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Friday, 24 December, 1999, 10:33 GMT
Life in three centuries

Arthur Whitlock remembers Queen Victoria's jubilee in 1897

  Arthur Whitlock talks about life in the early 1900s

There are some people for whom the turning of the new century will not be a new experience - one of them is 108-year-old Arthur Whitlock.

BBC Radio 4's PM presenter Nigel Wrench met Mr Whitlock and listened to his reflections on an extraordinary century.

  Life at home as a child

Arthur Whitlock greets me at the door of his room in sheltered accommodation in Kent with a smile of welcome. At 108, his eyesight his failing and you have to speak up to make sure his hearing aid catches your every word. But his mind and his memory remain sharp. On a bookshelf next to him is the Mensa Quiz Book. On a sideboard, photographs of his family.

Mr Whitlock retired from his job as a civil servant in 1956

"First of all," he says when asked about the turn of the last century, "we had Queen Victoria's jubilee in about 1897.

"My dad took me to the Buckingham Palace and there was such a crush waiting for Queen Victoria to appear that he took me away down to Pall Mall to see the decorations. And those decorations were in coloured glass with gas flames behind them."

He was six-years-old at the time, nine at the turn of the century, which he does not remember as being marked by any particular commemorations.

He does recall though, a year later, black arm bands in his home, for him and his six brothers and sisters, when Queen Victoria died.

As he points out, "If I live until New Year's Day, I will have lived in three centuries." It is a remarkable thought.

A living history book

  The changing morals of the 20th Century

Mr Whitlock has outlived two wives, both of them childhood sweethearts. He has two daughters, both now in their late seventies. He retired from his job, as a civil servant, in 1956. He is a living history book.

In the 1900s, the family home, in London, was lit by paraffin lamps. Mains gas did not come until much later. A range in the kitchen had to be lit each time as much as a cup of tea was made. His father worked first on ferries, and later in a club in London.

He recalls: "The laundry day on Mondays was one day I used to hate because of all the steam in the house and the damp.

"When my dad was connected to the club and wore white shirts with stiff colours and stiff fronts, the shirts had not only to be laundered but also glazed with special powders.

"It was a tremendously hard time for my mother, especially because we were such a large family: seven children and the two parents, nine sat down to a meal on Sundays."

World War I veteran

  The technical developments Arthur has seen in his lifetime

Mr Whitlock has particularly vivid memories of World War I. He was 23 when it broke out, and after initially being rejected for service because he was too short, was eventually accepted as a horseman in the Field Artillery.

"When we were out in the field you had to see to the horses first, groom them, rug them up and tie them up. And then, only after that, make what shelter you could for yourself."

The Field Artillery were a mile or two behind the lines. "Sometimes high velocity shells would come across, but you knew they were safe because they were high velocity.

Occasionally we would get shells from some of those big howitzer guns and they would throw up mounds of earth.

On one occasion it went on for some time, the earth falling around me, [I was] wearing a tin hat of course. And somewhere in my sideboard, I've still got a piece of shrapnel that came down just in front of me one day when I was shaving."

'People were more contented'

  Arthur Whitlock talks about his memories of the wars he has lived through

He remembers the first radio and television broadcasts, the first cars and the long walks he took across London as a child.

Does he have any regrets about the way life turned out at the end of the 20th century?

Arthur Whitlock reflects a moment. "It think in general before the First World War people were more contented in a way.

"The loss of stability that came during both World Wars led to a loss of morality. It was a case of get what you can on the side, where you never thought of that sort of thing in the early days."

Nigel Wrench's conversations with Arthur Whitlock were broadcast on PM on BBC Radio 4 between Monday 27 December and Friday31st December.
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