Amy Winifred Hawkins is believed to be the oldest person living in Wales. Earlier this week, on the day of her 108th birthday, she sat down with South Wales Argus reporter NICHOLAS THOMAS to talk about her memories of growing up in Newport, life in the city, and the experience of living through two world wars

BORN IN Cardiff on January 24, 1911, Amy Hawkins (nee Evans) and her family moved to Newport when she was three years old. There, along with her parents, Alfred and Maude; five brothers, and one sister, she lived in a four-bedroomed terraced house near the docks.

“We lived in a small street at the back of the shipping area,” she said. I remember the cattle market wasn’t far away, and the cattle drover used to drive the cattle down the street. Later he used to take them in trucks.

“On the weekends, my mum always went to Newport market and bought the food. When it was late the prices would get reduced a lot, and she would come home with a paper full of I don’t know how many pounds of chops. We’d all sit around the fire, she’d put a grill on the top and throw the chops on. We’d all sit there eating them.

“My mum cooked well. She made soup every day and the next morning would send me to the neighbour’s house with a big jug of soup.”

Shortly after the family moved to Newport, the First World War broke out, and Mrs Hawkins still remembers vividly the military presence in the town.

She said: “We lived near a brewery and I remember two pubs on the corner of the street, and at the back there was an alleyway. I remember seeing soldiers marching down the street opposite my aunt’s shop, and my mum and aunt filling their aprons with drinks and smokes [to sell them].

Food was short at the time, but luckily Mrs Hawkins’ family had come to a convenient arrangement with some of the porters on the docks. “We used to get extra food supplies, because the shipping suppliers had an open window at the back of their store and when there were orders [of goods] to be put on the ships, [the workers] used to take out a few tins of food and hand it through the railings to my mum, who’d pass them some money."

However, the war also brought some dark times for the family. “My mum’s sister, Aunty Lil, had married a German merchant who was then interned during the war. She had to go to the town hall [on Commercial Street] to register him, either every week or every month. I used to love going with her because she always bought me buns on the way back. But Lil never saw her husband again. She later married a Greek man.

“Aunty Lil kept a boarding house for visiting seamen. When I was little and I visited her, I was never allowed to see the men in the house. She used to give them a ‘donkey’s breakfast’, which was a bunk of straw [to take with them for sleeping when they set sail]. There were a tremendous amount of nationalities around the docks at the time.”

In November 1918, when news of the armistice reached Newport, Mrs Hawkins remembers the town celebrating, with the local MP visiting her school in Bolt Street, which had been decorated in bunting and flags.

Around that time, Mrs Hawkins discovered one of her passions.

“When I was seven I joined dancing classes,” she said. “I travelled around the north of England, touring with my dance troupe at pantomimes. I left there when I was 14, and stayed at home. They were travelling elsewhere but my parents decided to pull me out.

“Instead, I worked at the branch shop of a warehouse, and later in a wholesale warehouse for eight years.”

Later, Mrs Hawkins moved to a department store, which she said was similar to Marks and Spencer. There, she made a name for herself with her decorating abilities.

“The boss used to watch me dress the counters, and then he asked me if I could do the windows,” she said. “All the windows had to be dressed in exactly the same way, based on a plan sent from London to all the stores that were opening. But I deviated from the plan, and when they sent an inspector down he could see I wasn’t following the plan. He asked me if I preferred doing it my own way, and I said yes, so then they let me do it my way.

“I used to go to dances regularly in the Westgate Hotel [in Commercial Street], and I wore the elegant clothes I’d got from the shop.”

Mrs Hawkins’ husband-to-be, sign-writer George Hawkins, had a motorcycle, and the young couple regularly went out on rides. Motorcycle riding, though, did not go well with the traditional women’s clothing of the time.

“It was just around the time when women started wearing trousers,” Mrs Hawkins said. “We were on our way to Barry one day, and I went into M&S and bought a pair of grey flannel trousers. They cost 4 shillings and 11 pence.

“On our way, I got off the bike to change, and I remember when we got to Barry and walked along the prom, all the women there were giving me disgusting looks because I had trousers on.”

Soon after, war with Germany was declared for a second time in Mrs Hawkins’ life.

“I got married in 1937 and two years later war broke out,” she said. “We lived in St Vincent Road, Newport, during the war. We built an Anderson shelter and then had to supervise every three or four streets. Each street had to do fire-watching and use a stirrup pump and bucket to put any fires out.

“One day the siren was going and there was a dreadful noise. The sky lit up, and they dropped I don’t know how many bombs. They killed six people.

“They had been aiming for the ordnance factory nearby [off Corporation Road], and there were also [anti-aircraft] guns down in Nash.

“We were trained how to move through smoke and fire. I remember the firemen lighting straw bales which we had to crawl past. They showed us how to use the fire hoses.”

During the war, most of Mrs Hawkins’ brothers served in the navy or merchant navy, and George joined the army. Her brother Edward worked on liners, and his ship was used as a troop carrier in the Pacific theatre. There, the family’s cousin Fred was taken prisoner and spent two years in a Japanese POW camp. “When he came back, he never talked about it ever again,” Mrs Hawkins said.

Mrs Hawkins said she remembered the celebrations marking the end of the Second World War. “People were out in the streets, banging saucepans and having an exciting time,” she said.

Two years later their daughter Rosemary was born. The young family moved to Llandegfedd and later returned to Newport, moving into a house on School Terrace in Rogerstone.

After Mr Hawkins’ death in 1996, Mrs Hawkins moved in with her daughter and son-in-law. She now lives in Monmouth with three generations of her family all under one roof.