At 100 years old, Molly Ingham has been made the ‘poster girl’ of a NHS campaign to highlight the importance of getting a flu jab amid concerns about high rates of infections this winter. PETER BARRON reports

A PICTURE of health, the remarkable Molly Ingham is accustomed to being in the driving seat.

As a 16-year-old – 84 years ago – she became one of the first women in her hometown of Darlington to learn to drive, and her skills behind the wheel were put to exceptionally good use during the war.

Serving as a District Intelligence Officer, one of her tasks was to collect officers from Darlington Railway Station, then drive them round the local area, so they could inspect bomb sites for clues about the enemy.

What she didn’t know, until after the war, was that one of her VIP passengers had been none other than General Montgomery.

Now, as she prepares for her 101st birthday next month, Molly has been chosen for another important job – to help steer a campaign by the Darlington Primary Care Network, aimed at promoting the importance of people getting a flu jab.

“We wanted someone to help us get the message out there, and Molly’s the perfect choice to be our flu vaccine role model because she’s had an incredible life, and is a real star in the local community,” declares Chris McEwan, a lay member of the Darlington Primary Care Network.

With an infectious smile that can light up any room, Molly lives independently in a cottage at Croft-on-Tees, and she greets nurse, Jean Rutter, like an old friend when she arrives to administer this year’s flu jab ahead of winter's arrival.

Jean, a practice nurse at Rockliffe Court Surgery, in nearby Hurworth-on-Tees, has been visiting Molly annually for more than ten years to make sure she has the protection of the flu jab.

Molly, Croft’s oldest resident, doesn’t flinch as the needle goes into her arm, and she takes a no-nonsense approach to the proceedings: “The jab is there for the asking,” she says. “You should trust your doctor – if your doctor says you should have it, then you should have it. Do as you’re told and get on with it. I just take it in my stride.”

And the Darlington Primary Care Network is hoping that others – not just the elderly – will follow Molly’s example.

“Flu is a respiratory illness, which can cause serious complications, and can be devastating,” explains Dr Kirsty Walker, who sits on the board of the Darlington Primary Care Network, and is one of the clinical leads for the Covid-19 vaccine programme and the rollout of the flu and Covid boosters.

“There are concerns that there will be an increase in circulating community infections this winter. Getting your flu vaccine is the best way of protecting yourself, and the most vulnerable in our society, from the effects of flu.

“It’s quick and easy to have done and tends to be well tolerated. If you are eligible for a flu vaccine, please don’t hesitate to arrange an appointment.”

Health officials are anticipating a “worse than usual” flu season this year because of a reduction in immunity resulting from low levels of flu over the past few winters.

Holly Larman, Lead Nurse for the Darlington Primary Network, has been at the heart of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, as well as supporting local people over many flu seasons.

“Many people who get flu will feel well again after a few days of rest and recuperation," says Holly. "However, if you have an underlying health condition, you could end up with complications from flu, potentially resulting in a hospital stay.

“To help protect yourself and loved ones, as well as to reduce strain on NHS services this winter, we strongly recommend that those who are eligible should have their flu vaccine through their GP surgery, or at pharmacies across the town.”

Photographs, taken while Molly was having her flu jab, are to be used on posters and other promotional material highlighting the importance of having a flu jab, and her family are justifiably proud of her.

“Who’d have thought she’d be a poster girl at her age!” laughs her daughter, Barbara Auld. “We’re just glad she gets her flu jab every year. It’s important to her health, and she's so special, we want her here a lot longer – 100 years isn’t enough!”

AS well as becoming the poster girl of the flu vaccination campaign, Molly has also been busy catching up with an old friend…

Back in 1936, as 14-year-old Molly Marr, she got a job as a dressmaker’s apprentice with a Mrs Rourk, on Victoria Road, in Darlington.

That’s where she met Mona Durbridge, 15, and little did they know they would still be friends beyond their 100th birthdays.

Their favourite part of the day at Mrs Rourk’s was when Whistle While You Work came on the wireless, and they’d sing along while they sewed.

“I always remember the day I started, Vera Lynn was singing When I grow too old to dream, I’ll have you to remember. It was our favourite song, and we’d sing along to our hearts’ content. It was our only entertainment back then!”

While Molly undertook her wartime duties as a District Intelligence Officer, Mona became an ‘Aycliffe Angel’ – assembling detonators for bombs in a munitions factory at Newton Aycliffe.

Mona later moved to Scotland with her husband, Fred Garbutt, but returned to Hurworth 30 years later, and her friendship with Molly was rekindled.

Sadly, when the pandemic struck, Mona moved to Cambridgeshire to live with her daughter, and the friends hadn’t seen each other since then.

However, Mona’s family were recently taking a holiday in Northumberland, so she was able to call in to see Molly on the way, and the memories came flooding back as soon as they saw each other.

“It’s hard to believe that I’ve known Mona for 86 years – she looks as good as ever!” exclaimed Molly with her poster girl smile.