West Sussex’s most famous and endearing resident, Dame Vera Lynn, celebrates her 100th birthday today.
Dame Vera became a household name during the Second World War with her uplifting songs and support for those fighting overseas, earning her the nickname of ‘Sweetheart of the Forces’.
Since then her popularity has remained constant, thanks to her charity work and support for various organisations down the years.
As a Ditchling resident for a number of years, Dame Vera admits this part of Sussex holds a special place in her heart.
‘I have to say that I have really enjoyed the community spirit of living in this part of Sussex and helping good causes.’
Vera Lynn was born in East London and her career began at a tender seven years of age.
She spent the 1920s and 30s fronting some of the top society orchestras and being featured on many of their recordings.
So what made her want to be a singer?
‘Immediately I think of ‘don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington’,’ she smiles.
‘I suppose I really started singing at family parties at Christmas, birthdays and other special occasions.
‘Presumably, I showed musical talent and from there I started entering competitions. One was run by Nat Travers, an entertainer.
‘Initially, I didn’t actually win but people in the audience started shouting ‘what about the little girl in the red dress?’ and so I took home the prize.’
Best known for her 1939 recording of the popular song ‘We’ll Meet Again’ during Second World War Dame Vera decided to tour Egypt, India and Burma with the Entertainment National Services Association to perform for the troops.
‘I just wanted to be able to cheer them up,’ she reveals.
‘Generally speaking, nobody was going there.
‘Some were visiting the cities, but no one was going into the jungle... perhaps because there was no electricity or running water.
‘The appreciation which I received from the boys just for being there was something that has always remained special to me throughout my whole life.
‘It meant a great deal to them that I’d travelled so far just to say hello and sing a few songs but I was truly honoured to do it.’
Turning 100 today Dame Vera admits that the things she has been most proud of in her career are the titles she has been awarded.
‘Especially Sweetheart of the Forces,’ the Ditchling resident smiles.
‘I am also very pleased that I have been able to support some incredibly worthy causes over the years.
‘These particularly include serviceman charities, and locally the St Peter and St James hospice, The Bluebell Railway, Princess Royal Hospital as well as several others.’
Another achievement is the charity which she set up in 2001.
Founded as the Dame Vera Lynn Trust for Children with Cerebral Palsy the trustees agreed on renaming the charity to Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity to clearly state the focus on children and the support the charity offers to them.
‘Establishing the charity was one of my proudest moments and I am now so pleased to see it grow to help more children and their parents,’ explains Dame Vera.
Earlier this year the charity announced it would be moving into the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s centre in Cuckfield to become more accessible to a wide geographic area of families and where it will provide support and help alongside running early interventions sessions and other support services.
Asked how it feels to reach her 100th year Dame Vera answers: ‘Old. Old in body but young in spirit.’