At 100 years old, Harrogate resident Molly Todd is showing no signs of slowing down - she’s so formidably determined, in fact, that she’s planning on doing an adrenalin-fuelled skydive next.
But what is it that gives somebody such an insatiable thirst for living life to the full? For Molly, being surrounded by her magnificent family, no doubt, but it also runs deeper than that - the harrowing trials and tribulations of the Second World War, where Molly had to endure six painful months without knowing whether her husband was dead or alive, gave her an everlasting sense of perspective.
Thankfully, her beloved Billy survived after his ship was torpedoed off the coast of West Africa, but the wait was unbearable - not knowing that her husband was lying safe in hospital, having been adrift in a lifeboat for several days.
She said: “He had malaria, his legs were all burnt and everything, and I didn’t really get to know this until the end when he came home. He didn’t talk about it much either. Some people came back, others didn’t. We were lucky that he did, but most of the people missing, you were expecting them not to come back. I was dying to know where Billy was, whether he was still alive.”
Molly signed up to join the WRAF (the Women’s Royal Air Force) and became a tailor and physical training instructor in the hope that she would be stationed alongside Billy, who was in the Royal Air Force.
But the indomitable twists and turns of war separated them, and just two days after their wedding in July 1941, Billy was stationed back to Blackpool as he had just been enlisted.
If Molly was, as she puts it, to ‘pop her clogs’ now, whilst living life to the full, she said she will once again be reunited with the man she loves, who thankfully lived long after the war but sadly died some years ago.
She said: “I’d also see friends who I haven’t seen for so many years. I think they are still around you, you know - they are still there, even if it’s just a particle of dust. I can feel that they are with me.”
Molly was surrounded by crowds of family, friends and well-wishers as she celebrated her 100th birthday in style at Harrogate’s St Wilfrid’s Church on May 27.
The party had a 1940s wartime theme, and relatives even managed to source an authentic WRAF uniform for Molly that matched the one she donned during the war. Even just the experience of putting on the uniform again, transported her back to the day she signed up all those decades ago.
And like she did throughout the hardships of the forties, Molly had a familiar beaming smile on her face as she took to the dance floor at St Wilfrid’s - because despite all of the long hours, exhaustion and deep sense of worry during the war, she said it was important to keep the home fires burning and raise spirits.
She said: “Dances relieved the monotony and lifted people’s spirits immensely. It was important for people to have something else to focus on as well.
“I also used to organise hockey matches every Saturday. But we would worry about what was happening at home, in our home towns, with places being bombed so heavily.”
During the D-Day landings, Molly was based at RAF Lyneham carrying out her normal day-to-day duties. Because of the secrecy surrounding these events, Molly did not learn of what had happened until days afterwards.
Despite this secrecy, however, and the absence of instant communication in those days, Molly was still very much a witness to the heart-wrenching consequences of war. Something as routine and everyday as stitching uniforms often gave her a sickening insight into the realities of what was happening.
She said: “Some of them had two uniforms - if they didn’t come back for their second uniform, you knew they were missing, or they were gone - either killed or prisoners of war.
“I saw some pretty horrible things during the war, but I also made friends with a lot of people. Some people saw things that they would never want to think about. It’s just a shame that these young lads who were only training - 18 up to 20 something - didn’t come back, that was cruel.
“But we just had to carry on with our job and make the most of what was happening.”
Molly has now lived in Harrogate for 37 years, and is proud to be settled in such a beautiful area - but the pride she has in her Sunderland roots will always be burning strong.
The huge fondness and admiration that Molly’s family and friends have for her is obvious - every inch of her tables and shelves are covered with birthday cards. There are so many, in fact, that she almost has a card for every year of her life - including one from the Queen.
Her zest for life is infectious, too - reading through some of the birthday wishes from relatives, you can see how much of an impact Molly has had, and continues to have. Her get-up-and-go attitude brings smiles to people’s faces - including this reporter, who was advised to take her driving test as soon as possible and ‘seize the day.’
Molly said: “My family have had a lot to do with how I’ve lived until I’m 100, I have a family that’s the best in the world. They are absolutely marvellous and I love them all very much.”
Molly’s family includes seven grandchildren and eight great grandchildren, who were delighted to join her at the birthday party.
Entertainment on the day included performances from The Duchy Belles, who happily did songs that reminded Molly of the wartime spirit and took her back in time.
Molly's legacy for new generation
Memories of the war are precious to preserve - providing an important record of not only the sacrifices made for future generations, but also more anecdotally, a flavour of what life was like then.
A treasure trove of information, veterans and every person who contributed to the war effort in some way all have an enthralling story to tell, and be shared. Speaking to Molly, it transpired that she has diaries which document decades of memories and chart key moments in her life.
Whilst extremely humble about what she did during the war, Molly was keen to help in some way when approached by Harrogate Ladies’ College, who asked her to do a Q&A with students about life during the war. Students were so interested in what Molly had to say that the session lasted more than two hours, thinking of plenty of questions to ask.
Molly said: “They had a lot to ask me, and they were all very interested in finding out more about the war. I just think people should know what happened, what went on, and what people went through.”
Schools across the Harrogate district have been doing projects to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and Molly is delighted to see young people taking such an interest in history and the wartime effort.