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Through war and peace, we've had a right royal time of it all

Next week, the Queen becomes the world's longest-reigning monarch. Kerry McKittrick speaks to three women of the same age to see if their experiences were as dramatic

Published 05/09/2015

Princess Elizabeth shakes hands with Miss MO King of the WRNS at Queen’s University during a royal visit to Belfast in 1945
Princess Elizabeth shakes hands with Miss MO King of the WRNS at Queen’s University during a royal visit to Belfast in 1945
High Street after being blitzed by German bombers in May 1941
Wonderful memories: Peggy Watters at home
Special time: Molly Morgan at home in Poleglass
Crowning glory: Anetta Malpass hopes that the Queen has a few more years on the throne.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor was never meant to be Queen. She was born at 17 Bruton Street in London in 1926. Although her grandfather was King George V, as the daughter of his second son, the Duke of York, she was unlikely to become much more than a celebrated debutante and wife of an accomplished peer.

Fast-forward 89 years and Queen Elizabeth II - as she now is - has well and truly placed herself in the history books.

She is currently the world's oldest monarch and, on Wednesday, she will become the UK's longest-reigning monarch, overtaking her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria.

Having graced the throne for 63 years, the Queen has been an eyewitness to some of the most dramatic events of the 20th and 21st centuries.

She lived through the Second World War (even serving in the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service).

She married and had four children, who have produced eight grandchildren. Her reign has included the conflict in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and Gulf wars.

She had to contend with the murder of her husband's uncle, Lord Mountbatten, the divorce of three of her children and the death of her grandsons' mother, Princess Diana, in 1997.

But what has life thrown at other women as they reach 89? Kerry McKittrick talks to Northern Ireland women who are the same age as the Queen to discover if their lives have been any less extraordinary.

Peggy Watters (89) was married to the late John and they have three children — Maureen, Janice and John. She says:

I come from the Shankill Road — my mother worked in Blackstaff Mill. My father seldom worked, as he had a stomach wound since he was demobbed from the 1914-18 war, so he looked after us. There wasn’t much work back then, anyway.

I remember the Second World War — nothing much happened, until the Blitz in 1941. When the bombs came, my father was in town, so my mother had to take us and our blankets up into the hills. We could see the whole city and it looked like it was on fire.

After that, our father made us go under the stairs.

After the bombs hit, you could see that the only part of a house still standing was the staircase, so he reckoned that was the safest place to be.

I left school at 14, when I was expected to get a job. I didn’t mind going out to work and I got a job in Gallaher’s in York Street for about six years.

Then I met John, when we were introduced by a friend. He had just been demobbed from the Army after the Second World War — I liked his good looks, so we started going steady and then we got married.

In those days, you just came home and had tea with family and friends and then we went away to Dublin for a week for our honeymoon.

I was very close to my older sister, Anne, and once she got married her and her husband started talking about going to Canada.

I decided she wasn’t leaving me behind, so John and I started talking about it, too. As it turned out, Anne got pregnant after John and I had gone out there, so she didn’t go at all.

Those were the days of the £10 fare to Australia, but I never fancied it for some reason. It was much more expensive to go to Canada, so by the time we had saved up our daughter Janice was four.

We had planned to stay forever and we did like it. We would get papers from home, however, they were full of great talk about the work there was in the Midlands in England, as they were rebuilding after the war.

We decided England would be easier to pop home and visit family from, so went to live in the Midlands for 15 years. I worked part-time in fashion shops.

We then decided to move back to Belfast; it was time for us to come home in the 1960s. We bought a house in Sydenham — this was just before the Troubles.

I had been away for so long that I didn’t know what was going on — I can even remember asking who Ian Paisley was.

I also remember my son John coming home and telling me someone had asked if he was Catholic or a Protestant. He couldn’t say Protestant, so he told them he was Catholic. I remember telling him he would get me shot. We were quite lucky, though, that the Troubles didn’t affect us too much.

I stopped working in the shops and was a home help for a while until the lady I worked for died. I was too old to do anything else, so I retired. Looking back nearly 30 years later, I think I was too young. John passed away about 15 years ago.

I saw Princess Elizabeth on a visit many years ago on Royal Avenue, before she was the Queen. I think she was with her parents and, as she passed by, I thought she had beautiful skin. I remember her getting married — nobody missed that. I’ve watched them all grow up, from Prince Charles to William and Kate.

I think she’s a good Queen and she’s also been very fortunate with her husband. He’s supposed to be outspoken, but we all say things that others pick up wrongly.

