Don't let the armchair get you
Aged 103, Wally Randall is the Tyler for three masonic lodges, turned on his town’s Christmas lights last year and is the UK’s oldest poppy seller. Peter Watts meets the legend of Leighton Buzzard
Resplendent in a suit and jacket, Wally Randall sits on a wooden pew with a military bearing that belies his years. He has been coming to this masonic temple in Leighton Buzzard for 53 years, which sounds like a long time, until you remember he is 103.
One of the country’s oldest masons, Wally is also the UK’s oldest poppy seller, something this World War II veteran is particularly proud of. ‘I go to our local Wilko – they let me sit inside,’ he says. ‘People say they come specially to get a poppy off me. It’s amazing how generous they are. A lot of people give even though they already have a poppy. I collected over £1,000 last year.’
This year’s Armistice Day had particular resonance for Wally. Not only did it mark 100 years since the end of the First World War, it was also 100 years since the death of his father, who served in that war and died of Spanish flu the day before the Armistice was signed. ‘It was rather tragic,’ he says. ‘It might be one of the reasons I started selling poppies. I thought the Royal British Legion did a really good job looking after people who need it.’
Wally is described as ‘a legend’ by fellow Freemasons Roger Wood and David Cato, who are full of stories about his escapades, such as the time Wally fell on to the garage roof while collecting apples from his tree back when he was a mere slip of a man in his nineties. Then there’s the time the doctor warned him his blood pressure was a bit high. ‘That was just before he turned 100. Wally told the doctor, “Well, I did have to cycle here – you can’t find anywhere to park on a Tuesday,”’ laughs David.
With that track record, a spot of poppy selling once a year is not going to get him too out of breath. What’s his secret? ‘Well, it might be a bit dull, but I’ve never been a drinker and I never smoked either – maybe the odd glass of wine during a lodge dinner but I don’t drink apart from that.’
Wally is careful about what he eats as well. At the festive board, he has the starter and dessert, but takes the main course home for his lunch the following day – the kitchen staff are only too happy to wrap up his meal. David thinks Wally is inspiring, ‘On his 103rd birthday he recited the 15-minute traditional history during the rituals, without any notes to read from. He keeps doing things, and tells us, “Don’t let the armchair get you.”’
KEEPING HIMSELF BUSY
Wally lives alone and still drives. As well as selling poppies and masonic activity, he was an active and enthusiastic gardener up until this summer, but now contents himself with directing his granddaughter around the plot. ‘Well, I tell her what I’d like her to do, but she won’t always do it,’ he grins. ‘She doesn’t like slug pellets, so this year I finished up with one runner bean and the slugs had the rest.’ In keeping with his philosophy of staying active, Wally doesn’t just attend weekly masonic events, but acts as a Tyler for three lodges. ‘It’s important to do stuff, you have to keep busy,’ he says. ‘That’s what like about masonry – being the Tyler, I get to meet the candidates and that’s always nice. It’s very interesting and I enjoy getting them ready.’
The esteem in which Wally is held can be seen in the anteroom to the Temple. In a prominent position is Wally’s stout wooden Tyler chair, which was a gift from fellow Mark masons on his 100th birthday. Above it is a large framed ‘Where’s Wally?’ poster, a present from the caterers, with Wally’s face hidden among all the cartoon characters. And his celebrity status extends beyond the lodge. In 2017, he was invited to turn on Leighton Buzzard’s Christmas lights.
Wally became a mason in 1965, but it was only when he retired at 70 that he began to take his involvement up a gear. Wally’s mother lodge is Leighton Cross, No. 6176, but he is also a member of Old Cedarians, No. 8078 and All Saints, No. 8776, the latter of which he founded. ‘When it first started, the subs were only £15 a year,’ he smiles, adding, ‘I really enjoy being with the brethren, we are all very close to each other. They look after me and keep me going.’
Having appeared in newspapers and on the BBC, Wally’s masonic contribution as well as his longevity have been widely recognised. ‘I got a certificate of merit after I’d been a mason for 50 years and another saying I’d been selling poppies for 50 years,’ he says, before declaring that he has no intention of stopping any time soon, even if he does need a break every now and then. Having spent a couple of hours in the lodge being photographed and interviewed, Wally remarks, ‘It’s fish and chip day isn’t it, so I’ll go home and have some scampi and then a little snooze.’
‘I really enjoy being with the brethren, we are all very close to each other. They look after me and keep me going’
Born in 1915, Wally Randall left school at 14 and entered the print trade, working for the local newspaper, the Leighton Buzzard Observer. ‘I was a comp machinist and I did a little bit of reporting, following the football team and so on. I got halfpenny a line,’ he recalls. After leaving print, he moved into transport, but one winter found himself out of work because the roads were blocked by snow. ‘I cycled to the labour exchange to sign on and there were hundreds of people queueing,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to wait, so I biked up to Luton to look for a job. I went to the Vauxhall plant and got a job straightaway. I was there for 40 years.’
Wally served as a magistrate and on the local council, and it was a fellow councillor who got him interested in Freemasonry. At around the same time as he discovered the Craft, he started selling poppies, inspired in part by his own experiences during the Second World War. He’d signed up in 1940 and served in North Africa and Italy. ‘I was in the service corps,’ he says. ‘The nearest I got to combat was at El Alamein. The army was getting ready for the push and we took the 4th Indian Division in there. There was an artillery bombardment, it was like fireworks. That was about as close as I got.’