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Super girl

On turning 110 this month, Milly England joins elite club

Milly England embraces her great-great-niece Reagan Bowden at her 110th birthday party earlier this month at the Eagles’ Club in Lakeville. Milly England embraces her great-great-niece Reagan Bowden at her 110th birthday party earlier this month at the Eagles’ Club in Lakeville. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / May 23, 2010

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LAKEVILLE — Stationed near the entrance to the Lakeville Eagles’ Club, Milly England excitedly greeted each of the 70 relatives and friends who had turned out for her birthday bash last Sunday. She looked festive in her brightly colored blouse, topped with a string of pearls and a long strand of party beads interspersed with plastic birthday cakes. Each conversation opened with a large, affectionate hug.

This tiny Lakeville resident was clearly adept at schmoozing, chatting, and laughing easily. But perhaps that’s because she’s had a lot of practice: One hundred and ten years’ worth of birthdays are now behind her, putting England in an elite group of “supercentenarians’’ around the world.

According to Robert Young, a researcher with the Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group, there are 76 living supercentenarians worldwide whose data have been confirmed by his organization. He says there may well be 300 to 400 supercentenarians alive today, but confirmation data in some countries is hard to come by. Whatever the case, England is joining them, the super-rare of the world’s billions of people.

While most folks who have reached 110 have lost many of their faculties, not so with England. She is hard of hearing, but there’s nothing wrong with her vision. She doesn’t even wear glasses, although she has a pair for reading. She navigates well, with a little assistance from a walker. And, best of all to her family and friends, she’s mentally sharp and can talk up a storm — about what’s happening today or events from a century ago.

Modern medicine can’t take credit for England. She says she’s not taking a single medication, and her trips to the doctor are pretty much limited to an occasional adjustment at the chiropractor. Gerontology specialists in the Boston area, in fact, recently took blood samples from her and collected other medical data to determine just what does keep England ticking.

But her secret to longevity may well be that she doesn’t seem to put much stock in age. Turning 110 is no big deal to her, she says, as long as she can still eat whatever she wants — including some lasagna, fresh shrimp, and a slice of birthday cake at her party — and spend time with friends and family.

“As the years go, I go with the years: I never quit,’’ England said, offering a small glimpse into her philosophy of life. “When things are bad, I say ‘It could be worse.’ ’’

A typical day starts with some tea and toast in her in-law apartment, where she lives alone. From there, she’ll do a little reading, watch television, break for a short nap, and maybe play a few hands of cards with friends.

England’s evenings consist of dinner with her grand-niece, who lives next door and keeps a watchful eye on her. Once dinner is done, England continues her longtime practice of making the family dog, Moxie, his nightly bowl of soup.

Every few weeks, England hitches a ride with a friend to the Bridgewater senior center to play whist. That’s her real passion — and her fellow players will tell you she’s still a phenomenal player.

England was born Amelia Bowden on May 15, 1900, in Lancashire, England. The oldest of six children, she remembers vividly her journey across the Atlantic Ocean when she was 11 years old.

“We were on the Ivernia,’’ she recalled. England’s father, Percival, had gone to New Bedford a year earlier to find work, and he sent for his wife, Sarah, and what children he could afford to bring over in 1911. “It was just me, my mother, and my 2-year-old brother and baby sister.

“My mother was busy with the baby, so I went roaming all over the ship,’’ she said. “One time, I went to the upper deck and saw the sailors sliding a [body] into the water’’ for a burial at sea. When she was spotted, England was quickly ushered to the lower decks.

Eventually, all six Bowden children were brought to New Bedford. England had to care for her siblings while her mother worked in the mills, so she didn’t attend school.

“I was always the boss,’’ she joked.

England did make time to join the local Girl Scout “Thistle’’ troop and even met the organization’s founder, Juliette Lowe. She has been honored by the national organization, for the last several years, as the oldest living Girl Scout.

She spent most of her working life weaving in New Bedford’s textile mills, starting when she was 14. “We would all go skipping on our way to work,’’ she said. “I would work four hours a day.’’ England moved to Lakeville about 40 years ago and has lived there since.

“I’ve known Milly my whole life,’’ 93-year-old Doris Martin, a dear friend from the New Bedford mill days, said at the birthday party Sunday.

In their younger days, the pair would bowl, play cards, and go dancing — “all in the same day,’’ said Martin, who still lives in New Bedford but joins England in Lakeville monthly for a few games of cards. “Milly’s one in a million.’’

William Medeiros, the son of England’s sister Louisa, called Milly his favorite aunt. “She’s always been a loving girl,’’ he said at the party.

England was married twice, once in her 20s and later in her 60s, but never had children, and she outlived both spouses, Jack Wood and Frank England.

Judy Mosher, the daughter of England’s youngest sister, Margaret, was also there Sunday. She said her aunt loved children, frequently taking her nieces and nephews on daylong jaunts. Plenty of children, from babies on up, were at the Eagles’ Club to celebrate her 110th.

England’s relatives have gathered the paperwork needed to officially put her on the Gerontology Research Group’s validated list of supercentenarians, including her birth certificate.

As of last week, only one Massachusetts resident is on the validated list: Bernice Madigan, of Cheshire, who was born in July 24, 1899, and is 50th on the list.

Young said there is another Massachusetts resident slightly older than England, who has yet to provide documentation: Edna New of Gloucester, born Oct. 12, 1899.

To date, the research group has only the 1930 census to indicate New’s age but without something definitive such as a birth certificate, that’s not enough, Young said.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.