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Alie Touw, Centenarian

April 20, 2019
by the gentle author

In the first of a series of three stories published over the holiday, Alie Touw tells of her childhood

‘I am an optimist, most of the time’  – Portrait by Sarah Ainslie

‘I don’t know how it happened!’ declares centenarian Alie Touw, shaking her head and raising her hands with a smile of mock bewilderment if you ask the secret of her longevity. ‘I have so many things wrong with me and I fell over several times, but I keep getting up again.’ With her shock of white hair and keen green eyes, Alie sits peacefully and keeps her counsel.

High above Petticoat Lane, Alie lives in a small flat where she peers down upon the City to the west and Spitalfields to the east, observing the relentless passage of life below and contemplating the ironies of existence. Each week, she ventures out to buy food at the supermarket and savour the exoticism of our present age. I doubt if many of those who pass Alie in the street are aware of this traveller from another time walking in their midst. Such is her vitality and demeanour, Alie easily passes as someone decades younger than her hundred years.

Yet Alie is acutely aware of the extraordinary times and momentous events she has witnessed in her long life. She carries equivocal and turbulent memories of the world before we were born. They colour Alie’s personality today and she acknowledges she herself is the outcome of these experiences. This admission makes Alie’s generosity of spirit especially impressive, because her relationship with existence has been forged in dark times and perilous situations. ‘I am an optimist, most of the time,’ Alie will reveal if you press her.

‘There are so many stories to tell,’ Alie confesses to me with a helpless grin, conceding the astonishing journey she has made through inauspicious circumstances, across Europe from Arnhem in Holland and over an entire century, to discover peace in Spitalfields. I visited Alie at her flat in Petticoat Lane over several weeks through this last winter and was inspired and uplifted to hear Alie’s stories because – although she speaks of the past – she has much to say to us today.

“I was born at the end of the First World War. Holland was invaded and there was not much food, so I do not know how they brought me up. I came into the world on 23rd September 1918 as the fifth daughter, the twelfth child of my parents. My father was a train driver. He was born in 1847 and he never talked about his past.

I still remember my mother who died when I was eight years old. She was nineteen when she got married and twenty-one when she had her first child. She went on and on, until she had thirteen children. We were living in Arnhem near the river Rhine and, if the weather was nice, we went for a walk and sat on the riverside with her before we went to bed. When she got ill, my eldest sister looked after her and us, which was quite a challenge.

On my mother’s last night, we were woken up in the middle of the night by my sister who said, ‘Your mother is not very well, you had better come and say ‘Good night’ to her.’ That was the last time I saw her. We were sent to stay with the neighbours but we could hear the carriages in the street and my little sister who was six years old screamed when they took our mother away from our house. I could hear my father crying in the night.

I was always ill. Even as a baby, when I was a couple of months old, I was in hospital. My sister told me my mother kept one of my jumpers and would not wash it until I got better. She told everything to my sister. A lot of what I know of her is what my sister told me.

My elder sister was already engaged to be married, with a fiancé who had a good job. She said to my father, ‘I cannot look after the family.’ She was sixteen years older than me and she had her own life to live. My father did not like that, he expected her to stay at home, so we had to go into an orphanage. I spent ten years there until my eighteenth year. In September of that year I was nineteen but I was able to leave at Easter. They looked after us very well, except we did not get enough food. We did not starve but were always hungry. It was just bread and butter in the morning, and in the afternoon we had a meal.

You were not allowed to complain. One girl complained. There was a monthly meeting with the people who looked after us and she was asked to apologise to them, but she said, ‘I’m not going to say ‘Sorry.”  So they said, ‘Out you go!’ and she was thrown out with only the clothes she had on. She was seventeen years old.

Sometimes we had a good time in the orphanage but I was often ill. I had tuberculosis and pneumonia but I recovered. Every day my father visited, to see a different one of us. He came every Friday morning to see me. He had a botched cataract operation so he was nearly blind and he carried a white stick. I said, ‘Oh father, do be careful.’ He came on the bus to see me but one day a van knocked him over when he was nearly home.

