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Thelma Bodkin and the letter from the Queen

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Thelma Bodkin says she’s just an ordinary woman, but at 106 years of age, that makes her far from ordinary, especially when you consider her active lifestyle – her passion for Thursday afternoon carpet bowls and her regular attendance at the Pathway Baptist Church in Thompsons Road, Bulleen.

Apart from being extraordinary in length, Thelma’s life has been busy. She moved around a lot – WA, Canberra, Tasmania and Melbourne - travelled extensively, spent years volunteering in the community, was a teacher at Heidelberg Secondary School, a weaver and macrame enthusiast, and is and was a devoted mother and wife.

Manningham has been her home for more than 50 years – but to put that in perspective, she didn’t move to Bulleen until after she retired in the early 1970s.

She lives with her daughter Carol in the home Thelma and her husband built, designed by architect Alistair Knox, in Lonsdale Street, Bulleen.

Thelma was born on 8 April 1918 in Tammin, a small country town 184 kilometres east of Perth on the way to Kalgoorlie. Her mother was born in Gosford, NSW, and her father migrated from England aboard a ship in 1912. A very memorable date, as Thelma recalls her father telling her. En route the ship’s master received a telegram message to say the Titanic had sunk – needless to say, that was not comforting news. The couple moved to WA following the Kalgoorlie gold rush and settled briefly in Tammin before moving to Perth where they brought up their three daughters, Vera, Thelma and Lorna, in the suburb of Como. Thelma fondly recalls that the trio referred to their home as Vethorna.

At 23, Thelma met and married Mervyn Bodkin (more than 80 years ago!) in 1941. Mervyn was a member of the Oxford Movement. This Oxford University-inspired movement sought to renew “catholic” thought and practice within the Church of England in opposition to the “Protestant tendencies of the church”. Bizarrely, they interviewed Thelma to determine if she was a good match for Mervyn. She recalls, “they didn’t think I was a suitable match” though she doesn’t remember why. They married anyway, and despite the doubts, Carol attests that her parents had a long and happy marriage.

When Mervyn was called up for National Service with the Prices Branch during WWII, they moved to Canberra. Thelma said it was quite a big thing in those days, and everyone came out to say goodbye as they were moving to the East.

Canberra, during the war was considered a potential target for bombing raids by the Japanese and a black-out was introduced. Thelma joined hundreds of other women who volunteered for civil defence roles, and she and Mervyn became Air Raid Wardens, roaming the streets after dark checking that people complied with restrictions. Thelma did admit, “Oh yes, from time to time we had to knock on people’s door to ask them to turn off lights”. Thankfully most were happy to comply, and Canberra was never bombed.

They then moved to Tasmania, where Mervyn set up an import business before moving to Box Hill North in 1952. Thelma, according to her sister, was good at maths and she encouraged Thelma to pursue a teaching career. After writing to the Education Department, without formal qualifications, but with a burgeoning history of community volunteering, Thelma was engaged as a teacher at  Heidelberg Girls Secondary School. She taught from 1957 to 1970.

When they moved to Bulleen in 1974, the area was still semi-rural. Milk was still delivered by horse and cart, and the horses were housed in paddocks, where Officeworks now resides on the corner of Doncaster Road and Tram Road. Bulleen was taking off, and many new houses were being built on empty lots. Thelma says, “It felt very inner city.”

Thelma has always been creative and took up weaving with the Weaver’s guild in Carlton, as well as mastering pottery and macramé. Many pieces still decorate the house.

Longevity runs in the family, with many living well into their 90s, though Thelma is the first to get a letter from the Queen. When asked about the secret to her long life, Carol attributed it to her mother’s Christian faith, optimism, and great attitude to life—always busy and lots of laughs.

She is looking forward to her next carpet bowls session at the Pathway Baptist Church on Thursday – it costs $2 and everyone is welcome.