Ipswich pioneer Beryl Harding who broke down barriers in education and law celebrates 105th birthday

Beryl Harding celebrated her 105th birthday on Monday

Beryl Harding celebrated her 105th birthday on Monday - Credit: Archant

“I’m here to take some lovely photos of you,” beams our photographer.

Beryl in her younger days

Beryl in her younger days

The birthday girl, with a twinkle in her eye, replies: “Oh, that’s impossible!”

Beryl Harding is as sharp and quick-witted as ever. She was fiercely determined to succeed in her professional life, being described as a pioneering woman who broke barriers in education, politics and law in the town.

That determination has not waned over time. Those trembling candles on her 105th birthday cake stood no chance.

“Thank you all so much,” she declared in an unprompted short speech after residents and staff sang happy birthday to her at Norwood Care Home in Park Road, Ipswich yesterday.

Beryl Harding celebrated her 105th birthday on Monday

Beryl Harding celebrated her 105th birthday on Monday - Credit: Archant

“You are very kind and I enjoy being with you immensely.”

Her achievements are quite remarkable. She founded the Ipswich Youth Division in the 1930s. She was the first female married teacher in Ipswich – at Northgate Girls’ School (it was expected in the 1930s for women to give up their jobs after getting married but Beryl steadfastly refused).

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She was a founder of a further education movement which led to the creation of the Ipswich Civic College in Argyle Street. She became the head of general studies at the college and, 20 years later, was the first head of the college’s new Social Studies School.

She wrote books on the expansion of further education in the 1960s and 1970s and spoke at further education colleges across the UK, particularly in retirement.

She was also a local magistrate and, according to family and friends, was the first female chairman of the Suffolk magistrates’ county bench.

“She has always been a strong character and she has always been a success,” said lifelong friend Roger Blake, who was a student at Ipswich Civic College under Beryl’s leadership.

“She has always driven herself, whether it was in her teaching career, being a head of department at the college, of the magistrate chairman of Suffolk. She has never settled for second best.

“She is also a really warm and gentle person, which has come out now in her maturity in the last few years.”

He said Beryl was very sympathetic to the plight of youngsters who had failed their 11-plus exams or suffered other setbacks in life.

“She gave so many people a second chance,” he added.

“Failing your 11-plus was a killer for your future, but a lot of people became professional workers due to Beryl.

“As a magistrate, she helped people who had fallen by the wayside, particularly young people. She has got a social conscience and was always concerned for the welfare of young people.

“She is a remarkable person and her intellect is still amazing. She is a bit deaf now, but one-to-one she is very good. I’m glad she is very well cared-for here.”

After Beryl’s photo shoot, I engineer an opportunity to quickly interview her. Reporters are always under instruction to ask the clichéd question ‘what’s the secret to a long life’. Beryl administers the treatment it deserves: “Don’t fall over!”

She said she was very happy to be celebrating her birthday with “all my friends”.

She said she enjoyed “giving back” to the community during her teaching career and considered being a magistrate was an “important job”.

“I used to do some gardening and I have knitted all my life,” she said in response to be asked about her hobbies. I was told she still knits and sends over packages regularly for the Knit For Peace charity.

London-born Beryl can “remember quite clearly” holding on to her father’s hand at a train station before he left to serve during the First World War.

The Oxford University graduate also remembers sailing on “several ships” with her two young sons, who are still alive today, to India and Canada during the Second World War.

Her cousin, Juliet Freeman, 53, of Ipswich, said: “She is very lively, very informed, and very astute. She has an amazing life story and has lived through so much.”

Her husband, Peter, 57, added: “She is extremely well-read and extremely knowledgeable on current affairs.

“She was always pushing boundaries. When she got married and asked if she wanted to leave, it was a ‘hell no – you can’t stop me’. And then she became a magistrate and then the chair.

“She also only stopped driving at the age of 95 – but only because her car got too old.”

Anne-Marie Banks, administrator at Norwood Care Home, said: “Beryl is an inspiration to all the young people in the community.

“She is a pleasure to care for and it is actually an honour being involved with her in this stage of her life.”