In the orphanage, we had savings of ten cents a week – out of which you were given pocket money of three cents to put in the collection at church. On Monday nights, we felt very lonely, so they gave us wool to knit socks for the boys and, every Friday night, we had to wash the boys’ socks. I could knit when I was four years old, my sisters taught me and it came in handy. They would say ‘This is how much you have to do tonight. ‘

The boys never had to do anything, we had to do all the chores. We did not have much free time. We went to an ordinary school with normal children but we had to walk in a line with a woman supervising us. After school, we always had to prepare the potatoes for the next day.

On Sunday morning we went to church, then we had a meal and we could go home for the afternoon. My father walked for half an hour to collect us and we walked home with him. He brought us back again by six o’clock and by seven o’clock we were in bed.

When we were fourteen, we had to leave school and learn domestic service. They wanted me to leave at thirteen but I said, ‘Can I do another year?’ You did six weeks in the kitchen, six weeks in the house, doing cleaning and scrubbing wooden floors, six weeks in the laundry and six weeks in the sewing room. I was not strong enough to scrub floors so they sent me straight to the sewing room. They saved our money for us in the bank and, when we were twenty-one, they gave it to us – a hundred guilders. The first thing I bought was a bicycle. In the last year, you did not have to anything for the orphanage but make your own clothes buying the materials out of that money.

When I was eighteen, I had to go home to take care of my father. He was ninety years old by then. My elder sister who had taken care of us, she took him in after my mother died and took care of him for ten years. She had to do all the sewing and the cooking. She was an angel but she had had enough. We all had to look after my father and our brothers. The two eldest brothers were already married but the other brothers still at home. They needed help.

I was one of my father’s favourites. I said, ‘I want to be a nurse.’ He said, ‘No you have to look after us.’ My other sister had already taken care of the family for five years, since she left the orphanage at seventeen. When she got married, I took over. I did not mind really, I had no choice. Think about it, it was a large house, we had no washing machine or vacuum cleaner or central heating.

When I was twenty, I got engaged and my younger sister had to take over. After a couple of years I got married and had a child. Then the war started.”

Tomorrow, Alie Touw continues with her account of life during the occupation

Portrait copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. April 20, 2019

    This is an incredible story . I am overwhelmed by it. I cant wait to read the next two episodes. Thank you for finding it and bringing it to us

  2. April 20, 2019

    A fascinating story from days gone by. Valerie

  3. Venetia permalink
    April 20, 2019

    Hoe gaat het met je, Alie? My daughter married into a Dutch family. I look forward to hearing more tomorrow.

  4. Jamie Surman permalink
    April 20, 2019


  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 20, 2019

    What a lovely lady! Can’t wait for the next instalment of her amazing story…

  6. April 20, 2019

    Thank you, G.A.

  7. Helen Breen permalink
    April 20, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a great story. Alie is in wonderful shape for a gal of her years. Wonder what her secret is? Looking forward to the rest of the story…

  8. Robin permalink
    April 20, 2019

    What amazing fortitude! Alie reminds me of my great aunt, who did manage to train and practise as a nurse during WWI. Even though she had professional training, her father would not allow her to work, marry, or make her own life. She had to stay home to take care of her father and many brothers, and remained what was rather disparagingly called a “spinster” all her life. Yet, like Alie, she faced adversity with courage and compassion.

  9. Maurits Dolmans permalink
    April 20, 2019

    I grew up in Arnhem too, although admittedly in less challenging circumstances. It was a beautiful city until 1944, and even now located in a beautiful area. Lovely to read this story, and to hear about her father’s dedication coming to see a different child every evening. Just one (historical) comment: The Netherlands were not invaded or occupied in WWI.

  10. Kate permalink
    April 21, 2019

    Fascinating! I am saving part two to read later. Passed this to my Dutch historian friends too.

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