Obituary: Gladys Brown, 105-year-old who remembered seeing German Zeppelins from her window

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Born: 11 October, 1906, in Ponteland. Died: 8 February, 2012, in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, aged 105.

Never a woman to be idle for long, Gladys Brown was a powerhouse of a pensioner who loved nothing better than to be in the thick of people and supporting her community.

Whether it was comforting homesick schoolboys, offering wise counsel to the disadvantaged or simply chatting to celebrities on the King’s Road, she was always interested in the lives of others.

Still volunteering with the homeless when she was in her 90s, she marked her 103rd birthday by taking to the dance floor at a celebratory ceilidh and latterly was frustrated by her propensity to sleep, remarking: “It’s such a waste of time.”

Berwick’s oldest resident was born in the Northumberland village of Ponteland, where her parents ran a post office and shop. She had a great affinity with the Scottish Borders and always claimed her father, Andrew Shiells, christened her Gladys because the name Gladys Shiells was the closest he could get to Galashiels. Precisely why remains unexplained but, for good measure, he added the middle name Ballantyne, which also has connections with the Borders mill town.

She grew up in Ponteland and when she started at the local school the leaving age was still just 12. By the time she left it had been raised to 14. The young Gladys remained at home, generally helping out and delivering telegrams on her bike around the village. When she was 18, the family moved to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne where she looked after her mother until her death two years later.

The family were members of Bond Memorial Methodist Church, in the city’s Benwell area, and it was there she met her future husband, schoolteacher James Brown. They married in Ponteland in 1932.

Her husband eventually became deputy head of a school in Newcastle and she supported him throughout his career. During the Second World War, when his school was evacuated to Whitehaven in Cumbria, she would often visit and comfort unhappy youngsters. She did the same when she accompanied him to help with students on school trips abroad.

In 1954 the couple bought a house in Ponteland, where she became involved in the community through the over 60s club and Ponteland Methodist Church. She also served as a parish councillor. They moved, in retirement in 1975, to Berwick where their artist son-in-law had a small studio, and where they lived in the town’s Castle Drive for many years.

In 1984, they moved south again, this time to join their daughter in London but three years later James died and she spent the next 25 years in widowhood.

Ever keen to be involved in local life, she joined Chelsea Methodist Church on London’s famed King’s Road. The street was a favourite with film stars and other celebrities and she regularly engaged them in conversation – once stopping football star George Best to tell him how much she enjoyed watching the game.

At the church she worked as a volunteer at a weekly night refuge for the homeless where her willingness to lend a sympathetic ear and her life experience, combined with no-nonsense advice, earned her great respect.

The recipients of her wisdom, mostly men and often from complicated family backgrounds, accepted her counsel with rather more enthusiasm than they would advice from their contemporaries. She treated them as she would her own children and, as a result of her straight-talking northern approach, there were several happy endings when individuals were reunited with their estranged families.

She was still helping out with the homeless initiative when she was well into her 90s and had travelled to New York when she was in her 80s.

Eventually she moved back to Berwick with her widowed daughter and spent her final years in Garden House Care Home, Spittal.

She was a regular guest of the local Rotary Club through which she became aware of Aids prevention work in Uganda. And for her 103rd birthday ceilidh she decreed there should be no presents or cards but accepted donations for the Ugandan project, raising more than £400.

It was typical of a woman who had seen so much change in her lifetime but who remained interested in people and the advances of the more modern age.

She had witnessed two world wars and vividly recalled watching, as a curious child, from her window as the German Zeppelins drifted past during the Great War. She was equally fascinated by the advent of the worldwide web. Seeing an image of herself pop up on the internet, she astutely observed: “No-one will ever have secrets again.”

She is survived by her daughter, Kate, two grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

ALISON SHAW