‘They’d never really been apart’: Devoted couple died in same week after 68 years of marriage
- Credit: Contributed
They were in their 90s and were married for 68 years. ‘It’s so sad for us, but at the same time we should be happy that they’re together,’ says family
It was surely the luckiest day of Leslie Pettitt's life when his sister struck up a lasting friendship with a fellow shop assistant. For that young woman would become his wife.
Les and Audrey were devoted to each other for about seven decades, and were married for 68 years. They relished the joys and closeness of an extended family life, and also looked beyond it. "They would help anybody," says niece Janice Curran. "They weren't showy people. They just did it."
Saw Nazi pilot
Les was born in the spring of 1926 at Ufford, near Woodbridge - in a little cottage near the Crown inn. (He was a day younger than the Queen!)
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The family moved to Grove Farm (between Bredfield and Ufford) when he was about two years old. His father worked on the farm, which was then under the umbrella of St Audry's Hospital at Melton. Some patients worked there as part of their recovery.
Sister Jean was born in 1929. "Being 'out of the village', we were each other's playmates. He was always there for you," she says. "We used to roam the fields, slide on the ponds in winter, and chase rabbits. Never caught one!"
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The youngsters would later be joined by sister Ruth - Janice's mother.
After the village school in Bredfield, Les moved on to Wickham Market Area School. He left at 14, joining motor dealer Potters in Woodbridge. It also had a radio and bicycle shop, says Jean.
At 17, Les joined the Fleet Air Arm, along with several lads who had also been in the Air Training Corps at school.
Jean remembers him being home on leave in Bredfield "and we were looking out of the window one day. There was an air raid on, and along came a German fighter, 'hedge-hopping'. We could see the pilot and the rear gunner. Mother shouted 'Get down!' But of course the plane had gone by then."
Les did his flying training in Canada, but later - back in England - had to be invalided-out. He had developed pleurisy and was put in a hospital ward where some patients had TB. The family understands he contracted that, and lost a kidney as a result.
Jean says her brother did have the help, though, of a wonderful surgeon who helped him get a small military pension.
Later, he worked at Potters garage before being headhunted to join competitor Fairhead & Sawyer at nearby Melton.
Get me a date with Audrey!
Audrey Green was born in Westleton in May, 1928, though her family home was at Blythburgh, near Walberswick.
Jean met her when they were both about 19. They were working as sales assistants in the fashion section of Ipswich department store Frederick Corder & Son.
"We just gelled. We had fun. She was quite humorous, although she was a little bit reserved with people on first meeting. But we always got on well."
Corders was a large and upmarket store, linking Buttermarket and Tavern Street and having a floorwalker who checked standards were being met and that staff were doing all they should.
Like a number of colleagues, Jean and Audrey lived in a Norwich Road hostel during the week, as did some of the store's management staff - "so we had to behave ourselves!" laughs Jean.
They'd walk to work. "I can remember walking in thick fog. It was terrible. You couldn't see a hand in front of you."
At weekends, they'd go home. By bicycle.
"We'd cycle from Ipswich and she'd leave me at the farm (in Bredfield) and carry on to Blythburgh. And then 'pick me up' on the way back. We cycled miles in those days."
And that was how Audrey and Les came to know each other and, soon, got together.
"She would come in when she called for me, or before she carried on (to north Suffolk)," explains Jean. "We would all chat together. He had a motorbike at the time and he said he'd take me back one Sunday night if I would get him a date with Audrey! So it progressed from there."
The house they built
The year of 1951 was one to remember. Audrey and Les married in the June, at the imposing Holy Trinity, Blythburgh. Jean also married that year: to Geoffrey Pryke, son of a Woodbridge grocer.
Audrey and Les rented a little cottage in Bredfield at the start of their married life. Later, they had the chance to buy a plot of land in the village and had a house built to their specifications. "Very proud of that, he was," says Janice.
For a while, Audrey would travel to Ipswich to work in a little boutique. Later, she spent a few years working in the dining hall at Woodbridge School.
Audrey and Les later sold their bespoke home when he became a partner in the Nesling motor-trade business. It had garages in Wickham Market (with petrol pumps) and Meredith Road, Ipswich, and the enterprise expanded. The couple bought a home in Mill View Close, Woodbridge.
Jean remembers Neslings having new Morris Minors, and its first Mini. Exciting times.
Spoiled them all!
The couple didn't have children - "It just didn't happen," says Janice - but they adored family life.
Geoffrey and Les were like brothers, and Jean and Audrey obviously went back a long way. The four of them, plus Jean and Geoffrey's son Michael, used to have great fun camping and, later, caravanning. They'd go to the Lake District, Scotland, Cornwall - all over the place.
"When Michael was born, 67 years ago, we lived in Woodbridge," says Jean. "They came and stayed, to help out, when he was born… and spoiled him rotten all his life, really!
"We always had family gatherings: Christmas parties, picnics - any excuse. They were always involved with the children; lovely with them. Spoiled them all!"
Jean lost her husband in 1979, and her sister in 2000. "They (Audrey and Les) just held us all together," she says. "Despite," adds Janice, "them losing probably two of their best friends."
A final move
Les retired at 60. He enjoyed oil-painting and was good at it. But after developing carpal tunnel syndrome he had to give up because he couldn't grip very well. Les was also a passionate reader, of all kinds of writing.
Audrey enjoyed gardening. She was a keen knitter and also liked doing jigsaw puzzles.
Four or five years ago - following a few health problems, and realising the stairs were getting a bit much - the couple moved into a supported-housing flat at Suffolk Place in Lime Kiln Quay Road, Woodbridge.
Les was still driving up to the age of 91, but said he didn't miss it when he gave it up, says Janice.
By last autumn, both now in their 90s, it was clear they needed more help. The family organised a move to Ipswich - to Paddy Geere House, in the Castle Hill area. It brought them closer to Janice and her family, which made visiting easier.
At the end of January, Jean also moved into Paddy Geere House. She was able to spend more time with her brother and long-time friend - especially handy, with Audrey having spells in and out of hospital.
Happy they're together
Les died on July 10 and his wife on the 14th. "It's so sad, but at the same time we should be happy that they're together. They were married 68 years, and I suppose together for nearly 70," says Jean.
Audrey had developed dementia, and had heart failure. Janice suspects her aunt wouldn't in any case have been able to manage more than six months without the man she adored. "They'd never really been apart."
She adds: "I was lucky to have the chance to have 'two mums and two dads'. He's (Les) always been in my life. He was so funny. If I went visiting and took my children, he'd go 'I've got a joke for you. Do you want to hear it?'
"Going through their things, there are lots of joke books - and little snippets of jokes that he'd read and cut out, and which he couldn't wait to tell somebody!"
The couple's funerals are at 10.30am on Friday, August 2, at Seven Hills Crematorium, Nacton, on the edge of Ipswich.
Among the relatives they leave are Les's sister Jean, three nieces and a nephew, and Audrey's two nephews and a niece.