Molly Ingham, who has just celebrated her 100th birthday, is thought to be the first Darlington woman to learn to drive, and she went on to have a wartime link to General Montgomery. PETER BARRON reports

AS the gleaming vintage car rolled to a halt outside the hotel, and Molly Ingham stepped onto the red carpet amid warm applause, she was heard to whisper: “Ooh, I feel like The Queen.”

Molly, the oldest resident of Croft-on-Tees, was even wearing a sparkling tiara, along with a 100 & Fabulous sash, as she travelled in style to her 100th birthday party in the maroon and black Austin 10 Cambridge, made in1938.

“It’s a bit overwhelming really, but I do appreciate it – aren’t I lucky?” she smiled, as she settled down with a glass of champagne in the warmth of the Croft Spa Hotel on Sunday.

And what a life she’s had…She was born in Darlington, as Molly Marr, just as the Spanish flu epidemic was ending, and just before the Great Depression was beginning. It was a happy childhood, growing up in the village of Haughton, with her two younger brothers, Kenneth and Robert.

She was just 16 when she learned to drive, thanks to her then boyfriend, a clever lad called Ralph Ingham, providing her with a “sporty” Riley car that he’d cobbled together out of an assortment of old parts.

No one was required to take a driving test in those days, and the Riley would have stood little chance of passing an MOT, but it was Molly’s pride and joy.

After they married, she and Ralph moved to another local village, Drinkfield, and she served as a driver for District Intelligence Officers (DIOs) during the war, using her Riley to motor up to Darlington Railway Station to collect one of the new military Ford vehicles that were parked there.

Her main task was to drive the intelligence officers around the area, so they could inspect bomb sites for clues about the enemy, though she was never told who her VIP passengers were because their work was considered top secret.

“I didn’t know until after the war, but someone let slip that one of those I’d driven was General Montgomery – Monty,” she recalled over another sip of champagne. “It was quite an honour – who’d have thought it?”

Molly loved her driving job because the inspectors would go to the NAAFI after their inspections, and tell her to “Go for a feed” – a particularly welcome instruction during the hungry days of the war when food coupons were hard to come by.

Later on in the war, she took an apprenticeship as a dressmaker, and her favourite memory from that time is listening to the latest radio programme “Workers’ Playtime” while she sewed. The favourite song among the girls was “When I Grow Too Old To Dream”.

Molly and Ralph went on to have three daughters – Diana , Heather and Barbara  – who were all county swimmers, and Molly proudly served for many years as President of Darlington Swimming Club.

Molly has lived in Croft-on-Tees, a few miles from Darlington, since 1968 and still enjoys village social events. Indeed, the locals turned out in honour of her centenary, at the village hall, the day before her 100th birthday party.

And, naturally, the tributes from family members have come thick and fast.

“Mam is a walking miracle, a lifelong friend and mentor,” said her daughter Barbara Auld. “She is a caring, loving lady – family orientated and full of mettle and determination.”

Aylsa Nugent, one of her six grandchildren, described her as “an amazing, inspirational lady who radiates positivity and has a zest for life”.

Another granddaughter, Alison Gamble, added: “Molly is a great grandma, Nan, mother, sister, auntie, neighbour, dear friend and our ‘Queen’.

"She is a remarkable woman: a wonderful combination of warmth, kindness, laughter and love. Independent and driven by determination to reach 100 years of age. She truly is a legend.”

Among the party guests at the Croft Spa Hotel was the youngest member of Molly’s family, her one-year-old great-granddaughter, Sireena – a mere 99 years difference between them.

“People often ask me what my secret for living a long life is,” said Molly, in a speech that was read out for her at the party.

“The answer is plain living, early nights, a house full of girls, and a little of what you fancy before bedtime – red, white or rosè.”

Cheers Molly. Here's to a life well lived.