I think the Queen will go on for a while yet — I can’t see her ever retiring. I believe she’ll do her duty to the end.”

Anetta Malpass (89) was married to the late Cecil. She lives in Dundonald with her only daughter, Beryl. She says:

Donegal is where I was born, but I moved to Londonderry to live with my sister when I was 12 as I had lost my mother. I left school at 14 and hoped to be a hairdresser, but in those days it cost £20 to become a trainee and it was money that we didn’t have.

I went on to work in shops and eventually moved to Belfast. I was working in Sinclair’s department store in Royal Avenue and one of the girls I worked with introduced me to Cecil. I liked him, so we started going together and then decided to get married.

I left Sinclair’s and started working with him in his family’s pet shop around the corner in Gresham Street. The rest of my life was spent in that shop and it was a lot of hard work. We enjoyed it, though, as it was our livelihood. It was a very busy community, with lots of traffic through the streets.

I remember the Troubles. I can remember the bombs going off and the shop window would be blown in. I can remember times when we would have to quickly lock up and run from a bomb on the nearby corner. It seemed to go on for years and years and Belfast was really wrecked at that time. It wasn’t an easy place to be.

Cecil’s family had taken out the lease on the shop for 100 years. When that went up, we were offered a new lease, but only with the rent trebled. It just wasn’t worth it for us, so we sold our stock and closed the shop. It wasn’t long after that when Cecil took ill and passed away.

There are gaps in my memory now — things I don’t remember, or things I do remember, but didn’t happen to me.

I saw the Queen a couple of times. I like that the Queen and I are the same age. If ever it came up in conversation, I was always proud to say that I admired the Queen — and I still do.

I’ve only ever seen her in the distance, though. I’ve always thought she dressed smartly and she’s well looked after, but she deserves the attention she gets and I hope she has a few more years.”

Molly Morgan (89) lives in Poleglass on the outskirts of Belfast. She was married to the late John and they have six grown-up children — Irene, Sean, Marian, Jim, Geraldine and Gary. She says:

All my life I’ve lived in Belfast. My father was a shoemaker and my mother was a dealer with clothes stalls in the Markets.

I was the oldest of seven — two brothers and three sisters. I left school at 14, even though I passed all of my exams.

There were no jobs then, so I stayed on for nearly another year as a teacher’s helper. Then, I went to train as a weaver and worked as one until I was married.

During the Blitz, we would go and hide under the stairs — my dad had made stools, so we could sit with a lamp. Fortunately, we didn’t suffer any hits, although we could hear the bombs coming pretty close.

I met John when I was 18 in the Coconut Grove dance hall in 1944.

He worked as a printer. We got married when we were 20 and moved in with my grandmother in north Belfast and I nursed her until she died.

I stayed at home for the first couple of years and then I would get part-time jobs in the mill. My mother lived in the next street to us, so she would look after Irene, our eldest.

The Troubles were a bad time for us.

Our oldest grandchild, Stephen Bennett, was killed.

He was caught in an INLA bomb near Divis Flats when he was 14.

He was a really lovely boy. That was really hard.

It’s something you never really get over. He would have been 48 now.

I only went into town once during the Troubles and didn’t go back. It was March 4, 1972. We were near Cornmarket and a bomb exploded at The Abercorn. I was with my son Gary, who was just a schoolboy at the time.

We heard the explosion and then complete silence for a couple of seconds. After that, all you could hear was tons and tons of glass falling from the windows that had been blown out.

People died in the bomb and lost limbs. I took Gary home. I wouldn’t go into town after that.

John ended up working in security and his last job was for John DeLorean. He came to him one day and just told him that it was all over.

John always said he was the best person he had ever come across. He treated every one of his employees well and knew all their Christian names. He would even throw barbecues for the workers, as if they were all friends. I think he just aimed a bit too high in the end.

I ended up working in the school canteen right up until I was 60. I have 17 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren, so I haven’t been idle — last year alone, I had six new great-grandchildren. My eldest great-grandchild is 25 and keeps threatening to make me a great-great-granny.

My husband died when he was 80. He knew he was dying. He said to me, “I’ve had a good innings and I can go quietly”. He did have a peaceful death at home. We were married 61 years.

We travelled an awful lot; we went to New York and to Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina six times on pilgrimage — the Virgin Mary appeared there. Those aren’t things I would have ever imagined we could afford to do.

I saw the Queen once in the town, but it was years ago. I thought she looked very well-dressed. I’ve always thought she was a lovely woman and looks well for her age.”

Belfast Telegraph

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