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ARCHIVE for Thursday 8th November 2001 - Life beyond a hundred

The Bible says that a life span is 70 years. That may be about right on average, but many of us live far longer. Doctors say that, if you avoid accidents and illness, you should last well into your hundreds. That is supported by records of people who have lived more than twice the number of years that the Bible allows.

The most famous ancient person in England was Thomas 'Old' Parr (1483-1635). Born in Shropshire, the son of a farm worker, he married first at the age of 80 and fathered two children who died as infants. His second wife produced a child when he was 122. In between, aged 105, he was made to stand in his village church, dressed in a white sheet, as penance for making another woman pregnant.

When Thomas was 152 he was 'discovered' by the local landowner, Lord Arundel. He was a collector of antiques, and first he made sure that the old man was genuine. Then he took him up to London and presented him to King Charles I. After that he was exhibited at an inn. People flocked to see him. He appeared healthy and active, but the attention and rich dinners that were pressed upon him soon wore him out. He died and was buried grandly in Westminster Abbey. Old Parr's age was confirmed by his village neighbours and accepted in his time. He was said to have lived through the reigns of ten kings or queens. Not everyone now believes this, and it may be that he exaggerated somewhat. Old people often do.

An even older man, Henry Jenkins, was buried at Bolton in 1668. He was a labourer and died aged 160. That is stated on his memorial plaque inside the church. He was also commemorated by an obelisk in the churchyard. It is years since I was last in Bolton, so I am not sure if it is still there.

Those who live to great ages are often, like Old Parr, hard-working country people, living simply off the produce of a cottage garden. It helps to be up in the hills with fresh air and water. That is what I heard in Abkhasia on the Black Sea, where the mountain people (hunters, farmers and brigands) are exceptionally long-lived. It also helps to come from a Iong-living family. Parr's grandson, Robert, died in 1757 at the age of 124. But there is still hope for us town-dwellers. The parish register of St Leonard's, Shoreditch, in London, records the death in 1588 of Thomas Cam, aged 207.

Another thing that helps you into an old age is keeping out of trouble, Old Parr was careful about that. When asked what religion he belonged to, he said he followed the religion of whatever ruler was on the throne at the time.

John Michell

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Unexplained Phenomena, A Rough Guide Special
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