Going shopping with Bob, 111 - the world's oldest man born in Yorkshire in 1908

Yorkshire-born Bob Weighton is the oldest man in the world but still active at 111. Benjamin Butterworth joins him on a trip to his local supermarket.
Bob Weighton in Waitrose.Bob Weighton in Waitrose.
Bob Weighton in Waitrose.

Bob Weighton shuffles into his local Waitrose. He is steady on his feet, but leans on a walker to help with balance, the front of which has a licence plate emblazoned with ‘Bob 111’.

“No need for an ‘L’ plate!” a fellow shopper jokes as Bob cruises towards the broccoli. “I’m getting a new one with the number 112 in a few weeks,” he tells the stranger, smiling. A brief pause and look of confusion ensues, until Bob adds: “Because I’ll be 112 years old.” The look of shock on the man’s face is worth waiting a century for in itself.

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Bob is the oldest man in the world - a title he took on following the death of Chitetsu Watanabe, of Japan, who held it for two weeks. When he was born on 29 March 1908, Roosevelt was president, the Titanic was being built and television was yet to be invented.

Bob Weighton with one of his youngest great grandchildren, Esben, who is 106 years younger than him.Bob Weighton with one of his youngest great grandchildren, Esben, who is 106 years younger than him.
Bob Weighton with one of his youngest great grandchildren, Esben, who is 106 years younger than him.

He’s low key about his world record. “Why me? I’m just a little boy born in Hull,” he ponders as we head to his flat in Alton, Hampshire, where he lives independently, but for occasional visits by carers. “There’s no reason why - somebody has to be the oldest!”

The key to living for 111 years and 347 days is to “avoid dying,” he says, but beyond that you’ll have to work out the secret to ongoing immortality for yourself.

He only drinks alcohol on special occasions, doesn’t smoke and avoids red meat, but that’s more out of concern for the planet than health worries. He has enjoyed Branston pickles since boyhood (they were invented when he was 14) and fills his shopping bag with brown bread and bananas.

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“I’ve eaten stuff that I’ve no idea what was in it,” he confesses of claims diet is responsible for his longevity.

As a teenager he trained to be a marine engineer, but there were no jobs, so he contacted the Methodist Church and agreed to teach English in Taiwan. Ahead of the move he met his wife, Agnes, who was being sent to Ghana. The couple maintained their relationship by letter writing, waiting weeks at a time for correspondence to arrive as they were shipped between Asia and Africa.

Eventually they built a life together in Japan, where they lived through the 1930s. But the rise of Hitler in Europe meant the family must leave, the authorities said, for fear Britons would become the enemy within.

They ended up on the shores of Canada with no money, no furniture, an 18 month old baby and another on the way. “Although we didn’t think of ourselves as refugees, we were, yes,” he recalls, admitting the years were “tough”.

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Eventually, he was recruited to decode Japanese military communications, at the time of Pearl Harbour, and made a life in the US. It wasn’t until 1946 that he returned to England, now with three children in tow. He acquired his dream job lecturing at what is now City University in London and toured the nation giving talks about life in Asia, before retiring 55 years ago.

The reality of living so long is that many loved ones have gone. His wife died in 1995, aged 88, and one of his children, Peter, died in 2012, aged 75.

But with such a great age comes new friends and enquirers. One woman who spots him outside his flat pushes her walking frame forward at speed to say hello to her famous neighbour. “I read that you were born in 1908,” the elderly woman says. “The same year as my mother!” Bob doesn’t look overjoyed at the fact.

What, then, is it like to be the last man standing from an extinct generation? “I don’t think it’s strange, it’s very real to me. I quite enjoy explaining what it was like to younger people who have no idea. They can’t imagine a home without electricity or the sky without aeroplanes. I’m very much happy.”

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The Queen - his favourite of the five monarchs he’s lived through, who assumed the throne when he was 44 - sent a card every birthday since he turned 100, until he said that she needn’t bother, as he has plenty already.

He doesn’t like to waste, anyway. Having spent so long on the planet, he is very keen to protect it. “I’m an eco warrior!” he proudly declares.

“I admire Greta Thunberg very much. She’s made a splash, and because of her age she’s made an impact that a person of my age wouldn’t have. A young person looking at these things, not some old crank. The governments of the world need to listen [to her].”

“We are failing utterly to make use of tidal power,” he continues, asked what he would tell Boris Johnson to change. Though he’s not the Tory leader’s biggest fan. “Boris is a showman. Him and Trump are a couple of comedians on the world stage.”

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Brexit is a “bad idea”, too, and the past few years have been a “a right mess”. He explains: “I used to believe nobody is as good as a Yorkshireman, particularly Hull! We regarded everybody south as stupid ninnies. But I’ve been educated over a lot of years and now realise you can be a good Yorkshireman and still like the Japanese. You can be proud of your city and also an internationalist.”

He’s not sure how he got so old, or whether it’s an achievement, and he doesn’t have advice for anyone younger than him (which is everyone) about how they should manage to live so long.

But one thing is clear - he’s enjoying it. “See you next Wednesday!” he tells a woman old enough to be his great great grandchild as he pays for the week’s shopping. With a big smile and infectious spirit, he heads for the supermarket car park, and the secret to a long life seems obvious.

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