World traveller salutes her 100th birthday with a cup of gin
Dandenong woman Irene Lyall will celebrate 100 years of travelling the world this week – and she’ll be marking the occasion with a teacup filled with gin.
The Welsh-born centenarian, who still lives at home with husband Hugh and support from aged care provider Bolton Clarke, says the secret to her long life is a good moisturizer - and what she’ll be drinking in the commemorative teacup she’s been gifted to welcome her to Bolton Clarke’s Centenarian Club.
“I don’t drink tea, so I’ll put gin in my cup,” she says.
Irene will turn 100 on 12 March with Hugh, her husband of 67 years, by her side to celebrate.
Born and raised in the little village of Rhossilli on the southwestern tip of the Gower Peninsula in Wales, she was the third of her parents’ five children.
“They were very good parents,” she says. “They were very happy.”
Her father was a fisherman, so Irene and her siblings spent many hours at the beach while he worked, until his death when she was still a teenager.
“After my father died life was hard for my mother, with no child support to speak of. The local farmers and community rallied behind her and my siblings and I had to all pitch in to help. My job was to look after my two younger siblings.”
Irene went to school in the village, where there were only two classrooms, divided into junior and senior students. There was no option to commute to a big city school as the distance rendered it impossible.
“The nearest city was Swansea, which was 18 miles away. People didn’t have much money, so you didn’t travel to the big city very often because of the cost.”
When the war came, Irene left Wales and worked in munitions making metal parts including screws, nuts and bolts, parts for guns and camouflage nets to cover vehicles and tanks.
“It wasn’t hard, but I came home smelling of tar and creosote.”
Later, Irene worked as a charge-hand for the Navy Army and Airforce Institute where she cooked, served meals, and supported recreational activities. Her position was second in charge to the manager and eventually she began running the Corporals Club, where she met Hugh.
Hugh had joined the army in 1947 and was a Corporal working as both radio and gunner operator on tanks.
There was a lot of interest in their relationship.
“I used to have to walk from the main camp to the Corporals Club each day,” says Irene. “One of the soldiers asked Hugh if he went out with ‘that old-fashioned girl.’
“He was the only soldier I went out with.”
Hugh says Irene was different to the other girls around the camp.
“We kept each other on the straight and narrow,” he says.
They courted for nine months before Hugh left the camp in 1950 to go overseas to Hong Kong and Kenya before spending nine weeks of leave in Germany.
Irene and Hugh’s love continued to blossom even though they were apart.
“We kept in touch via letters and the phone,” says Hugh. “It cost five shillings for the phone call and we didn’t get much phone time each evening. The girls on the switch used to put me through last because I was a regular, so if everyone else was done, I’d get more time.”
Hugh left the army in 1953 and the pair married on 6 February 1954.
“I didn’t get down on one knee,” says Hugh. “We just decided we’d get married.”
They rented a flat in London for a while, before a friend urged them to go to Australia.
After some enquiries they boarded the P&O SS Iberia passenger liner on 13 March 1956, paying 124 pounds each for a one-way ticket.
“We met people on the ship who were very nice and looked after us when we first arrived,” says Hugh.
“They became our Australian family.”
The plan was to travel onto New Zealand or Canada if they didn’t like Australia – but they did and they stayed, eventually building a home in Glen Waverley.
“We’ve never regretted it,” says Irene. “The best thing we ever did was move to Australia.”
When a family didn’t happen they began to travel extensively, visiting 18 different countries, including Canada several times, a round the world trip in 1982 and exploring their own backyard - including 6000 miles in a rental car from Perth travelling through Western Australia and a yearly trip to Queensland to escape the Melbourne winter.
“We also took a six-month holiday to Britain in 1972, visiting friends all over and Hugh’s old soldier buddies,” says Irene.
“We have no regrets; we’ve had a good life.”