She introduced women’s athletics to West Africa, narrowly escaped the 1984 Brighton bombing – and now Mary May is not letting a little thing like a 100th birthday stop her.
Mary, who continues to live independently in Mawnan Smith and has family near Helston, was surrounded by friends and family last Friday as she celebrated her centenary year in style with an afternoon tea party and evening barbecue.
It was hosted by her daughter and |son-in-law Jenny and Ivor Mann at their home near Wendron, and attended by son Roger and his wife, her four |grandchildren and seven great-|grandchildren.
Mary said: “I’ve got wonderful children – I owe so much to my two kids. These days people don’t bother, but my two do look after me. I’m very lucky.”
Amongst the many flowers and cards she received was a bouquet from |actress Amanda Redman, who has |family links that were revealed in the BBC1 programme Who Do You Think You Are – and which also discovered a long lost relative in the form of Val Vernon, a cousin to Roger and Amanda, who all share a great grandfather.
Mary was born in Dover and from there moved to Portsmouth and then London.
When she married her late husband Eric he joined the Colonial Service and together they moved to West Africa.
Mary laughingly remembered: “When I was naughty as a child my parents would say, ‘We’ll send you to Timbuktu’ – then I grew up and went there!”
It was here that Mary made history, changing the face of international athletics forever.
Having been a keen sprinter as a child – her lack of height preventing her from taking up running professionally – she was shocked at the state of women’s sport in Nigeria.
At that time “fattening rooms” were the norm; women would go there to put on weight, to become more attractive for men, as being fat was a symbol of status and power.
Mary introduced athletics and trained the women, with the help of a nun, to compete on the world stage.
In 1958 she took them to the Cardiff Commonwealth Games, which she helped organise as chairman of the Women’s Athletics Association, and they were also involved in the Olympics, although Mary did not attend. Over the years they won many medals.
It is something Mary is understandably proud of, saying: “They’re world beaters now; I started that.”
During that time Mary met the Queen, as part of a royal tour of the country. “We were invited to a lunch and met her. She’s just like the girl next door – she’s lovely,” said Mary, who then received a birthday card from Her Majesty last week in honour of her centenary year.
On leaving the Colonial Service Eric and Mary took on a holiday cottage near the Ferryboat Inn at Helford Passage. Their children loved it so much that they moved to Cornwall full time in 1969, living at Budock Vean.
Eric became chairman of the Camborne Redruth Conservative group, which resulted in the couple travelling to Brighton for the 1984 party conference.
They had been due to stay at the ill fated Grand Hotel, the same as then prime-minister Margaret Thatcher, but Mary refused and instead they stayed further up the road. That night the bomb went off, killing five people including two high profile members of the Conservative Party.
“I’ve often wondered if that was fate or luck,” she said.
Mary said she had no secret to her longevity – growing up as one of three girls, she was the weak one.
“I’ve enjoyed my life; I’ve never been miserable or fed up. The only thing I didn’t like was darning stockings!” she joked.