A hundred years and counting…

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After hearing that local resident Esther Wagstaff had celebrated her 100th birthday, we sent Suze Howell round to have a cuppa with her, and listen to a century of wonderful tales and sound advice.

The first thing I notice about Esther’s home is all her photos – like a museum collection spanning the decades. Two particular photos catch my eye. One is of Esther in a helicopter. She was in her 80s and celebrating a birthday with a helicopter ride with her grandson. It sums Esther up perfectly: she’s what we would probably describe today as a ‘go getter’. Nothing gets in her way: her sight has failed in one eye but this lady still plays scrabble and bingo; her walking isn’t the best, but she’s got well-planned strategies to keep herself mobile and independent. I am shocked to hear she doesn’t have any carers to help her. “I always say I’ll try!” she tells me.

The second picture is a large framed print that looks like it could have been on the front cover of Time magazine. I ask Esther about it, and 82 years later she recalls the story with ease: “When I was 18, Fred Perry was coming to Stockport to be given the freedom of the town as he was born in Stockport. I waited outside the entrance of Stockport Town Hall, in May 1935, to get a picture of him with my little brownie box camera. I waited about two hours and got a tiny black and white picture of him coming down the steps of the town hall. About two years ago, there was a notice in the paper about whether anyone had any Fred Perry memorabilia. They came and they were delighted with my picture. It was blown up and printed in the paper….next thing they knew I was on television as one of the oldest followers of Fred Perry.” She chuckles at this, whilst I marvel at the composition of the shot, unsure whether she realises just how good it is.

The backdrop to all of Esther’s stories are the places and spaces around Stockport: the derelict church façade on the A6 into Stockport where Esther attended primary school; the dirt track, we know as Green Lane, that Esther cycled up to attend Fylde Lodge High School for Girls, which is now Priestnall school; St George’s church on the A6 where she celebrated her marriage and her children’s christenings; the bandstand in Vernon Park where she enjoyed Saturday nights and Sundays listening to bands; the house on Elmtree drive where she spent fifty years raising her family; and the Heaton Moor Reform Club and the Heaton Moor Conservative Club where she spent many a wonderful time sequence dancing.

I listen to Esther, trying to imagine The Heatons through all these times. I ask her what it was like. “When I first lived in the Heatons, it was select and dignified. A beautiful place to walk along with very few cars – and no trouble with parking!”  We both smile at this! “I’ve seen so much change.”  Esther tells, “Houses have gone. Things have moved on. But the Savoy has always been there!”

Early life was hard for Esther and her family as they struggled through the Depression of the 1920s, but, as Esther tells me, “My teenage years were great, absolutely great. You danced, you played tennis, you had no worries, you were carefree…I had lovely carefree teenage years.”

Then came the war. Esther remembers building a shelter in the garden, digging a big hole with large pieces of corrugated iron on top. Sometimes there wasn’t time to get to the shelter so the family would crowd under a very heavy table in the house. Esther distinctly remembers a large bomb being dropped where she lived at the time in Adswood: “It really sounded loud when it dropped. It was very scary, very scary indeed.”  

During the war, Esther worked for a wholesale grocery, a crucial job, but it meant she wasn’t allowed to ‘be in uniform’. I can sense her disappoint about this still. She did, however, manage to have two children during the war, after marrying her teenage sweetheart, Alan. “I had both the children at Stepping Hill.”, Esther tells me, “With my first baby, Alan was in the war and I had no idea where he was. The day I went into hospital to have my baby, my mum came and she brought me a letter: it was the first letter I’d had from him in months and it came on the day my baby was born. He was in America to pick up an aircraft carrier. It was marvellous. You had your babies on your own, while they were away…you just got on with it”

Another time, she clearly remembers getting caught up in the Manchester Blitz: “Alan’s father had to get back to his regiment from Manchester Victoria Station…we all set off but we didn’t realise how absolutely terrible it was. We got as far as Ardwick and the whole place was on fire…we left him at Ardwick and there were incendiary bombs dropping down, the place was on fire…he walked to Victoria Station…it was all bombed out…it was dreadful.”

But, Esther wasn’t one to sit around and wallow in these difficult times. From cutting up her husband’s old shirts to make clothes for the children, to going out and getting herself her own house! As Esther explains, “I was living with my mum and the war was still on. I found out who did housing at the council and found it was a man who lived in Edgeley so I went and knocked on his door on my own one evening and asked him for a house. I had two children and my husband was in the war and I’d been waiting for a house for so long. The next thing I knew, two councillors came to the house where my mum lived and told me they’d got me a house, a brand new one!”

I ask her what advice she would give to the people of The Heatons: “The world is completely different,” she says, and with gusto continues: “But you need to live with the times! Everything is changing and you can’t live in the past. This is life and the only thing you can do is try to live it as good as you can.” But, she warns, “Don’t go to extremes!”

As I leave, Esther thoughtfully ponders, “I’ve lived, haven’t I?”. Yes, Esther, you certainly have.

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