The primary assembly by Gerald Haigh discusses old age, using Henry Allingham as an example – currently the oldest man in Britain
On 6 June Henry Allingham had his 113th birthday, becoming Britain’s oldest man and the oldest surviving veteran of the first world war. This assembly reminds children that older people can be very interesting!
- Photographs of Henry Allingham, as a young man and today. There are some good ones on Google Images: for example at his 111th birthday at Cranwell, with senior naval officers (notice the caption spells ‘Air Vice Marshal’ wrongly. A very common error)
- And in about 1916 as a twenty-year old air mechanic
Introduction for teachers
Born in 1896, Henry Allingham is a living history book – he is the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland and the last surviving founding member of the Royal Air Force. He has spent many of these later years of his life working to keep the memory alive of those who died in the first world war, by making many personal appearances at appropriate events – including a visit to a Staffordshire school to talk about his experiences. Here, we use his example as a reminder to children of the reason why they should pay attention to older people, respecting their wealth of experience of life.
Who’s the oldest person you know? Of course you may not even know, because we don’t always know the exact age of people, even if we know them quite well. Still, do you know anyone who is one hundred years old or more?
How many people do you think there are in our country who are over one hundred? The answer is about 9,300 (Office of National Statistics). So you actually have a fair chance of meeting a centenarian, which is the word we use to describe someone who’s lived for over a century. Incidentally, over eight thousand of that 9,300 are women. That’s something to think about, isn’t it?
More people are living longer as time goes on. Can you think why that is? It’s because there’s better healthcare, and there are better living conditions for most people. When today’s hundred year olds were born, there were only about a hundred people in Britain who’d lived to a hundred (Office of National Statistics).
Today we’re going to celebrate the life of Britain’s oldest man. He’s called Henry Allingham, and on 6 June he celebrated his 113th birthday. He joked that had been looking forward to becoming a ‘teenager’ again!
Henry is a living history book. Why do we call him that? Because he’s not only lived through some of the things that people learn about in history lessons − he’s actually taken part in them.
Henry was born in London, in 1896, during the reign of Queen Victoria. When he left school he worked making car body parts, but the first world war started in 1914 and in 1915 he joined the Royal Naval Air Service (there was no RAF yet – planes were still quite new, and they were operated by the Navy and the Army). He continued his previous line of work in mechanics and looked after the aeroplanes, making sure they were ready for battle. Then in 1918, just before the war finished, the Royal Air Force was formed and Henry was transferred to the RAF. He is now the only person alive who was in the RAF right at its beginning.
When the war finished, Henry married his sweetheart Dorothy who he’d met during his war service. They were together for 51 years, and had two daughters. Dorothy died a long time ago and, sadly, both his daughters are also dead. But he now has six grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, 13 great-great-grandchildren and one great-great-great-grandchild.
In 1939, when Henry was 43, the second world war began. Henry didn’t rejoin the Navy, but instead became an expert on protecting ships from mines – the explosive devices that float in the water to blow up ships.
After the second world war, he went back to work and he had a job at the Ford motor factory until he retired in 1960 and went to live in Eastbourne, first with Dorothy and then on his own. Henry managed to live on his own until only three years ago, when he moved into a care home.
Henry has never forgotten the first world war. It was a terrible war, with a great deal of death and suffering. Even at the time, the people who weren’t there found it difficult to understand what it was like. Only the people who experienced it first hand really knew in their hearts what the fighting men had gone through. Now, of course, to many the experiences are just pages in a history book, so Henry is determined that as long as he is alive he will try to make sure that people never forget that, behind the history book pages, there was real suffering and destruction and heartbreak. Henry is really the last existing link to the reality of it all, so now that he’s a celebrity because of his age and personality, he uses that to keep the memory of his lost comrades alive. He goes to Remembrance Day parades to lay wreaths and he attends reunions of service men and women.
As you can imagine, Henry is greatly honoured and respected by the armed forces; particularly by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force because he served with them both. Each of his birthdays are alternately organised by the RAF and the Navy. On his 111th he was welcomed by the Royal Navy to HMS Victory in Portsmouth where the Royal Marines Band played to him, and on his 112th he was at the RAF College at Cranwell as guest of honour, and there was a flypast by the Battle of Britain Flight. This year he was with the Royal Navy at HMS President, a building near Tower Bridge in London, as guest of honour at a party attended by a large number of friends and relatives and high ranking officers from the Navy and the RAF. He sat outside to see a flypast by a Lynx Helicopter, and a cake was delivered by Royal Marines in a fast motor boat.
In 2007, Henry visited Wilnecote High School in Tamworth, Staffordshire. The Year 9 students had written to a number of veterans asking about their experiences and Henry offered to visit. It was a remarkable and memorable occasion, and there’s an excellent description of it on the BBC website that’s worth reading carefully later.
Sometimes older people aren’t well treated by younger ones. We’re not just thinking of cruelty or unkindness, although that does happen. No, we’re thinking of the way that old people are sometimes ignored, or treated as if they weren’t capable of thinking clearly. Think about that. Does someone like Henry Allingham, a real celebrity who’s seen more of life than any of the people who ever meet him, deserve to be talked down to, or spoken to as if he was a bit ‘slow on the uptake’? Of course not. He’s a human being with lots of experiences stored up in his brain and in his heart. His memories, especially thoughts of his comrades long ago, are very clear and he deserves the right to express them and share them. Admirals and generals have saluted Henry Allingham and they take him seriously. That’s an example of how we should all treat our senior citizens, for they carry with them enough experience to see us through whatever troubles we have, if only we would listen and learn.
Lord, we thank you for the wonderful life of Henry Allingham. We thank you that he has lived so long and is able to speak to us of his lost comrades. We ask you to be with all older people in our community. May we all remember to treat them with respect, taking advantage of their wisdom and experience.
Every old person carries with them a rich store of stories and experiences that we would all do well to learn from.
This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2009
About the author: Gerald Haigh