Vera Lynn: ‘Mum was determined to put me on stage. I didn’t complain’

The singer, 100 this year, talks about her childhood, earning more than her dad, meeting her musician husband and why she had a small family

I nearly died before I got started. When I was a toddler, I fell ill with diphtheritic croup and was taken to an isolation unit. One of my earliest memories is of being on my own in a tent surrounded by steaming kettles. I was discharged after three months, just in time for my third birthday. As I’d missed Christmas, I had my Christmas and birthday all in one – in March. Mum even found a Christmas tree.

Perhaps this explains why Mum was overly protective. For a long time after I started school I wasn’t allowed to play in the street or visit friends. She wasn’t as strict with my brother, Roger, who was three years older, but fortunately I didn’t mind my own company or feel the lack of friends.

Mum worked for a London dressmaker before she married. When she was forced to give up work after her marriage, she carried on dressmaking for people at home. She was the one with the get-up-and-go. Dad, who worked as a plumber, was a quiet and undemanding man who liked to laugh – and he was a very good dancer.

Vera Lynn with her husband, Harry Lewis, in London in 1964.
Vera Lynn with her husband, Harry Lewis, in London in 1964. Photograph: AP

Perhaps it is no surprise I became an entertainer because many of my relatives were natural performers. Dad, who had a fine pair of lungs, was master of ceremonies at East Ham working men’s club in east London. I felt so proud when I saw him in his white gloves calling out the names of the dances. His brother, Uncle George, was a bit of a showman.

I started singing and dancing at the age of seven, at working men’s clubs. I spent hours rehearsing new songs while Mum doggedly accompanied me on the piano. The fear of forgetting the words in public often made me cry, but Mum was determined to put me on the stage and I never complained.

I wasn’t allowed to spend any of the money I earned. Nowadays, a child performer’s earnings are put aside for their future, but my parents were only too glad of the money to pay the household expenses. There were weekends when I earned almost as much as Dad did in a week.

I met my husband and manager, Harry Lewis, in 1939 while singing with the Bert Ambrose Orchestra. He was a very good clarinettist and tenor saxophonist and I thought him terribly good looking, with a fine head of hair, even if he was rather short. His tough, Jewish, East End background had taught him how to stick up for himself – and for those he cared about. When the male singer in the band accused me of singing flat, Harry rounded on him and said, “Vera’s not singing flat; you’re singing sharp!”

Vera Lynn with her husband, Harry Lewis, and daughter, now Virginia Lewis-Jones, after being made a dame in 1975.
Vera Lynn with her husband, Harry Lewis, and daughter, now Virginia Lewis-Jones, after being made a dame in 1975. Photograph: ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

Dad took to Harry right away, but Mum had been hoping for something “better” than a poor, scruffy, unshaven musician. Nevertheless, Harry courted me assiduously and we didn’t get hitched until August 1941 to give Mum time to get used to the idea.

Our daughter, Virginia, was born in March 1946. I went back to work 11 months later, but brought her up myself as much as possible. If I had to work in the evenings, I’d tell her so – I thought that was kinder – but always stressed that I’d see her in the morning.

Virginia is in her 70s now, but she still calls me Mamma. We have always got on, but when Harry died in 1998 we became even closer. We tell each other off now, too. I turned 100 this year, but although I still live in my own home, Virginia is just next door. I didn’t have any more children because I couldn’t have continued working – and I was the main breadwinner. But although we are small in number, family life has always been hugely important to me.

• Keep Smiling Through by Dame Vera Lynn with her daughter, Virginia Lewis-Jones (Century, £16.99). To order a copy for £14.44, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Interview by Angela Wintle

The GuardianTramp

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