Matriarch, World War II veteran Dorothy Peart ticks off 100

MANDEVILLE, Manchester — She is renowned as the mother and widow of three of Jamaica’s former parliamentarians, but her story spanning 100 years is also filled with colourful events including service to her native Britain during World War II.

Dorothy Beatrice Mary Peart, born in London, England on May 10, 1921, celebrated her 100th birthday recently in the company of family members.

They included her children —former Speaker of the House of Representatives Michael Peart; former Cabinet Minister Dean Peart; and former Air Jamaica manager of in-flight services Christine Steele; along with her grandchildren.

The elder Peart — her mind still sharp and athletic — spoke with the Jamaica Observer at length about her century of experience.

“I won a scholarship to secondary school and when I changed my last school, I was about 16. I usually travelled by train, but after age 16 you had to pay full price, so we [her parents] bought a basic bicycle for me to go to school,” she said of her days growing up in London.

She said she managed to get three subjects when she left school, but only loved mathematics.

“I wasn’t really a bright student, because I wasn’t interested in most of the subjects. The only thing I understood was mathematics. I was very fortunate to have a mathematics teacher who took a particular interest in me as she could see my situation, and towards the last year in the school she gave me lessons on advanced math,” she said.

After leaving school she worked in the office of a cigarette company for two years. However, after World War II started in 1939 she became interested in the Royal Air Force (RAF) by way of a report from her high school friend who had already joined the force.

That was how she came to join Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1941.

“Her report was so interesting that I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going far in this [cigarette company’s] office, so let me join too.’ That’s the reason I joined, just to follow her,” said Peart.

Unfortunately, her friend was working at an air station while Peart was sent to the RAF headquarters at Stanmore —north of the middle of London.

“I was working underground. I must tell you in that situation it was mostly women and a very few men. The only men we worked with were called seamen,” she recalled.

Her interest in Jamaica began when she met Ernest Peart, a Jamaican serving in the RAF.

She vividly remembered how she met him and how they danced one evening at a club in Piccadilly.

“Before he left, [he was] in uniform and Jamaica was written on the top of the arms. Of course, I had never heard of Jamaica, never knew where it was. The first thing I did after was to use an atlas to find out where Jamaica was,” she said.

“Eventually we met up when we had time off and over a period of time, I got comfortable as I enjoyed [his] company,” she said.

But her knowledge was at the time limited. For instance, she didn’t know much about the black race or the relationship of her country with distant colonies.

“To be very honest with you, English people in those days were very biased, they knew nothing about coloured people. We never learnt anything about the colonies or anything, so to be honest it was bigotry against the coloured people,” she said.

“Most of it was the Englishmen who were against it,” she added.

She was released from the RAF one year after the end of World War II, having served from 1941 to 1946. Her husband served the RAF from 1944 to 1949.

After leaving the army she enrolled at the London School of Economics where she tried her best, even though she had difficulty studying.

She went to Glasgow, Scotland, where she was active in welfare as part of her studies, which she said brought her joy.

“Going to the various poor people with whatever was available for them and sharing their stories, I really enjoyed that session,” she said.

After a year in university she became pregnant with her first child, Michael.

“At the time we had decided to fully put our lives together and we got married, October of 1947. During my lifetime I had always said I would not marry anybody until I had met their friends and their family. Of course, that was out of the question here,” she said.

She recalled a conversation with her husband about his family background.

“He said he came from a poor family. That’s all he told me. I said, ‘Well, that doesn’t make any difference to me, because so do I, extremely poor. We had to watch our pennies,’ ” she recalled.

Soon, the couple left England for Jamaica with their infant son, Michael, and with Dorothy being seven months pregnant. “Deannie was on his way,” she explained.

“We left England at the very beginning of 1949 and we were on a boat called the Empire Bure. I don’t think anyone has ever heard of it because, as far as I understand, it was the last trip that it was going to make,” she said.

“When I got on the boat I had a baby [in my] arms and I had a baby inside me — I think I was six or seven months pregnant,” she said.

She marvelled over Jamaica’s beauty — a place she knew very little about — when the ship docked.

“When we came across the Atlantic and we saw the little hub at a distance, that was Jamaica coming up. The people were so happy to see their homeland. When the boat came in, it went all the way around the north coast and stopped [off the coast] of Kingston.

“They woke us up early in the morning, but it was worth it when we saw the sun rising behind the mountains. It was a beautiful picture we saw,” she said.

The family then journeyed to Peart’s hometown, Mandeville, to his family home at Battersea in New Green and there basked in a welcome reserved for heroes.

“Everyone was so pleased to see their hero…I couldn’t understand a word — even the food I was not used to,” she said.

She got along well with the Peart family as she described her father-in-law as a hard-working, small farmer.

The family lived in a wattle and daub house with no electricity or potable water.

“The only income in the house was what my father-in-law earned off the property. He used to plant yam and lots of different trees,” she said.

Eventually, through gainful employment, Ernest and his three siblings added on to the family home.

However, Dorothy took some time to understand the culture, and depended on her husband.

“I knew nothing. I was entirely dependent on my husband for every decision to be made. I didn’t understand anything, for instance about sour oranges,” she said.

After giving birth to her second child, Dean, she went job hunting and landed her first job working with bauxite company, Alcan.

“I got a job as soon as possible, as we had to get more money in. Ernest went to work with an electricity company,” she said.

“I worked in the office at the headquarters of the bauxite company. They had the agriculture section working nicely, and the other part where they were looking around where to mine,” she added.

She also worked in a bakery doing office duties, in a bank as the manager’s secretary, and as a typist.

In 1954 her husband started building their own home and the family quickly moved in with the space under construction.

However, after being in Jamaica for over five years Dorothy still struggled to adjust.

“After all this time, psychologically, I had not adjusted to Jamaica. Honestly, it was so different and difficult,” she said.

She soon after returned to England for a few months and to her surprise, when she came back to Jamaica her husband had sold the family house, bought another and carried out repairs, to her liking.

Thereafter, she recalled her husband getting into politics to become a Member of Parliament (MP) in 1956.

For 55 years, dating back to 1959, at least one member of the Peart family has actively represented the People’s National Party (PNP) in Manchester, mostly as MP.

Michael Peart served Manchester Southern as MP from 1993 to 2016. His father Ernest served as an MP in Manchester Western, subsequently Manchester North Western, from 1959 until 1978 when he was appointed high commissioner to London.

Dean was MP for Manchester North Western from 1989 to 2011.

Their mother has been hailed for her contribution, including service as secretary of the Manchester Golden Age Development Company.

She also volunteered as secretary at Curphy Home for many years — a haven for ex-servicemen and women.

She was also an active member of Andrews Memorial United Church.

These days she says she enjoys word games – sudoku, scramble and code word.

When asked what keeps her going in reaching the milestone of 100 years, her response was swift.

“Three things: Mind, body and soul. If you don’t look after them, you are in trouble,” she said.

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