On Tuesday, the 21st of December, 1915, Barbara Joan Chapman (née Hadley) was born in Auckland.
On that same day 101 years ago, the great polar explorer Ernest Shackleton ordered a second march to Paulet Island off the main coast of Antarctica. And on the other side of the world, the Great War was underway with French and German forces making their final battle for supremacy on the western front.
More than a century on from that day in history, Barbara celebrated her 101st birthday at the Radius Peppertree Care Centre in Palmerston North. The centenarian has outlived all seven of her siblings and several of her descendants.
“Thank you so much,” a spry Barbara told the crowd spanning five generations at her 101st birthday party the week before Christmas.
“I’ve enjoyed my life, but I’m not sure I will live for another 100 years.”
“Mum is enjoying the fuss, and sitting up like a Queen,” says her daughter Janice Elston, (68). “She is thoroughly enjoying her birthday party.”
Although she is a little hard of hearing, Barbara’s physical health is excellent and her mind sharp. She takes no medication apart from the odd Disprin.
“Mum doesn’t take any pills, never has – I think that’s part of the reason she’s lived so long,” says Janice, her only daughter. Barbara and her late husband Arthur Chapman also have three sons, John, Colin and Graham.
Janice puts her mother’s longevity down to good genes, a positive attitude and hard work. Many of her siblings lived until their 90s, with one sister, Gladys, passing away just a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday.
Barbara only moved into the rest home four years ago, after spending five decades at the family homestead in Rongotea, 19km from Palmerston North. When her husband Arthur died of a heart attack in 1968, she insisted on staying on.
“She’s very determined,” says Janice with a smile.
As a widow, Barbara sought to support herself by working into her 80s as a housekeeper for several local Manawatu families.
“Mum just never sat still,” says Janice.
Barbara may have had a long life, but it wasn’t always an easy one.
Along with her siblings, Phyllis, Percy, Jack, Gladys, Lee, Rex and Margaret, her early years were spent in style, growing up in a stately mansion on Remuera Road in Auckland. The family had staff and her brothers attended King’s School, just up the road.
Barbara’s father, Percy, was a well-known and flamboyant figure in mining and stock broking circles. A newspaper of the time described him as “a small dapper party with a bald spot in the centre of his thatch”.
According to a newspaper from 1913, Percy had been adjudged bankrupt and owed thousands of pounds to his brother-in-law.
In 1921, Barbara’s Irish-born mother Linda (née Duffy) died of acute gastroenteritis. Barbara was six, and the youngest child, Margaret, was three.
Percy abandoned the children and eventually moved to Australia, but documents held by the family show that as late as 1925, he was living at the Esplanade Hotel in Devonport in Auckland.
Tragically, all eight children were separated after Linda’s death. Barbara and her little sister Margaret were sent to an orphanage in Christchurch, and later fostered out to a South Island family.
“Mum never talked about her parents or her childhood,” says Janice. “She was from that generation.”
Barbara and Arthur married in Petone in 1940. Spared from the war because he was colour blind, Arthur farmed on the outskirts of Wellington before the family moved to Rongotea.
Arthur worked building roads for the local council, but died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 55.
“Mum just got on with life after that,” says Janice. “She never drove, but she was very social and always had people dropping in to see her.”
Janice says her mother never watched her diet and ate what she liked. She made a lovely sponge cake, and ate a lot of butter and cream.
However, she kept a huge vegetable garden and fruit trees, and ate off the land. Janice says her mother never touched chocolate, alcohol or coffee – but drank about six cups of tea a day.
Although she never exercised for the sake of it, she kept busy in the garden. She mowed their quarter-acre section herself until she was in her early 90s.
“Every night after dinner, Mum was out there it until it got dark. There wasn’t a weed in the garden,” tells Janice.
At her party, Barbara told her family and friends, “Thank you, you have all made my life so beautiful. I have had such a great day, I don’t want it to end.”