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Hackney People

Henry Allingham

Henry Allingham    

They say old soldiers never die, they just fade away. At first glance, the diminutive figure of Henry Allingham seems the living embodiment of that adage.

At 112, Europe’s oldest man and one of only two British survivors of the First World War, he is a frail figure, partially deaf and almost blind. But he still has vivid memories of his childhood in Clapton and wartime service,

which he is happy to share with younger generations.

So it was that youngsters at Northwold Primary School sat fascinated as Mr Allingham spoke – the last link between living memory and text book history.

Pupils at the Upper Clapton school were treated to a question and answer session with the former aircraft mechanic during a visit to the borough on 24 February.

Henry, who was born just down the road in Harrington Hill in 1896, gave an account of his school experience in Walthamstow, adding:

“Children were not as fortunate as they are today. They were poor, walked in bare feet, and with lice in their hair.”

Although Henry moved from Clapton when he was 12, he can still recall fond memories of the River Lea, Springfield Park and Clapton Pond where he played with his toy boat.

Little did he know that he would later swap his tiny craft for the fighting ships and planes of the First World War.

Henry signed up to fight when he was just a teenager, enlisting in the Royal Naval Air Service as an air mechanic and witnessing Jutland, the largest naval battle in history.

He crossed the North Sea on patrol in a primitive wood-and-canvas seaplane, tasked with monitoring fuel gauges; and survived the battlefields of northern France where he helped recover downed aircraft from the shell-churned mud.

After the First World War, Henry married Dorothy Cater and had two daughters, both of whom he has outlived. Henry now has six grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, 13 great-great-grandchildren and one great-great-greatgrandchild, all but one of whom live in the United States.

He clearly enjoys the company of young people and remarkably for a man of such advanced years, demonstrated a real sense of composure and wit when confronted with some challenging questions from the children.

He told them the secret to growing old and successful was to ‘be good’ and ‘be the best at whatever you do’.

He talked about the progress he has seen in his lifetime, particularly the increase in rights and opportunities for women.

He said: “Women do a lot more than men, I expect we’ll see more women in parliament in the next 30 years – men take a back seat.”

As a widower, Henry lived in his own home well into his hundreds and now resides at St Dunstan’s home for blind exservicemen in Sussex.

He has seen six monarchs and 21 prime ministers come and go, and been awarded many honours for his long life and First World War service. Henry admits he’s ready for death, saying: “I can’t go on any more, I’ve given all I could.” But it seems death is not ready for him just yet.

Curriculum Vitae

  • 1896 Born in Clapton, Hackney
  • 1915 Enlisted with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as a mechanic
  • 1916 Posted to RNAS base in Great Yarmouth and joined armed trawler HMT Kingfisher which was involved in the Battle of Jutland
  • 1917 Posted to France to support the Royal Flying Corps and joined No 12 Squadron of the RNAS to service and rescue aircraft that crashed behind the trenches
  • 1919 Married 22-year-old Dorothy Cater in Chingford, Essex. Going on to secure various engineering jobs and work his way up to a senior position with car manufacturer Ford
  • 1960 Retired to Eastbourne, with his wife, who died 10 years later
  • 2003 Receives France's highest military honour, the Legion D'Honneur, at a ceremony in Eastbourne Town Hall. It has been awarded to 440 British soldiers who served in France during the First World War since 1998
  • 2006 Gordon Brown presents Henry with a letter of good wishes from the Queen to mark his 110th birthday

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Page updated: 15 Jun 2010 

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