarians

I’ve never actually met anyone who reached the age of 100, although I did speak to my third cousin on her hundredth. Not quite the same thing. She died only a few months later, the last of three sisters in a Carlisle family which is notable for its longevity (I really do believe in the biological clock. I think we can only re-set it by a couple of years each way. Have that extra drink.)

There are about 10,000 centenarians in Britain, it is estimated, and the usual ratio of women to men is put at 4-1; another widely quoted global figure is 450,000. Since records are more exacting now, the ‘oldest person’ is usually cited as being 116, unless you believe what the Georgians (i.e. those who live in Georgia!) tell you. They regularly turn up people who claim to have lived to be 150, and everything from fresh air to bee pollen is adduced as the reason.

When I was four, I had my tonsils stripped out, together with my adenoids (whatever they may have been, I’m never sure). This was to prevent, er, tonsilitis. You have to admit it’s an effective principle. One way to prevent a headache would, by the same thinking, or process of elimination, be a visit to a council axeman. Still, while I was in hospital (my last stay), I was, like all children in Sunderland Infirmary, taken to meet a man of 96, and to shake his hand. His age at that time was considered to be nothing less than fabulous. He must have been born, therefore, in about 1856. That’s as far back as I can go. In the same year (1956), the first episode of ‘Double Your Money’ was shown on ITV, and this featured a couple who had been born in the 1880s. Robert Browning (born 1812) can be heard on a very scratchy audio file in the last year of his life (1889), trying to recite ‘How They Brought The Good News From Ghent To Aix’. You can hear it at the Poetry Archive here: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=1545# . He can’t quite remember it, which is a comfort to me, as I couldn’t either when an angry schoolteacher ‘punished’ me by asking me to do the same thing. Browning incidentally gives his occupation on the 1881 census as ‘No Occupation (Poet)’ – the parenthesis may of course be that of a respectful enumerator. Still, it’s about right, as a definition.

However, my latest family history foray has turned up – this week – a lady who is not quite 100, and who is the granddaughter of my great-great-grandmother’s sister, whom she can remember well (she appears to have been as terrifying as I would have expected of that branch of the family. If her sister was anything like her, I’m not surprised my great-great-grandfather ran off with his housekeeper). Her grandmother was born in Sunderland in 1838. Logically, there must be some people still alive who met people born very early in the nineteenth century, or, if you do the maths, even the very late eighteenth century.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the archives and newspapers were in fact full of ‘great age’ stories. They were a staple of nineteenth century newspapers, along with accounts of executions (which Sunderland papers very radically denounced), and news items from Afghanistan about our inability to win a small war there…

John Sykes’ ‘Historical Register of Remarkable Events which have occurred in Northumberland and Durham’, and that’s the short version of the title, notes during the long entry for June 2, 1818, that John Common, of Denwick, near Alnwick, was given a silver medal and ten guineas for his invention of the double-drill turnip-sower, adding that “Mr. Common’s family have been remarkable for stature, strength, longevity, and cleverness. His great-grandfather, Thomas, lived until he was above 110 years of age”, and that “About the time that King James I. mounted the English throne, one of this wonderful family farmed the Freestone Barn, near Whittingham, and tradition records how boldly he fought with a party of moss-troopers who had stolen his cattle. John, the brother of Mr. Common’s great-grandfather before mentioned, lived until he was 115 years old; and Peter, another brother, until he exceeded his 132d year.” (You can download the whole book, which cost me an arm and a leg, free by going to http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=eqQDAAAAMAAJ&ie=ISO-8859-1&output=html_text).

The good news here is that the said Mr. Common was a cousin of my great-great-great-great-grandmother, one Mary Common. So if it runs in the blood, I’m quids in. Not that I want to live to 100.

I want to live to 133.

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