Second World War nurse and former Dunmow parish clerk celebrates turning 100

PUBLISHED: 08:40 24 June 2019 | UPDATED: 08:47 24 June 2019

At 100-years-old Barbara Seward is still a keen knitter. Picture: ARCHANT

At 100-years-old Barbara Seward is still a keen knitter. Picture: ARCHANT

Archant

As a young nurse working in Hitchin during the Second World War, Brenda Seward tended to five German officers after their planes had been shot down over England.

"I took the attitude it was somebody's father or sons," said Brenda, "I think being a Christian you accept everybody. You just got on with it. Some nurses wouldn't look after them but they were quite fun."

The great grandmother, who has lived in Dunmow for 61 years, turned 100 yesterday (Wednesday) and celebrated the milestone at a party with family and friends.

When the war broke out, Brenda was working as a civil servant in the London, before she was evacuated to Cambridge where she shared cramped student dorms with other youngsters.

"It was lovely, being a 20-year-old in Cambridge on your own for the first time," Brenda recalled.

In Cambridge, she continued working as a civil servant and remembers eating lunch behind King's College and in 1941, watching planes fly to join the Battle of Britain.

She had always wanted to be a nurse but the profession was seen as "demeaning" and aware of her parent's disapproval, she did not pursue the career.

"My opportunity came when the war came because they wanted nurses. I thought 'I have got to do something,'" she said.

"It was a completely new life for me. I felt I was doing the right thing, it was what I wanted to do," she said.

Brenda joined a hospital train in the north of England, helping evacuees. The staff never knew where they were going because by that stage in the war, road signs had been taken down and there were no names on platforms.

Later, she was seconded to a Hitchin hospital where injured soldiers would arrive, still dressed in camouflage, doodlebugs flew overhead and she slept in an air raid shelter.

This is also where she met the German officers, who were placed in a side ward. Although she knew some German, the officers all spoke English.

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"They liked ice coffee and I didn't know what that was. We used to get some coffee and just put it in the fridge," Brenda said, adding: "they were lovely."

Completing her nurse training in 1945, at 27-years-old, she went on to run a children's home, where she was responsible for the care of about 74 children, a job she loved.

"When I arrived it was an old-fashioned place. The children used to walk single file and didn't talk. I revolutionised the place," Brenda said.

"I used to go round in the morning and ask them how they were feeling, and some would say 'oh I've got a small cut on my finger'. They wanted attention. They didn't get enough love, that was the thing that was missing."

Aged 29, she married radar planning engineer and family friend John Seward.

"His mother had two boys to get rid of and my mother had two girls to get rid of," Brenda said, adding that the pair used to meet at parties where he would sing and she would accompany him on the piano.

Brenda and John had four children: Chris, Margie, Libby and Liney. At the time, married women were not allowed to be nurses so Brenda left her career behind. Speaking at her home in Grove Court, an assisted living facility, Brenda doesn't seem to resent this, having had a busy home to run with four children.

The family moved to Dunmow in 1958, where Brenda and John became active members of the community.

John, who died in 2010, was a key member of the Dunmow Players for decades, whilst Brenda worked as clerk for Dunmow Parish Council for nine years. In 1996 their eldest son Chris, whilst working as a deputy leader for Oxfam in Angola, was ambushed and shot, aged 46.

Three days after Chris' death, the family welcomed Chris' wife, Prudentienne, who Chris met at the Oxfam offices in Rwanda, and their 11-month-old son Mahoro.

In Brenda's sitting room, a photo of Chris rests beside a picture of Mahoro on the day he graduated from Oxford University, which his father, decades before him, also attended.

A member of her church discussion group and a keen knitter, Brenda says she still enjoys life.

Reflecting on her life, and living to 100-years-old, Brenda said: "I have just been lucky. I have always had a sleep after lunch since I was about 65. I think that might be something to do with it. I think I am just blessed. There's always something to live for if you have family."

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