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Dorset Lives: The fittest 99-year-old in Dorset

Roger Guttridge meets a man of many parts, which are still working.

The seven-foot deep fish pond in Roy's garden, complete with wooden footbridge

The seven-foot deep fish pond in Roy’s garden, complete with wooden footbridge

When Roy Cooper left hospital following an operation, the doctors warned the then 96-year-old to take it easy. ‘When I came home my legs swelled up because of my heart,’ he says. ‘They said I needed to sit with my legs up on a stool. I did that for a week and thought I’m not going to do that any more. That’s when I decided I’d better do some work. I reckoned some exercise would do me good. I like to achieve something in life.’
Most people of his advanced years might have settled for a daily stroll around the block. But not Roy. The former evangelical preacher and World War 2 veteran opted to get his exercise by digging a pond in his garden at Marnhull. And not just any pond. This one is seven feet deep with optional extras, such as a proper filtration system and an elegant wooden footbridge. After three years, it’s nearing completion and Roy – now 99 – will soon be taking delivery of the carp that are destined to make it their home.
‘I have had some help but I have done about 80 per cent of the work myself,’ he says. ‘I dug most of the soil by hand but I needed to get a digger in after I got down to five feet. I laid all the blocks and the brick wall at the back. There are about 1,000 blocks in that. I also made the footbridge myself. I’m going to put a roof on to keep out herons but I will need some help with that.’
A groundworker who helped Roy with his task said he ‘works like a 30-year-old with wheelbarrow, pick and shovel, puts in an eight-hour day and is reluctant to stop for meals’. A fellow Marnhull villager described him as ‘the fittest 99-year-old in Dorset’ – and it’s hard to imagine anyone of that vintage who is fitter, physically or mentally.
Roy, who lives with his 84-year-old wife, Mary, and still drives as far as Poole and Yeovil, has a second claim to fame – he is one of the dwindling number of veterans of the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. Soon after D-Day itself, Sub-Lieutenant Cooper found himself second in command of a minesweeper charged with escorting American tugs as they towed sections of the Mulberry Harbour to Gold Beach near Arromanches. The two massive concrete harbours, assembled at Gold and Omaha Beaches, were a vital link in the D-Day operation, allowing the Allies to land up to 7000 tons of vehicles and goods each day to facilitate the breakout from Normandy and the advance across Europe. ‘We didn’t know what they were. Few people did,’ says Roy.
It was a very different life to the one he had enjoyed before the war. He was born Denis Roy Cooper at Southsea, Portsmouth, in October 1917, but stopped using his first name after the kids at school began calling him ‘Denis the Menace’. He was converted to Christianity aged thirteen, left school at fourteen and worked as a ladies’ hairdresser in London until he gave up his job to become an evangelist. He worked for the Southern Counties Evangelists, taking children’s services on a daily basis. He also trained as a public speaker, and still has the gold and silver medals he was awarded, and as a teacher. He preached in England, the Isle of Man, Australia and Spain, became founder and director of Newbury Youth for Christ in Berkshire and in 1966 was in charge of counselling for the American evangelist Billy Graham’s Crusade.
Following the outbreak of war in 1939, Roy volunteered for service and joined the Royal Navy on his 23rd birthday the following year. He worked as a nursing officer and laboratory technician in a naval hospital before going to sea and eventually becoming a commissioned officer in February 1944. His six war medals reflect his involvement in the North African campaign and the invasion of Italy as well as the Normandy invasion. He was also on one of several ships that crept into German-occupied St Peter Port, Guernsey, to lay mines. The crew were surprised to complete their mission unchallenged, even after his vessel lost an engine and had to limp back across the Channel at a pedestrian speed of 4 knots. ‘The intelligence was that the Germans mistook us for a convoy they were expecting and let us through,’ he says. ‘If they’d discovered us they’d have blown us out of the water.’

Roy Cooper in the uniform of a Sub-Lieutenant of the Royal Naval Reserve

Roy Cooper in the uniform of a Sub-Lieutenant of the Royal Naval Reserve

This was not Roy’s only great escape. The minesweeper he was on after D-Day was sunk at Cherbourg six days after he left it, with only two survivors. Earlier in the war, he looked out of the family home at Southsea during an air raid and saw what turned out to be a mine on a parachute. As he and his parents hid under the stairs, it destroyed a neighbouring house and blew the roof, window frames and much else off theirs. ‘I went to bed that night and could see the stars,’ he says.
Walking along a road in Kent, Roy heard the whistle of a falling bomb. It landed in the road behind him but did not go off. He even went to have a look at it before reporting it to a passing army convoy. ‘The number of times I have escaped death in the war was remarkable,’ he said.
In the post-war years, Roy lived in Berkshire, where he worked as managing director of a garage. This remarkable man of many talents has also been a beekeeper, a breeder of Arab horses and a sheep farmer whose flocks included Poll Dorsets. He is an accomplished artist and musician. The walls of his bungalow at Marnhull are lined with watercolour landscapes and he has exhibited and sold paintings and pen-and-ink drawings. As a piano accordion player, he played in bands in Slough, Reading and, after moving to Dorset, Bournemouth-based Chris Carrington’s Mass Band. He was in his mid-nineties before he stopped playing.

Roy and Mary Cooper at home

Roy and Mary Cooper at home

Roy met Mary, a primary school headteacher, in Reading. They married in 1979 and decided to move to Dorset a few years later after visiting Mary’s cousin at Dorchester. ‘We looked at about thirty houses and then saw this one at Marnhull, which ticked everything we wanted,’ says Roy, who often preached at Blandford Evangelical Church following the move.
More than seventy years after his wartime brushes with death, he is still going strong and is surprised to find himself within nine months of his 100th birthday. ‘It never occurred to me that I could live this long,’ adds Roy, who survived a heart attack and surgery in Canada ten years ago. ‘There is no formula for it. I’ve never smoked or drunk or done silly things, although I did have a glass of wine at my 99th birthday party.’

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