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Freda Hodgson: “You go off to your war, we will run your firms”

The Big Issue's oldest cover star at the age of 104 (and a half) recalls living through a century of suffrage

Freda Hodgson was born in 1913. She has lived through two world wars, grown up and grown old as women’s rights and freedoms have expanded, and lived everywhere from Anglesey to Zimbabwe.

She recalls the very first Armistice Day, her mother getting the vote, and being presented to King George V and Queen Mary as a debutante.

Freda has experienced extreme privilege as well as poverty. She is the daughter of the fifth Baronet of Bodelwyddan – with a castle passing down through the male line – and zoomed around London in the 1930s in a Morris sports car bought by her trustees. She trained in acting and producing at the prestigious Webber Douglas Academy, then spent decades in Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia) farming and running a busy tea room.

The Big Issue no 1293 cover
Our oldest ever cover star, Freda aged 104 (and a half!)

Freda has married twice and raised four children. She returned to the UK penniless following Robert Mugabe’s rise to power – coming back to a country run by its first female Prime Minister. By now in her 70s, Freda had to find work as a cook (preparing food for the Queen once) before finding a home in Whiteley Village – where she is now the oldest of eight centenarians in a 100-year-old, purpose-built, supported retirement community for older people of limited means in leafy Surrey.

What a life!

Her energy is astonishing, her storytelling a joy to behold as she remembers a childhood devoid of parental affection, a first love foiled by religious differences and freedoms enjoyed thanks to political and social pioneers.

These days, Freda keeps in contact with her 52 great-great grandchildren via email – a skill she taught herself aged 102. Little wonder that she says: “The changes I have seen are almost too immense to think about…” Who better to take us through the century of change?

World War 1: During the war, I remember being taken down into my father’s study in the basement when there was a bombing raid. The curtains used to shake and we worried the Germans were coming.

Women’s suffrage: I didn’t see any of the suffragette movement’s activities, but I remember a lot of talk about it. My lot were horrified by the idea of women chaining themselves to railings! But I remember my mother getting the vote.

1919: I remember the first Armistice Day celebrations very well. I went to Hyde Park with my mother. People were galloping horses up and down, ladies had colourful parasols, a milk van was there with a tap on the back, horses were pulling wagons up and down – and then a gun went off and everything stopped. Like a film being paused. Everyone was so still until another gun went off and everything started again. We walked to the Cenotaph. We missed King George and Queen Mary but watched the army, navy, nurses and politicians laying wreaths. I could only see a sea of legs until a tall man lifted me up and put me on his shoulders! My parents divorced soon after, and I lived with my aunt and uncle in Anglesey – they were the happiest years of my childhood.

My lot were horrified by the idea of women chaining themselves to railings!

1928: I met the love of my life when I was 15. It was love almost at first sight. He was a very good horseman. It was very innocent, but we knew. Sadly, he couldn’t marry me because of our different religions. He married someone else. I went to Buckingham Palace to be presented to Queen Mary and King George as a debutante. You don’t have that any more. I think it’s a shame. I married my first husband in 1937. I knew at the wedding it was wrong but I couldn’t back out – we had 400 guests. We had four children. I was determined to have more than one shot at parenthood. After 13 years we got a divorce and he went back to Johannesburg.

1933 Freedoms? When I was 20, I rented a flat in London for a year. I had a sports car – we would take it out and do treasure hunts, where you had to drive around and find certain things. Once we brought back a buxom figurehead off a boat we saw when we drove past a pub! I would take it out of the garage and we would throw big parties in there, all shouting and singing. I remember once a nice policeman had to come. He’d been sent to ask us to stop making such a row!

1935: [Six years after the so-called ‘flapper election’, at which women were also allowed to vote from the age of 21 for the first time, Freda was able to take part in a general election]. I went with my aunt and uncle.  One was a Liberal, one a Conservative – they wore different colours.

World War 2: When my friends’ husbands were called up, the wives said, “now is our time to show off our brains”. Housework was just routine. So they said, “you go off to your war, we will run your firms”. And they did very well. They got on well with the staff – and when their husbands came home and expected to walk back in, they’d say, “we will go off to work and leave you a list of housework tasks!”

Women in politics: As the world is moving on it is good that more women are in politics. Queens have always done better than kings in this country, so why not? I admired Margaret Thatcher. She was prime minister when I came back from Zimbabwe. And I like Theresa May. She can make a good speech and says all the things that are necessary. She is not frightened to speak up.

Meet the matchwomen who paved the way for the suffragettes

Women in business: This has changed a lot in my lifetime. And they are doing so well and proving themselves. It is only habit that men should be top dogs. And if you are doing the same job and doing it well, you should absolutely have equal pay. I am not a maniac about women’s equality, but I am for it.

I’ve cooked for the Queen. When I came back from Zimbabwe, we had nothing. My husband and I looked in our pockets and we had one pound note. I was 73 then. I said, “what are we going to do with all this wealth?” We went to duty free and bought a Toblerone as we hadn’t seen one for years! So we had to find work. I got a job as a cook and my husband was an estate manager – because he had been a farmer. I always wonder how I had the nerve. My cousin gave me a recipe book and the next thing I knew I was working for the managing director of the Savoy Hotel. My next job was for the Queen’s cousin, Jean Wills. They were first cousins and had grown up together and I cooked for the Queen when she came to stay.

I learned to send emails when I was 102 – I keep in touch that way and on the phone

My parents didn’t give affection. I was only asked down from my room if we had company. I don’t remember a kiss or a cuddle – I think that is what made me stubborn! I was very different with my children. I was affectionate.

Freda cuts the cake at her 100th birthday party in 2013

I now have great-great grandchildren all across the world – in Singapore, Australia, South Africa. I remember one of them visiting me wearing these ripped jeans. He said they were the fashion. I said, “not any more and cut off all the tassles!” You have to be tidily dressed. I learned to send emails when I was 102 – I keep in touch that way and on the phone. And they all came over for my 100th birthday party. When I was a child, if I went to a party my nanny would stand behind me to see that I behaved. I would have to eat some bread and butter before I was allowed a piece of cake.

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