Harold Ernest Bontoft

Peter Thompson Harold Ernest  Bontoft - a remarkable life of 99 years.
Peter Thompson Harold Ernest Bontoft - a remarkable life of 99 years.

THE 99-year-and-nine-month-long life of a much-loved Caistor man has drawn to a close.

Harold Ernest Bontoft, of Westbrook Grove, was born in The Wolds on August 18 1912, four months after the Titanic sank and just two years before the Great War began.

But until a few weeks ago he was driving his car down to Market Rasen to pop to the bookie’s, saying: “I am safer on the roads than most of them.”

And he was. After all, he had been driving cars for 84 years, even though he never took a test.

He was still shopping at Caistor Spar, near his Westbrook Grove home, until little more than a month ago, looking back to tales of yesteryear, but also looking forward to August and his letter from the Queen on his 100th birthday.

His daughter, Brenda Hall, came over from Canada when he was taken ill after a fall and stayed with him until he died.

She said: “He was a wonderful father and we had a wonderful childhood.

“Dad had a great love of the outdoors; my own love of the country life is because of dad. He worked hard all his long life and was active and alert almost to the end.”

He was born at Stainton le Vale and was to remain a Wolds countryman all his life.

Growing up he attended schools in Barkwith and Claxby, his childhood homes also including Burgh on Bain, Normanby le Wold and South Willingham. He was the second child of eight born to Bertha and Ray, a local shepherd.

Harold remembered very little of the First World War, only of seeing a zeppelin come over the house.

At the age of 12 he had his first holiday, travelling by horse and cart to Market Rasen to catch a train to Scunthorpe and then bus to Alkborough to visit his grandparents. In 1924 this was a big adventure!

To attend school in Barkwith and Claxby he walked two miles every day, mainly across the fields. At 14 he left school to start work.

Living in Normanby le Wold he worked on a local farm, tending cattle, cleaning the boots and shoes and taking his boss by horse and cart to Market Rasen Station every Friday so he could catch the train to Lincoln.

He left home to work on the land at Tealby for the annual pay of £19- 26 pence.

After a year there he was told he could leave so the farm could employ someone cheaper, so he went to work on the Hainton Estate and then in Benniworth.

In those days, in the 1920s, he moved from job to job, nearly always on the land but also at Manby Airfield. He had his own spade there, digging holes for the hangers though conditions were not great.

In 1928 he bought his first car, a Ford, for which he paid £20. He sold it two years later for £18 – good business in those days.

A three-month stint putting cement on runways at Scampton saw him sacked one day for not putting it on thick enough.

He was now, at the ripe old age of 22, in service as a farm driver in Howsham, and a stint down the ore mines at Nettleton followed. He hated being underground such was his love of the outdoor life.

On April 23 Harold married Alice Mary at Normanby le Wold Church having first eyed her up in a fish and chip shop in Market Rasen.

They lived in Thornton and Harold drove tractors for Farrows of Wootton. Then it was back nearer home in the Wolds at North Kelsey where he delivered coal.

Harold’s big asset was that he was able to drive cars, tractors and lorries so he was never out of work for long. He was to continue driving even at the age of 99!

At last, in 1939 when war broke out, Harold and Mary found a permanent home in a cottage at Fonaby Top near Caistor, working on the farm of the Cole family.

He joined the Royal Observer Corps when war broke out. From his observation tower he remembered watching the fires and smoke that filled the sky on the night Hull was badly bombed.

He recalled the doodledugs coming over and that he got a fine for riding a bike with a cycle that was too bright for the black-out.

On the farm work was hard and long, and the team contained both German and Italian prisoners of war.

Harold was given a white coat which said ‘Prisoner of War’ on it, a prized souvenir. He always recalled later that POWs made good coffee.

Post-war work remained much the same – the yearly cycle of ploughing, sowing and reaping as well as working through the night at lambing and harvest time.

Harold grew all his own vegetables on his plot and provided food for the family through rabbits and pigs.

In 1953 mains water and electricity reached Fonaby and the farm bought a generator. The modern era had reached the Wolds.

In 1978 Harold retired and he and Alice moved to Westbrook Grove in Caistor. He took a part-time job at Holly House as the gardener to the Jackson family before finally laying down his spade at the age of 97.

Robert Jackson said: “My father taught him gardening and Harold taught me. He was a reliable worker and a lovely chap generous and kind.”

Alice had died in 2000 but Harold continued to garden, live independently and drive his car until two months ago.

Those trips down the A46 to Market Rasen by car were often to pop into the bookie’s in the Market Place; he had a keen eye for a horse.

Harold Bontoft lived under five monarchs, from George V to our present Queen, and 24 prime ministers – from Herbert Asquith to David Cameron.

Harold Ernest Bontoft really was a true Woldsman, a man of the land whose remarkable and long life lived was lived to the full, even if it ended just four months short of that August day when he would have been 100.