The 100 years of Anne Brokensha’s life reads like a book one is loath to put down. Spanning three continents, her life story tells of a challenging childhood that equipped her with numerous skills, wartime intrigue and, above all, a strong, nurturing personality that has been her family’s guiding light.
A resident of Rand Aid’s Ron Smith Care Centre, she celebrated her centenary on January 28, sharing specials moments with loved ones and friends.
Anne was born in India in 1921, to British parents who were based there during World War I. The family soon returned to England, but the post-war depression prompted them to move to South Africa, where they bought a farm in Maclear in the Eastern Cape.
“When mom was seven, she started school as a weekly boarder. She and her dad would ride over the hills every Monday, on their horses, Ginger and Charles, and Gramps would fetch her again on Fridays,” says Anne’s daughter Sue.
“Her happy early life came to an abrupt end when her mother died, trying to save their Angora rabbits from a burning hutch. Our mom was nine, and her sister, Betty, only four.”
Distraught, Anne’s father took a job teaching maths in Malvern, outside Durban.
“Mom’s Aunty Pat came to stay with them; the closest thing mom ever had to a mother for the rest of her life, she says. Gramps then met and married a young schoolteacher, Aileen.
“Deciding to apply for a post overseas, he found one in Egypt, so shipped the girls and Aileen there – a three-week voyage. There was no school in the little town where they were staying, so our grumpy gramps set about home schooling Anne in maths and general knowledge from a big book he had. She did not enjoy this part of her education at all, but tried to teach her little sister what she had learned,” says Sue.
Aileen, of whom the girls had grown very fond, became ill and died with young Anne tearfully holding her hand. Sue says her grandfather had completely unrealistic expectations of 11-year-old Anne, expecting her to do many chores, even cooking for guests.
Anne did her high schooling in Yorkshire in England. She rode the 9km to school and back on her bicycle, in all sorts of Yorkshire weather, and wrote ‘Matric’ at 15. After completing secretarial and French courses at a business college, she stayed with a French family in Paris, learning commercial French and shorthand, before returning to Egypt and her father and his new wife. Betty was at a German school there and Anne joined her for six months, becoming as fluent in German as she was in French.
“During World War II, mom – just 17 – left her first job as private secretary to work for the Land Army in support of the war effort. She had to milk cows and toss hay onto a lorry, and later took on the milk delivery. She had to quickly teach herself to drive and, by herself, load the milk crates onto the truck and deliver them in the foggy blackout – a heavy and terrifying job.
“Next, mom put her name down to serve in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. Because of her knowledge of German and French, she was sent for training and posted to Withernsea, and from there to Ceylon, to keep naval watch.
“Little did she know that the signals from enemy ships and U-boats that she picked up on two monitors simultaneously, were being sent for decoding to Bletchley Park, which was the principal centre of Allied code-breaking during the war.
“Mom later received a medal for the part she played at Bletchley Park. As required, she had signed the Secrecy Act, which was only dissolved in 1975, and so she kept her role in the war secret from our father for close on 50 years!” says Sue.
She adds that Anne was determined that her four daughters would have a stable, happy, secure childhood. “We knew we could talk and be heard, and we were confident of our parents’ support and unconditional love. Granny Anne was a hot favourite with all of our children. Her door was always open and she was never short of time for anyone, baking with the little ones, playing with them, reading to them, gardening with them and helping with homework.
“We girls all had a university education, unlike mom, so for her 60th birthday, we registered her at Unisa. Mom took to her studies with enthusiasm, and she graduated with a degree in English, French and Religious Studies.”
At age 97, Anne wrote a book, Memories of 97 Years, so that her family could know what her life had entailed.
“Mom has lived at Ron Smith Care Centre since 2015. She has been so lovingly looked after by the staff and carers there, even surviving COVID-19 in 2020, thanks to the doctors!
“On the event of mom’s 100th birthday, we collected messages and photographic contributions from friends and family, eventually ending up with 86 pages of wonderful memories for mom to browse through for months to come!
“This huge response is such a tribute to our mom. One of her granddaughters expressed a sentiment we all share, when she said: ‘I simply cannot imagine what my life would have been without your gentle but strong and consistent unconditional love. Thank you for being you’.”
Dipuo Ledwaba, Bongi Simelane, Cynthia Ndlovu and Winnie Maringa with centenarian Anne Brokensha (front).
Anne Brokensha at her 100th birthday celebration.