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Centenarian who was RAF air gunner, pub landlord, police officer and firefighter reveals secret to long life


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It's 2pm and Lawrence Harbutt is fast asleep when I visit him at his retirement home on the outskirts of Canterbury.

But given he's not long turned 100, and worked until the ripe old age of 93, it's fair to say he deserves a rest.

Lawrence Harbutt celebrates his 100th birthday. Picture: Darren Winder
Lawrence Harbutt celebrates his 100th birthday. Picture: Darren Winder

Because the great-grandfather has pretty much done it all, boasting an extraordinary CV he continued to add to until just seven years ago.

And who's to say he wouldn't still be out earning a living had two nasty falls - which left him with broken legs - not forced him to retire from his final job....as a security guard!

"I didn't want to stop," he tells me, shortly after being awoken and helped from his bed to a nearby armchair.

"I fell over and that was the start of it - I'd broken my femur.

"I was in the hospital, came out, got home and broke the other bugger.

"I thought to myself ‘what do I do?’. I’ve got three daughters, but they’re all married.

"All I could do was go into a retirement home."

Lawrence pictured while at RAF station Henlow in 1945. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence pictured while at RAF station Henlow in 1945. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence in RAF uniform in 1940, aged 19. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence in RAF uniform in 1940, aged 19. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt

And it's at Oakfield House in Wingham that Lawrence sat down with me to talk about his remarkable life.

Behind him on the wall, proudly displayed in a frame, is the telegram from the Queen he received on his 100th birthday last month.

It's a milestone Lawrence is pleased to have hit, and he certainly enjoyed the flypast organised by a friend to celebrate the big day.

But it's clear he longs for the hustle and bustle of his younger years.

"I enjoyed my life - it was interesting," he says, perched on the edge of his chair in his pyjamas.

"But when you get to 100, it gets a bit thin."

It's no wonder the pace of Lawrence's days now seem slow, as he's experienced the thrills and spills of being a police constable, prison officer, firefighter and pub landlord.

But few jobs would have got his heart beating faster than when he was an air gunner during the Second World War.

After signing up to the RAF, Lawrence was posted to Driffield, Yorkshire, in 1940, where he joined 77 squadron.

Lawrence with a RAF pal in 1940, aged 19. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence with a RAF pal in 1940, aged 19. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence Harbutt celebrates his 100th birthday. Picture: Darren Winder
Lawrence Harbutt celebrates his 100th birthday. Picture: Darren Winder
Lawrence Harbutt celebrates his 100th birthday with friends and family. Picture: Darren Winder
Lawrence Harbutt celebrates his 100th birthday with friends and family. Picture: Darren Winder

"When we first started and did night raids, we were slow compared to the German night fighters," he recalls.

"If you saw one of those going, you knew your mates would end up burning alive.

"I wouldn't say we were heroes, but you’ve got to have a bit of bottle.

"Once or twice the undercarriage wouldn’t come down on the aircraft.

"You tend to forget about those occasions because at the time you were changing your pants!"

After spells in Italy and North Africa, Lawrence was posted to Greece in 1944 and arrived back in the UK the following year.

"I was glad to come home," he says.

"When you’re 18, 19, 20, those are the best years of your life."

In 1945 Lawrence married his beloved Ivy and they had three children, Linda, Pamela and Susan.

He was demobbed the following year and was soon looking for work, enlisting with the Metropolitan Police as a constable.

But the job wasn't for him, so the following year he joined the fire service in London.

Lawrence and Ivy with their children - Linda, Pamela and Susan. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence and Ivy with their children - Linda, Pamela and Susan. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence’s wedding day in 1945 where he married Ivy Hayward. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence’s wedding day in 1945 where he married Ivy Hayward. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence’s wife Ivy, daughters Susan and Linda, and himself in 1950. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence’s wife Ivy, daughters Susan and Linda, and himself in 1950. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt

"The main reason you would get into the fire brigade was to get a house," he admits.

"I got one in Evelyn Street in Deptford, and was there for a number of years. It was where my three children were brought up."

In 1950 Lawrence transferred to the Kent service and was there for a decade before deciding to move on.

"I enjoyed the fire brigade but, like in life, I enjoy a change," he says.

His next port of call was at the The Pilot pub in Greenwich, where he took up the mantle as landlord.

"It was hectic, hard work - well, it was in those days, but it’s a bit different today," he says.

"I could do that again quite readily. It’s a job you’ve got to be in to get to know it, and the longer you’re in it, the more you know.

"It’s a very interesting job but it depends what pub and what money you have."

After seven years Lawrence had to scratch the proverbial itch and moved to Norfolk, where he worked for a pharmaceutical firm inspecting test tubes.

In 1982, he retired for the first time, but quickly realised he wasn't cut out for a life of leisure so embarked on yet another career change.

Lawrence relaxing aged 81. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence relaxing aged 81. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence fishing - which was his favourite hobby. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence fishing - which was his favourite hobby. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence also loved holidays at the Norfolk Broads, which included fishing all day. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt
Lawrence also loved holidays at the Norfolk Broads, which included fishing all day. Picture: Lawrence Harbutt

Despite his age, he took up a job as a security guard, little knowing it would be his last.

"I didn’t do much walking," he says.

"I did all of the other stuff, and I never had any trouble at all during the time I worked there.

"My job was to see everything was run right, and I did that until I was 93.

"It was too easy; a piece of cake actually."

Now settled in Wingham, widowed Lawrence looks back fondly on his varied life, and says there's a clear front-runner if he ever had to pick the one job he'd do all over again.

"It would be the London fire brigade," he says without hesitation.

"It was exciting and interesting. Day by day you didn’t know what you would come up against, and it was a man’s job."

Lawrence's zest for life can still be seen in the glint in his eye, and the broad smile that sits beneath his grey, Chevron moustache.

And the cheeky personality which likely won him many a friend behind the bar of The Pilot comes out when asked what his secret to longevity is.

"Plenty of crumpet," he laughs.

"Not now though - the old dog’s run out."

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