From a pit village to London – and back

Margaret Harper: 1911 - 2013

Margaret Harper: 1911 - 2013

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TODAY we pay tribute to a grand old lady of East Durham.

A PITMAN’S daughter who grew up to become deputy matron of a leading London teaching hospital has died at the age of 101.

James Harper and Elizabeth Harper with family

James Harper and Elizabeth Harper with family

Margaret Harper left Easington Colliery as a teenager in the 1920s, finding work as a ward orderly at the Whittington Hospital in Islington.

She went on to train as a nurse at 18, rising through the ranks to become assistant matron. Following retirement at 65, however, she returned home.

“Margaret was intelligent, articulate, bright and feisty,” recalls great-niece Ann Lavery. “She had a good life, travelled the world, worked very hard and really enjoyed herself.

“I saw her as something of a goddess when I was little. She was always beautifully turned out, very smart, attractive and had a lovely speaking voice.”

LANDMARK BIRTHDAY: Margaret on her 100th birthday.

LANDMARK BIRTHDAY: Margaret on her 100th birthday.

Margaret, the 12th and last child of pitman James Harper and his wife Elizabeth Glendinning, was born at Sherburn, near Durham, on September 25, 1911.

“The Harpers were a family from County Down, in Northern Ireland, who came to England at the time of the potato famine at the invitation of the Marquess of Londonderry,” said Ann.

“Many of those who travelled to England at that time were tenants of the Marquess at Hillsborough in County Down. His seat in County Durham was Wynyard Hall.”

Margaret was just a few months old when her family left Sherburn for Easington Colliery – then a fledgling community which had grown up around the newly-opened pit.

The little girl, whose mother died when she was just seven, attended Easington Colliery School until she was 14. She was then sent to train in service at the local colliery manager’s house.

“This life did not appeal to Margaret so, when a friend suggested they travel to London to nurse, she jumped at the chance. Many girls left the area with the same aim as Margaret,” said Ann.

“She started at the bottom, as an orderly, and worked her way up. She was offered the post of Matron at one point, but turned it down as she didn’t want to be in absolute charge.”

Margaret, who never married, eventually returned to Easington Colliery on her retirement – where she was surrounded by Harper relatives in, and around, the area.

Her final years were spent at Donnini House, a sheltered accommodation complex, where she was lovingly cared for by another great-niece, Alison Beeston.

“We have a wonderful 1912 photo of the Harpers. Margaret is sitting on her mother’s knee and my grandmother, Mabel, is standing back left,” said Ann. “Margaret was the last of this large family.”

Poor health blighted Margaret’s later life, and she battled hearing and sight problems. She also suffered a number of falls and, following a bout of pneumonia, passed away in hospital on April 11.

“We’ll always remember her as a vibrant woman. She loved reading, she loved classical music, and she didn’t put up with any nonsense from anyone. She was very much her own person,” said Ann.

** Margaret’s funeral will be held at Durham Crematorium at 10.30am on April 19.