Over the past 100 years, the Berwick area has no doubt changed immensely and now a stalwart of the local community, Beryl Exell, can say she’s one of the few people who’s been here to witness it all. On Monday 2 August, Beryl celebrated her 100th birthday, surrounded by close family at the Cardinia Park Hotel. GABRIELLA PAYNE stopped by to congratulate the new centenarian, hear her story and discover her secret to a long and happy life.
With a twinkle in her eye and a beaming smile on her face, you’d easily be mistaken for thinking Beryl Exell is much younger than she is.
With a bright, active mind and a vivacious spirit, it’s hard to believe that Beryl is now 100 years old – but that she is, and she’s still going strong.
On Monday 2 August, surrounded by her four kids and their partners, Beryl was out celebrating this momentous occasion in style – and you couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.
As the Exells enjoyed a cosy pub lunch together in Beaconsfield, Beryl’s daughters Valmai and Janet said that it was just wonderful to see their mum enjoying her milestone birthday party – even though it was a little different to what they’d originally planned.
“Ever since she was 70 we’ve all been saying she’d live to be 100, and it sort of feels real but it sort of doesn’t, you know?” Valmai said, “it’s just remarkable.”
“I’m pretty excited, I’ve been excited for days!” Janet said.
“Particularly because we didn’t know if we were even going to be able to have a party, or if we’d have to just go and wave at mum’s window, so it’s really nice to be able to celebrate, even though there are a lot more of us that would have liked to be here.
“But at least us kids could come on her special day – it’s really nice. I’m just really proud of her, she’s amazing!” she said.
The Covid lockdown restrictions certainly threw a spanner in the works for the family’s big party plans, but nothing was going to stop Beryl from celebrating her 100 years in style.
Being born and bred in Berwick, Beryl and her family have a long, rich history with the local area, and it’s the place she’s called home her entire life.
A direct descendent of Harkaway settler and pioneer, Ernst Wanke, Beryl was born in 1921 into a family who knew the area like the back of their hand and made the most out of the land.
“I was born in the old bush nursing hospital in Berwick when it was just a house,” Beryl said, adding that it had “changed a bit now”.
The eldest of eight children, Beryl grew up on a large farm property along Hessel Road in Narre Warren, formerly called ‘Hillcroft’, but now known as Timbarra Estate.
She briefly attended Harkaway Primary School as a child, but being the only girl at the school she was unhappy there and quickly moved across to the Narre Warren State School.
In 1935, when she was in year eight, Beryl left school with her merit certificate and went to help her parents both on the farm and by helping look after her seven younger siblings.
Being a large dairy farm that spanned hundreds of acres, Beryl said it was hard work on the land – not to mention she “hated cows” (something she says she has since gotten over), but it was still a rewarding and fun-filled childhood.
In the 1950s, Beryl married Stan Exell and went on to become a dedicated housewife, working hard to give back to the local community while simultaneously raising their four children, Ray, Janet, Valmai and Ken.
Together with her husband, Beryl helped to run their own agricultural contracting business based out of their home in Berwick, as the area was still predominantly rural at the time.
“It was all farms and orchards and all sorts of things [in Berwick] back then, and it was just so nice, but all that’s been taken up and built on now, so it has changed dramatically,” Beryl said.
“But I still like it, I think it’s still a nice place to live and I don’t think I’ll ever shift now – I’m really rooted in!” she laughed.
Over the years, Beryl has been an active member of the local community, giving her time to countless projects and community groups including the Berwick Show Society, the Berwick Inner Wheel (of which she is the only charter member still living) and the Presbyterian/ Uniting Church (which she still attends to this day), just to name a few.
After all her children had grown up and flown the nest, Beryl took up work housekeeping for another local Harkaway family, where she cared for March Avery, who was terminally ill, on her large property ‘Greenacres’ for the next seven years until she passed.
During this time, Beryl found her creative side shining through and a passion for cake decorating quickly blossomed into a hobby and side business that she loved dearly.
An avid seamstress and knitter, Beryl has always had an interest in crafty things and is a well-renowned cook and accomplished baker within the family, famous for her fruit cakes, sponges, lamingtons and pavlovas among other delicious treats.
A humble woman, Beryl believes she’s led a “pretty quiet life”, but an active and rich one nonetheless.
“I’ve had a pretty ordinary life really – I never went into parliament or anything like that!” she joked, reflecting on the past.
“I didn’t like the limelight very much, so I led a reasonably quiet life, but a busy one,” she said.
Asked what her secret to a long and prosperous life was, Beryl said she wasn’t sure, but she thought a lot of it had to do with luck.
“I think it’s just good genes, and good eating,” she said.
“I mean we always ate well when we were younger because then, you just cooked everything you grew because you didn’t buy takeaways and all that sort of stuff – and I think that had a lot to do with having a better life – but I don’t know, I might be wrong. I’m not a doctor!”
“Actually, I think I’m the first one of the family, even generations back, to reach 100!” she said excitedly.
“I don’t think anyone else has reached the 100 – so you guys will have something to look forward to,” she joked to her kids as they all sat around the table on Monday.
It seems Beryl has got plenty of life still left in her, and she has no plans of slowing down just yet.
“If the kids wanted their inheritance early, they’re in trouble! They’re going to have to wait a while yet,” she said with a joking smile.
Once restrictions have fully eased, Beryl’s four kids, 12 grandchildren, 15 great grandchildren and seven great great grandchildren plan to throw her the big milestone party she deserves, but for now, she’ll be enjoying a slice of cake, a glass of rose and looking forward to the next chapter in her life.