Marjorie Smith calls herself a ‘true Hayling Islander’. Born on the island, she’s lived ‘on and off, but mostly on’ there for 100 years.
The centenarian was joined by family and friends for an ‘absolutely superb’ celebratory lunch at The Maypole on her birthday, February 19.
‘I think ‘‘speechless’’ would be the right word,’ she giggles at the irony of what she just uttered. ‘I never, ever thought that I would make it. It never occurred to me that I would be 100.’
The youngest of James and Sarah Willis’s seven children, Marjorie Grace Willis was born on Church Road, south Hayling.
She learned from her birth certificate that her father worked as a chauffeur-gardener for Augustus Arbuthnot, who built and owned the Sinah Warren residence on the island before it became the hotel it’s best known as today.
‘He used to drive him to London on Monday mornings,’ Marjorie explains. ‘When I saw that on my birth certificate, I said to him, “but dad, you don’t drive”. He said, “I drive a tractor every day!”. It’s not quite the same, is it?’
I’m speechless. I never, ever thought that I would make it to 100.
Marjorie left The Hayling School at the age of 14 and got her first job ‘on the Monday after school broke up’, working as an assistant at the newly-opened Cleeves greengrocers in Gable Head.
‘It was quite an experience, because they were as new as me,’ she chuckles.
Outside of work, Marjorie was taught how to sew by one of her older sisters.
‘Up until I was 14, she made dresses for me annually for the summer, and one day she said to me, “it’s about time you learned to do it yourself”.
‘When I made the first dress I wore it to a dance at the Sunshine Camp and the boys were very pleased with my dressmaking!’
Marjorie has worked in many roles – including being one of the first usherettes at the much-missed Regal Cinema – but it was during her tenure at Cleeves that she met Wilfred Smith, who also worked as a grocer’s assistant.
She remembers: ‘One Sunday afternoon I was out with my niece, and we passed this chappie on his bike.
‘He was walking along Beach Road, pushing his bike, so I said to him, “why don’t you get on and ride beside me?” and he did just that.
‘The next day he turned up at the greengrocers to talk to me over the counter, which was just a bench. He used to sit his bum on the counter and stay there until it was time to go home, and he’d cycle home with me.
‘When I saw him out that Sunday with my niece, I said, “I wish he was my boyfriend”. I made a point of that, and it worked out very well.’
Marjorie and Wilfred married on April 17, 1940 in Reigate, Surrey, where Marjorie spent some time during the Second World War working in a munitions factory while Wilfred served in the Royal Navy.
Soon after they married, they returned to Hayling Island, and built their bungalow on Victoria Road, where Marjorie still lives today.
‘All my friends in Reigate could never understand why I would want to go back to Hayling, but it’s home to me.’
Wilfred died the day before his 98th birthday following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, but Marjorie still has plenty of company in her only daughter, Gillian Cole.
‘She’s quite an outgoing person, and she likes the company,’ says Gillian, 74, who visits her mother five days a week.
Marjorie comes from a family of long-livers, but she lets out a wry laugh when asked what her secret to long life is.
Having lost her sight, she says: ‘Somebody said to me in the pub a little while ago, “what did you do before you retired?”, and I said that if they gave me a sheet of foolscap, I could write it all down, if I could read it when I finished!
‘I think it’s about being contented and happy in whatever you’re doing. If you don’t like it, leave it.’