Vinnie Burgham

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Name:Lavinia Wigham Burgham
Address:Boldon Colliery
Service Record:unknown
StoryFrom helping spies behind enemy lines to being a friendly face in the local shop – Vinnie Burgham did it all during her 92 years. Miss Burgham, from Ash Grove in Whitburn, led a colourful and independent life, and is described as a “people magnet” because of the way she collected friends. Despite her advancing years, no challenge was too big, and the adventurous pensioner took everything in her stride. Miss Burgham died in her sleep on March 29, but has left a plethora of incredible memories for all those who knew and loved her. Tim Dixon had known Miss Burgham all his life after she began working in his grandmother’s VG Shop in Boldon Colliery, in the 1930s, and regarded her as his aunt. The 59 year-old from Newcastle said: “Vinnie was always a magnet for people, seeking out or acquiring seemingly countless members of her extended family, and extending her family to include everyone she met. No one could be a stranger in her presence. “She was as comfortable, perhaps more comfortable, with young people as she was with people of her own age, and she always had new friends despite the inevitable crossings-out in her address book. “In return, she received much kindness from friends, neighbours and family, including her ‘adopted’ family, without whose support and attention she would have found her later years much more of a challenge.” Born Lavinia Wigham Burgham in Boldon Colliery in 1918 to John and Sarah, she had a hard start to life. Her mother was partially disabled and her father had been seriously injured in the First World War. On leaving school, she started working for Mr Dixon’s family and their many stores. She volunteered for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in the Second World War and found herself being enlisted within a couple of weeks but, being too small for the uniform and too thin to keep up with the physical regime, she was put on additional milk rations to feed her up. Miss Burgham, who was known as “Corporal Titch”, eventually became one of only two women chosen from her unit to work for the Special Operations Executive – a secret organisation which planned espionage and sabotage operations against the Axis powers. She was based at Station ViIIa, a secret Ministry of Defence workshop based in the Bontex Knitting Mills in Wembley, London. There she plated components for miniature radios and other equipment which was carried by spies who were dropped behind enemy lines. Miss Burgham would often be at work until the early hours waiting for the first signals to come through indicating a successful landing in France. Later she would return home with the challenge of coming up with a convincing excuse for her late-night “knitting”. At the end of the war she was offered a job with the Philco Wireless factory but returned to Boldon Colliery to look after her mother. Mr Dixon said: “She eventually returned to working for my family, resuming her former life and saying very little about her war work. Later, she moved with my ageing grandmother to Whitburn to look after her in her declining health and working, again, in the local shop. “Even after she retired, when no one wanted the early shift in the newsagents, the call went out for Vinnie and she trooped back to work to keep things running.” Miss Burgham learnt to swim in her 60s and she became a prominent supporter of the ATS and WRAC veterans association. In her 80s she tried out the Channel Tunnel, and, at the age of 86, already beginning to suffer from impaired mobility, she flew to Bristol to spend time on a canal boat. On her 90th birthday, she travelled across the North Sea to Amsterdam. This was to be her last adventure before a long hospital stay last year saw her moving to Bryony Park Nursing Home in Sunderland, in January. Mr Dixon said: “Vinnie’s health declined and this robbed her both of the mobility and independence she held dear. “Towards the end of her life, she became increasingly frustrated by her increased confinement indoors. “Faced with the amputation of a leg owing to diabetic complications she asked, not entirely in jest, for her legs to be replaced by the spring blades used by disabled sprinter Oscar Pistorius so she could get around again as she did as a young woman. “She was spared the operation by rapidly declining health but seemed disappointed that she had been deprived of her chance to take part in the Paralympics. “After an increasingly difficult few days, which she bore with fortitude, she died in her sleep.”

Date: Published: 08:12 Thursday 07 April 2011

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