Obituary: Margaret Harper, secretary and housewife who witnessed 20 prime ministers in her lifetime

Margaret Hall Harper
 has died at the age of 107

Margaret Hall Harper has died at the age of 107

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Margaret Hall Harper, secretary and housewife. Born: 26 March, 1909 in Galashiels. Died: 9 September, 2016, in Banchory, aged 107

When Margaret Harper was subjected to a geriatric assessment and asked for a sample of her handwriting she obliged, penning the sardonic line: “This is a complete waste of my time.”

She had arrived at that unfortunate juncture as a result of a fall – whilst demonstrating high kicks. She was a centenarian at the time.

And when it was subsequently suggested that she might attend a clinic once in a while her response was similarly brusque: “I’m 101. I don’t have time to sit in clinics!”

She continued living at home for some time after that, maintaining an independent streak that stretched back to the 1920s when she had left her Borders home for London and a life that brought her into the realm of some of the era’s greatest musical entertainers.

The middle child of five, she was born in Galashiels, the daughter of Benjamin Cartwright, who had a chemist shop in the High Street, and his wife Mary. Her grandfather owned a mill in Newton St Boswells and she could remember, as a little girl, sitting on the back doorstep of her grandparents’ home there, handing out oranges to the spinners’ children on New Year’s Eve.

Schooled at her local primary and then Galashiels Academy, she was a bright young woman who easily qualified for university but opted to go to secretarial college in Edinburgh. Then, still not out of her teens, she headed for London where she worked, around 1928, firstly for the advertising agency J Walter Thompson and later for the music publishers Chappell & Co. There she met many of the great bandleaders and conductors of the time including BBC broadcasting stars Jack Payne, Henry Hall and Billy Cotton.

During a holiday with relatives in Aberdeenshire she met her future husband ,Louis Harper, a BBC engineer. They married in 1933, in a ceremony held at Edinburgh’s Caledonian Hotel,and set up home in Aberdeen.

By the time she was in her mid-30s she had lived through two world wars and was a mother-of-three. The early 20th century had also seen tumultuous events from the sinking of the Titanic and the Russian Revolution to Britain’s General Strike and the Wall Street crash. Her extraordinarily long life would later encompass the birth of the space and computer ages and cover a total of five monarchs and 20 prime ministers.

“There have been so many changes,” she acknowledged earlier this year, “they have completely changed us, in our ways of living.”

Her own longevity left her somewhat bemused but she put it down to a lunchtime sherry, a gin and tonic in the evening and a regular dram last thing at night – she personally ordered her cases of gin and sherry by telephone until the end.

She had also been fortunate to enjoy generally good health, although she had breast cancer in her late-80s and was in a road accident at 90 when despite suffering a neck injury, known as a hangman’s fracture, she remained unfazed.

She was also sociable, an engaging conversationalist who relished a good debate, had wide interests plus friends across all generations and remained interested in her large extended family.

An avid reader who enjoyed poetry and the classics, she travelled worldwide following the death of her husband in 1973. Accompanied by friends or family she visited Canada and America, Russia, France, Hong Kong, Australia and, just weeks after major surgery, made a trip to the Great Wall of China. She continued annual visits to friends in London until she was almost 100 and was a lifelong supporter of the Liberals and Liberal Democrats.

Hugely proud of her Borders heritage, as she approached her centenary she returned there to rediscover the haunts of her youth.

But her greatest passion was gardening and she had an encyclopaedic knowledge of herbaceous and rock garden plants.

Still living at home on her own well past her century, she continued to potter in the garden until a horticultural incident made her re-assess her domestic arrangements.

Having bought some broccoli plants, she decided to plant them out immediately. But after setting off into the garden, armed with a trowel and plants, she fell her full length onto the lawn. Finding herself unable to get up, she addressed her predicament by simply deciding to plant the broccoli “since I’m down here”, she later explained. Rescued by the window cleaner, she subsequently decided to move into a nearby care home where she happily spent the last five years.

She is survived by her children John, Douglas and Elspeth, nine grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and six step great-grandchildren.

ALISON SHAW

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